“I wore that horrid yellow dress. Do you remember?” She asked.
Ted nodded. He sat next to her bed, hands clasped.
He didn’t want to remember. The dress, with the badly sewn sequins and scalloped hem. Her face heavy with make up, her eyes red. She stumbled on their walk to the subway, smelling of liquor and hairspray. When she threw up on the sidewalk, he had held back her hair.
“Well.” She shook her head. “Those were the days, huh?”
Carla’s bed was next to the window. Her roommate was a quiet old man. They were lucky. Ted remembered the shouting woman and her complicated family from the last hospital. Carla could never get to sleep without pills. Or the the nurse who talked nonstop about her baby boy. She kept his picture clipped to her pocket, a child with the eyes of a lemur. Ted couldn’t distinguish the occasions for her stays, but the details remained.
He reached for Carla’s hand. She closed her eyes. Lately, when Ted visited, Carla liked to reminisce. She only seemed to remember what Ted wanted to forget. She did it with a soft curiosity. “What about that stray cat?”
“Yes,” Ted answered. The calico cat had wandered around the courtyard of the apartment, hissing when it saw him. The neighbors fed it. Ted never liked cats, especially not that one. Carla was pregnant and Ted said that the cat would dangerous for the baby. They fought about it. The fight was bitter. He went to stay at a friend’s apartment that was cluttered with empty take-out containers. He slept on the couch and thought about leaving Carla. Leaving New York.
Months later, after Carla had lost the baby, she whispered that the cat had been an omen—that he had been right.
She’d always dreamt of a silk slip
Chantilly lace across her breasts
Emerald green, or maybe red
If only, she thought, it wouldn’t rip!
You silly thing
And suddenly I’m reduced.
We face the parking lot
A vast span of dark, before us
The moon ghostly bright
As we talk of literature
In fabricated words
With exaggerated sighs
Now and then:
Bare backs and upturned wrists
Fingers indented into skin.
Years ago we forgave each other
And promised to forget.
Like a line from an old song,
I am small and meek again.
A Good Morning
The first time Charlie wakes up next to him, she is shocked at the sight of his naked body in the sunlight. When he curls away from her, the covers slip off, and there is his body, all of it, the toned and beautiful muscles, the fullness of his skin. She wants to reach out and touch it, doesn’t quite believe that she had, last night. It is glowing with life, even in repose. She studies the reddish freckles peppered across his shoulders, like a constellation of stars. She watches the way his brown curls move ever so slightly with his breaths. She is grateful he is not awake, or maybe not. Maybe she wants to see him open his eyes, lazily, and then for his lips to turn up in a smile, for his hands to fold her against him. It must be unusual, she thinks. In the stories it is always the man who longingly brushes aside the girl’s hair, presses a silent kiss against the nape of the girl’s vulnerable, exposed neck.
She slides off the bed and walks, barefoot and naked to the bathroom, where she spends a long time standing before the mirror, hands perched on either side of the sink, with the cold water running. She stares into her own face, unfamiliar in this light, with the charcoal dots of mascara around her eyes, and its washed out, unnerving paleness that’s always haunted her, made worse these days with the stark blue toned black of her hair. She stares at her face and does not understand how he picked her, when at the bar there were countless others, their full fleshed bodies wrapped in colorful silk dresses, their lush lashes fluttering, their skin sun soaked and vibrant colored, beautiful and alive. He belonged to their world. He could have had, if he wanted, all of them at once.
But he had stopped next to her, Charlie, sitting alone at the very end of the bar, swirling the thin red straw in her Manhattan, which was too sweet. His suit jacket was draped over his arm, his top few shirt buttons undone. He had leaned in and told the bartender, I’ll have what she’s having, and, then, to her: mind if I join you? She nodded, surprised. I’m Daniel—he offered his hand. His handshake was firm and held on a moment too long. It seemed that as soon as he settled next to her, she could not keep very good track of how the rest of the night went. There was his smile, and his voice, and his presence, his heat next to her, that distracted her to no end. And wasn’t that what she had came for, in her uncomfortable wrap dress, a sad mimicry of the other women there, in her strappy heeled shoes that pinched her toes?
Charlie tries to cup the cold water between her palms and brings it to her face. Her exhale is audible, delightful. She can shower. Perhaps that is the thing to do. Shower, dress. Hope that he’ll wake up before then. Or kiss him on the forehead and leave a note, with her name and number. An elegant, graceful exit. She smiles at the image, the idea. But she knows she won’t do it. She waits another moment in front of the mirror, brushes the mess of her hair with her fingers. Then she returns to the bedroom, careful not to touch him as she readjusts the covers of the both of them. She lies awake, with her eyes open, her heart beating steady, for the rest of the morning, until it is no longer morning. Until it is late enough for him to stretch, groaning awake, and finally look towards her falsely closed eyes, her feigned half sleep. He touches her shoulder, lightly, and she stops pretending, smiling. Good morning, she says, her voice bright and orange hued.
Hi, he says. It is that sweet, tender, lover’s voice, and it makes her melt a little. Makes her glad she stayed. Breakfast? He says. Before he leaves the room, he places his hand on the back of her neck and squeezes. A possessive, strangely familiar gesture. Charlie feels a thrill of delight, and also, a sliver of discomfort. She has been awake too long, she thinks, to keep dreaming like this. And yet, she can hear him in the real life version, running the faucet, flushing the toilet, and later the clinking in the kitchen, where he must be preparing, cooking, and where she knows she should go, but doesn’t.
Later, she’ll say that her favorite thing in the world is waking up next to him. Later, after too many drinks with a very old friend, her friend will ask, laughing, but seriously, how did you end up with him? And she’ll laugh in response, though inside she’ll feel like someone is wringing out her lungs, and say, love works in strange ways. But it is not love that works in the strange ways, it is people. She knows that he made a mistake, but convinces himself that it is the right mistake. The right woman—different. She knows that she won’t correct it for him.
But on that first day, before it has become anything, after he kisses her goodbye in front of the subway station, she is happy. Even the sticky heat of the platform can’t tear apart her good mood. On the platform, with the prospect of her own, cluttered room and resentful roommates before her, she relishes the memories of last night, this morning, because already they are allowed to be memories, and memories are hazy and beautiful. She believes that no one else on this same train feels the same pleasure. She gets off her stop, humming as she walks.
Regina Spektor - Summer In the City
It was the hottest day of the summer and their bodies stuck to each other, the sheets. Her air conditioner had stopped working, but the fan was on, loud, rattling at the foot of the bed. Earlier they’d nearly knocked it over. Earlier she had curled her toes against the wall and arched her hips for him, needy, begging. He had gripped and pulled and wrestled and fucked her, his fingertips temporary tattoos sinking into her skin. I’ll break everything, he said. She laughed and kissed him. But it was true, he would, one of these days. Their bodies were glistening and tired, and free, for now. But even then, he knew, probably, that he would leave New York. And she would sit, small and aching with the symphony of wants roaring inside of her, while the air conditioner would be fixed, and her room would become cool, calm, and so small.
After her death, they found a surprising thing in her room: a stack of love letters, written in her childish hand and pressed between the pages of a heavy book. Each was addressed to a different name: Dear Anthony, Luke, Matt, Wayne. They weren’t the names of people she knew—those were so few. They weren’t the names of recognizable characters from books or movies or TV shows.
As they continued to search through her room, they found more and more letters. Folded as if a bookmark, tucked beneath the book cover, flattened underneath a stack. They had planned to donate the books, but now it seemed sacrilgeous, impossible. She seemed to be alive again, singing in the words on the page. Without you, my darling, she wrote, I would forget how to breath. Or: I spent all of Saturday inside, watching the rain and hoping that you, even so far away, are seeing the same. Her lovers always seemed to be distant, on the verge of disappearing, fading to gray. I miss you so terribly, she wrote, I fear that I’m going to lose my right hand, the one you once held and must have brought with you.
Alive, she had never been poetic. She spoke quickly and often, it seemed, harshly. She moved without grace, her limbs heavy with clumsiness. She was often avoided, though never actively hated. When she laughed her voice squeaked, and it was not a pretty sound. Her friends, if they could be called that, saw her because they were trapped in solitary worlds of their own, and needed at least the occasional illustration of companionship. Even her family, here, now, trifling through her possessions, could not say that they were devasted. It was a terrible shock, a terrible loss. They cried at the funeral and held each other tight. But mostly they were relieved that they had each other to hold, and were secretly glad that it had not been her sister instead.
(a brief little story I wrote for Underwater New York, inspired by a bag of lottery tickets found in a pond in Prospect Park.)
She had been saving the lottery tickets for years. Every Monday, on her way home from work, skin tinted with the smell of Chlorox and bleach, fingers pruned, she stopped at a bodega to fill out the same set of numbers: 4, 22, 1, 13, 12, 5, for her mother’s birthday, her son’s, and her own. Her mother was dead, and her son, somewhere on the West Coast. He was traveling or playing music or trying to be an actor. He rarely called. Sometimes her memories confused her, and in her dreams she could not tell her husband from her son. Her husband had left her years ago. His drinking got worse after he lost the job and his eyes filled with rage. She still had the scabs on her thigh, when he had rammed the edge of the table against her, the sharp of the wood cutting deep.
On Tuesday nights she waited in front of the TV, fingers poised over each number as they showed up on the screen. She did this always with calm and diligence, double checking just to make sure. She had to double check herself about other things, too. Her eyes weren’t what they used to be and her hands shook often. She didn’t think of herself as old, but perhaps it was the impression she gave to others. Sometimes people stood up to offer her a seat on the train. Maybe it was just her stooped back that gave her the look of carrying more weight than she was.
Mostly what she wanted was for her son to settle down with a nice girl. If she won the lottery she would buy them an apartment on the West side, with wood floors and big windows. She would move into a small room there and prepare their meals. She used to be a great cook, though these days she made the same thing every day: a hard boiled egg and tea in the morning, a neat sandwich for lunch, and a vegetable casserole for the week for dinner.
One night, she couldn’t sleep. She lay awake for hours and listened to the sounds of cars outside. She felt her body like a coffin, ungainly and stiff, suffocating her. She clenched her eyes shut. She would go for a walk, she decided. She used to do it often. She pulled on a ragged coat and paused. She went to the drawer where she kept the neat stack of the lottery tickets, her history of failures. She stuffed them in a plastic bag that swung against her knees as she walked. She walked alone and slowly in the dark to the park where, once, long ago, the man she loved had gotten down on one knee and held out a ring that caught the rays of the sun. She could see it, her young, slim self and their long, hot kiss. She felt her young, slim self turning to watch her now. With relief, she met the girl’s eyes, and let the bag fall into the shallow pond. She did not look back.
The bag bobbed on the surface of the water, bloated and complacent until the daylight gave it new life, and someone walking past pointed and laughed.