When all is done, but not all is said, when everything he did began to hurt, when his arm, like the exposed root of a sinewy tree, slipped beneath her back, warping her vertebrae by vertebrae, she began to sleep facing away from him, curling around herself like a comma.
One sleepless night, Thora climbed out of the only window in their apartment and sat on the fire escape, that emergency exit. The black and skeletal overwrought iron bars pressed into her feet. She kicked over the harvested basil plants and a dead orchid, the stem arched like a slouched spine.
When the “P” on the neon PHARMACY sign across the street flicked on and off, it flashed HARMACY.
When she willed herself to feel sorry for Burke, she thought of a picture of him she had seen at his mother’s house, little Burke, clutching a kite he had made by tying a dirty string to a Styrofoam take-out carton, smeared with orange grease, the sunlight bleaching out the lenses on his glasses.
She thought of how Burke’s father had died when he was four, and how his mother was too busy with work, and how there hadn’t been anyone to teach him how to ride a goddamn bicycle. She remembered Burke’s frail frame as he once tried to ride her squat bike, his eyes lowered to the ground in front of him, pedaling jerkily, the front wheel quivering to and fro, until the entire bike gracelessly trembled to the pavement, his limbs splayed like a starfish. When she crouched over him to ask if he was okay, he pulled her down next to him, and he held her while they lay there on the sidewalk until a stray dog began sniffing their heads.
When Thora could no longer sculpt love out of a lump sympathy, she began to hurt herself to hurt him, the last frontier beyond the pain threshold.
When Burke yelled at her for leaving the coffeepot on, she smashed the coffeepot to the kitchen floor. She, the only one who drank coffee, was her own victim.
One night, she threw up aspirin and whiskey and bile on the bed, staining the white sheets. She cut out the graham-cracker colored stains, the gaping holes exposing the rough mattress, the stitching in the pattern of half of an hourglass, endlessly repeating.
Burke stared at the sheets. “Another casualty in the war,” he said. Thora was pretty sure he had thought of that one a while ago.
It wasn’t that Burke didn’t fight—he just fought quietly. If she was a tank, then he was chemical warfare. He would say, “I still love you,” emphasis on the still, his inflection, inflicting. There was an unwritten list of grievances in that still;
1. I love you, albeit—
2. I love you, in spite of—
3. I love you, notwithstanding—
She jogged along Lady Bird Johnson Lake one Sunday morning while he slept until noon, unusual for him, who raced the sun to wake. She came home and sat on the bed next to him in her sweat-soaked sports bra, unbraiding her hair, gold and dry like wild barley. “Let’s shower,” he said.
But she was sick of sharing the shower with him, of her body being half submerged in scalding water, the other half shivering in the cold, the bipolarity of bathing. She said, “I don’t want to shower with you. I hate showering with you.”
She watched him for what seemed like a long time through the open bathroom door. He began picking the paint out of his soft curly hair, watching his own naked reflection in the mirror, his skin nearly translucent from the vanity lights. He began to sing one of the silly songs he always sang, nonsense, somewhere between three and five voices, vaguely operatic, simple rhymes, with frequent references to his name, her name, his nudity, sometimes sadness. He left the bathroom, not having showered, and sprawled out on the bed next to her. He began to sing that old song by the Faces, “Ooh La La.” It took him a few false starts to find a good key and to remember the order of the verses. He sung the titular line at the end of the song in a falsetto, the lyrics, seemingly an expression of delight and bedazzlement, were somehow incongruous with the raspy, almost exaggerated delivery, like a wretched desperate cry, in the voice of a grandfather to a grandson, perhaps—she didn’t quite know. Lying on the bed, he wept and wept the words, “Ooh la la, ooh la la, la la, yeah, yeah.”
It was at that moment that she realized she no longer liked to see him sad.
He moved out of their apartment, went to visit his mother in New Jersey, the land of exits, infinitely branching out, the silhouette of a dead tree. She took a week’s worth of personal days, her back now hurting from where his arm wasn’t.
She remembered past break-ups—which she hadn’t had since college—after which, all food lost its taste, but she must’ve been less creative then. She ate yellow hot peppers from the jar with bites of cottage cheese to reprieve her tongue.
She left once, to meet her friend Cynthia for a cup of coffee. When Cynthia asked about Burke, she felt her bowels contract. She excused herself, and went to the bathroom, where her phone fell out of her back pocket and into the toilet. She was disheartened only because it hadn’t quite broken, except for the waterlogged speaker, which was tinnier. Silences crescendoed into static.
Thora fell asleep stretched out on her bed, but awoke in the fetal position, as if her body were begging, Take me back.
Thora began to organize her life in interminable lists.
Things to do day:
1. Get out of bed, notwithstanding.
2. Get out of bed, withstanding.
Even though she knew that Burke, who painted white lines in parking garages by day and canvases by night, wouldn’t be walking downtown in the morning, Thora searched the faces of the men for his, sculpting their features into Burke’s, narrowing the bridge of their noses, lightening their hair, rearranging their features, looking for anagrams. They kept walking, each one of them was the one that got away. It was too easy to fall in love during the postbellum.
After she had returned to work at the telephone company, that world of dockets and Dockers, Aric walked over to her cubicle. He was dressed in a dark suit with a narrow tie, like the Blues Brothers meet Brooks Brothers.
“Where’ve you been, No T?” he asked. When he had started working with her a few months ago, he introduced himself as “Aric, with an A.” She had toasted him with her empty coffee mug, she introduced herself as “Thora, with no tea.” Now he called her “No T,” but said it quickly, so that it sounded more like “Naughty.”
“Recovering from a contagious illness,” she replied.
As she was in the coffee room that day, she heard Aric telling a joke to her boss, Ed. “Why do both lobbyist and sex-offenders have to register with the government?” Aric asked.
“Beats me,” said Ed.
“Drum roll, please . . . they each have ulterior motives for buying you dinner,” Aric said.
Eye roll, she thought.
When Thora was late to the afternoon meeting, she was stuck in the back of the conference room, and sat next to Aric, the only open seat.
As always, Ed passed out an agenda that he never followed. He talked in hyperlinks, jumping from topic to topic faster than her synapses could fire. She heard only his nouns, “synergism” and “the Internet” and “severance.”
Aric leaned over her agenda and began to scribble in the margins, drawing a series of dashes like an incomprehensible Morse code. It was that thing that children played—hangman—that word game that ends in death.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
She wrote “N” faintly, for which Aric drew a head hanging on the gallows. I should have guessed a vowel, she thought. “O” she wrote. Aric added a stem to the body, like a lynched lollipop. He’s going to think that I’m saying NO, Thora realized. What letter should she guess next? NOW might seem like some sort of sexual innuendo, I want you NOW. NOT and NOR were as a bad as NO, and so was NON, if Aric read French. NOP was practically NOPE. D? NOD was the opposite of NO. But was it too affirmative? Or would he think that NOD was some sort of subliminal message that she was bored, that she was nodding off?
Z. Z was innocuous. She guessed Z.
There were no Zs. There were never any Zs.
She guessed A.
There were no As.
She was beginning to think that Aric was making up words.
She guessed I.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ I _ _
She looked back at Ed, who was raising his eyebrows excitedly whenever he said the word “fiber optics.” The fun part of the game was feigning absorption in the meeting. She waited a few minutes before guessing S. No S. Her stick figure avatar was precariously close to death. Aric looked as if he were suppressing a smile. She liked his choppy dark hair, shiny skin, the stark curvature of his chin, and the smile she couldn’t see.
As she had only deciphered _ E _ _ R E T T _ _ I R _ before the stick figure plummeted into a pool of sharks, she spent the rest of the day wondering what was left unwritten.
HEY PRETTY GIRL?
Words to Make Him Fall in Love With You:
1. Replace with verb “lobby” with “lobotomize”
2. Potential nicknames:
b. Air-Force (One)
c. Er-otic? Eros?
d. Call him A-rigatoni or A-ricotta and invite him over for Italian food.
e. Challenge him to a game of wastepaper basketball, then call him Air-Ball or A-ricochet depending on the shots he makes.
3. Tell him “Texans” is an anagram for “Sexant” [Note: Sexant is not a word, and if it were a word, it would not mean what you thought it meant.]
4. Tell him “Austins” is an anagram for “sustain”
5. “Hang in there, Mr. Hangdog expression. We can hang out and play hangman and get hangovers. Hang ten!”
6. tell him that you like him
Aric leaned against the counter in the break room while Thora was changing the coffee filter.
“Hey,” he said, in a diluted Texas twang.
“How are you?”
Amid the silence in the room, Thora’s stomach growled, lamenting the lunch that she didn’t eat.
Aric laughed, “I, like you, want to go eat.”
She spent the rest of the day re-punctuating his sentence, “I like you. Want to go eat?”
On Friday morning, Aric walked over to Thora’s cubicle, looming above the carpeted walls.
“Hey. What are you doing tonight?” he asked.
She had a fundraiser dinner for multiple sclerosis. “Networking. Then working on the Net. Net-working and networking.”
“Not-working, basically,” she said.
“I’m not working, too,” he said.
“I will—talk to you later.”
When Thora saw Aric lingering in the lobby of the building, she flailed her arm like she was catching the last taxi to the airport. “Aric!”
“You can take the lobby out of the lobbyist—” she began.
“But you can’t take the lobbyist out of the lobby.”
“What are you—”
“Waiting for John. We’re going to a steakhouse. You’ve been to the Chop House?”
“I wanted to go to this taqueria on Congress, but John can’t stand spicy. You like spicy?”
She wondered if he was asking this because she smelled of the hot peppers she always ate. “I love spicy food,” she said. “Especially Mexican.”
“You’d love this taqueria.”
“Where is it?”
“Pretty far east, past the interstate.”
“I’d probably get lost trying to get there.”
“It’s a great place.”
“Are they still doing construction on the interstate?”
“Probably. Austin wouldn’t be Austin without traffic cones.”
“And those giant cranes.”
“But this taqueria, I could eat there everyday,” Aric said.
“Do you go there often?”
“Often isn’t often enough,” he said.
“Mexican food is my favorite, probably,” she said.
“Me too,” he said.
“Hey,” John yelled from across the lobby. “Sorry I’m late. Ready to jet?”
“Have a good time,” Thora said. “See you tomorrow.”
On the bus, Thora pulled out her driver’s license, just to make sure that she really was twenty-seven years old.
The next day, she walked to Aric’s cubicle. She stood there holding her breath in silence.
“Hey,” he said, stretching arms above his head, resting his hands on his choppy hair, so dark and slick it looked as if he dyed it with crude oil.
Thora almost spoke, but she was suddenly hyper-aware of the saliva that was accumulating in her mouth. She tried to swallow without making a noise, but gulped like a cartoon character.
“Drinks tomorrow?” Thora asked.
“Sure. After work?”
“Post-office. Sounds good.”
In the afternoon, Thora stopped by Cynthia’s cubicle. “What am I doing?” she wailed. “I need a drink before I can get a drink.”
“No, you don’t. You’ll be charming.”
“What if Aric doesn’t think I’m—oh my god.” Thora began to whisper. “Do you think he can hear me?” She leaned against the wall of Cynthia’s cubicle and slithered to the floor.
“No, he can’t hear you, he’s all the way on the other side of the office.”
“Are you sure? Oh god, I’m sorry. I’m acting like a high school girl.”
Cynthia offered Thora her hand to help pull her up from the floor. “It’s okay if you need to act like a high school girl. Whatever helps. It’s been a tough month.”
“I am sweating? Why am I sweating?”
“Thora,” Cynthia said, as she tossed her a granola bar from her desk. “Eat something before you have a drink.”
A List of Questions to Forestall Awkward Silences/Segues into (Additional) Dates:
1. From which post-secondary institution did you receive your degree?
a. What a fine school! Did you enjoy your tenure as a student there?
b. I am unfamiliar with that school. What was your experience like?
2. Are you originally from the city of Austin?
a. Oh, then where are you originally from?
b. Oh, really? Has it changed much since your boyhood?
3. In which part of the city do you live? [Not that she was stalking him or anything.]
a. That’s in close proximity to where I live! Perhaps we could arrange an outing.
b. I am rarely in that area; however, I would like to become more familiar with it. Have you any recommendations?
4. Are you a fan of the Texas Rangers?
a. I am excited about their forthcoming season and hope to attend a game!
b. If I owned a television, I would enjoy watching them lose their games on the local NBC affiliate!
5. What enjoyable activities do you participate in?
a. I also enjoy participating in such an activity! We should participate in that activity together!
From work, they each drove separately to a martini bar 6th street. Each wall was painted a different Rubix-cube color. The drinks, too, came in Rubix-cube colors. Thora realized that this was the first time she had been on a first-non-date since college, which perhaps justified this juvenile anxiety she felt whenever she spoke to Aric. She felt over-caffeinated. She ordered a scotch. She watched the bartender make a martini for Aric, made from gin the color of a Windex bottle.
They sat at the bar, bodies curved inward towards each other. The stools were like pieces of Plexiglas sculpture, curved and seemingly gravity-defying. She couldn’t understand why the stool wasn’t collapsing beneath her. She felt dizzy. She ordered an appetizer sampler. Everything from the stuffed mushrooms to the cheese had been deep-fried, but she didn’t care.
Aric tipped the bartender with Susan B. Anthony dollars, hundreds of which had been bequeathed to him by a recently deceased uncle.
“These make me feel like a meth addict who just raided his kid brother’s coin collection,” Aric said. “I should melt these down for the silver. The fucking economy,” Aric said. “I hope this bar is okay for you.”
“The colorblind don’t know what they’re missing.”
Next, they ordered flights of wine, as Aric sustained the conversation. If he were some sort of barge commandeering the waves of words in which they floated, Thora was treading water, white crests rising above her head. She sat and listened; she was relieved to be relieved.
Without splitting rent and utilities with Burke, Thora was going broker than her heart.
Get Rich Quick Schemes:
1. Sell Chicklets and trinkets on the Drag
2. Sell loosies on the UT-Austin campus
3. Rent out apartment as a youth hostel
4. Cobble shoes
5. Commit insurance fraud
6. Sell Oxycontin to elementary schoolers
7. Impersonate a charity
At work on Monday, Thora found a Susan B. Anthony dollar on her desk and an E-vite in her inbox, sent only to her, requesting her presence for a kayaking excursion Saturday afternoon, one of the Enjoyable Activities In Which Aric Participates. His e-mail signature was “Aric L. Davidson, Esquire.”
After she responded to Aric, she forwarded the email to Cynthia. “Please tell me he’s using ‘Esquire’ facetiously.”
“My favorite way to see the world is the view from a kayak,” Aric e-mailed back.
Thora tried to think of a clever response. “Kayak my favorite palindrome,” she replied.
8. Make counterfeit Susan B. Anthony dollars
They rented kayaks in the late afternoon. Thora found the repetitive rowing motion sedating. Crew teams glided past them. They stopped at the Congress Bridge to watch the bats take flight at sunset. They sat bobbing next to each other while the sky bled together in streaky shades of pink and purple and black, like tears ruining make-up. They waited until Aric pointed to a solitary bat that had flown out from beneath the bridge’s arches.
“It’s a scout bat.”
Thereafter, a streak of bats flew out from beneath the bridge, not all simultaneously, as Thora had previously imagined, but in a streamlined flow, like a wispy black cloud, neat as a funeral procession.
“They always fly east,” Aric explained. “For about ninety miles, to find food, then they’ll fly back before morning.”
Thora imagined what it might be like to be a bat, the sun stinging her eyes, searching for everything around her with echolocation, only knowing where she was through the reflection of sound bouncing off of something else.
She went to Aric’s apartment for the first time that night, a white and gutted loft in the Warehouse District. “NEWLY REHABBED APARTMENTS” the sign on the side of the building said. As if the apartment had been a junkie. “RECENTLY CONVERTED” as if it had been damned.
He saw her staring at the gleaming hardwood floors.
“Bamboo,” he said.
“My panda rugs would love them,” she said.
Sepia-tinted photographs of old-timey Austin were hung all over the apartment, mass-produced photographs of trumpeters in fedoras playing outside brick buildings and close-ups of hands dancing across pianos. While Aric went to grab beer, Thora stared at the furniture, trying to decide if she should sit on the couch or the armchair. She strategically opted for the floor, leaning against the couch, where she could be more mobile, could naturally elevate to the sofa stratosphere if she wanted.
“Isn’t the bamboo great?” Aric asked, crouching onto the floor next to her.
Aric smiled genuinely, and seemed to Thora to be entirely devoid of irony, earnest and undamaged in a way that only dogs and little children were. She deserved him. She willed herself not to move away from him. When he wasn’t there, she thought about him, and now when he was there, she tried to think about not thinking about him.
Things to do today:
As they sat on the floor, Thora pretended to be chewing gum. She imagined that her body was calibrated for previous lovers, syncopated to, not harmonious, with his. She tried to slacken the tendons in her body like a drooping marionette.
Aric told Thora about his two older brothers, Air Force brother, stationed in Okinawa, and granola brother, who taught yoga in Nashville. When she began to breathe deeply, she smelled him, or his apartment, the scent of soap suds and suede. She wanted to be warmer person; she tried to imagine what Cynthia would do. She might touch his forearm.
“Are you religious?” Aric asked.
Thora was thinking about how to best articulate her answer this question, found herself ricocheting between “yes” and “no,” when Aric began kissing her neck.
There had been little things, like when she called the Thai restaurant and almost ordered drunken noodles for Burke along with her eggplant and tofu curry. Or the time she had checked and rechecked her dry cleaning receipt because the weight of the hangers in her hand felt too light, until she realized that she did not pick up his dry cleaning any longer.
But the smallest thing of all might have been the biggest thing, when she was walking across the First Street Bridge, up above the dog park, and for a moment, without realizing it, she must have thought that Burke was walking alongside her. It was like déjà vu, but not quite. If déjà vu was when one mistakenly thinks a moment in life is a memory, then she was feeling the opposite of déjà vu, mistaking a memory for life. It was like vertigo, a thump in the heart, before she nearly fell back into the distance from here to there.
The entire loss of him was compacted into that single second, when the world turned surreal, and it seemed strange that a sidewalk was a sidewalk, or that a bridge or a lake should even exist at all. She looked around her, and resented the world for remaining unchanged. She saw the world as if looking through gasoline shimmering in the heat, though she knew no one else could see what she saw. It was like an inside joke that no one laughed at.
Thora called Burke. “I’m seeing someone new,” she said.
Thora called Aric. “I’m not ready to be seeing someone new yet,” she said.
Thora called Cynthia. “I can’t see,” she said.
Cynthia and her husband Evan begged Thora to come to their house for risotto one night. Cynthia stirred the gooey pot, her hand going around and around like the second hand on a clock.
“You are exceptional,” Cynthia said. “But Aric is exceptionable. Do you even like him?”
“On good days, I like him a lot. He has this indefatigable joie de vivre. And a Netflix subscription.”
“What about the other days?” asked Evan.
“Being around him is like a head rush, a little high.”
“A relationship is not like huffing Windex,” Cynthia said.
“But it is like Windex. It’s clean and fresh. Free of incriminating fingerprints. And Aric is so patient. He knows I’m still recovering.”
“Do you still talk to Burke?”
“Briefly, infrequently, awkwardly, adverbially. He’s living down on Oltorf now, above a bodega.”
“What went wrong?”
“I am the worst person I know,” she said.
“Let’s drive to Marfa this weekend,” she suggested to Aric while walking to work. “We can see the Texas version of Aurora borealis. The Northern Lights of the South.”
“My brother will be in town,” he said.
“I don’t care about your brother,” she said.
Aric laughed. Aric was resilient, beyond resilient, impervious. It was impossible for her to be the villain when there was no victim.
“We’re going to a Longhorns basketball game. I can get an extra ticket.”
“This is Denton, the Air Force brother?”
“No, it’s Jesse, hippie-brother.”
“Won’t he want to catch up with you?”
“He wants to meet you.”
She imagined the loud synthesizer, crowds of people all standing up, Aric and Jesse talking in a pidgin language of childhood phrases and secret jokes she didn’t understand.
“I’ll meet up with you afterwards, maybe?”
Thora had no siblings, and the idea of a brother, a male counterpart to herself, the product of the same nature and nurture, was frightening, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. She thought of a sibling as an extension of oneself.
She was calculatedly late to meet Aric and Jesse at the bar, so she wouldn’t be there first, sitting alone. She saw Aric at a table, sitting next to a man with a shaved head, shorter and squatter, but unmistakably his brother.
Jesse squeezed her hand with both of his. “Thora’s here!” he said, as if they were old friends.
Jesse was smiley, his nose crinkling like a little rabbit’s when he laughed. He held his head in his palms. His forearms were covered with tattoos in Hindi. Jesse looked back and forth at them, beaming, nearly proud.
“Aric graduated first in his class at Rice,” Jesse said. “I bet he never told you that.”
“And last in my class at law school,” said Aric. “Or almost.”
“He was in a band in college, The Ipso Factos.”
“Someone threw a beer bottle at me once, onstage,” Aric said. “Jesse was there, and gave the fucker a shiner.”
“The fucker doubled my money back and gave me two shiners.” Jesse said.
“Hey, it’s not like I’ve never taken a bullet for you before. Remember when you pushed Denton off the waterslide and I took the blame because I was still too little for Mom to get mad at me?”
“You’re still too little for Mom to get mad at you. Aric’s Mom’s favorite.”
These are happy people, Thora thought. Nice people, normal people. Her parents, still legally married after thirty-five years, lived on the corners of Texas, like the tips of constellations. Her mother, in the desert outside of Brownsville; her father, in El Paso near the border with New Mexico, that rigid, octagonal state, leaving her in the hinterlands between them. The state of Texas, nearly the largest in the country—she couldn’t count Alaska, she imagined it as a floating iceberg, all water and no terra firma—could barely contain her family. If only she had had a brother to inoculate her against all the sadness in the world, maybe she could’ve been more like Aric and Jesse, less like a leper, smelling of maladies and loneliness.
Aric could introduce her to this lifestyle of lawn mowing, bocce ball, and pillow talk. She wasn’t beyond redemption, yet.
Jesse sent her an electronic greeting card with a dancing frog, telling her it was nice to meet her.
Cynthia invited Thora and Aric to a gallery opening downtown, a glossy corner building cramped with people dressed either in black or grey. Nearly everyone was wearing glasses with thick black frames, as if this were a convention for myopics. Everything was written in sleek lowercase letters, grammatical nihilism. There were plastic glasses and uncorked bottles of wine, and a tray of white champagne cupcakes.
Thora and Aric scooted sideways across the crowded room to the corner where Cynthia and Evan were standing, with their fingers braided together. Hanging on the walls were soft white canvases, unprimed, loosely stretched on crooked frames, billowing like pillows. Some of the canvases were subtly slit; others had barely visible perforations.
“This is so interesting,” Aric said. “What do you think it means?”
“I need a glass of wine,” she said. She pinched her shoulders together and squeezed through the masses of people to the refreshment table. It felt like a high school dance, cliquish and overcrowded.
Thora poured herself one glass, then another for Aric. She downed half of her glass and refilled it. By the time she jostled her way back to Aric, Evan, and Cynthia, she had finished the second glass. Aric was telling a story about the time he was driving to Galveston and he picked up a hitchhiker.
“It was like he had Tourette’s,” Aric said. “But instead of obscenities, he kept shouting out Canadian provinces. Nova Scotia! Manitoba! Saskatchewan!”
“That did not happen,” Thora said.
“I was walking around a harbor in Halifax once, and they had all of these signs that said FAQ. I didn’t know if it meant that the people around us could answer our questions, or if it was just a label for mysterious objects. Turns out, it stands for ‘Free Alongside Quay,’” Cynthia said.
“When I was a kid, I thought it was an abbreviation for ‘facts,’” said Evan.
“When I was a kid, I thought that Auschwitz and Austerlitz were the same place,” said Cynthia.
“Did you know that the word ‘nap’ comes from Napoleon?” asked Aric.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Thora said. “Anyone want a cupcake?” she asked, as she left to get another glass of wine.
She returned with a half-full glass of white and a half-empty glass of red. Like a cancer patient losing blood cells, she thought to herself, as she poured them into one glass.
“Are you okay?” Cynthia asked, pulling her away from Evan and Aric.
“I’m fabulous,” Thora said.
“Is that a rosé?” Cynthia asked, looking at her pale pink wine solution.
“Sure. You want a glass?” she asked, leaving before Cynthia could ask her.
She returned with fresh glasses in each hand. When Aric tried to squeeze her shoulder, she lurched away, spilling a glass of red wine all over one of the pillow canvases.
She looked around, to see if anyone besides Cynthia, Aric, and Evan saw, but everyone was more interested in each other than the deflated paintings on the wall.
“It’s okay,” Aric said. “I’ll buy it. I wanted one, anyway.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I’ve already forgiven you.”
As Aric drove her home the morning after the gallery opening, she stared into the passenger’s side mirror, CAUTION: OBJECTS IN MIRROR MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.
Aric parked the car outside of her apartment. It was hot, the asphalt looked gooey, as if her feet would sink into the tar, trapping her with its gravity, like some sort of black hole.
“Can we drive to Oltorf?” she asked.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“I just want to drive,” she said.
She wasn’t sure which apartment belonged to Burke, only that he lived above a bodega. They drove past strip malls and tire places and pawnshops and stretches of dying grass, before Aric asked her what she was doing.
“We can go back now,” she said. “I don’t know where we’re going.”
The gallery had made her miss Burke, and the way she had always felt like an insider at his openings. He had started out as a photorealist, but had moved on to acrylic abstractions before she met him. Before he had moved out, however, he had decided to return to photorealism because those paintings sold better. He planned to begin a series of paintings of cell phone pictures, grainy and pixilated images of “downward-angled-pouty-self-portraits.” She missed being called Tora.
Things to do Yesterday:
1. Apologize for what you did
2. Apologize for what you’re doing
3. Apologize for what you’ll do
4. Apologize for what you didn’t
5. Apologize for what you don’t
6. Apologize for what you won’t
7. Don’t do what you did
8. Don’t do what you’re doing
9. Don’t do what you’ll do
10. Do what you didn’t
11. Do what you don’t
12. Do what you won’t
How to Teach Him to Ride a Bike:
1. Buy training wheels
2. Hold the back of the seat
3. Handle with care
4. Push him along
5. Then let go!
Things to do Two Days Ago:
1. Buy him a helmet and kneepads
After seeing Burke’s new neighborhood, she began to worry about him, financially. She liked that Burke had called her the breadwinner, and had called himself the soup-loser. She wondered if he had changed all of his passwords, knowing that she knew them. At work, she decided to check his online bank statements. Since they had broken up, he had overdrawn his bank account at least twice, and currently had $53. She noticed that his rent checks had always been cashed late. She transferred $200 into his account. He was always sort of oblivious to his bank account balance, and hopefully wouldn’t notice his sudden windfall.
While shopping with Cynthia, she tried on a buttery leather vest.
“You’ve lost weight,” Cynthia noticed.
When she had first met Burke, he was on Methadone, a by-product of a former morphine addiction. She used to watch him dissolve the Methadone in glasses of water, like Alka-seltzer. The Methadone had given him an insatiable sugar craving. When he was taking it, he’d cut off the tops of entire packages of Pixi-stix, and would pour the pastel sugar into a bowl, and eat it with a spoon. Even after he no longer needed Methadone, he still had a residual sweet tooth. Nearly every night, when she came home from work, she would find him in the kitchen baking a dessert. Fried beignets, mousse, strawberry rhubarb pies, plantains, chocolate fondue, lemon bars—these were sometimes their main course. Without Burke’s desserts, she had shrunk. The smell of vanilla made her think of him.
Things That Break Her Heart:
1. The narrow Lady Bird Johnson Lake, which for so long she thought was a river, continuing on forever, before she went on a long run, so long that the constant swinging of her legs against her shorts chafed her inner thighs, leaving rashes, such a long run that she circumnavigated the entire lake, ending where she began.
2. The time she rode a human rickshaw in China, that wiry man carrying her entire weight, as if he were bovine. She felt like an amorphous blob leeching onto sinewy calves, his legs pulling her, the rickshaw, himself; pulling the earth against its rotation, as if he were Atlas.
3. Burke’s scarless body, smooth knees left unscathed from never having ridden a bicycle as a child
4. The lemonade stands among the ranch houses in SoCo, a Dixie Cup for an Eisenhower coin, the infinite profit margins, and worst of all, as she over-tipped the flaxen haired five-year old proprietors by a thousand percent, her unquenchable jealousy, the feeling, stronger than any feeling she’d ever felt, that she should still be the little girl sitting in the Fisher-Price chair behind the cardboard box.
5. Her favorite painting of Burke’s—one that had never sold—of blue and orange music notes, not arranged on a staff, but a cacophony of floating notes, treble clefs, and bass clefs.
6. Her driver’s license, without the telltale heart of an organ donor printed onto it, and every time a bartender asked to see it, she was reminded of the tissues and organs in her body that would never be grafted onto someone else’s, reminded of all the lives she would never save.
7. Herself. She breaks her own heart.
“This is Thora,” she said into the receiver. “Can Burke come out and play?”
She walked up the narrow flight of stairs to Burke’s new apartment. He opened the door, and looked at her with eyes that seemed more wrinkled, a line for every time he couldn’t sleep without her. He was wearing new canvas shoes that were already covered in orange paint.
She looked at him, and remembered how, a few months ago—or was it centuries?—her love was skyscraping. It was something she couldn’t look up at now, like the pain of staring into the sun.
“How’s your new boyfriend?” was the first thing he asked.
“I’m doing very well, thanks. And how are you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t care; I’m happy for you, I don’t care who you like as long as you like yourself.”
Cheese, she thought.
His apartment was covered in half-finished canvases. He had turned the bedroom into a studio and used the living room as his bedroom.
“I think it’s our anniversary,” she said. “Seven years and negative four months.”
There was a silence, not the type of silence in which nothing was said, but the silence of a slight pause after a fragmented sentence, the space for a quick breath before one’s voice was about to choke, extended into the space of a minute.
“It was like this semantic breakdown,” he began. “Your name meant love to me, and if Thora didn’t mean love anymore, then all the other words lost their meaning.”
Skin was too porous, she realized, always absorbing the air around it, turpentine and pollution mixed in with the oxygen in his bloodstream. She inhaled and exhaled his quivering fragility. He needed someone more like a mother, someone unconditionally loving, not a love full of whims and provisos and broken clauses.
“I still love you,” she said, and in that “still,” there was a ceaseless continuity that extended beyond all of everything.
A relapse, occurring when:
When you can’t wash the paint out of paintbrushes.
When the entire state of Texas isn’t big enough.
When the arrow doesn’t fit the wound.
When love and alcohol are both anonymous.
When you can lead a girl to a bottle, but you can’t make her drink.
When many things can make you happy, but only one thing can keep you sober.
When there are many ways to leave, but only one way to stay.
When staying is just not leaving.
When you can switch words around, but you can’t change their meanings.
When tears fall, and so do people.
When withdrawal is the new addiction.
When the Declaration of Independence, that long list of grievances towards the ruling party, has nothing to declare.
When two addicts are forbidden from falling in love.
When an endless parade of commas separate those interminable lists—
—or when one’s entire life hinges on that comma between two sentences that should never have been conjoined in the first place.
When he’s only a flight, or a flight of stairs away.