Appears in Other Voices #44
They were facing one another on a subway platform, not sure whether to hold hands. There were other people around. It was a Friday evening in spring. The warm air smelled of stale popcorn, faded perfume. They could feel hope accumulating in the people around them, in the eager chatter, and the feeling made them uneasy.
She wore what all the girls her age wore: a jumper tight enough to show the curve of her breasts and jeans that rode low over her belly and clung to her thighs. She could have been Spanish, or Italian. Her skin was the color of maple. She had a prominent nose, the flanks of which glowed a little with oil.
He was tall and broad, the right size to be an athlete, but without the posture. He had shaved his head recently, to make himself look tougher. This had the effect of softening his jaw, though, and made him a little surly. He hadn’t been so surly before, she thought. Then she felt bad.
They talked about small things: their friends, a strange professor, a television show they watched for the pleasure of scorning it. She was back from six months studying abroad. It was the first night they were to spend together. They would take the train to the North End and eat real pasta. They had a restaurant there. It was where they had gone on their first date. Afterwards, they would go to Mike’s for pastry and coffee.
The train arrived and they got on. The crowd forced them up against each other, not quite touching. An elderly couple boarded the train, the man clearing a path for his wife with cautious waves of his arm.
“That’s sweet,” she said. Then, more quietly, she added, “If you really love someone, you shouldn’t even have to touch them.”
He couldn’t figure out where she had come up with such a formulation. She had gone to Ireland for six months, not even six months, and now she said this sort of thing. It felt to him vaguely like an accusation, or a challenge.
He said, “What did they feed you over there? Sheep’s brains?”
She shook her head.
He didn’t know how to describe the way she looked at him then. He didn’t have the word. It was as if she were viewing him from above, deciding his fate; for a moment he despised her.
They had gone out a few nights earlier, with friends. She had ordered Guinness all night, with great ceremony, and insisted he drink it, too. It tasted putrid, flat and heavy, not at all what beer should taste like, though he drank two to please her.
“Or sheep balls? What do they called them? Haggis?”
“Same basic place.”
She thought for a moment of the lover she had taken overseas. He was slim and pale and his hands were often rimed with clay. He was a potter. His flat smelled of mildew and burned butter. Everything he said sounded like a tentative song, a question thrown lightly into the air. They made love with an ardor that frightened and thrilled her. Afterwards, he lay very still and his skin glowed almost blue under the moon. This was her deceit. It was lodged inside her, between the ribs and heart. Was she in love? She didn’t think so. But she wanted a broader view, whereas before her trip she had wanted only to feel safe within a slender band of experience.
He didn’t know what he wanted. He wasn’t accustomed to thinking of his life in such grand terms. He took things one day at a time. She hadn’t been gone two weeks in Ireland when he took her best friend to bed. It was going to happen anyway; her departure only gave them a fixed date. He had certain ideas about this friend, about her body, an active curiosity. She was smitten by him, because he felt forbidden and because he was tall. And what a disappointment that had been. (How often the act of physical love disappoints us.) Afterwards, he hadn’t been able to face her.
“They’re totally different countries,” the girl said. “Totally.”
He wanted to ask her what the difference was, but knew she would use this as an excuse to lecture him. He could hear the lecture and it made him tired. Her voice made him tired.
The train stopped and a thin Chinese man with thick glasses got on. He was nodding his head emphatically, as if in deep consideration, and he kept bumping into people.
They were relieved at the interruption. He imitated the man a little, bumping into her.
She giggled then whispered, “That’s mean.”
“Solly,” he said. “Vely solly, beautiful young girl! No intention to glope.”
“Stop it,” she said.
“He smelled like pee.”
She pinched his arm.
“Solly. Vely solly.”
The train dipped below ground and jerked to a stop. They were pressed against one another in the dark and they wondered, both of them, if the evening might turn out O.K.. The world was a menacing place, even on a Friday in May.
Strange men muttered to themselves and trains went black. Their bodies were young and glorious and they knew things about one another, which made them vulnerable.
He dipped his head down to kiss her and she consented.
But she kissed differently now. She used her tongue more. There was something dramatic to her style, or worse, something yearning. He might have been flattered. (Perhaps the yearning was intended for him.) But he sensed this new style had been acquired. It had come from somewhere else, from someone else. She was kissing him with another man’s mouth.
He pulled away from her.
She began to say what, then she didn’t. The sound was just a puff of air.
In fact, she hadn’t learned how to kiss from her lover. It was worse than that. She had been provoked, by him, to a greater desire. Her body had developed a new hunger all on its own, which her mouth, her lips and tongue, sought to express.
The lights came on again and they both looked down.
He thought of the last girl he had slept with, a friend from home. He thought of her face below his, the flushed pink of her neck. Her eyes were closed. Was she smiling or grimacing? He couldn’t tell. He didn’t know what he should be doing with women, what they wanted. He couldn’t relax. Sometimes, on Sundays, he sat watching football and there were moments when one of the players would leap with such grace that he felt released from the tension of his own body. This was irrational, something he could never have explained to her, but his body understood.
She was thinking about what she would eat. She had gained weight in Ireland and hidden these new bulges beneath skirts and wool sweaters. Her lover had undressed her slowly, as if he were undraping a sculpture. He let her skin get a little dimpled with the cold then pressed her backwards, onto his narrow mattress.
On certain mornings, he placed a soft roll with jam and butter between her breasts and pressed her arms together and ate the roll from between her breasts, kissing her between bites, until they were both eating the roll and his tongue was sweet jam.
He had slept with four women in the months she was away. He ticked them off: their names, their faces, their breasts. He tried to remember what they had said in praise of him. He wanted to forget two of them, the best friend and a second woman, eager, overweight, whom he had taken to bed after a party. She had beautiful eyes, which only made it worse.
She said, “I’m going to order gnocchi.”
“And black olives. What are you going to order?”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
“Then why did you ask?” “I won’t let you.”
“You can’t,” she said.
“You have no idea what they do—”
“I bet you’re going to tell me again.”
She made a huffing noise and turned to look out the window. Her nose looked too big and her hips bulged too much, but she was still a little in love with herself. She was in love with the person she had been with her lover, with what she had been able to elicit from him. The train came above ground. The river was lit up in gold. The setting sun made a red ball on the side of a glass skyscraper. It made her grin, to think she had given herself to someone else, to recognize these provocations as a weakness she would soon leave behind. Then she felt bad and took his hand.
“No veal,” she said.
“Not raw, anyway.”
He was still thinking about her new way of kissing and what it meant, and the fact that he couldn’t ask her, because she could just as fairly ask him. He could lie, but she would probably tell her best friend, and he wasn’t sure she could lie, or would for him. That was how girls were, how they behaved. They talked. They had an alliance with one another. It made him angry to consider.
She looked around the train. There were a few other couples, sitting together, standing together, their hands growing sweaty with the duties of devotion. She considered how they looked. She had dropped his hand. Should she take it again? What did she want from him exactly?
He saw her looking at the other couples and grew a little rueful. He remembered the nights they’d gone out together before her trip and how she’d clung to him and stared into his eyes. It was what girls did. They gave themselves over to the emotion of the moment. He’d felt unsettled by her attention, by the implicit request her attention made, that he return her love in kind, open himself to that extent. He’d known he was disappointing her and known, more obscurely, that she’d come to expect this disappointment, that she was, in an unacknowledged manner to which they both consented, dependent on his failure. Back then, at those moments her gaze grew too heavy, he hugged her a little too hard, and often they staged a spat. But now, when he thought about the looks she had given him, he saw the seed of doom in her eyes. She had been too devoted, too eager. She had set him up.
“What?” she said.
“You look grumpy.”
“Don’t do that,” he said.
“Accuse me of being grumpy.”
“I just asked a question.”
“It’s obnoxious,” he said.
She took a step back.
“Well. Excuse me.”
He straightened his back and tipped up onto his toes. He wanted to feel as if he loomed over her. He was trying to use his size to say something, and she felt pity for him.
There had been a time when his height, the sheer length of him, had made her feel lucky. She had enjoyed staring up into his face, taking hold of his waist in a public place. Her capacity for adoration had been a kind of helplessness; she tried to imagine how that had felt. But those were moments to which she would never return. They required a feeling state she could no longer summon. She had taken a new lover and all she wanted to think about was his body, his damp flat, the spicy pork sausages he cooked on a skillet for breakfast, the way he would set a small roll between her breasts and eat it up. She knew she wouldn’t see him again, that he regarded her as a temporary indulgence (the term he used). But she was hoping. And she was thrilled, in any event, to discover a man who offered the quality of attention she felt she deserved.
He saw her face light up again and he knew, just for an instant, that she was thinking of someone else. But he was young and now, wounded, and his mind moved on before the thought settled in him.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “Not grumpy.”
“Gnocchi,” she said.
The train stopped and two girls got on. They were dressed for a party, in short skirts and stockings. They wore garish lipstick; their eyes moved quickly from side to side.
“Ho alert,” he said quietly.
“Be nice,” she said.
“I am being nice.”
“That’s not a nice word.”
“They don’t use that word over in Ireland?”
She laughed. “Why can’t a girl dress how she wants? Why do you have to judge them?”
“You’re judging them, too. They want to be judged.”
“Not how you’re judging them.”
“Why else would they go out like that?”
“To feel sexy. That’s how they feel sexy.”
“I didn’t say they weren’t sexy.”
She knew that he was hoping to draw her into an argument and fell silent.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “When you get right down to it, all girls are the same.”
It was a dumb ploy, far too obvious. In truth, the girls he had been with were mysteries. He didn’t understand them, and he resented the complexity of their desires and expectations. He hated not knowing how he was supposed to love them, and how he was supposed to receive the love they returned to him. He was afraid of them, and his fear, like every fear, contained a powerful wish: that the mystery could be solved.
She hadn’t decided, until that moment, what was going to happen between them. She knew, in a certain distracted way, that they would break up. But she had hoped to put this off, to play at normalcy for a time. She even had wanted to have sex with him, not so much because she desired him, but because she wondered if her new powers of enjoyment might be transferable. And now he had ruined that.
He had done so in a way that was crude and weak. He had revealed his fear. But what alarmed her was the realization that she wasn’t afraid of him, that he had lost his capacity to cause her fear. And without this fear, she lost the driving force of her love, which was a wish for his approval, an almost physical need to be held by him, to be embraced, to locate in him the richness of her own desire.
She knew she would have to respond his comment. To fail at this would somehow be to admit that they were already broken up. She said, a little tiredly, “Is that so?”
“Is what so?”
“That are girls are the same.”
“Yeah, in some ways, sure.”
“And how would you know?” she said.
He looked down at her, a little sheepishly.
“Have you spent so much time with the women of the world now? You’ve become an expert. Is that it?”
“Forget it,” he said.
“In what ways,” she said, “are all women the same?”
“Chill out. I was kidding, all right? Did you leave your sense of humor over there?”
“Oh,” she said. “That was supposed to be funny. I hadn’t realized. But you know what Freud says: every joke has something serious beneath it. So tell me: in what way are all girls the same?”
“They nag,” he said. “They take a thing, a joke, and nag it into something it isn’t.”
“Yeah. And they play dumb, too. Those two girls, you don’t think they want guys checking them out? But if you asked them why they dressed up like that, what would they say? Huh? Would they admit that?”
“Bullshit. They’d say something like you said. ‘I just wanted to dress up! I feel sexy in fishnets!’” He was imitating them now, in a taunting falsetto.
“Quiet,” she said. “You’re being an asshole.”
“You asked,” he said.
She could see he was proud of himself. He’d managed to put her on the defensive, to convince himself that he’d won, and she let him believe this. She owned the privilege of condescending to him now. She wasn’t even angry at him. Mostly, she was tired. She wanted to say to him: Can’t we just stop deceiving each other? Hers was the great fatigue of deception.
There were so many lies between them. She knew, for instance, that he had been unfaithful to her. She had known this from the first moment she saw him, from some immediate and powerful aversion in his eyes. And she knew that he believed she had been faithful, and so she was carrying her own lie, and she was carrying his lie, as well, and she was carrying the heaviest lie of all, which was that she no longer loved him and hadn’t loved him before, not in the way she thought she had. And all these lies, the weight of them, just now, made her want to collapse. She wondered if this was always how it went with lovers, if the lies between them became too heavy to bear.
The train had gone underground again and she stared at herself in the window and smiled absently at her own sadness.
This was only one Friday evening, in one Spring, in one city, and the train they rode was only one of a thousand that lurched forward, into the unforgettable sorrow of every moment in which lovers are coming apart.
He didn’t see it quite yet. He wasn’t done with his lying. He looked down at his lover and she was still his and she looked somber and beautiful, gazing at herself. Her hair was gathered in an ivory clip and when she closed her eyes she kept them shut for a moment and in that moment a surge of tenderness rose up in him and he leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.
“What was that for?” she said.
“I didn’t mean that before,” he said. “I was being a jerk. I’m just, you know, I can be a jerk sometimes.” He stepped towards her. “I’m glad you’re back. I missed you.”
And he hugged her, softly, as she had always wanted.