The two of us rolled out into the kitchen.
"You don't look so good," he said, his hand rubbing my back.
"Because I'm not so good." I spiraled my fingers around my forehead. "It's just that -- I can handle criticism. But not when I'm already feeling drained. Everything in the car emptied me more."
So we decided to walk.
We clopped down the wooden porch steps, and the summer air was pulpy and sweet. The sky a merlot; the stain of peeled grapes. I could feel his thoughtful body beside me. The horizon was a single tongue of flame, above the hospital, above the college, the gas station. And there was danger, sour in my mouth. Not coming from him, because he was cotton and contemplating. It originated in my own hands: I was holding thorns. And I scared myself.
"I'm really tired," I said, my feet touching down on the cement.
My boyfriend took possession of my hand and didn't feel the warning.
His voice was soft. "Sarah, I think I haven't been appreciating you enough," he said.
The sockets of my eyes stung. I swung my head around so he wouldn't see.
His thumb stroked the back of my hand. "I think I've been consumed with school and work."
I was staring at hedges: fat green leaves. Pillowed hills, the cement steps. A garden gnome with a red hat.
"I think I've been taking your presence for granted. . . and I haven't thanked you for your support. I've been missing something right in front of me."
Warmth slithered over my rims, salting my cheeks: invisible in the dark. His words surprised me and unhinged me. I went weak in the knees. And locked my elbow.
But his arm was pliable, moving with his gait. I knew his running shoes were strawberry-colored, almost hot pink. Very clean. I felt how his legs swept loose and long as he walked, his body close to the ground. He moved like a slippered fox. A sinuous interweave, his calves lithe. I myself danced high, rebounding to heaven. And my sneakers were rough, purple. Covered with dust.
"Naw, you're good," I said, my voice mousey.
"No, Sarah. I honestly don't think I have expressed gratitude enough for you."
We rounded the corner, walking the sidewalk of Route 9. Cars rushed by. Dragons of red, wiggling ribbons of light. Now I wanted him to know I was tearing, so I breathed in through my nose. The intake was crusty. But he didn't hear me.
So I said, "It's okay."
We looped around the neighborhoods. Maybe for an hour. He talked more than I did.
He sounded reflective, hopeful, methodical. And I was floating, in a space that perhaps both of us could not reach.
"It's funny. There's a part of me that loves you and is disinterested in myself. That actually is excited at the idea of you meeting someone new. Maybe someone better-looking."
I shook myself awake. "What are you saying? No. You are so handsome." I had been looking up, and the sky was lit with a single solemn star. "What are we even talking about?" I linked my arms through his, and squeezed. Almost ironing his shirt into his skin.
"Maybe someone more masculine."
"No," forcefully. "You're exactly what I like. You're my ideal balance of masculine and feminine. I don't want any ultra-masculine macho type. You're the perfect blend for me."
"I'm just conjuring alternate realities again. I want you to have the best of everything in life," he said. "Even if it's not me."
"Well, I feel the same way about you. That's the comrade side of our bond."
"But I'm finding myself jealous of these imaginary people."
"And that's the romantic side," I said. "So don't. Look, there's Venus."
We walked past a church slowly, and the sign was in Afrikaans. The stained glass windows were perforated with light, like the rainbowy side of a salmon, like the leaping nostalgia of a Christmas tree. I glanced over at him, and watched his dragonfly eyes. His brows like mountain peaks, coal triangles.
"How many constellations can you name?"
"Just a few," he said.
"You say that," I laughed, "and they'll still be the ones that I can name."
"I've just thought of something, Sarah."
"That when you say you're tired" -- my boyfriend spun it out in careful syllables -- "I think what you're saying is that you're not feeling well emotionally."
"It's the same thing as when I say 'I'm hurting'."
"Because your words are never masks. It's what I love about you," I said. "And what I aspire towards myself. Remember on our first date, when we sat on the picnic bench, and I only wore my jean jacket? I wore it because it was prettier than my winter one, you know. And then I said I would never admit to being cold. And you just said straight-out, without even trying to be tough, that you were freezing and had no shame in appearing weak. Well, I'm not like that. It's hard -- really hard -- for me to say I'm hurting."
"But you have to try," he said. "Please try. It would help me -- us -- so much."
"I think I could learn," I said. "I do find that when I make myself vulnerable to you, things tend to work out. We move forward."
"I try to be gentle," he said, picking up my fingers.
He kissed the back of my hand. "And I will try harder," holding my hand against his chest.
"And I will try to live closer to the surface of my skin," I said. "I never thought before, of the connection between saying I'm tired, and saying I'm hurt. But you're right. When I'm exhausted it's often because I'm going through something emotionally. You know how some people can get headaches if they're stressed, or stomachaches? When I'm worn down by life I can feel like I have the flu and no energy. Though sometimes I am just tired -- pure and simple."
The conversation continued, soft and luminous, cavernous with revelations: stalagmites and diamonds of insight. I could tell that my boyfriend was climbing upwards. Walking in his way, every step even and silky. But on another track, I was staying low; my mind thinking, "No. This is all coming too late." Deep inside, I was cracking into lime and other layers. Because sometimes he had not been gentle. And eventually my arm loosened through his crook, till I slipped from him entirely. And I was swinging free, my hands by my sides.
I snapped a leaf off a tree.
"We've shown each other our darkest places recently." I tore the leaf apart in my hands. "Places we haven't approached before now. And we're doing a good job, being tender towards each other."
"This is good," he said. "This is a very good conversation."
I shook my head.
He said, "No?"
"But sometimes you have not been gentle."
We rounded the corner.
I dropped all the leaf pieces to the ground.
I could see his house. "And there is a small part of me that wants this to be over," I blurted out.
Tentatively, he asked, "What over?" Then assured and hopeful: "This conversation?"
"No. The relationship."
A galaxy of seconds.
He said, "-- Well, that's scary."
His voice was not rough. It was sloughed off -- like the viscous inside of the plant stalk, when I had taken my thumbnail and scraped it down a pokeberry's green. There had been nothing between his voice and his heart.
But there was the house. The front steps.
We went up the steps.
We walked into the kitchen.
He closed the kitchen door behind us and turned towards me. I sat on the bench.
He looked down at the tiles. He brought his hands to his lips, as if in prayer.
My boyfriend was thinking in rescuing terms, I knew. In algorithms. He was tunneling deep into gears, wending his way through the pipey places of mind and heart, his hands getting bloody while looking for us both. But his face was immobile: this was all taking place below his skull.
He lowered his hands and, in one graceful movement, sat down behind me. His body cupped me, a sweet pod around milkweed. His hand was water on my thigh. "What would help you right now, Sarah? What do you want to do?"
"Mm," I thought. "I want to eat French fries."
"You want to eat French fries?"
"Yes." I cuddled my head under his chin.
"Well, we did miss dinner," he said. "We can order French fries."
"I like the fat and salt. And the carbs are stabilizing."
"Okay. Yes. Don't you want to eat anything else, though? Pizza?"
"No, just French fries."
"Okay, we can order fries."
He stood up and I watched him take out his phone.
I loved my boyfriend's fingers, brown as a snail. He tapped the number; made the call. I remembered that his fingers were the only thing I touched on our first date. He had put his hands over the heat as we sat in the stalling car, after our freezing hike. I reached over, and brushed his knuckles. I saw one hangnail, and the beautiful half-moons of his cuticles. I withdrew myself quickly. "I like your hands," I said, crunching my shoulders up. Then I added, "I'd love to see you again." And he made me wait the longest one-sixth of a minute before he said he would, too.
After he placed the order, he slipped into his black coat; it made a shivery sound. "Do you want to come with me? Or stay here?"
"Stay here, I think."
"I'll be back." He leaned over me, his hand on my shoulder blade. He dropped a kiss on the part in my hair. White thorax between wings.
"My Superman," I said.
Then he closed the back door and was gone.
A drip tanged against the tin sink. I glanced down at the floor. Rubble on the linoleum. The faucet dripped again. The light bulb above my head was whining: wheels of electricity.
And I found I could only think: his warm body was stepping somewhere on the cement, lightly pressing, and the sky was a dreadful blue above him. And I didn't know if his hands were in his pockets.
I jumped up and slammed my feet into my sneakers. "Wait." I ran out the back door and called his name. Called it to the gloom. "Wait, I want to go with you!"
But the street was empty. I stood on the cracked cement, the ember-blue swaying around me. I swayed with the air, as it touched my skin, clement and too mild. I looked across at the neighbor's house. It was an apartment painted cream -- now gray -- and the street lights were turned on. A siren wailed in the distance. It smelled like common summer, and there was frying grease somewhere in the distance.
So I returned to the kitchen and sat down on the bench. Nibbled on my thumb.
The kitchen was dim with artificial yellow, and the skirting boards were dusty. The linoleum was starting to peel in one corner. I stared at the cluster of dirt on the floor until I saw it held a nest of chia seeds. The light bulb was loud. A split-open pod.
I got up, and looked inside a cabinet. In neat but not perfect rows, there was cinnamon, spaghetti, olive oil, chocolate. Walnuts, turmeric pills, oatmeal. An unopened six ounces of Shiraz, from months ago. Cream of Wheat because I told him I had not eaten it since childhood.
I sat down again and chewed. I thought the bulb should not have been making those sounds.
In fifteen minutes I heard the liberating jangle of the door knob, and everything made sense again. He walked in, the summer air on his black coat. He was holding two boxes of Styrofoam. "Because I got myself tortellini," he said.
"Oh, yes." I opened my box on the table. "Yes." It was a mound of fries, mealy and glistening.
My boyfriend sat on the bench next to me, and I slid over to make room. His hip touched mine. He tucked a finger in my belt loop.
He leaned down and pressed his lips into the curve of my neck. They were hot.
"I love chips," I munched.
He drew his mouth down, where my shirt met my skin. "Do you want some of my tortellini?" he asked into the cotton collar of my shirt. "They're pumpkin."
"I don't like tortellini," I said. "But thank you."
"What in the world is happening," he whispered. I felt a smile over his teeth.
"I don't know." I leaned into him. "This feels surreal."
"That is exactly what it feels like."
"Like we've been staggering around in a dream this entire day." I dug out a French fry and crunched it, letting the oils spill through my teeth. "I have a distinct feeling of unreality right now. I can't tell if I'm being silly or myself." I laughed.
He didn't answer.
"I mean, are we making this happen, or is it happening?" His hand on my lower back was soft. So was the starch under my tongue. But the light was very yellow. I stared at a knot in the pinewood table. "I'm actually worried that I might be pushing for something to happen that doesn't need to happen."
"But what?" he asked.
"I'm not sure."
"Hazard a guess."
The knot turned into a hunchback hornet. "Some kind of conclusion."
"Like breaking up?"
"No." I swallowed a mashed-up fry. "I can't believe those words were just said."
"But I don't understand what my urgency is right now, either." I pulled upright, apart from him, and started flicking my shoes against the floor. "I do know I'm wasted on strength."
"Are you thinking of leaving tonight?"
"I'm still thinking I may go to Ruthie's. Help yourself to my chips. Or your chips. Thanks so much for buying them for me. Oh, wait, listen to this. When I first came back from Ireland and was visiting my friend in Chicago, I was ordering a sandwich with chips. And I was so excited because I was going to eat French fries. Because French fries make me happy. And I actually felt devastated when they were a bag of American potato chips. Can I have one of your tortellini?"
"Take as many as you want. They're pumpkin." He dropped his hands between his legs. "I'm going to pass out soon, Sarah. I'm a pile of mush."
"So am I." I patted his cheek.
"Can I get you a fork?"
"Naw." I pinched another pasta-cushion. "But I think I'm going to eat all your pumpkin tortellini. Look, I already am."
"You're like William Carlos Williams."
"William Carlos Williams. Wait." His voice became fulgent. "Have I never mentioned him before?"
"I don't think so. I mean, I know who he is --"
"But have I ever told you how personally important he is to me?"
"Actually, no, I don't know who he is. Didn't he write Alice in Wonderland? Oh, no, that was Lewis Carroll."
"He was a poet. He wrote 'The Red Wheelbarrow'."
"Oh, yes." My mind sprinted towards the words -- dove for their luster in my memory.
But he began before I was ready. "So much depends / upon --"
" -- a red wheel / barrow," I scooped, almost stumbled.
"Glazed with rain / water / beside the --"
"White chickens!" I exploded. "Yes! How do you know that? That's sort of one of those elitist poems, which is ridiculous. But I still think it's beautiful."
"I had it in a literature class once." He got up, and took a fork out of a drawer.
"Oh, I'm done, thanks. Because it just paints a stark picture, you know. And I do feel like so much depends on looking at that image. Being able to see clearly. The red color, the chickens, the glaze. That's how I want to write."
He put the fork back. Turned and leaned against the counter.
"How have we never talked literature before!" I banged the table. "That poem is exactly what I want to accomplish. To give that vision for readers --"
"-- but still let them think and feel about the images whatever they want."
"You understand." I looked at him across the kitchen. The sleety angle of his body, from head to stretched-out strawberry. "Give them room to be with the words. Space to live with them."
"No, I'm going to keep prattling," I said. "And look at you: you're all lit-up. Tell me why it's important to you."
"I also tell this story to anyone who is important to me."
"Do you." I drew my legs up to my heart and hugged my knees.
"It's a conversation with a capital C. And I don't think it could have come at better timing." His teeth were so white -- opening and then clanking together like clams. "But it's kind of long, too." He looked at the microwave clock. "It's ten past nine already."
"We have time," I said, "for this."
"Okay." Then he pushed himself up from the counter: but it was not a push: a release. "William Carlos Williams was a poet. But he was also a medical doctor. . ."
And he began to pace.
When he finished, my boyfriend was leaning into the counter again. "And that's," he said, "how I decided to go to medical school."
I glistened. "We're talking about poetry and I've just eaten chips. How did I not know about this side of you?" Like a secret socket to his soul. A secret pocket in his blue jeans. "And how did we originally get on this topic?"
"Because I was thinking about a note he left his wife, on their refrigerator. Or rather their ice box. When you said you ate all my tortellini."
"I think I know that one, too! Can you recite it?"
His smiled deepened. He touched his chin, once. "Of course I can."
"I have eaten
"that were in
I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. Still holding my knees. The refrigerator was next to me. I felt my chin making a triangular point, in the custard of light.
you were probably
He was cumbering the words, the sounds sepia. His voice, senescent and slow. He thumped down lines -- dwelt in strange places - patting the edges as if they were well-known. Even his own. I could hear him in radio waves, snowy. With a walker hat, pipe. Touching the shoulders of a slender wife.
Then I remembered the last stanza.
they were delicious
and so cold
"Forgive me," my boyfriend continued, his voice getting beneath the collar of my shirt, "they were delicious" -- bumping down my spine, as I watched his tongue and teeth -- "so sweet," turning a pirouette on my coccyx, "and so cold"; finally passing the plum from his mouth to mine.
I lowered my head and opened my eyes. "I tasted it," I said. "So sharply. I'm swooning."
I was finding my breath. I was in a 1930's kitchen by an icebox. I was in love with a poet and a doctor. I was the woman saving her plums, blue-black. And he had eaten them, fogged.
I wanted to kiss him. To get up and cross the kitchen. And put the icy plums back in his mouth.
I stayed on the bench. Across the room, my boyfriend leaned against the counter. He never sagged: his back was a sycamore. Polished and dark. But his hands gripped the counter ledge. I couldn't read his expression.
He asked suddenly, "Are you going soon?"
I nodded once.
"-- Will you snuggle with me one last time before you go?"
"Yes," I said.
If it's grating on you that I keep saying "my boyfriend", it's only because I've asked permission to use everyone's names in this, and I haven't asked my ex's yet. Also -- does it come as too much of a shock that I say, "There's a part of me that wants this to be over"? I'm curious, because there was a scene I left out -- driving up to Maine, Daniel asked me WHY I was so heartbroken, and I acknowledged that there were rougher parts of the relationship... and I'm wondering if including that might make the reader more aware of what was tiring (or hurting ;D) me. Or does it work as-is?