I am lying on a pillow on the bathroom floor, head pounding, as comfortable as I’m going to get, back against the nice cool porcelain, and of course my perpetual flatmate has to interrupt to tell me to go to bed. For the second time tonight, he says. For my own good, he says. He can’t let me sleep on the bathroom floor.
You just have to pee, I say. Probably I whine. I instruct myself to gather the will to twist my neck, to see if he’s wearing the Hugh Heffner robe he wears after sex or the dress suit he wore to his department party tonight.
Well there’s only one bathroom, he says.
Pee over me, I say, and lower my head back down. I mean it, too. I expect to hear the whoosh toward the toilet over my bent neck. I don’t even care. I might get splashed. I don’t care about that, either. I am drunk-sick. My stomach is bulging in a line over my underwear, onto my knees. He has already ordered me to bed once, I guess, though I don’t remember. I feel information-less. I don’t like this feeling. I am shivering.
You’re shivering, he notes, like some genius.
The truth is I love him. This is my great secret, always crouching under my tongue, waiting hopeful for just the right moment or plus-one or number of cocktails to come out and change my life.
If you make me stand up, I say, I will puke.
Fine, he says. Good. If you don’t get it out now, you’ll still be sick tomorrow.
He has to pee so he can return to his room and the bellyless girl he was flirting with at his department party. That’s where I made myself sick tonight, trying not to look at them. But he doesn’t seem to be in any rush. He sinks down onto the radiator next to me. I strain my ears around the metallic simmer of the toilet, sure I’ll be sick if I hear her, rustling or moaning or picking through my stories in the magazines he keeps by his bed. I am better in the long form, one of his one-night girls once told me. I don’t know if she’s the one here tonight. I feel off-center. I never let myself end a night without first knowing how he’s ending his. Knowledge keeps me at an advantage. Caught unaware, I fear the obviousness of the sadness on my face.
The radiator sputters under his weight. I see at his ankles that he is wearing slacks. Maybe he is burning them, I think, but only for a second, because I am too preoccupied with the way the organ of my stomach seems to have extended into my ribcage and I cannot contort it back down. He says, Get your head off the floor.
My head is on the pillow, not the floor, but when I point this out he claims that after two rounds with me tonight, the pillow is as dirty as the floor.
If you make me get my head off the floor, I say, I will puke.
He cradles my head in one big hand and lifts it off the purple pillowcase. I hope, if there’s a girl, she walks in right now. I am levitating, my skull in his cupped palm, and even through my nausea and my shivering and my stupor I am overjoyed to be here. He is the person who, when it starts to storm, texts me saying, Don’t walk through lightning, I will get you at the bookstore. He is the person who, when he goes to the good deli out in Pikesville, buys an extra quarter-pound of everything and toasts a second sandwich with the organic lettuce he’d never buy himself and says I hope you’re hungry. He is the person who ruined one or two other persons for me, because each time I zipped my jacket and looked at him standing in our first kitchen holding two full black trashbags and saying it’s okay he doesn’t need me I should go, I gave up even my kinky tantric Fifty-Shades sex to stay home taking the trash out back with him. There were rats in the backyard in that house, too. I saw them rustling the grass.
Lean against the radiator, he says, but I drop my dizzy forehead right into the crook of his ankle. Close enough, he says, and laughs, and even inebriated I do not allow myself to interpret his words or his laugh as I adore you.
Close enough, I confirm.
We sit there for a while. A rustle in his bedroom might be a tree branch or a leg. Even laid out on the bathroom floor, I have too much pride to ask. He reaches over my head, peels back the shower curtain, removes a bottle from the ledge where he likes to keep soap and a beer. I am curled over my knees like a fetus with its forehead on a shoe. He pops the bottle cap on the knob of the radiator. He is still dressed in his party-fine button-down. I realize that I am not wearing pants. All I am wearing is old underwear and the long gray men’s shirt, half-unbottoned, halfway down my butt, that I wear every night. He gave it to me when we first moved into this apartment. Hey, he’d said, and I’d seen the footsteps block the light under my bedroom door, Weird question, the Gap sent an extra. I’d shut my notebook and crawled to the foot of my bed and reached over and twisted the knob. He didn’t come inside. He never comes inside. But the instant he sent the shirt flying at my head, I said it’s probably too big, I’ll wear it to bed. That was very smart of me. Because I said that, I can wear it to bed every single night above any suspicion that I am clothing myself in him.
You’re sick, he says.
I guess I’m still shivering.
Are you going to pass? he says.
Shut up, I say, halfheartedly swatting his shoelace. You smoke, you drink, you’re dying first, remember?
He is my best friend in the world, not just in Baltimore. We have planned what to do if the other should suddenly die. (Hide the shower beers from his Born-Again parents; send the file folder containing this story among others to my agent.) I have lived with him for four years—ever since I left my family outside Los Angeles to try and be a New York City writer, then rode the Amtrak south through an exorbitant glut of cities until I found one I could afford—and been in love with him every last minute of them. I would kill him if he died first.
He mimes gagging himself with his finger. Pull the trigger, he says. Get it over with. End our night here.
I don’t even lift my head from his Oxford. Probably I moan a little, in a that-sounds-awful way. Really it sounds great. He has called the night ours and this is the closest he will get to telling me: tonight, there’s no girl.
Are you brave enough? he says.
If I were brave enough, I would tell him that I am in love with him. Right here, right on the floor, hairtips wet with toilet, I would say, You know, I am in love with you. Then I would take his face and kiss him before he could stop me, or else I would strip off the remainder of my clothes and lie back down on the tile and say, Yours.
But I am not brave enough. Because I know what would happen after that. He would pull back. He would say, Courtney. He would say, You’re drunk, or What the hell are you talking about, or Are you out of story ideas, or Shut up. He would say, These are the girls I love, and show me the catalog-perfect pictures I carry in my brain: all of them beautiful, all of them the type of skinny you look at a millisecond too long when you pass the space between their leggings on the street, wondering are they anorexic, deciding not but only by a hairsbreadth. He is that kind of guy. He is a physicist whom his advisor called one of the best when we discussed him over cocktails this evening, he left his own Friday-night department party early to take care of his platonic plus-one, he answers every time his mother phones, but he is still that kind of guy. The kind who wants only the paper-thin bodies he’s seen just enough of, lying in his bed like dolls or starfish, to believe in their reality.
So he would remind me who he loves, and he wouldn’t even need to hold a mirror to my arms the size of bowling pins, and not the skinny ends. I left the bikinis of Los Angeles; I already know what would happen next. He would get afraid of my desire. My beautiful happy indefinite symbiosis with him here in Baltimore—splitting groceries, scouring Craigslist, taking turns with the car—would be over.
Or maybe he would say, What took us both so long? and get his ass off the radiator and crouch down to the tile floor beside me and kiss me on my sick lips.
You’re not brave enough, he says, sighing, crooking a strand of cold wet hair behind my ear.
Sorry, I say.
It’s your problem, he says, not mine, but he bends over and fits a waterbottle between my lips and I know I’m his problem tonight. It gives me the elusive liquid happiness of reciprocity that he’s my problem, too.
An hour goes by before I agree that something must change. He has been drinking untold numbers of shower beers over my half-dressed backside. I have been lifting my head half an inch off his shoe to retch, drily.
Fine, I say, Nothing is happening here unless I make it happen.
Finally, he says. Let’s get you to bed.
He hooks me under the armpits to haul me up. I do not do anything to help. My whole body is a pair of knees, trying to bend backward. He pulls. I resist. Unless I close my eyes on the way north, I will vomit. I close my eyes. I am standing. The world is swaying, though I don’t see it: his old bedsheet from our first apartment that we use as a windowshade; the mirror flecked with toothpaste; the trashcan filled with my tampon wrappers and his floss; the shower curtain stained with black mold that we’re pretty sure won’t kill us during this lease cycle. He loops an arm around my shoulders. I loop an arm around his waist. He feels firmer than he did when we met, four years ago, him 22, me 26. Back then we were both a little round in the cheeks, a little slobby, a little bad in the kitchen—though even I knew how to drain spaghetti. But since then he has pursued a constant self-improvement campaign. In four years he has learned to salsa-dance, to speak Italian, to tame his cheek hair, to discern between expensive cheeses, to sprinkle spices into homemade stews. He has grown muscle where he once had fat. He has bought a new bedset for a new bed. He has obtained a summer research position at Harvard that is likely to lead to a job. He is dynamism embodied.
The biggest thing that’s changed for me is how much I am proud of him. A little, then. A lot now. Otherwise, I have been basically waiting in the room beside his for him to realize he loves me, or for me to realize he doesn’t. I have written the same stories about longing. I have looked up and not applied to the same teaching gigs in other cities, warmer cities farther south, DC or Atlanta. The same old stuffed animals remain on my same old bed.
We are both still single. On a typical Friday night—which this is not—we drink enough to laugh but not enough to wind up with our eyes closed being navigated down the hall. We go to Mad Maxie’s downtown, where under the hellish red lights and the swinging cowboy-style door he flirts with the bartender or buys drinks for some twig at the bar or, catastrophically, both; I wait in the back booth for him to fail. Usually he does. Then we split a taxi home and order a pizza and talk about politics or my students or his brothers or our next apartment until we fall asleep, one on the futon, one on the armchair. Whichever of us wakes first drapes the other in a blanket on the way to bed. If it’s him, he leaves a cup of water and a chocolate by my head. If it’s me, I leave a glass of seltzer and I watch him for a while. His eyelashes lie long as a girl’s on his cheeks. Sometimes I think, if I could watch him closely enough, I would see his stubble at the moment of its poking through his skin.
But I can’t risk watching him that closely.
Jesus, he says, lugging me past his bedroom and through my own doorway, you’re heavy.
You’re the one who said I needed to stand up, I say.
Well, here, he says. We’re here. Go. Sleep.
I’m still a little drunk. I don’t release him. He pushes me down onto my semi-made bed, head first, back bent, butt in the air. I open my eyes. I crawl toward the mountain of stuffed animals at the head of the bed. I remember that I am not wearing pants. Tomorrow, he will not mention this aspect of today. I start to slump into the clean pillows against the wall, but he drops my bathroom pillow at the foot of the bed and then—I can’t believe it—sits down next to it, so I about-face like a lab rat and burrow into the purple cotton pushed up against his lap. I wonder how many shower beers he consumed. He has never touched my bed with so much as a pinky finger. I ask him is he the drunk one now. He says what, and I think to myself what are you doing you idiot don’t look a gift beer in the bottle, so I say, Nothing.
Maybe I have broken all of our patterns by leaving the party first. Because him on my bed is not part of any routine, typical or atypical. I don’t know what to do about it. He seems not to know, either. Now that he isn’t lifting my shoulders or spirit in service of his self-assigned task—relocate drunk girl—he’s not so assured in how he touches me. He pats me on the back like a burped baby. It’s quiet enough between us to hear the ambulance sirens on the street and the tree branch knocking on my window like a secret code. Now is the moment, I’m thinking: confess and find out if he has something to confess. If he does, break the lease on this black-moldy place and share a one-bedroom and start writing stories about having instead of wanting. If he doesn’t, move the fuck out, stat. He is looking at me like he’s waiting for me to start changing everything. But then when you have a secret the whole world looks at you with knowing eyes. Maybe I just have lint in my hair.
If you keep doing that, I say, toward his patting hand, I’m going to vomit.
You’re not, he says. Unless you make yourself.
Fine, I say, you’re right. Still. If you’re going to touch me, touch me nicely or not at all.
I am not surprised that he picks not at all. But then he does surprise me: He keeps on staying. The streetlight through my window casts him in a warm yellow. He picks up a stuffed crocodile from my menagerie. My head is on the purple pillow in his lap. As good as in his lap. He pushes a stuffed hippopotamus into my hands. For a second as he looks down, I can see a glowing patch of skull through the dark hair at the crown of his head. He is nine inches taller than me; I never see him from above. He has a bald patch. Instantly, I adore it. I poke a finger into this mysterious new part of him.
His crocodile claw punches my hippo in the snout.
Hey! I say, pulling my arm away.
Fight back, he says, but my little hoof has already kicked the green felt of his tail.
We fight. He bites me on the button nostril; I paw at his screenprinted scales; we make little oof sounds, his hissing and reptilian, mine low and lumbering, until we mix up each other’s noises and the commentary stops aligning with the scuffle. I want to win. I’ve got his crocodile in a headlock. But then he says, Be nice now, and I let the little figure fall to his lap because the fight goes out of me instantly.
On the nights when he doesn’t fail, I try my best to flirt with somebody, too. Usually I succeed. To him I am fat but I am not, to others, even ugly. To some I am cute, to some outright hot. I touch their knees or giggle at the things their mouths say, but I don’t even see them. I am looking over their shoulder, behind their ear, tracking him closely. If he kisses his papergirls, I kiss my invisible boys. If he leaves the bar with his, I leave the bar with mine. I never leave first. Sometimes he decides to spend the night with me instead of them, even after he has kissed them, and those are the sweetest nights, because on those nights he says Thank God I have you, and if I fall asleep first, no matter how late the next day I wake up, he hasn’t left the living room to sleep alone.
My hippopotamus props his crocodile on his knee. Before I can second-guess myself, I press their snouts together. Our real hands touch, hot and hard around the plush.
He doesn’t pull back, his hand or the toy. He applies pressure into my knuckles. He makes a suctioning noise with his lips. The wet lick-sound of a kiss. He would make a roguish father. Playful. Kind.
I sit up. I look him in the eye, the scalp, the jaw where our animals are joined. Now is the moment. He is waiting on my bed for me to start. I have to be undaunted.
Are you in love with me? I say.
He is looking at my lips with such familiarity that I wonder, for the first
time, whether on the nights he wakes up first he watches me the same secret
way I watch him.
No, he says.
I flinch. But then I rearrange my face. Undaunted, I tell myself. It’s possible that he is as afraid as I am of the consequences of admission. It’s possible he doesn’t want to lose me, either, my friendship, this little pseudofamily we’ve made. It’s possible that, if I’ve faked it all this time, he’s faked it too. He might not know the time for faking is over. So I say, Would you tell me if you were?
A long time passes. I notice that I don’t feel drunk anymore. A rustle from the kitchen might be a plastic bag unfurling or a mouse. He fidgets. On the nights when he doesn’t fail, when he does leave the bar with his papergirls and I follow suit with my invisible boys, I end up sleeping with them and feeling nothing between my legs but the story I will tell him tomorrow. Then he and I meet for breakfast, early, because we both want out. I eat pancakes and I look at the neon sign for the laundromat instead of at his eyes, and I tell him I am sad about boys and maybe I even cry, and I feel relief seep like a muscle relaxant through my ribcage. I feel the rock of my heart turn to feather. I feel ten times lighter. I have gotten to tell the truth before him, instead of suppressing, waiting, taking what little I get.
Would you tell me if you were in love with me? I prod, in my low hippo voice.
In one sudden, violent motion, he sweeps the plush-and-cotton junk off his lap. He uses a low person voice I’ve never heard before to say, Yes.
Something falters inside me.
One of these Fridays he will find a skinny girl for keeps, I think. I am lying an inch away from him in the near-dark and seeing this future with utter clarity. Maybe they will play and drink and fall asleep on each other’s shoes on the bathroom floor; maybe she will try to wear his too-big shirts and fall right out of them; maybe they will let each other rot through nausea or thunderstorms or the unknown first-response of a sudden death. I will never know. Over four years I have seen him shave and cook and bald, but I have never seen him want a girl like me. Some truths don’t change, as surely as some truths stay hidden.
Are you in love with me? he says, in that dangerous bass.
He is leaning so far away from big ungainly me that his bald patch is halfway out the door. Over four years on the east coast, ocean always slapping in the wrong ear, he’s become the only family I’ve got. Yes is the only true thing I can say, but I can’t bring myself to say it.
I’m shivering again. I lay my head back on his lap, where the pillow isn’t anymore. I am careful to keep my head light. My neck strains. I reach back and pull the quilt over myself, wrongways, flipping it down from the head of the bed so the cold satin upside covers me instead of the warm downy inside.
Would you tell me if you were in love with me? he says, when after long minutes I don’t answer.
He hasn’t budged. My silence hasn’t edged his head back into the room. I decide to be a little brave. No, I say. I wouldn’t.
It is as good as an admission. I feel this instantly. His new muscles tense so fast the mattress lurches. He stands, lets my head collapse low to the mattress, tosses a chocolate from his pants pocket to the bed, misses, steps on something soft that rocks his balance as he walks out the door. He leaves. I wonder will he ever come back. I wonder if he will move away before I get the chance to, clear his things out overnight so when I go to the bathroom tomorrow morning there’s no curtain and only one toothbrush and a trashcan full of tampons. I wonder if he will find a sublettor or call the leasing office or mail me next month’s check.
I’m cold. I was never this cold back in California. I don’t want to have spoken and lost him. What will I do with all this knowledge, about his brothers and his shower beers and the way he takes his coffee? Without him I have no life. Tomorrow I will have to move away and start from scratch, again, four years older and so much more tired. From the edge of the bed, I can see the chocolate wrapped in foil on the floor. I plan not to eat it, knowing I will.
And then, out of nowhere, he comes back. It must be five a.m. I haven’t moved, or slept. I stare at the yellow silhouette of him in the doorway. He is the most precious shape. Broad shoulders, thin calves. Like a bowling pin, inverted. Maybe I can see his stubble poking through his skin. Maybe he is here to say he lied like I lied, he has been as cowardly as I am. Maybe he is here to be the one of us who’s brave.
He retakes his seat next to my head. My shoulders where the flipped-down blanket doesn’t reach are goosebumped. If he would only be brave, then our whole lives are set. If he says they weren’t true, the lies he said before, then I will hug him and scrub the black mold and always buy groceries and say he is absolutely categorically forbidden from dying first.
Courtney, he says.
Right here, I say.
I was thinking, he says, and then he says, You should write a story called Tactical Chunders.
I wait a long time to speak. The muddy yellow of the streetlight is ceding to the shrill yellow of the sun. The first thrums of a headache are pounding through my temples. He is acting normal. Giving me an out. I was drunk tonight, was all. We don’t have to remember if I don’t want to. We can pretend I fell asleep first, right there in his shirt on the bathroom floor, after pulling the trigger and ending a typical Friday night, and that I kicked my stupid old unchanging playthings to the floor when I woke beside a piece of chocolate and walked myself to bed.
You dare me? I say.
He nods his head, but not in the joking manner of the wanting-to-forget. A little bit of bald glimmers. He’s not packing up overnight. Not if I’m careful. If I’m careful and a liar, and he stays, then I can stay. And yet—he is nodding in the most slow, serious way I have ever seen him nod. Like maybe if I just said yes and did it he would love me back.
No fucking way, I tell him, and laugh, and kick him out of my room, and then I curl up in the hot place where he was sitting and make myself small so I can fit my whole body where his body was and cry a little and try to hold his heat until it goes away.