Excerpted from the complete novel manuscript, Everything I Want You to Be.
In New York, it’s not the changing leaves that indicate fall is in full swing. Regardless of how much time you spend with chameleon pigments while walking through Prospect Park, trees aren’t the ultimate barometer. It’s not the texture of the air, either; sure, it doesn’t hang with paralyzing humidity as it does through the summer, but cool breezes off the water and steamy air vents at service hatches manipulate the temperature year-round. Quite simply, you can’t trust what your senses feed you.
Instead, you really know it’s fall by the way the buildings cast shadows onto each other. Each shaped darkness feels pregnant with a heavy weight and rests into neighboring shadows searching for warmth, preparing for winter. The angles are duller, the hues are dimmer. The definition, the certainty — after a point, it all becomes muddled with seemingly no reprieve except for the distant promise that spring will eventually come again. You just have to trust that it will return.
I sit at my desk on a day that wishes to be a summer Friday if not for better weather, then at least for an early release. I can’t take another five hours at my desk. My red T-shirt, too casual and beaten up for work, a shirt that’s been through my Fourth Avenue laundromat about eighty times too many, is sitting a bit too tightly on my throat. My inbox pings endlessly with tasks unfinished, things that need to be settled before the long weekend recess for Thanksgiving.
“Hey, man,” my coworker Stephen says on his way to the bathroom. “You got plans for the vacation?”
I don’t look up from my computer screen until I concede that I’m being unnecessarily rude.
“Come on, the food, man! So much food. So good.”
I had nearly this exact talk last year. Since getting engaged, he barely seems conscious of anything but himself, and the momentous proposal has apparently erased his memory of previous conversations, too.
“Yeah,” I say. “Kilograms of it.”
“Shit, you don’t do Pilgrims and stuff.”
I nod. “Are you going to her parents’ place?”
“Dude!” he yells. “We fly out to Cleveland on Tuesday. Seriously, her mother has been shopping and prepping for like, a week already.”
I can’t imagine there is anything else to do in Ohio. Stephen continues talking, though I can’t be bothered to connect the words to their respective meanings. “Well, that sounds great,” I say, cutting him off during a big breath, the next opportunity I can.
“Man, I know plenty of foreigners that celebrate. I mean, it’s just another excuse to eat, right? And haven’t you been in the States forever or something?”
“I gotta finish some stuff, buddy.”
He gives me some sort of Army salute as he turns the corridor.
hihihi. sorry to bug during your workday and this is really random, but any interest in a last minute flight to arizona on wednesday? my parents offered to pay for us to come out. i didn’t plan on anything because i didn’t have the money but they’re offering and it’s my dad’s retirement party and my family always does a big thanksgiving thing. i don’t know if you have plans with your family or something you usually do since we never talked about it or anything (how did we not--weird, right?), but can you call me and let me know? again, sorry that this is so last minute, but i figured it was worth asking. might be nice to get out of the cold, no?
I pick up the office line and dial nine out, but then hesitate and hang up. Checking for my cell phone in my pocket, I take the back stairway down four flights and hit the street. I push through a cloud of cigarette smoke from people near the door, coughing at them. I hit ‘Favorites’ and swipe my finger over the contact. It rings.
On the sidewalk, the girls — many newly-minted coeds, others just looking for a fresh start or new streets — they’re being hugged by light layers of fabric, letting my mind run the edges of their bodies, each shape talking to my hands as I imagine the details I cannot see, skin slightly chapped by the coming of cold. Legs climbing through forests of dark denim, black knee-high boots.
These are the images that take me. Take me over. Girls that are off-white canvases, full of dents, ready for me to smooth them out. I’m standing in clear space in front of my building, but feel physically jostled, pushed back to the first moment where I met Paige in the gallery, when she was as faceless as any of them. When I saw nothing but her shoulders dropped, knees turned inward, and that screaming orange hair zipping across the room, a silhouette obediently picking up stray dirty cocktail napkins. I flash to these slivers, which sustain me; now, I don’t know how I’ve gotten wedged into a corner that doesn’t allow me to see Paige among the ghost girls any longer.
“Shit,” I say into the receiver the minute the call is connected.
“I’m at work, what the fuck’s up?” my best friend answers, his voice low.
“She wants me to go home with her, to her parents’ place.”
“Wednesday right before the holiday. I just got an email. She wants me to call her and give her an answer right away.”
“You know, you’re pretty shitty at dealing with your own shit these days, Xander.”
“Fuck you. Seriously, help.” I sound like a fifteen-year-old choosing condoms for the first time.
“I mean, if you really want to bail, there’s probably no way to get out of it without sounding like a huge dick unless you, like, tell her you’re working Wednesday and Friday.”
“She knows the office is closed. We talked about it last week.” I’m cursing myself for having casually mentioned the detail over crappy midnight Chinese take-out. Her phone rang before we could talk about plans for the actual day.
“Well, no siblings and dead parents doesn’t leave you with much of an alibi.”
“If I’m shitty at dealing with my issues, you have the compassion of a fucking tapeworm, Kieran.”
“What’s Arizona, the Desert State or something? Bring me back a cactus if they’ll let you take it on the plane and I’ll name it after you. My client just got here.” The phone screen is flashing 00hr 44sec to put a period on the end of the call.
This isn’t part of the plan. This doesn’t even make sense. And for once, I don’t have a clue how to get out of it. I feel too frozen to panic outright, and try to distract myself by thinking about doing Paige in the airplane bathroom, and even in her parents’ house like some pubescent rookie. I need the most caffeinated thing I can possibly find on this stretch of Third Avenue.
Pushing through the door of Starbucks, I remember my wallet’s on my desk, leaving me with only the two-ish dollars in my pocket.
“Can I help you?” asks a green-eyed, green-aproned barista. She smiles at me warmly.
“Um, hi. Big. Caffeine.”
“Oh, sorry. Large coffee. Darkest roast you have.” She calls back my drink and rings me up. My shirt is inching up around my neck right now, and I can tell that she’s watching my nervous, jerking actions. The total is more than two bucks.
“Shit,” I say, pulling out old receipts in lieu of more money. I reach into my front pocket as if I’m going to find change — I never carry change — and she studies me as I struggle. There is no line behind me.
It’s at this point that I’d usually smile. Watch her eyes, watch the way her hands fall to the counter, watch her take her time watching me. The change would be an afterthought, because the only thing that would matter would be me singling her out. But right now, the axis is off, and everything’s bent.
“It’s fine,” she says, taking whatever I’ve already put down, and waving me on. She does it not because I’m charming — not because I’m on, and I’m fine, and I’m me — but because I’m sweating, and I’m shaking, and I’m scaring the shit out of her. Paige has cornered me.
I pick up my coffee a minute later, and the barista’s eyes follow me all the way to the exit. My instinct is to try to salvage the moment — and something of my pride with it — by throwing her a small grin, a small lift of my lips into something she’ll keep with her all day, but I know it’s absolutely fucking useless. And as perfection would have it, outside the glass door, I burn my tongue with my first sip.
When I get back to the office, I hover over the phone, willing myself to call Paige and decline, the only sufficient answer, but I can’t do it. I get the feeling someone is standing over me, and I turn to see Stephen so close that I’m baffled that I don’t feel his hot, canine breath on my neck. There must be drool on my shoulder.
“I need the final of the Taylor article layout,” he says, sticking out a plump hand.
I smack it into his palm and smile a tight-lipped smile. “Tucson,” I say. “I’m going to Tucson for the holiday.”
“I knew you weren’t going to sit home alone. Enjoy the warm weather, man.” He gives me a fatherly shoulder punch and walks away.
“Take that one,” Paige says, pointing at a solid-color button-down, probably the drabbest thing I own.
“Why?” I ask, even though I know it’s because she thinks it’s “safe”.
“I don’t know. I just like it more.”
“Why are you obsessing? We’re going to be there for fewer than four days, Paige. I’m capable of packing on my own.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” she says. She gets up from her seat on my bed, having to slide down the side of it with care until her feet touch the ground.
I see her walking towards my closet and will not have her thumbing through my things. I stop folding the shirt I’m holding, throw it down over the suitcase, and walk toward my closet, getting there a step before her. I stand between her and the closet door. I stare down at her. “Paige. Seriously.”
I grab the curves of her figure and clamp onto her side, her cardigan acting like a potholder. I push her backwards so she’s back up against the bed where she was, where I’m most used to seeing the girls — a quick reminder that Paige has been many, many other places in the last five months we’ve been together. Jesus Christ. Five months. I think a part of me has forgotten how to count that high. Paige thinks I’m going to kiss her, but I just lift her back up onto the bed like I’m placing her into a high chair.
“Hrmph,” she scoffs, a displeased toddler, reaching for her necklace charm. “Just remember that it’s going to be warm.”
I gesture to the pile of paper-thin t-shirts that are stacked next to her — colors of a muddy Candy Land — and she shrugs, tipping over and falling into the pillows.
“Oh, and my parents have a pool, so you might want—”
“I don’t swim.”
“You don’t know how to swim?”
“No, I don’t swim.”
“Because I’d prefer to sit on the side and watch you in a skimpy bathing suit and nothing else.”
Paige throws a pillow at my head. It falls short, knocking over the t-shirts. “Oh, sorry!” She rolls up from her position, reaching to straighten the pile. She grabs my favorite shirt, a red one that’s been devoured by the wash cycles, and grimaces. “Does this have to come?”
I snatch it from her hands. “Yes. I’m going to wear it to your father’s party and in front of all of the important people from home with the explicit intention of mortifying you.”
She doesn’t find it funny. I suppose I am not being particularly funny.
Together, we fold back the rest of the shirts — the red one included — and I place a dark green v-neck on top. Turning away from the pile, I start reassembling the pile of socks, but Paige lifts up the green shirt and refolds it.
“It was going to get wrinkled,” she says before I even ask.
I clear my throat. I can’t stand her right now, how on top of me she is and the thought of how on she’ll be for this whole trip, and for the first time, I’m seriously regretting my decision to go. I put the rest of my stuff in the suitcase without saying a word. She’s staring at my hands as I zip up the brown bag, one of the few tangible remnants besides the photograph that’s survived my past world, but I don’t look up at her.
“Am I allowed to take my toothbrush, your highness?” I finally ask.
“Don’t be a jerk. Please,” she says.
“I wouldn’t do this for anyone but you. Don’t make me regret it.”
She’s stark silent. The room is locked in a post-apocalyptic quiet, and she looks like she’s on the verge of tears. Scratch that — she’s in tears.
“Shit, Paige. Please don’t. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Why did you say yes, then?” There’s force, contempt in her voice, which shakes as she sobs a little. I’ve never seen her frustrated like this, or at least not at me. Her voice softens. “Why. Tell me why you said yes to come with me.”
I feel it welling up inside of me. And I am doing everything in my power to stop it. I will not look in her eyes, I will not look at the bag in front of me, I will not look in the direction of the photograph, which is now pressed between the pages of Le Petit Prince. Paige could reach for it off the bookshelf at any second find out everything. She could unravel me. She unravels me.
“Fuck.” It’s all that comes out.
“I fucking love you, Paige.”
This is the part where I realize that I’m supposed to be freaking out, supposed to be in complete and utter awe of what I’ve just said. But my body feels frozen, completely incapable of reacting. I don’t know how to feel, so I just deal with it the only way I can — robotically, mechanically, like everything else in my life. I just stare at her. She just stares back. She isn’t smiling, thrilled to hear what she’s been waiting for — what these girls have never, ever heard — since she said it to me. Instead, she just stares back, the tears momentarily purged, but her face is streaked with streams of mascara, her cheeks still hot. Our eyes are both wide, her pupils muddied. With no words, I grab her hand, hold it for a second, and let it fall to the bed. I leave the bedroom and walk outside. She doesn’t follow.
Now, the phrase that meant nothing and everything at once, the phrase that existed in its own perfection, is charged in a way that possibly invalidates everything that came before this very second. I’m in a state of panic I don’t recognize. A state of panic in which I’m not actually shaking, not in visible disarray. As far gone as that state would be, at least I’d know how to deal with it. But this feeling that I’m sitting with — I don’t know what this is, and I’m just still and silent and lucid and breathing but completely panicking. It’s not appropriate to reach out to anyone, so I just sit on the patio outside the brownstone like a smoker, willing my eyes to glaze over. Except I don’t smoke and never have. So I sit like an addict in withdrawal, but I’m not seething. I’m just blank.
But the girl inside, in my bed, she’s not. She was when I found her; she was a shell of a person so weak, so amorphous that reshaping seemed like it’d take no effort at all. And at first, it didn’t. The challenges to stay on course have piled up, though. The changes in direction have become more numerous. The excuses I’ve made for myself — that I’ve made because of her — god, they’re there every day. And now I’m here, telling myself I’m blank, when really, I’m the last thing from blank, when there’s an overture inside of me that I’m suppressing in the interest of maintaining any last small bit of myself, any piece that she hasn’t crept inside of in me. Now that Paige’s own slate has started to get crowded, she’s picked up her chalk and scribbled all over me.
I don’t know how long it is before I go back inside, but it’s late, much later than I had anticipated going to bed for a four-thirty a.m. cab call to the airport. All of the lights in the rooms are still on, except the bedroom, which glows amber. I turn into the room, my shins hitting into the suitcases, which are now at the foot of the door, next to each other. She’s finished the packing, my smaller bag zipped and upright next to hers. I step over them and walk to the bed. Paige is curled up sleeping in her clothes, fetal and clutching a pillow to her stomach, on top of the brown comforter. The lamp on the nightstand shines like a Rembrandt light onto half of her face. I take off my shoes and then my sweater, and toss it to the floor, inside out. I pull back the covers, slipping them out from under Paige’s form. She stirs but does not wake as I slide beneath them and stretch the blanket over her. I envelop her, protect her as I pull her into me, touching her toes with mine. I’m still wearing socks. It’s one-forty, and for two hours and twenty minutes, all I taste is my stale breath as I lie awake.
She is sound asleep.