He puts on a pair of shorts after you’ve made love, grabbing at the piles of clothes in the dark by his bed until he finds something suitable to cover his nakedness. That’s not what you call it, of course, making love. You call it what it is: an affair. Still, you resent him for covering himself. He is always so covered. Since your own clothes rarely come off during these exchanges, however, you can hardly fault him. Not out of prudishness, mind you, but urgency. You tug your skirt around until it’s facing the right direction, but remain topless, to prove…something…that you are, if not quite an open book, then a topless one at least.
“Is that a tattoo?” you ask, suddenly quite aware of how little you know about him, his body.
“It’s a joke,” he says.
“A joke,” you repeat. That’s exactly what I am, you think. What this is.
“It says ‘Si Se Puede’ in henna. Or it did, rather. My brother and I got them when we went to Mexico. Then I got tan. Damn thing still hasn’t gone away,” he says.
That’s not a joke, you think. In this moment, you think you might hate him, even more so than when you first met, for coming between you and your real, actual boyfriend, hate his flat Mexican ass and one-dimpled face, hate that you are drawn to him still, across cities, countries even, lovers old and new, and now you definitely hate his stupid reverse henna tattoo.
“Do you have any tattoos?” he asks. He plays with the beaded curtain masquerading as a bedroom door.
“No,” you say.
“Oh. I didn’t think so.” You stare at his stomach, at the space where the henna ink used to be, looking for nuance, for a hint of something behind his words other than what he has actually said. You try to remember if his expression ever changed, when he bent you over his bed, when he pressed himself into you, when he said hello. You remember him always looking composed, though surely that couldn’t be the case.
Then you think, Could this really be the conversation that two people who’ve been sleeping together on and off for a decade have after sex? Was it because you had so little time together? That your boyfriend knows about the affair now and that this may be the last time you ever see him? Or was it that adultery made for terrible icebreakers? You try to think of something to ask him, but can only manage, “Do you know what time it is?”
“Quarter till,” he says and pushes himself onto his knees. He stops playing with the curtain and begins tracing words on your back. You want to know what he’s spelling, but do not have the courage to ask. You’re not sure you like this, actually, this feeling of intimacy. You once preferred these interactions to be like grocery shopping – in and out, with as little crying as possible. There were few pleasantries exchanged, save for the necessary words, Yes, Please, A Little To The Left, and now the presence of cordiality has started to make you uncomfortable. You must have something in common, you think. A ritual, a ceremony other than sweat, that strange fruit, and the chemistry you can only refer to as destructive. You look at him, on his knees, the beads still swaying gently from side to side. For the first time, you realize that you’re in this together. This is not just happening to you alone.
In the middle of this struggle to find meaning and common ground, he says, “Want to go again?” and you hate him all over again.
“No,” you say, calmly. “I should be going.” You break from his touch as if scalded and dress carelessly, throwing this on, and that. The beauty of his studio is that there are very few places to hide.
He walks you out, his bicycle on one side, you on the other.
“Where are you going?” you ask.
“For a ride,” he says and you realize he isn’t obligated to tell you anything. That, in fact, your relationship depends on not expecting any answers from each other.
“You should wear a helmet,” you say, less out of concern for his safety, and more because that is what people say to people who don’t wear helmets.
“I know,” he says, ignoring you and placing a foot on the pedal. You turn to leave, feeling the cold lash at your freshly chewed lips, and try to remember the last time you’ve worn a helmet yourself – surely it has been years, you think.
“I was hit by a car,” you say, feeling now as though you need to explain yourself, and your sentiments.
“That sucks,” he says, and gazes at you steadily. You want to say more about it, that you fractured your skull, that you couldn’t walk for eight days, that when you called in to work, everyone thought you were joking, even though why would anyone joke about that? And why doesn’t anyone know what a goddamn joke is?
But you don’t know where to begin. He looks down at his bike, then back at you. He’s clearly waiting for you to release him. Yet you can’t. A woman crosses the street and gets into a car to drive away. You wish you were that woman. You wish you were any other woman. You even wish, for a moment, that you were the Other Woman. Then you could just flit away.
“I told him,” you say.
“You told him?” he asks.
“We were eating dinner,” you say, as if this is a relevant detail. “Clam Chowder.”
“And what did he say?” he asks.
“It doesn’t matter,” you say.
“He said it didn’t matter?”
“No, I’m saying it doesn’t matter. What he said,” you say. “I just thought you should know.”
Eventually, he says, “It’s really cold out here,” and breathes into his hands.
“I wish you would have said something else,” you say.
“Like what?” he asks.
“Like anything,” you say. “Like you can never see the stars in the city. Like the snow is still pretty, even when it gets trampled on. Like I’ll miss you.”
“I will miss you,” he says. “I miss you already.”
You smile at him, even though the cold hurts your teeth. “I haven’t left yet.”
You’re still smiling when he bends down to kiss you, and for a brief moment, his warmth spreads across your whole face. Then is gone.
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