There’s too little light and no place to sit.
There’s too little light and no place to sit.
The air in here’s as damp as the Boston fog we’d just come out of, though a bit warmer. Four walls, two windows, a door, a floor, three rooms. I won’t remember the color of the walls.
Even her shower curtain’s plain ivory white, the tiniest bit translucent. What light I have to see slinks out of the bathroom like steam bathing the air, and I try to look everywhere else but through the few inches of open bathroom door. The few inches that give me a view straight to an old and flaking mirror, barely reflective even before the shower clouded it over.
Now it barely reflects a steam-smudged silhouette, a dim shadow of a girl’s body, mostly obscured by a pale opalescent piece of plastic.
And just one naked 100-watt lightbulb.
She calls out from the shower:
“There’s instant coffee in a can by the stove. I don’t drink it, but boil some water, and-“
“It’s quarter to five. I’m ready to drop. I don’t even think coffee’d save me now.” I draw a tiny face in a fogged up bottom-left window pane.
The water stops its whistling and starts to laugh as she flips from showerhead to tub faucet. “Well…” She pauses. “You can sleep here.”
I try to keep my footsteps quiet as I look around the apartment. It’s tiny – a kitchen with a burnt-out bare bulb smack in the center of the ceiling. No table or chairs. An open pantry, shelves unburdened save for a half-empty bag of pasta and some over-ripe fruit. On the yellowed counter by the stove: that Eight O’Clock can of coffee; looks like it stepped out of the forties and kept on walking all these last fifty-odd years. I wonder, ponder: did they make instant coffee back then?
Her bedroom: a poor excuse for a sleeping pad. A warm-weather sleeping bag, unzipped, dark blue, spread open over it. Clothes folded together and wrapped in a pair of boxer shorts for a pillow. A few more clothes in a neat pile in the corner. A book. I forget to turn it over to read the title, but I make a few guesses what’s inside it anyway.
On the windowsill, a Campbell’s Soup can with a few butts poking out of their own ashes. For a moment, I ponder, wonder if her story’s true.
In the bathroom the water goes back to whistling. She’s washing her hair in my thoughts. I think about that for a few moments.
I feel like a stowaway on a ship that never sails.
It’s a Motel 8. I’ve got to think we’re in southern Massachusetts by now, but I’m not really sure. The neon light out front says V ANCY, and I take that as a good sign we’ll find a hard bed or two and a few hours to recover before heading the rest of the way home.
She’s waiting in the anteroom between the entry and the lobby, army parka huddled closely, her flowery brown dress falling out beneath. The young man at the front desk barely looks up from his computer screen, and he speaks before I even have the chance.
“I’ll need to see an ID.” He glances with a scowl at her over there fiddling with the fake plants in the vestibule. “And I’ll definitely need to see hers too.” I turn and wonder at her for a moment. I’d never asked her age. Just assumed based on the details I had.
“Well, wait – first I just need to know how much a room costs.” I can’t focus my eyes very well. So dry and crinkly. I add, “just for the rest of the night. Til checkout.”
“Check-out’s at 11.” He looks over at the clock on the wall – 4:08 a.m. – hits a few keys and squints at his screen. “All I’ve got’s a-“
A quick glance at her and then a withering glance at me. For a few seconds, I feel bad for what I’d thought might happen between the two of us. “- queen bed. Non-smoking. $79 a night.”
I’ve got eighty. I wave something- a cross-between ‘thumbs up’ and ‘come here’ toward Amy. As I’m pulling twenties out of my wallet, he stops me. “Paying cash? There’s also taxes and fees. We need a deposit, too. Fifty.”
“Never mind. Eighty’s all I got.”
He isn’t disappointed. The lobby smells too strongly of Windex and walls varnished with cigarette smoke. There’s no Musak playing. Aside from an ice-machine down the hall churning a fresh batch into the bin, it’s too quiet. Me breathing. Him breathing. I turn to go and she sees my face.
He says nothing as we retreat back into the wet night.
I’ve perched myself on a windowsill, looking through fogged windows at the orange light of sodium streetlights, the dim purple-grey light of impending dawn on a cloudy, wet day. I can hear the ‘ssssh-sssh’ of tires on these side streets as the early risers head off to their early jobs. I can hear her breathing, and the huffing sound that towels make drying off wet skin. There’s a bit more light in the apartment, but it’s tired and unrevealing.
Nothing to catch my eye. An empty place. Her few belongings carefully here and there accentuate everything that’s already gone. I sip water out of a glass – the sort of cup I’ll recall in future years simply as ‘glass’. Round, clear, smooth. Not chipped or broken. No color. Not even a hue. Just a glass, like a window pane wrapped into a cylinder and fused with a circle at the bottom.
The Cantabrigian water it holds has far more character, heavy on the tongue and not unlike pennies, smooth, full-bodied. I swirl it around on my tongue for a moment, pretending I’m tasting a fine wine. I’m familiar with the taste, it’s home to me, but at the moment I want something lighter, something lithe, something momentary.
She appears in the doorway between the bedroom and the kitchen, folding her towel in half and half again before hanging it from an unladen curtain rod. “My art school semester ends in about a week. I have to be out of here about the same time; they said they found someone to rent the place next month.”
I want to ask her where she’s going next, but I already know the answer. She’s leaning against the wall next to the window where I’m sitting. Boxers, a damp white wife-beater, her hair clinging to her head. She’s almost as tall as I am, but tiny in every other way, I could wrap my thumb and forefinger around her wrist, pick her up with one arm. Dark freckles that cluster around her upper arms and her shoulders.
“What happens when they want to show the place?”
“I just stuff my things into the drawer in the pantry and go out for a few hours. Easy. It’s like I was never here.”
And I can believe it. I feel like we’re both barely here now. I reach my arm around her waist – elbow-high to me where I’m sitting – and give her a bit of a smile. In truth, I’m anchoring myself here in this moment, all this lack of sleep, lack of context. She’s my only connection to this world. And here I am anchoring myself to a pre-dawn dark and empty room – grasping at a girl who would barely top a hundred pounds on a heavy day.
She repeats herself: “You can stay here if you want.”
I want her to want me to stay. But that’s it. I’m not against the two mile drive back to my apartment. I explain my silence to myself; I’m letting her decide what she really wants from me. I don’t completely believe it. I’m too tired to think.
She says, “Stay.”
Eighty bucks in my wallet, somewhere on Route 24 between Newport and Boston. Somewhere between Cinderella’s curfew and the first few fingers of dawn. We’re pulling out from a third dirt road. They’ve all ended in the same words: “Campground closed for season.” Double-locked gates. She’s half asleep in the passenger seat before I touch her thigh.
The dashboard clock offers the time even though I don’t want to know. It’s a little after three-thirty. “This one’s closed too. What if we just drive home?”
I don’t want to. The highway all looks the same, my headlights shining off cracked and worn old pavement, damp from the heavy mist hunkered down over the east coast. Not a single car’s passed us either way since we left Newport, and that seems like hours ago
Then again, this late? Time moves like molasses, and on a cold night like this – molasses feels less like moving than I do.
She opens her eyes. “What about a motel? There must be one coming up soon.” Barely there, but a smile with a hook on the end. Baited, and I’m the catch. “Wasn’t there a HoJo’s or a Motel 8 on the way down?”
Sitting stopped at the intersection, as if waiting for traffic to pass. What traffic? I grip the steering wheel tightly. I’m angry and I don’t even know why. Maybe because we left Cambridge so late. Or because we hit rush hour traffic coming into Newport and missed the ceremony. Nothing’s gone according to my plan.
“Did we even bring a tent? Sleeping bags? What were we going to do? Sleep on the ground – in this weather? What the fuck were we thinking?”
She looks on at me, silent. I’ve seen her like this before, sitting zazen at the dharma center. Her hair’s curled up from the weather. She looks so small in the dark.
I didn’t have a plan. Just a telephone call. I work overnights, and she’d needed a place to sleep for a few nights while she worked out where to go. Something about fighting with her parents. Getting kicked out. Art school.
I’d lent her my bed while I was at work. In the morning, I’d come home, wake her with a gentle shake and wait outside my own room until she dressed. We’d talk Dzogchen and poetry for a few minutes. One morning, she sat next to me in a papasan and showed me her drawings. Then she’d go and I’d fall asleep on a pillowcase that remembered her.
A random telephone call. We’d played tag with text messages for a while but lost touch. But there she was, Amy, on the phone, asking if I wanted to go to a wedding. A cousin’s maybe? When?
Tonight – short notice. We’d have to leave almost immediately. I wondered – was she inviting me because I had a car?
I will my shoulders loose, watch my breath cloud my side window; I admit to myself what plans I’d made for the evening, why I agreed to go at the last moment. It wasn’t just because it was a crazy idea that sounded like an adventure.
My face, back to hers. She looks so beat, almost leaning on my shoulder. “Sure…” I say, “let’s try one more.”
She closes her eyes. I barely hear it over the crunch of tires grinding gravel into the edge of the pavement as our car mounts the highway. She thanks me. And she says a name that’s not yet mine. The name she’s given me. The name that makes me hers, at least for right now.
She calls me Mila.
“…they fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves,” I read to her from the pages of a book I’ve kept in every backpack, messenger bag, laptop case and piece of luggage I’ve owned since college. The words on the cover, faded and rubbed matte from years of following me around – Letters to a Young Poet – and a feather found on a hill overlooking my college town mark my page. Dog-ears compete with each other for attention.
“they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. And what can happen then?” I pause, look at her. She’s picking at a bugbite on her shoulder, her eyes absently following the lines between the floorboards. Her free hand rests on mine. “What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion?”
She’s a girl who speaks as if words are not a renewable resource; as if every syllable that left her mouth might never pass those lips again. And so every sentence of hers— either a question or declaration; she does not waffle in the field of undecided speech. She opens her mouth, closes it quickly, opens it again. There’s barely enough light for me to read these few words to her, but still I can see the flash of brown in her eyes.
“Why should we lose ourselves? ” she asks. “People get lost in fantasy. When they don’t pay attention.”
I’m paying attention. Sitting as comfortably cross-legged as I can on her thin sleeping pad. She’s to my left, sitting similarly, but she’s got the flexibility I don’t. She looks like she belongs in this meditation pose. My feet burn and my thigh muscles stretch to their limit.
I don’t have anything to add. She’s right. Right in that academic way of knowing, before her being grabs her unceremoniously and dashes her into rushing floodwaters of the untamed this. Or more accurately, right in the way of the knowing of someone who’s read the book, sat with concepts and caught a glimpse of something different, but who hasn’t yet met the awareness of watching herself helplessly as the tide of life carries her away from her fantasy. ‘I have no plan,’ she might say, ‘I go where the water takes me.’
I don’t look down on that. I’m not her superior because I’ve seen what she hasn’t. It comes to me like the knowing that at this moment she’s seeing what she hasn’t seen before. So I say nothing, and I glance back at the Campbell’s can on the windowsill. She catches me.
“Those were here when I came. I don’t smoke.” She motions her fingers in front of her lips absently as she says the word. It sounds like smoke itself, curling like little clouds outward from her lips. “I used to. I quit last year.”
I’m silent and still. The quiet in my mind is so loud. Where is the voice that casts judgment? Where is the voice that gives approval? My voice feels far away and shrouded in fog, but in this room everything is so clear: faded pastel flowers on the wallpaper. Scratches on the baseboard; a cat lived here. A little crack in the top of one of the windowpanes.
“That guy at the reception… he gave me a pretty full pack if you want one.” I close my eyes involuntarily at his mention. She explains: “He just stuffed them in my pack and wouldn’t let me give them back. I didn’t want them.”
A smile. My own this time. Nodding, no.
She brushes a few pieces of dust off the sleeping pad, and she curls her fingertips under my palm before looking up through half-closed eyes at me. Rests her head on my shoulder. An unplanned playful shove. Yes, I nod. It’s time.
And I lean over, slip my old book back into my bag and zip it up slowly.
It’s a bathroom. Ornate, in a corporate sort of way, with accents of marble or perhaps some other sort of marbled material. Brass fixtures here and there. Each stall has its own door and a frosted window. Still, a bathroom, with a clock above the sink that says it’s sometime after eleven. I’m occupied with scrubbing my hands under the faucet. A few glasses of champagne passing through me. And there’s a basket of goodies between the two sinks… pocket-sized breath spray, some sort of cheap cologne in sample bottles, hard candy, little bottles of Tylenol (store-brand replacement). And condoms. In packets that say “Best wishes from the bride & groom!”
Another man I don’t know and don’t care to know stumbles in and barely gets himself to the urinal. He pisses so loudly it drowns out the music from the reception hall. The sound changes pitch and timbre; I think he’s conducting some internal orchestra, his penis the baton.
I grab a breath spray and a condom. Time to go back to my wandering.
We’d missed the ceremony, and by the time we parked and all, the bride had danced with her father and the groom with his mother; we missed the horah, and the band had gone on extended sabbatical. These people were somebody’s friends and family, but not mine and barely – with a few exceptions – hers.
I wander for a bit, looking to see where she’s gone. I pass tables full of people raising glasses and laughing and for just a moment as I pass by, I wonder if they wonder who I am. I’m an interloper, a stranger among strangers, so many untethered from each other except by the bond of the bride and groom. And what I have – what do I have? Something unnamed with a girl who’s so much a stranger to me.
She’s talking to a girl with braces and a prom dress. And some guy alternately leaning toward her to touch her arm or her leg, and settling back in his chair to dispense some disinterested comment on what she’s wearing. “Brown’s not a really good color for a wedding, is it?” He laughs at his own insult and she looks at me.
“It’s a pretty dress, I think. She could’ve come in a slinky red miniskirt and stripper boots” I say to him. I don’t really know if she owns a miniskirt or stripper boots, but her cheeks warm and she sneaks a secret grin in my direction. He looks at me for a moment, sizing me up, perhaps, and turns his attention back to her.
“And how’d you manage to miss everything? I don’t know if I’d let you get away with being so late if we were on a date.”
Her fingers are picking at each other in her lap and she’s gently slouching into herself. She doesn’t connect with his eyes, but when he’s looking elsewhere, she lingers on his face. When he touches her, she leans into his hand; she curls more deeply into herself. “I don’t know,” she says, “we started driving on time, but we hit a lot of traffic.”
It’s a bit of a lie, but it doesn’t matter to me now. He says something to make her laugh, and then hits her with another light jab. The pattern continues. I’m drawing faces with my fingertips on the paper tablecloth.
They went to high school together. An ex, or a crush, perhaps. I dislike him. His sister in the prom dress and braces watches me as the two of them talk, making silly faces in my direction once in a while.
Time to go back to my wandering.
Outside, the wind blows in off the ocean, cold and tasting of salt. Dew on the grass seeps through the sutures in my shoes. Hundreds of mooring lights shimmer and bounce on the waves, and I wonder why I’m here. Couples, paired up, dot the lawn at standing cocktail tables and at the seawall. I said yes, I’d come. I drove around an hour to find a place only two miles from my house because of bad directions (and perhaps those confusing streets where east Cambridge meets Somerville). To go to a wedding full of people I didn’t know.
I had nothing better to do this evening. And why not a crazy little jaunt to the Rhode Island coast with a young art student and her curly hair and pale, freckled skin? Why not take a chance at an evening with a half-homeless girl who’d borrowed my bed a few times? We are Buddhists, after all, and these are our wide open spaces.
And yet I can feel my ass freezing, my mild alcohol buzz fading, and I shiver with every breeze. I feel like a character at one of Gatsby’s parties, standing off and alone in a corner of a vast lawn, watching everyone putting on a show for each other. I can’t shake the impression that I’m frozen in front of a moving painting; that between me and all of these people is a gauzy canvas slathered with thick globs of oil paint. My world – shrinking – and this world swallowing me up.
There’s a boom in the distance, over the bay, and I turn to see streamers of light cascading down the sky, the first salvo in a barrage of fireworks. It’s some celebration, or holiday; I wonder if they planned the wedding to coincide.
Still, each boom and associated splash of color and light across the ceiling of clouds and the blue dark floor of the bay shakes me from my thoughts. I forget where I am and where I am not. I fill the dark void that spans the gap between each flash of light – with myself. A breath, another breath, a boom and my breath catches, and another breath. No room to retreat into thinking.
And there are hands around my waist, a body pressing against my back. She’s behind me, her chin jutting into my shoulder – a tiny bit of welcomed discomfort. Four shells fragment the night sky with red and silver arcs, and she giggles and kisses my neck lightly in the moment of darkness before the next wave attacks the heavens.
She shivers against me- I slip around behind her, switching places, my hands now clasped around her small waist, bunching up this brown cotton fabric. I can feel her skin beneath, warm. A staccato series of blasts, dotting the sky like strobe lights. Boom, boom, boom, boom, and the skeletons of sailboats freeze between each flash. Faster and brighter, golds and purples, bright greens, magenta reds: they paint the sky. She shivers again, so small I can feel her heartbeat through her back, and she leans deeper into me. I smell shampoo and acrid rocket smoke. And the sky explodes in front of us, a thundering round of reports, cracks and thuds. The sky explodes and the afterimage remains in my eyes for hours.
I’ve stopped trying to figure out what time it might be. All I know is that it’s late and the night is retreating. I can feel every ridge and nail in the floor underneath our sleeping pad, and I can feel her shoulderblades poking into my chest, her hipbone pressing awkwardly against the underside of my arm where it rests on her thigh. Her legs, the tiniest hint of scratchy, curling back in front of mine, my knees resting behind hers. My other arm, the one folded up underneath my head – prickling as it falls asleep before I do. We’re an awkward pairing in an uncomfortable bed.
She turns her head toward the ceiling, toward me. Her hair brushes by and tickles my nose. She inhales and holds it for a moment.
She asks, “Did you get what you wanted tonight?”
She’s a bit too thin, bony everywhere. I shift for a tiny bit more comfort and now we’re pressed even more tightly together on this single sleeping pad. I tell her I don’t know.
“You don’t know… yet?”
I exhale. I can still feel her heartbeat. Her skin, where it touches mine, is cool and taut. “No. I just don’t know.”
It’s her turn not to say anything. We’re in underwear, our bodies huddled together. It feels as good as it does uncomfortable to be here in this place and in this position with her.
“There are things I thought I wanted,” I finally say, punctuated by a car-horn honking nearby. A carpool waiting for a passenger. “The sort of things you come up with in your head. The stories you invent before the story’s even begun.”
She nods at the air in front of her, and I continue. “The stories that get all twisted up when reality doesn’t match. The ones that keep you from being in the story that’s happening right around you.”
“But they got in the way,” I tell her. “And then… I don’t know if I was too tired, or if it was just too much work, but at some point tonight I just stopped following my story. And then, I was here, in this one.”
She nods again. Muscles in the back of her head move, slightly shifting her hair. I wonder, ponder if that’s a smile. And she says to me, “me too.”
But she doesn’t elaborate further, and our silence becomes simple.
There on a worn and too-thin sleeping pad, spooning together under a warm-weather sleeping bag in an unheated and empty apartment, she lifts my hand from her stomach. She slips it underneath her shirt. Her heart is beating slowly; her skin is cold and firm beneath my palm. I kiss the freckles on her shoulder. We shiver together, and while the world spins up around us, we finally come to rest.