By David E. Yee
When Sloane came to Baltimore, we saw that poetry reading with my friends—the reader all slumped into the microphone, his hand stuffed in a corduroy pocket, read that line I want to be the Michael Jordan of your W4 form. My friends and I got busy chewing it around, but she sped out a laugh, a cackle, singular, HA, and the room erupted around her. As the noise churned around me, I decided to get over my worry, to get over my preconceived notions on how this night might play out. Because there was something just so charming about her barbs: the way she talked like a valley girl but graduated with honors from NYU, the way she knew more about avant-garde French cinema and Korean pop than anyone should, how she resembled a mermaid with all the wavy walnut hair and hour glass torso, that pouty look that says, “Follow me under.” My friends and I were taking ourselves so seriously, worried about how our reactions might reflect on our lit journal, our adjunct jobs, and she heard the words—really just heard them. Her eyes refracted light from the yellow stage bulbs, and at the other end of them, I startled. So when we broke off and played Connect Four in that dingy little bar, and she asked if it was good to see her again, I meant it when I said, “I imagine this is how junkies feel when they’re hocking a microwave or their mom’s jewelry.”
Sloane said, “That’s so poignant. So romantic.”
Later, in the back of that cab heading downtown to see her friend’s band play, she put the knuckles of her spindly hand on my cheek—just put them there—as if she were taking my temperature. Each time the driver hit a pothole, the hips of our jeans rubbed. I knew she was still living with Mark, so I made like I was ignoring it. I hung out beside the stage, recognizing catchy songs the band had played a couple of years earlier, when Sloane and I first dated. I’d met her at a show like this—twangy guitars over a strict beat, the singer doing his best Julian Casablancas. I didn’t think when Sloane asked to crash on my couch that she meant she wanted me to sleep with her on it. As we came through the door, she said, “No sex or anything. Let’s, like, watch a movie and pass out.”
I told her my bed was more comfortable, but she dropped her bag against the coffee table and stretched her legs out on the chaise. She was a little tall for me in moments of nearness—when she tipped her head to my shoulder, it took us a while to get adjusted. With her hand on my navel, I asked, “What would Mark think?” And she didn’t say anything, not another word, before she fell asleep. An infomercial prattling on the TV, her chest raised against that threadbare crewneck—I realized, of all the nights we shared sleep, I was always the first to drift off. Used to wait for her to come back from the bathroom, spearmint toothpaste on her breath. If we’d been drinking, she’d crack the window and smoke in bed, ashing her cigarettes in a porcelain teacup on the nightstand. Our relationship survived only that winter. The naked air stole the heat from under her covers, and when I woke back then, I wondered how long she’d been up, whether she minded how I’d left her alone.
Next morning, over coffee and a crick in my neck, she downplayed the contact, told me it was just a habit she shouldn’t have let herself slip back into. Yet, when I was dropping her off for the train to DC so she could follow that band for the next night of their DMV tour, she begged me to come with her. I knew she had plans to meet up with Alby, whom she was still referring to as the man of her dreams. He, the grown up, late thirties, goth Superman, straight-fucking-edge, horror movie connoisseur, and me, the guy she once referred to as halfway between her high school boyfriend and the man she will one day marry.
“No. God no,” I said. “Where would I even sleep?”
“We’ll find you a place. Worst case: Alby’s sofa.”
I leaned over the edge of the platform, checking for the train.
“Olivia will be there,” Sloane said. “She looks like she could be my older sister.”
“You wouldn’t want to fuck my older sister?”
I rolled my eyes because I didn’t want to be so cheap anymore. I wanted to do things that I couldn’t drink myself away from, that I wouldn’t just laugh off later. No longer that guy who would sleep with your sister, your best friend, the guy who chewed straight through your story of unrequited love into the bed sheets of the girl you pined for. I was tired of losing friends, of disregarding my nights. I was finally over flings. I got on the train only because she said, in her exasperated way, “Who am I going to hang out with before the show? Keep me company. At least until then.”
We got off the Metro in Columbia Heights, started drinking at two. We stopped at bars that she used to frequent before moving to New York, a little story for each one: This is where I met Dan, that DJ kid. He spit in my mouth once. I used to hang out with Felix, here. You remember him? He was the one who kept trying to get me to move back to LA. I found out he was sleeping with Tina the whole time we dated. This was me and Thad’s spot. I know you know Thad.
I said, “We broke up because you had a thing for Thad.”
“Broke up? We weren’t dating.”
I made that hand puppet of a bird’s mouth, opening and closing. It was the distance, she’d argued—that we couldn’t function being an hour apart. She said I should’ve moved to DC, to her, and I replied that I thought we weren’t dating. She got all quiet then, and we agreed to slow down. We’d drank our way to dinner and were in rough shape, and I was looking at the scuffed brass knob at the end of the bar, wondering what I was shielding from these stories, the details that out of anyone else’s mouth would have been funny and not off-putting. I said, “What makes you think I want to know any of this?”
“I like these sorts of things. Ex-sex-tapestries. I know you have some.”
And I did. But there was no humor in fleshing them out, not with her. I kept picturing the late-night texts Thad sent while we were laying in bed, the calls that interrupted our dinners, growing the roots for the fight that Sloane and I had right before I spent a weekend in the bed of a mutual friend. We didn’t hang out for two years, had only started texting again last month. A block from the venue, she wrapped her index finger around the bell of my wrist, brought my hand around her waist.
The walls of the club were black, the stage, black, the bar, black. I paid five dollars for a Budweiser and the band played the same set. We stood in a group of Sloane’s friends, and she kept looking toward the door to see when Alby would arrive, talked about him with everyone but me. Her friends were an attractive collection of the DC lifestyle I’d come to know—days of high-stress jobs following late night excess-driven relief. There was a party at Olivia’s after, and she said Alby got delayed, was going to meet her there. It was late, about eleven, and I set an alarm for midnight so that I wouldn’t miss the last train back north to Baltimore. She kept saying, “Just stay, just stay,” and then stared at her phone, texting him with her left hand, rocks glass dangling in her right. When her friends congested at the exit of the club, Sloane held her hand out, expecting mine.
When we arrived, the party had been waning, but the group of us brought it back to life, cracking beers and rolling up the volume on the stereo. Olivia taught English at a private high school and did look quite like Sloane, but older, handsomely weathered, her brown hair dull in the curls and her smile lines pointing fingers toward her eyes. In another life, if I’d met her first, I would have pursued her—that itch in the pit of my stomach to know her better—but I could tell a mutual friend, Jonah, liked her, and I didn’t want to be that guy anymore, to be an intruder. And Olivia joked that Jonah and I looked alike as well—ambiguously Asian, raw denim, flannel shirts. She made a joke that the four of us were some sort of Murakami universe mirror paradigm. It was a pleasant surprise, her bringing up Murakami, and we talked about Wind-up Birds and Sputnik Sweethearts, until Olivia nudged me, dropped her voice, said, “You see those two guys over there? Don’t look. Okay now, look now.”
I half-turned, half-turned back. She said a couple months ago, they had a really awkward threesome with her roommate. Before I could picture it, before I could ask what an awkward threesome entailed, Sloane turned to us, made a triangle out of our grouping and said, “Phil really wants a threesome. He says it’s the last box he needs to fill in sex-fantasy-bingo.” Something I’d told her years ago in confidence. Something I no longer cared about.
Olivia laughed. “Last box, huh?”
Sloane slid her phone from her pocket, shot me a look, left me to wade in the pause. I was never one for blushing, but Olivia just bopped to the music, said, “Have you ever noticed how some authors find a way to work anal sex into a narrative? For absolutely no reason.”
“Like Murakami.” I inflected.
“Who else? Maybe Lawrence?”
She squinted, considering this, said, “It’s like they’re inviting you to mine what you want from it. Which is lazy, right? Acting like there’s some special meaning to be deciphered.”
I could be instinctively contrary when drinking, got a lot of pleasure out of playful arguing. Asked her what she would think if it wasn’t symbolism—why does everything have to be twinned, a conduit or reflection? What if it was just the act, what if that was the point. She shrugged, said that meaning is worth, right? It’s what cleaves a melody from all the noise. You put two things together, and it might just stay those two things—completely forgettable—but sometimes that nearness creates, chemically, something near unsayable. Like harmony but not that simple. Those were the things worth discussing, worth clutching.
It wasn’t a new idea to me, but hearing it spring from her mouth grabbed me by the ankles, set me stiff and sobered. They told me to lean in and stoke the conversation, but before I could, Sloane came back, a little loose on her kitten heels but graceful in her stupor, almost a dancer, except for the handful of errant hairs pulled and powdered through the foundation on her cheeks, now darkened and stained by a swell of tears. She sucked air in through hiccups, took Olivia’s hand and headed for the bedroom. I followed the scraps of choked words that came bubbling over her hysteria.
Olivia held Sloane’s hand as she crumbled to the floor at the foot of the bed, one heel popping off in the movement. I leaned on the doorframe, adjusted the fold of my cuff. From what I deciphered in their clumsy and cyclical conversation, Alby had thought Sloane was going to wait at the venue so they could walk over together—didn’t want to make the trek alone—and Sloane was upset that he was now going to a dance party that his friend was hosting instead.
“He was so nasty to me,” she said. The mascara running down her cheeks reminded me of the cave paintings I’d seen in a coffee table book. She splayed her legs to her sides in a V and Olivia sat on the foot of the bed, unknotting her hair. “He kept calling me fucking stupid.”
Olivia told Sloane not to deal with it, just ignore him for a while, but Sloane said she had basically come on this trip to see him, said, “Why is he so nasty?” The cycle repeated, Olivia reiterating in different words, and Sloane defending, bemoaned at the idea that she might not see him tonight, and eventually, my legs got tired, and I wanted to feel closer, so I sat down between Sloane’s feet while she admitted she might love him. Her jaw buckled around the word.
I said, “You shouldn’t be so caught up.”
Olivia gave a nod. Jonah peeked his head in the doorway, saw the tears brimming in Sloane’s eyes and ducked out.
Sloane said, “God, I must look like a child.”
The alarm on my phone went off. Someone changed the music in the living room from Missy Elliott to Smashing Pumpkins, shouted “Throwback!” I brushed threads of carpet from my jeans. The alarm on my phone sounded, and Sloane told me to stay but I didn’t want to console her, didn’t want to be there for her like that, to have to wait for everyone to stop drinking so I could fall asleep on the couch. Olivia offered her roommate’s bed, said she wasn’t coming back tonight. That look of Sloane’s, the widening of the eyes, the neediness—and I wanted to be needed—so I sat down again, but she didn’t reward me with a smile.
Olivia gathered Sloane’s curls behind her shoulders. She said, “No need to waste the night,” then touched my scalp with her palm as she passed into the body of the apartment. Even if I left now, I wouldn’t make the last train. I sipped my beer, watched Sloane pick the mint nail polish off the back of her thumb, asked her why she was still with Mark. She slipped her other heel off and closed the V of her legs so that the bulbs of her ankles touched the hems of my jeans. She pulled the wet label off her beer and crumpled it up in her palm. “You know how I am. I want a hundred different things, depending on the day.”
We’d gone drink for drink all night. She surrendered the bottom of her beer to me, and I called her a loser. When I bent the neck of the bottle to my lips, she nudged me over with her foot. Half of me was adrift alongside her, the other wanted to be where she landed. I stood and offered her my hand, and she said, “My phone’s dead, anyway.”
In the living room, a handful of people were scattered around the coffee table and Jonah led them in a singing of Tonight, Tonight. We smoked cigarettes with Olivia by the window, one per song. Sloane looked through the panes, eyes searching the street. I conjoined my shoulder to hers, did my whiniest Billy Corgan impression—howling, “Despite of my rage,” snarling, “You know I’m not dead,” even took a few laughs from her. Later, Jonah passed out on the sofa, and Olivia told Sloane they could split her bed.
The other bedroom was a glorified closet off the kitchen, an alcove with a sliding pantry door barely big enough for its twin bed and dresser topped with a box fan. I folded my button down beside it, placed my cellphone and keys and wallet underneath. I went to the bathroom to take a piss and when I came back, Sloane stood in the doorway, her heels dangling from her fingers. She said, “Let’s go to bed.”
From the kitchen, I could see Jonah’s feet on the armrest—one shoe on, one shoe off. Sloane sat down by the pillows, pulled off her sweater and undid her jeans, then lay on her back where the twin bed met the wall. If I listened carefully, I could hear my lungs bellowing, not pleading but suggesting, telling me Sleep on the floor. Sleep on the chair. Sleep anywhere. But the beer in my stomach was loud, too, and I wanted the warmth of flesh to my flesh, I wanted to put an arm over her. I wanted. And I took off my socks and balled them in my oxfords and lay down beside her. Though someone had rolled down the volume, the Smashing Pumpkins playlist repeated.
We were on top of the covers. I faced the ceiling, one arm behind my head, listening to my heart beat against my inner ear—from elbow to shoulder, the only parts of us touching. The apartment was loud, but consistently so, and I turned on my side toward her, placed my arm across her belly and started to nod off. And then Tonight, Tonight was playing again, and her breath in my mouth woke me, the cold tip of her nose touching the divot in my upper lip. I could taste the sourness of the beer she’d drank that night, could smell her face wash, and with no pretense of being asleep, we pressed our lips together. We hadn’t had sex in years, but sliding down the bed so our faces met, skinning her shirt over all that hair, inhaling the crevice between her collarbones was remembering. I put my fingers along the curves of her ribs, and after a time she turned and pulled her hair beneath her so that the nape of her neck was on my mouth. My right arm was trapped. I grazed her navel with my knuckles, and she wiggled her jeans passed the crest of her hips. When I strummed the elastic of her underwear, she said, “We shouldn’t.”
Billy Corgan was telling us that God is empty and she took my left hand by the wrist, guiding it. I recalled how to touch her like one suddenly knows a secret handshake with an old friend. We moved together, swaying, shifting, and slowly her jeans drew down as she rubbed her calves together, clutching my belt loop, clutching me to her, and then we were trading some inner sentiments for that mutual difficulty. Or maybe I was lying to myself, maybe it was easy. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but the wrongness of it was satiating—that hunger teased up and fed. She pulled me from her before either of us finished and held me, wet and flagging.
When I woke in the morning, we were laying spine to spine, my knees dangling over the floor and hers wedged to the wall. Sunlight underlined the bottom of the folding door. I put my shoulder blades to the mattress and she took my wrist in her hand. My jeans were still undone.
I said, “I feel like trash.”
“Yeah. This hangover is going to be great.”
Jonah was shoeless, and in the room past the couch, Olivia, too, hadn’t stirred. There was a slowness to it—them asleep together, separated by the wall—their attraction unfulfilled yet somehow still breathing, and I was envious of their patience, their satisfaction. I only knew how to be eager. Sloane walked me to coffee, then to the Metro. She said, “We should just pretend that didn’t happen.”
I adjusted the cup in my hand.
“Or like, I don’t know. Post-date it. Let’s act like it happened sometime before.”
I said, “It doesn’t work like that.”
She dug through her purse for her birth control, freed it, swallowed. A chill hung in the morning air. The row houses crept closer to the road with each block toward the station. Then we were at a cross street and the tenements gave way to businesses. For a time, we were alone. The elbows of my shirtsleeves were slick, the knees of my jeans loose. She shouldered her bag. “That’s how it has to be.”
As we approached the corner, I stepped around a light post onto the curb. She walked along the glass of a storefront. A pharmacy, then a McDonalds, then an H&R Block. Her heels scuffed the cement with each step, and I had to lengthen my gait to keep up.
“So it didn’t mean anything?”
“Of course it did. But Phil,” she dragged a finger along the window, “it didn’t happen.”
The repetition of the words annoyed me. I let some coffee settle under my tongue, jutting my jaw. We came to the escalator that descended beneath the street to the Metro station. Told her I’d just talk to her later. We embraced and she pressed an arm around me. I let her go and turned. She said my name again, squeezed my ribs, brought me to her, and I felt limp in her grasp, waiting for her hands to fall away. She said, “Be good to yourself,” then stood at the mouth of the station as I descended on the escalator. While I put money on my fare card, I pictured how long she stayed there, whether she turned when I was out of view, or if she needed something to happen, some interruption to signal the end of the moment.
On the train, the rails underneath the car did not pass with a clack but hummed electronically into my ear as I rested my head against the metal wall. I brought my feet closer, rubbing the soles of my shoes against the carpet. The rubber cushion crunched under the weight of my hips. Yet I could feel no depth to me. The train stopped and a few passengers got on, a few off. And maybe I could well something up in me again. Maybe I could get some of it back, some meaning, if I abandoned even a little bit of my want. The train whirred in my ear and moved through a tunnel, dimming the car, then emerged in a ravine between two boroughs heading north. If I could learn to wait, to learn to move slow, and if not slow, then not at all—maybe I could change into something gathered and cultivated, organized even, constructed and sturdy, capable of withholding some toppling, some mess. The fluorescent lights flickered and sustained. I whispered a wish to be more than fevered flesh, more than cold sweat, a history of shivers, of covers pulled, the culmination of friction, and listened, waited, swayed to the shifting in the line. I have learned how to move. Teach me to be still.
DAVID YEE is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, AGNI Online, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, Juked, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University, where he was associate editor of The Journal. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.