Currently listening: “Everything” by Ben Howard
When Florence and her husband Asher had first moved into their house, Asher hung a hummingbird feeder from the roof overhang. Now Florence listened to the buzz of hummingbird wings as they sucked red from plastic white petals as false as the picture of calm in Florence’s backyard: Florence sipping Earl Grey, too warm in the muggy sunset air beneath the green cover of her porch swing. The air smelled of mold, unintentional leaf mulch collected in the gutters. The garden roses were withered with neglect. Florence stared into the open windows of her house, to the tweed couch inside. It was where she had first kissed Henry, his stubble so rough her chin was red after. Florence, transfixed by Henry’s lips, had hardly noticed her husband kissing Henry’s wife on the couch beside them. Now Florence took another sip of lukewarm tea and turned up the volume on the music drifting out of her phone. The hummingbirds fought.
The swing groaned under her husband’s weight as Asher eased beside her. He wiped wood stain from his shelf project onto his worn black jeans. In the distance, black clouds gathered. Far-off lightning flashed.
“Might be a bad storm.” Asher squeezed her shoulder. Florence glanced at the paint under his fingernails. The dirt from her garden under hers. An airplane skirted the edge of the remaining white clouds. She looked away from Asher to the plane as a pained crease formed between her eyebrows. “It’s been a six months now, almost to the day,” he said.
Florence leaned in, forcing him to readjust his arm around her shoulder. She knew what he wasn’t saying: when was she going to let Henry go? Stop listening to the sad songs they shared across so many million miles? Stop dreaming of him even in her waking hours?
“Is the weather service going to issue a warning?” Florence said.
“I’m surprised they haven’t already,” Asher said.
Inside, as though they had summoned reality, the weather radio blared. Asher unwrapped himself from her. She watched him appear and disappear through those windows as he walked from living room to bedroom and silenced the wail.
The plane disappeared in the clouds. Florence picked herself up and retreated inside, to the couch, where she sometimes imagined that Henry’s smell of lavender and vintage T-shirts lingered. She rested her head against the scratchy pillow. On the television, another privately-funded Mars launch in Florida, the rocket exhaling fire. Underneath that image, weather warnings scrolled: severe storm, severe storm, severe storm.
Currently listening: “Mecca” by Wild Beasts
They had bonded, the two married couples, over their old-fashioned names: Florence, Henry, Asher, Clara. They were fresh-faced recent 30-somethings with an interest in expanding their capacities for affection. Their desires were vague, the need for more with no discernible name. Henry and Clara had dated other people before; Florence and Asher were entering a whole new territory. The four of them marveled at how easy it had been, first to find such compatible friends in the sea of swipes on CouplesMatch, then to fall into easy group conversation, their hands sore in one week from all the texting, the sharing of stories and selfies and playlists.
For their first date, they met at a local dive bar and swallowed bitter beer. Henry sat silent across the table. Later he would tell Florence he’d been stunned by her, not the way she looked but the way she moved, her easy smile, the way she stared at him like he might be the most interesting person in the crowded room.
That night the dream of Mars had been distant, a joke brought on by Clara’s work talk. An avionics engineer, she had applied for a temporary assignment with one of the private companies vying to be the second and third to reach that hyper-foreign soil. One ambitious company needed quick thinkers to complete their final testing; Clara’s boss thought she had a great shot.
“I could never go to Mars,” Florence admitted. “I have flight anxiety. I get a panic attack any time I fly even an hour.”
“Well, chances are I won’t actually go there,” Clara said. “I’ll just be helping other people get there. And it’s astronomically”—here she winked at Asher across the table—“expensive to pay your way onboard.”
“I’d miss the soil,” Henry said, his voice near a whisper.
“I’d love to go. But I go where this woman goes, so looks like it’s earthbound for me.” Asher squeezed Florence’s knee.
“Lucky women, aren’t we?” Clara said. “To have such sweethearts for husbands?”
Asher had thrilled at Clara’s attention and, to his surprise, at the idea of his own wife with another man. When Asher and Florence returned home that evening, Asher invited her to sit astride him. “You can imagine I’m Henry,” he said, his hands moving up her dress. She shivered to think of two men, two affections, at once. “What if I were watching you with him right now?”
Their next date took place on Florence and Asher’s couch. Like teenagers, they sat close enough to absorb one another’s heat, to begin this first process of letting one another inside. Florence had muted The Martian: “I’d like to try kissing, if everyone is fine with it.”
Henry had moved quickly to second the notion. “Yes please.”
Florence put on music. On the stereo, a singer using his falsetto crowed about ended relationships. Florence and Henry moved against one another’s bodies, fear and desire seizing them by their throats. Henry’s huge hand, his long pianist fingers, dirt from his own garden beneath his otherwise manicured nails, splayed against Florence’s neck and collarbone. When she kissed him, she traveled elsewhere, a planet of their creation behind her eyes.
After an hour, the two couples broke apart. Asher, full of excited energy, buttered homemade toast for everyone, passed out plates and water. Clara took a bite of the bread. “This?” She pointed between Florence and Henry as they lay reeling in one another’s arms from kisses alone, their snacks, their waters untouched. “It’s not how these things usually go.”
“How do they normally go?” Florence asked. Henry had sucked the breath out of her, and she struggled to gain it back, struggled to keep the room from spinning around her, yet she’d been the only one who hadn’t taken a single sip of smoky mezcal.
“Normally, you set up a meeting time, a place, you drink, you fuck.” Clara dabbed at the crumbs on her lips and licked her finger. “You two? Walking around dazed just from talking to one another for a week? That’s something else.” Clara pursed her lips. “Are you and Asher ready for something like that?”
Florence and Asher hadn’t been ready for it; that night, after Florence found her old comfort in her husband’s mouth in their bed alone, Florence sweated through her long blue night dress.
“What are we doing?” she whispered to her husband. “Do you want to stop?”
Asher held her. “Only if you want to,” he said. “I like this. I like seeing you happy.”
“What if I fall in love with him?” she said.
“It’s not a finite resource,” Asher said. “We’ll manage.”
“I’m not sure I want to love someone else,” Florence said. “Maybe we should stop.”
But Florence knew that there was this, too: she had stepped over a threshold, the damage had already been done, and if she didn’t push into this new man, she would regret it for the rest of her life. Her body wanted as much from Henry as he could give, as much as Asher would let him give. She had already taken him in like a sacred city welcomes its worshippers.
Currently listening: “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez
Florence remembered the pain of heartache from her single years. This new love ached the way being broken had sometimes ached, until she could not sleep for the flutter in her chest, could not eat for the ghost in her gut. The way she had once ached, hand wrapped around her silent phone, lying on an empty wooden floor, while a sad song about failed love between deep-feeling people, a song about jewels and shed skin, spun around and around a record player.
There was this: she didn’t want to need anyone, and she was older now than she had been then in her aching youth, her heart less elastic. She was no longer able to pick herself up so easily from the floor. She would need her husband to help her up, to hold her, to come running when she called his name from the room where she would inevitably curl up crying. He promised her that: comfort when she needed it. She clung to his promise.
There was this: that whole first week after kissing Henry, as she cooked dinners on the days she and her husband had agreed would be hers for that dreaded chore, she chopped carrots thinking of Henry, a fire in her fingers. She imagined climbing the mountain of him like an explorer climbing the first mountains of Mars. On TV the first Mars colonists sent back photos of rugged terrains, of the gardens they struggled at planting in the unfamiliar environment. Florence had taken note of Henry’s hands at her neck, had imagined them buried in the dirt of the hot pepper plant whose photograph he’d showed her. She had imagined his fingers covered in her, the stickiness now ever-present between her legs.
There was this: sitting across from one another, even not touching, she had pulsed. Later he’d sucked the breath from her, but the truth of the matter was that his presence overwhelmed her throat without his hand there, without his mouth leaving love marks on her skin.
There was this: even as she ruminated over the choices she could make, she knew that she had already made hers. He was in her before they had even seen one another naked.
Currently listening: “Plain View” by Men I Trust
Three weeks of built-up pressure passed, full of heated messages in the early hours of morning, Florence’s underwear soaked from thoughts of skin to skin. She listened to the playlists Henry made for her over and over until she knew him by the lyrics that spoke to him. When they finally lay together, she leaned her chin against his shoulder and drummed her fingers over his hips. Writing songs for him in the rhythm of her touch. Their partners cuddled naked and quiet beside them, making their own language, different than the one Florence and Henry spoke. Henry’s language, Florence learned, was one that she had always thought was hers alone: nostalgia for a bittersweet past, calm from her garden soil, the memories of music.
She’d thought, when she walked down the aisle with Asher to an instrumental guitar variation on The Beatles’ “Two of Us,” that she would never fall in love again, never again experience the brain fog so heavy that she poured the recycling into the trash bin or forgot to eat. The aching chest, palpitations when she thought of him. The terrible and beautiful want for someone when they were even one room or one hour away.
She fell into that infatuated feeling again, and even knowing the scientific source—surges in dopamine, dips in serotonin—she succumbed like the dead to the underworld. She drank him in like alcohol on an empty stomach.
After the third time they fucked, the four of them, Florence set her phone upon Henry’s naked chest. She played a song for him, indie rock from the college years when they were both coming into their own. They breathed even heavier breaths listening to that song than they’d breathed only minutes before during all those beautiful releases, deaths they’d been too nervous to die the first and second times they fucked, now easier than air to exhale.
“These two,” Clara whispered, like they weren’t all in the same room, in the same bed. She curled into Asher, but the curve of her body against his wasn’t the same; it didn’t leave the memory of heat in their backs. When Henry left her, Florence felt rocket fire in the back of her belly.
Once Clara and Henry said goodbye for the night and Florence stood at the threshold of the door to the bathroom, waiting for her bathtub to fill, she pressed Asher for the story of his attraction: “Don’t you feel it too? Don’t you feel overwhelmed?”
“A little,” he said, rising from bed and moving toward her. “This is all so new. It’s exciting. But I’m not overwhelmed by her. It’s more this. You. How close I feel to you. Watching you open up. Seeing you giddy again.” He embraced her, and his heat spread through her, as Henry’s had done. Three heats in one body. Florence wondered if she would burn up before the whole experience was finished. Whatever that meant, finished, because before there had been two ways that these things ended—break-up, marriage—and now the rules were out the window. “This reminds me,” her husband said, “of our first years together, how into each other we were. I like being reminded.” He kissed her neck and down her shoulders until her breath quickened again.
But three weeks later, Clara received word that she’d been hired for the temporary assignment and summoned south to Houston, leaving Henry to an empty apartment and his own job as an elementary school music teacher. He would join his wife come summer, but for the last three months of the school year, he made a home for himself with Florence and Asher, an arrangement that grew like the most surprising of volunteer tomatoes.
Currently listening: “Oom Sha La La” by Haley Heynderickx
When Florence and Asher had first met, ten years before, plants had been their go-to topic of conversation on those reserved first dates, two college kids settling into themselves. “How’s your garden?” they would ask one another when the conversation threatened silence. They grew vegetables: tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeños, corn, spinach, lettuce, broccoli. When they moved in together, they built a garden together at each place they lived, until they bought a permanent place, added asparagus along the side fence, the kind of plant that took true commitment to foster. Asher stumbled onto other hobbies—woodworking, sketching, baking round loaves of sourdough—and this was a loss it took several years to grieve.
Florence had been a cultivator of nostalgia since she’d abandoned childhood too early. Remembering the dried-up creek where she used to play behind her parents’ house in summer left her with an emptiness in the pit of her stomach, but the nostalgia of sharing this hobby—reliving the past through a new lover, a new love—made her skin hum. Nothing lost was lost completely.
Because he would not be around in the summer, Henry didn’t want to start his own garden in his own yard. He lamented this to Florence one late night, the two of them up until six in the morning whispering as Asher snored beside them, spent. The three of them had tumbled naked together for two whole hours, Asher and Henry exploring Florence and each other in turn.
“Why don’t you garden with me instead?” Florence said to Henry. “I’ll can some stuff for you, save it for when you get back.”
It was decided: Henry came two mornings a week to work in Florence’s garden before going on to work. Florence worked from home, a freelance writer supported by Asher’s accounting income; she could push her schedule back as far as she desired, and she desired all the time that Henry could give.
Some nights, after work, Henry slept at their place. Between Henry and Asher, Florence burned with gratitude. There had never been a luckier woman. Asher stayed up late working on his breads, thankful that Henry could fulfill Florence’s want for a lover’s body beside her as she slept, and cooked Henry and Florence breakfast Sunday mornings: homemade breads stuffed with fruit and nuts and tight rolls of date paste. He beamed at Henry’s compliments. “It means more, coming from someone who doesn’t have to pretend to like my cooking,” Asher said, laughing.
Florence read them poetry as they lounged on that couch, wrapped in blankets no one needed. On less lazy mornings, Henry taught Asher how to read music while Florence watched or napped or wrote her own poems.
Jealousy. Desire. These were words over whose definitions Florence obsessed, her red dictionary open and heavy in her lap. But what was the word for wanting someone with all of your body and all of your mind simultaneously?
Love. She stared at that word, its less-than-satisfactory definition. Was it possible to love two people? What was the word for wanting it all: a husband, a boyfriend? Was it greedy to want so much?
She settled on love. And new love was ugly. Florence was sick to her stomach, tired from not sleeping, from all-nighters with Henry or, in his absence, from listening to his playlists until the sun crept over the horizon and through the slits at the bottom of her curtains. She let old fears grab hold of her: did Henry love her? Did he think of her when she wasn’t there? She longed and ached between her legs at all hours.
New love was also beautiful. To want to know someone from inside. To want to reach as far inside someone else as another human can. Fingers in the mouth, down the throat. His body inside her. They pushed themselves as close as they could push, alone and with Asher there watching, enjoying the thrill of seeing his wife satisfied from a new perspective. A tongue in the ear, Henry’s little moans, as surprising and joyous a discovery as the unearthing of a secret compartment in a beloved desk. They whispered in the aftermath of tender ravaging, and those words were a penetration, too.
Currently listening: “Pale White” by Yann Tiersen and Shannon Wright
The storm outside of Florence and Asher’s house howled like hunting wolves. Florence watched out the window as the sky went green, then black. Asher gathered his sneakers.
“They’re going to sound the sirens any minute,” he said. “Get your shoes on. Let’s go.”
Slowly she rose from the couch and slipped on her boots. When the sirens did sound, Florence and Asher rushed through the rain, lightning snapping in the sky above them, to the storm shelter. Asher pulled open the metal door. They descended the steep stairs into the cold. Florence fell into one of the fold-up chairs they kept down there. She pulled something out from beneath her: a pair of red underwear, hers, from that time at her birthday party where she’d led Henry out into the cold, down into the dank dark, and climbed on top of him. She’d pulled him through the single slit at the front of his underwear and moved against him, the cloth of his boxers rubbing her raw. When he moaned, his voice had echoed against the walls. Now she shivered. Her husband draped a jacket over her shoulders.
“Fucking tornado season,” he said, settling into the seat next to her. Overhead, hail battered the ground then stopped.
“Why did it stop?” Florence said, trembling. “What does that mean?” The terrible wind whipped across the cellar’s air vent. “Is it going to be okay?”
Asher moved his chair across from her and leaned over her lap. He cupped her cheek in his hand. “Hey,” he said. She cried into his hand. “We’re together. Everything is going to be fine.”
The sirens continued, muted by the concrete. There were storms on Mars. Henry wrote about them, when he wrote. She longed for these messages the way she had once longed for his hands, his mouth. At night she heard the sound of them arriving in her inbox and clawed her way from sleep to read them.
Once the sirens finally stopped and the battery-powered radio confirmed that the threat had ended, Florence pressed her mouth as hard as she could to Asher’s. She pushed open the cellar door and peered outside, into a landscape blurred by rain: her fence had fallen and covered the old gardens, trapping an opossum beneath the wood. Florence’s boots sunk into and slid against the dirt. Asher followed, ready to catch her if she fell. She knelt into the mud. She lifted the fence to reveal the animal’s twisted back legs, the blood coating its fur even in the remaining rain. It did not move.
Her husband lay his hand across her back. He was always comforting her. The creature was dead. Her heart hammered in her chest. She grabbed Asher’s other hand and kissed the pulse point at his wrist. She had wasted so much time. The opossum’s body twitched its final movement. She ran her lips along her husband’s arm, his raised hairs. His body was her home, never mind the wind-ruined yard.
Currently listening: “She” by Alice Phoebe Lou
Instead of one raised bed in the backyard of Florence and Asher’s first house, Florence had built three. Instead of one flower bed, she’d lined the whole fence. Instead of sticking with her administrative position at a local real estate company, Florence had spent over eight hours of each day writing, submitting, cultivating a creative life that might one day lead to her having few regrets.
When Clara returned from her Houston assignment with an announcement that she had seized her own ambition by its tail, Florence couldn’t fault her even if the news made her so sick to her stomach she excused herself to the bathroom where she dry-heaved over the toilet.
When she came back into her living room, Clara folded her hands and continued. “This planet isn’t mine,” she said. “You all know that it’s always been a dream to go. And they’ve asked me to! To help them design avionics for the surface vehicles.” Beside Clara on the couch, Henry rested his hand on her thigh. Florence sat cross-legged in the room’s single chair while Asher perched on its armrest. “The only bad news is that they won’t be shuttling me back and forth. Still too expensive. Likely to be too expensive for a good long while. Which means I’ll stay up there, permanently.”
“A one-way trip,” Florence said. “Are you ready for that?” She addressed Clara, but it was Henry whose expression she remained aware of from the corner of her eye.
“I don’t want to make Henry go if he doesn’t want to go,” she said. “But I’m going. I promised myself I would never give up on my dreams in favor of a man. He’s been cleared to go too, of course. They need artists, gardeners, teachers. He’s a good candidate in terms of having multiple skills. They’ll welcome him in the colony. He’ll prove an asset.”
“Maybe more there than I ever could here,” he said. He squeezed Clara’s thigh, let it go. “I want to.”
Clara placed her hand on top of her husband’s. “I’ve told him not to be hasty in making this decision. It’s a big ask, to leave family, friends.” She frowned. “You. I’m not going to pretend like your connection isn’t something special. Like it doesn’t mean a lot to him.”
“It means a lot.” Henry’s voice broke. He stopped.
Florence held up her hand. Any more words and she might break there in her chair. Any more and she might lose herself to this sudden vision of grief-to-come. Of course Henry would choose to go with his wife; Florence had never thought he’d do otherwise, had never wanted him to do otherwise. His love for his wife was one of the things she admired most about him. That he could love Florence too seemed a wonder as incomprehensible as the distance between planets.
Currently listening: “Doomed” by Moses Sumney
Florence no longer slept between her two men, a sudden loss that shot her nerves to pieces. She had been happy with one love. Now she could not sleep for the lack, the hollow. Florence and Henry moved backwards, the way Florence used to press the back arrow to listen again and again to the same sad songs. When they met tongue to tongue, Florence tried not to ache in advance of heartbreak, but after, in his arms, as she looked up at the yellowed ceiling she had not painted since she and Asher had moved in, she thought of nothing but what lay beyond that roof, beyond the sky she could see. 33.9 million miles, at least, from her.
He did not change his mind.
“I won’t ask her to give up everything she’s worked for,” he said when they broached the subject once again. They sat together on the couch; the fabric irritated her skin where her robe did not cover. “I don’t want to give up everything we’ve worked for, our life together. I love her more than this earth.”
“Clearly,” Florence said, burying deeper into the crook of Henry’s arm. “I get it. I do. That doesn’t mean it’s less painful.”
“They tell me I’ll be able to email,” he said. “I still want to share things with you. I’ll have so much gardening stuff to talk about. I still want to trade music.”
She nodded, because the thought of losing all of him would feel like the loss of a limb. “I’d like that.”
She hadn’t realized how quickly the preparations would progress. He quit his job. Henry and Clara sold off their belongings. Florence didn’t take the books or gardening supplies or stereo system he offered her; her house was already a graveyard of things his hands had touched. Her body, too.
Henry and Clara moved to New World, Inc.’s private facilities, leased from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. At first Henry and Florence promised one another regular visits—twice a month, at least—but once reality settled, they found that once a month or once every three months was more feasible. In their texts, Henry talked about the tests he’d been put through: psychological and physical both. He was pronounced fit and sent on a teamwork exercise into an unpopulated state park, where he and his fellow colonists worked to survive on the few supplies they were given.
“It was like a weird episode of a reality TV show,” he said when he got back and called her. “But like the most boring TV show ever. A bunch of married couples. Very domestic drama.”
“Did you tell stories around the campfire?” she said. “Did you play ‘Never Have I Ever?’”
He laughed. “I would have had to lie,” he said. “New World wants a wholesome family image. We’re going to build a new civilization, after all. Rich people are conservative.”
She knew what that meant: she couldn’t tell anyone about Henry, that she knew him, that she loved him, not even when his face appeared on the television during a series of interviews with the newest colonists. Hers was a lonely grief shared only with Asher, who hated to see her sad the same way he loved to see her happy. He kissed her when she missed Henry’s lips. He listened when she went over and over the beautiful things Henry had said to her. He absorbed some of her hurt. He left her alone when she needed to be left alone.
The training Henry had to complete was less intense than the training astronauts needed to complete: zero-gravity water tests, the vomit comet, tools to get them used to the feel of space travel. Henry fell into the idea of his new life as easily as he’d fallen into Florence; Florence had never experienced jealousy of a whole life before. It was too much to compete against, the universe itself.
Finally, their last weeks together arrived. They had planned a final meetup that never came, Henry’s schedule too packed with last-minute promo. Florence clung to a farewell that was less than ideal. Henry and Clara entered their quarantine. Florence tried to text, but every word felt hollow, like it was a cover-up for the words she really wanted to say: I don’t want to let you go. I’m not ready to lose you. In this moment I would trade anything to kiss you one more time.
Florence and Asher flew to Florida, to the space center with its acres of yucca and marsh, its alligators sunning in ponds and making their way through NASA’s automatic doors into the offices of surprised engineers. As they drove into the gravel parking lot of the huge grey building where the launch vehicles were housed, the one decorated with a flag whose stars spanned six feet across, Florence watched the white moths dance in the grasses.
They would say goodbye through glass, hands pressed with a layer between them, transparent but there nonetheless, as it had always been. They did not kiss the glass for fear of being known. Florence and Asher were not allowed to watch with the families inside but led to the public bleachers, where Florence not only saw the rockets blasting in the distance but felt Henry’s departure as an earthquake that shook her to her bones.
Currently listening: “Wild Is the Wind” by Nina Simone
Florence and Henry traded emails, garden stories, songs. Never memories, though, for the possibility that someone might read what they wrote.
Some days, sitting on her couch, Florence imagined the tiniest of knocks against her door. Sometimes she succumbed to the mind’s trick and peered through the peephole at an empty porch. Some days, when turning the corner to her house, she imagined Henry’s car dropping him off in front of her mailbox, imagined him opening the car door, stepping out. His lanky body forming a shadow across her front lawn.
Where he was now, his shadow would be fainter, like her memory of the way he sometimes looked at her like she might be the most interesting person on this world. Or his smell. She no longer remembered that. The touch. Had those pianist hands been soft or hard? Had he been so tall, or had that been a trick of the light? Was it possible to still love someone without memory of their physicality?
“I’m back,” he’d say, in her fantasy. “I’ve come back for you.”
He would feed her, the way she hadn’t been fed in two years, three years, her whole life. He would touch her. He would kiss her, and with his kiss, she would disappear with him not to a red planet but to a planet all their own: cold and dark but with a single light on a distant horizon they would walk forever to try to catch. Because there was no for you. There was no back.
Now, after the storm’s wreckage, Florence and Asher’s yard was a blank slate. The wind had even separated the leaves from the trees to which they clung.
Florence crouched in the backyard debris, the after-effects of the wild wind’s rage, and picked up a chunk of wood from a raised bed ripped from the ground. She dropped the ruin. She and Asher might work the soil again, might start that garden again. Or they might not. Florence looked over at Asher peering up at the gutters, and despite the cold front, warmth radiated out from her belly to her fingers. She walked to him and took his hand.
“It’s not worth looking over lost things now,” she said. “Let’s get out of the rain.”
He sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “It will still be like this tomorrow.”
“But not always,” she said. “I see nothing here that can’t be fixed.”
They walked from the wreckage and into the house they had shared, for a time, with other hearts, the house they intended to share with other loves in the future. Florence hoped none would tear her up as much as the one who lived now in a place she could never forget for its presence above her at all times. Still, she knew more pain might come her way. Asher would be there, though, to comfort her, his familiar shape the only permanent fixture in their whole upheaved yard.
(Editors’ Note: Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2019 Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam