Where You Linger

(Content note for sexual assault.)

We all make mistakes. As I sit on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by the journals I kept in high school and in my twenties, and fill out the doctor’s form, I tally mistakes in the corner of the paper. Before marriage, before Dover’s and my quiet nights trading words and sharing thoughts between binged television episodes, relationships were tumultuous. My tallies reflect this. Particularly the final tally, the one that got me into this mess to begin with. The doctor didn’t ask me for a tally, just brief descriptions of all sexual encounters, mistakes or not, to jog my memory along with the age in which I experienced them. But I need to prove to myself that the dissolution of my marriage wasn’t unique, that it hadn’t been a surprise. I should have seen it coming.

NOTES ON SEVERAL PIECES OF PARTLY-CRUMPLED PAPER, CRINKLED WITH COFFEE STAINS

 

#1 (Age 16)

Anne, the first woman I made love to, tasted like sunlight and sweat. We kissed behind a half-open door at the house where she lived with her father and stepmother. Afterward we went for Chinese food. We were together, off-and-on, for two years. We lied and cheated and searched through one another’s texts. We cooked each other Foreman grill chicken and pasta with four types of cheese. We raised one another in homes where we otherwise went unnoticed.

 

#2 (Age 18)

I lost my virginity twice. First, with the woman of sunlight and a Superman tattoo across her back. Second, with Mario, a Czech cigarette smoker, a college boy, a smooth talker who asked me to be his girlfriend after knowing me for one day.

We fucked in hotel rooms. We ate Whataburger after. We smoked weed from a pipe that looked like a metal cigarette and performed rainy picnics in the park. The sex was a beautiful pain. He told me I would leave him for a woman. I left him for Anne; she no longer tasted like sunlight when she begged me to come back.

“I slept with my ex too,” he said when I told him. “I don’t even care.”

 

#3 (Age 18)

I wasn’t done with men’s beautiful pain. The third person I slept with, Daniel, was a latent schizophrenic with hippie hair and a wallet stuffed with acid hits. Lucifer in the sky with diamonds, dancing half-naked in the front yard of a friend’s house while his parents were on vacation.

He said he wanted to take it slow. I waited a week to ask for what I wanted; for me a week was slow. Not for him. After we broke up, we argued about timing during his late-night surprise appearances at my door. He told me I’d get pregnant before the year was out. He called for five years after I stopped answering. On my 23rd birthday, I changed my number.

 

#4 (Age 18)

It wasn’t good. I squeezed my eyes shut. It wasn’t good.

 

#5 (Age 18)

We both had boyfriends when we first met in that final raging year of high school. Natalie gave me a massage on a crowded downtown street. Once we were both in college, she called again. I went to her without a thought. We sat in her apartment, as far across the couch from one another as possible, but when I got up to leave, she shoved me against the door and kissed me harder than I’d ever been kissed.

I kneaded her soft thighs in her cozy bed. She rescued me from a bad drunk in the company of my Dungeons & Dragons friends. I puked in her stripper shoes. We drank mimosas in my dorm. She only called me when she got lonely.

 

#6 (Age 18)

I remember Christopher crisp as a Facebook photo: red curls, a single mole on his neck, an affinity for exclamation. I met him at a National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws meeting, which I attended in the hopes of finding a new dealer. The redhead didn’t deal but kept a six-foot bong on his mantle.

He quoted scenes from Catch-22, pillow talk with a prostitute. I watched him play football games on his Wii. We played beer pong with his friends. Once I puked in his sink: spaghetti with mushrooms and peppermint ice cream. Every time he asked me over, I went. Then he stopped asking.

 

#7 (Age 19)

So I fucked his friend Simon over a game of strip poker. “Pretty good for a dude, huh?” he said. It wasn’t.

 

#8 (Age 19)

Simon’s friend Oliver was better, a sweet blond who wrote bad poetry and lived in a private dorm next to Anne’s college apartment. I visited him after Anne. I visited Anne after him, soaking wet from rain. The cookie taste of him still lingered on my lips when I slipped my tongue between her legs.

“What do you want?” the blond asked.

I didn’t lie. “I want Anne to leave her girlfriend and come back to me.”

“Then we have no business being together.”

 

#9 (Age 19)

But Anne didn’t love me anymore. I sweated out her sunlight in the dark of my room in the house I shared with two roommates, a dozen fevers moving through me with no further explanations. When I was well again, I befriended Anne and her girlfriend, Cathryn, and Anne’s roommate, Dana, who was fucking Cathryn too.

I didn’t tell Anne that I drove each weekend to swallow bitter pills and fuck a blue-haired candy kid, Xander, king of the club. His last name remains unknown. We had nightly phone sex. I drove an hour to be in his bed every now and again and stayed as long as it took to finish. He knew nothing about me. It was easier to delete his number when Anne came calling, came crying. She had found out about Cathryn and Dana.

We moved Anne out of her apartment and into the home I shared. She wrote “I love you” in paint on my desk. We didn’t make it official.

 

#10 (Age 19)

At least that was my excuse when I met the most beautiful woman I’ve ever loved, cherry cheeks and gruff throat and the cutest drunk smile I’ve ever seen. Meredith and I kissed for the first time in a dance club against the red brick of a pillar.

It was time to leave the sunshine behind, but we always hold on to first love longer than we should.

Too drunk, we wound up on a bare mattress in an empty room in the house I now shared with Anne. We woke to Anne screaming in the door. I didn’t remember a thing.

After a long night of fighting, I pledged myself to Anne. I tried to be friends with those cherry cheeks, tried to keep her around, but Meredith left my house one night and said she wouldn’t come back.

I cut ties with Anne the next day in a brief tearless goodbye. I loved Meredith even when she told me she was moving up north. We didn’t last that long. Even before she moved, her clothes smelled like Anne’s ex-girlfriend Cathryn, my first enemy, my only enemy. When Meredith begged me back, I stood my ground.

 

#11 (Age 19)

Nothing counts on Halloween. Especially not a woman you forget before you even know her.

 

#12 (Age 19) & #13 (Age 19)

Once upon a time I loved a woman who smelled like sunshine. Later she loved a woman with long hair and a dark past who would become an enemy and a friend; isn’t there a word for that? They lived with Dana, the daughter of a pastor. Dana and Cathryn, they were made for each other, or at least for that part of their lives.

I had taken a lover when I had a lover, first with Daniel, then with Meredith. Did I deserve full-circle? Cathryn was so full of mystery no one could resist her, Meredith least of all. I didn’t want Cathryn. I was the only one. But Dana was a beauty in her dark apartment where I rode my bike as soon as she heard about our girlfriends’ liaisons in party bathrooms.

“It’s okay,” I said to Dana.

“Fucking bitch,” she said.

We ate burgers and went our separate ways. One night later Dana and Cathryn were back together. Meredith and I stayed apart. I fucked Dana and Cathryn both instead, in a room with no curtains on the windows. Pushed and pulled between the woman I wanted and the woman I hated, I didn’t belong.

 

#14 (Age 19)

Jeremiah was covered in tattoos. When he asked me to dinner, I never went, but I showed up at his apartment late at night to smoke weed and get naked. He left the TV on all the time and I heard Charlie Sheen’s crazy laugh as I fucked him. Too much noise is still too much noise and when I left, I never came back.

Meredith moved to Colorado and I cried a lot.

 

#15 (Age 20)

Here is where I tried again. Here is where I walked with a man eight years my senior who didn’t know what he wanted and wanted what he didn’t know. Michael and I played board games on his carpet. I wanted him all the time and he couldn’t give that much of himself. I was in a hurry, wanted to move too fast, wanted to get the hard parts out of the way, wanted to experience it all then and there and he drank too much anyway.

 

#16 (Age 20)

It was Grayson I wanted, a boy who left hickeys all over my neck. A friend of a best friend. A bowl cut, like the Beatles.

When I got too drunk, I asked Grayson to walk me back. I stumbled under a tree and he caught me, kissed me. We snuck into my house.

“Your bed’s full of books,” he said. I pushed them off. I’d been sleeping alone for weeks.

“You and your girls,” he said.

“Boys too,” I said. I kissed him again.

I don’t remember the rest. I blacked out. He left before sunrise. The next day I heard nothing from him. At a friend’s place a week later, he called his new girlfriend by my name.

His friend Eliot looked nothing like him. He kissed me on the couch in the room where Grayson sat with his new girlfriend. He drove me to his place without asking if that was where I wanted to go.

When we finished he jumped on his computer and played video games as though I wasn’t there.

 

#17 (Age 20)

I waited because they told me I should wait. The violinist was hard to get. Her name was Dover.

“Like the cliffs?” I said when she introduced herself in the middle of my roommate’s party.

“Got any weed?” she said.

She was sitting in my house like she belonged there, cross-legged in my dining table chair with her ponytail and her bright red leather pants.

“No,” I said. “What kind of guest doesn’t bring their own weed?”

But when she asked my roommate for my number, I relented.

The first time we made love we were in a lake at a state park, past the time we were supposed to be in the water. She commented each night on the moon and its changes. She offered up everything I never wanted to lose.

I loved her with everything I had to lose.

When I lost her, ten years after we took our vows, I lost everything I loved.

 

#18 (Age 35)

There are a million excuses I could give. Fifteen years of monogamy pass, and you start to itch for the excitement of a stranger’s hands, for the unraveling of a mystery, peeling back their words to reveal what’s really underneath. You feel unwanted, after years of being looked at with the gentler gaze of long-term lust. You feel the need to return to that younger self.

You’re a worthless piece of shit. You’re everything you never wanted to be.

IN THE OFFICE OF THE DOCTOR WITH NO DEGREES ON THE WALLS

“That’s everyone?” the doctor asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s a lot, isn’t it?”

“Do you feel like it’s a lot?”

“Oh, come on. It’s a lot.”

“Huh.” The doctor taps her pen against her clipboard. “Then it must be a lot.”

“Honestly? You think so?”

“Honestly, Ms. Moore?”

I nod.

“I’ve seen more.”

I shift in my seat, cross and uncross my legs, wipe my palms on my thighs.

“That’s everyone, you said? Are you very sure?”

“Yes. I kept good records.”

“That’s everyone you experienced penetration with in any of its forms? That’s a finger in the vagina, the anus. A finger in the mouth. A penis in the mouth. A tongue in the vagina. You want as many as possible.”

Fuck. Blowjobs. Blowjobs probably counted. I hadn’t recorded all of those encounters in my journals, not as meticulously.

“That’s all of them,” I say.

She studies my notes. “The good news is you didn’t leave a lot of time between them. That’s good. Fewer gaps means smaller steps.” She scribbles something on her form. “You remember how this works?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me. Say it back to me. I want to be sure.”

“The memories are a map, right? I follow memory to memory. Each one is like a stepping stone.”

“Yes, that’s fairly accurate. Are you certain you got everyone? As I said, you want as many stones as possible so that you do not fall through.”

“What happens if I fail?”

“You must start again.”

“That’s all? I won’t die or get lost or go into a coma or something?”

“You start over. This means we start from the beginning. Your fee covers one attempt. If you can pay again, we can go again. But I suspect you cannot pay again.”

I think of my bank account, that red number. I pulled it all to come here. I sold off Dover’s violin.

“You assume correctly,” I say.

She hands me the clipboard. “Is there anyone you want to add?”

I add three oral-only encounters. She takes the clipboard back. It’s not everyone, but it’s as close as I can get.

“Much better,” she says.

The machine looks like an MRI, but it closes over my head like a coffin. It whirs around me, strange lights flashing in my eyes until I squeeze them shut.

“Don’t,” the doctor says over the speaker. “You need to follow the light with your eyes.”

I follow it back-and-forth, back-and-forth.

“It’s not working,” I say.

“Wait for it.”

I wait. “I don’t feel anything,” I say.

“Wait—”

And then, yes, there it is: that smell of sunlight in my nostrils. The graze of my nose on skin so pale it’s as though it’s never seen the sun. We’re in Anne’s sloppy bed at her parents’ house, behind a closed door that her stepmother will later scold us for closing.

She is thrashing underneath me, but I know from the future that she’s faking it.

I faked it too, sometimes. I grip her skin and remember why I loved her. But also why I stopped. Even this first time, there is a lie beneath the surface. So many lies. So much work to pry them apart. An onion that’s rotting underneath.

Afterward we lay in one another’s arms and giggle and kiss all the empty spaces.

“It won’t always be like this,” I say.

We fall asleep, young and exhausted and covered in a smell I’m smelling for the first time. I think, this is enough. And it is, enough. No more, no less. Nice to be loved again. But not the reason I’m here.

The doctor told me how to jump. I could stay for the whole of a relationship, reliving each and every memory, until my time with that person was finished, until our body-to-body contact had been extinguished. Until the day and hour and minute of our last time. Then, I would no longer have a choice. I would be moved to the next whether I wanted it or not. It is possible, she said, to get lost somewhere you did not intend to stay. Be wary where you linger. The memory is a clever trap.

I jump from Anne to #2, that sharp pain between my legs. I lean my head back against my pillow, arch my back, do everything I’m supposed to do. I don’t feel the explosive tremor through my body. I don’t fake it, not yet jaded enough to pretend at satisfaction.

“Look, we’re fucking,” Mario says, enamored and amazed.

“No shit,” I say.

Then I’m onto #3 with his clumsy drunk fingers. It’s nice to see Daniel half-sane again. It’s also painful, to see a ghost I finished mourning over two decades ago.

It’s disorienting, jumping from place to place like this.

I land at #4. But this time it’s different. I’m in a dark room in a foreign house, a place I long ago blocked out of my memory. I’m standing at the foot of a bed while another version of me pushes at the body in bed with her.

“I’m so tired,” she says to the half-stranger, the man I have tried to forget.

I intended to jump immediately on from this one, to leave this room so quickly my eyes wouldn’t even have time to adjust. But this isn’t what the others have been like. I’m frozen by the sight of this other me.

I don’t think about the fact that these are just memories, that the me in the bed is in no danger because it isn’t real. I scramble up onto the bed and push the guy out of the way, pull my own body out of the blankets and then out of the room, down the hallway, onto his freshly manicured lawn.

He doesn’t follow us. He’s too drunk, almost as bad off as we are. It’s no excuse, but it’s the truth.

“Who are you?” the other me slurs.

“I’m here to help you. You have to get the fuck away from that guy.”

“He wouldn’t listen to me,” she says.

“You should leave,” I say.

“I’m too drunk to drive. My keys are in the house still.” The other me rummages through her pockets and comes up empty-handed. I look for my car until I find it in the driveway, my old black sports car, beautiful and sleek and a piece of shit even then.

“Wait here,” I say.

I sneak inside, back into his room. The asshole’s passed out, mouth open, splayed across the bed. I grab my keys off the floor. I grab my favorite necklace from where it was slung across the room. I draw a cock on the back of his neck where he might not notice it for a good long while. It’s the best quick revenge I can think of.

“I’ll drive you,” I say to myself. Already I feel myself slipping, feel the ground falling out from underneath me. When we get to the car, the ground is translucent underneath me. “Fuck,” I say. I reach out and grab hold of myself. “Don’t let go,” I say.

And as fast as a sunrise when you’re not expecting it, we’re at #5, both versions of me, entwined with Natalie in a mess of limbs and tongues.

“You’re so hot,” Natalie moans. “You’re both so fucking hot.”

I untangle myself and struggle from the bed. The other me moves to-and-fro, too drunk to realize her deer-in-headlights expression is still pasted over her face. Natalie kisses her across her shoulders, across her neck, across the bridge of her nose and cheeks.

Natalie laughs, then falls away. “I needed that,” she says. “I really did. You Pisces sure know how to make a girl come.” She closes her eyes. “I’m glad you came over,” she whispers as she drifts off to sleep.

I remember: we could never stay awake when we were together. Even the other me is falling into her own sleep, as unworried about her new location as I ever was in that time. I pull her from the bed and shake her awake.

“You have to stick with it,” I say, leading her through the bedroom door into Natalie’s living room, the floor strewn with astrology books and tarot cards. She had read my cards before we went to the bed; they were full of swords and cups, difficulties and loves.

“Where are we?” the other me says.

“We’re safe here. She’s wild but kind.” I eye my camera sitting on her coffee table. I think about picking it up but I’m already fucking with the memory enough so I leave it be, knowing I’ll never see it again. “Just maybe don’t leave your stuff here.”

“I’m so tired.” The other me clings to my shirt. “I can barely stand up. Can we go to sleep, please?”

I’m tired, too, so tired I can’t make sense of the situation. I know I need to figure out what to do with the other me: what happens if I leave her in this memory? What happens if I keep taking her with me? Already, like faded scars, what remains of that night with #4 is falling away. The doctor did warn me, though I was too desperate to listen, that moving through memories might change them irrevocably. But what really occurred, in your past, she said, that stays the same.

This place is safer than most. Natalie won’t mind if we sleep over. She won’t wake in the night and demand anything of us. In the morning we’ll go out for crepes.

“You can sleep in there if you like,” I say. “The bed is nice and comfortable. I’ll take the couch.”

“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you.”

She shuts the door behind her. I make sure the front is locked. I pick up some of Natalie’s things and stretch across the couch as best as I’m able. She has no extra blankets, so I pull a discarded coat over my body. So I don’t forget, I repeat the violinist’s name again and again: Dover, Dover, Dover, until the lullaby of it pulls me under.

I returned to my memories because I cannot live in my realities. People give many different reasons for going through with the procedure—to cure PTSD, to see a dead loved one a final time, because they think they can change things even though the doctors tell them they cannot—but they all boil down the same, don’t they? They cannot live in their reality.

I at least was honest about this. The doctor appreciated my honesty, I think. She didn’t ask for much more than I put down on her paper. She didn’t try to talk me out of it, which I’d heard of some doctors doing for patients without referrals.

I’m going to ride this all the way to the end. I am going to be in Dover’s arms again. Because there was something in me then that she loved more than anything in the world. I need that back if I’m ever going to get her to talk to me again.

It’s been three months since she last answered my calls. Three months is a long time to be without someone. Three months is too long to cling to old love.

Logically, I know this. But I dreamt about her every night. I remembered her every day.

To be bound to nostalgia, that’s an illness deserving of a name, in need of a cure.

In the morning, my other self shakes me awake. I stare into her face, at her smooth skin free from sun spots, her unstained teeth. She doesn’t look like she had a rough night. Sure, I had saved her from the worst of it, but shouldn’t the very closeness to tragedy induce a fear of the world? Like the times I nearly but didn’t wreck my car?

But yes, the time I did wreck it proved more difficult to forget.

“Morning, chip off the chipper block,” I say. My back screams as I sit up. “Where’s our lady friend?”

“She went to get pancakes,” she says. “I like her a lot.”

“Yeah,” I say. “We did think we might be able to love her for a time, didn’t we?”

“Can I ask you something?” she says, sitting at the foot of the couch only inches from my feet. “What are we doing here? What is this?” She runs her hands up and down her bare legs. “I don’t feel right here. But also I love it here.”

I fold myself into the couch. “I do, too,” I say. “Which means I should go. I need to go.”

“So soon?” she says. “We just got here.”

“We have somewhere else to be.”

“Can we eat first?” She clutches her stomach. “I’m starving.”

“You’re not coming with me.” I untuck myself and slip on my shoes.

“Of course I am! Where else would I go?”

“Stay here.” My leather jacket, the one the memory me left on Natalie’s floor, makes my skin itch beneath it. “You’ll be happy here, for a while. Then you’ll move along. And along again. And again and again.” I grab up my old phone and check through the contacts, looking for the next in line. He isn’t there yet. No matter. I don’t need to call before moving to the first time we fucked; I’ll already be there. I grin. He was good in bed, the redhead.

“I don’t want that,” she says. “I’m too tired for that. Can I come with you instead?”

Well, fuck. I can’t leave myself where she doesn’t want to be. She’ll like the redhead. I’m sure she’ll want to stay with him the way I always wanted to stay with him. After he stopped talking to me, I was sure my heart was broken, sure I’d had my first brush with near-loving a man.

“Come on then,” I say. “Grab a snack bar from the kitchen.” I watch the door. “If she comes back, we’re never getting out of here alive.”

Natalie was always aggressive with her goodbyes: those hard, knee-numbing kisses against the cold wall a memory I used to call up when fucking long-term partners, remembering the excitement of being wanted with such authority.

We disappear as the door’s handle rattles. The noise becomes the knock of my head against the wood of a dresser, Christopher pushing into me from above. I grip his pink skin and moan. He doesn’t notice that my head’s hitting his dresser, softly but audibly, and this, too, is a turn-on: sex so rough it hurts. I’ll walk the next morning on throbbing legs.

The other me, this time, is sitting at Christopher’s computer desk. She’s clicking through his music. My timelines, somehow, are crossing; this is what I would do after sex sometimes. The redhead introduced me to Bob Dylan, to the Band, to a hundred other all-male bands. He was never concerned with feminism; his house was woman-free except for me. I got a pass because I talked about women with the worst of them. Because I won games of beer pong too. Because I didn’t ask to change the channel from football. (Though I should have; I hated football even then.)

“I’ve never heard of any of this music,” she says. I think she’s talking to me, but I can’t be bothered about music right now.

“Hush,” I say from beneath him. “You have no idea how much I missed this.”

After he’s come, he holds me and tickles me and kisses my neck until my skin is so sensitive I beg him to stop.

“You’ve never heard of Bob Dylan?” he says to the me at the computer. “What have you been doing with your life?”

He puts on an album: The Freewheelin’.

“Play ‘Don’t Think Twice,’” I say with a hint of malice, though in all seriousness it’s the only one of Dylan’s songs that ever meant something deeper to me. I remember the redhead burning the CD for me, putting it on as I drove away from his house one morning. How beautiful was Dylan’s pain! Then, later, it became the album I put on to commune with the ghost of Christopher’s lost affection. I took a Bob Dylan class my second semester at college. Turns out he was a terrible sexist.

“This is beautiful,” she says to Christopher. He beams and kisses the top of her head, like she’s his fucking sister.

“This is Dylan!” Such excitement. I forgot how much of a fan he was, how much he loved the things he loved, how far I always was from being one of those things.

But when he crawls back in bed with me, I stick my hand in his red curls and smell the sweet toxic weed smell of his oversized sweater.

“He’s cute,” she says. “What happens with him?”

“We both want the same thing,” I say, “But he talks me into wanting something more. And then decides against it.”

He nuzzles his head in my lap. “Who are you talking to?” he says. “You’re missing the best parts of the album.”

“I’m talking to myself,” I say, and both versions of myself laugh at the terrible joke.

We stick around with the redhead for another fuck. After that we drive back to my dorm room. When I pulled her out of her timeline, she had just moved in, and I wanted her to see the mess living alone became in a brief time. I’d written the address to a party on the wall in red paint. I’d been painting cartoons on canvas, love stories I was trying to make sense of: me as a mermaid, Pisces in literalization, with the Virgo sunlight-first-love pulling me from the water, saving me from drowning. A giant Alice holding on to the stem of a mushroom with a candy cane.

“Drugs?” she says. “We promised we would never do drugs.”

“Weed is a drug, believe it or not,” I say. “If you remember correctly, we also said we would never do dudes.”

“That’s fair.” She picks up my copy of Moby Dick. “You’re still not done with this?”

“I’m done,” I say. “I’m twenty years older than you. If I can say I accomplished anything in life, it’s that I read Moby Dick.”

The other me slides into my desk chair. “Twenty years?”

“Resist the temptation to ask me questions,” I say.

“Why are you doing this?” she asks. “Are you going to leave me behind eventually?”

I kneel at her feet. “I’ll pick a good one for you,” I say. “But Dover is mine. I want her to myself. You’ll understand once you get to her. It’s better than first love. Better than flimsy fucks. Better than the guy in the fancy ass private dorm.”

“Private dorm?” She wrinkles her nose.

“Remember that. Treasure him. Oh, and Meredith. Treasure both of them. You’ll remember them vividly for the rest of your life.”

She plugs her ears with her fingers. “No more,” she says. “I trust you. If you have to leave me, leave me with private dorm dude or Meredith. But no spoilers!”

“No spoilers, no questions,” I say. We shake on it.

When we arrive at #7, the other me bursts out laughing.

“What is this room?” she says. On one wall he’s hung a giant poster of a woman straddling a massive nugget of weed. “Fucking stoner dudes.”

“It’s good for a guy, isn’t it?” Simon says, that infamous line.

The other me rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. “Now this is a poor decision. That other stuff? Small potatoes.”

“Shut up,” I say, pushing him away and moving from bed.

“You made fun of me,” she says. “It’s only fair.”

“I made fun of both of us. This is every bit your decision as it is mine.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. The others I got. This one? We’re not even attracted to him. This one is a sad fuck plain and simple. I don’t like sad fucks.”

“You think I do?”

“I think you can’t help it. It’s not always about joy for you.”

“Jesus,” I say. “When did you become so insightful?”

“I have the added advantage,” she says, “of meeting the me I don’t want to be.”

Simon massages my shoulders with clammy hands. “I can’t believe I fucked a gay chick,” he said.

“An entry for your journal,” I say.

“Don’t talk like that to him,” she says, sliding down beside him. “He likes you, and that’s the only thing he’s guilty of.”

I turn and kiss him, to be nice. “You were good,” I say, “for a guy.”

“At least you were truthful with him,” she says of #8, Oliver the poet. “That’s the best I can say about that shit show. I’ve never met a needier guy.”

“They’re needier than we thought they’d be, men,” I say. “It takes some getting used to.”

At #9, Xander, myself and I forget him and dance until we’re so sweaty we look like sea monsters freshly risen from the ocean. We stand in the bathroom mirror and watch the sweat drip to the floor.

Though I let her have Xander when the night is through.

“This one is fun,” I said. “No muss, no fuss.”

She spots his blue hair in the crowd. “That’s him?” She laughs. “Is he wearing makeup?”

“He always saves the last dance for you. Every club night. Go get it.”

I wait in his living room with the rolling kids, their pupils black saucers swallowing the skies of their eyes. They pass me a tab. I pop it and lean back into the couch. Might as well go with the times. We pass a joint as the lights go blurry, and they talk about the blue-haired boy.

“He saved my life,” says a teenage girl. I remember this happening; I was there, with her in the kitchen. She thought she’d had too many pills. He gave her water and food and calmed her down. I like helping people, he said when she was better again, the revelation lighting him up like a fucking Christmas tree of cliché.

But damn was he hot with his plastic bracelets up and down his arms. I liked to imagine him in class, raising his hand, the bracelets falling together down his arm.

When she comes out of the room, she’s white as a Mud Flap. And I remember.

“Oh, shit,” I say.

She goes red in the face. “That’s the worst possible thing you could have said right now.”

I laugh, because I can’t help it. Other me isn’t me, exactly; somehow, pulling her away from #2 in his seedy bedroom with his seedy insistent hands changed her. I don’t know if I like her more or less than me; she’s not as bold but she laughs easier, as though she’s merely revealing what was always there. When I laughed, at this point in my life—which I did so often I was known for it in my circle of friends—it was to let the mania hide the depression.

“Admit it,” I say. “You kind of liked it.”

“Well I agreed to it, didn’t I?” She pulls at my arm, and her touch sends shivers, that old familiar drug jolt. “Let’s go, please. Xander’s sweet, but I don’t think I can bear to see him again after that.”

“Wise girl,” I say, ruffling her hair.

She shrinks away. “I am so not your child,” she says, then stops in her tracks. “Wait, do we have—”

“That’s for me to know,” I say, “and for you to find out.”

Meredith pushes us up against the wall of the club and kisses us hard on the mouth. She tastes and smells like whiskey. She doesn’t know that we have a girlfriend sleeping back at home; the other me doesn’t know either.

We kiss her back, our breath leaving our body like whispers.

Out in the parking lot, I unlatch my bike from the post after mucking around with my combination. We walk the bike the mile back to the house we rent with two roommates: a boy we went to high school with and another best friend soon to be gone from our life.

In our bedroom we come upon the sleeping girlfriend. The other me shoots me a look; it’s Anne.

“What is she doing here?” she whispers.

I bend to watch her chest rise and fall. “We don’t love her anymore,” I say.

“Well, what is she doing in our bed then? Why did we kiss that girl? Why don’t we love her?” She sits on the edge of the bed. Anne doesn’t stir. We have an unspoken arrangement, Anne and me. We are in a holding pattern, scared to move too far away from what we’ve always known. We won’t say girlfriend but we will cuddle every night between the hours of two AM and ten AM. In the morning, her best friend and subsequent platonic life partner will knock on our door, let himself in. They will breakfast in my kitchen: eggs and sausage and almonds. They will ride their bike into the sun and will not stop riding until their legs are so sore they can barely stand. She has sores from her bike seat. She has come a long way from when I first knew her, and I have come a different way, and there is no meeting place on our path except for in those brief eight hours when we sleep.

“This is no way to love,” I say to myself. “We’re too different now.”

“Yeah,” the other me says, “but it’s nice to have someone to share your bed with every night. Someone who cares about you.”

“We’re happier without her,” I say. “Remember the good stuff, sure, but don’t forget that there’s a reason we broke up in the first place.”

“I remember. I was there the first time around.” She reaches up to touch a necklace that isn’t there. She will still miss him, Daniel, in a way that is not strictly platonic, strictly the grief of losing a long-time friend to a black hole of illness. She will not have changed her number yet. He will call her for years, will make her wish she could close herself up. I forgot, but I saved her from all that too. When he slipped his necklace around our neck: “I never want to see anyone hurt you.” But his was the greatest hurt of all, unintentional. I still startle when I think I see him in a crowd.

“There were other reasons we broke up,” I say. “Daniel was a conven-ient excuse.”

We wake Anne. She holds us both. “You said you loved me,” I whisper so low she can’t hear. “But it was all gone at this point, wasn’t it?”

She kisses me on all four cheeks. “Go to sleep,” she says. “It’s too late for talking.”

I press my fingers to my lips where I can still feel a buzz from Meredith’s kiss.

“Enjoy this part,” I say to the other me. “That girl we saw tonight? She’s going to change our world. She’s going to be our friend for a long time. We’ll stay for the duration of this one, I think. I could use a little waking up.”

Relived memories pass like the regular kind: hazy and over too fast. Here we are having a breakfast of granola with our very first love. Anne. Here, at a friend’s party where Meredith, the cutest girl we’ve ever met, offers us greens on every bowl.

“I’m sort of seeing someone,” I say.

“Me too,” Meredith says. “Some dude. He lives here too.”

Meredith and I don’t kiss again until that night, too drunk to think straight, when she follows me home from a party. I remember walking. I remember telling myself to let her sleep on the mattress in the other room. I don’t remember grabbing her by the hand and pulling her toward the empty bedroom. I don’t have to remember it this time, because I’m here again. I don’t drink as much but I make the same choice. The other me stands helpless on the other side of the room.

Again? she mouths at me. She tries to tug me back, whispers, we’re not a cheater.

But how does the saying go? Once and always.

Meredith pulls my tights half-off and buries herself between my legs and it’s been so damn long since I felt anything fresh for anyone—sweat goes stale after too long on the body, and sunshine dims each evening—that I grip my hair tight in my hands and pull as hard as I can, a punishment for love, for the fuck-up of fucking another woman while Anne sleeps soundly in the bedroom we’ve shared since her new girlfriend Cathryn and her roommate Dana started fucking. I’m repeating a cycle she can’t escape from. It’s inevitable that we will end and begin like this again and again. I need to cut the cycle open, like a goddamn bedbug cuts its mate.

I’m supposed to fall asleep here. I pretend. Meredith stops, says my name. Shakes me a little. Huffs. Then she kisses me on the mouth, on the cheek. She brings my arm down over her shoulders and curls into me.

“So fucking cute,” she says. “I’m in some fucking trouble with you.”

This time, in the morning, I’m standing with Anne as she screams at me. My sister and her husband are there to pick up some things from the garage.

“Drama drama drama,” my sister says.

“We didn’t do anything,” I say. “I passed out drunk.”

“Why are you lying?” the other me says, leaning down to gather my underwear from the floor where I must have kicked them off. Meredith is on her way out the door.

“It’s the script,” I say. “It’s what I’m supposed to say.”

She shrugs. “What difference does it make if it’s verbatim?”

“Yeah fucking right,” says Anne. She leaves the house in a huff, skids out of the driveway in a haze of upturned gravel.

That night, I tell my friends I don’t remember a thing. “You had sex,” they say. “Meredith told us.”

“Shit.” I’m driving. I grip the steering wheel. “I’m such an asshole.”

“You already knew that,” the other me says.

At home, Anne waits for me. We’re supposed to go to a party together, our first party in years. She’s realized that we’re not long for our love. She’s begun to give me mementos from our past, to remind me that I was once hers and hers alone.

“Nothing happened?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Apparently, something did happen. I’m sorry. I don’t remember a thing. I must have blacked out.”

We talk over things, the word girlfriend, what it means to share a bed with someone, whether the world will end at the next scheduled apocalypse. We agree to try this thing officially. The other me rolls her eyes.

“You said this part was fun,” she says.

“It’s beautiful,” I say. “Everyone makes so many beautiful mistakes.”

But each morning Anne leaves. She returns each night. She finds a new place. We move her in. Meredith hangs on by a thread. Sometimes, when we’re all together, Meredith gets misty-eyed and abandons ship, texts me something sweet once she’s gone.

I can’t, I text back. I show the texts to Anne.

The other me throws her hands out. “This is already a shit show,” she says. But she’s starting to like Meredith. Sometimes they take shots of whiskey together and flirt on the couch.

Meredith, myself, and I stake trash bags to the grass outside, wet them down. We slip and slide. Anne watches from the sidelines, teases us all about acting like children. She mocks us when we drink too much. She doesn’t like to dance.

Meredith storms out one night, but this time when she texts it’s I won’t see you anymore. I don’t text her back. I know that she is serious. She doesn’t say things without meaning them.

“This isn’t working,” I say to Anne.

“It’s her, isn’t it?” Anne says.

“Yes and no. We keep trying but it’s just not there. You’re not here. I’m not here.”

“We’re at different places,” she says.

“This is absolutely the right decision,” the other me says. “Third time’s not quite the charm.”

Anne pushes her. “I like her,” she says. “She’s not as worn as you. Is that because she hasn’t fucked as many dudes?”

I purse my lips to keep from snarking back. Anne’s hurt. Even as we say goodbye, I’m itching for Meredith’s soft lips, for that leer that means I’m in for it. For those vulnerable nights when Meredith tells me, back turned, about depression. How it’s a thin word that will break if you push it too hard.

I call Meredith as soon as Anne leaves.

“I’m moving to Colorado in November,” Meredith whispers one night. That means we have four months, and it makes it sweeter, that end-date staring at us from the future. Meredith holds both of me. We imagine the day she’ll go. We feel comfortable with permanence as long as it’s temporary. We imagine ourselves kissing her as she loads herself into her car, our face wet and our voices strained at goodbye. We write a poem and call it “November.”

A month into our relationship, I pull Meredith into the kitchen and tell her that I love her because I know she wants to hear it and I can’t stop thinking about her. She flirts with other people and I don’t care because they’re just words and looks and it doesn’t impede what we have. She accuses me at every turn of loving other people.

But it’s her and her only. It’s her because she pulled me from a dangerous loop.

Then it’s still one month until our scheduled end, her move to Colorado, and I catch her with Cathryn. Meredith admits to it straightaway as we stand in the rain outside my house, hoodies up. The other me stands beside me. I tell Meredith to go.

“I mean, look at how you got together,” the other me says as we watch Meredith walk away down the sidewalk of our backyard.

“It’s not her leaving that gets to me,” I say.

“Then what is it?”

I shrug. “I’m hurt,” I say, “but it’s because she ruined what would have been a beautiful ending. She’s just a confused girl. She’s so young.”

“Not much younger than you.”

I shake my head. “No, she is,” I say. “She’ll grow up. But right now she’s young and scared, and I wouldn’t have known how to help her. It’s good that she’s going. I only wish she would have taken a different route.”

But down my back yard there is only one sidewalk. She pauses at the fence and looks back at me, her hoodie obscuring her red cheeks.

“Did we really love her?” The other me presses her hands against her chest, as though to warm her heart. “I can’t tell.”

“It’s hard,” I say. “I still don’t know.”

I grab hold of the other me’s hand. There’s only one path, and we’ve already traveled it.

Next thing, we’re in a garage apartment on Halloween. Across from us sits a butch woman in a Chick Magnet costume. We kiss her. We fade. Short and sweet.

“This next thing,” I say to the other me, “is something you may not understand.”

We’re in a room lit by the orange string of lights strung around its ceiling. Anne’s old roommate, Dana, stands naked at the foot of the mattress on the floor. She slaps a ruler against her open palm: Do you measure up? the ruler reads.

“Kiss her,” Dana says, motioning to Cathryn, Anne’s ex, the woman Meredith fucked. I kiss Cathryn. The other me furrows her eyebrow, pulls me away. Cathryn kisses Dana, the timid woman turned dominatrix-lite while I follow myself into the bathroom.

“What the fuck is this?” the other me says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s revenge. It’s everything coming full circle.”

“It’s ugly,” she says. “It’s wrong.”

“No, there’s something beautiful in this,” I say. “It’s not immediate on the surface, but it’s a method of forgiveness.”

“Maybe sex shouldn’t be a vessel for forgiveness.”

“Sex can be whatever it needs to be. Sex can be whatever you want it to be. Sex can be nothing, even, if you play it right.”

I jerk away from myself. “You can’t judge things when you haven’t seen the whole story. You’ll see. You’ll know eventually. Sex isn’t about love all the time every time.”

She lets go and crosses her arms. “Shouldn’t it be?” she says, and I can’t tell if she’s telling or asking.

I shrug. “We’re not exactly the same people,” I say. “I can’t answer that for you.”

“Is this fun for you?” she says.

I think back, to the first time, the second time, the third time I slept with these two. A mess of memories. I thought, for a moment, I might find a routine with them both. But then the painful truth crept in: I wanted to forge my own path. If monogamy wasn’t for me, I wanted to find that on my own terms.

I never once thought monogamy wasn’t for me with Dover.

The truth of those threesomes with Cathryn and Dana: I wanted Dana, the woman who had never fucked me over, who had never slept with two of my exes, but in order to have sex with her, I had to have sex with Cathryn too. They were a matched pair even if Cathryn cheated on her. I was acutely aware that Cathryn was both superior and inferior to me simultaneously. That women chose to be with me in the light and her in the dark. That women got from her what they couldn’t get from me.

“It’s not particularly fun,” I say to myself. “But you never know if you don’t try.”

One thing I was always proud of: I knew what I really needed, and maybe I tried to need something different, maybe I tried many things, but I was always honest, in the end, with myself.

“I guess,” she says. “I’m so tired. Doesn’t this get tiring?”

She’s still the relationship one. The one who wants a promise before the naked glimpse.

I remember not-sleeping. I remember crying until my cheeks burned. I remember lying on my wood floor and playing the same song over and over. Heartbreak is terrible and wonderful and numbing, and I missed it when I was stable.

“It’s hard,” I say.

“Then why not stop?”

“Because it’s all hard. Not just this. Everything. Being alive,” I say. “It’s hard, but it’s what you know and so you go with it. Go with it.”

“I’ll go with it,” she says. “If it seems like something worth going with.”

I peek out the door. She’s right; I didn’t enjoy this night, or the night after, or the night after. I wanted complicated and I got complicated.

I grab her hand. “You’re right,” I say.

My muscles ache. My mind’s numb, not just my body.

“I need a break,” I say. “This is the part where I need to be by myself.”

“Let’s do that then,” she says. “Let’s be by ourselves.”

We spend the week we would have been with Cathryn and Dana writing, reading. We don’t go to class; what’s the point, when we’ll only have to leave again and forget all we learned about Physical Anthropology and Statistics. We spend evenings with friends who will later move away.

One night I buy a gram of weed and place it into a metal tin. FOR DOVER, I write on it. FROM YOUR SECRET ADMIRER. We drive by her house and leave it on her doorstep. She might think it’s creepy. She’ll probably think it’s a prank being played by her friends. But she’ll smoke it nonetheless.

I try to see her through the front window, but there’s no one home.

At home I show the other me her picture on Facebook. “This is it,” I say. “This is her. Maybe you can do it different, when you get there. Maybe you can keep from fucking it up.”

She tries to smile. “If I’m you,” she says, “doesn’t that mean we’ll make the same mistakes?”

This is where I said I would leave her. But I don’t want to let her go. I stay a little longer.

We go to the astronomy center for their monthly star party. We lay on a blanket and name the constellations. She remembers many that I can no longer name. I know only a few she hasn’t yet learned.

“What do we do, in the future?” she asks.

“It’s a surprise,” I say. I can’t tell her about the numerous shitty desk jobs, the two years of cleaning houses, writing essays on the side, in stolen hours, losing friends to make time, trimming the fat to make time. No more painting. No more running. Until we catch a break: one book deal, then two, then a third. Dover’s celebratory dances. Then the stress. Then the disappointment that success did not fill the void. Then a man who came along and made me feel desired again. Then the need for a wreckage that would move the rock blocking me from more, from new ideas. A stalemate of a house. Another advance, this one enough to pay for the procedure but no more than the one trip through.

At the end of our week, myself and I are watching a movie on my old beat-up couch, and I get a phone call from a guy who was in one of my classes, someone I used to buy weed from and flirt with when there wasn’t anyone else in the picture. The tattooed misfit. Jeremiah asks me over. I look over at the woman who is both me and not-me. She won’t like this one: no-emotions, hardly even a kiss between us.

I try to hold on, but I feel us slipping into his apartment. And if we don’t, if I let us keep ourselves from going there, we won’t get to our final destination.

Because I don’t want to shield her from the ugliness that is sex with the wrong people—because I want to instill in her that regrets will not ruin us—I keep us there long enough that she can see our mistake, long enough that she can look him in his face, then go. Go again. Go again. Go again. Jeremiah and Michael and Grayson and Eliot.

“What are you doing?” she asks. “Who are these people?”

“They’re the low before the high,” I say.

When we wake up in Eliot’s strange bed, our memories wiped by too much booze, I look over at my own wounded and confused face.

Eliot drives us home. He jokes about herpes.

“This guy’s a real asshole,” the other me says.

I sit with her on our couch. “He is,” I say. “But Dover is next.”

“As long as you know.” She crosses her arms. “I don’t trust your taste at all. What if I don’t like Dover?”

I shrug. “You won’t,” I say, “at first.” I grab her hand. “Are you ready?”

She looks so scared and so rundown that I hardly recognize her. I think of the past few years: years of rundown and scared, scared of everything. How Dover must have seen that in me day after day and still loved me. How Dover loved me even after I fucked someone else. How she insisted we stay together, work it out. How I couldn’t look at her anymore. How it was me who walked out the door and made her realize that she could live without me.

“Let’s go,” I say, and then we’re off. We’re in Dover’s bedroom. We’re kissing. As innocent as fools. Dover’s lips are beautiful and terrible, a reminder I wanted nothing more than to have. Her glasses hit mine and her violinist hands tangle themselves in my hair and she is a different person. I am a different person. The other me watches, her hand at her chest. I imagine the other me is stricken with a feeling like remembering something you never knew.

I push my finger against Dover’s lips. She gives me a goofy grin. It doesn’t suit her, too drunken, her weed-eyes half-closed.

Dover doesn’t love me yet. I don’t love her yet. When we first meet someone, we cannot love them. As we remain in one another’s company, we absorb pieces of the other: a party trick. Only once we are part of this other person, only once they are part us, can we love them. Narcissism at its best. It will take us six months to amalgamate.

I look over at the other me. I step out of the bed. Dover’s room is a mess of dirt and dirty clothes: failed gardening experiments and the slovenliness that comes from college living. She’s cute like a child is cute. So is the other me. I miss the Dover who loved me, the one who stood by me through disappointment, the one I held when she needed it. But that Dover isn’t mine to kiss anymore. I’ve spent a long time trying to get back someone who isn’t here. I wrap my arms around my other self. Her heart hammers.

“Don’t leave,” she says. But I let go and jump before she can stop me.

“No thanks,” I say to the next man, unwrapping myself from him. I’m alone, the other me still in that world-before-the-fall. “I’ve got to get home.” I climb out of his bed. I fall into the dark. This time it catches me.

The doctor waits with me until I wake. She hands me a box of juice and a cracker. It has been less than six hours since I went in. She checks her watch as I drag the juice box straw across my lips.

“Was it worth it?” she asks as I sit up in her chair. She hands me the paperwork to take to the front desk, sign. There’s no price on it, as though numbers don’t exist, as though to trick me into forgetting what I’ve done until I emerge from the fog. There will be a number later: delivered to my mailbox.

“Is it ever?” I say.

I walk home, too drowsy to drive. I pick up my phone and dial Dover’s number. Her voicemail picks up, as it always does when I call these days.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want anything from you,” I say. “I want you to hear this and come running back. But I’m not going to ask it. I’ll do what you requested. I’ll leave you alone now. I only needed to say, because I don’t think I ever did, not really, not without bending it in the hopes that it would pull you back. I’m sorry I cheated on you. That mistake was on me. I hope you’re happy where you are. I hope you’re safe. I hope you can forget the good parts enough to move on. I hope—”

The voicemail cuts me off. I stand in the desolate street and stare at the bright screen.

Press 2 to start over, the phone says.

I press 2. I hang up. I walk home.

(Editors’ Note: Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

 

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 50 publications such as Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Lightspeed, and LeVar Burton Reads, as well as in six languages. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; SyFy made and released an animated short of her short story “Party Tricks,” set in the world of The Magicians. She lives in Texas with three cats: Gamora, Don Quixote, and Gimli.

Photo by Tony Najera

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