It was strange and didn't register as a serious request. She wanted to take care of me. Nothing sexual. Just a meal here and there, maybe a little tidying up of the house.
She wanted me to talk. And that part, the talking, always felt transactional, a repayment of her cleaning and cooking. She didn't ask questions. Just nudged me on with emphatic nods in the living room, sitting six feet away from me in a stray office chair. She listened as if I were recounting a past life of her own.
I told her once I loved her little feet, especially in those heels. The next week she wore sneakers. She was older but not old, fifty or so. Two children a few years younger than myself.
She made a point of not staying past ten or drinking more than a single glass of wine.
I was always a little embarrassed by the state of the house. The dirty clothes strewn across the room indistinguishable from the clean. Earmarked novels, long novels, the kind you could bludgeon a person to death with, gathered dust on the coffee table, the desk, the kitchen counter. She touched them, fascinated by what secrets or sage advice might lay within, but she never read a page.
One night I realized I'd never said her name out loud. And she said, "That's impossible. Of course you have." But neither of us could think of a particular moment. And just when I was about to, she said, "Why break the streak?"
We grew more comfortable with one another. She wore less makeup and let her age show. She'd show up in sweatpants. Some nights we'd order Chinese and play that familiar game where every fortune is punctuated with "in bed." A stranger will change your life forever tomorrow in bed. Lies lead to great calamities in bed. So on.
We called them dates, our lunches in the break room, taken each day around 2 p.m. She would bring me leftovers from the night before, always making a point of saying something like, "My husband just couldn't finish it."
She brought baked ziti on a Wednesday last March. I told her it was the best I'd ever eaten as I forked it out of the tupperware container, the edges still hot from the microwave. She said she hadn't been intimate in two years.
"Is that possible?"
Sex didn't transpire immediately. We worked up to it.
I liked the way she directed me. I'd never experienced anything quite like it. She'd tell me to touch myself while she held me in her arms, she'd snag a handful of my hair, she'd dig her nails into my thigh, but her words were always beautiful, whispered, tender, spoken in the sacred and profane language of lovers.
I'd come and she'd make a comment about the quantity, comparing it to her husband's.
In the serene afterglow before we toweled ourselves off, I'd rest my head against her breast, and I'd say, "I could stay here forever."
"Every man I've ever slept with has said that."
"How many men have you slept with?"
"Has anyone ever liked the answer to that question?"
"I don't mind. We could compare data."
She crawled out of the bed and turned on some music, Neil Young, "A Man Needs a Maid."
"I always felt guilty for liking this song," I said.
"Me too," she said.
We drank coffee on the back porch before the sun came up. "There was a man," she said, "before I married. He was an artist, a painter. We were in college and I loved the deliberate way he spoke. He'd think, sometimes for a full minute, before he said anything. There was a softness in his voice that required you to pay closer attention to him. Your voice is not all that different."
The Department of Transportation began tearing down the houses in my neighborhood to make room for an additional two lanes of traffic. By October mine was the only house left on the block. The apocalypse in miniature. We'd drive by piles of brick and fencing and she'd begin to cry.
It was a particularly brutal winter, and she buried her car in mud and snow when she tried to back out of the yard on the day of her son's graduation. I offered to drive her.
"No, no, no no no."
We sat in the snow, our backs against her car. She leaned in and said, "Your cologne is new."
"You've cut your hair."
"Your shirt, it's actually ironed."
Silence for a beat.
"Who is she?"
Been broken down for months and I need to start moving.
I soak up window precipitation with the cushion of my
palm and see a world beyond it that I can thrive in. I don't
worry about surviving--I know how to breath. But I fear
I won't get what I need once I set these gears in motion.
That I'll pan this life for gold and end up with an empty
dish. That the appellate courts will dismiss my plea for
second chances, shackling me to my mistakes. I have a
recurring dream where I toss my accomplishments like
bar tab on the table and say to my father, "This is all I have."
And he communicates to me in words, "Bernadette, that's
enough." But I observe the dullness in his eyes and the
downward trajectory of his gaze and know immediately
I came up short.
Lately, I stay in the shower
appear on my fingers
and before exiting
I turn the knob all the way
to the right
so that the freezing cold droplets
stab me like stalactites
in a sort of self-prescribed
I dry off,
and still shivering, I wrap myself
in a blanket
deciding not to go out tonight
it's still early and I am ready for bed
I am also
by the thought of my friends
gossiping over burgers and fries
about my failed appearances
as they wipe ketchup and
ranch dressing from their upper lips
I want to be alone
and small-talk feels like appendicitis to me
rehearsed conversations coagulate in my throat
so much that I choke on air
when it comes time to actually speak
I haven't called my mother back either
I do regret
I don't know how to tell her:
I'm sad again
and when I'm not sad I'm cynical
I think that the lovers are fools,
are swimming upstream,
and the happy people are product
so I replay her voicemail over and over
just to hear her voice, sweet
and the background noise
of her pots, pans, and wooden
banging and clanking in the kitchen
of the house I grew up in
and I become nostalgic for the easy days
when the sounds of my mother
were all I needed
to feel good
and I had yet
to make a mess of my life
with her chime
and bright, so stark
a contrast it startled me
like geometric print intruding
on a watercolor dream
in my window, a lone wolf sparrow
called her lover at 3am
then this morning
from separate winged real estate
a baby blue bird
rolled to its death
on the pavement
another shame among shames
that I don't have time to mourn
so here I am
sleep deprived on Monday
dry mouth chewing stale cereal
while the reporter reaches his quota
for name drops per episode
the producer gives a thumbs up
I don't judge him
we're all accumulating bad karma
clean shirt, coat on
countdown to lunchbreak
so I can leave the building
and watch the pretty city women
dressed to perfection
and all the handsome,
broad-shouldered men responsible
for the spikes in my water bill
as if they saved the world
I bet you did babe
I bet you did
non-existent relations meets thought
gasms aching for relief
penned in black calligraphy
by sweat drenched maddening
trembling hands trying to spell your
name. the letters are sweet
they stain the tongue and
distract from all responsibility.
I've done it again, spent an entire day
in bed bucking beneath my
own hands and wishing they
were yours. I'm a junkie for
your distant skin, saturated in desperate
agony, I can almost taste you.
A string of Edison bulbs
in liquid gold
The ceiling fan's humming
from outside his window
an artist's reciting
divide the room
He films me undressing
lights a joint then
lounges on the bed
I walk to him
and slink my arms
around his shoulders
smoke curls from the corner
of his mouth
I kiss him
into the evening, he moves me
like bluesy guitar
a pool of
on nights like this
when the kindling's still
we lie beneath
a single bed sheet
strokes my skin
and warm breeze
alludes to June at our ankles