My girlfriend says Celine can’t live with us anymore. She is curled up on my couch. It’s the beginning of her second week here. In the two AM alarm clock glow, Avery whispers about my feelings, the emotions she wrongfully assumes I have: How can you love both of us at the same time? That’s not how this works. One or the other. You’re too old for…but I’m not listening. I don’t want to tell Avery that frequently the love you find when the better part of youth has slouched away, is thin, transparent, stitched together with the frailest hopes of not dying alone.
I can hear Celine breathing, the tail feathers of a cold caught in airplane cabins, high and nasally. I tell Avery I need to use the bathroom, cutting her off mid-sentence. Her eyebrows furrow in the alarm clock’s red illumination. She knows I wasn’t listening, that I rarely listen anymore.
How can I? Her voice seems far off, across oceans, fighting the crash of waves as it swims to my ear.
I get up, walk across the living room, where cheap hardwood converges with black and white tile. Celine’s black hair juts from below a quilt. I want her to look up, to smile about a joke I can’t hear, one from shared memories, but she doesn’t. She never stirs when I wander around at night.
I leave the bathroom light off, pee for continuity, wash my hands, and slip across the living room rug.
“She needs to be gone by Friday,” Avery says, as I fold back the covers.
I want to ask her who pays the rent? Whose name is on the lease? Who buried dreams of creation for steady income? The inarticulate Furies of two-thirty in the morning only speak Aramaic. I haven’t the focus to follow her rantings. Her arm reaches over my chest, cups a hand beneath my left ear. No talons, only soft fingertips, acrylic nails brushing against my scalp.
“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” I say.
“No, I need you to promise now or I won’t be able to sleep,” she says, digging her chin into my collarbone.
“In the morning. You know how I am at night. Nothing works. I’ll forget what we said and we’ll have to start over.”
“I need you to.”
The Furies rumble in her throat. The edge of words lisp soft screes promising to swell in waves that will wake neighbors. She’s sweating. She runs hot when she’s nervous. Three years in the same bed has taught the machinery of her heart under duress. Boilers break. Steam erodes the pipes. Organs aren’t much different.
“Fine. I’ll talk to her tomorrow after work.”
Her nails slither sensual trenches through my thinning hair. She moves a leg over my thigh like we are going to make love. I push it to the side. I can’t have Celine hearing the half-hearted passions of my thirty-first year.
I told myself that she was visiting her brother, William. That’s what the note said, the one plastered to the card table we used to eat at. She slept in the guest bedroom of his three story Victorian when marital troubles arose. Jan, William’s wife, hit the road once a season, the solstice flipping switches in her brain telling her to get out. Wind whistling through window casings called her name. He couldn’t stifle the voices with blinds, ear plugs. Celine lured him into dreams. She read stories from their childhood: Roald Dahl, the Hobbit, until the unseen mouths grew tired, the breezy mutterings dying away.
I slept alone, the television talking about Muslim States and unmanned drones.
Celine didn’t come home the next day. I assumed the voices moved from Jan’s name to that of her lover. They spoke of hotel nights, wine, debts at casino craps tables, lingerie, tags still attached, all those tangled bed sheets. None of this matters now. They’re both dead. A poor seal on their gas stove’s chimney vent. CO2 lacks scent. Corpses do not.
I got a call from William the next day after putting down my pencil, an imitation of Escher’s alligators swarming my sketch book.
“Is Celine there?” William asked.
“Isn’t she with you?” I replied.
“No, she stopped by last night, but left before I woke up. I need to talk to her. It’s about Jan.”
“I figured, but she’s not here,” I paused. Celine always came home after spending time with her brother, after swatting the black flies of his failing marriage. “I haven’t seen her since yesterday.”
“Do you know where she might have gone?”
Truthfully, no. She wasn’t one to stay away from home any longer than she had to. Her friends were good for an hour at the cafe before conversations ran dry. Erin, her gym buddy, only did aerobics before eight in the morning. It was two o’clock in the afternoon.
“She’s probably at the library studying for the MCATs,” I offered up instead of airing my fears. “She’s been talking about applying to med school again.”
“She hasn’t mentioned that to me,” her brother said. “Just let her know that I called when she gets in. I need her.”
He hung up the phone, the fading dial tone chirping through frantic thoughts. The note said she’d be back in the morning, signed with love. I moved through the apartment, a little bigger than the one I now call home, looking for things she might have taken. Just her fur-lined boots and black peacoat were missing from the closet, normal for a trip out in December. I pulled my car keys from the hook by the door and drove around town looking in lit windows of bookstores and coffee shops, taking my time as the pottery supply slipped by. The streetlights flickered over groups of men and women passing in and out of Indian restaurants and burger joints. Celine’s face didn’t materialize in the fog from their breath.
When my wheels displaced the stones of our driveway, I found a second note covering the first. It was longer, still signed with love. She said that thinking was getting the better of her. It was not that her feelings faltered, just that she had seen where her brother now lived: the world inhabited by winged nightmares, ghost voices, bottles of grief, and the overwhelming sensation of love lost…of love that may never have existed. She didn’t want that to mark our five year anniversary, but what if it was inevitable, the conclusion of time and the unforeseen distance it drags you apart? The birds plague all couples, can’t you hear them? her brother mumbled in his sleep. She wanted to find a way to block out the wingbeats before they grew near.
She fed me the line of past girlfriends: I just need time. Unlike the rest, I believed her. A few days, maybe a week, a month. There was never a doubt she would return, that I wouldn’t have to find someone to fill her side of the bed.
It seemed a year without sleep. I couldn’t remember the vague feeling of dreams, the worlds I once walked, Celine absent from each of the labyrinthine forests or castled cliffs. I can trace the intricacies of ceiling plaster with closed eyes. My walls slowly becoming more fist-sized holes than sheetrock. The gray powder filled my lungs, sweat mingling with tears, churning the powder into a cement paste between my lips. Knuckles swollen, blood crusted.
It was the first year of arthritis.The first year painting became painful.
In my head, I heard the last conversation Celine shared with William. Imagined the words he sniveled through sobs. This will happen to you. It happens to everyone, A farmer sowing seeds to bear only weeds, dead fruit. I imagined my hands around his throat, his last words. An apology, what else could he say?
When the first year passed and I hadn’t heard a word from her: no letters, no emails, not even the empty breath of silent phone calls, I cracked.
I pulled into her brother’s driveway, the Victorian’s facade crumbling to dust, navy and tan paint slowly becoming one color. The voices smeared their paint brushes over rotting shingles, tainting what had once been beautiful.
A red and gold glass rosary swung on a nail hammered into the wooden cross section of the front door’s window pane.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” William said as he opened the door, the cross’s beads jittering across the glass, alcohol on his breath.
I socked him in the gut, a shower of spittle spraying over my skin. He bent double, falling on the floor at my feet. The classical station, WFCR 88.5, played in the background, sucking up silence with piano keys and violin strings.
Jan wasn’t home.
“What did you do that for?” he winced from the toe of my boot.
“A need. She left because of all that shit you said,” I replied.
“What do you mean? Celine?”
“She didn’t want us to end up like you and Jan. When you don’t love someone, get a divorce. Move on. That’s what it’s there for.”
I reached a hand down to help him to his feet. He cringed expecting another blow. I told him one was enough. He led me to his kitchen table, the remnants of rolled prosciutto, some soft, white cheese, and a bowl of black olives lying among the Reader’s Digests and Sears advertised Christmas specials. A dozen cardboard coasters from local bars were strewn about, advertising Heineken and some local brewery with an ornate elk logo. He pushed the plate across to me, parting the sea of coasters, and offered a small portion of his lunch as penance. I turned him down. Something smelled moldy, something buried below the stack of dishes in the sink, unsettling my stomach.
“It’s not that easy. And no one said our love has died,” were the first things he said after we held silent vigil over the unwanted meal. He rubbed a hand over his stomach where my fist displaced his organs.
“I mean, I just figured that after she cheated on you all those times there must be some resentment in you.”
“Well, maybe. But Jan always comes back. She knows where her feelings lie, who really loves her.”
Lie was the key word and I could see there was no point debating it. I thought of the cross hanging on the door, the idea of God’s forgiveness, and how her brother applied Christian logic to his life. Repentance can clean sin from the soul, but could it erase misdeeds from the mind, the soiled sheets of his marriage bed? Doubtful, but I couldn’t worry about the smudge on William’s frontal lobe. I was there for selfish reasons, me alone.
“So, you haven’t talked to her?” I asked.
“No, I haven’t heard a thing since she left that day,” he began to say, swallowing another olive. I didn’t know how he could stomach the little black orbs with the stench of decay hanging around the room. I looked over William’s person, the stains on his pale blue oxford, the dirt encrusted cuffs, dead skin flaking on his cheeks. Maybe it wasn’t the house after all?
“And she didn’t say anything to you before she left? No mention of a plan?” I asked.
“Not a word. My parents filed a missing person report. The police said she didn’t want to be found. They couldn’t force her to speak to us. We heard something about Romania, but no postcards, no confirmation that she ever left. I wish I had more for you.”
He finished the olives.
It was my turn to leave, to ask him to let me know if he heard anything. I apologized for punching him and wished him best luck with the marriage counseling he mentioned briefly as the olives disappeared from the bowl.
As the doorknob turned in my hand, he started to speak, “Doubts were a strange thing for her. Never making confident decisions. Always second guessing, worrying herself sick. She might not even believe the two of you are apart…”The conversation died. I walked out, sending the rosary swinging once more, not knowing what else to say.
I read about William’s death in the Sunday Times obituary. I skipped the wake. The funeral was small. No one noticed me at the burial, twin coffins lowering in unison to the voice of a cello beneath an elm, a song more beautiful than the lives it was celebrating. I said a prayer, more for myself than for William and Jan, but it was a prayer nonetheless. That was about a year into my relationship with Avery. I told her they were distant cousins, nothing more. She didn’t question.
Avery whimpers in her sleep. Tears pool in the crook of my collarbone. It’s as if I lie next to a child who is always in the middle of nightmares. I don’t sleep when she gets like this. I know she sees me in those dreams, slipping away, disappearing into mist. She’s told me: You’re what makes me me. Otherwise, I’m nothing. And I’ve tried to say it back, to produce similar sentiments, but can’t. Those words died at the end of Celine’s letter, ten years ago.
Between sobs, I slide from beneath Avery’s outstretched arm and move into the living room. Celine is in the same position as before. She doesn’t move during sleep. She never did.
I don’t pause over the couch. I move to the easel and canvas taking up most of the wall outside the bathroom. I’ve been working on this landscape for the better part of five years. I haven’t worked on anything else since Celine left. By work, I mean adding a brush stroke, a daub of blue when grading papers and cooking Avery’s dinner didn’t interfere. The waterfall pours into a blank expanse of white. The two figures sitting on the rock above the cascading water lack faces, their gender only dictated by hips and hair length. The crows that land on neighboring oaks are little more than black blotches. This was supposed to be my masterpiece, a dedication to my last good memories. As they’ve faded, my brushes have grown stiff from slumber, the paint dry in the bristles.
When Celine shared my bed, paintings dropped from my brush like apples from thin branches. Mostly imitations: my take on Turner, Dali, Escher. Then there was the series of nudes Celine posed for, her broad hips and slender shoulders in a range of Realism fading to the obscure details of dreamlike fog. I sold them, telling the patron that no, I didn’t really know the woman. Eighteen in all, except for one shoved in the back of my coat closet beneath windbreakers and woolen jackets. A cheap poster of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is taped over the wooden frame. Avery would make me burn it if she saw the detailed strokes I never gave her figure.
I run my hand over the canvas, feel the slight rise of clotted paint, the ridges and valleys different applications have lent to the land. A hand touches my shoulder. I turn, heart clutched in a feminine palm, silence sweeping in where rhythmic beats once punctuated the quiet. Celine stands there, hair a mess of curls covering much of her eyes. She wears a pair of my pajamas. They’re too big, sagging around her butt and thighs. The shirt drapes to her knees, the flannel pattern lost in the darkness.
“I like it,” she says in little more than a whisper.
“I’m glad,” I choke, my palpitating heart struggling to regain the correct pace.
“She looks like me,” Celine says, bringing a finger across the woman whose legs dangle from the rock.
“I based all my women on you.”
“Is it obvious?”
She doesn’t answer. She leans into me, arms wrapping around my waist, chin on my shoulder. She holds me there, motionless. Her hair is greasy, yet the smell of honey lingers in the twine. I neglect to brush it from my mouth as it’s sucked in with each breath, savoring the sweet taste on my tongue.
“So what are you going to do?” she whispers into my ear.
“I heard what she said. Telling secrets doesn’t work in an apartment this small.”
“I can’t say, not yet.”
She tries to pull away. My muscles tighten. We become closer. “You know what I would say if there were no strings, but there are three lives here, not two.”
“Waste one rather than all. I don’t want to beg. I’ve seen the way you walk through the door after work, hunched, unhappy.”
I lean in to kiss her, thankful my despair isn’t a symbol only scholars can decipher.
A rustle escapes the bedroom door. I turn. Avery’s form fills the black space, her profile lit for a moment as a car passes on the road below, high beams scaling the brick facade of our apartment.
“Come back to bed,” she says.
Celine lets go of my waist.
“It’s fine,” she says as she slinks back to the couch. In the darkness, I can’t see Avery’s eyes, but I know they follow Celine’s steps, they bore in as she hefts the blanket’s weight over her slight frame, they pick at her skin.
I linger by my painting. I can almost hear the voice of the woman leaning over the precipice, her un-sketched lips citing the wrong decisions I will inevitably make. You don’t need another regret to add to your list. I follow Avery back to bed, knowing she won’t humor me with an imitation of sleep again. We lie awake, side by side, sheets and comforter curtaining our restless forms.
“In the morning,” she hisses, as she rolls on her side.
She was cute in the dim light, hampered by the shifting shadows of people around us. Small, blonde, a natural tan over her bare arms. Average in most ways.
The upholstery smelled like beer, the curtains cigarettes, the woman next to me grapes and lavender. Avery wasn’t wearing a bra. I want to say that wasn’t the only reason I sat down next to her, but then I’d be lying. I had slept alone for the last three months. I saw Celine in nightmares, picked apart by crows. Avery was a welcomed reprieve.
“You don’t have much of an accent,” she said.
“I’m not actually from around here,” I replied.
“Where then?” she asked, sliding across the stained cushions towards me, almost spilling the glass in her hand.
“I have a few cousins who live out there.”
She rattled off names that I tried to place faces to.
“Tall, brown hair, has a tattoo of Marilyn Monroe on his forearm?”
She shook her head then mentioned another. With each name, I offered up a more ridiculous description: Snake Bites, glass eye, the remnants of a Siamese twin scar across his cheek. She laughed. At that moment it seemed like the rest of the party ebbed away, voices dying, bodies growing translucent, their edges fading into the humid air. It was just Avery and I on the couch…until two hours passed and it was just Avery and I on the couch. The house was empty. My friend asleep in his bedroom on the next floor, a can of PBR still clutched in hand. We locked the door on our way out and hopped a cab back to the room I was subletting.
At the time, something was wrong with my body. Organs shut down, only to flicker on the next day. It was a brief emptiness. Pancreas, gone. Spleen, somewhere far off. I placed my hand on my stomach, knowing something should be there, instead of the hollow cavity I found. I tried to fill them with gourmet food, beer, women, but nothing filled up the emptiness. Not the PBR and pizza at the party, not Avery lying next to me in bed.
The next morning I searched her skin with my fingertips, felt along the bow of her ribs for the hollow spaces, the lost lungs, the silent heart, but everything was in place. She was whole in a sense. I hoped we could share it, the loneliness, fill the hollows together, but she mistook my wanderings for flirtations. She opened her eyes and pulled me close.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, smiling between kisses. She brought my hands to her breasts, then across her stomach, leading me between freckles and scars.
“Something I can’t find in myself,” I replied, looking over at the painting leaning against the far wall of my room, the same painting that now stands outside the bathroom devoid of details, more blank canvas than articulate lines.
“Inspiration?” she asked, following my gaze. “I could do that.”
She laughed again. “It looks like you need it.”
I first started the painting when I received a letter during the fifth year of Celine’s absence. She was in Paris working as a secretary for a chocolate company and said she missed me. I learned little more. No mention of her return. No promise of our inevitable reunion, just that she was thinking of me as she trudged through her days, typing numbers into spreadsheets, pulling addresses for advertisers off the internet. She asked about my art. It was the only question on the paper. I bought the 5×7 canvas the next morning, bathed my brushes in paint thinner, and lay a drop cloth for the sake of the rug.
My response was returned unopened after a month. A heavy red stamp was engraved over the address. She fell from my life once more, but not my thoughts. She was a lingering negative in the camera flash. Her face looked over my shoulder in mirrors as I dragged the dull blade of my Schick razor across my chin. I heard her hailing cabs at my elbow on street corners. The smell of her body lingered in elevators. Each time I would run, knock people to the side, to see if she was standing in some shadowed corner. Her eyes never met my own. Even with Avery’s arrival I continued to glimpse Celine from afar, only to meet older women sitting at a bus stops or slim teenage boys carrying violin cases to music lessons.
And it was never her. She arrived back in the country the morning she knocked on my door, a voice telling her all the birds were dead. She showed me the stamps in her passport to prove it. I looked over the inked dates she passed from one Customs counter to the next, exchanging Euros for Yen, finally back to American dollars. And all those years I pictured her as I made love to other women. Avery was never Avery. Nor the dozen others who had come before her. It was selfish, the way I lead them on, but you can love a placeholder as long as it holds a place.
The sound of shattering glass stirs me from sleep. The window of my bedroom overlooking the street is nothing more than tattered scraps of wood and a few jagged triangles of glass clinging to the frame. The wind drags the curtains out into the early morning sun, whipping them taught in concussive cracks. My mind jumps to Celine. I’m in the living room before I can take a single breath. She’s there, sitting bolt upright, the blanket clutched tight to her chest. Her eyes are sewn open, stuck on the shattered window just visible from her position on the couch. Her lips quiver my name. They blink as the curtains let loose a thunder clap as they’re torn away by the wind.
I never thought to check beside me as I rushed to Celine’s side. I believed Avery hadn’t stirred. I never felt her brush the blankets to the floor, or heard the steps she took as she leapt through the shuttered window.
I linger over Celine, a hand snaking down the neck of her shirt, clutching for something to hold me back from the window’s ledge. There is no blood on the glass. I’m surprised. I think there should be at least a fleck of crimson, a pool of the stuff, to show the course of her flight from our relationship. To mark the last conscious decision of her life.
“Go, go look,” Celine says.
“But I…” I stammer.
“She could still be alive. We have to call somebody.”
I grope my way back to the window. I lean out, avoiding the sharp points that ring the aperture. There is no body. No blood on the sidewalk or pooling in the street’s gutter. Cars move into sight and disappear over the crest of a near-by hill. They don’t pause by the front of our building as they would the scene of an accident. A boy walks his dog. A woman jogs in bright spandex. Morning life wakes and wanders towards the city. And it’s funny because I can no longer recall what Avery looks like: her eye color, the nape of her neck, how her voice sounded. And in that moment, I’m not surprised she didn’t make any impression on the street below.
To doubt, you need to have options, but when there is only ever a singular point in your vision, how can one do anything but walk to it. So I turn back to the woman sitting on my couch, thinking about the call I must make to the building’s handyman once the work day unfurls.
[check out Corey’s back porch wisdom here]