TO THE WOMAN I FELL IN LOVE WITH IN THE THIRD FLOOR BATHROOM
BY DELANEY BURKE
Red hair tickles my sight first; you smile
at me and I can’t help imagining
a future. Leaning against the sink, dial
up the charm. We get coffee, you’re toying
with your chunky jewelry. Our first kiss
(my first, period) is on my sofa.
We’re watching Star Trek, and I don’t miss
how you say I’m grumpy McCoy. Boba
tea trips and we hear whispers of how you
are older than me. Shame is washed away
with fondness and Queen lyrics. And you do
not mind how ugly my laughter is. “Say,
would you like to—” Request silenced.
I watch you go. Was nice while it lasted.
BY BETH BROWN
There they are again: the same feet— black patent flats with a decorative silver buckle on top— presumably attached to the same legs, attached to the same woman who is always in the bathroom stall that my body naturally directs me towards. The second stall is always anybody’s first choice. Nobody wants to go in the first because it’s usually the gross one, and anything beyond stall two is a gamble when it comes to cleanliness and supply of toilet tissue. All women know these things. It’s a given.
Still, this set of feet is always in the second stall. I’ve worked here for over two months and I’ve never been in this restroom when those feet weren’t there. I’ve even mixed it up and decided to go at random times, even if I didn’t actually need to, just to find out if the feet were there. I did this for weeks and it was like somehow she knew.
She’s just there.
It started to get on my nerves around the first of the month. I decided I’d get in a few extra steps and take the stairs and use a restroom on a different floor. There was a strange sense of satisfaction that came with walking in and going right to that second stall, blissfully unoccupied. That’s never the case on the floor where I work. It’s like having to take a detour you didn’t expect, or like trying to drink from a straw before you remember that you don’t have one—there are just some actions that are pure muscle memory.
For me, that’s walking to stall two.
Seeing them there now makes my ears burn. Why can’t she hide from her boss in the last stall like a normal person? I decide I can’t ignore it anymore. I can’t act like she’s not there and keep walking to a sub-par toilet and hope that there’s a functioning lock and no wide gap in the door.
I pretend that I didn’t realize the stall was taken and walk straight over and rattle the door. “Oh, sorry,” I mumble.
There’s no response. Like every other time before, no sound. Not a single drip or a rustle of tissue. No shifting of the feet, no repositioning of clothes, nothing.
It makes me even more furious. “Hellooo?” I say with annoyance crackling in my voice. “You know, you don’t have to be rude.”
I stand there for what feels like forever and notice every muscle in my body start to tense. Like an out of body experience, I watch myself pound on the door with the heel of my hand. “Hey! You know other people would like to use this stall, too. Take a nap in your car or something,” I shout. The indignant response I expect never comes.
I bang on the door again and feel the latch rattle. I don’t stop, I don’t get quiet, I just keep beating the textured plastic until something shakes loose.
I pull back as the door slowly moves inward, my hand frozen in mid-air.
The realization hits me that I’ve probably just scared some poor woman half to death, and now I’m busting in on her as she’s trying to hide out in a bathroom stall. What the hell am I doing?
I watch the door as it swings with painful slowness towards the toilet. A sheet of tissue hangs from the bottom of the dispenser. A layer of dust clouds the top of the purse shelf. The door continues to move until I can see the water in the bowl.
The stall is empty.
The shoes are gone. No legs. No woman. All that’s there are the faded outlines of two footprints made by a pair of patent flats.
BY LACIE SEMENOVITCH
Poetry stopped calling
my name or maybe I stopped
listening because I grew to distrust
my voice, twangy, small, full of questions.
No profundities or music, words
flattened by the stomp of work
boots. Images without beating
hearts, wingless. Images afraid
truth would hemorrhage the dead,
the left behind, the bodies
forgotten like lonely mountains
shouting my name on a wind gust,
a wound, so far away that distance
turned scars to whispers, wisps
of memory like ghosts passing
through my skin in a city I can’t
claim because the hold of dirt,
of tree, of chicory, of winding
roads pulls me back like muddy
faces and ashes scattered on the ground.
PUT ON, PUT UP, PUT OUT, PUT AWAY
BY HEATHER LUSTIG CURRAN
You’re curled up on your faded ivory couch, the cushions’ permanent concavity are cupped like oyster shells. You’re swaddled in comfort clothing, the periwinkle jammies with frayed holes in the thighs. You’re ignoring the rom-com on the screen, reading “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufock.” He’s bemoaning the reality that the women ignore his fashionable clothing and focus on his thinning hair when the notification swims up your phone.
Hey babe cant w8 2 c u
Your hand levers backwards as you sigh.
You hate “babe.”
But you like him. He’s nice. Not amazing. But you’re willing to give him a chance. Besides, it’s not like you have tons of opportunities, and he wants you.
You wish your feelings were stronger, less cautious, but you’ve experienced enough of the love mythology. Yet you still fall for the traps. As far as you know, though, Cupid’s arrows are stashed in your closet.
So you overlook babe. After all, he saw past your imperfections and chose you.
Your cell phone drops into your lap.
Tonight is the third date, and you feel the pressure.
He’ll pay for dinner.
You’ll pay for the courtesy.
He’ll pick a restaurant but you want the nightcap to stay at the bar and not your bed. You want intimacy but don’t equate that with sex. You like the sweet way he cups your face, kisses you, backs away, looks at you with a coy, cocky smile. Plus, he’s always telling you how sexy you are. You spool those words around your loneliness to buttress yourself against the long quiet, periods between admiring attention.
Prufrock and his loneliness will have to wait for your empathy. You haul yourself from your warm, sagging place to take a shower. It’s been a long day. You look forward to hearing his stories, even if they revolve around escapades with friends you haven’t met and sports teams you don’t follow. You hope he’ll listen to your stories. The needled hurt pricks again from when he’d cut you off on the last date. You were describing the woman with alzheimer’s and how she awakened at your delivery of sixty roses. You wanted him to take the hint. Instead, you took the hint that he wasn’t interested.
Your bathroom is a DIY catastrophe. Between the pink and white striated clam shells glued to gold-crackled frames and the sand yellow and tropical blue towels, you hoped to evoke a tropical paradise. You created a ticky-tacky grotto. And you swear the mermaids on the shower curtains are laughing at you.
You want to fill the tub, lower your aching body into the deep, let your muscles uncoil as the water saturates your hair, leaks into your ears, cups your neck. You want him to bring you a cold cider while you recline in the hot water. Let you soak in water and not expectations.
But you’ll take a shower. Clean out the roses’ nicks and pricks that must be the god’s punishment for romance. Scrub the long green stains tatted around your fingers.
You switch on the water, twist the tap to the highest registry in red.
This is your life. Waiting.
For the acceptance you seek and try to catch, like milkweed seeds pelting on the wind. They slip through your fingers, constellate in the air, tumble to the sky.
When the steam collects behind the curtain and the mermaids look like they are wearing a second skin, you drift under the water, gasp at the sudden pain of the intense, hot water, and dial the knob back.
Some like it hot. You prefer it not too hot.
You squeeze the trigger and the pink slush coils into your hand, reeking of chemical wildflowers. The edges blister and you massage the bubbling mass across your legs and up your thighs.
You draw up the razor over your knee and flinch when the blades gouge out a chink of skin. The blood wells, like an eye opening, and seeps down your leg to be swallowed by the drain’s wide mouth.
You hate how if you aren’t careful, the blood will stain the white carpet the landlord thought was appropriate to lay in your shoddy one room apartment.
You have a personal war with your entire body. So much of it you’d like to dismantle, return to the original manufacturer. On close inspection, no one could think you’re sexy, not with the long black hairs on your inner thighs. The constellation of whiskers under your chin. “Beauty is only skin deep” people say, but your skin is pock marked with pimples, ingrown hairs, moles, slightly bulging veins, and freckles that you didn’t think were blemishes.
You have a love-hate relationship with your body. You love to hate it. You love your wrists. Your eyes. Sometimes your hair. The rest can be chucked.
As a girl, you learned that skirts and dresses were dangerous, especially on Friday-Flip-Up-Day which wasn’t always Friday. The first time you wore a skirt, the girls clustered in a tidy herd with you in the middle until the predating boys burst through the girl-ball, flushing out the quarry. On that Tuesday, the boys chased you, their hands reaching for the knee-length hemlines, their fingers snapping with urgency. You squealed, your voice high-pitched with what sounded like laughter, acceptance, excitement.
You kept them at bay until fatigue loosened your joints. You sought the chatting teachers clustered in a corner, and the boys drifted back, thwarted, waiting for you to leave base.
You hopped around the group of women, wanting to interrupt but knowing that was impolite and would result in a scolding. You rocked from side to side until your teacher peeled away. And you realized you had nothing to say.
Nothing had happened.
You hadn’t been touched.
But the boys drifted in and out from behind the playground equipment, waiting, with gap-toothed smirks.
You tried to explain so that the teacher would understand without humiliating you. The boys were chasing you. Truth. You didn’t like it. Truth. You didn’t tell her why. The reasons made you sound dirty. Truth.
“Just tell them no. Stand up to them. They’ll listen,” she said.
Adults don’t lie. Teachers know everything.
You left the bubble. The hunters broke through the camouflage and you surrendered to the instinct to run while the girls watched.
When your legs were wobbly with exhaustion, you acted on your teacher’s recommendation. You stopped.
You swung around, threw up your hand.
“No! Just leave me alone.”
The boys hadn’t listened to the teacher, though. Your skirt was lifted up and over your waist; your equator and southern hemisphere exposed like a globe bisected to display its innards.
When the teachers responded to your shrieks, the boys scattered and the girls shivered in their blind silence. You were asked the stupid question of why you didn’t just play on the swings or the slide. You were told that you should have never run, that running just encourages them.
But the playground equipment was an avenue for exploratory observation. Playing on the swings while wearing skirts invited boys to climb the jungle-gym and perch on the top, waiting for the moment when the skirt ballooned open. The boys waited at the bottom of the slide, looking up, salivating for drifting hems, the inevitable gapping of the legs which opened the treasure chest of secret panty sightings.
Even though they made you feel frumpy, you wore shorts under skirts. You couldn’t communicate what it meant to be exposed. Besides, it was your fault for choosing to wear a skirt.
Beginning in girlhood, you devoured animated movies starring princesses and ballerinas who were taught that the alchemy for success was to love themselves. The power of self-belief transformed kingdoms, defeated the malevolent, and inspired forever romantic relationships.
You tried to accept this fortune-cookie truth.
“Just be yourself.”
You thought you were yourself. Who else would you be and how could you not know who you were? You were a future woman who understood nothing related to femininity. The concept of cosmetics and submission were terms you couldn’t insert into your vocabulary.
You wanted freedom.
You wanted to wear jeans and t-shirts and ride your bike past sunset. You loved singing and dancing and playing with Barbies. You also loved using tools to build clunky birdhouses. You knew you were plain looking and wanted to feel pretty. You were curious about make-up but intimidated by the colors and the applicators that looked mildly tortuous.
Who you were supposed to be and who you wanted to be and how you were supposed to be were at such conflicting angles on this prism that the refracted light broke into muddy spectrums, yielding no beauty.
In middle school, your pancake-flat breasts inflated into gelatinous blobs. You learned that cup size was proportionate to your IQ. The bigger the boobs, the smaller the brain.
Boobs. Middle school is when you grew boobs. Not breasts.
You don’t understand why we had such awkward words for basic biology. You grew these things because you have two X chromosomes, not because you wanted them or wished for them. You learned to talk about your body in hushed, ashamed whispers. If adults couldn’t say the word “breast,” then clearly something was wrong with your body.
Just be yourself.
As your breasts grew, you grew to hate them. They made you look fat. They made you look fertile. You learned to roll your body into a scroll to tuck away the jiggling, wiggling body parts that were suddenly salacious. You bagged your body in swampy sweatshirts that stank of body odor and comfort.
Friday-Flip-Up-Day was replaced by bra snapping. Between classes, you were at the water fountain when the fingers dug into your vertebrae. They pinched the strap. Pulled backwards. Released.
The sting welted up your back and down your arms. Your temper snapped and you swung around on the smarmy boy leaning against the wall, his arrogance nauseating.
Instinct drew your arm back, curled your hand into a fist, launched your knuckles forward. You punched him in the soft point where the shoulder melts into the chest. He was bony, almost fragile, and his taunting pride evaporated. You weren’t supposed to hit back; that wasn’t part of his well-rehearsed game.
Your name echoed off the walls. A teacher strode toward you, her face angry and purposeful.
“Apologize. Right now,” she demanded.
“But…but he started it,” you said. You couldn’t give voice to his touching your bra. Touching your underwear was just as dirty as touching your privates.
“And I’m ending it,” the teacher said. “Young ladies don’t hit.”
You muttered an apology, slunk away. Later, he sneered at you about being “on the rag.”
To be yourself is a Hamlet quandary. You aren’t entirely certain what it means to be yourself, to love yourself. You leave the bathroom and the mermaids. In your bedroom, you begin the beautification process. Sit on your bed, let the towel eddy from your body. Slather your skin with the heavy, lavender scented lotion. Starting at your ankles, your hands run in circles, lapping and overlapping the gaping pores, the years of erosive wear.
Your skin tightens, the cottage cheese curds shrink. A warm vibrancy replaces the coldness within the extremities.
You don’t know yourself, but you know how to create yourself.
In high school, you entered a slaughterhouse of reduction and reproduction. You studied relationships and love through television, movies, and books. You gawked at the couples making out in the halls, coveting the hands-on romantic gestures and attitudes. Alone, you belted out love songs, for once being an object of desire, even if it was imaginary and one-sided. Anything to fill the void. You were too old to pretend, but you did. At school, you were invisible. In your mind, you were a lean princess, a thriving heroine, a girl loved by all, especially the handsome boy from English class.
You found Adonis; he read Hamlet to your Ophelia. He stared in the distance as he contemplated his life and thought about death. You followed the teacher’s direction to enter and he turned around.
He walked to you, his hand outstretched, and, without looking at the textbook, said “Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.”
A fragment of your heart shifted, and the loneliness thawed. He smiled at you, not beyond you at the guffawing classmates. And your eyelashes fluttered down, demure, feminine. You stumbled over the lines, your face burning with embarrassment…with something like love.
You walked with him to his next class, clasping your books to your chest like the girls did on TV. You absorbed his words, encouraged him to tell stories. Ignored the fact that he didn’t reciprocate. You had time. You had love.
For the next three weeks, you pursued him. Walked him to his classes, memorized the tones of his voice, the way he hunched over his desk. You noticed him looking at the svelte girl who sat one row from him. She was more beautiful, but you had dibs. You had fallen for him first.
You wrote poetry about him. When you sang your love songs, you imagined his face, the cherished eyes brightening when he realized how authentic your emotions were. You imagined him holding your hand, pressing his lips to yours. You were ready for that moment. You were ready to be his.
You were not ready to find out that he called you a dog because you followed him like a lost puppy.
Your skin fragrant, the bulging flabbiness lifted, shrunk, defined, you move to the dressing table, sit before the triptych images of yourself. Within the western mirror, the plain woman looks askance, stares at the toner soaked cotton ball sweeping across the arch of the cheekbones. The woman in the center pane looks at the nothing before her, within her. She empties herself and prepares for the night’s communion. The girl in the eastern mirror teases at her youth, at the vibrancy sweeping her face.
You’re settling. The poetry still calls to you from its dismissed place on the coffee table. You could just text him, tell him you’re not feeling well.
Instead, you squeeze out tidy drops of twenty dollar spot cream, dab at the zodiac of imperfections on your skin. Leaning forward, you inspect would-be blemishes, tiny volcanoes and mountain ranges whose tectonic plates surrender to the chemistry set inhabiting each bottle, tube, and color palette arranged like tarot cards on the vanity’s tabletop.
Despite your flabby body and awkward personality, you were eventually found. He wanted you and you wanted romance. He took you to the hill by the playground, wrapped his arm around you.
With your head nestled in his shoulder, you felt what might be love. You heard his heart beating and thought that it was for you. Laying in the sunlight, the clouds undulating across the horizon, you were brilliant with anticipation.
He rolled you to your back and kissed you. You were hoping for this but weren’t expecting it so you didn’t pucker. His moist lips grazed over yours and that was it. Your first kiss. Not disappointing. Not enthralling. But it was your first kiss and he was pretty good looking against your not good lookingness. You wanted this. You wanted him….
…to kiss you.
You thought you were being yourself and that someone liked you for it. He didn’t expect you to wear make-up and revealing clothing.
Then he got past the kissing, wanted to take it to the next step.
It was Friday-Flip-Up-Day again. Even though you only wore pants.
He wanted to hold you. Or parts of you. Like the left gelatinous blob.
You grabbed his hand when you realized where it was. He kissed you harder, slid his tongue into the edge of your mouth, against your teeth.
Kissing felt good. Kissing distracted you from how he tried to find your zipper, unclasp your buttons.
You were clear with your no’s. Movies and TV shows proved that a girl’s first time was supposed to be special: candlelight and roses and chocolate and the lovesongs you sang to yourself. They also showed the regret if she didn’t choose the right boy or wait the unspecified prerequisite amount of time. A boy’s first time is his initiation into manhood. A girl’s first time is her destruction.
He didn’t worship your purity. He smirked and called you a prude.
Being a virgin didn’t mean you were immune to the rising physical sensations during your kissing sessions. You didn’t like that being a prude meant you were judgmental, that you hated anything sensual. But you didn’t love him and weren’t even sure that you liked him, but he kissed you so he had to like you. And you weren’t about to lose this opportunity of having a boyfriend. So you accepted his “playful” advances, chalked it up to him being a boy. You figured that as long as you knew what was happening, you could keep him from going too far.
His patience with your denial was dry-rotted elastic. When he probbed your zippered wall and absolute barriers, he called you a tease.
But being a tease meant you were playing with him, “dicking him along.” Being a tease was being a slutty virgin. Being a tease meant you could be changed through guilt and manipulation.
He teased you for turning away what he offered.
He wasn’t teasing you when he saw you with your notebook, looking dreamily out the window, and said, “Another feeble attempt at poetry? Bad poetry?”
He walked away, cocky in his sexual assuredness. Victorious that if you refused to let him plunge into you then he could plunge in the emotional knife. He got the last word.
You got to sink into the desk and pretend that you weren’t going to cry.
You hadn’t been raped.
You hadn’t had sex.
But you had been dumped.
Because you were a tease.
You thought he had liked you. What you realized, was that you were an opportunity, a temporary lust, a malignant treasure hunt in which you were just a stupid booby prize.
You didn’t know how to be a woman when you were told to love yourself for who you were. The woman you wanted to be didn’t care about appearances, didn’t need expensive creams and color palettes. You lean forward, your breath steaming the mirror. You pluck eyebrow hairs. You line your upper lid, drawing up the brush at the corner, creating the Egyptian cat’s eye. Leaning back, you pretend that you resemble Cleopatra, a woman who killed herself because she refused to be a man’s tool.
You wish you had her strength. You wonder if he would respect that.
With a few swipes, the smokey eye is achieved. Your eyelids lower, slowly. You are sultry. To a degree, you’re slutty, and you ignore the discomfited conscience gnarled in your belly. You are transforming into the beauty you have longed to be. You are intimidated by this fabricated woman, but you know she is loved, and so you try to love her as well.
In college, you still submerged yourself into your guilty pleasures, your romantic movies, your quasi-erotic romance novels that filled your barren reservoir of loneliness and constructed a mystical him.
He would find you. You knew that somehow you were fated to find him.
But this belief was secret because strong women didn’t need men. They weren’t lonely. Their iron self-confidence and self-love lifted them from you and the rest of the masses.
To show your appealability, you sat in the middle of the lecture halls, far enough from the front to avoid looking nerdy. Far enough from the back to avoid looking apathetic.
Everyone loved you because you were “so nice.” When they got drunk and puked, you made sure they slept on their sides and cleaned up the foul piles the morning after. You edited papers and helped with homework. You listened to their stories, held them when they sobbed, and supported them no matter what. Even some of the young men called you the “perfect woman” because you “were always there and just listened.”
But you were alone. Steadily, the girls found their dream men. In October, you broke down, sobbing “What’s wrong with me?”
Blinded by the attention and acceptance, you succumbed to a makeover. By Sunday night, you even bought your first “cute outfit” that you were afraid of wearing. Too much skin showed in some places, skin that was mottled or cleavage that felt unsettling or dangerous.
The next Friday night, your hallmates took you to a frat party. The room throbbed with bodies and booming bass notes and schizophrenic strobe lights. Entranced, you stood within a humping cluster of people and tried to fit in which failed because you were unable to mimic the tribal ritual.
Through the surging ball of people, a young man penetrated your vision. He saw you and his expression became sympathetic. He saw your loneliness. He saw the girl in a spotlight and he came to you.
It was pure magic.
Just like what was written in those books that predicted romance and happiness for the unsuspecting girl.
You knew those books were bound together with cliches and tropes and that nothing this mystical could happen to you. You were not the forlorn heiress, the trapped princess, the cursed ballerina. And even though you were corseted into the cute outfit, the sediment of makeup suffocating every pore was a reminder of your imperfection. You were not worthy.
But then he was there, in front of you. He had a pack of cigarettes in his white t-shirt’s breast pocket and held two cups of translucent, golden beer. The stench of old smoke and cheap brew was repulsing.
He was not the Prince Charming you were waiting for. But every love story was about transformation, and you had been ripped through your chrysalis stage for him.
You took the beer but didn’t sip it. You’d heard the cautionary tales. You were smart no matter what your bra size might say.
He asked for your name.
“Helen.” You were patient.
“Helen,” you shouted.
It had been over a year since you felt the warmth of your ex-boyfriend’s arm draped over your shoulder, and you liked hearing this new young man say your name, like he really wanted to know you.
The strobe lights blinked into your eyes and your waxing wistfulness and the young man steered you into the crowd. His body humped into yours, his arms crescented around your waist, scythed you in. The music shifted, just like in the movies. In the slowness, he drew your tentative hands from yours sides, knotted them around his shoulders. Your fingers conformed to what might have been soft muscle or the beginnings of fat. You didn’t care. How could you judge him when you were so imperfect?
This moment was saturated in meaning. You rested your head on his chest and heard his heartbeat and believed that it was beating for you. His body guided you through the compact circle of people who were smears of color. You noticed your hallmates grinning at you, proud of their little girl and her first hookup.
Unbidden, his lips stretched across your neck. His lips were moist, almost room-temperature against the blistering heat searing through you. The dampness of his skin, his urgency, the fact that you didn’t know his name.
This wasn’t romantic. This was a slug trodding across your clavicle, searching for the plumb line that would sink him into your depths.
Your hands fastened themselves to his chest. You pushed lightly. He surfaced from his attention at the top of your cleavage, his fingers had tried to hook themselves into the neckline of your dress.
“No,” you said, applying more weight to your fingertips, more pressure to the words he didn’t understand.
You read that he saw himself as Adonis, but he was just another boy in a man’s skin-suit looking for a quick release.
“Babe,” he said.
“My name is Helen,” you repeated. You needed to hear him say your name. You needed to be more than just this belt notch, this conquest.
You pushed away from him. You floated through the crowd, being pummeled without noticing. The floes of people parted for you, reformed.
At the door, you turned and looked back at him. This was when he was supposed to come to you, apologize for making you feel cheap. Instead, he snagged two fresh cups of beer and approach one of your hallmates. She accepted it enthusiastically, started drinking in spite of the warnings she had given you that night. She lowered the cup, went into his arms, merged into the vibrating crowd.
You walked back to your dorm alone where you locked yourself in. You peeled yourself out of your slut-suit and decided never to wear it again. In the shower, your skin reeking of beer, cigarette smoke, and unwanted desire, you went through the motions of washing yourself, unsure of how to process the evening. You should have felt proud, but you couldn’t summon any trace of emotion.
You move onto your lips. With a liner, you plump your lips, draw a cupid’s bow. With the lipstick, you craft lips that can form seduction or conform to his. Each is another layer of spells you’ve learned to cast in your womanhood. With each step of your regimen, the fat shrinks, your breasts tighten, lift. You could pass the pencil test.
With fluency, the brushes skim your face, as though you are finding yourself, an archaeologist unsurfacing the work of art entombed beneath the refuse and filth. You tilt your head at the woman in the mirrors, open and close your eyes languidly, flirt a little with her. The burgeoning beauty intoxicates you. With your hair parted to the side, the tips cupping your perfectly blended face, loveliness explodes.
He will kiss you tonight. Or, rather, he will kiss the woman in the mirrors. You will still be home, waiting for the rightness to come outside. You will be coiled in loose fitting pajamas while the beautiful woman surging out of your skin will slip into the size 2 dress that you diet and struggle to enter.
She might not eat dinner tonight. But she will be happy. She will have completion.
In the beginning of your sophomore year, you met him. He lived on the floor below you and knew your suitemate. She liked him, had clearly set her designs on him. She was the one who invited him to come with you to the dining hall or the Friday night free movies.
But he sat next to you and you found out you shared unique commonalities. You both loved anime. You both had and hated the same English adjunct professor. Horseradish made you both violently ill.
You kept your hands clear of him, but he walked with you. When you dodged the mud puddle splattered across the sidewalk, he rested his hand on the small of your back to guide you past.
You refused to nurture the seedling within you. But your suitemate conceded that he was attracted to you. You saw the traitorous twitching in her eyes, the way she couldn’t really look at you directly. You recognized the anger and told her you weren’t interested in him.
She said that she didn’t really want him anymore. She liked someone else in her business ethics class.
You started dating him the next day.
You were still intact, a sexual nobody. And, unlike the previous three breakups, this one didn’t seem to care. He kissed you until your body swam with pleasure and awakened new nerve endings in your core.
When you came back after your third date, your roommate noticed your intact clothing and unmussed hair.
“Hasn’t anyone told you about the third date?” she asked. “He’s going to expect you to put out or he’ll probably dump you.”
Your suitemate watched you through hooded eyes as you considered this.
And the panic rose. You really liked him and wanted to be with him. And you were tired of being on the outside, looking in at all of the successful relationships blossoming around you. Why did you have to be doomed to isolation? Surely, allowing things to move to the next step couldn’t hurt anyone?
Maybe, he was the right one.
So when he fingered at your buttons or teased at your zipper, you didn’t feel like he was a duplicate of Creep Number One, as you liked to call him. You were an adult woman ready to make this adult decision.
You still wanted to wait a little longer. You were scared of the pain.
You were scared of it being meaningless, of it just being it and not the magical night that seemed to be what should happen.
You wanted the candles and the lovesongs.
You wanted the silk sheets and the stars aligned and the full moon and the perfect date which would not lead to his dorm room.
Which is where it finally happened.
Funny how the man who earned you a new nickname was your first and you were not his. He had mentioned to you somewhere over dinner, or maybe in the casual walk to and from his car, the number of lovers in his past.
You didn’t think he was bragging. You heard his insecurity, his questioning. He was lonely too. He was beyond kissing, though.
You weren’t certain that this was what you wanted when you followed him to his dorm room, when he closed the door behind you after twitching something over the doorknob.
He walked nervously around the room, turned on the television, a white noise that belied his practiced inability to seduce. He chatted about hobbies, his work, his interests. You casually listened, casually glanced at the light strobing from the television, at the people trying to save one another, trying to hurt one another.
He sat next to you on the bed. Crossed his leg, uncrossed it. His fingertips lightly stroked your shoulder. In concert, you moved toward him, his slightly parted lips.
Like the movies, you tilted your head in a complementary angle to him. Stretched your head forward. Your lips met. An emotional carbonated rush flooded you. Each time you kissed him, the intoxication, the sense of heaviness plumbing your joints left you an inch from fulfillment.
In his arms, the loneliness was staved. With him, you knew who you were.
You were love.
Later, he wasn’t as impressed as you hoped he’d have been with you and your inexperience.
He confessed to looking at other women. Not touching. Just looking.
But in his looking, he was also fantasizing.
You were “okay.”
But he’d “had better.”
The sexual recipe you followed had failed. You had no idea what you had been doing and now you were damaged goods and he released you to the world where you were once more a tidbit on the side of the road.
The girl who had wanted to be with him learned of the breakup. She flaunted her interest, snaked her walk in front of him, offered him her wares. The girl who had encouraged you to be with him now called you a slut. To your face. Because she had been doing that for the last two months behind your back.
First you were a prude.
Then you were a tease.
Now you were a slut.
Just be yourself.
Just love yourself.
With all those names, you weren’t certain how you could. So you plunged two fingers down your throat and melted your body into tiny clothing and learned to walk in a way that suggested knowledge and availability.
You earned a degree in business and opened a flower shop because, naturally, you would. You plaited love into the stems, wrapped desire laced ribbon with wire at the edges around bouquets. You knotted bows, tied together dreams. You delivered hope and promises and pain.
Several times a month, you received the castigating, angry phone calls of the scorned, the cuckolded.
You delivered vases of red rimmed thorns with messages…
They don’t paint those names on souvenir mugs. If they did, businesses could never keep them in stock.
Because casual one-night stands left you feeling lonely and filthy, you decided to overhaul yourself. You walked the cosmetics aisles in grocery stores and then in high end department stores. You went to the temples of specialized boutiques and you invested.
Your body swelled with power. You could change, alter, and improve yourself. With special brushes, tweezers, wax, and thread, you could refurbish your body and finally find some sense of peace. You could find your way into acceptance.
But the gnawing loneliness was not sated.
You went to bars and churches. You created accounts on dating sites. You found occasional moments, the dates that lead to more dates that lead to expectations that were hollow and so emotionless that you refused and they ghosted you.
Passive aggressive dumping. Kinder than the first. Just as painful in the end.
And then you met him, the man for tonight.
He’d meant to go to the dry cleaners next to your shop; he was so focused on his phone, he didn’t notice he’d entered the wrong business. He came out of his digital unconsciousness when he knocked over a vase, the flowers and water spilling down his pants leg.
“What the hell?” he said.
You felt the instant attraction. This was how it happened in movies, television, books, the romance how-to guides that you followed religiously. The serendipitous moment. You stepped away from the register, snagged the paper towels under the counter, approached the awkward scarecrow with his arms lifted over his head, his clothing dangling from one hand, his offending phone clasped uselessly in the other.
“I’m sorry,” you said, even though you should have known better. You shouldn’t have put that perfect arrangement of flowers in the perfect vase in the perfect place for customers to see and buy on impulse because they forgot someone’s special, significant event.
He looked down at your hand that was offering the paper towels so he could wipe up the water that was creeping up his knee, toward his thigh.
“Don’t bother,” he said, turned around, his clothing brushing your face. You smelled his cologne, a scent of old leaves within a wood, a touch of earth within embers.
The door chimed with his departure and you were left within a penumbra of glass and cut flowers.
Minutes later, you were blotting up the water from the dark, scratchy fibers of the industrial carpet. The door chimed and you said to the carpet and the tattered paper towels, “Just a minute.”
The would-be customer said nothing while you finished cleaning the mess. When you righted yourself, clasping the sodden mess, you recognized him.
“I’m so sorry,” you repeated.
“It’s not that big a deal,” he said. “I should have been paying more attention.”
He dug into his back pocket, extracted his wallet.
“What do I owe you?” He fingered through several bills.
“It was my fault,” you replied.
His face twitched and a perplexed half-smile crescented. His eyebrows furrowed, he lifted his eyes from his money to you.
“Okay?” he said.
He glanced around the displays, calculating. You wondered if his girlfriend or lover or whomever would appreciate what he did or immediately suspect that he’d done something wrong. His eyes rested on nothing as they did a second, a third sweep.
“Look, let me make it up to you,” he said with self-assurance. “How about I take you out to dinner tonight?”
You noticed that he didn’t ask about your boyfriend, lover, husband, anything. Your initial enamor collapsed a little. You didn’t think you’d broadcasted your isolation.
But then he gave you a cocky, coy smile and you surrendered.
He glanced at your operating hours.
“Pick you up at seven?”
He left, not asking where you lived. Regardless, you took a long lunch to go home, filled your travel case with make-up, and snagged that cute dress you’d just bought.
Between customers, you prepared, intensifying eyelashes, flecking the corners of your eyes to highlight the shadowy depths within. You brushed color across your lips, rimmed them with a headier intensity. Around you, music cascaded, the rose blossoms plumped voluptuosity. Irises sang out choruses, praising your beauty.
Steadily, men and women entered the store, fingered the wares, were drawn to the counter where you hovered and smiled. With an unconscious reverie, they migrated through your inventory, made requests, paid the sums you quoted without hesitation.
The day was perfect.
He arrived a little late, just thirty minutes. Your innate patience was complemented by your beautiful forgiveness.
He tapped on the door and you came around the counter and stood within the circumference of the recessed lighting. His breath caught.
That first date was magical. It was a Monday night and you weren’t home, watching television while eating a microwaved chicken potpie. He was drowning in your presence and you loved it when he folded his hands around your face, as though in prayer, and kissed you.
You kissed him back and an effervescent intensity bubbled up through you. He leaned back and that cocky, coy smile appeared. The lightness faded, the bubbles popping.
“You are so damn sexy,” he said. He waited for you to thank him.
He saw you for what you built, not who you were. But he had kissed you and in that moment, you were willing to settle.
You dab perfume on your finger, press your finger into the crook of your neck. You moisten your fingertip, press it against the pulse in your wrist, kiss your wrists together. Scented, primped, primed, and ready, you step into the tiny dress, fold yourself into tailored cuts. You check the lift of your breasts, that they are cupped in the correct places. The hem huddles mid-thigh, clasped against your smooth skin. Returning to your sofa, you wait. You try to read more about Prufrock and his un-lovesong but the words catch. Instead, you put the book back on the coffee table next to the unlit candles and wait some more.
He comes in without knocking, a confident grin spreading when you rise.
“Hey babe,” he says.
That same disappointment from the first time he kissed you screeches into your abdomen.
His eyebrows jerk up and down. Approval.
The satisfaction you felt sours into a bitter aftertaste. A night spent on your couch, wearing your comfy pajamas while watching silly movies sounds enticing.
“You want to do take out, eat here? We can watch TV,” you offer.
“But you look great,” he replies, holding out his hand. “Come on. Let’s go.”
You follow him to his car parked out front. The headlights blink and the locks tumble open. He walks around the car, gets in without a word.
You’re standing outside, looking at your skewed reflection in the automobile’s yellow, concave surface. You don’t understand your hesitation. This is the romance that you can earn with your imperfect looks and sonorous insecurity. The confidence you have painted on will disappear in your shower tonight after you are done. He will see you. He will reject you. And the cycle will continue.
The window slides down; he leans over.
“Come on, babe.”
Your hand is on the cold metal of the handle. Is this all you’re worthy of?
You created a face and a body and a personality that you don’t know. All you know is her name.
“My name is Helen,” you say.
“Okay.” Impatiently, he leans over, his eyes roaming the length of your body. He reaches over, pops open the door.
“Come on. We gotta go,” he says, settling back into his seat. His phone whistles. He chuckles at the text bubble. Taps a reply, hits send. The phone makes a swooping sound. He’s bragging about you, about being with you.
You find no compliment within this. He’s bragging about being with a fake you. The real you is upstairs, sitting on the couch, your feet tucked up under you, as you read poetry and ignore the television. You love that you, the one who wears fuzzy pajamas with filthy hems because the legs are too long and you refuse to cuff them because you like the cloth cupping your feet when it’s cold. You love the you who sings out of tune love songs and dances like a crazy woman when the downstairs neighbors aren’t home and can’t complain about how loud you thump. You love the you who loves the lonely man who exists in poetry and walks along the ocean, wanting to hear the mermaids sing.
You like getting dressed up and made up and feeling pretty. You like the tightness of your skin and its sultry feel. You enjoy being wanted and appreciated.
But you don’t like him.
You know he’s told his friends that you’re going to put out tonight. You know he’s excited because it’s your third date and can’t wait for the climactic conclusion, even if he won’t call you by your name.
You step away and he realizes that you’re retreating. With alacrity, he steps out of the still running car, comes to you, wraps his arms around you.
“What’s wrong?” Your resolve corrodes. The heat of his body against yours, his solidness is a reminder of the continual loneliness that you loathe. As though hypnotized, your hands raise, adhere to his chest. He leans forward, kisses you. A closed mouth, hard kiss. He slips back, takes a breath, comes in again. His lips part, the tip of his tongue enters.
You relax into the kiss, lean into him. His hand slips down your back, follows the curve of your buttocks. His fingers touch the hem of your skirt, flicks payfully at the edge.
It’s not Friday.
You tap on his chest, jerk your head back, a string of spittle hanging between you.
“What?” His eyes are mirthful, his fingers play a song on your ass. “God, babe. I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” He leans forward again, his mouth slightly agape. You recoil, your face slinking back into your neck, and your double chins appear.
His hands fall uselessly to his sides and he jams them into his pockets.
“What’s going on?” he demands. Movement. A slight shifting.
“My name’s Helen,” you say.
“I know. Look, I don’t have all night,” he fumes.
But you do. You have all the nights in the world, in history, in time. You have the nights of yesterday and today and tomorrow and they will not include him.
You turn around, walk back to your apartment building. Behind you, the door slams.
“Bitch!” he shouts.
You take off the shoes, hook the heel straps around your finger.
You’re on the first landing when he calls you a tease.
You’re at your apartment door when his car’s tires squeal in protest. He shoots forward until he’s feet away from the speed bump and he hits the brakes. Eases over. Guns the roaring engine once more.
You unlock your door, step inside, drop the heels, and lock the door behind you. You snag the book of poetry and go to your bathroom. The mermaids shoot perplexed looks at one another. You weren’t supposed to be home for hours. You weren’t supposed to come home alone.
You flip the curtain out and ignore their protestations, turn on the hot water, seal the tub.
The water rises and the dress falls. You step out of it, kick it into the hall. You ease into the water, hiss a little at the heat. The water slides through your hair, spills into your ears. Sound is muffled, amplified, a series of chords as you adjust, the water flicking around your knees, up your thighs, across your arms and chest.
Under the water, you scrub at your face. You feel your skin, feel yourself. Your body relaxes from the shape you had conformed it to.
Your mouth breaches the water. You release the tension concealed within your lungs and chest.
Take in a long breath.
And your body rises to the surface.