We both order junior steaks, and she asks the waiter to turn on the fight. She says it just like that, “the fight,” and he understands. He’s got a lumpy, bald head, peppered with drops of sweat and he goes over to tell the guy behind the bar. We are seated beside a wall. Across the restaurant, people are seated beside windows.
She asks, “How’s your summer been?”
I say, “I moved.”
“Oh yeah? How was that?”
For my last month or so living in the old house, they played the same Tom T. Hall song every day and suggested I didn’t leave. “Call the whole thing off,” they’d say, “It’s not too late.” And I would say it was fine, that people moved all the time, people just moved. Anyone who found somewhere that cheap so much closer to the city would be stupid not to take it. Then I’d go up to my room, close the door, open the window, and cry. I give her a brief lesson on the geography of the suburbs. Bridges I drive over now.
She begins to tell me that her summer was fine, except that the guy she was seeing drowned. She glances at the fight, frowns, then back at me. Yes, it was pretty sad. Pretty shocking. Pretty tragic.
“The guy you were seeing drowned?” I repeat. I can see it clearly. I must be remembering a scene in a movie. The man is wearing a 1920’s style bathing suit and has center-parted hair. A British accent. British teeth. We have whiskeys and are pushing the ice cubes around with black stirring straws. I think of the Titanic. Now that’s drowning.
“We don’t need to dwell on it,” she says.
“How long were you two together?”
“A month and a half,”
“See? It’s strange. It’s strange. I’m not sure what I’m grieving – a summer fling? A future? The children we could’ve had, I mean.” She looks down at her drink. It’s gone. So are the steaks. I wish we had just stopped talking long enough to enjoy them. We order more drinks, doubles this time, and fries to split. The sweat drops on the waiter’s head are bigger now, as if he’s crying from his scalp. “So now you’re on a trip?” She asks. That’s why I’m here. Passing through and staying at her place. Before we came out here for steaks, she laid a folded mattress topper on the floor beside her own unmade bed, then said “It’s like a side-car bed.” Her place is down the road from the restaurant, close enough to walk. She’s got a window box herb garden and a rabbit named Misty and the whole place, an unairconditioned studio, smells like it. Her linens are the color of surgical scrubs and I can tell, somehow, that she took them from the hall closet the day she left her parents’ house.
“Yeah,” I say. “Just, you know, to shake things up.” We were never very close. I realize this now, downing half my whiskey. It was only ever proximity and I try to conjure an image of it. There was the time we drove an hour away to see our professors present at an Environmental Studies conference. All I can remember is coming back, her maroon station wagon cresting a hill in the springtime. And I think we had discovered a commonality, lactose intolerance or left handedness, something that seemed to matter then. And now we are here, looking down at the wood laminate table, a little uncomfortable because lonely people are afraid of each other.
“There are three rounds,” she says, picking up her steak knife and pointing it towards the television, “and a one-minute break between them.” I nod but don’t turn around. I am not sure if I don’t care, or if I do care and that’s why I can’t look.
“So, tell me more about the house,” she urges, using her knife’s tip to draw a smiley face in the juices left on her plate.
“The house?” I ask.
“Yeah, the house, the one you just moved to.”
I stare at her and nod and think about the place. How all of the cabinets are labeled and none of the women wear bras and at night we sit around with our breasts falling in all directions and talk about dogs until one of us cries – cries about how good dogs are. Then we talk about talking, about ourselves and our habits. We talk about how we always talk about dogs until one of us cries. How strange this is. How special we are. Then bedtime, and we walk around the kitchen without looking into each other’s eyes. “There’s a big front porch,” I say.
“Hey, that’s great,” she says. Then I sigh and look at the wall. There is a small, framed map of the state. That’s all there is. If we were really friends, I would’ve insisted we sit by a window. I study the image of the state, floating on a white page, trying to remember the borders. Was it landlocked? Was that a lake coast, up at the top? “It was a long, Catholic service,” she says, through the ice cube she’s chewing. I turn in time to watch her wipe a drip of water from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. “Catholic with an open casket. And I hate open caskets and I hate Catholic services because all their songs sound like Broadway hits – I was raised Methodist, have I told you that?”
“No, you haven’t.”
“I was, and the music is better. Anyhow, I didn’t have anyone to sit with. None of my friends would come with me. I asked one and she said it wasn’t appropriate. She wasn’t family.” I finish the watery whiskey left in my glass. She does the same.
On my last Saturday at the old house, I said that Tom T. Hall’s voice had an adolescent quality. It was a particular note, a strain of startling, boundless grief – the sort we are no longer capable of feeling once we reach adulthood but might be reminded of in a plotless dream. None of the others agreed, “not quite adolescent,” they said, frowning, “not adolescent, something else.” But there wasn’t much debate before we put the matter aside and drank coffee in the yard until only two of us were left. The shadow of the house was beginning to creep across the tufty lawn when he started in on it again, with waning conviction, saying it wasn’t too late.
The whiskey floods me with affection for her – torrents of buoyant sympathy. I float on it like a lazy river at a waterpark, filled with Band-Aids and hair and timid children, too scared to ride the real attractions. The waiter wants to know if we want another drink. We don’t. He wants us to leave but doesn’t say as much. The droplets on his head are even bigger now, and they have multiplied. I take her hand. It is puffy and claw-like, with fingernails filed to points and I think of the man who drowned and wonder how it was to be attracted to a woman with hands like this. She’s going on in a stage whisper, leaning across the table, like a conspiracy theorist. She had nothing to wear to the service, she’d never met his mom, she didn’t know what to do – bring flowers? She’d been thinking of breaking up with him (actually, she’d decided on it). She wasn’t close with his friends, and they were grieving so hard (that’s the adjective she chose: “hard”), harder than her. Should she have tried harder, she wants to know, tried harder to grieve harder? Should she have made some sort of performance? The front of her blouse is dragging in the ketchup on her plate.
At church coffee hour as a child, I used to take the jelly donuts, suck the filling out, and then put them back on the platter. Their appearance was perfectly preserved, perfectly innocuous. But there was a backwash effect. With the saliva, I mean, if you can imagine that. It wasn’t kind.
“Why are you crying?” she asks, a little incredulously, withdrawing her hand and leaning back in her seat.
“I don’t know,” I say. She looks over my shoulder at the fight and I can see it reflected in her glasses, not in any great detail, of course – just flesh and bright lights.
A few months after I make it back home autumn arrives over the course of a single weekend and in advance of the first frost, I ferry all the tropical plants from the big front porch into the living room and she texts me late one night to say that she found a dead opossum at the end of her street, that it was sweet, that it looked like it was sleeping. Before I can reply, she writes more, she says: “At any rate, it made me think of you.”