Lee is the first thing I notice when I wake up in the morning, a heavy warmth in the bed next to me, almost like a person. Since I’ve been sleeping next to a person for the last few years, her presence isn’t uncomfortable, except at the moment when I realize she is a dog, not a person. Then it’s like I’m feeling around for the place where pain will be—poking at a blister and finding that the stretched skin is a little bit sore but mostly just tautly menacing, full of the threat of popping.
Lee observes the change in my breathing and immediately gets that I’m awake and starts barking and whining and wagging her tail, begging to be taken to the park. She is a beautiful, endearingly stupid pit bull mix with a brown spot on her yellow back that’s like a button you can press to make her happy. She likes to have the spot gently thumped. I roll out of bed and thump her for a while and then I get dressed. It’s summer, so I don’t have to do much in the way of getting dressed: flip-flops, gym shorts, ponytail. I feel butch and athletic. It’s crazy to think that a few months ago I felt so weak and tired. A few months ago, I had sat on the edge of my bed on weekends, when there was no real reason to get out of bed, and cried, feeling the weakness radiating from the center of my chest all along my limbs. “Is it me? Do you think it’s me?” Joseph had asked me. Later, he told me that this had been my chance to break up with him the right way, the clean, good way: “I asked!”
In the next room, my mom is asleep on the foldout couch. I invited her to the apartment where I’m dogsitting while I wait to move into a new apartment—an apartment where, for the first time, I’ll live alone. My friend Daria lives nominally alone in this apartment with Lee, but a tie rack in the closet is a sign that the arrangement isn’t going to last much longer: Daria’s boyfriend will move in, it’s only a matter of time. Every girl lives with her boyfriend in New York; all of my friends do, at least, because living with your boyfriend means paying hundreds of dollars less per month in rent than you otherwise would. Sharing a one-bedroom is hundreds of dollars a month less expensive than living with a roommate and up to a thousand dollars a month less expensive than living alone, and in a city where a decently livable one-bedroom in anything like an okay neighborhood rents for a minimum of $1,600, you don’t have to be a cheapskate or a cynic to make this calculation. This calculation makes it seem like it’s a good idea to always be in love, or at least looking for love, or pretending to be looking or pretending to be in love.
For a minute, as I stand in the kitchen drinking a glass of orange juice from Daria’s fridge, I let the future unspool in front of me a little bit. I think about how at some point I will want to just sit on the couch and watch TV on a Friday or Saturday night and how all of the people I’d want to do that with will be sitting on their own couches with their boyfriends. Maybe I’ll invite myself over to sit with them and the boyfriends, all watching TV together. Maybe after the TV-watching I’ll invite myself to crawl into bed between them, not for sex, I mean not exactly, just for the warm animal comfort of lying in bed with someone, talking idly about whatever before falling asleep.
Maybe I should get a dog.
My mom is yawning and stretching. “Good morning. Going to the park? Did you sleep well? This foldout couch is more comfortable than I thought it would be. Should I make some coffee, or finish the dishes from last night? I had a couple of strange dreams! You’re up early!”
The nice thing about my mom being around is that it means I’m not alone. Not being alone keeps the blister unpopped. But then there’s every other thing about my mom being around.
“I believe in observing at least a two-hour moratorium on speaking immediately after waking up,” I try.
“Mmhm. Did you want to go to the bookstore today? You’d mentioned something about that. We have the rental car, so this is a good time to run errands! I need to eat something soon for my blood sugar.” My mom is bustling around as she talks, folding the couch back up, running a comb through her pretty, sensibly bobbed hair. “I really did enjoy sleeping on this foldout couch! But I thought, in case we wanted to sit on it, I should fold it up. You might want to think about getting something like this for your new apartment. I think they’re not too expensive.” My mom’s shoes are on now. There is nothing I can do to stop her from coming along to the park, and Lee is barking, circling around the door.
The summer that my parents were twenty-six, they got married. In the snapshots from their wedding, they’re beautiful despite, or maybe because of, their 1977 haircuts and outfits. In an era before wedding-themed reality shows and bridal expos and “wedding photojournalists,” my parents had stared into each others’ eyes and promised to love only each other for the rest of their lives. Implicit in this promise were a series of subpromises: promises to move into an apartment and cook healthy meals together and snap more snapshots and have mutual friends and take beach vacations and have a baby and move into a town-house development and have another baby and move into a real house and work every day and send their children to college and have spats and take ballroom dancing classes and have complicated shared retirement plans.
This summer I am twenty-six and I am living temporarily in the windowless, unventilated attic of a loft in a converted warehouse whose inhabitants call it “the Beast House,” with all my possessions—basically, a computer and some clothes—stuffed in garbage bags on the floor of my room.
When we get back from walking Lee, it’s time to go to my old apartment to feed my and Joseph’s cats, who weren’t allowed to move to the already cat-replete Beast House with me and anyway the custody details haven’t been worked out yet. I assume we’ll end up splitting the cats—there are two, so, perfect—but I’m not sure because I haven’t talked to Joseph since I left. I haven’t been back to the apartment, which he’s now sharing with one of his bandmates, either. His band is playing a show in Boston this weekend, which is why neither he nor the roommate is available to feed the cats.
“What a beautiful day!” says my mom as, behind the wheel of the rental car, she straps on her dorky sunglasses. “Do you want a calcium softchew?” I shake my head. We drive under the BQE and through the Hasidic part of Williamsburg, with my mom talking the entire time about the scenery we’re passing and what kind of people live in what neighborhood and the smell of steak blowing out of the exhaust vents at Peter Luger. She asks a lot of questions, like: Why is that building boarded up? Who would want to live in a fancy glass high-rise next door to a building that’s boarded up? Which direction should she go on Division Street? I don’t have any answers for her. I’m thinking of what the apartment might be like when I get there, and about the last time I’d been in it with Joseph.
It had been a Friday. The previous weekend, Joseph and I had gone to his family’s house in Nantucket to give ourselves a last chance to salvage things after I had confessed to kissing someone else. The relationship-saving weekend had been strange and, like our initial confrontation about the cheating, full of terrible insults and weepy declarations that sounded like bad TV dialogue. “I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t still want to be with you!” I said, and also, “It’ll never happen again.”
During the week between the relationship-saving weekend and that final Friday, I had continued to kiss someone else, and that afternoon this guy and I had walked through the Union Square Greenmarket and he had bought me a bottle of apple juice which we’d shared, kissing. I had then taken the subway all the way home to Greenpoint and I had gone to the C-Town and bought a Styrofoam package of lamb chops and a rubber-banded bunch of asparagus and a half-pint of heavy cream and angel hair pasta—a nice dinner, all the things Joseph liked, and I had come home and put the bag of groceries down in the kitchen and then I had gone to the living room to sit on the couch and stare into space, paralyzed. Finally Joseph came home. He sat down next to me on the couch and we looked straight into each other’s eyes and, as a result of six years of practice, understood what was going on in each other’s minds, mostly.
“It’s over, isn’t it,” he said, not even bothering to end the sentence with a question mark, and then, yeah, it was.
A month later, here I am at the door of our old building, which is now just Joseph’s building. My body still knows exactly how to twist the key, exactly how much weight to throw toward the door. At the curb, my mom sits in the rented SUV, double-parked, talking animatedly on her hands-free cell phone in a way that makes her look vaguely psycho. I turn back around and walk through the yellow vestibule, smelling the familiar kitcheny smells of the building. I’m numb. When I open the door of the apartment, though, the cats rush to greet me and automatic tears come to my eyes. They seem so happy to see me, even though I smell like dog, even though I’ve left them behind. I kneel to pet them and ask for their forgiveness and tell them how much I love them. The cats forgive me and understand what I’m feeling and they want to comfort me. Or they want food.
The biggest change in the apartment is that it smells like ass now. There are ashtrays overflowing with the crushed butts of American Spirits on every surface, and William has switched to the cheapest brand of kitty litter, the kind that gives small, exhaust fan–less New York apartments their special sad clay smell. The top note in the ass bouquet emanates from the room that looks out on the air shaft, which had been William’s studio before. Now it’s his bedroom, and it smells like his unique brand of pencil-shavings BO, which I have always weirdly loved. Shuddering, I open the windows and turn on the TV to kill the smells and the silence.On the Food Network, Giada De Laurentiis is making exaggerated grimaces of delight as she stirs white wine into bubbling risotto in a soundstage apartment that probably smells like basil and cleaning products. I sit down in the same spot on the worn-out, once-white Ikea couch where I sat for four years, and I let the show completely entrance me for five minutes while a breeze from the street makes the rice-paper blinds I bought in Chinatown three years ago tap from side to side against the window frame. The cats finish eating the food I’ve given them and sidle up to the couch and sit with me and let me pet them, and for those five minutes it’s like everything is back to normal.
In the car, my mom is talking on her hands-free device to Ms. Liu, who is a family therapist, about the moment when she became convinced that she and my dad were going to have to get a divorce. Actually, I don’t know whether this is true, but it’s possible. My parents are moving out of the house I grew up in next weekend and it’s making both of them act crazy. My mom talked a lot about this last night, the idea of a divorce—it’s true that my dad has made the whole move her problem and hasn’t really acknowledged that she’s leaving her job and her friends and her family to move to a totally new state with him. But there’s no way she will ever really divorce him; I can tell when I ask her where she would live if they got divorced and she hasn’t thought about that yet. Even I know that where you’ll live is the first thing you think about, if you’re serious about leaving.
Inside the apartment, one of the cats—the elder cat—starts to convulse. Hork hork hork hork hork. As I watch from the couch, I think about how, if the cat is dying, I’ll have to call Joseph, who will come back from Boston and help me figure out what to do with a cat corpse (cremation?) and who will console me and be pretty fucking bummed himself—he loves the cats; that’s always been one of my favorite things about him, how he says things to them like “Hey, little guy,” which makes it seem like despite his midmorning joint-smoking and dead-end job he might be a good parent someday—and we’ll cry together about the cat and then have consoling mutual-grief life-affirming sex. Or I could call the guy I cheated with. He would also console me and have sex with me—he’s sort of vaguely obligated to—but he would not be bummed if the cat died. He’s maybe allergic.
With a final hork the cat horks up a splattery hair ball and then that’s over with.
My mom and I are back in the rental car, driving back to Daria’s neighborhood. I scratch my arm absently and then I look down and notice that I have big raised bumps with wide white centers on my arm: being in my old apartment has made me break out in hives. The rental car has a pungent new-car smell and I can smell the BO and smoke still clinging to my skin in sharp opposition to it. My mom chatters blithely, either not noticing my discomfort or choosing to ignore it.
To get my mind off the apartment and my ex-boyfriend I start making myself think sexual thoughts, and then as long as I’m thinking about the guy I cheated with, I decide I might as well talk to my mom about him.
“So I started seeing this guy I really like.”
She pauses for a minute and I can tell she’s trying to figure out how to be diplomatic, which makes me resent whatever she’s about to say already.
“Really?” is what she settles on, and of course her tone of voice somehow manages to convey, “Didn’t you break up with your boyfriend who you’d been with for six years about four weeks ago?”
“Yeah and I really feel like it could be more than, like, a rebound thing. He’s so different than anyone I’ve ever been with before. He’s more like me in a way? He reads a lot of books. He likes to cook and he used to be a dancer and he has Cooking for Mr. Latte on his bookshelf. I’m making him sound gay, but he’s actually really macho in this fascinating way?”
We’re at a stoplight, and my mom is consulting the rental car’s GPS, even though we’re going back exactly the way we came. I scratch my arm.
“So what does he do?”
“The same thing I do.”
“Where’d you meet him?”
“At work, Mom. He does the same thing I do.”
We drive on in silence, with little rays of judgment radiating from my mom. Seriously, I can almost see them. Finally, in the same tone that she probably uses with the children whose court cases she represents for a living, she says, “I just think you should be careful right now. You’re making a lot of changes fast and I just don’t want you to get hurt by getting into something intense when you’re just coming out of something intense, and I know that what you’re doing feels good, right now, but . . . well, I’m not going to tell you what is or isn’t a good idea. You have to figure this out for yourself.”
I wish she would just say that she thinks I’m being an idiot and fucking up my life.
Or I wish she would tell me to stop what I’m doing. I wish someone would; I wish someone besides Joseph would care enough, ever, to do anything to prevent me from getting hurt besides saying “I don’t want you to get hurt.” But maybe this is not a realistic thing for an adult person to want.
“I don’t think I’m going to get hurt, Mom,” I say, realizing as I say it that I’m lying. But maybe it just feels like I’m lying because she puts me on the defensive.
On his bookshelves, the books are organized by the color of their spines. Even the air in the stairwell of his Lower East Side apartment building smells scrubbed and slightly plasticky, like coffee or the smell inside Crate & Barrel, and in the apartment it’s colder still. Really, his apartment does seem a lot like a store, but it’s unclear what might be for sale there. He and his roommate split the cost of weekly visits from a Vietnamese cleaning lady. The only other people I know who have a cleaning lady are my parents, and theirs only comes every other week.
He must have gotten up and cracked the door when he heard the buzzer, then returned to his seat at the far end of his long kitchen table. Now he’s sitting there, typing on his laptop. I’m a little bit winded from walking up the stairs,and when I catch my breath my heart is still beating fast. I’m excited to see him, or maybe terrified. My heart won’t slow down. I wish he’d gotten up to greet me. He looks up at me and smiles, closing his laptop. “We should make this quick. I have boxing practice in two hours,” he says.
The cleaning lady hasn’t visited his bedroom lately, from the looks of it. A huge pile of sweaty gym clothes clutters the bed, and he pushes them onto the floor so I can sit. Then he starts kissing me, smelling like good coffee and Kiehl’s products, and it’s what I’ve been thinking about all day but now it feels off. I’m suddenly aware of the bumps on my arm again—they’d been fine for a few hours but now they’re back to itching. My stomach feels full of air. The inside of his mouth tastes scraped, like he’s just flossed—blood and mint and coffee-staleness. But he’s so ardent and pushy, more like a wrestler than a boxer, and he pins me eventually. I’m on the cusp of losing myself in it when suddenly up flashes the image of the older cat trembling and straining as he puked. I brush him aside and sit up. And then nothing works out exactly right.
Afterward, we sit on the fire escape half-naked and smoke a cigarette. Because he spends so much time working out, his smoking seems glamorous—louche and earned, not depressing and desperate like Joseph’s. He passes the cigarette to me and looks away, letting the sunset kiss his profile and make him look like a still from a French movie, which is probably exactly what he’s going for, but it still works. The day has cooled and now the air is the exact same temperature as the blood that’s slowing its race through my veins. I slump against him and feel his body stiffen almost imperceptibly. He has five more minutes and then he really has to leave for boxing, and besides, sex never seems to relax him, nor does anything else.
I look in through the open window back into the room: the rumpled bed, my crumpled sundress. And then I look back at this guy, shirtless and with hardly any chest hair, and I understand suddenly that this is the last time I’ll see him like this because doing this, again, with him would be like if you found a long black hair—not even a hair, a Band-Aid, a fingernail—in your lo mein and picked out the gross bit and kept eating. You’d have to be pretty hungry to do that.
Ten minutes later I’m in a cab headed back to Brooklyn, speeding over the bridge with the warm air rushing through the window, and my hair is whipping around my face, stinging my neck. There’s only a tiny slice of sun left, and then even that slice disappears into East River and it’s getting darker fast.
On our way into the park my mom and I notice a sign that says that dogs can go off-leash after 9 P.M. which it definitely is. We’ve been talking about moving: my new apartment, my parents’ new apartment. These are chances for new starts, my mom says. Also: if my dad plays golf less often, she says, she will probably not divorce him. Lee trots on ahead of us energetically with her tongue hanging out of her mouth, focused, though it’s not clear on what, exactly. Soon, my mom and I lapse into silence and start walking in the same lockstep.
“I wonder what would happen if we let her off the leash,” I say eventually.
I stop walking, and so does Lee. My mom goes over and unclips the leash. Then we all start walking again, Lee a perfect leash-length ahead of us.
“Well, I guess that’s what happens,” I say after a while.
“Look at that,” my mom says to Lee. “You’re a metaphor.”
© 2010 Emily Gould