The starving artist in the apartment below yours is running out of pretentious ways to say he’s desperate, so he’s taken to spending Friday nights with you. He intersperses bites of your spring rolls with long, aimless comments about the city, how nice your sweater looks on you, tales about paint drying, a detachment to his narratives that makes you feel a twinge of connection. Already you know each other so well—he must be aware that his halfhearted stories give you a chance to disengage, as you respond, just as distantly, in small nods and understanding blinks. It’s Ren who occupies you often these days, how she would love the statue of the Headless Horseman in the cobbled square, how certain you are that you've wrecked your relationship beyond repair. You were looking for someone to set you off—it didn’t have to be her—but last time she was the nearest available target and what terrifies you is that as you get to know people you don’t get better at talking to them, you just get better at hurting them. Never Ren before, or never so harsh; you would have remembered the way she dug her bitten fingernails into her palm and froze. You don’t think you’re going to get another chance. The coffee in front of you is approaching lukewarm. Now satisfied with his meal, his own cup empty, the well-fed artist reaches across the table and takes a sip, then dumps in a spoonful of sugar, chattering about calories and Calories. Last spring, you were sprawled across Ren’s bed, half-asleep. She was trying to find nutrition facts for different kinds of lettuce, to determine the best kind to use for wraps. Accidentally, she’d told her manager she would bring a dish to the health food startup’s anniversary potluck. The answer is none of them, you said, burying your head in her old Finding Dory blanket, which had absorbed the smell of the room: vanilla and cherries and, no matter what Ren tried, a hint of singed garlic. She sighed into a set of plating instructions requiring edible thread. We’ll still be friends even if I can’t sew leaves, right? a skill which she was becoming increasingly convinced would be the difference between being fired or promoted. You reached for her hand, looked her in the eyes, and informed her, Until the iceberg lettuce melts. In trying to figure out the best methods of being sorry, so people won’t stop inviting you to eat at restaurants with them, you’ve determined that you are maybe, kind of, not a great person. Ren did still include you the last time you were in the area, although more for politeness than wanting to interact with you. With enough people around you wouldn’t have the opportunity to choke out another apology. And at what point do you stop apologizing and start being better, anyway? Now the artist, as if sensing your train of thought, has switched topics; he is talking now so you can’t ignore him. “That wasn’t it. It was completely wrong. What I wanted to do was capture...” he pauses, considering, twirls the quarter-full coffee mug in his hands. “A particular kind of loneliness,” you offer. He is speaking of a drawing he let you peek at, a snapshot of the flood of butterflies that yesterday started streaming through the city, through gates and over rusty benches, and, miles and miles due south of here, past the winding street where you and Ren used to live. There’s another single-file line of flutter just past your window, the painted ladies heading northward in a journey that will take generations to complete. Across the table, the artist flashes you a smile and changes the subject, which he often does when your judgments of him become too accurate. You’ve known him before this, sometime deep into caterpillar memory—it’s not his talent or any sort of grand symbolic allusion that informs you. It’s familiarity. His brush trails self-obsession, there’s hesitance in the weight of his twice-traced lines, his landscapes lack balance. If his drawings are as much about him as their apparent subjects, you wonder how you must give yourself away. “I didn’t hear that,” you tell the artist, when his voice goes upward in the inflection of a question. “I asked how you liked the city.” “I haven’t seen much of it. I do enjoy the path to campus every day.” And another tolerable route, through the constant brightness of the streets on the weeknights you stumble into Aldi’s just before closing time, after opening your fridge and realizing you’ve finished off the remainder of your eggs or cold cuts or vegetables. You’ve performed this procedure a few times too often for your liking in the three weeks you’ve been here. Per your typical capacity for spatial unawareness, you haven’t thought much about your brand-new pinpoint on the map, only the people you’re meeting and the people whose absence fills you with a heavy kind of empty. Footloose, you’ve replaced the scent of home with the sweetness of acetone. The little you’ve gathered beyond work is that this new location is less suburb, all city, on short walks to long talks in a university haunted by the ghosts of Nobel laureates and peopled with poets (or so the brochures say—you don’t schedule appointments to breathe the mildew of humanities libraries). “You should look around.” The artist leans back into his chair. “There’s a festival in the park tomorrow.” “Sounds fun,” you say. “Do you have time to come with me?” “Oh, of course.” Your enthusiasm seems too careful to be true, but hopefully he can tell you mean it. You’ll invite Ren here when you’re settled, too. Maybe she’ll accept. You imagine her planning routes just to cross bridges, leaning over railings to catch the glitter of scales in murky water, dew beading her hair. She is wrapping herself in a long series of impeccable scarves, her eyes catching a thousand fragmentary cities. She is telling you she thinks you don’t sleep enough, and your brain snags on the edge of this small intimacy. You want to beg her to give it back, please just give it back, but she doesn’t owe you anything, and why can’t you satisfy yourself with what you have—mid-spring, rain in the chaparral, the wild geese flying home. You can’t go back to catch the words before they leave you; they’re flickering through your fingers, slick with slime, scumming up the few memories you’ve ever wanted to own. The artist is staring at you. He understands you completely and not at all. You try not to notice his concern: watching the butterflies outside is so much less complicated. “You start working too early,” he says. “I see you heading toward the newest lab buildings before sunrise.” “It’s, well, the garbage truck, you know—” “Yes, it’s a natural alarm.” You let the lull in the conversation grow large enough he will fill it himself. He gulps down the rest of the cold, over-sweetened coffee as he begins a winding tale about the campus duck with a single human tooth and a dentist. Later, you must ask him what he is trying to decipher, staring into the mist of the morning twilight, over the dusty path that snakes around ant mounds and vernal pools to terminate in a clump of fog-hazed brutalist towers. You have to know if he believes he will ever find it.
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