The first time we were together, you told me your name. In full, just the way it appears on your passport. We were two strangers with only the impersonality of our names to call one another by. I unearthed your needs without cause and the loose soil sifted through my fingers like silk.
You said, “I feel like I’ve known you a lot longer.” I said, “I know.” You made me remember the sensation of a child’s simple pleasures, a feeling that had been buried for a long time. You kindled in me an untethered smile that jumped without warning at the sight of you. I surprised myself at my submission to this impulse. I realized that with you I was going to let the tide me out. Out beyond the shore, where I had stayed anchored for a long time. I had to trust that even if I woke from this sweet dream to find myself drowning, that I would have the strength to carry myself back to shore.
I spent a fair amount of time in my childhood at my friend Rachel’s house. Her family had always made me feel like I had been accepted as a fourth child. I played in the yard with Rachel and her younger twin brother and sister. We kicked a soccer ball around and decided that afterwards, we would put on our suits and get in their pool. Summers were short in upstate New York, which meant that if you had a pool, you ought to use it on hot days like this.
We went inside for a quick lemonade break, Rachel and I sinking comfortably into the couch cushions. Her bulldog Stanley was asleep on the floor, his short legs splayed out underneath him, relishing in the air conditioning.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her mother and father in the open kitchen. He was pouring a homemade marinade overtop of chicken breast and she was whipping mayonnaise into a macaroni salad. I was captivated by the nuances of their movements, the way that he would occasionally put his hand on the small of her back and she would respond with a hint of a smile that would pass in his direction. When he would tease her, she would break into a genuine, toothy smile and let out a deep cackle. There was something passing between them in the fluidity of their movements and the brightness of their faces that I was truly intrigued by.
“Hey, Rach,” her mother said, coming up behind her and ruffling her hair.
“Mom!” she said, smiling, trying to flatten her messed hair back down. Her mother had one of those faces that looked naturally like it was made for the camera as she lapsed into unapologetic laughter so easily.
“Are you guys going to be done swimming by 6, do you think?” she asked. “We’ll probably have the food done by then.”
“Yeah, I think so,” Rachel said, looking at me.
“Sure,” I said.
“Cool beans,” her mother said.
Her mother and father went back to cooking side by side, having a casual conversation as they worked. It was always strange to me, seeing these interactions that seemed so fluid and natural. The way that her mother and father shared in these moments, the way that Rachel’s mother would reach out and ruffle her hair.
My own family did not share in the subtleties of these moments, our house was not filled with the spontaneity of laughter. My parents never interacted in this way with one another, with that kind of harmony and rhythm of movement. I never saw these kinds of looks pass between them. Usually, they seemed only to speak to one another when they needed something, when a duty needed to be done. They functioned within their own spheres of existence. My own mother never would have touched hair in the same kind of playful way that her mother did, this fleeting moment of intimacy.
In my own home, we existed, it seemed, just out of arm’s reach from one another.
When I cannot sleep at night, lying under your sheet, fears race along the tracks in my mind, gliding across my consciousness like blurred boxcars. Where will we be in a few months? Will I still have you, or will I say good-bye after graduation and not see you again? I don’t dare to talk to you about these things. Instead, we talk about nothing. You tell me the most famous twenty-two-year-old actor, a name I don’t recognize. We laugh at the show on TV. At dinner, you tell me about the different kinds of sushi. This is nigiri and that is sashimi. I am not a sushi connoisseur. I talk about the current fashions I like and don’t like. You say that women dress for other women in the same way that men’s muscles are for other men. You tell me about your job interviews and ask where I plan to live in the city. There are wisps of acknowledgement of a future, but there are no promises. I have to accept that our body language is enough, as I don’t dare to verbalize these things I feel because I am scared. I am scared they will fall short, will constrict rather than convey. I don’t dare to utter them, to do any more than to squeeze when you grab for my hand. I don’t dare to get too near to that thing we might call love.
My sister sometimes mentions how difficult it is always being reminded of her “biological clock.” She is 28. She works in a laboratory setting with primarily middle aged coworkers that have children her age. The women have sometimes asked her about her relationship status, to which she always replies that she is not seeing anyone. It is sometimes easier not to explain circumstances, she says to me, in a world where relationships always seem so unstable.
For some time, she was seeing a Ghanaian man. We only told each other about our romantic partners. It had taken me awhile to find the words to tell my mother and father that I was seeing someone regularly. My sister never told my father about the Ghanaian man and when she told my mother, the reception was cold. We had always been told simply as children that a man should treat a woman well and if he made us happy, then that was all that mattered. In practice, as adults, it seemed that this was in fact far more complicated than that.
Somewhere along the way, there were a series of failures on our part to conform to the "perfect" kind of love that dangled ambiguously over our pasts. Evidently, love was not a freedom that we would be able to enjoy. I loved a Jewish man and she loved an African man. We had been raised to believe that love just happened. We had not been given a rulebook, but in adulthood, when love was inevitable, we figured out that there were indeed rules that we were breaking. Perhaps this is why every love was a discretely shameful one, why we could only confess to one another. Perhaps we were too sensitive to the persistence of derogatory remarks around the dinner table at family holidays, too aware of the nagging sensation that there would be no warm and integrated family gatherings.
It would be passed off that we had been liberalized, as though it is a kind of shock treatment that changes you forever. It would be passed off as a phase that surely we had the capability to come out of. I feared that it would always be too great of a leap for family and these romantic partners to coexist. Would we always be damned to live separate lives, with seemingly separate identities? Would we always be straddling these split narratives?
In the night, it is the artificial glow of the lamp lights outside that tamper with my sleep. I trace the shadows that have fallen on your face and the stillness that lies underneath your sealed eyelids. I can see you in shades at night, like a charcoal drawing. Only the comforter is a soft blue. I am inspired by these contrasts and I admire you while I feign sleep, knowing that in the morning this illusory gray radiance will be gone. I have an impulse to reach out and touch your arm, if only for a moment, to provide a guarantee that you will not fade into the darkness. My desire to substantiate your being over my being, my being over your being, calls out to my other senses. I wonder if sleep is more important now, or staying wakeful enough to ink this image of you in my mind. I want to imagine that you are mine, in that eternal sense. But I know that this state is momentary, and like a dragonfly’s wings, it is fragile. The sun will be back in the sky, we will be back in motion, and I will have to let go.
“He can only see contrasts in shades at this point,” my cousin said. I held her 6-week old baby, sitting on the couch, with him leaning into the pillow. “That’s why he is fascinated by the fan,” she said pointing to the ceiling to the dark fan against the cream-colored paint.
I imagined children as either screaming or sleeping peacefully, as only operating within these two modes. He was animated in ways I hadn’t expected. Occasionally, he would get a panicked look on his face and make choking noises, small amounts of spittle rolling out the sides of his mouth.
“Oh, he’s fine,” my cousin said. My sister and I had looks of horror on our faces the first time he went into one of his fits. Evidently this was normal.
His face began to twist up as I was holding him, the skin on his un-creased face bunching, and he began to cry. I leaned further into the couch, looking to my cousin for support.
“Somebody’s getting hungry,” she said with a sigh, and walked into the kitchen. She came back with her formula bottle and asked, “Wanna feed him?” Judging by the skeptical grin on her face, she expected me to decline.
“Sure,” I said. Maybe me five years ago wouldn’t have agreed, but twenty-two-year-old me would not let this be a missed opportunity.
“How much should I give him?” I asked, desperately hoping she would brief me on the ‘right’ way to do these things.
“Just about half,” she said, handing me the bottle.
When I eased the bottle into his mouth, he sucked down the formula greedily. His eyelids relaxed, lazed from gluttony. Some of the formula dribbled down the sides of his mouth and I was worried that he might choke as he gulped and gurgled without seeming to breathe. But he never did. I asked my cousin a few times if I should take the bottle out, trying to measure what exactly half looked like with my eyes, an impossibility with the formula sloshing at a slant.
When he was done feeding, he slipped easily into a dreamy sleep state. His breathing seemed rapid and shallow on a full stomach. He wheezed a little with each breath in as his tiny chest heaved up and down. My cousin was talking about her job and how relieved she was to have visitors. She had been living for the baby the past few weeks with very little sleep, trapped inside all day with no window to the world other than social media. She looked pale and tired as she leaned back in her chair. Looking down at the bundle in my arms, it was hard to believe how demanding he was for his small size.
I wondered what he dreamt of and what our voices sounded like. Did he dream in blurred shades of shapes, up against a soundtrack of extraneous noise? I imagined the shock of the transition from the contained and lonely walls of the womb to the alien environment of the greater world. But this is what we all experience. Was he homesick for the quiet certainty of the womb? Was this a feeling that did not go away, the desire to escape our tentative realities? Perhaps it is when the ceiling fan takes on definition and becomes more than a shadow, when we begin to experience our first moments of clarity, that we have the strongest urges to turn from them. Is it when we begin to see things for how they truly are that we wish for our vision to be blurred again? Perhaps that is the paradox: to seek understanding and purpose while simultaneously feeling the need to run from it.
Your lips came to mine decisively. The soft skin grazed, pausing to luxuriate in the tactile foreplay, tongue reveling in the potential to occupy, slipping through the parted passageway of my mouth only momentarily. My fingertips reached for your back, for the pleasantness of your heat, the ripples of muscles like rivulets, familiar tracks to run. You lead me backwards, hands guiding my hips, through the living room, through your bedroom door, to the edge of the bed. I slip my dress over my head, slip the leggings over my thighs and toss them to the floor. You peel your shirt off, unbuckle your belt, drop your jeans on the carpet.
My palms sink into the mattress as I inched onto the bed towards the far wall. You covered my body, allowing me to enfold you in my thighs. Through the barrier of your boxers and my lace you teased me with the torture of the thin material that barred you from me. You moved to my right, lying on your side. Your hand climbed the arch of my thigh, glancing the undulations from my pelvis to my breasts. This is a part of our dance, grappling with our rising heartbeats and writhing bodies growing agitated with the warmth of anticipation.
Your fingers drifted back to my thigh, tightened over the tensing sinews, tormented as they kneaded the skin. Your hand slipped down my stomach like a slope, down under the lace panties, to feel what is most foreign and most interesting, what is yours only in this space. You slip into a trance, your eyes unapologetically fluttering closed. Seeing had no merit at this point. I took your ear into my mouth, sucking lightly before I released it. I kissed your neck, burying my head between your collarbone and shoulder.
You rolled onto your back and pulled your boxers down. I teased you to the ebb and flow of your own pleasure until you could not contain it. I eased back willingly into vulnerability, ready to accept you. I was suspended in your insoluble eyes, seeing and not seeing you, present and absorbed within my own desire. The contours of your face were sweet enough to overwhelm as whatever levy that kept my resistance contained gave way. I lost contact with the constellation of your face, interlocking my fingers between yours above my disarray of hair, and gave in to the rush of relief in the icy cloudburst.
I bathed in the aftermath of your body, holding you to my chest as you rested, running my fingers up your arm and down your back. For a while, all we could hear in the room was the sound of our own breathing, the muffled slam of a door in the hallway. There was no need for reassurances when our bodies had already spoken, a place and time where there were no questions, no doubts, no worlds outside of our own. It was the pleasure of possession, the familiar need and satisfaction of that need, and the reciprocity of desire, that made me content.
“Are you sure you want to keep playing tennis with him?” I asked. “I honestly…I guess I just don’t understand.”
My sister was in the bathroom putting her sports bra, yoga pants and a t-shirt on. “It doesn’t hurt me at all,” she said from the bathroom. “I am totally over it. To be completely honest with you, I just want a tennis partner so I can use my new racket.” Sure, I thought.
“Well, just make sure it isn’t hurting you,” I said. “I don’t understand how you can be in an intimate relationship, have it blow sky-high, and then he says he still wants to be friends and drag it out like this.”
“Networking,” my sister said sharply. “Networking was how he phrased it. And he’s just doing this to make himself feel better. It’s not like we’re getting back together. There are no chances of that.” She was, as we always say, ‘putting her face on’ in the bathroom mirror.
“But I…” I let out a little huff of air and forced myself to let my words settle in my chest like a lump. The nagging little voice in my head told me it really wasn’t my business, so shut up, stop pushing it. And then the argumentative, stifled voice pushed against my restraint, argued back that Robert had been an ass through a lot of this and my sister shouldn’t do these things just to make him feel better about himself. I debated arguing my point further, but swallowed my opinions down with a gulp of coffee and kept typing the manuscript on my laptop.
My sister came out of the bathroom. “Do I look better?” she asked. She gave me an artificial grin with edges of her mouth pinned in place, teeth bared. She had wiped the touches of her hangover off with cover-up and a little makeup, touched off with a baseball cap.
“You look good,” I said. Her smile relaxed and she began digging around the closet for her racket. “You’re sure you’re up to this?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she said certainly. I wondered if she had taken me to mean: was she physically up to this after a late night of drinking? What I really meant was, are you emotionally up this? How could I say, but what about all those days you had cried about how he threw you away like garbage? How could I say, don’t you think you should move on for your own sake? How could I say, what about you? I was a protective younger sister. But I had to accept this was her choice to make. I wanted what was best for her, but I had to trust that she would be okay. Sometimes I wanted to come out and say, I am worried about you because I love you. But our family had a history of passing things off. Of course I’m okay.
The door closed with a sharp click behind her. I punched a few more letters on the keyboard. A car door slammed outside. I put the coffee cup to my lips and drank. The neighbor shuffled through the garage to use the washing machine. I clicked the last letter on my keyboard.
Last night, my mind spun echoes of the day from the comfort of your feather pillows. It was the first time I remembered dreaming next to you. Traces of its distillation still coated the walls of my memory. I couldn’t remember the details, only the impressions remained. You were still there next to me in the morning and I realized that it seemed like it was the first time I had been brave enough to succumb to a deep sleep. To trust that I would not wake up to only a smudged memory, like sloppily placed ink stamps on a canvas. To trust that when I open my eyes, I could see you with unashamed clarity, at least while the sunlight still lit the walls of your room.
ERIN GUNTHER is a recent Ithaca College graduate with a BA in writing. Currently she is completing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. She is hoping to pursue a career in teaching after graduating. She writes memoir with the goal of creating relatable, meaningful pieces by reframing and reshaping personal life events. Her writing philosophy is that everyone has a story to tell; they just have to figure out how and why they want to tell it.