The sky was purple when I woke from a dreamless sleep, so different from the looping, sticky images of the night before, when I lay, blankets wrapped tight around my body, rolling back and forth, shivering and sweating, worrying about whether I’d be well enough by evening to see the woman lying beside me.
“Are you okay?” Christina whispered through the darkness.
“Yes. I feel better today. But my back still aches a little.”
My wakefulness was strong; Christina checked her phone, its blue glow casting her face in light before she put it back facedown on the bedside table. She was staring into the ceiling. How many scalloped shells were on the ceiling, I wondered. I shifted and moved the blankets; the warm smell of our commingled bodies wafted to me. I could not fall back asleep like this.
“Do you mind if we talk?” I said.
She moved her hands under the pillow, under her cheek. “Will you tell me a story? About when you were young.”
“Sure,” I said. I thought for a moment before the right memory came to me. Then I began, “When I was eleven, I went on a trip with my parents to the desert, to New Mexico. We were hiking through one of those scenes from The Searchers or Rio Bravo, and my parents were far ahead when I noticed two snakes off the trail. Their bodies were taut and they were big, too big to be one snake. I felt I was seeing something I shouldn’t have, so I picked up a rock and threw it at them, and turned and ran up the hill. By the time I was out of breath, I saw a group of Indians on horseback, wearing headdresses and war paint. And when I reached my parents I asked if they’d seen them but my parents had no idea what I was talking about.” Christina was still watching me, her brown eyes wide open. I went on, “I used to be afraid of birds, crows especially. But after that day in the desert, everything changed. I understood them, I could literally understand what they were saying when they sang or cawed, I could see their social relations, their chains of command. And most importantly, that was when I knew I was not a man, or a boy, that was when I knew I had to be a woman.”
Her eyes remained on my face. “Did you…Can I ask you…Did you ever have sex as a man?”
“Is it better as a woman?”
“Yes. But it’s still not enough reason to forgive them.”
She stayed silent. How many people had stared at this ceiling, I wondered, how many people in this city were staring at their ceiling right now, wondering about its pattern, I wondered. Christina asked if she could ask another question. Sure, I said.
“How many times have you been in love?”
“Four,” I said.
“Tell me about one.”
I laughed. “I’ll tell you about the last time I was with a man. His name was David. He was thin and tall and gentle, at least at first. He was a model, all ribs and stubble. This was when my designs were just starting to make money, and David was starting to pick up more and more jobs. But as he made more and more money, he started wanting more. He wanted to pamper me, he said, take me out to fancy places, buy me shoes and bags, and then he wanted to move in together, to a bigger apartment. I agreed. And I don’t know if the money changed him, I don’t know if people really change, but I do I know we’re all meant to love. It’s just that loving someone doesn’t always mean you can live with them. Because as soon as we moved in together, as soon as we arrived in that bigger apartment, that was when it became an obsession for him, wanting more.
“Did he cheat on you?”
“No. We were always faithful to each other. At least we were open with each other about our desires for other people. Most of the time they disappeared just by talking about them. What I mean is that he began to need…reassurance. His wants outgrew his capabilities. He started wanting to go to bigger parties, he started wanting nicer things, fancier vacations. David was intelligent but he was always more handsome than clever. Still, that wasn’t why I loved him. Or why I stopped loving him.”
“Then why did it end?”
“When he saw that he couldn’t get as much as he wanted he turned to me for reassurance. Men and their vanity. It started in the bedroom. He’d climb on me like a bull mounting a cow. It was disgusting. I pretended I didn’t mind ceding all the power or being dissatisfied as long as he was content. But it got worse. And as he realized what he wanted was always going to be out of his reach, it happened more and more often. He dominated me. And I allowed it. Because I knew that if I didn’t he would crumple. And a small man is even worse than one who wants to possess you. But as it continued, the little things he did repulsed me more and more. How he swallowed when he sipped a whiskey. How his silverware clinked against his teeth as he put a bite into his mouth. It was as if he was taking on these traits, these disgusting masculine traits, to prove that he was a man. And I knew I had to leave him. I knew, but I waited until I was strong enough. Life is so much more than waiting.” Christina blinked twice, three times. “Are you waiting for anything?” I asked her.
“Not really. I want to live in New Zealand eventually.”
“It’s good to travel. I think that when you stop wanting to travel and explore the world, that’s when you’re ready to die.”
A car came down the wet street, its lights flashed onto the ceiling and it receded into the distance. I stared at the spot above that had been momentarily illuminated. Christina’s eyes remained on my cheek. I said, “I met a man at a gala recently who told me he’d been a wanderer throughout his youth. He’d go to foreign cities and meet people and and listen to music and dance, and have new experiences, and he did this until well into his thirties, when he decided he was too old not to have health insurance. So he got a job in the public school system. He hated it but he said the benefits were worth it, and he had summers off. Then two years ago he was thrown from a bus, and he said he was glad he’d made the right decision twenty-five years earlier. But when he told me this I pitied him, and because I liked him it frustrated me to feel pity. Because that meant I didn’t understand him. I thought I did but then the pity came over me and I saw that I didn’t. I just felt sad for him. That he would sacrifice all those years for an accident. For his own downfall.”
“That he was hoping he would get hurt?”
“Exactly. And I wasn’t sure what was worse, or if they were the same, feeling sad for him for believing only in his own death, or pitying him for sacrificing his life to that belief.”
Christina made a thoughtful noise. She said, “I think a lot of people sacrifice their lives for their jobs. There’s this one oncologist at the hospital. He was making rounds on a woman with Stage IV cancer I’d been attending. She’s been coming in for months now, and every time I see her she looks worse and worse. Last week I asked him if it was worth her pursuing treatment if her quality of life was falling so rapidly. I was hinting that maybe he should talk to her about hospice. But he didn’t get it. He said she’d have to be unable to communicate, unable to walk and unable to care for herself before they discontinued chemo. I should have been more direct but I didn’t feel like getting into it. He’s the kind of man who—yesterday I was taking lunch in the break room and he saw me reading this book called The Consciousness of Trees. He asked if it was any good and I told him it was, it was all about how trees communicate with each other, how oaks, for example, protect their own acorns by sending nutrients to them through their root systems. He said sounds like the author was smoking a lot of dope.”
I moved my hand over her hip and we kissed twice. Christina smiled and sat up. “Now I’m wide awake,” she said and sighed.
“Do you want to get up?” I asked her.
“In a minute. It’s my turn to tell you a story.” She folded her hands over the covers, held above her breast. “So yesterday, while I was biking home I saw this old school punk in the street wearing a hospital bracelet and a blanket. He was barefoot and he had long black hair and an omega tattooed under his eye. He was the kind of guy who had seen The Sex Pistols live and was now on death’s door in middle age. I pulled over and moved onto the sidewalk to ask if he was okay. He said, Can you give me a ride home? I was like, I’m on a bike man. But I offered him bus fare and walked with him to the closest second hand shop and bought him a pair of shoes and fresh socks and sent him on his way.”
“How much did it all cost?”
“Fifty bucks.” She shrugged and said, “Jeff. His name was Jeff.”
In the silence that followed, I noticed the array of half-drunk tea mugs on my dresser, the pile of dirty clothes spilling from behind the door. When she leaves, I thought.
“Do you ever do things like that?” Christina asked me.
I thought for a moment and said, “Last week I was sitting in a park reading when a guy came up to me. He said he was bipolar and he was having trouble finding work. I gave him a dollar and wished him luck. After he left I wondered why I didn’t give him more, why I didn’t give him the twenty I had in my wallet.”
“At least you gave him something,” Christina said. We stared at each other then, and she moved her hand to my face, trailed her fingers along my jaw and rested her head on my shoulder. This, I thought, is intimacy, and the consciousness and tenderness of it moved me: this I’d been longing for, and after the farce of the night before and other intrigues over the past few months, it struck me as absurd and I laughed.
“What?” she said.
“I was just thinking about how I was looking for you this summer. I went on so many absurd dates.” I laughed again, “One was with a woman named Mauritania. Her parents fell in love there, she told me, while in the Peace Corps. I asked if she’d ever been or if she wanted to go and she said, It’s not at the top of my list, which should have been a red flag. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt; a mutual colleague set us up, we were supposed to get along because we both have good taste. Anyway, after a couple of times of almost meeting, she suggested we go to that pizza place, Zizzi. She was pretty, she had high cheekbones and small blue eyes and fake breasts, which she admitted within the first ten minutes of meeting me. But then another strange thing happened: just after our pizza came, she pointed out the window and laughed, and she started choking, she covered her mouth with a hand and I said, Are you okay, and she nodded and said, Did you see that fat woman on the bicycle. She said, I think fat people are so funny, does that make me a bad person? I nodded and we both laughed. After we ate, she asked what I was doing next and I said, I’m going home, and out of politeness, I invited her back. So once we got here, I was going to open a bottle of wine when she asked for a glass of water. I ran the tap and she said, Oh, actually do you have any bottles? and I said no but the water’s good here. She said, You don’t have a water filter? I said no again and she said, The pipes in this part of the city are old, though they’re supposed to have lead in them. I said that’s not true, the pipes were recently tested and they’re fine. She said, I use a water filter at home. And I just looked at her until finally she said, What should I do? I said, I don’t know, maybe you should just leave. So she did. I don’t even know why I agreed to meet her after the first time she canceled. If it doesn’t happen easily, it shouldn’t happen at all.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Christina said, “I recently had a similar experience with an old friend who came to visit at the end of summer. We fooled around a bit in college—” When Christina said the words ‘fooled around’ I felt a jab of jealousy; I did not want to imagine her ‘fooling around’ with anyone. But at the same time I knew this was good, reciprocal perhaps after my story about Mauritania; by telling each other stories like this we were becoming closer. So she went on, “Priscilla was her name. She’s in her last year of med school, and she came here for a long weekend to see her aunt or something. So we sat at that tapas place, Sevilla over on 21st, and she mentioned she had a boyfriend. She said, He’s wonderful, I’m going to marry him. Then she went on about how the men in this city are so striking, how her Airbnb hosts for example, a Scandinavian-looking couple, the man was incredibly good-looking. But as she told me this I noticed that even though we were only on our second glass of wine, her right eye was drifting. Priscilla was always a very intense person, she loved to drink. After our next round, she paid and I walked with her to her house, since it was on the way to mine. As we walked, she asked if I knew that my college girlfriend used to cheat on me. She said that one night at a party, she walked in on her crying, standing very close to some guy. It looked like they had just been kissing, and then he led her into another bedroom. I knew that my ex was bi, but we were never in an open relationship. So I tried not to let this bother me, since it had been years earlier, but I was a little annoyed, at both my ex if that was true, which I assumed it was, and at Priscilla for bringing this up. But by the time we reached her house I was feeling better and she poured us some wine and we sat on the steps. It was a beautiful summer night. Then suddenly, Priscilla jumps up and sprints down the street. I ran after her and when I caught up, she was laughing, but it was so strange, it felt so forced, like she was trying to recreate a scene out of a movie.”
“Life imitates art,” I said.
Christina shook her head in disbelief and sat up a little, re-bunching the covers around her breast. “It seemed so fake,” she said, “And then she ran into someone’s yard and started plucking their roses. The front door of their house was open; you could hear the TV inside and people’s voices. I pulled her by the arm and she followed me off the lawn, throwing rose petals behind her. Then she stopped and when I turned, her lips bounced off mine and she said, I know I told you I’m in love, but what if we go back to mine and no one ever finds out, if you keep it a secret. Just like in France. And then she kissed me again. I wasn’t that interested, but I wanted to make sure she got home safely. And when we got back to her house she said, I wish we could just sleep together and nothing would happen. I said we could, but she said no, and she pushed me up against a wall and start to unbutton my jeans. I told her not to but she kept going. I said, without thinking, joking, mind you, I said, It’s like you’re trying to rape me. And she pulled away and said, Get the fuck out of my Airbnb. I thought she was kidding, but she said it again, Get the fuck out with her mouth hanging open in this very ugly way. I tried to apologize but she started to cry and she kept saying this is so fucked up, this is so fucked up. She finally stopped and asked me nicely to leave. So I did. But for days after, I felt so bad, like the whole evening was my fault, and I wondered if I’d led her on or been insensitive or if she had overreacted. Still, I’m not sure.”
“It sounds like she was a bit…off,” I said. “You know how doctors can be. All that time in school. And then they finally get that power…” I trailed off because I was thinking of power, and of Patti, how I felt powerful after submitting my portfolio for that grant, and I messaged Patti, and that was when my sickness began. I wanted to go to the jazz bar and then maybe have a casual encounter, and when Patti messaged back suggesting the jazz bar, I saw it as a sign that my powers were working but my stomach got worse, and when I met her later she arrived forty minutes late and asked what I did to my hair and said my eyebrows weren’t thick enough to wear it so short, she said she’d been partying a lot lately, and when I told her my stomach hurt she asked if I had the shits, last time I saw her she promised she was going to submit her application to finish her degree, she would submit it while she was on unemployment, she said, but when I asked about it she said she still had a few weeks before it was due, she showed me the food diary she was keeping, not to judge herself or reel in her eating habits, just to check in, she said, she wanted to lose twenty pounds over the next two months but when she opened her moleskine I saw chips…2 cookies…2 glasses of milk…2 beers…and she justified it with the anniversary of her brother’s death. And when I told her I needed fresh air, she smuggled her Corona out under her coat and insisted on coming over to my place for the first time, which reminded me why I’d never invited her over before, it’s so barren, she said, and she picked up a pillow and tossed it aside, These are your sheets, she said, that picture of panties she sent me a few months earlier asking if they were mine, I blew her off for six weeks after that, and once I give her back the book she lent me, she took one off my shelf and said, My turn to borrow one of yours, though she won’t read it, I’ll never get it back, I don’t care, I just wanted her to leave, sweat prickled at the corners of my forehead, my lower back ached, and before she left she said, What about my hole? As soon as the door shut I ran into the bathroom and upchucked, brushed my teeth and got into bed, sweaty with chills, she messaged me—I guess I’ll call up Hannah, and I knew if I had given in to her, if I had cheated on Christina with her, even though Christina and I weren’t technically official yet, I knew I’d have been sick for days.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Christina said.
“Yes,” I said. “Much.” And how sweet Christina is, why did I even call Patti in the first place, to give her book back or to demonstrate my power? When I told Christina I was afraid I was still contagious she said she’s around bugs all day, she’d be over in the evening, that I should try to get some rest before. She had healed me; that was power, power in love.
Through the window, lumbar bodies of cumulus hung orange, their bellies a shade of purple. I told her then, “You’re healing me.”
She said, “I can’t believe we’ve only known each other for two weeks.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s so rare in our era.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I think people are afraid to feel deeply. They’re afraid that if things move too fast they’ll get it wrong, and the mistake will expose them as weak or foolish. They’re afraid to enter uncertainty. But when you find something good I think you should accept it and explore it fully.”
I inserted my arm under Christina’s head, and pulled her to me.
“You’re right,” she said and faced me in the growing light. She put her head against mine. Our breathing took on the same rhythm.
And fell back asleep.
Daniel R. Adler was born in Brooklyn, New York. They have attended New York University and University of Edinburgh. Their work has appeared in The Ogilvie, Five2One, ThoseThatThis, The Opiate, and elsewhere. @danielryanadler