He wore a washed-out black hat with the words “JP Fish Co. Ltd.” unraveling in white thread across the front. Something only a very young or a very old person would wear. It was not sunny or cold out and his hair was as full as it must have been at 20—dark, soft curls that she loved to run her fingers through, given the chance. The hat’s presence, for no purpose Nadia could divine, nonetheless seemed to get at something essential about him.
They’d gone to lunch on Amsterdam Avenue and afterwards tramped through the drizzle to her building, where she’d invited him up to her apartment, against plan. Her bedroom was a morass of wrinkled dresses and decaying sections of The New York Times and water glasses crowded on the radiator. She’d left it in such a state so she wouldn’t be tempted to invite him up, and here he was.
“Would you like some tea?” she called from the bathroom, tossing dirty underwear into the cabinet under the sink, checking that the toilet was flushed. At 29, she lived in the animalish squalor of an undergraduate.
“I’m okay,” he replied.
Her mother had woken in the middle of the night with the conviction that Nadia ought not to see Benjamin again. “You think a serious man wants to see you every two weeks?” she’d growled. “Bullshit. Stay away.” Other nights her mother communed with angels and dead cousins, so Nadia had taken this as no special sign. But the warning hit her now with an amygdalic rush as she watched him pawing through her books.
“You have the Annie Dillard book,” he said.
“Yeah, I found that in the basement of my sister’s building in DC.”
“Woah,” he said. He talked slow, with West Coast inflections, even though he was from the city.
She took a clean mug from the cabinet and dropped a satchel of green tea inside. The mug was a gift from her sister from the Memorial Hospital gift shop, inscribed “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain…” Her sister was a kindergarten teacher with cabinets full of coffee cups that said things.
She left the mug on the counter while the tea boiled and sat facing him on the loveseat, as far away as there was space for. She’d tried to end their relationship two days ago—if a few drinks in downtown bars and two nights in his apartment and several months of text messaging constituted a relationship—after he’d cancelled their plans at the last minute for some movie. Twenty minutes later, he’d texted “Sorry.” Fuck him. She shot back that it seemed like they were “going in the friends direction.” He replied that he would prefer to discuss the matter in person, which was the ostensible reason for their lunch, during which they’d ignored the subject and had their usual abstract conversation about aesthetics and their childhoods.
“So I made some allusions at lunch to what you said on Thursday,” he monotoned. His eyes were always so open, their irises completely visible. It made her uncomfortable to be the focus of such a look. Her own eyes were hooded, their whites visible only if she bulged them out unnaturally.
She was conscious of her roommate’s fuck buddy’s laughter from the other room and worried that he might emerge, shirtless, to rummage through the fridge. He was unemployed, living with his parents in Connecticut and supposedly going on job interviews in the city, but mostly just watching YouTube videos on their couch. Several weeks ago she’d come home to him bleaching the yellow armpit stains on his undershirts with her vinegar.
“I went on a lot of dates around when we met, and you were the best by far,” Benjamin was saying. “You’re fascinating and beautiful. I’m fine being friends, if that’s what you want—but that’s not what I want.”
She smiled, grappling for a response. Sans liquor, relationship talk was fucked.
“I should warn you that I move pretty slowly, emotionally,” he continued. He talked like he was on something. If so, he’d hidden the pill bottles—she’d scoured the medicine cabinet the last time she was at his place and found only Tylenol and an expired antibiotic. That was how she’d learned his last name, Andries. It sounded in her head constantly, like the rumble of the subway below her apartment.
The night before, Miles—who made plans days in advance and talked of marriage even after she’d explained the seven-inch scar on her back—had taken her to some place on his Michelin star list—Fernia or Fernania or Phenia or something; the names blurred together after a while—and afterwards fucked her slowly and cleanly, like he was reconciling a spreadsheet. Hypothetical conversations with Benjamin had kept her up all night, and she’d woken in the morning with purple hollows under her eyes. She left Miles’s apartment at noon, showered at her place, and was untangling the knots in her hair when Benjamin texted that he was on his way uptown.
I’m fucking another man and I don’t want to fuck two men at once because my college roommate did that and missed her period and even though I’d have an abortion I’d want to know.
That was something to say. That was something.
“Sometimes I wish we could just cut the bullshit and tell each other what’s really on our minds,” she said instead.
“So tell me.”
All the phrases that had kept her up the night before evaporated, and she was submerged in a ball pit of feelings, each one as shiny and bright and appealing as the next. I love you I hate you marry me I don’t believe in the institution of marriage are you seeing anyone I am/not I think we’re (in)compatible I (dis)agree this is(n’t) going to work. Pick one and aim for his head.
“I can’t unless we’re in my room. But it’s a mess,” she said, rising. “Hold on, let me just check that there’s nothing egregious.”
“I’ve definitely seen worse,” he said. The heroin addict, she thought. They’d namelessly gone through their dating history late one night and she was mildly obsessed with figuring out the identities of his high school girlfriend, the “lots of women” he’d slept with in college, his pseudo-girlfriend, his two-year girlfriend, the heroin addict he’d slept with once who was dead now and anyone he was fucking currently.
There was nothing to be done about the mess. She palmed a mason jar of rotting water into which, several weeks ago, she’d tossed a peach pit, and poured the moldy remains into the toilet. She cleared a walkway amidst the rubble to the bed, the only place to sit, and allowed him in.
She reclined against a pile of pillows so that he was at her feet, interlocking her hands behind her back and pigeoning out her chest.
“Have you ever tried rolfing?” she asked.
“No. What’s that?”
“It’s like an extreme form of massage. I read that it’s supposed to break up bad breathing patterns, but I’ve never tried it.”
“The hippie stuff’s the only stuff that works,” he said.
“Do you do anything for your asthma besides acupuncture?”
“I take Zyrtec every day. And diet’s really important. I was vegetarian, so I was eating a lot of soy, but I was allergic to it. And I stopped drinking milk. It’s disgusting why, I could tell you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And ideally no bread either.”
She remembered they’d split a sandwich for lunch. She’d felt sad that he split sandwiches for lunch with people, unaware that bread was shit for the lungs, but people were always surprising you with the things they knew.
“You talk now,” he said, fishing for a pair of her sunglasses. “I’ve said a lot. Can I put these on?”
“Not those! They’re prescription. Try these. They’re nice,” she said, settling her expensive sunglasses on his nose, so that he looked like Bob Dylan, watching her expectantly.
“I just need—I just feel—,” she struggled. He turned her brains to shit. “My thing is incurable if it comes back, so I might spend the rest of my life dying—” (The wrong thing, she would think later, running over the scene in her mind. The absolute worst wrong thing.)
“The best hospital in the world has told you that it’s not coming back,” he said. “You have to stop thinking that. It’s not going to come back.”
“Have you ever used one of these?” she asked, grasping for the mouthpiece of a spirometer protruding from the mess on the floor.
“It measures your lung capacity.”
“How’s yours?” he asked.
“I just pretend that I was a smoker for thirty years. Try it.”
“Not until the 5th date. You don’t get to know my lung capacity until the 5th date.” He was smiling, and his smile was like the Hail Marys and Our Fathers you prayed after confession when your soul was momentarily clean.
“This is the 5th date!”
“The 6th date.”
She could talk if he came closer. But he was so far away, on the other side of the bed. She crawled over and made as if she was going to kiss him and snatched his hat instead, and he lunged for it and landed on her.
Margalit Orr is a writer and film director. You can follow her on twitter at @mk_orr.