Most of my history took place in high school gymnasiums: Hard breathing punctuated by squeaks from sneaker rubber. I preferred not to be called Coach—who was I to shape the palsied actions of our nation’s youth?—but we all agreed on Movement Advisor, which I thought could explain more of me than not. Amanda taught remedial math, towering above heads. I loved living cradled in her shadow, an egged nestling protected by its mother. She loved a good knitted caftan; garlic bread; losing her keys; me, at times, always in pieces. She said on our first outing that she never meant most of what she said—with too much excitement I said Same!—which put us on the edge, at least, of a romantic idea.
We married too soon, too loudly, and she moved on before I could figure out what a forwarding address might end up looking like.
I raced myself to see what I’d end up as first. To clarify: I opted out of making strong decisions until it was too late. Beverly was my rebound—the first, I should say—and not making strong decisions was her top priority. We married, neglecting our lives together, letting bills pile up, not eating dinners for lack of deciding where to go. As time passed around us, two rocks in a stream, I sensed, that although we seemed to be in a workable stasis, Beverly was beginning to come to conclusions without me. Debts started being cleared; meals chosen in restaurants I’d never heard of; etc.; until other, more palatable goals were met.
Fun fact: There are some people that you learn to love the absence of, which works out into almost the same thing as a presence.
One more: People change, but not in the places you expect.
The student body washed over me. I forged notes from parents, did arithmetic sets, loaned cash until paydays.
Softly, in a public place, Carol and I made ourselves known, but it was weeks before we got each other’s names in writing. If one wanted, she could be described as a jewel, her face hard divides bunched together, refracting light. To me and her colleagues, she lived like an interloper who’d forgotten the secret password. She brought to any party a willingness to be sympathized with.
What I wanted in a person was to reorient the house, the smell of it. Carol made coarse stews, baked savory pies, found nooks to fill with odors I hadn’t completely accepted. We lived happily for years until we both found ourselves unable to parse the outcomes we’d laid bare, the air around us too opaque to find the foundation that we forgot to build.
Throughout, I’d made conscious efforts to be lighthearted. This was in order, perhaps, to offset a future termed by certain types as moribund. For Anjali, I redoubled and grew cheerful, sometimes painfully, an effort to gild myself with potential. A part-time actress, she never worked, but mastered stretching my limited earnings. As always, there was a family of sorts involved, more hers than the other way around, but while these actors partitioned themselves into roles I’d never read the lines for, much less rehearsed, muddling through was an acceptable use of my skillset. What the play was I can’t remember, though well-received until it wasn’t, and it was agreed upon that I, ultimately a minor character in all of this, would fall to the wayside.
When I left, the man who played her father called me, apologizing, frantic at the idea that she would outlive his limited capacity for love.
Amanda, a different Amanda, received me with a likeable ambiguity I quickly glommed onto, treating it with secrecy and pride, as a man might his first mistress. She lived like a gang of young girls, handing me rashes of new insecurities; unopened mash notes; branded alcohols that tasted thick, teenaged, and wanting. I, in turn, gave her obnubilated perspectives on everything and new ways to branch out when all else failed.
This Amanda was wealthy enough to have documents waiting at the courthouse; we lost ourselves plowing through blockades of initialings, annotating clauses indicating revisions to agreed-upon terms, debating the legal expression for the perfect sunset, until, at the end of the day, with documents before us baring the weight of our names, we had no more reasons to continue as one.
She made sure to pay alimony, though I never asked for it or gave her my address.
At this point, I was preceded by reputations. In a town this limited, no reasonable woman wanted to chance me, fearing that I could concoct a different set of options, ones she’d never want to consider. Hannah was looking for a place to forget and a person who could get in her way of doing so: we called it a challenge of navigation, stealing the idea from self-help books from the library, overdue and over-highlighted. What she found in me was close to an opposite, a willing grate that let her sluice through with little fight, leaving dubious residues. What I thought was restlessness in her was, in fact, rootlessness, a close cousin, but different enough to warrant second thoughts.
Her question, one I could never find an answer for: What’s the word for a person who constantly wakes you up, even when you’re not asleep?
There were no rules against then what we have rules against now, so, at least from my perch, the world was easy. At school, the boys tiptoed under my watch into terrible young men, and the girls ended up as bigger versions of the problems they came in with. One introduced me to her mother, Theresa, and we collided enough to make motions to legal entanglements. Names signed, actions witnessed, motions granted.
I woke to find her on my chest, breathing me in, the way tired mothers used to blame cats for their infanticides. Weeks passed, the pattern rang clearer: I was, in a sense, Theresa’s filter, her way into the larger world, impurities removed. Mostly, I recall how we lived in a tight embrace, her otherwise unsullied philtrum made into a reservoir of our shared condensations.
When she left, her reasoning was that we were drifting apart, the space between us so tight it had grown unmeasurable.
If you can muster falling in with someone, I recommend it at least once, for kicks. Mary, she sistered cities, pairing up locales for exchanges, commercial and cultural, twining continents to islands, industrial towns to bohemian outposts. I asked what she did to train for that kind of work, and she indicated a skill in judging unlike sets. “Find a connection between a theory and a mote of dust,” she said, “and you’re close.” She pushed me to read the news, to create a character for myself that indicated agreement with the outside world.
Her hobbies: planning our slide into the darkness, handing back to me my own guff, having it all. We devised ways to catch each other in close quarters, if just to work out the spatial logistics of couplehood.
We maintained a closeness agreed upon by each party, which continues unabated by my own inclinations and trajectories.
Before this, I was in a plane over rural Pennsylvania, going to a job interview in a vague college town. The ride was rough, the air, said the pilot, full of chop. We gripped armrests and avoided considering the fragile act of fighting gravity. I counted the number of times I’d ever been in a situation that forced me to count other situations.
When the plane jerked side to side and the lights dimmed, what flashed—and they are right in that life flashes—were wives: unconvincingly mine, shadows asleep in the darkness. The air flossed out from underneath me, my seatbelt digging into my particulars; my seatmate, a kindly ghost of a woman, grabbed my hand and asked if we could, if it would be all right, pray until the turbulence ended.
That was, if forced to pick a moment, as good as any to call my whole life.
Lucas Church’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, New Ohio Review, Washington Square Review, and West Branch, among other journals. He holds an MFA from North Carolina State University and is the editor of PINBALL, an online literature and comics magazine. You can reach him at lucaschurch.com or follow him on Twitter at @lucas_church.