It happens like this: you meet him at the aquarium.
That’s cute, huh? You think to yourself, God, that’s a good story to tell on your wedding day. You always wanted to meet somebody in an aquarium, when you were both looking at the whales and the darkness was fragrant all around you. You imagine a stranger taking your hand as you heard mournful whale sounds. That’s how how it happens, except for there aren’t any whales in the aquarium and actually he wasn’t a stranger taking your hand, you met him before and he comes up and says “Hey, haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”
You can’t remember, but you say “Maybe.” When you hear the lie, you know you like him. He’s nice, you whisper to yourself. He has nice hands. He has a nice way of looking at you — quizzical maybe. Like you’re a problem he wanted to solve, or a crossword puzzle, and he’s going to roll up his sleeves and really take his time figuring you out, because he wants to know the answer.
“I saw you at somebody’s wedding,” he says. “You were sitting in front of me, wearing this little black dress. It was cut low in the back, and I spent the whole time thinking about what a nice back you had.”
You haven’t gone to a wedding in a year. “Sure,” you say. “I like black.”
He nods. “I can tell.”
You are amused. If somebody read these lines to you, they would seem like cheap movie dialogue. An asshole approaches a woman in an aquarium. Except that’s not what it’s like. That’s not what it’s like at all. When he asks for your number, he is confident that you’ll give it to him. You do.
Your first date is like this: he picks you up and takes you to a Mexican restaurant called Maria’s Taqueria. When you come out of your apartment building, he’s waiting by his car and it’s sunset, and everywhere the clouds are dipped in gray-rose. He says “You ever see such a sunset?” He looks at your dress. It’s black and it’s expensive and you bought it for this date. “Ever see such a woman?”
He’s a good driver, fast but careful. He tells you he’s a teacher, and you’re surprised. If you had to guess, you would have said banker, doctor, maybe lawyer. That’s the kind of confidence he has, but when you think about it, you realize teachers have to have a lot of confidence, too.
“Do you love it? Your job?”
“Yeah,” he says. “You can tell, huh?”
“Yeah.” You smile a little. “I can tell.”
At the restaurant, he orders margaritas. “You gotta taste these margaritas. The best margaritas you ever drank, bar none.”
“I drink whiskey,” you say.
“Try one, okay? For me?”
He orders fish tacos. You love fish tacos, but decide to get carne asada instead. When his fish tacos come, you realize you really wanted fish tacos. He sees your expression and quirks an eyebrow.
“Want a taste?”
“No,” you say.
“Come on,” he says, and forks a fish taco onto your plate. He squeezes a lime over it, slowly, deliberately. You are struck by the complete sweetness of the gesture. You eat the fish taco, washing down the heat in your mouth with the best margarita you ever drank.
He kisses you like this: like you were on the steps of your apartment building and you wanted to go in, but he said softly, intimately, Come here, and put a hand on your neck and turned your face to his and kissed you until you both tasted the same and you no longer wanted to go in and as a matter of fact, you were not sure you wanted to go anywhere else.
When your friend asks how The Kiss was, you tell her exactly this, and she makes an I’m-gonna-throw-up face.
“I know,” you say. “I can’t help it. That’s just how it was.”
The next few weeks are like this. He picks you up after work and takes you to his apartment — sometimes yours, it doesn’t really matter where— and you both listen to music and eat dinner together and sleep together and then fall asleep. Every night. The whole night.
You argue a lot with each other. For some reason, you both feel very comfortable arguing. You argue about which Jah Cure album is the best one, and you argue about what kind of takeout to get, and you argue about whether a cloud in the sky looks more like a skirt or an umbrella. You argue about what movie to watch. He hates science fiction and you love it. He loves gritty crime dramas, and you hate it. You both end up watching a lot of foreign films.
You discover that you snore. According to him, it’s a light snore. A shallow snore. It’s almost soothing, he says. Sometimes, he presses his nose into your neck and listens to it. He teases: “I never thought I’d fall for a woman who snored.” You bat him with a pillow, but he quickly grows serious. “I didn’t realize how endearing it could be. I love hearing you breathing. I love knowing that you’re breathing, that you’re safe.”
You tell your friend: “You ever eat something that actually makes you hungrier? Like, maybe a breakfast cereal or something that’s so insubstantial, you can’t feel full? You keep eating these sugary puffs but you feel like you could eat a thousand boxes more?”
She looks at you and laughs. She summons a waiter. “We’re going to need some more drinks over here, buddy.”
The days you don’t see him are like this: you don’t care about what you wear, or how you look. You are used to dressing up for work, and finding the perfect pencil skirt, and spending hours in the bathroom getting the right taupe lipstick. Now you throw on just anything and go. When you put on lipstick, it’s careless. Sloppy. You hold the tube to your mouth with disinterest. It’s just an object you’re holding.
You hum to yourself If you ain’t there, ain’t nobody else to impress, and you wonder if anything has ever been truer in the history of the world.
There’s times you go out, too, and they’re like this: you take him shopping for scented candles. He groans.
“How can a girl love candles so much?” he says as you drag him through Aisle 4: Vanilla.
“How can a man not love candles so much?” you shoot back. “Look, it’s not about the candle. It’s about the fantasy.” You choose a candle at random, and make him close his eyes and smell it. “That’s Lake House. Imagine owning a lake house, beyond a clearing of trees, and the breeze on the patio deck-”
“Our lake house,” he says, and you feel thrilled. “Our patio. We could get a dog-”
“And a cute mailbox-”
“And rich-people floors-”
“What are rich-people floors?”
“Oh, definitely rich-people floors. And huge glass windows overlooking the lake-”
“And a baby, baby,” he smiles, putting a hand over your stomach. “A perfect life like this.”
“A perfect life,” you repeat. “You see?”
He nods. “I do. I do.”
There’s intimate conversations like this: you ask about his family. He doesn’t tell you much at first, staving you off with a vague “We don’t talk much. We moved around a lot growing up,” and you don’t push for more, but one day you’re in bed and he’s spooning you. He bites your shoulder gently and tells you everything.
“I was seven,” he says, his voice muffled in your neck, “the first time they locked me in the attic.”
“What for?” you say, making your voice calm.
“I can’t remember,” he says. “ Probably for missing school. It was a punishment. We had a lot of punishments in my house, and they always made the punishment fit the crime. If you broke a dinner plate, you missed the dinner, see? If you fought with your brother, they beat you and your brother. If you didn’t do well at school, they locked you in the attic, so you couldn’t go to school. I think I was in there for two days. Growing up was like that. A lot of stuff like that. Anyway, would you come by school sometime? My kids want to meet you.”
He says it nonchalantly. You want to turn around and hug him, but you sense that he doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to acknowledge his pain, and so you let him be the person he needs to be. You let him hug you. You are glad he cannot see your face, because he’d see you crying.
You are out to dinner with his friends. You like them. There’s Matt, who is big and blond and plays football, and Handsome Derek who doesn’t say much, and Phil who never stops talking.
“How’d you two meet?” asks Phil, through a mouthful of calamari.
“Well, I saw this beautiful girl at a wedding -”
You hesitate. You interrupt him.
“No, baby,” you say, squeezing his arm (you never thought you were the kind of person who called their boyfriend baby). “We met at the aquarium.”
“No,” he frowns. “It was at the wedding, remember? Two months before. Serendipity. You were wearing the backless dress-”
“That wasn’t me,” you say in a rush. “I meant to tell you before. You couldn’t have seen me. I haven’t gone to a wedding in, oh, almost a year.”
He puts his fork down. “Are you sure?”
“Trust me. You don’t forget going to weddings. We met at the aquarium.”
“But why didn’t you say anything before?”
His friends are watching this back-and-forth like it’s an angry tennis match.
“It doesn’t matter,” says Phil belatedly.
“Definitely not,” says Handsome Derek, who is smarter than he looks. “Aquariums are a cooler place to meet than weddings.”
“Yeah,” agrees Matt. “Way cooler.”
“Do you remember what I was wearing at the aquarium?” you say, trying to be charming.
“No,” he says after a beat. “I don’t. But, you’re right, it doesn’t matter. It’s just not how I remembered it, I guess.”
Some nights are like this: he gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the other bedroom. When you ask him why (waking up lazily to find his side of the bed empty) he says “Well, I can’t sleep sometimes, and you snore…”
The ellipsis hangs in the air like an accusation.
“But I thought you found it soothing,” you say.
“It is!” He is quick to reassure you. “But sometimes it’s hard for me to fall asleep.”
You are quiet.
“Should I see a doctor if it bothers you? I mean, long-term…” You let your own sentence hang there. The room feels full of sentences that snapped in half.
“No,” he says, pouring more milk on his Cheerios. You stare at his Cheerios, thinking how you never really liked Cheerios and how they are a stupid color, a generic cheerful yellow. “I mean, it’s no big deal, is it? If I sleep in another room sometimes?”
It happens like this. You are invited to a wedding. You are ridiculously thrilled.
“I get a plus-one!” you announce to him, doing a little twirl. “And I never ever had a date to a wedding before. Maybe I’ll find a backless dress for it. Wouldn’t that be cute? I could be Backless Dress Girl at last. And it’s over the weekend — our first real trip away — and, and, you’ll never believe this. It’s at a lake house.”
“Okay,” he says. “Great, but…why is that a big deal?”
“Remember? Our lake house? A dog? Rich-people floors? The perfect life?”
But already he’s turned back to the papers he’s grading, and that furrow comes into his forehead, the one you know so well because his face is so beloved that you memorized every detail. “Hrm,” he says, and its your signal that the conversation is over.
Never mind, you tell yourself. You drop a kiss on his cheek and you leave the invite on his desk and go away, and then it’s two, three, four weeks later and there you are standing at the train station waiting for the train that will take you to the wedding. The forecast says rain, but you are deliriously happy. You clutch your travel bag with small damp hands. In it is the backless dress you bought for him as a surprise.
He’s running late. He said he would be there at three-thirty. It’s now four o’ clock. You check your phone again. You check the clock again. You check your phone again.
You call. It goes to voicemail. You hang up. You text.
Maybe he’s dead. He got in a car accident and he died on the way to the train station and there he is, lying with his perfect eyelashes in the rain and the flashing lights, dead as a dodo. You wonder if people say that anymore — dead as a dodo. You wonder why you’re thinking about dodos at a time like this. You check your phone again.
It comes just as you get on the train, the soft beep that tells you you have a new message. You can’t look at it right away because the phone is in your pocket and you’re busy heaving your bag into the overhead compartment. You imagine what it says:
Sorry, baby, I’m late. Car trouble.
I’m sorry I missed the train. I’m catching a flight.
I’m so sorry. I’ll be on the next one.
The message does say I’m sorry. In fact, that’s all it says. You stare at it — it takes you a minute — as the train pulls out of the station in a roar, taking you into the beautiful nothingness.
Now, this is what it’s like.
You feel crazy. You go crazy. You eat nothing at all and then you eat everything in your fridge. You go over every single thing you said and did in the last few weeks. Like a detective reconstructing a crime scene. The crime scene is you. You want to laugh at the irony of how two people who loved to argue ended without any argument at all, except you cannot laugh.
You take a break from work. For weeks, you get drunk. You start early — around three or four PM — and you keep drinking until you fall asleep. The pain comes and goes, in waves. That is one thing you learn about grief. You cannot sustain grief at that pitch. Your body refuses to handle it. And so there are waves, and when the waves are crashing on the beach you cannot do anything but lie on the floor and scream forever and ever inside your head. But then the waves recede, and you are on a quiet beach, where nobody’s around and your head is too tired to have a single thought.
You don’t mind living on that beach. It’s nice there, you think. It’s just that you have a feeling that’s not where you normally live. It’s too quiet, for one thing. Too empty.
Your friend comes by sometimes and holds your hand, because she’s a good friend. Sometimes you tell her: I hated him anyway. I hated him. I hated his smugness and I hated how he always thought he was right, and I hated that he was so emotionally distant, and how long it took him to tell me anything, and I hated the way he was in bed and I hated him, I hated him. I hated him. I want him to die
Sometimes you tell her: I loved him. Oh, how I loved him. I loved his confidence and I loved the way he always was right, and I loved his strength and I loved his patience and every neuron of his mysterious beautiful brain, and I loved the way he was in bed, and I loved him, oh God, I’ll die of this love, how I loved him, I loved him. I loved him
You throw out all the candles in your house. You hurry past the aquarium. You stop listening to music you listened to with him. (It’s a lot of music, and this makes you even angrier. He stole this from you, too.) You lock the backless dress away. (You originally planned to cut it into pieces. With garden scissors. But a little voice in your head reminds you how much you paid for it, and you are angry but you also feel like laughing. You never thought you would feel like laughing. You wish you could hug the little voice.)
One night, you get drunk — well, drunker than usual — and you go to Maria’s Taqueria and throw a brick through the window. It makes a horrifyingly loud sound. You stand there, panting, your hands dirty. You feel like something else. Not even human. Less. An animal, maybe. Or an insect. An insect crawling over something beautiful.
The next day, you go to the restaurant and give them money to repair the window. “I am so sorry,” you keep saying. “It was an accident. I don’t understand how it happened.” They take the money without saying anything, and you see something like pity in their eyes.
You never go to his house. You never call him. Somehow, even in your worst moments, you understand this is something you cannot do.
It is the future. You live in the future now, a place you never thought you would reach. To be accurate, it’s six months later. Six months later is the future. You wore the backless dress out one time and got lots of compliments. You still like buying scented candles. (Just not the one called Lake House. And that’s okay. Some things you lose for good.)
You are on a park bench eating a sandwich, watching the clouds dipped in rose, when you see him.
You know him immediately: his height, his walk, the turn of his head when he laughs. You crumble the sandwich in your fingers, not seeing anything but him. He is alone. You consider running to him. You consider running away. You want to scream, to laugh, to cry. You do nothing. You keep sitting on the bench. Eating your sandwich.
Two minutes later — when he gets a little closer — you realize it’s not him. You mistook somebody else for him. Somebody else with a nice face and a confident walk and a way of turning his head when he laughed.
You wonder if that was what it was, all along. That you had remembered your time with him wrong. Remembered the wrong man, just like he remembered meeting the wrong girl. Was it ever really like you imagined? What was it like?
You think about it for a long time, sitting there on that bench, and by the time the sun has set — the man left a long time ago, and you threw the rest of your sandwich to the birds- you decide it doesn’t really matter.