"Happy Anniversary," my ex-lover said, smiling. One year since I'd knocked on the glass door of her work after hours and she'd let me in.
I shivered and tucked the blankets around me. We still lived together because in this new city we both knew only one person, Jessica, my best friend from junior high with whom she had had an affair.
She pulled out a sealed envelope with my name printed on it in her loping, irregular hand. I looked at her, and my eyes felt dry in my head. Her face seemed soft and forgiving, her cheeks round and vulnerable compared to the hard lines I felt on my own.
I had no card for her. The smoothness of her smile faltered. This calendar of occasions was very important to her. I opened her card, a collage of daisies and quadrilaterals in purples and greens. Inside she'd written a vague message of love.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
"It's beautiful," I answered. She rolled closer to me and slipped her hand under the elastic of my underwear. I closed my eyes and imagined her touching my friend, imagined her eyes rolling up in ecstasy and catching sight of me backing away as her hands worked their magic and Jessica bucked her hips, crying out. I came, shuddering silently. I did not roll towards her or grasp her tightly. My hands grabbed the wooden bed frame above my head, and I turned my face away.
She went to take her shower first. She had to go to work and so she always showered before me. In only a year, numerous routines had etched themselves on our lives. It was these, along with the dining room table we found together, and the futon chair whose print we had chosen so carefully, that tied me to the relationship even though we'd decided we were broken up. The furniture and the joint address book, and the fact that I always cooked and she always washed up. She called it love, but it was much more complicated.
I climbed out of bed. I'd brought things from California when we left, secret mementos that I stored in the back of my closet. I picked out one of the leaves I'd stolen from the California autumn. Bright kimono colors and the damp sauna smell of the Marin home hot tub of the first of my father's girlfriends who taught me to hate him. At the top, where the leaf split like a torn seam, it was yellow, brilliant yellow -- brighter even than my mother's hair back when it was her head that bent over my father's shirts. She sewed buttons he claimed he could not, though he had sewn together split lips and cracked heads. I heard the shower water turn off, and I knocked on the door.
The room steamed white with the heat from the shower. The cat sat licking drops of water that ran down the shower curtain. She stood naked, her dirty t-shirt and boxers neatly folded on the toilet seat, her clean ones, also folded, on the back of the toilet.
"I brought this from California." I laughed a little and held it out.
"It's interesting." She was drying herself with both hands.
"It's for you." I stretched my arm out longer towards her.
"I'm drying off." She raised her eyebrows and smiled. I put the leaf on the sink by the soap holder. "Thanks," she said.
She kissed me by the door. "We'll do something really special tonight when I get off work."
Tears slid onto the lower crescents of my eyes.
"I've gotta go," she said. I nodded. "I love you," she said. I wiped my eyes. She stood in the doorway for a minute, bent down to pet the cat and murmur to her, and then she was gone.
I went to the bathroom. The mirror was still glossed over, so my reflection was just a smudge. The leaf lay stuck to the sink, the color of bugs or bruises. I peeled it up and held it in the palm of my hand.
I'd walked barefoot for years and remembered nothing else. There was a time you couldn't get me in shoes. My feet were tiny, rough. My mother would tell people I could walk barefoot anywhere -- over searing hot sidewalks, rocky riverbeds. If I could have moved up my body, toughened all those other soft places: the curve of my stomach, the flesh on my thighs, the breasts that pushed their way out painfully. I tried to tell my body, no. Stay steely-hard, pole thin. I knew every extra inch of me was an open question mark.
I brought the tattered leaf back to my mementos box. I saw how I'd tried to bring with me the very place I'd wanted to escape. Even without this box, my body would always yearn for warmth, for sun. I squashed a poisonous berry, fruit sweet, wet, between my fingers. It separated in my hands. The translucent red skin, still powdery with the yellow inside, slipped off. The skin was so delicate -- I'd like to wear a dress that thin, I thought. I'd like to wear a dress so thin the smoke of the bar where Jessica and she used to hang out would tickle my flesh beneath it. A dress that rips if it's not handled with extreme care, so that anyone touching me would have to make a choice.
I decided to go driving. By dark I found myself driving alone on a small road and I closed my eyes. There was little difference between the black of the night, with the faint line of the road in front of me, and the black on the backs of my eyelids. But my eyes forced themselves open again quickly, searching for those clues to keep me between the lines.
It was almost time to pick her up at work, to knock on this new glass door, hundreds of miles from the one I'd come to last year. On the way I saw a flower stand, and I parked down the block. The woman was packing up.
"Am I too late?" I asked as I reached her.
"You can buy anything that's out."
I found a bouquet of velvety peonies, red and purple. She told me they were only four dollars. They're going to die soon, she said, but they're beautiful. I paid her and carried them gently back to the car. Suddenly a small woman in a bright, woven beret accosted me.
"Ma'am, ma'am," she called, her voice growing louder as she realized I was listening. We stood across my car from each other. "Please help me," she said. "I'm hungry, and I don't have nowhere to go." I stood with my keys in my hand. "I ain't never been homeless before," she said. "Please help me. You're the only person who has stopped. I'm two thousand miles from home," she said. Perhaps she said this last more slowly, or perhaps each word jammed against my ear as a separate ache. "Take me away from here. Please. My hand is hurt." She held it over the roof of the car, but it blended with the night. "Somebody tried to hurt me. Please take me away. I don't have nowhere to go." I wondered if she had a knife or even a gun, if she did this ten times a night, or if she came here for love or new hope or some other project bound to fail. I unzipped my wallet and handed her the six dollars I had as change from the flower woman.
"Here." I pushed it across the roof of the car. "I can't help you, I have to go, but there must be shelters." I looked around again, but the flower stand had disappeared. "I have to go," I said again, and got in the car. In the rearview mirror, I watched her walk away. Then after a minute all I could see were my own dark eyes. I turned on the engine and the clock blinked on. Damn. I was twenty minutes late already. I drove fast, but she was gone when I arrived.
I ran up both flights of stairs, snow melting in my hair. I unlocked our door, breathing hard from the climb.
I dropped the flowers, took off my jacket and stood shivering and catching my breath in front of the heater. Finally I turned on every light in the house and went back to the heater. Maybe if I sat there long enough, I'd find out that night is the cure for itself.
I wanted to tell her that I understood loving two people at once. I'd said it to her face in candlelight, and it was true. But her eyes on someone else's body were too far turned from mine. We'd lost our appetites, stopped eating, stopped touching. But what I hated the most was when I'd look up to see if her eyes followed the sway of my skirts, the proud angle of my head, and found them locked down at the sidewalk or her creased boots. I hated her hands jammed in her pockets and the ease with which her lips separated from mine.
Hours later she came in. She looked permanently hunched against the cold, solid and serious. What was there to say? She'd waited and I hadn't come. I'd arrived and she was gone. If the truth was kinder than our feeling of mutual abandonment, it was slower, too, and timing was everything. The flowers lay scattered and wilting in the hall. Where were the words I wanted these flowers and that fragile, dried leaf to say?
"My father never loved my mother," I said. I had never thought that before, but it was true. The heater shuddered to life after one of its momentary lulls. It buzzed and whirred behind me.
"I have to get some sleep," she said. She walked over to me and put one hand on my head, stroking my hair. "I'm sorry."
For needing sleep? For being gone so long? For my father's ultimate indifference to my mother? For her own wandering eyes? I said nothing.
You are never as happy or as miserable as you think you are, my grandmother used to say. Some sort of poor comfort for the illusions I was suffering.
I walked back to our bedroom, found her sleeping shape underneath the quilt. I took off all my clothes and got under the covers, moving toward the warm spot she created where she lay. A year is a long time to fall asleep with the same person, I thought, whatever it is you happen to call it.