by Adam O’Fallon Price
They met at a party thrown by mutual friends. Neither one of them believed in love at first sight, but the attraction was undeniable and immediate. They shared two conspiratorial glasses of white wine in the corner, then left under the pretense of going downstairs for a cigarette, though neither of them smoked. A pretense was required because they liked the hosts, a couple named Greg and Melissa, and there weren’t many people there, but they couldn’t wait all night through a thousand trivial conversations to finally get to go to one of their small apartments. Which one didn’t matter—wherever there wasn’t a roommate present. They caught a taxi and went right at it, skin sticking to the cracked black vinyl. An apologetic tip for the driver, a flight of stairs, and through the chipped-paint threshold of 13B.
The apartment had been cleaned recently, and the chemical pine-forest smell somehow ratcheted up the erotic charge. They had self-conscious sex on the sofa and, later, less self-conscious sex in bed. Afterward, they laughed about making love—love making—about the Barry Whiteness of the quaint expression, while secretly feeling they only now understood it. In the morning, they made bacon and eggs and shared a sense of incredulous discovery about each other, like having found a previously unknown room in one’s childhood home. They said these things and more to each other, embarrassing things now rendered unembarrassing, every mundane detail about their short, middle-class lives suddenly fascinating and hilarious and klieg-lit. Their childhood dogs were both terriers named Banjo—this seemed to clinch things.
They moved in together after a few perfunctory months of dating. This dating period was observed solely out of custom and to avoid unwanted lectures about the folly of moving too fast from envious friends and concerned family. And anyway, they said, they’d moved in together that morning over breakfast, in spirit at least. But when the actual event arrived—boxes, stairs, moving truck, stairs, boxes—the gradual merging of items made the gravity of their decision clear. Commingling their books on freshly bought shelves, they agreed, was somehow the most exciting part, like a blood oath. The incongruity of the libraries—Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy imperiously towering over a slim volume of Robert Burns’ “Rab the Rhymer”—was disturbing, but seen in a more positive light, it suggested a budding maturity in the relationship. They didn’t have to agree about everything, have all the same friends, like all the same things, and if they ever doubted this idea, they needed only look at their Target Home Series living room shelving units for proof of concept.
The apartment, like all apartments in New York City, was small and fundamentally dirty. They had cleaned for two days before bringing the boxes up—Windexed the fridge, toothbrushed the grout—but there was no dispelling the accumulated century-old funk. In a way, it was nice. They thought about the people who might have lived there before them, squeezed into the two small rooms—immigrant families, junkie squatters, unknown artists, lovers like themselves. They would not live there forever either, they knew, and would be leaving their own small imprint on 13B, little smudges on the wall and a fine layer of skin cells coating everything.
Everything moved in, though the place was still a wreck, they went out for dinner to a local standby, a supposedly authentic Chinese place called Yang Cheung with blurry photos captioned in Mandarin, only to find it closed for repairs due to water damage. The subsequent events of the night—a sudden but brief rainstorm, ducking under an awning for a funny/disgusting make-out session accompanied by the rotten fish stench of a nearby dumpster, and a hopeful wander down 1st Avenue, culminating in the discovery of a place called Blue Ribbon where they had their favorite dinner ever—would, from repeated invocation, attain a burnished, lithographic quality over the years. At that moment, their feelings for each other had a transformative power. Nothing bad or boring remained so for very long in the presence of their love.
They knew this was the honeymoon period everyone talked about. They had both been in relationships before and experienced this—the geode-like detail of each perfect moment, the heightened affect. But it had never been like this before for them, and the giddy thought took hold of them at times that this feeling might actually be sustainable, a perpetual endorphin machine of sex and discovery.
Domestic routine established itself, as it does. They were both Ph.D. candidates, though at different schools and in different programs. They had mornings together and sometimes an hour midday—which they often spent in bed—and then most evenings after 7 p.m. They talked about their programs, about certain incurious dullards in the classes they taught, about indifferent thesis advisors, until they began boring themselves and each other and stopped. They were not, to be honest, that interested in each other’s fields of study—19th-century Irish poetry and organic chemistry—and were relieved to finally admit as much one night, after drinking a bottle of cheap Grenache. Chasing each other back and forth around the small room, they quoted hegemonic departmental theories and jargon at each other in embarrassing mentally-handicapped voices. This was funny until they imagined a neighbor hearing, then they cut it out and sprawled out, reading, half-drunk, on the couch.
This couch, a bumpy sleeper with nubby blue upholstery, was where they spent a large part of their time. They didn’t have much money to go out, so they watched a lot of movies. They shared the same taste in comedies, similar tastes in documentaries, and had vastly different tastes in everything else. To balance things out, they created a rule whereby any treacly weeper had to be followed by a sci-fi bloodbath, or vice versa. They worked their way through entire runs of TV shows, sometimes watching a season in one day if they had nothing else to do. This made them feel guilty—they lived in the greatest city in the world and stayed in all the time—but going out on the town with twenty bucks between them was sheer torture. After a couple of months, they had worked their way through the oeuvres of both Sandra Bullock and Vin Diesel.
What money they had, they spent on food. They went to farmers markets together, watched the Food Network together, searched for recipes together, but rarely cooked together as it seemed to provoke arguments. The only arguments they ever had, in fact, happened in their apartment’s small kitchen and they began to regard it as a sort of demilitarized zone that could host only one army’s field exercises at a time. Their styles of cooking—meticulous and clean-as-you-go versus instinctive frenzy—were not simpatico. Therefore, they would alternate and cook for one another, a nicer arrangement anyway.
Three times a week, they played tennis. They got up while it was dark, in order to get dibs on the community courts over on 29th Street at 6 a.m. They felt they owned the city as they walked south down Lafayette, the only people out other than the occasional street person, and taxis ferrying around the last vestiges of the stygian city night. With the sun rising over the gunmetal gray of the East River, they’d tap the ball back and forth, slowly becoming more and more serious until they found they were really playing. He won more often, overcoming her when he could with brute aggression, but she was the better athlete, with enviable natural form. He admired her smooth backhand returns and the elegant tapering line of her arm, fingers curled and index extended as she pointed at an incoming lob with her left hand a moment before she smashed it. In their best game, they played to one set each, traded games all the way to a tiebreaker in which they battled down to one remaining point. She served. He placed a cruel return in the corner that, with an outraged yell, she somehow managed to dig out at an impossible angle. The ball hovered in the air, hit the net, and balanced there for a millisecond, suspended in time. Which side it fell on didn’t matter, and they held each other’s sweaty hand as they walked home to shower, both late for work.
In another emergent routine, once a month, they traded dinner parties with their friends, Greg and Melissa, who’d hosted the get-together where they’d met. It was strange, on the alternating weekends when they were guests, how ordinary their friends’ Chelsea apartment seemed with no monument erected in the hallway to the site of that first handshake and glance, just a small, framed Klee print and a picture of Melissa talking to a dour, potato-faced man they later learned was Jasper Johns.
On the nights when they hosted, they cleaned and cooked and felt awkwardly adult, as if on some level they were children playing at grown-up pleasures. Greg and Melissa, on the other hand, were actual grown-ups. They were in their thirties and childless, had been around, had done things, and knew people. Greg and Melissa were serious. Melissa was serious about wine and introduced varietals to these dinner parties beyond the fermented California fruit juice they were used to. Greg was serious about drinking, possibly an alcoholic but usually in control of himself. They also talked about serious things—Greg worked for the Times’ city desk and delivered a low-level, yet ceaseless jeremiad about Bloomberg and real estate prices and how New York was better twenty years ago when you could expect to be murdered anywhere east of Broadway. Melissa worked for an art dealer and was so involved in the lore of the business that it didn’t seem to occur to her that anyone in the tristate area wouldn’t know who Larry Gagosian was. At times, the conversation could be boring or oppressive, but overall it provided an idealized model of adult city citizenship. Aggressive specialized knowledge was the coin of the realm.
One night at Greg and Melissa’s, Greg got particularly drunk and belittled Melissa in front of both of them for not knowing who a certain country singer from the fifties was. It had started as a joke, but he wouldn’t let it go about how stupid she was and didn’t she know anything, still ostensibly joking, though clearly not. Melissa, eyes flashing, said she had a headache, went to bed, and locked the door. They let themselves out while Greg shouted about how he was sorry, but she needed to learn to take a goddamn joke. Walking back to their apartment, they had contradictory emotions about the scene: discomfort that their oldest and most sophisticated friends could be capable of such disharmony, as well as the unavoidable guilty rush of triumphalism couples in good relationships feel when they witness another couple foundering.
Six months passed. They went to dual Thanksgivings and Christmases in Virginia and Texas, spending half their vacation time flying. Their parents talked on the phone and liked each other. Marriage seemed obvious and imminent, yet invisible, like an enormous iceberg spotted by sonar, still shrouded in a fine Arctic mist.
Mid-January and the cramped apartment had become slightly more cramped, festooned with cards and merry doodads placed on every available space. A tiny Christmas tree in the corner, turned brown. They lay around reading their journals. Things seemed unimprovable on paper, and yet some minor affliction, a feeling of discontent, had settled over them like the snow that dusted their window ledge. They had begun arguing, not just in the kitchen now—but in bed, on the couch, even during their morning tennis sessions. It was always about unimportant things—tones of voice, critical remarks, minor failures of consideration—though they realized that those were the important things truly, the constituent building blocks of happy cohabitation. Perhaps, they thought, it was some inevitable compensatory swing after a year and a half of utter, blissful togetherness. Perhaps it was just the stress of the holidays. Perhaps it was that she was finishing her dissertation before him and had applied for a half-year post-doc fellowship at the University of Dublin. Whatever the case, they worried about it, as smart people do, talking for talking’s sake, lifting the hood of the car and peering inside as if they even knew where the oil was located.
(They also found themselves faintly repulsed by each other’s bodies. An errant hair on her upper lip, a light dusting of dandruff on his pillow, the russet smudge beneath the toilet’s waterline. What familiarity bred was not contempt, but rather just that, familiarity—the sense of becoming members of the same household, same family. Their physical intimacy had moved, without their realizing, from the realm of the purely romantic and sexual to one that at times reminded them of siblinghood.)
Early February and completely snowed in, they had their worst fight ever. It was an all-day slugfest, and several hours in, they couldn’t remember how it started and were just fighting about the fight. He accused her of constant faultfinding, looking for any reason to pick at and criticize him. She accused him of overdramatic martyrdom. This continued until evening when they had danced around the maypole of discord so many times that they collapsed on the sofa, baffled and exhausted. They watched a Netflix movie they’d been putting off watching for a month—“Aguirre, Wrath of God”—went to bed, and took a long quiet walk the next morning, the temperature up and some of the snow already melting off the trees. They were relieved to have made it through their First Big Fight, though they’d missed their First Big Snow because of it.
They decided they needed to get away. As winter’s grip on Manhattan relaxed into early spring’s cautious embrace, they made several trips out of the city. Twice to Long Island, which hardly counted, screwing around in quaint little downtowns and antique stores, but once to upstate, Newcomb, where they rented a cabin. It was at the foot of the Adirondacks, quiet and beautiful, exactly what they’d been needing. They rented a canoe, drifted around a small lake fringed by pine forest. The water was still freezing, even though the temperature was in the fifties. They splashed each other with it, almost fell in, and looked at their distorted reflections in the clear moving water, as young as they would ever be again.
Floating in the middle of the darkening lake, the sun disappearing below the tree line, they noticed a dark shape moving in the woods. It clarified itself as a black bear, small though still huge. The thing lumbered to the water’s edge and drank for several minutes. When it looked up now and then, its oversized tan muzzle and close-set eyes were at once, somehow, both goofy and murderous. They watched in fascination and spoke in whispered terror. Did bears swim? It lumbered away. They rowed to where their dock was, on the other shore, completely quiet in theatrical reverence toward the natural world, and from real fear of attracting the animal’s attention.
At night, they slept on a torturously springy pullout, and spooned for warmth. Her haunch was in his groin, the pullout’s metal spine dug into his side, the air was ten degrees too cold, and he couldn’t sleep. The thought had lodged itself in his head that if he didn’t ask her to marry him right now, it would never happen. It was ridiculous, but it also seemed completely true to him, truer than anything had ever seemed to him before. He nudged her awake, and she shifted, murmuring. He opened his mouth to talk, but his breath came out in the frigid room like a speech bubble with no words inside. It obviously wasn’t the right time—they were just getting through a bad patch, plus there was no ring, and they had emptied their meager savings on this trip. He would wait until next year, after he’d defended and maybe even had a real job. It was the right decision, although lying there, he felt curiously inert, as if some tremendous cosmic energy had momentarily channeled itself through him and then bolted back to the sky.
The vacation over, they returned to the city—she energized, he battling a chest cold. They went back to work, back to studying, back to reading and writing, but mostly reading. He got a job at the science library, which kept him there until midnight four nights a week. His schedule began to skew later and later, the TV or computer droning softly at two in the morning, and he begged off their morning tennis matches. She wasn’t happy without getting exercise before her day started, so she began jogging around their neighborhood alone. She hadn’t run since college and had forgotten how much she’d liked it, the movement, and being absolutely fixed on one thing and one thing only. She even enjoyed reaching that moment when she felt she couldn’t run any further and ignoring it, pushing through. Although it was strange being out alone, wearing skimpy shorts in the New York predawn, she felt safe in her speed. She was running already, after all. Let the muggers and junkies and crazies chase her. She started going farther and farther afield, once running as far north as Central Park, where she watched the sunrise like a newly-minted coin over the crest of the Upper East Side.
She began training for the New York City Marathon. He was supportive but pouty, seeming to feel on some level that this new ambition of hers was a jab at him. You won’t work out with me? Fine, I’ll attempt the most grueling, high-profile exercise possible. They could do it together, she said. But no, he didn’t have time, not with his work schedule, and not in the last phase of his dissertation research. They left the topic alone, though she felt a little shiver of guilt every time she double knotted the laces on her ASICS. As she looped around Central Park on her route—past the Met, the conservatory gardens in full, fiery bloom, Lasker Rink closed for the season, then south again past the Great Hill—she sometimes thought about him back in the apartment sleeping and grew angry that a desire of hers could ever wound him. The day of the race, though, he got up at 5 a.m., made her breakfast, helped her stretch, and drove her out to Staten Island, dropping her off and watching her as she followed the trickle of white-legged runners to the starting area, blinking goosebumped in the dark. Later, he shouted himself hoarse as she hobbled through the finish line at Tavern on the Green—43,998 out of 64,000, not bad at all. She was too sore to move that night, but the next day, they made love for the first time in weeks.
A few months earlier, they had gotten a drunken phone call from Greg, telling them things were bad and asking them if he could maybe stay with them for a bit. But there was no follow up, and so they’d forgotten about it. Finally, in November came the companion call, telling them that Melissa had kicked him out of the house. He came over, yanking his rolling suitcase up the stairs like a recalcitrant child. His presence pulled them closer together at first, a team helping their lost friend, but the visit got old quickly, at which point the party line became that Greg was more his friend than hers. Greg was an asshole, she said. There really was no question. No, he said, he was a friend going through a hard time. Or, she said, an asshole going through a hard time.
Sometimes at night, Greg would be drinking beer, railing against the state of the world while watching “The Daily Show,” seemingly unable to resist disabusing them of their foolish romantic notions, whatever it was he thought those notions were. Don’t have kids, he said. Don’t think you’re different from anyone else. You’re not. He seemed to be working his way up to telling them not to be in love, to fall out of it if possible, but couldn’t seem to bring himself to.
During this period, which lasted longer than they’d hoped, two significant things happened. The first was that Greg, still drunk in the morning from the night before, or possibly just caught in the hazy erotic grip of a predawn erection, walked up behind her in the kitchen as she made coffee. He put his hands on her breasts and nuzzled her hair. She hissed and pushed him away, but she liked it. She didn’t like that he had done it, abused his friend’s trust, and she didn’t like that he had violated her space, but she liked it. She liked his aggression. She liked that he didn’t ask. Mostly, she liked that he was different: different smell, different breath, different hands, rough and simian. And though she could have used it to get Greg out of the house immediately, she didn’t—because she didn’t want to cause a scene, and, she knew, because she liked having this dirty little secret, something that was hers alone.
The other thing that happened was that Greg and he went out one night and he fooled around with a McCormick and Schmick’s cocktail waitress after hours. He confessed right away, coming in plastered and smelling like an eight-year-old girl’s idea of rose perfume—just a drunken late night kiss that he instantly regretted, nothing else. More than the betrayal itself, the banality of the betrayal upset her. Its triviality was an affront to this enormous thing they had built together, a farting whoopee cushion in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
He bought her tulips and took her out to dinner at Blue Ribbon. He told her things he had forgotten to say for a long time. Not that he loved her, but how he loved her and why, specific things—her crooked eyeteeth, her serious frown when she read, the way they almost always craved the same food. They promised to take care of each other as best they could and to be mindful and present every day. Love is not some alien kudzu that could grow wild on the moon. It wants tending to; however much you give it, you must give it more and more or it will stop growing. The next week, Greg finally got an apartment and they breathed a mutual sigh of relief, recycling the last of his Stella bottles and cleaning the apartment together in an attempt to exorcise his presence.
Things went up and down, their love for each other never in question, but the relationship having a worrisome, stockmarketish volatility, and so they went to a holistic couple’s counselor who came highly recommended on Yelp. The tranquility of this wiry, bald man seemed very much like arrogance, and the counseling put a further strain on things at first, but they soon became acclimated to therapy and accepted the counselor’s nostrums. The counselor prescribed yoga, meditation, and a thankfulness prayer every morning and night. They had to put aside their customary sarcasm and knowingness and submit to these hokey and embarrassing new age routines, which turned out to work very well. They became closer than they had been in a long time, but a different type of closeness than in the beginning—something that they might have described as soulful, had they not known better.
It was a late renaissance in the relationship, a chance to get things right, and they began talking as they had in the beginning, only listening more, not just waiting for a chance to say their piece. She told him about Greg, and he forgave her for not telling him sooner. They found secret depths in each other and discussed topics they’d never even thought to broach. They talked about marriage, agreed that it was the right time, and said they would do it over summer break when her school was out and they could really enjoy it.
Then, at the last minute, she got the overseas fellowship. It was only for six months, and he had to be happy for her. It was a huge coup, career-wise. She was coming back in late summer, it wouldn’t change anything. They would call whenever they could, but more importantly, they promised to send a letter back and forth, writing back immediately whenever it was received. They intended this ping-pong correspondence as a necessary physical reminder of each other, the presence and weight of their commitment.
She left. He stayed. They wrote. This arrangement went well for a while. Then one morning in March, he sat at his desk, her letter opened and read, feeling somehow stifled and unfocused. Everything he thought about writing back seemed pedestrian, things she already knew—blocks of dull, heavy fact he would have to lug around and assemble on the page about his new advisor whom he disliked, the tightness of money, that the city was nice in early spring. He doodled an airplane on the legal pad in front of him, and after a while, he began to write. He wrote down their relationship from the beginning: how they’d met, had sex for the first time, fallen in love, moved in, almost broken up—how they’d lived their lives together up until this moment. By the time he was done, he’d gone through twenty-five pages and the sun was high over the row of houses across the street. He grabbed a beer and went back through the pages, and he was struck by how commonplace and banal the document was. His scientific training had instinctively steered him toward an objective telling of their story, and as he read, he felt they could have been anyone, really—anyone with their backgrounds and education and aspirations. How could something that seemed so important, so earthshaking at moments, lie so trivial and flat on the page? He saw them as someone else might—unremarkable and average, perhaps slightly annoying in their self-regard, with a story like so many others, a story that was special only because it was theirs. Did this diminish the facts of their life together, their love? He wasn’t sure. In this uncertain state, he put the letter in its envelope, put two dollars of stamps on it, and went for a walk.
Across the street, a child wearing a Spiderman mask ran out of the bodega, their bodega; a stream of water trickled into a storm grate. He stopped thinking and just walked, letting his mind flit around in an unproductively pleasurable way he hardly ever allowed himself anymore. It felt wayward and luxurious. He walked in a series of ever-expanding, falconing circles, moving from Murray Square to Soho, back up through Chelsea, over to Hell’s Kitchen, and then back down to Washington Square where he wandered among foreign tourists snapping photos, NYU students lounging around on blankets, drug dealers murmuring I got pot acid, what you want, I got coke speed, what you want like medieval mystics incanting against evil spirits. Moving alone through this great crowd, he found himself in a euphoria of connected autonomy, a feeling so strong and pleasurable that, looking down at the envelope in his hand, he momentarily forgot what it contained. Then he remembered: them, her and him, together. At the corner of the park, he found a battered mailbox, and he dropped the envelope in with guilty relief, briefly unburdened of their story.
Adam O’Fallon Price’s stories have appeared or will appear soon in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, and FiveChapters.Com, among others. He teaches creative writing at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where he lives with his wife and horrible cat.