“The cap’s all smudged with dusty fingerprints; it’s a dirty looking thing. It’s just like they said it would be in DARE.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon in January. Normally this would be one of the worst days of the year. Saturdays are long, like a nap that starts good but ends bad, and January is dark. 5PM could just as easily be 11PM, and 3:30 is when I start to get nervous because there’s only so much daylight left. But today 3:30 comes, and I don’t mind because there is a plan: we are about to move the last truckload of his things into my apartment. My heart has been light ever since he said he wanted to live together. It’s a good direction for us, he’d said. And I’d thought, wow. Is this what life is supposed to feel like?
We go to his apartment which isn’t really an apartment, but a room in the finished basement of a house. Guys live on the top floor, guys live on the first floor. One other guy lives with him on the underground floor: a guy who writes music and wears backwards hats and looks perpetually stoned.
That guy is outside smoking, and I am sitting on my boyfriend’s bed, watching him work. The movements he makes with his arms are small, but the strides he takes with his legs are long, so that the overall feeling is one of smoothness and speed. A soft rapidity.
“Are you trying to take these tonight?” he says. He’s cleaning off the top of his dresser, sweeping pens and change and twisted paperclips black with resin from his marijuana pipe onto the tray he’d taken from a motel room. Now, it’s his smoking tray. He’ll spill his tobacco on it and roll cigarettes with a focus and intensity I’m not sure that I’ve ever had for anything.
“Take what?” I ask, but I know what. He’s referring to the six gel caps stuffed with sassafras sitting in his Tupperware. He has such nice Tupperware—an unstained, unbendable, complete set. It’s stackable and clean, and this is one of the things I love about him, although I haven’t told him that yet.
I look at the pills. The crystals inside are brown like sugar. I decide to pretend I think he’s kidding even though I know he isn’t. He hasn’t packed them out of respect and I haven’t packed them out of fear, and yes, I am curious but mostly I just want to eat dinner and go back to my apartment to unpack and be there with him.
“Those are for the concert,” I say, which is still a month away. He doesn’t say anything else and we keep loading his truck in the rain while his roommate turns up his stereo and plays us some of his music. It’s all very loud and celebratory in a collegiate sort of way. One thought I have is that my apartment is nothing like this. He’s moving away from loud music and someone to smoke with and what will we do next Saturday and every other Saturday after that? And, how many Saturdays are there going be?
After my next trip to his truck, I lose track of the location of the pills. Soon, we’ve loaded everything that’s left besides his bed and a few of his mirrors, so we hug his roommate and drive away. I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t bring them up again, but now I have more important things to think about, like how to be as fun as his roommate. We eat dinner at a Mexican restaurant—the kind that gives you big plates of food with the beans running into the rice—and we sit next to each other instead of across from each other. I eat fajitas and he eats something, too. We’re quiet, and I fixate on the artwork we’re facing: a metal sculpture of a wolf or a coyote wearing a green and red bandana. I like being there with my boyfriend but I’m so worried that he doesn’t like being there with me, and what else is there to think about but that?
Then it’s 9PM and we’re inside my apartment unpacking and mostly I am trying to be fun. Somewhere in my mind are the pills, but it’s too late for those, I figure. So I forget them for good and do aimless things like wiping down surfaces that don’t need to be wiped down because I want to look like I’m part of this unpacking process but the truth is I don’t know him well enough to open one of his boxes and start putting his things away.
“Hey,” he says.
I turn around and there they are, those pills, patient in their Tupperware which is now out on my coffee table. He opens a gel cap onto the surface of the nearest book, takes a dollar bill from his wallet and rolls it up. Then, he snorts. I’ve seen him do this once before: New Year’s Day, in my car. That time it was on a CD case. Before he’d chopped it up into powder I’d taken the pill and acted like I was going to throw it out the window. But I saw his face, and I knew it didn’t matter whether or not I threw it away. He had more in his pocket. He would never just get one pill.
“If you were my ex-girlfriend, I’d make you snort it too,” he says, and he hands me one. The cap’s all smudged with dusty fingerprints; it’s a dirty looking thing. It’s just like they said it would be in DARE. My apartment suddenly looks like a drug apartment, too, maybe because there are all of his boxes here, half-open, disorganized. Or maybe it’s just because of the drugs.
I know what I would have said at 16, but now I’m 31, and things are different.
“I’ve already taken some,” he says. “It’s too late now. You’ve got to.”
“But what am I going to feel like?” I say, my face smiling. I feel a tightness in my stomach. I’m nervous. Excited in a way I never had been before. It’s a powerful excitement. One that’s very physical.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says, handing me one. I put it in my mouth and fill a glass of water and swallow it before I can think too much.
“Don’t think about it,” he says, then swallows three more.
I feel my eyebrows lift. “How many did you just take?!” I say, reaching for his hands. His fingers are long and cold and more unfamiliar than I’d like to admit.
“I’m a champion,” he says, grinning. It’s when he says those kinds of things that I can see he’s really very young. He’s wearing long basketball shorts tonight and could probably pass for 16. I can easily see him outside a high school, backpack on, standing by some bleachers, talking to some girls.
“Don’t worry about me,” he says. And I notice then how many lights we have on, and I think about the people driving by, and how they can see us. We must look like we’re having a good time. We are having a good time, I think. At least, I’m pretty sure we are.
“What am I supposed to feel right now?” I ask, because I feel nothing.
He hands me another pill and I take it. I’m not convinced they’re going to work.
“Don’t think too much about how you feel.”
“Ok,” I say. Forty-five minutes later he’s still unpacking and talking and I’m washing dishes and starting to get nervous because I still don’t feel anything. I’m worried that I’m going to have to pretend to be having fun and it’s just going to be like every night I watch people drink at bars, feeling bored and lonely and like I don’t belong in this particular species.
But I know not to talk about it. I know when he’s serious. I try to pretend it’s a regular night: there he is with his shoulders and his legs and his shorts and his wife beater undershirt. His clothes are here in the closet and I want to go and smell them because it’s still very hard to understand that this is his apartment now, too.
Instead, I sit down with him on the couch and we talk. Unpacking is over for the night and soon I will go to bed but I don’t want him to think that he wasted the pills on me so I don’t talk about what’s next. I laugh at something he says and let my head fall towards the cushion, like I often do when I’m laughing at him. But, for some reason, that’s when I feel it. I’m suddenly very heavy, like something planetary has shifted. The quality of gravity has changed.
“I feel so good right now,” I say, smiling, tapping my hand on the couch for emphasis. It’s an amazing feeling—I am amazing. A soft pink light, glowing, warm.
I notice it then: he has his drug face on. Muscles relaxed, mouth long. I know he feels good, too, and he takes my hands and there we are, together, and what I really want to do is tell him every thought I’ve ever had because I know it will be ok. Everything I say right now will be ok. And, so, we talk. I have this new way of talking, with my hands holding each other, squeezing each other and I’m moving my shoulders up and down and turning my head so that my chin touches them. I feel very girlish, like I’m five years old, explaining the kind of life my Barbie doll has had.
“But I’m not really what you want,” I say. I say it, and it’s what I really think but it doesn’t hurt me to say it. I’m not angry, and if he says, No, you’re not, I’ll be ok.
Instead, he gets up. His dresser drawer—instead of being inside the dresser—is sitting on the coffee table. He takes out a black notebook bound with a red metal spiral.
“I want to read you something,” he says. He sits back down on the couch and starts flipping though the pages. I sit next to him, hugging my knees into my chest and lean into him a bit so that I can read over his shoulder. I’m not usually this chummy, especially with him. I’m aware enough to realize that.
“I wrote it last year,” he says, “before I knew you. A list. Of the things I want in a girl.”
I smile; it’s like a present. We go through the list. Some of it’s body stuff. Some of it’s how the girl would make him feel. Some of it has to do with their life together, and how they both would make each other better people.
One list item has the word “love” in it. I point to it and ask, “Are we allowed to say that word?”
His eyes are very small, lids droopy.
“Not yet,” he says. “Not like this,” and I nod because most of me agrees.
He continues with his list but I keep stopping him. I have so many things I want to say.
“Wait,” he says, gesturing with his hand. “We have to finish this list.”
“Ok,” I say, trying to be serious. I put my serious face on. “You’re right.”
He finishes it, and how do I feel? I feel like I want more. I want more lists, more disclosure. I want to have more things inside me that I can disclose. Later, we’re in bed. All the lights in the room are on. There’s condensation on the window and diagonal mirrors hanging on the wall and I’m thinking of 1988, of being in my cousin’s room in the winter, sleeping in her waterbed with her teal and purple comforter and the loosely fitted bottom sheet. Her hairdryer was in her bedroom which meant that that’s where she dried her hair, and I remember getting excited thinking about my new plan: I will start drying my hair in my bedroom because that’s where high school girls dry their hair. That’s what my life had been missing, up until that point. I will start drying my hair in my bedroom at home and I will understand something about life that I hadn’t when I still dried my hair in the bathroom.
“You’ve never read any of my writing,” I say to him.
I get out of bed, feeling a little less dizzy. On my bookshelf, the one my dad made me to hang above my desk at home, I have two copies of the Greensboro Review from Spring 2004.
That’s the issue with one of my poems.
“I’m going to read it out loud,” I say, lying back down next to him, “but you can follow along.”
“Ok,” he says, propping himself up. “I like that.”
So I read him my poem about moths, about how we used to catch them in the summertime and keep them in jars until they died. When I finish, I’m ready to explain my writing process like I’d imagined I would someday at a reading of mine. I’m ready to talk about what it all means—all of the things I’d thought were so complex when I was 19, hiding secret things in my poems. Here’s where I will open myself up, and maybe next I will get out my journals from junior high and college. I’ve saved them for this exact moment. I’d known that some day there would be a guy who would want to read them all. Who would read them all and then know me completely and tell me it was all ok.
“You see,” I start. But, then, I stop, because when I open my mouth I realize I actually have nothing to say.
“I like it,” he says. “It’s dark.”
I’m looking again at the words, thinking what is there to say? What did I think was inside those lines that I would need to explain?
“It’s getting late,” he says, and I feel a feeling that is bad. Like I’m about to be left alone. Does this mean the drugs are wearing off? I’m not ready for that to happen.
“I want to make sure we have sex before it gets too late,” he says, and I feel again the warmth of the pills. It’s been renewed, that feeling. That new closeness I have with him.
He takes off his pants, his underwear. I like how quickly he moves, as if I might change my mind. But I would never change my mind with him. Mentally I feel more, but physically I feel less, so things that would normally hurt don’t, and he’s inside me for longer than usual. It feels good, but what feels better is how I’m able to watch him. We keep our eyes in contact, which is something I’ve known he’s wanted, but something I haven’t been able to do up until then. He looks like he’s in a little bit of pain which I like, too—emotional pain—like being here with me is so good that it’s a little bit hard to bear. All of the lights are still on and the room is very yellow. It’s his face, a little sad, and his body moving on me, and there are no more words to say.
Image: “The Absinthe Drinker” by Viktor Olivia.