If it takes all kinds, there still were three of them left in town, four if you counted the only one who most likely should count here, because this one couldn’t sleep with anyone unless it was just actual sleeping, and that is all I probably wanted: sleep in its flattest and unfaltering form. I banked myself at her side and now and then heard her murmuring in the outwash of a dream. Some nights it was more songish but senseless.
I was thirty-four, thirty-five, and needed somebody to keep an eye on my life.
She made a daily search of the unclaimed-money sites on her phone. She squared up her hair somehow. She got it looking chunked. Her clothes—the dusters, the tunics, everything in gray, everything scissored in places—looked leaden on her. She was provocative on the topic of makeup. “Do you know why they call it foundation?” she once said, her fingers tickling her cheek. “Because there’s nothing underneath.”
She insisted that she could not eat in front of others, so when she got hungry, she excused herself and walked the extinguishing blocks to the diner. The town had a main drag touched up with planters. The town looked as if it had been founded either on a dare or as a mockery of some other town so grown men would stop crying. There was a boarded-up campus and some doctors’ offices. I doubt there was a doctor around whom she hadn’t talked to. To me, she never mentioned a childhood or work, co-workers, music, footholds, places to have come from, places to have left in a huff, game plans, pacts, getting stabbed in the back by just any old best friend.
Evening was the one grace note to a day, but the night always saw to it that an end was put to everything. Once a week, she squirmed into a cocktail dress and set off for a room where she could be innovatively alone. She would shut the door and call somebody or other. All I could make out, from the room with the bed, was one verbal dilapidation, and then the next, and the next. It sounded like a density being undone. But if it weren’t for these calls, I would have worried that this was just a girl of sludgy temperament and a misgoverned heart, somebody who had never been of much sexual relevance. Maybe she had run through a mother’s love, and that was enough.
There were months like this. I worked from home. Boxes arrived. They were sent back none the heavier.
There was enough for me to conclude that life, the world, had funneled into her and was barely coming out.
Then one day she rushed at me and said, “I’m going to need some things. I’m going to need some things co-signed.”
I don’t know what I said.
“You were married to a business traveler,” she said.
I might have nodded, or it might have been the shaking as usual.
“What kind of person were they otherwise?”
Who was I to know?
“Territorial, I’ll bet,” she said. “I lived with a lady who smelled like hotels. She never had people over. She had the bright idea of wanting to nurse me back to health. I told her my health was out of this world. She was not one to believe me. She said this would be the time to let any sickness blossom. I was there for over a year. She was larger than life—I mean, larger than her own life, not larger than mine. I could see every gap where the puniness of her showed. She put me on a program. The slogan was ‘forevermost in togetherhood.’ There was nothing in it for me. I didn’t like the way I could feel myself being taken through her thoughts. I decided to write a note of good-bye. I put XO before I signed off. Then came the second thoughts, naturally. I drew hatchmarks and added some more Xs and Os, a grid, so it looked like I had just been playing tic-tac-toe at the end. I walked to wherever there were buses and watched them arrive and watched them leave.”
For another week or so, I looked after her, meaning I followed the line of her squint, trailing behind whatever she might have beheld first. The days must have collected differently in her than in me. Things she started bringing up were things I hadn’t registered. There was the fact that she had started eating under my roof. At first, it was just snacking by flashlight. She claimed she ate one bad thing the better to throw up an earlier eaten thing that was even worse.
“I just wish I could have held off a little longer,” she said. “If Texas weren’t so big, I’d be in Canada, probably.”
“What would you be doing in Canada?”
But I didn’t want to hear that it was not what she would or wouldn’t be doing, that it was who she wouldn’t be having once having been. I hate it when there are facts but not enough matter to go with them.
Anyway, all she said was: “Whatever takes tact.”
Packing was no big deal. The things she now wore could barely fill a shoebox loose of lid.
Let’s jump ahead to the venereal formalities of my forties. Then let’s jump right over them.
By fifty, I was neither comer nor goner.
But just don’t be surprised by how inevitable your life begins to feel once you’ve lived it mostly in bits.
I later met the lady who would sell you houseplants only if you first showed her the house. She took one look at the hulky furniture in the living room and said, “If I come back with some plants, do you promise to be at their beck and call?”
She brought the things.
They’re still holding court.