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Fourth comings, p.4
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       Fourth Comings, p.4

           Megan Mccafferty
 

  FOREVER.

  How could I possibly follow up FOREVER?

  BUT

  HOWEVER

  UNFORTUNATELY

  ?

  ten

  I stalled.

  “Aren’t Buddhists against forming attachments?” I was flailing. “Because…uh…attachments lead to longing…which is…uh…the cause of all human suffering?” I smiled weakly.

  “Yes; samsara, or suffering, is caused by clinging to something that should be free,” you explained patiently. “But I’m not a Buddhist.”

  “I know!” I retorted. “You’re a deist who practices Vipassana meditation.”

  “Right.”

  “What about the Four Abodes?”

  “What about them?”

  “I thought you were totally into the Four Abodes….”

  (I said it exactly like that, too. I thought you were totally into the Four Abodes. As if you had suddenly switched allegiances from teenybopper pop to hardcore hip-hop. But wait! I thought you were totally into Ashlee Simpson!)

  “Well, I think we could all learn from them. They’re guidelines for living that anyone can follow. Buddhism is very humanist in that regard.”

  As much as this kind of talk usually irked me, it was a relief to see you having so much fun. Not even the Beard could mask the childlike exuberance of your smile, one I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I could see what you looked like when you were Marin’s age, a daredevilish four-year-old sprinting away from your poor mother in the most crowded shopping malls, or clambering up the tallest trees to limb-dance on the highest branches.

  Before we could commence our psycho-theological discussion, there was a knock at the door.

  “Hey, y’all!” Young Natty called from outside the door. “Ah fohgaht mah say-yell phone.”

  “It’s our boy,” Marcus said.

  “Har-dee-har-har.” I hopped out of bed, grabbed my T-shirt and shorts.

  “Y’all finished up in they-yah?”

  You were still unclothed, still on your knee, on the floor. Only the awkward pose didn’t seem funny or fake. Your nakedness made you appear more real, more vulnerable, and more profoundly human than ever.

  “Almost,” I croaked.

  “So?” Marcus asked.

  There was something about this absurdist comedy of a conversation that stirred up my most sentimental longings for us as a couple. Maybe it’s because this was the longest uninterrupted conversation we’d had in months. Despite the fact that there was only one logical answer to this question, I couldn’t say it.

  “I think I need to think.” I took off the ring-on-a-string and handed it back to him.

  “Just don’t think too much.”

  “That’s like telling me not to breathe too much,” I argued.

  You sighed as you often do when there’s fresh evidence that I couldn’t find the path to enlightenment even if the Dalai Lama himself planted a GPS device in my (nonexistent) soul.

  “Observe emotions objectively as they rise and pass,” you suggested. “Don’t turn away from unpleasant feelings. Be receptive, but not reactive….”

  I tried not to roll my eyes at all this meditation talk. None of it has ever made much sense to me. I can’t stop my mind from thinking what it thinks, I can only stop myself from sharing those thoughts with others. Isn’t passing silent judgment a cornerstone of civilized society? This is why I’ve kept my journal private all these years.

  (Until now. But you asked for it.)

  Another knock from Young Natty. “Hellooooooooo?”

  You chewed on the leather to undo the knot that usually rested on the nape of your neck. You removed the ring from the necklace, took my hand, and put it back on the fourth finger of my left hand.

  “This always belonged to you.”

  “I was just thinking that…”

  My voice trailed off, shamed by the memory of me childishly thrusting that ring back in your face.

  “‘My thoughts create my world,’” I had seethed. “I’m so tired of being scrutinized through your goddamn third eye!”

  That fight, as you know, precipitated your two-year disappearance. During my junior and senior years at Columbia, your contact with me consisted solely of those enigmatic postcards. You started keeping the Death Valley Diaries, of course, only I didn’t know that then.

  All that time, you wore the ring, my ring, around your neck. You wore it in my absence, and then after our reunion. You wore it knowing that it would one day return to its intended, when the moment was just right. (I WISH OUR LOVE WAS RIGHT NOW…AND…) The history of the ring lent a sense of preordainment to this spontaneous proposal. Had you planned it? And for how long?

  “A week,” you answered as you stepped back into your shorts.

  At first I thought you had read my mind again. But then I realized my mistake.

  “You’ll be back from your trip in a week.”

  “A week.”

  I envisioned you mouthing this new mantra over and over as you manned a raft full of eighteen-year-olds downstream.

  “Y’all?”

  “I’m leaving now!” I said to Natty. And then to you: “I don’t see how your proposal will suddenly make sense seven days from now.”

  “Jessica,” you said, taking my face in your abraded hands. “I love you.”

  (For you it really is that simple, isn’t it?)

  “I would hope so,” I replied, clinging to the humor in all this. “You just asked me to marry you.”

  “I’m serious about this.”

  “So am I,” I replied. “Which is why I can’t say yes.”

  You leaned in and locked eyes. “It’s also why you can’t say no.”

  Before I could defend myself, you lowered your lips to suck on my earlobe. My clavicle. My parted lips. Your kisses scrambled my brain. They manipulated the solar system. They returned Marcus Flutie to the center of my universe. I was defenseless against your pre Copernican pull.

  “Y’all still in they-ah?”

  We parted. I shouldered my bag and opened the door.

  “Sho-wah was a play-shure meetin’ ya, Jessica!”

  I ignored Young Natty and focused on you.

  “I love you, too.”

  But this hopeful farewell does little to bring peace of mind, even now. Loving you has never been the problem. What’s troubling me is how loving you may never be enough.

  And I have a week to find out why.

  sunday: the third

  eleven

  When I woke up this morning, the first thought that registered was my position. I was on my stomach, legs splayed wide across sheets, arms reaching up and around my pillow. It’s my preferred sleeping pose, one that is impossible to achieve when I’m squeezed into my twin-sized mattress with you, as I found out when I fitfully kneed and elbowed you through the seven nights leading up to your departure.

  This sleeping position required the left side of my face to smoosh up against my pillowcase, which prompted the second thought in this particular sequence, in which I remembered my mother’s stern warning that sleeping on my face would destroy my skin’s elasticity, causing deep nasolabial creases and adding years, nay, decades to my appearance.

  My customary first-thought-of-the-morning —Goddamn, it’s bright in here!— was bumped to the third spot. As you know, Hope and I have dubbed our sublet bunk bedroom the Cupcake because it is decorated in the juvenile style preferred by its usual tenants, twelve-year-old twin girls whose preference for supersweet ’n’ creamy pastels brings on excruciating visual toothaches. I imagine there’s an ongoing flame war on ParkSlopeParent.com about how these sugary hues reinforce the gender stereotypes that are at the root of all female oppression. I don’t know them, but I love the twins’ two mommies for not giving in to the neighborhood dictum, even if that decision makes for unpleasantly cloying wake-ups.

  The significance of the ring on the fourth finger of my left hand was, in fact, my fourth thought of the morning: Marcus aske
d me to marry him.

  I slowly rolled over, looked up, and smiled. Grinning right back at me was none other than Kirk Cameron, so dreamy with his brown puppy-dog eyes, his signature mullet puffing up and over the popped collar of his acid-washed jacket. Kirk had a personal message for me, scribbled with a Sharpie.

  JESSICA:

  NO “GROWING PAINS,” NO GAINS!

  XO, KIRK

  I love these messages. I look forward to them the way I used to look forward to getting Hope’s daily e-mails, weekly phone calls, and monthly handwritten letters—the Totally Guilt-Free Guidelines for Keeping in Touch, as they were known—when she moved to Tennessee.

  I thumped the top bunk with my foot.

  “Hope?” I whispered to counterbalance the kicking, bringing the annoyance factor of this wake-up call down to a more forgivable level. But there was no sign of life coming from above.

  I returned my gaze to Kirk’s molten chocolate eyes. Hope and I had only recently inherited a whole archive of late-eighties teenybopper mags —Teen Beat, Tiger Beat— from my sister. They date back about fifteen years, to Bethany’s middle school days, and were in one of the last boxes dragged out of long-term storage after she settled in Brooklyn Heights with her family. As a thirty-three-year-old wife and mother, Bethany determined that she was too grown up for “10 Things You Don’t Know About Ralph Macchio,” and it was finally time to let go of these remembrances of first lusts. Hope and I, at twenty-two, had no such delusions of maturity.

  When we hauled them off, a wistful, slightly worried expression dinged my sister’s delicate beauty. She regretted her decision to give them up. She tried to distract herself from the truth by pinching imaginary lint off her crisp pin-tuck capris, or fingertipping stray blond highlights back into place—both hereditary tics passed down from our mother.

  “What’s Ralph Macchio’s favorite color?” Hope asked. “Anyone? Anyone?”

  “You have visitation rights,” I assured my sister as Hope and I lifted the cardboard box.

  Bethany nodded brusquely before providing Hope with the correct answer.

  “Ralph Macchio’s favorite color is blue.”

  Hope originally said she wanted the magazines because she had some vague idea about using them in a collage commenting on teen celebrities as commodities and the fleeting nature of fame. My motivation made less sense. None of these former heartthrobs mean anything to me, not the teen-idols-turned-has-beens like Kirk and especially not the obscure never-weres like Scott Grimes. And yet I’m sort of fascinated by how important these “hunks” once were in my sister’s life. She’s eleven years older than I am, and I’ve always appreciated her generation’s cheesy contributions to pop culture—the movies, the music, and now the magazines—more than my own. That tenuous pop cultural connection kept me from drifting away from my sister throughout the decade or so when our only other commonality was a nine-month stint in the same uterus.

  I kicked again.

  “Hope?!”

  When she didn’t answer, I bumped the volume up a notch.

  “Hope? You there?”

  I already knew she was there because a mass of orange curls dangled off the edge of the mattress. Even in the gentle early-morning light, Hope’s genuine coloring resembled something not found in nature, like the chemicals added to any fake-Cheddar snack product.

  “Hope?”

  After my third attempt with no response, I decided to let her sleep. Hope needs all the rest she can get. She’s working as an assistant for an event photography firm called Capture the Moment, so she’s gone every Friday night, and usually double-booked on Saturdays and Sundays. Her weekdays are spent going over proofs and helping clients put together the albums that will help them remember that special day for the rest of their lives. All this work puts a major crimp in her own social life, but it’s enabling her to pay her way through graduate school. In two years she’ll have a master’s in art therapy from Pratt, and she’s planning to make a career out of working with physically and mentally disabled individuals of all ages. If Hope wasn’t so damn likable, her do-gooding would make her the most annoying person I know. And in this city, sheer numbers make it impossible not to know a lot of annoying people.

  When Hope’s not dealing with psychotic brides, bat mitzvah brats, and not-so-sweet sixteeners, she and two other almost-starving artists share a so-called Swing Space, thanks to a grant provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. In this makeshift gallery/studio on Maiden Lane, once the site of a former office building, Hope is working on a series of paintings she doesn’t want to talk about until her group show on Friday night—her first Friday off in three months! This reticence to discuss her works-in-progress, as far as I can see, is one of only two manifestations she exhibits of the tortured-artist cliché. The other is her full immersion in her work at the expense of food, sleep, and fun. Her breakneck creativity amazes and exhausts me.

  Art spaces like these are obviously hard to come by, and even harder to hold on to, and I greatly admire the council’s efforts to preserve and protect the city’s creative class. The five boroughs are quickly being bought out by slumming fauxhemians, i-bankers, hedge funders, and their moneyed spawn. One day, not too far in the future, Hope and her poor, arty brethren might find themselves the last of their kind, left behind by those who have fled New York City for artistic colonies in the greener, cheaper pastures of Santa Fe, Portland, or Paducah.

  But for now at least, Hope is here with me, snoozing away in the top bunk in our Park Slope sublet. Our bedroom—the Cupcake—is only ours for a year at most, after which it will return to Claire and Chloe. We are reminded of this fact every time we walk in the room because the twins’ names loop into the flowers-and-vine design stenciled in strawberry mousse script onto the angel-cake walls.

  I just nudged the mattress again.

  I fell asleep before she came home last night, and didn’t wake up upon her return. I suppose my impenetrable slumber was aided by the sleeping pill washed down with booze. Now, before you get too alarmed by the suicidal implications of my self-medicating, let it be known that the pill was all-natural melatonin from the organic pharmacy and the alcohol barely qualified as such because it was pink and came out of a box with an expiration date because that’s all we had in the fridge. As an across-the-board abstainer, I know you worry about my use of mindaltering chemicals. But I doubt anyone has ever OD’d on a combination of herbs and “flavored wine product.”

  A car alarm bleated from across the street. Hope stirred, and flung a long leg over the side of the too-small mattress.

  “Hope?” Another kick.

  Nothing.

  twelve

  I gave up and got up. I pressed an ear to our bedroom door, listening for signs of life. When I didn’t hear anything, I opened the door a crack and listened again. I determined that my housemates were either still asleep or not on the premises, so I tiptoed toward the kitchen, stupidly shushing the loose planks in the wood floor that creaked under my weight.

  I leaned against the linoleum countertop, content that the only sound inside the apartment was the slurpy gurgle of the coffeemaker. I said my morning prayer: Don’t let them come until I finish my first cup. Despite the rarity of such moments of solitude, I love my apartment. And not just because I thought my post-graduation mailing address would read something like: Jessica Darling, Kitchen-Aid Refrigerator Box, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215.

  I am extremely fortunate to live in one of two bedrooms in an actual apartment with real (i.e., not cardboard) walls, located in the basement of a gorgeous brownstone. It’s rent-stabilized and usually rented by an academic family whose matriarch is currently on a one-year sabbatical in Europe. And it even comes equipped with a colorful landlord character, Ursula, a fortysomething half-Swede, half-German former fashion model who considers it her lot in life to point out Americans’ many flaws in vivid prose. For example, when I delivered the rent check the other afternoon, Ursula informed me that my eye
brows were all wrong. Besides plucking a few strays here and there, I’ve never given much thought to my eyebrows. But I dropped my head in wait for the wisdom Ursula could wield like a guillotine.

  “Zey are like two desperate sperm trying to impregnate your eyeballs!”

  The blond giantess turned on her boot heel and pounded up the stairs. I retrieved my head and carried it back down to the basement.

  Maybe I’ve got a bad case of Stockholm syndrome, but I’m captivated by Ursula’s cruel humor. I’m not surprised that you feel differently. When you were targeted by one of her insights/insults (something about dreadlocks and cockroaches?), you referred to Ursula as “Jotun.”

  “What?”

  “Jotun. A fearsome Norse demigod, like those that suffer in the Asura realm in Buddhist culture.”

  I had no idea what you were talking about. But you had my rapt attention, as you always did whenever your sentences consisted of more than a three-word subject-verb-object construction.

  “They mean well, but always do more harm than good.”

  I saw your point, then and now. Even when Ursula is on to something—and in the case of my eyebrows, I have noticed a certain spermy resemblance—her methods hurt more than they help. Still, I just can’t help but love someone who could say something like that.

  (How about you? Could you love someone who would say something like that? Oh, that’s right. Whether you like it or not—and that’s not even a question, now, is it?—you already do.)

  thirteen

  Knowing it won’t last forever enhances our apartment’s many pleasures. (I’m doing a commendable job of not worrying about finding a new place in exactly nine months and twenty-eight days.) Hope and I confirmed the first and best of said pleasures last spring as we sat on the front stoop waiting for our prospective housemates to arrive, before we had even set foot inside.

  “According to this historical marker,” Hope said, examining a small bronze plaque affixed to the front door, “this building really was home to the Swedish American Men’s Sporting Society, more commonly known as S.A.M.S.S.”

 
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