She doesn’t sleep much. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about her; the way you never can quite catch the soft motion of her lids fading over her gray eyes. When you wake at some peculiar middle-of-the-night hour on her couch and in her living room before moving to the room you stay in, the lights are still on, the TV’s mumbling at a low volume, and she’s no longer in her spot on the couch.
Or how in the morning, the sounds of her already awake and moving throughout the house bleed through the thin walls before the sun floods through the curtains.
Your connection to her is tenuous, a cousin of a friend of your college roommate. He helped negotiate the tiny spare room in her house where you’ve been living for three months, the one that you rented from her after a year of living abroad where you set out like any cliché of a young white male to—wait for it—find yourself. You toured the Vatican, spent hours dazzled by the Hagia Sophia, ate lunches of soft cheeses, salty anchovies, warm bread, tangy wine. You took a selfie at the Berlin Wall. You smoked hashish with Madrileños. And still, you have to lie to those who ask; you’re acutely aware that any change that was to have happened within you hasn’t. You’ve seen Europe, but you haven’t really seen anything. You were feeling lost before you left, and no transformative process has taken place to mitigate this. You’re the same person you always were: even-tempered, slightly selfish, aware that the expectations for yourself do not match who you are presently. You suspect she sees this. You suspect she sees right through you.
You’re only vaguely aware of the details of her day. She’s a photographer’s assistant, and many nights after dinner she’s still typing away on her computer, the TV on and unwatched in front of her while you quietly scrape salty noodles from a bowl. Her own photographs are mounted and strung around the house, and while you think they’re all perfect—black and whites of skinny, dead-eyed teenagers, vibrant images of children laughing, gorgeous orange and red sunrises appearing behind cityscapes—you notice when a new one gets pulled down with an unsatisfied tug and another put in its place as she steps back and studies the new image, tilting her head this way and that while she debates its worthiness.
From the few times you’ve been awake early enough to see her leave in the morning, you know she wears dress pants and pressed shirts, sometimes knee-length dresses and heels, and returns in the evening wearing yoga pants and sweatshirts, her hair pulled off of her face into a high, tight bun. From these details and a few others (you’ve overheard complaints to her mother about picking up copy-editing work to supplement the pitiful income she’s paid as an assistant) you’ve created an imperfect picture of what her day entails. Daydreaming about her days takes you away from yours, which often feel long and pointless. You stroll around the city, ostensibly using the scenes and overheard bits of conversation as prompts—another reason for your international explorations, you’re trying to be a writer, which you told to a Dutch girl in a Barcelona bar and blushed when she asked where she could buy your book—until it feels like an appropriate time to start drinking. A familiar loneliness creeps in, the type you fought off in the days abroad while carefully presenting a happy, edited version of yourself to friends and family online. You’ve learned that crowds of strangers are not necessarily comforting. The best part of your day is when she’s at home, even if she’s in another room. The mere knowledge of her presence does this.
Sometimes, in the evenings, you spend a few minutes quietly reaching around each other in her cramped kitchen meant for one while you both prepare quick and separate evening meals, hers always containing more color and flare than yours. While you were away you fell into a rhythm of preparing a rotation of the same five dishes and that habit hasn’t changed. She can cook, and when she has time, she makes elaborate meals. You know this from the smells left lingering in the kitchen on a weekend night when you return home late—venturing out to bars alone was another habit you picked up abroad—after she’s already in bed with her light still on, the pitter-patter of typing still audible as you pass closely by her door.
(On one of these weekend nights you come home and see her light’s already off, hear rustling and a soft, kitteny moan come through her door, which you never, ever mention.)
The silence between you two feels like a particular smell; always there and entirely ignored. After a while, you don’t even notice it. Sometimes you feel like you’re watching her from behind a screen.
When she’s away, you look at her photographs, study them, and feel like you’re studying a piece of her. They’re part of what drew you to her, her ability to see beauty in things others so easily miss. When you know she’s coming home, you plant yourself in the living room where she’ll inevitably be.
There are times when you talk. These moments happen when she comes home with her hair in a bun and plops down on the couch, too tired to cook or do any more work on her computer. Whatever scribbling was occurring in your notebook ends abruptly. Some nights there are just exchanges of a few words. “Pass me the remote.” “There’s nothing on TV.” “Going to order from Joe’s. Want anything?”
You ask her, on one of these occasions, if she’d like some dinner. She turns to you, a few strands of dark hair falling out of her bun, “What? And eat one of your weird meals?”
It takes a moment for the criticism to register, and when it does you laugh, and so does she. You love her laugh. You hear it when she has a friend over and they giggle over gin and tonics, or when talking to her sister on the phone. “I know, I know. I’m not much of a cook,” you say once the laughter fades. “I just never learned. I have sandwiches for lunch and noodles for dinner.” You throw your hands up as you say this, a gesture of innocence.
She nods appreciatively, a lingering smile still curled at the edges of her lips. “I’ll teach you sometime. Do you like breakfast?”
You recognize the feeling of your heart beating in your chest. “I usually just have coffee,” you say.
She scrunches up her nose and tilts her head like you’re one of her photographs. “I didn’t know you drank coffee. I’ve never seen you drink any here.”
“I usually just buy an espresso while I’m out.”
She looks at you like this is some new and interesting information. She retires to bed soon after, and this time, leaves her computer to sit closed on the couch.
In the late-morning, when you wake up and wander to the kitchen, there’s coffee lingering in her French press with a sticky note: “Italian brew – enjoy!”
You find a job. It’s part-time, but the pay is okay and you reason that some structure in your life will allow for more writing to take place (long, languid days have proven unfruitful; the time you’ve designated to write, in the late late hours after she’s gone to her room and while sitting on your bed and staring at the off-white, blank wall that separates your room from hers has provided empty thoughts and terrible poetry, and the sentences you write you tend to hate in the morning). You’re a bike courier.
Your days find some evenness. You still wake late, but not quite as late. The coffee she leaves you is still warm when you drink it. You ride all morning and end in the mid-afternoon. You write in your room until she comes home.
You see her, once, out on your route. She’s walking quickly, a large, square purse over her shoulder, files tucked under her other arm. She’s wearing the morning’s attire: pencil skirt, blouse, matching flats. “Hey!” you call, and when she looks up you offer a wave that immediately feels like a child’s. She smiles, a big smile, you think, a genuine smile. Your eyes come back to the road just as you swerve to avoid crashing into a SEPTA bus unloading passengers.
It’s strange; you can think back to your time abroad and picture her there with you. You can see her looking at you from under her long-lashed eyes across a table in Paris, her spindly fingers picking at a piece of bread. You can feel the warmth of her hand as you help each other hike Mt. Mulhacen in Andalucía, her calves flexing ahead of you in the Spanish sunlight. You see her in the tiny apartment you rented in Rome, resting in the cone shaped light that filled the bedroom each day in the early morning, dust particles dancing around her face. These come as flashes, daydreams that feel like memories. You wonder if you could rewrite your entire history, infusing her into it.
At some point, the words you write become only about her.
On a Tuesday, you discover it’s her birthday. You learn this only from a bouquet of flowers that arrives from a friend who lives across the country with a note, “HAPPY 29th!!!” The flowers are delivered in the late afternoon while you’re at home and she’s still at work. You go back and forth on whether to buy her flowers as well, to pretend you somehow knew all along, but your head fights this, aware how odd this may seem. The delicate dance you do to ensure she doesn’t know that you’re falling in love with her—falling in love with the way her skirt sweeps against her calves as she rushes out the door, with her eyes held behind the dark-framed glasses she wears in the evening, with the way she tousles out her hair at the end of the night like she’s shaking off the many moments of her day—might fall apart if you buy her flowers. Instead, you wait for her in the living room, trying to write in your notebook like you always do. But anxiousness prevents any coherent thoughts, makes your words bounce around in your head, none of them landing in the way that would produce a promising sentence.
When she arrives home a bit later than usual, her face pulled into an emotion that reads “distraught,” enough to make you question if today really is her birthday—until she sees the flowers from her friend and lights up with a smile and that precious head tilt—you enter the kitchen and return with a bottle of wine and two glasses. You try to appear confident, but the nerves you have in her presence persist. The wine you’ve been saving for a special occasion, a bottle you paid too much for after being schmoozed by a French woman who told you, in her glorious broken English, that it was the best wine in France.
“What’s this?” she asks. You freeze with the bottle tucked under your arm, a glass in each hand.
“It’s, uh, wine I paid too much for? It’s French. It’s for you.” You stutter, stumble, blurt, “Because it’s your birthday.”
She squints at you.
“I saw the flowers and the note, and I just figured…”
There’s a flood of warming relief as she smiles her approval and reaches for the glass and the bottle, opens it with ease and pours herself a full, tall glass, and you another. She plops down on the couch and you follow suit, sitting far enough away to give her the space to stretch out her long legs along its length. You steal glimpses at her smooth legs, at the wisps of fine hair on her upper thighs.
“So, how was your day?” you ask, tentatively.
“Shitty, mostly. Just another day.” She takes a long pull from her glass. “Ooh, this is good.” She tilts her head to rest on the back cushion and you feel sorry for her slightly dirty feet. “How old are you?” she asks, picking her head up.
“Twenty-six,” you say. (You’re actually twenty-four.)
She nods. “Twenty-six was an okay age. You’re allowed to not have your life together yet.” She takes another sip. “Twenty-nine comes with less excuses.” She pauses. “Like, look at these photos.” She motions with her hand and you’re aware she’s never, ever talked to you this much before.
“I love your photos,” you venture to say.
She stops and looks at you directly, “Well, thank you.”
There’s a pause in her speech, a small window of time where you expect her to say something else abrupt and direct, or maybe you should say something, but the moment passes. She moves on quickly.
“They suck, all of them. I want to be good, you know? I want to be great, but I’m not finding the right subjects. Or the right light.”
She pauses again and you want to protest, to gush that they’re beautiful, that they’re perfect, and though you mean it wholeheartedly, even in your head this sounds like it would come out as disingenuous fluff. She shakes her head, “Ack, whatever. Let’s talk about something else.”
You’re aware of the proximity of her slightly dirty feet to your thighs, how her toes, covered in chipped pink polish, could graze your jeans if she stretched them. You listen to the sounds of the house: water rushing through pipes, the constant creaks of the old wooden walls. A window is open and you hear the sounds of the outside, dogs barking, bits of overheard conversation from people walking past, ever-present sirens a mile or so away.
“We should turn on music,” you suggest.
She hands you her phone. “The cord thing is next to the speakers. Put on whatever.” Her phone has a photo of her and another woman who looks like her, perhaps the sister from the phone calls. Their faces are bright and suntanned, flecked with summertime freckles, smiles stretched wide, arms wrapped around the other’s shoulders. You make a silent promise to one day make her smile like that.
You press play on a playlist called “College,” and Conor Oberst floats through the speakers.
You sit back down in the same spot you left, still precariously close to her skin, and she nods her head and moves her feet; they graze your leg. “God, I haven’t listened to this in forever.”
“You know what I did tonight?” she asks, but continues before you have time to respond. “I went on a date. A terrible date. On my birthday.” You try to keep your face neutral, but you feel tiny thorns poking you as you absorb this news. But you did pick up on one thing: it was terrible. “He said to me, ‘You’re mysterious. I bet you don’t let any guy in.’ Like, what the fuck am I supposed to do with that?” She shakes her head and takes another long sip. “Like they think they know us better than we know ourselves.”
“He sounds like an asshole,” you say.
“Yeah. He was. Another thing when you get older, more assholes. Or really, there are the same amount as when you were younger, but now they have money.” She stops. You stare at the wall. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean you. You seem nice. You got a girlfriend?”
You shake your head. “Nope,” you say.
“Oh, please. I bet you have a girlfriend in every country you visited.”
You smile, laugh a little. “Trust me, I don’t. I’m, uh, kind of shy.” You feel your face flush. She pours herself more wine.
“You are? I think guys always just say that.”
“No, no,” you protest, “it’s true. I’m not good. I get all tongue-tied. I say the wrong things. Like, this one time, in college, I thought this girl in one of my lectures was really pretty, but I was so afraid to tell her, and then I saw her out at a party and she saw me and said hi, but instead of saying hi back, I blurted out that she was the most beautiful girl in our philosophy class.” You finish a bit breathlessly, you’ve never talked to her this much.
She laughs. “And she didn’t like that?”
You shake your head at the memory. “No, no. She was completely freaked out. And every time she saw me in class I turned beet red. I couldn’t even look at her anymore.”
She sits with this information, processing it. She looks at you queerly, studying your face, and a small panic grips you that she suddenly sees you for who you are: a guy who’s too nervous to tell her he thinks she’s beautiful, who will never, ever be good enough for her. “Can I take your picture?” she asks.
“Yeah,” she nods, suddenly animated. “Yeah. Can I?”
You will do anything to maintain the way she looks at you now. You’d run to City Hall and back, break up a South Philly bar fight, let her take your picture. “Well, yeah! Of course.”
“Great,” she says. “Great.” She nods, sips. “We’ll start tomorrow.” She motions with her hand. “Better light.”
You wonder if you’ll be able to sleep tonight.
There are moments of passing silence. She lets her head tilt back again against the couch and another familiar song comes on. You can place yourself in the memory of its melody: from sometime when you were so much younger, so much more optimistic about the details of your life. You wonder when it was that optimism stopped, changed into something else entirely.
“What’s in that notebook?”
“What notebook?” you say too quickly.
“The one next to you.” She points and you reach for it reflexively. “Oh, it’s. Nothing. I sometimes write poetry and… sometimes other stuff, like from my travels. But it’s nothing.”
Her eyes light up. She speaks calmly. “Will you read me something?”
“Oh… I don’t know.”
But she protests. “Please? I share my photography!” She gestures to the photos strung up along the room. “I love poetry. I would always go to all the poetry readings in college and wish I were one of them. There’s something so empowering about it.”
“I don’t think my poetry is empowering.”
She shakes her head. “Just the act of writing words and speaking them. It’s something I try to do with my photographs, but it doesn’t always come across.” You look back at her, hope that your look conveys a desire to change the subject. It doesn’t. “Please? Just a line or two.”
You reach for your notebook and turn to a recent page, some scribble you wrote this afternoon. She looks right at you, listening. You begin.
“her hair in the sun trickles a dark path down her face / wisps of light not even darkness can erase, er…” you look up to see her looking back at you with interest, like she’s actually listening. You feel something shift, the vortex opening, a window of which she’s summoning you to crawl through to her. You continue on—some other bits about the philosophy of light you haven’t yet worked out—as she stands and moves across the room. You worry that she’s bored, moving to grab something from the kitchen or her bedroom, but she calls “Keep going!” as she runs for a bag on a side table in the narrow hallway that separates the kitchen and living room. “Louder!” she calls, and you read louder, with a bit more throatiness in your voice.
She returns with her camera and points it at you. “Wait, wait, what—”
“I changed my mind. This is what I need,” she says. She tucks a doe-like leg underneath her and clicks. “This here. This is real. This is what I need. Keep going.”
A feeling of defenselessness seeps in, like you’re naked in front of a crowd. Whether or not she sees this, she takes your picture, over and over again, while you continue to read words you are beginning to believe aren’t quite so bad, but it might just be the moment. How intimate it is, to be photographed by her. The poem ends and she continues clicking, sometimes moving so close that just the proximity of the camera produces a false tickling along your cheek. “Read something else,” she instructs, never pulling her face away from the eyepiece.
You continue on like this, for minutes, almost an hour, her taking easily over a hundred pictures, you reading line after line of words you’ve written since you moved in, at least half of them about her. Whether she notices this or not is unclear. And then at last she stops.
She sits with her legs cross-legged, turning her face down toward the camera to scroll through the shots. “That was great. That was so great.”
You nod vehemently in agreement. “Yeah. Yeah, it was.”
She looks up from her camera. A moment passes where you both look at each other. You freeze in what you’re supposed to do next. Does she want you to kiss her? To embrace her? Is this the moment you tell her that you love her?
But too quickly she turns away and gathers up her camera and stands, putting it all away in the black bag in the hallway. When she comes back, she turns on the TV and sits next to you, her body upright, inches away from yours. You’ve been staring at a word in your notebook, beatific, a word you’ve been trying to work into a poem about her. You stare at it, repeating it in your head until the word means nothing. You close your notebook.
She flips through channels and comments on the news, on an adult cartoon, until she lands on a comedy special. Your body, which moments ago felt electrified, now feels overcome with exhaustion, like you’ve just completed a marathon. She laughs along quietly with some of the jokes and remains mute with others. You pretend to watch but instead stare at the fine strands of her hair, breathe in the smell of her coconut shampoo that you see every morning in the bathroom. Then, in a moment—and if you blinked you would have missed it—she lays her head on your shoulder, gently at first, like she’s deciding if she wants to as it’s happening, and then with more weight, her body relaxing into yours. Neither of you say anything. You stare at the pink line of her scalp.
Eventually, finally, you watch her eyes flutter to close. She stays there, asleep on your shoulder. You turn the TV down and listen to her subtle snores, brushing the hair out of her face, until you too lay your head back and embrace the full calm of sleep.
You wake up to the pink light of morning creeping through the living room’s curtains. She’s not next to you, is instead already preparing for her day. You smell coffee and hear the shower running. You look around the room: the TV has been switched off, the nearly empty wine bottle and red-stained glasses swept up and placed elsewhere. You shake the sleep from your head and move into the kitchen. An idea occurs to you. You reach into the refrigerator and grab a crate of eggs, a few slices of bread, a tub of butter. You heat the pan and allow a golden square to melt and streak all over it. The eggs make a satisfying sound as they crack and land in the pan. You have the feeling that everything within the realms of the universe is exactly as it should be. Words come to you, perfectly formed lines that you hold in your head until you can write them down. Something within you has physically shifted.
While she’s still upstairs, you place two plates and two glasses across from each other on her tiny breakfast table and remove the pile of magazines and mail that the table usually is a home for. You grab forks, knives. You pull jam and ketchup from the refrigerator. From the pan you shake out a fried egg and cut the toast into two triangles, fussing over where to place them on the plate. You pour her coffee, move a vase with a single daisy in it from the windowsill to the center of the table, and sit down.
You listen for her movements upstairs growing louder, hear the creak of the steps and the sounds of the floor as she pads in her bare feet toward the kitchen. You try to make your face neutral, or just a gentle smile, but your excitement betrays a much larger one. She comes into the room, not expecting to see you from the look on her face, and says, “Oh!”
You scan the table, then look back at her. “It’s breakfast! I just thought maybe you’d like something before you left?” Your voice comes out sheepish, with a hint of desperation that you recognize and try to subdue.
She stands, gazing at the plates and back at you awkwardly. “I’m sorry. I’m actually on my way out now, was just going to grab my coffee…” her eyes search the empty French press on the counter.
“Oh, it’s here,” you lift up a mug, spilling driblets of hot liquid onto your wrist.
“Great, I’ll just pour it into…” she reaches for her takeaway mug put away on a top shelf. You notice a thin line of bare skin appearing along her low back. It hits you that you read the situation entirely wrong. She turns to you and her eyes concede this. “I’m sorry, I have to get to work, and then I’m leaving for a week. My boss and I are traveling to Bali. She wants to take photos of sunsets.” She lets out a small, forced laugh, and you look down at your pathetic fried egg on your plate. “I’m sorry I can’t stay for breakfast.”
You nod, trip over your words. “Of course! Of course, I wasn’t thinking. I just thought you’d like something before you left, that’s all.”
She smiles sadly at you. “Well, I wish I could stay. It smells great.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll eat your share.”
She laughs and turns away. She finds her heels in the hallway and slips them on. You hear her footsteps retreating, then stopping and turning back toward the kitchen. She appears once again. “Hey,” she says, “I didn’t mean to give you the wrong idea. I get carried away with my photographs.”
“You didn’t! Don’t worry,” you gush. She nods politely and turns away again. You listen to the click of her heels, the rolling of her suitcase as she moves toward the door. You picture her closed eyes once again, feel the weight of her head against your shoulder. From the other side of the house, the door swings open and shuts.