James grew up in California and has a background in philosophy. He has lived all over the U.S., Asia, and currently lives in Europe where he teaches English. His writing is influenced by Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, among many others. This is his first published story.
EVERYTHING IS REAL, NOTHING IS TRUE
You follow Chloe out of the apartment, getting lost in the labyrinth of corridors and memories as you try to reconstruct the events of the last several hours. All that time seems lost to you now. You’re standing right next to her in the elevator, yet she’s a million miles away.
Outside, the sun has only been up for an hour or two, but the rays are bright enough to serve as a reminder of how tired and dehydrated you are. Your pace slows, pained by the harsh light and your inability to understand exactly what has happened. You search your pockets for your sunglasses, but they’re not there. She’s already across the street near her car when she looks back at you, annoyed because you’ve gotten so far behind. But she’s also more than just a little disconcerted; she’s not used to being the strong one coming out of situations like this.
When you close the passenger side door, she asks unsympathetically, “You going to be all right?”
“Yeah. I just need to… get my bearings,” you tell her, which somehow sounds like a lie. You want to say more; you want to ask her what happened, but instead you say nothing. Her thoughts are clearly somewhere else. It’s up to you to figure this out for yourself. You adjust the seatbelt and she’s already pulled off the curb before you have it buckled.
She’s silent as she drives down the surprisingly empty road – what happened to all the traffic you heard earlier? – and you’re finally in a position to sort out your thoughts, get a grasp on what moments ago seemed out of reach. This began two days ago when you first needed a place to stay. You had lost your apartment and job, run out of money, and burned many bridges. Your last option for any help was Mick, your connection – and Chloe’s boyfriend. Thinking you could have things sorted out by the time you got your final paycheck next week, you asked Mick if you could stay the night at his loft. You knew they lived in the industrial part of town that had long been abandoned, which would help you keep a low profile until you left. After checking with Chloe, he enthusiastically offered his couch, not just for the night, but the whole weekend. Chloe, he said, would love to have you over. This seemed odd to you, as you and she barely knew each other, but you were more relieved to have somewhere to stay. You didn’t want to fuck this up.
You met Mick that afternoon and he took you to the loft. On the way there, he extolled the virtues of living in this part of the city; not only were there no neighbors to complain when they held their band practice, but he didn’t have to worry about anyone calling the cops when he fired off his guns.
As if needing to demonstrate this latter point, he decided to show you his guns after you got to his home and did a couple lines together. You felt as if he were trying to impress you with his machismo, but it only frightened you instead. When making transactions with him before, he had often told you many stories that always ended in violence. His stories didn’t illustrate his badassery to you as much as his instability.
“With this baby, I can easily take out all the fags in this city,” he said, positioning a sniper rifle on his windowsill and aiming it at imaginary passersby.
You weren’t sure how serious he was, but were nonetheless relieved when you heard the downstairs door unlock and you knew you wouldn’t have to be alone with him any longer. Chloe was home.
As Mick put away his toys, Chloe greeted you with a familiarity that seemed unwarranted, but not offensive; the most time you had spent with her previously had been about fifteen minutes when she had made a delivery to you that Mick couldn’t make himself.
She had been preparing a roast for dinner all day, but Mick, in his excitement to show off to you, forgot to follow the instructions she had left for him. When it was finished, it came out too dry. She told Mick off while he shot you looks and winks to suggest that she was crazy. When she noticed this, she got even more pissed off.
Feeling a bit responsible, you took some of the blame, explaining that you had distracted him. You placated her by telling her that the roast smelled good and you were looking forward to tasting it. But, being spun, no one was particularly hungry. No one ate more than a few bites.
“It was really sweet of you to stick up for him like that, but it wasn’t necessary,” she told you as you helped her wash the dishes. “He’s always undermining me like this. Especially when his friends are around.”
“Well, I’m your friend, too,” you said to her. Her smile told you how much this meant to her.
As you watch her drive now, you can’t help but wonder if she ever liked you. Looking at her lips, you think it wasn’t that long ago you were kissing them. Her makeup had worn away and you targeted each of her freckles with your lips. Coming up for air, you wanted to look her in her amber eyes, but her raven hair was in the way. She stopped you when you tried moving it; she had a pimple on her cheek and she didn’t want you to see it. You told her it didn’t matter, but it mattered to her.
Now her eyes, unblinking, are fixed on the road. With her makeup on, she looks like a completely different person. Her skin is unnaturally pale, her lips unnaturally red. Her pimple is gone, and with it her freckles and warmth.
You wonder where she’s taking you. You want to ask, but you think she might not know, either. You can wait until you get there to find out. In the meantime, you return to your thoughts.
Last night, after another fight with Mick during their rehearsal, she’d brought you to the apartment where she worked. You sat with her in the living room, flipping through the erotic coffee table books while she read her reviews online. Even with the lights on so dim, this place seemed so much more posh than where she lived with Mick, and you finally understood how she could afford it.
“Mick told me you were a masseuse, but I didn’t realize that these were the kinds of massages you give. A hundred-and-fifty-dollar handjobs?” you asked her.
“Two hundred dollars,” she answered, laughing. “I only give upscale handjobs.”
“Ah, I see. And I always thought a handjob was just a handjob. I guess I’m pretty naïve about these things.”
She laughed again and closed her laptop. “Come here. I’ll show you where I work.”
She led you into one of the bedrooms. With the lights on so low, all you could make out was a massage table in the middle of the room. She told you to remove your shirt and lie face down on the table.
Not being able to see anything made you uneasy at first. Soon you could feel her hands on your back and you got more comfortable, probably the most comfortable you’ve felt in days. You lost all track of time as her hands traveled and conquered all the nooks and crannies of your back. An hour passed, maybe two. You dozed off, but suddenly woke when you felt her hands go down your pants. They were only there for a second. When they returned to your back, you could tell she was getting tired. You asked if you could return the favor.
“Yes, please,” she answered.
You and she traded places. She lay down, keeping her dress on, and you stood over her, topless.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Good,” you answered quickly, trying to hide how you really felt. But given the circumstances, you decided to risk sharing more. “I’m a little turned on, actually.”
“That’s cool,” she said into the face rest of the table, her muffled voice making her sound weary. You chuckled to yourself. Her tone had been neutral, but you were relieved it wasn’t repulsion.
You rubbed and petted her back awkwardly, not knowing what you were doing. You imagined you were lulling her to sleep like she had done to you. But you found a spot on her lower back that she responded to with moans. You took this as a good sign and rubbed her here more, clockwise and counter-clockwise, eliciting more and more moans from her. You were pleased that you were doing a good job and making her feel good, but you soon got bored with it and were becoming more aware of your own exhaustion. You didn’t want to stop pleasing her, so you asked her what else she liked, hoping she might suggest something more comfortable for you. She turned around and said she liked to have her legs rubbed. She made no attempt to cover her exposed nipples as the neckline of her dress rode down.
You started at her kneecap, but the only way you could keep going down was to remove her boots. She didn’t want that, so you decided to rub upward instead. “Careful,” she said as your hands came into contact with her thighs. She kept repeating this word, whispering as she parted her legs more and more the closer your hands got to the center. Rubbing in between her legs now, you could feel how much she was enjoying this, but her soft admonitions confused you. You weren’t sure what to do, but you knew you wanted her to stop talking, so you leaned down and kissed her. You were sloppy at first, not just kissing her mouth, but all over her face and neck and chest. Her reactions showed you that you made the right choice. She responded in kind, smearing her makeup on you. But you were physically incapable of going any further; in the last few minutes, your boots had become unbearably heavy, planting you to the floor. You weren’t sure you would be able to lift your legs. You didn’t want to stop what you were doing to take them off, worried she might realize she was making a mistake and put an end to this. So you remained standing, leaning over her, touching and rubbing her as you kissed her more methodically, as she did the same.
Now, you reflexively glance at her crotch, hidden by the folds of her dress, before looking out the windshield. It’s a clear and sunny morning, but you somehow see it all as a shade of gray, like you’re traveling through a tunnel. For the first time, you notice music has been playing, loudly, and you wonder if it’s been playing this whole time. Did she turn it up so high deliberately? Is she trying to drown something out? You turn down the volume, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Silence remains between you two until she passes a cop car. She notices the way you automatically tense up, less from the chemicals in your system and more from the fear of Mick somehow finding out what happened between you and his girlfriend.
“Are you going to be able to maintain if we get pulled over?” she asks.
“Yeah, of course,” you reply curtly as she runs a red light. “But we wouldn’t have to worry about getting pulled over if you would stop running red lights,” you say with a hint of malice, wanting to make it clear it won’t be you that gives you away.
You feel her glancing at you. Expecting it to be a glare, you don’t meet it, but you’re surprised to feel a hint of warmth emitting from her, see a grin in your peripheral vision. It’s too late when you turn to confirm this; her grin is gone, her eyes back on the road.
“I guess you’re right,” she says quietly.
Feeling a little bolder, you decide it’s time to establish where it is she’s taking you. Though she has taken a long way around, you recognize the route and decide to say something before it’s too late. “You know, you can’t take me back to the loft.”
She remains silent. You wonder if she heard you, and your newfound confidence sinks at the thought of having to repeat yourself. Waiting, trying to decide what to do, you look out through the windshield, hopelessly attempting to reconcile your perception with reality. She runs another red light. Looking at her for any indication that she’s aware of what she just did, you hear her say softly, “I can’t take you back to the loft.”
After everything had been cleaned and put away from the dinner, she had wanted to get to know you better, and this had led to an all-night bonding session between you two. Mick had gone to bed with a migraine; the smell of pot wafted through the loft from their bedroom. Chloe dug out her old notebooks full of poetry and songs, and you shared with her the notebooks you had in your bag. You spoke almost nonstop all night, getting to know each other by reading each other’s words, trading compliments, giving release to the thoughts that had been cluttering your mind, divulging your secrets, sharing your plans for the future. It was like you were making up for all the lost time that you had never actually spoken to her before now. Her positive responses had encouraged you to share more about yourself than you had shared with anyone in a long time, some of your ideas seeming grandiose, but not unrealistic. She made you feel you were capable of anything.
As she becomes more conscious of the situation, her coldness starts to melt, puddles forming in her eyes. She puts on her sunglasses, but you don’t need to see her eyes to know that the dynamic has changed. You’re the strong one now.
Making random left-turns and illegal U-turns on the empty streets, she wonders aloud if she’s a bad person, the way she falls for anyone who treats her with any kindness. It was just the other night when you were wondering the same thing about yourself, sitting alone with her in the loft, your and her notebooks spread out on the floor, lines of dope cut out on a mirror. She asked what inspired you, what motivated you to write so much. You told her it was about finding answers to questions like this, exploring the events of the last several months that had led you to this point – rock bottom – and whether this made you a bad person. She had said, “No, of course not.”
You want to reassure her now, but because of her coldness toward you, you’re not so sure she deserves it.
“I need you need to talk to him for me,” she pleads without looking at you directly. “You saw how he treats me. Please. Say something to him. He’ll listen to you.”
“It’s impossible,” you say automatically, absolving yourself from any responsibility. You didn’t intend to get involved with her like this. The only reason you left with her after their fight last night was because you felt responsible for what happened, not to solve any relationship problems. You had intruded on their band practice; he was upstaging her for your benefit, showing off his self-taught skills at the bass. It truly was accidental when he unplugged her mic with his foot. Then again, he wouldn’t have been anywhere near the cord if he wasn’t trying to impress you as you watched from the other side of their rehearsal space.
“Goddammit!” she screamed.
“What? Relax, Chloe. It was just an accident,” he said, “I’ll plug it back in. No problem.”
“No, forget it. This whole rehearsal has been a mess. When you haven’t been playing over me, you’ve been talking over me. I’m done. You and Jeremy can keep playing together, but I’m outta here.”
She went to the bedroom to get her jacket, and as soon as she disappeared, Mick gave you an apologetic look that also somehow insinuated that she was the unstable one. He and their guitarist continued to jam. She stormed across the loft to the rooftop terrace to smoke. You had no reason to stay in the main room anymore, so you followed her to apologize.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said, “but I appreciate the sentiment.” She smiled at you between drags. “This is always happening. Whenever someone comes over, he just has to show off.”
“Well, it’s pretty obvious he taught himself.”
She responded with a chuckle.
“And I was focused more on you, anyway. You have a great voice. You’re very talented.”
“Thanks, dear.” She leaned her head against you in lieu of a hug so she could still smoke. After she finished and put out the cigarette, she asked, “Wanna take a drive with me?”
“Um, sure. Where to?”
“Anywhere. I need to get out of here. Mick’s going to be an asshole the rest of the night. He probably gave you the impression I was overreacting, right?”
“Yeah.” You were surprised by her clairvoyance, but quickly realized she knew her boyfriend pretty well.
“Come on, let’s go. You won’t need anything. We’ll just be gone for a little while.”
By your reckoning – which is way off – this was at least eight hours ago. But you can’t be sure of anything right now, only that you’ve delivered a self-serving answer to a not-so-unreasonable request, and this hasn’t made her feel any better.
“Look, he’s not going to listen to me,” you say, hoping your explanation will be enough. “I’m leaving in a few days. Nothing I can say will change him. Besides, if I say something now, after spending all night with you, he’ll know something’s up.” You feel like you’ve made a good case for not getting involved.
“You’re right,” she replies, a single tear streaming down the right side of her face. “God, I’m so stupid. He’s never going to change. And no one will ever stick up for me. You saw how useless Jeremy was. And now you.”
You want to say something; you want her to feel better. But you know if you apologize, it’s just going to sound hollow. You say nothing and she drives on in silence.
Your make-out session with her got interrupted by the loud wailing of the landline from the kitchen, each urgent ring a harbinger of doom. There was no question about who was calling. You both stopped kissing each other and stared into each other’s eyes, letting the phone ring. When it stopped, you stood up. Then it began ringing again.
“Shit,” she said, getting up off the table. She checked her phone, which had been charging on a vanity table that seemed to materialize with the sunlight shining through the windows. “Fuck. Six missed calls. We have to leave.”
Suddenly you could hear the traffic below on the street, each vehicle distinctly sounding like Mick’s motorcycle, the sounds seemingly disappearing in front of the building.
She looked at you, at first mystified by the circumstances, but then a grin crept across her face. She came over to hug you, rubbing your crotch. “Thank you,” she said with a kiss. “I’m going to freshen up. Why don’t you get dressed and cut us a couple lines. My stash is in my purse.”
You did as she instructed, but feeling chivalrous, you decided to use your own dwindling stash. You cut lines on the vanity table – taking a little extra for yourself – and snorted yours. The ritual of cutting the lines, feeling the burn in your sinuses, and tasting the drip in the back of your throat were all familiar to you, but the actual rush of the drugs was gone. Your tolerance was so high, this meager amount only kept you functional.
She returned to the bedroom with a fresh coat of makeup on and a new personality, bereft of any of the warmth she had shown you just a few minutes ago.
You decided to freshen up yourself. To get her makeup off you, you had to confront your reflection. You didn’t even recognize the person in the mirror. Your face was a sickly pale that only brought out the darkness of the bags under your eyes and the shadows in your sunken cheeks. And your eyes, they were all pupils. You took a grim satisfaction in all the weight you’d lost since the last time you examined yourself, taking a bit of pride in the gauntness you thought you could never achieve.
You quickly washed your face, fixed your hair, attempted to compose yourself. You found her scrolling through her phone when you returned to the bedroom; the line you cut for her had disappeared. She looked up, and all she said was, “Ready?”
But, back in the car now, you know how little composed you really are, and how little composed she is, too. If you go back with her to the loft and stay with her and Mick over the weekend as planned, there’s no way you can be discreet about what happened. It’s bound to slip out no matter how careful you are.
She seems to have the same thoughts going through her head when she says, “What are we going to do?”
“First… we need some water. Pull over.” She stops the car outside a convenience store with large storefront windows. “I’ll be right back.”
When you pass through the door of the shop, you step into a whole new plane of reality you’re not fully prepared for. No one in the shop notices you, as if the bells on the door failed to announce your entrance. But you heard them… right? You pass through the shop like a ghost, cautiously making your way to the coolers in the back, and you grab a couple bottles of water. You wait behind some pensioner paying for the morning newspaper and a coffee in loose change. It still strikes you as odd that no one seems to notice you. Are you really here? Of course you are, you’re standing here right now. You can feel that, see it; the sound of the coins clanking in front of you, the weight of the bottles in your hands, the smell of coffee coming from the cup in front of you. You begin to doubt your memories of the last several hours. Did any of it really happen? Were you ever really with Chloe? If not, how did you get here? You look out the store’s front window, looking for her car, but you can’t see it. Did she leave? Or was she never here to begin with?
It’s your turn at the cash register. Despite being ill-prepared for any social contact, at least you know you’re real when the cashier rings you up, takes your money, and gives you change. The cashier doesn’t say anything, but it’s not because you’re not real; he just doesn’t care. So you’ve established that much.
You walk toward the door, unsure whether you’ll find Chloe’s car on the other side. You decide that if she’s there, then everything that’s happened really happened. And if not – well, then you have a whole new slew of problems to deal with.
Anxiety sets in as you get closer to the door and open it. You search for her car and you don’t immediately see it and start to freak out. But you glimpse something car-like out of the corner of your eyes, and when you look at it directly, you can see that it’s hers. She’s here, always has been. Everything is real.
“Jesus,” you say after slamming the door in your rush to get back to the car. You look back at the storefront window you looked out of and realize she had parked just out of the line of sight from the cash register. The whole time you were gone, she was here, fiddling with her phone.
You both empty your bottles quickly. She looks at you and asks, “Now what are we going to do?”
“Okay, look.” Your mind is racing, almost as fast as your heartbeat. “My bag is still at the loft. We have to go back to get it. When we see him, we’ll say we went to a bar or club or something and ran into some people I know. We’ll say they agreed to let me stay with them, so I wouldn’t have to impose on you guys so much. The less we say, the better.”
“All right,” she says, reluctantly accepting this story as she puts the car into gear and starts driving in the direction of her home. “Is there anything in your bag that will incriminate us?”
“No.” You want to tell her not to be ridiculous, that she’s being paranoid. Instead you say, “Of course not.” But she’s planted the seed of doubt in you.
“Okay,” she answers, satisfied. But a few moments later, there’s panic in her voice. “You told him you thought I was hot. Why’d you say that?”
"He told you I said that?"
"Of course he did. And now he'll know."
"No, he won't. He's too self-centered to figure it out. When I told him that, it was like I was complimenting him. He’s all ego and no self-awareness. He’s like… Quentin Tarantino. He knows I'd never make a move on you. I'm harmless. In fact, even I’m having trouble believing this happened."
She laughs, the last blocks of ice melting. "I guess you're right."
Seeing her warm up allows you to relax a little and not worry so much about the present situation. "When he told you that, how did it make you feel?"
"It made me feel good."
"Yeah. It was a compliment, wasn't it? I'll tell you something else. It made me want to get to know you better."
"I guess you know me pretty well now."
She laughs again. She slides her hand into yours on your lap as she says, "There's still a lot I don't know."
Knowing things are cool between you now, you’re able to relax even more. You bask in the drive on the familiar streets, enjoying the music on the radio and having her hand in yours.
She removes her hand from yours when you’re a block away from the loft. She straightens up, bracing herself for what’s to come. You find yourself doing the same.
Mick groggily greets you at the top of the stairs leading to their loft when she unlocks the front door. “Where’ve you guys been?”
You quickly relate the story you concocted. “Chloe’s going to drive me there.”
She showers him with affection to distract him from asking any further questions or from discovering any holes in your story. It’s all a bit over-the-top, you feel, but you don’t betray this as you grab your bag and hug him, thanking him for everything.
“Yeah. No problem. Keep in touch,” he says, heading back to bed.
Reeling from your performances, she peels off the curb a little too fast for this to be casual. But maybe you’re reading too much into this. You search your bag, looking for your sunglasses and getting frustrated as you come up empty. You can’t go back for them now.
“So where am I really taking you?”
“Um, how much cash do you have?”
With a free hand, she digs into her purse and throws a pile of bills onto your lap.
“Between this and what I’ve got, I can get a cheap room for the rest of the weekend.”
“Okay. Is there somewhere in particular you want to go to?”
“Just the first cheap hotel you see will be fine. You know, the ones with weekly rates.”
You’re dismayed at how quickly she finds one. You wanted a chance to spend more time with her. But you know that she’s got to go back and smooth things over with Mick. And she probably needs some sleep.
You prolong saying goodbye, but you can see her getting a little restless. You know you don’t have enough of your stash to get you through the next couple days, but you decide not to ask her for more, having already taken money from her.
“So, I guess this is goodbye,” you say, opening the door.
“No, wait. Come here.” She gives you a big kiss and as big a hug as she can manage without unbuckling her seatbelt. “This is just goodbye for now. Call me on Monday.”
“I will,” you say, stepping out of the car. You close it behind yourself and watch her drive off, her arm raised so you can see her waving to you through the back window. You smile at this, but feel a little troubled, as you’re unable to conjure up the image of her face in your mind.
You probably need some sleep, too.
You show up at Chloe’s building a little after nine p.m. She buzzes you in after you call her on the little phone at the front. You’re immediately lost as soon as you enter the lobby; you recognize nothing from the other night. With help from the security guard, you’re able to find the elevators in the right wing of the building. Still lost when you get to her floor, you somehow manage to find her apartment. It takes a few minutes for her to answer after you knock on the door.
When you see her holding the door open, the despair you felt all weekend almost completely disappears. Maybe it’s the smile she has for you that helps, the familiarity of her open arms and her lips on your face. She takes you by the hand and leads you into her room. “How was your day?” she asks as you drop your bag on the floor.
“It was all right, considering...”
“I’m coming down.”
With a sympathetic look, she says, “I’m so sorry. I wish I could’ve seen you sooner, but I had a really late client. He just left a few minutes ago.”
“It’s cool,” you say, wondering why you didn’t seem to pass him in the halls. But you have something more pressing to worry about. You want to confirm the plans you made with her when you called earlier today. “You said I could stay here tonight, right?”
“Yeah, as long as you don’t mind sleeping on the futon.”
“That’s fine. Mind if I take a shower?”
“No, go right ahead. You can leave your clothes here. I have to make a quick phone call. I should be back by the time you’re done.” With a wink and a smile she’s gone, closing the door behind herself.
Feeling vulnerable standing naked in a strange shower makes you a little anxious and too impatient to read the labels on the bottles on display; a brand of cleansers that bear her namesake. It takes a little while for you to find something that resembles soap. As you lather yourself, you become increasingly troubled by her disappearing act and who she might be calling. You suddenly can’t be certain of her intentions. You know this to be a symptom of sleep deprivation, but you can’t help it as your anxiety worsens, leading you down the path to outright paranoia. You become frantic enough to cut your shower short.
You wrap a towel around yourself, and you’re relieved to see her waiting for you when you re-enter the room. She’s sitting on the massage table in the middle of the room. Your anxiety hasn’t completely disappeared. She seems to notice how tense you feel.
“Come here and lie down,” she invites you. “Let me put on some music.” She quickly makes her way to where the CD player rests on the vanity table. She holds up two burnt CDs for you to choose from, but with the lights dimmed the same way as last time, it’s too dark for you to see them properly. “Enya or Portishead?”
You watch her fumble with the CD and the CD player, and you lie down, putting your face in the massage table’s face rest as she presses the play button. You hear her adjust the volume, and a second later you feel the towel you’re wearing disappear. Your heart races, unaware of what’s going on because you can’t see anything. But you’re soon calmed when you turn your head and discover the mirrored closet doors on your right side. You watch as she pours lavender oil onto your back and rubs it into your skin. Though you can feel it, you only know it’s really happening because you can see it. She notices you watching her in the mirror and playfully removes her Hawaiian top with a mischievous grin, a la Bettie Page. She climbs on top of you in just her plain black skirt now and replaces her hands with her upper body, rubbing her breasts against you, touching your skin with her nipples. You can feel her warm breath on your neck, soon replaced by her soft lips. You put your face back into the face rest, confident this is not an illusion; eyes closed and smiling, you forget the state you were in just a few minutes ago.
A few more kisses and she climbs down. She’s standing in front of you now. You can feel her body pressed against your head as she pours more oil on your back and rubs you. You reciprocate by rubbing her legs, sliding your hands underneath her skirt when you meet the hem at her knees and massaging the backs of her thighs.
“How are you?” you ask, speaking loud enough to be heard.
“Tired,” she says with a small laugh. “I’ve been doing this all day.”
“Do you want me to take over?” you ask. You’re on your feet before she can answer. Instead of speaking, she lies down in the same position you were just in.
Just as unsure as you were the other night about what to do, you start by rubbing her shoulders. Moving down, you find the same spots on her back she seemed to enjoy the other night. She tells you to use the oil, so you pour some on her back and rub it in like you think you’re supposed to. Despite her moans of approval – which you interpret as her wanting you to continue – like the other night, you’re too weary to keep this up. Instead of rubbing, you begin kissing her. You tell her to turn over, and when she does, you help her out of her skirt, kissing each region of her body as you uncover it. Completely naked now, you climb up on top of her. Starting at her chest, you kiss your way up to her mouth. As the music plays in the background, you go through the motions of making love without any desire to climax, which will cheapen the way you feel, bring an ending to this sooner than you want.
Too tired to keep going like this, you lie down – “like a sprite,” she says – with your head on her chest. The rest of your body is on the edge of the massage table with your legs interwoven between hers. Despite a slight discomfort this position causes, you feel an overwhelming sense of calm. You repose like this, still, silent, comfortable in each other’s warmth. For the first time in a long time, you feel safe, secure. Wanting this to last forever, you know that it won’t. The CD plays on, adding to the atmosphere, giving you a sense of time even though it sounds like a mix. You lie together through several more songs, but your peace is shattered when she says, “I have to go.”
You don’t move, wishing you hadn’t heard her, wishing she hadn’t said this. You want to stay like this just a little longer, but you’re afraid she might find this overbearing. You both get up slowly, embracing each other quickly. She takes a shower while you get dressed.
Though she’s not gone long, any time away from her seems like an eternity. You’re perturbed by the change in the atmosphere of the room as she returns and gets dressed. Putting on her makeup - becoming somebody different than the person in your arms just minutes ago - she seems to be aware of what you’re feeling. Telling you to sit down and wait for her, she knows what’s bothering you before you do. “I can’t have a serious conversation without any lipstick.”
When she’s done, she needs a cigarette and you need fresh air. Looking at her, she doesn’t seem the same. But you know underneath all that makeup, she’s there. As you follow her out onto the balcony, the air outside is as refreshing as a splash of cool water on your face.
“I want more than this,” you tell her. “I want you.”
“You have to understand,” she says, lighting a cigarette, “I’m not going to change my life. I can’t. My life is far from perfect, but I’m happy.”
You watch her take a drag and blow smoke out through her mouth. As you process what she’s just said, you try to convince yourself you don’t understand what she’s talking about.
“Sometimes I get clients who come up here and I’m not what they expect or I won’t do what they want. They insult me; they make me feel like shit. I had somebody do that to me the other day. And when I came home – well, you saw what happened. He’s not like that all the time. I know there’s not much of a future in the relationship. He’s not going to marry me, but I can’t leave him. He’s the anchor I’ve always needed in my life. We love each other.”
It finally dawns on you what she’s saying and what these words mean. You will never be with her.
Contemplative, she stares out into the night as she finishes her cigarette. Still unsure of what you’re feeling and what you want to say, you follow her gaze. When you look down, you’re met with complete darkness, an abyss where the roofs of other buildings and alleys below you should be. On your right is another building as tall as the one you’re in, and you think it’s the wing you entered in, but the street you came in from is on the left. You watch the vehicular and foot traffic on the street to reconcile this incongruity, but the apathy of ants offers no clues. The stars above you and the bay out on the horizon also offer no help with the displacement you feel.
Next to you, Chloe flicks her finished cigarette from the balcony to the building directly below you. Distracted from your vertigo, you follow the cigarette butt with your eyes, watching the narrow arch it makes on its way down, gravity flipping it upside-down and back again as it disappears into the black hole below. You can’t see it land. Surprising yourself, you reflexively fight back the sudden urge to follow it. Confused by what made you want to jump, you deliberate on it for a few seconds. It doesn’t take long for it all to come back to you.
“I’m afraid... I might’ve misled you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not who you think I am. All the things we talked about, everything I said the other night. That wasn’t me.”
“Oh?” she says with a grin. “And who was it?”
“I mean, it was me. But not the real me...” You can’t find the words to explain yourself, so you give up.
“But you are real. That’s what I like about you.”
You can’t tell if she’s being serious or sarcastic when she says this. The grin doesn’t help.
“That’s not what I mean,” you say, irritated at yourself for not being able to say you want, irritated at her for not letting you feel sorry for yourself. “Forget it.”
You stand next to her, both of you remaining quiet for a long time as you stare out into the city. She suddenly disappears from your peripheral vision. You stiffen, as if caught in a trap, as her arms suddenly close around you. Her body presses against you; warmth replaces the threat of imminent danger. She rests her head against your back. It takes little effort to let yourself relax.
Looking out over the balcony, an idea from a few minutes ago comes floating back to you. You’re struck by how easy it would be to just jump right now, end it all in a matter of seconds, executed in just a few quick movements. All you’d have to do is unlatch her from you and leap over the rail.
You dismiss this not without some annoyance at yourself for having such a stupid idea. It’s soon gone, but you still feel abashed. Memories of recent mistakes and misperceptions you’ve made come flooding back to you, all bearing an unmistakable similarity to the one you made just now.
“I thought I had it all figured out,” you say to the night, defeated. “I thought I knew what I wanted.”
“You do,” she says with a kiss on the back of your neck, as if to confirm this. “You’re just a little confused right now.”
You realize that if it weren’t for her faith in you, making the leap over the rail wouldn’t be so difficult.
“No.” You break free of her grip and turn around to show her you’re not joking. “Look, when I told you how talented and beautiful I thought you were, I might’ve been lying. I’ve been wrong about so much lately, maybe I was wrong about this, too. I don’t know what’s true anymore.”
She smiles, a weak mask; you can see the hurt she feels underneath. “You need to crash,” she says, rationalizing your remarks. It’s unclear if her motivation is for your benefit or hers.
“I’m sorry. I’m so pathetic. Just a few minutes ago, I had this urge to – look, my grasp on reality is slipping. I desperately need to sleep...” You try to justify it further, but you only succeed in making the situation more awkward. You’ve ruined the moment, the feelings, everything.
“Yeah, you look like you’ve been pistol-whipped,” she says with a familiar grin.
Though you have to force it, you can only respond with a smile.
“Come on, I have to get going. Walk me to the door.”
The CD is still playing inside the apartment. Having been put on repeat, it offers no indication of the time that has passed since she put it on. Chloe cleans as she makes her way to the front door, picking up discarded towels, rubbing the kitchen countertops with a damp sponge. She stops every few minutes to ask you how you feel, and before you can answer, she has her arms wrapped around you, squeezing you tightly. After she’s hugged you for a sufficient amount of time, she goes back to what she was doing, finding another chore that requires her immediate attention before she leaves. You suspect her cleaning is a pretense for her to stay long enough for her to feel confident that nothing will happen after she leaves. You appreciate the sentiment, but you’re also irritated that she won’t go; fatigue is consuming you.
Not wanting to seem ungrateful to her for letting you sleep here tonight, you offer to help. She says she doesn’t need it, but you tie the garbage bag she pulled out of the trashcan as she loads the dishwasher with dishes she can’t ascertain are clean or dirty. She turns it on when she finishes and looks about her for anything else that needs to be done.
“I guess that’s it,” she says. She gives you another hug and a small kiss. “Is there anything you need before I go?”
“No, I think I got everything.” You look around as if to make sure there is nothing you need, humoring her to get her to leave.
She picks up the bag you tied earlier and adjusts it with the armful of clothes already in her hands.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “Do you want to grab something to eat with me?”
You smile at her persistence and you think it’s sweet that she’s so concerned about you. But you’re also exhausted, and it’s becoming harder for you to remain polite. “No, I’m not hungry. I just need to sleep.”
“All right.” She finally gives up with a weak smile. “Think you can find your way out of here?”
“Yeah, I dropped stones behind me on the way up.”
She laughs. “Okay. Call me tomorrow?”
Her arms are too full to give you a hug, so you hug her instead. She surprises you with a small peck on the cheek. You hold the door open for her as she leaves and says, “Good night.” You watch her disappear down the hall, and when she’s out of sight, you close the door and lock it. You turn off the dishwasher and CD player and fall onto the futon in the living room. Before you get a chance to get undressed or get too comfortable, you close your eyes. They don’t open again until the next morning.
She wakes you up two nights later, finally returning the countless voicemails you’ve left for her in the meantime. She wants to confirm the hotel you’re staying at and your room number. You had insisted on needing your sunglasses even though they could’ve been replaced for eight bucks at 7-Eleven. But you weren’t sure she’d come of her own volition, so you provided an excuse to see her one last time before you leave the city tomorrow; your last chance to be with someone who really understands you.
You step out of the shower feeling refreshed and truly clean, clear-headed and in control. You’re surprisingly pleased by the sight of your reflection. Marathon sleeping and binging on healthy food have brought back a more natural color to your skin, the bags under your eyes almost completely gone, your natural eye color perceptible.
You’re not fully dressed when there’s a knock on the door. You check the peephole to make sure it’s not Mick brandishing a handgun. At this point, you realize how silly it is to have thoughts like these still, but your system isn’t entirely clean. Besides, if he was going to hurt you for messing around with his girlfriend, he would’ve done it by now. You open the door to a smiling and affectionate Chloe, embracing and kissing you before you have the door shut again.
“Mmm… you smell good,” she says, leaving traces of her lipstick on your chest. “I can’t stay long. I told him I’d only be gone for about fifteen minutes.”
You guide her out of the hall and into the main bedroom. She digs through her purse for something and pulls out your sunglasses with an ironic look.
“Thanks,” you reply with a knowing grin. She saw through your lame excuse.
You hug and kiss her some more, but you feel her restlessness. You look her in the eyes to figure out what she wants. She laughs in exasperation and lifts her dress up to reveal nothing on underneath. She takes your hand and guides it along her body as she reaches down and touches you underneath your underwear. You push her onto the bed, kissing and caressing her exposed body, but you don’t want to take it any further than this. You just want to hold her and keep her like this for the same reason you couldn’t do anything the last time you were together. Anything that has a beginning has an end.
You lie for what seems like not long enough. She cuts your bliss short when she realizes you’re not going to give her what she wants. She gets up and fixes her dress and hair, re-applying her lipstick. As you begin to protest, she reminds you that she’s in a hurry. “He’ll be waiting for me. Come on, get dressed and walk me to my car.”
The fog has rolled into the city for the night. You break out in goose pimples through your thin shirt. But your shivering provides another excuse to hold her tightly as you stand with her next to her car. She lights a cigarette and holds it up. “This is how long I can stay. Okay?”
“Okay,” you answer, happy to have these last few minutes with her.
“You never did tell me why you're leaving."
"I need to get away from all these hills for a little while.”
She gives you a quizzical look, as if you’ve delivered the punchline to some inside joke she wants to be in on, but is too polite to ask.
"Talking about changing my life doesn't seem to be getting me very far. I actually need to do something about it. This is the best solution."
"Change is scary."
"Life is scary. But I can't hide from it anymore."
She laughs, automatically prompting you to wonder if there's anything she takes seriously.
Her laugh isn’t any different than what you’ve heard from her before, but just beneath the surface, you hear something new. It’s an artificial sound, like she’s forcing herself to laugh. It’s not unlike the way she wears her makeup, to hide what is really there.
The realization that she isn’t quite real disturbs you, but you're able to contain it. Fearing her facade will crumble completely by virtue of knowing these few cracks exist, you choose to ignore them. The way she seems to feel about you and the way she makes you feel is real enough. This is how you want to remember her.
"You promise to keep in touch?" she asks.
"Yeah, of course.”
She’s finished her cigarette and stubs it out on the ground with her foot. She turns around and hugs you tightly and kisses you on the cheek. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'll miss you, too," you say after returning her kiss.
"Promise me one more thing?"
"Promise me you'll take care of yourself."
After a final hug, she gets into her car and waves to you with her arm out the window as she drives off.
Instead of going directly back to your room, you decide to go for a walk.
Taking these first few steps into the new reality you’re creating for yourself, you find you’re unable to shrug off the knowledge that nothing is true.