The porch chair is on a cheap pendulum that squeaks beneath you. You’re rocking above it, the silence between you threatening enough almost to have sound. Someone nearby is playing music through an open window, but you can’t make it out.
He’s smoked two cigarettes and delivered the last of it—one box of dishes, a beat up Scrabble board, the driftwood dresser you picked up at a junkyard. He’s keeping the painting he bought for you last Christmas, ditto your favorite cereal bowls. You don’t say anything about it. You tell him to leave it all on the porch, and sink deeper into the chair, testing the pendulum. You’re trying to be civil, but you can’t stop thinking: here is someone you used to love; here is his thigh dressed in pants you’ve never seen, so many inches away from yours, respecting your space. He takes a thick drag from a Camel Wide. You watch the plume curl and disappear.
“When did you start smoking.” It’s not a real question, just an acknowledgment.
Javi’s legs are uncrossed, feet planted in front of him, ready to shift his weight to stand. One wrong move…his body says. “I had this idea,” he says. “A kind of New Years Resolution.” He exhales. “Not to take shit from my boss.” He’s gesturing like you know what he means—a small shrug, a wrist rotating. It’s sort of an answer. He used to say that he could take Janelle’s fits if he’d had vice on his side. “She’s getting married. It’s better and worse at the same time.”
Javier makes displays for a trendy clothing company on the Baltimore harbor. He works before the store opens, hauling un-lacquered wood past slouching mannequins, drilling enormous structures to hang fishnet dresses and neon unitards. When he got the job he came home scoffing. “A hundred bucks for acid-washed overalls. Overalls! $85 for a fucking duct tape wallet! These people.”
The tips of his boots are thick and a little scuffed. They’re Fryes, $300 a pop. You almost toe the jag in the leather on the side of his ankle, a two-inch hitch you’re sure he caught on a screw. He was always getting himself caught on a screw.
“Your thumb,” you say, and without meaning to, take it in your hands. It’s ripped, cuticle to knuckle, the seam open and dried out. It feels like plastic.
He grimaces but waits a few seconds before pulling away. Javi never gives allowances unless he likes something; he’s not a pleaser. You feel some of the power come to you, and you sit up a little straighter, fighting the impulse to apologize. He shakes his head like a dog flicking off water, and as his black curls shift you suddenly catch a whiff of something you recognize as his scalp. This is an intimacy that guts you immediately, this animal smell dropping right through your stomach into something like longing, something achy and familiar and impossible that you should have anticipated but didn’t. Something that seems to pull all the years you’d spent tucked into each other into a single scent; you can almost feel that first night, when he’d leapt from his car with the engine still running and pinned you against the parking garage wall, catching your nape in his fist. He’d kissed you so hard your lips stung for hours after.
Without meaning to, you lift your hand to your mouth. But you scrunch your nose too, and turn away.
Something about him having a resolution makes you realize how much he’s changed: it was a thing you would have done when you were together, something you would have penned on the kitchen calendar in looping cursive: Drink more water! Think positively! Do yoga! He would laugh and call you his little white girl. Now you don’t even pray. It’s not something you decided, not something you’d really thought about until he pulled up in his old truck, windows down, music blaring. You saw him through the old wooden rosary swinging on the mirror that his mother had hung before your trip to the mountains; he was too superstitious to take it down. And now he’s the one with resolutions, with promises to change, with a white girl’s whim to self-improve. You can picture his careful print, small rectangles on a Post-It: 1. Don’t take shit from Janelle. 2. Go to the studio. 3. Start smoking.
His job has gotten to him. The candy-colored shirts he bulk ordered and hand-embellished with thrifted fabrics are gone. Now a slate gray knit is slouched over his chest, the breast pocket stitched in neon thread. You always look so cool, you think, and then almost apologize—he was never impressed with your reading habit, getting annoyed when you quoted things to him from books that he didn’t know. “It’s just fucking snobbish,” he’d tell you. Once, to wound him, you’d said, “It was months before I realized you were smart.” Without looking up, he’d said, “And I used to wonder if you had any real creativity at all.” It was the first time you’d ever felt true shame.
When you see photos of him now online it’s always an accident you can’t stop looking at—a friend of a friend getting married in a warehouse; an opening at your old gallery; his new girlfriend’s show at a DIY space in midtown, the insulation visible in the ceiling, fiber sculptures on the wall. Behind the pink tubes of yarn hanging over the keg, you see his hand raised over her small brown head and know it’s him—his palm flat to the glass, a couple of fingers spread out. This is how you know he’s dancing—a kind of tarantella, all the motion in his knees. The short glass is rum and coke, his party cocktail. He can drink a dozen of these and not get sick. No hangover, either. Drinking rum was the only thing he ever did unguarded.
You hated him rum-drunk. He thought he was invincible. He upended tables and jumped off balconies. Once he left you freezing on a beach in Chile to chase strays along the mile-stretch of volcanic rock out into the Pacific. You watched him push two dogs into the water. When he came back he was chilled to the bone and soaked, his arm bearing the six-inch crescent of a mutt’s last nerve. He didn’t remember any of it in the morning, and kept asking you why you were so angry.
The truth is you’d both betrayed the other, both taken the tender gift of the other’s heart and broken it, and not even tearing it between your hands, looking it dead on, but as cowards: as if the heart could be carried in an open bag, and then left carelessly on top and let to tumble, unwatched, under a bench at a bus station, where you might claim never to even have known it was there.
You can hear the music clearly now: it’s Marvin Gaye, fucking Let’s Get it On, and you almost laugh out loud and then immediately feel sick. He’s heard it too, and you know you’re both remembering the same thing, both excited and embarrassed at the same time. You imagine reaching out and taking his wrist in your hand, twisting it until the bone snaps. You imagine peeling off the small patch of chapped skin on his bottom lip with your teeth. You remember the way he would pull you into his lap and fist his hand past your waistband, no matter what you were wearing, ruining so many of your clothes. You look into his eyes and can see the half-smile dent he’d made in the wall above your bed the Halloween you’d pressed him about her until he’d hurled a bowl of popcorn over your heads. How you’d spent the rest of the night sobbing and holding each other and telling him over and over, that you were so sorry.
The track changes. All you can hear is “sugar” sung in that low plea that could make it any song on the whole album. You close your eyes, try to catch it. You’re not even surprised to feel Javi’s fist push past your waist, the hand closed, so that even if he’s trying to hug you, you know he wouldn’t be sorry at all if you fell from the force of it. It’s a test and an invitation, and you know he’s going to let you decide the narrative of his action. Ah, ah baby let us, ah, tell me what you missed. You open your eyes, see the hard look of his jaw.
Come here, sugar, and get to this.
The bench bucks when you make your move.