Years collapse. Breaks in the relationship are not counted. There is no longer any time that was spent apart. Even when absent, she loved him. Always loved him, always thought about him. Always, she devoted energy to loving him. Five years. Total. Never mind that year between the second and the third when he had an affair, called things off, and continued to see the woman he had cheated on her with for that year. That year is forgotten now because only the immediate is considered in a disaster. Time falls and compounds upon her like floors of a building in an earthquake. The kind you see on television that happen in Turkey or Iran with unbelievable numbers of causalities. Or like the overpasses and roads broken in San Francisco where she grew up.
I think about all the places to travel to, finding them on the map of the world hanging a little too much to the left on her wall. I want to take off, run, and hide for the both of us in these places. I check out the sidebar map on population. Medium orange—moderately populated—piques my interest. Light orange—sparsely populated—is even better. We live in dark orange New York. A place she did so many things with him. Left messages on the phone to him, walked down the block with him, breathed thick air with him. It suffocates her.
She likes the city for its fire escapes. All the little ladders up the sides of all the buildings, like earrings, in her upper west side neighborhood that she can’t leave now. Can’t leave the apartment, the bodegas, and the sidewalks they shared. Her thoughts run in circles. They all lead down to some lower level that’s flooding, the place where she’s drowning. She empties and refills her glass then slides the wine bottle I’ve brought for her birthday across the floor of her bare living room to me. We sit, cigarettes poised, on pillows.
“Some birthday, huh? Happy fucking birthday to me.” Renee punctuates her sentence with a small laugh.
“Where is the lighter?”
“Over there.” She tilts her head toward the kitchen. “It landed there. I threw it.”
A different cigarette lighter in the house meant something was wrong. Not a new lighter, but a glittery one half-used with a little wear on it that signaled an evening spent smoking cigarettes with someone else.
When he left her two mornings ago—the day before her thirtieth birthday—he called a cab and threw his rapidly packed belongings into its trunk. He told the cabbie to take him to Brooklyn, where he grew up and where he would return to his mother’s apartment before choosing to move to an altogether different city. Renee watched from her fourth story bedroom window as he helped the cabbie close the trunk. She waited.
Turn. Look up.
He didn’t pause as he opened the curbside door. She watched him talk through the plexi-glass divider and the cabbie nod at his instructions. As he sat back, Renee moved closer to the cold glass in front of her. Now he will, she thought. She panicked for a few seconds, not sure what face to give him. She quickly lit a cigarette, took a drag, and exhaled up toward the ceiling. She held the cigarette in her upturned right hand. Her other hand held her right elbow. She stared out the window and shook her head in disapproval.
The perfect moment. Look up.
As the cab began to pull away, Renee moved from one window to the next. Her view was slightly hindered by the grating of her own building’s fire escape. As she peered through the bars, she realized he was not going to look back. He moved out of view in the backseat and was gone. Her elegant dancer shoulders dropped; her long black hair spilled forward and, in her mind, gracefully wrapped around her neck and pulled her up to the ceiling from which she mentally hung, before she fell to the floor and wept. The perfect moment of exchanged looks lost became another perfect reason to hate him.
Early in the morning, the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican women walk up and down Renee’s block beginning their daily routines. They slowly push their rolling carts to the grocery stores and the Laundromats. Renee blows smoke out the screenless window into the already muggy air.
From the couch lining one wall of her bedroom, I watch Renee tiredly smoke. I haven’t moved anything except my eyelids. With the couch in her bedroom, everything touches. Couch touches desk. Desk touches bed. Bed touches dresser. Dresser touches three-foot high pile of dirty clothing that spills out of her closet. This is the only furnished room in the apartment now. Everything else in the apartment belonged to the recently ex-roommate who also left unexpectedly last week, apparently preferring not to live with Renee alone.
“It hurts to move,” I tell her.
“Yeah, I know how you feel,” she laughs. “But, you’re going to have to soon. Bitch has movers coming for the couch you’re on.”
“I can’t believe she’s taking it back. When are they coming?”
“What time is it?”
“About eight.” Renee puts her cigarette out in an upturned bottle cap on her desk. Next to it sit other caps serving as ashtrays. Beer bottles litter the desk and floor.
“Who has movers come at eight a.m. on a Saturday morning in New York?”
“She said it was the only time she could get them back here.”
“Petty bitch.” Renee moves back to her bed. We lay facing each other across the room, both with pained expressions. “I don’t think I even drank that much.”
“You didn’t eat. Do we have to wait for them to come? I want Hungarian bakery.”
“Yeah.” Renee blinks at the ceiling. “No, let’s not.”
The bakery is three torturous blocks away, one of which is a long cross-town incline. The city and all its noises have picked up speed; traffic and people blur passed our slow motion. Renee wants to sit outside, but the bright sunlight hurts my bloodshot eyes. Inside, the bakery’s tables are mostly empty, and Renee chooses an only slightly sunlit table next to the window. I stare out at the expansive ornate church that occupies most of the block across the street. The looming architecture and the rough walls, décor, and proper coffee cups of the café let me imagine I’m in Europe and that Renee and I are expatriates. I desire expat status, and to it, I attach a comforting emptiness I believe is what real freedom must feel like. The idea quells the tide rising in my stomach. I imagine Renee and I are both happy before wincing at the sweetness coating the top of my croissant and at the sugar crash I know is imminent. Renee drops a sugar cube into her coffee. She stirs it in, sips, and drops another in. She does this four more times.
“Ugh, that’s too sweet.” Renee pushes the cup away from her.
“Do you want some croissant?”
“I can’t eat anything.”
“When do you have to get a new roommate by?”
“End of the month. I can’t believe I have to go through all that again.”
“Oh my god, did she pay for this month?”
“Not really. Some of it. I’m keeping her security deposit.”
I nod. “Yes, I would, too.”
Renee doesn’t answer beyond a small tired smile and a defeated laugh.
“I need to get home, and I think my train comes soon,” I tell her as I search for a to-go cup for my coffee.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Are you going to be all right?”
She looks at me and shakes her head no. She shrugs.
“What are you going to do today?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Sleep.”
I nod and wave the waitress down for our check. I pay for the both of us. We leave and walk silently back to her apartment. Inside we go to her room where I know she will stay the rest of the day and where I can grab my things to go. My bags lay strewn on her bed, different from where I left them. The couch has been replaced by a set of keys.
I look at Renee. “You should come stay with me for a few days.”
I linger in my shower. The way the water sprays through the shower head creates an empty middle. I stick my face in the water to rinse off the soap, and my eyes, lashes, and nose reach into the cool void. Droplets run down my forehead and through my brows to drip on my eyelids that I dare not open. As if, were I to do so, I might see some hidden world within. I think I feel its sharp edges that if I move beyond, I fear, would swell and overtake me. I lift my hands to rub off the last of the milky cleanser from my cheeks and chin. I pull my head out from underneath the shower head, flip my hair on top of my head, and watch the water hit the bottom of the tub, stretching itself out further and further to break on the porcelain.
Renee tells me on the phone she thinks she’s found a waitressing job that will fit into her schedule. She’s only teaching one dance class this semester and it’s not enough to pay her bills.
“It’s a Greek place.”
“I think you should take it. I love Greek food.”
“Why?” I ask, a bit confused.
“I don’t know. It sounds good and the people are nice, but my show schedule may complicate things.”
“Ok, but have you found a roommate?”
“No. Rent’s due, too.”
“You haven’t interviewed anyone even, have you? How are you going to pay full rent?”
“I don’t know.”
“Renee, take the job.”
“Yeah. It’d be nice to have money.” I can hear her smoking. Renee speaks in bursts between her exhales. “We’ll see. Hey, can you call me back in ten minutes?”
“I have to run downstairs.”
“Ok, just call me back when you’re in again.”
“I can’t make calls out, only receive them. I haven’t paid my phone bill in awhile.”
“Where are you going?” I ask confused.
“I’m out of beer, and I want to grab some before they close.”
I tell her fine and try her back in fifteen minutes. Then twenty. I give up in forty-five.
Staying at my place in the upper Bronx is a retreat for Renee. She arrives with a stuffed overnight bag. My neighborhood has trees and houses and backyards that make it seem like we’re a hundred miles away from Manhattan. We sit in my living room noting how clean it is since my ex moved out.
“I always knew it was him. You’re just not the type to be messy,” Renee laughs.
I nod before admitting responsibility for the boxes full of papers.
“Yeah, there are those. Your apartment is huge. Without his stuff, it looks even bigger.”
I nod again and smile. I am six months ahead of her in terms of moving on. Maybe more. My break-up was more welcomed and thought out than hers. No drama. No screaming. Only rational discussion and logical conclusions. Then nothing but a scratchy numbness like I’d been filled with sand keeping everything in, and out. I decide against telling her how I sat in the empty space where his desk used to sit, like him, for hours one night. Or how I twirled around and danced in that space, a part of the apartment I never could occupy before.
She’s staying for a few days. After taking the waitressing job at the Greek place and training for one night, Renee no longer has a place to work. The kitchen started on fire during her second shift.
“I’m not kidding. Believe it.”
“I’m sorry, but that would only happen to you. It’s because they hired you,” I laugh.
“Thanks. Stop laughing. You’re probably right,” Renee laughs.
“Sorry, I’m sorry. I just can’t believe your luck.”
“You should have seen it. I literally left through one of the windows that opens out onto the street. I didn’t tell you though, people were leaving with their dinner plates. Walking out the door eating!” Renee howls. “Then this one guy and his boyfriend actually complained about not getting their food. He complained! Then he started trying to argue with me about why their food wasn’t ready before the kitchen started on fire as smoke was filling the place. Another couple actually stopped me to tell me they weren’t paying as I was walking out the window.”
“I think this could only happen in New York.”
“Seriously. People were standing around watching the firemen, drinking wine and eating their Moussaka.” Renee looks around. “I need some cheese. Can I have some cheese?”
Renee walks to the kitchen and slices cheese from a block in the fridge. She walks out into the living room and slides down onto the carpet announcing she hates her ex-boyfriend. He hasn’t called to see how she’s doing. He’s probably mad. His sister is Renee’s new roommate.
“You’re crazy to let her live with you,” I tell her shaking my head.
“Why? We get along really well.”
“You’re only letting her live there to try to get at him.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. Does she have a job?”
“It’s okay. She’ll pay rent.”
“She doesn’t have a job?” I ask incredulously. “You are seriously delusional.”
“Shut up. Ugh, I forgot my beer.” Renee gets up slowly to go to the kitchen.
“Grab me another!”
“Nicole, you only have three left.”
“Three now or three after the one you’re getting me?”
“After. We need more. How many cigarettes do you have?”
“Six,” I yell from the living room.
“Shit. We have to go out.”
At one of the many bars on McLean Ave., we sit celebrating the end of another semester of teaching for me and dancing for her. We laugh when a few of my students show up to celebrate their end of another semester of classes.
“That one’s a hottie.”
“Ah, he’s like twenty years old, too.” I nod sideways at Renee.
“I know, I would never. Maybe.” Renee laughs as she watches the boy move across the bar toward a girl I taught Milton and Dante to. We watch the two begin to flirt. My former student takes a swig off a bottle of beer, sees me watching, and waves enthusiastically. I smile and wave back at her. Renee and I laugh. When the bartender comes by, we order another round.
Renee looks down at her lapel and fusses with her shirt. She has gained twelve pounds. She says she’s gone up a size in clothes, but I never see her eat.
She puts her palm against the pale green drywall. She pretends she could fall through and into another life, but something always pushes back when she pushes forward.
“Ok ladies, that’s ten dollars.” Our bartender sets down two pints of Guinness in front of us.
“We didn’t order these.” Renee looks up at him matter-of-factly, and then looks away toward the bar’s small dance floor. She taps her hand on her knee to the music.
I quickly pull out a twenty and pass it to him across the bar. When Renee looks back, she smiles at the beer in front of her, then at me.
“Oh my gosh, when did we get these? Thanks!”
“Yeah, we ordered them. He just brought them to us.” I point at the bartender.
“We did? I don’t remember that,” Renee laughs. “God, I can’t breathe in here. Let’s go smoke, see if I can burn off a few of these pounds.”
There is nothing to block the sun. The smell of hot asphalt permeates the watery air we walk through to the grocery store. I spin my hair around in my fingers. It’s still damp, and going curly. I tsk myself for not putting something in it to stop the frizz that will soon halo my head.
“You can’t keep going sailing with him,” Renee admonishes.
“Why not? I’m learning.”
“But you don’t even trust him as a sailor!”
“Yeah, that’s a problem,” I laugh in agreement.
“Then why do you go with him?”
“Because I want to learn. Because it’s better than going by myself, and cheaper.”
“He pays, too? Even though he knows how already? Just friends still?”
“We really just are. There’s nothing there beyond that,” I reassure her.
“Yeah, no, I know. You two did not belong together. Like, at all.” Renee swipes her arms out in front of her like an ump calling a player safe.
As we walk into the air-conditioned A&P grocery, Renee stops, lets her shoulders fall, and takes in a deep breath of cool air. She walks to customer service to buy cigarettes. I walk to get water, and when I’m done checking out, Renee reappears waving money at me.
“I bought a scratch off and won twenty-five dollars!”
“Oh that’s good. Buy some food.”
“Yeah right. This is going to rent.” Renee folds the money into her front pocket. “I should go home. I need to get shit figured out there.”
Renee feels long. Her hair, uncut in two years, pulls down to her waist. Her lashes lay on her cheeks which haven’t lifted with a smile in weeks. As she dries off, she rests her back against her bathroom wall. She can hear her neighbor on the other side. He had just gotten home when she turned off her shower. She felt each thud of his construction boots as he dropped them to the floor and kicked them to the baseboard of their shared wall. She puts her palm against the pale green drywall. She pretends she could fall through and into another life, but something always pushes back when she pushes forward.
It has been two weeks since I’ve seen her, but now Renee sits in my living room unable to stop throwing up. She takes a small bite of a saltine cracker.
The cracker doesn’t help. Renee cries in between her dry heaves. The noise she makes retching is so loud, my upstairs neighbor has begun to pace the same route Renee takes from the living room to the bathroom and back. Her ex has a new girlfriend. So does mine.
“At least he didn’t cheat on you with her.”
“Guess not, but he was looking while we were still together,” I admit. “You think she was the one he actually cheated on you with, too?”
“She was the hostess at the restaurant he worked at. She was the one he was hanging out with all the time.”
“Maybe he waited until now,” I offer.
“Doubt it.” Renee’s eyebrows rise along with her voice. She laughs a little and begins to heave again.
“Do you think Pepto would help?”
“That shit makes me puke even harder,” Renee shakes her head furiously.
“I have to go to work this afternoon, but you can stay here.”
Renee looks around. “Can I come with you?”
Renee sits in my office holding her stomach.
“Maybe you can get some food while I’m teaching?” I go into my purse and pull out a ten and hand it to her.
“Thanks.” Renee’s hands shake as she puts the money in her coat. “Yeah, maybe I should. I’ll walk out with you.”
We walk slowly past the student union and the selection of food choices on campus. Renee keeps walking toward my classroom with me.
“I’m going to go to a place in town,” Renee explains. “Should I just meet you after your class?”
“Yeah, but why do you want to walk ten blocks when we have places to eat here?” I ask.
“I think the walk might help.”
Something does. When Renee returns, she no longer needs to throw up, no longer shakes.
I’m moving. I tell her easily, and she’s half been expecting it. I tell her I need streets that when I look at them, I see myself. Those streets aren’t on our shared map.
It’s my favorite beach. Snow piles in small clumps throughout the soft, but crunchy sand. The lake is rough today. It pulls away from the shore and hurls back steely white-fringed waves that push rocks into a fortification line at the edge of the surf. In December, it’s the larger rocks that get caught in the stronger storm swells and make it to shore along with the wind gusts over the lake. Different from the smaller, smoother pebbles of summer, the winter rocks are isolated, spread out. I move through them easily looking for beach glass.
“I can’t believe you didn’t know Chicago sat on Lake Michigan,” I laugh.
“Shut up. I meant water like the ocean kind of water,” Renee says seriously.
“This lake is a small inland sea. Truly.”
“Yeah, but still, it’s not the ocean.”
“Manhattan is not exactly on the ocean.”
“You know what I mean.”
I try to convince Renee to move to my hometown. Water is an issue. We walk the beach, heads down searching for glass, driftwood, anything. We walk past the tall white guard’s chair. It sits empty facing the lake. Renee bends down and pulls a sizeable piece of beach glass out of the sand. It is the largest I’ve ever seen, a slice of a pale green bottle bottom. It’s smooth but letters spelling out Waukesha are still prominent.
“Where’s Waukesha?” Renee turns the piece over in her hand.
“Wisconsin. That’s awesome to find down here.” I try to use this. “See, this is a city next to a large body of water. Water that when you look out on it, you can’t see its edge or its end. Like the ocean.”
“But I know its end is there, a lot sooner than the ocean’s. When I look out on the ocean, I like knowing it keeps going . . . that it’s this huge thing next to me every day.”
“You could pretend,” I tell her.
“It’s not the same energy.”
“Is there blood on your cheek? Or pillow?” I ask quickly.
“Is there anything missing from your apartment?”
“And you said the door was unlocked?”
“Yep.” Renee is scared. “There are nerves hanging down, Nicole.”
I wonder where her front teeth are. So does she, but not in the same way. She’s still stuck on what the hell could have happened, and I’ve moved on to thinking about how her teeth could have tumbled down the curb, got caught in a small stream of water, and were carried right through the grate covering the storm sewer. Or maybe they are feeling the weight of a cab’s tire right now. Or maybe someone walking down the sidewalk happened to be looking down precisely where her two, perfect, white front teeth with bloody stumps were laying, stopped, bent over to look closer and when they realized what they were looking at, kicked the teeth away like they were contagious. Or maybe someone has come along and put little evidence cards around them, but without Renee’s body, there is no crime.
She discovered her teeth were missing only when she went to brush them, toothbrush poised in front of two empty spaces. She called frantic, crying. Calmer now, we continue to run through possible scenarios. She checks for signs, cuts, bruises, black blue marks.
“Ok, thank god. I mean, just about that you weren’t hurt otherwise.” I stumble over the words as tears well in my eyes.
She hangs up to call who she was out with last night. This is how she’ll piece it together. Renee will figure out she fell out of the cab, hit her mouth on the curb, was brought into her apartment by whomever she was drinking with, and left alone because while they saw her fall, they didn’t think anything happened. Or, at least, Renee didn’t.
I go through an irrational and selfish fit of anger that is somehow valid to me because she can’t handle her drink anymore. Angry that now we can’t just go have a drink, and that now we can’t laugh that way anymore. That she believes this is a phase of getting through her break-up. That she doesn’t see it was there all along. That I did. That now I worry if she’ll make it home safe. That I now live 12 hours away. That none of this has changed anything.
I look at maps again. Light orange would be good.
I find a program for artists to teach children in India for a semester. The idea would be for Renee to lead children to learning through dance. The abstract lines that would make those connections are what Renee needs to reconfigure her brain. To sort out what works still, and what doesn’t. To sort out what matters, and who doesn’t.
“Just go.” My words are short, urgent.
“It seems impossible.”
“It’s not. You have nothing keeping you here right now.”
Renee is silent.
“Yeah, but maybe I need to find something to keep me here.”
“What? A boyfriend? Your ex? He’s gone, Renee.”
“You don’t understand how hard it is for me. This was the first time I lost someone I really, really loved. It makes me mad when you don’t understand that.” Renee talks fast, furious.
“I try to,” I say softly. I can’t bring up the emotions I felt when I lost my first love. They have disappeared. “It’ll get better. I promise. The pain of it. That’ll go away.”
“I don’t think so.”
“India could be healing.”
It only takes a month after she gets back.
The phone rings in the middle of the night.
She has been dry heaving for over twenty-four hours.
Blood is coming up.
“That’s probably from your throat.” I worry it’s not from her throat.
“It hurts so much. I can’t stop. A meth head hit me with a bottle, too, when I went to get a drink to make this stop. I have a huge bump on my head.”
“What? What meth head?”
“Some fucking tweaker on the street. Spinning around. Did I tell you I bought you a journal made from old saris?” Renee’s thoughts skip. “I think there’s a rat in my closet. I keep seeing something move out of the corner of my eye. It’s been here for two days.”
“Hey Renee, I need your mother’s number.”
We walk the beach when I visit her back home in California.
“Why do you like sailing? I mean, why sailing?” Renee asks.
“It’s quiet. Powerboats, speedboats, they make too much noise.”
“That’s it? Noise level?”
“Yeah, I can’t hear the water otherwise. That’s it.”
“Ok, but why sailing, like why not tennis or volleyball or whatever else?”
“Oh, that’s easy. I love boats, and the water,” I explain.
“I never knew this. Really, I never would have guessed it.”
“Why didn’t I know this?”
“No, why wouldn’t you have guessed that about me?”
Renee shrugs and laughs. She looks at me, smiles. “Small inland sea.”
The rides of the Santa Cruz boardwalk behind us are beginning to light up. A lifeguard’s chair looms over us for a few feet. We pause, look up at its empty seat, and resume walking for a few more feet before we sit and watch the ocean. I squint at the orange sunset.
“I’d like to do that. You know? Go out so far that you cannot see land. Only blue.”
Nicole Montana is a writer, journalist, and editor whose work has appeared in several print and online newspapers and magazines. Her work-in-progress, The Central Thread, or The Death of Kiki, was a finalist for the Loft Mentor Series 2014-15. She currently teaches in and co-directs the first-year writing program at the University of Minnesota. She received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.