He doesn’t know about her tattoos until they sleep together. After they finish, his eyes adjust enough to the darkness so that he can make out the black ink on her back and stomach. There are three: small, medium, large. The level of grayness and fading indicate that the smallest one was first and the largest one was last. He can’t see that much detail. She prepares homemade mushroom ravioli for dinner. A girl who matches her shoes and her purse, she doesn’t look like the kind who would have tattoos. He tries to decipher their meanings and authors: Maimonides, Cummings, Shakespeare.
She stares at him and tries to determine his ethnicity. He is half Filipino. What are they doing? One-night stand. But what do you call it after the second night? Bistand. Third night? Polystand. She works as a tutor for undereducated kids with overpaid parents. She helps them write papers and do calculus and sometimes gets paid extra to do it for them. He knows she wrote an essay that got a lacrosse player into UPenn. He doesn’t know about her brief career as a model, the breast implants she had inserted and removed during college, or the affair with her Neuroscience professor. The affair had lasted through the final two years of her undergraduate career. It was almost passionate, almost something like love. The professor never really ended it, he just started bringing his wife to more and more campus functions. Heartbroken, she moves to the city after graduation. Rents an apartment with three other girls, near the Domino Sugar Factory. This is where their lives intersect. He works at The Brooklyn Rail. Makes Xeroxes of other people’s writing. He tells her he is a copy editor. She knows this is a lie. They meet when her boyfriend leaves her in front of The Dinner Party. The boyfriend, an actor, goes to buy cigarettes and never comes back. Camel Wide Lights, which she can then no longer stomach. He loans her subway fare, the trust-fund actor boyfriend had always paid for taxis. She makes him gazpacho in exchange. They sleep together once, then once again. It becomes a habit. After a long discussion, they decide to be less frequent with their sexual visits. This plan does not work out. For the next month, they have sex five, six, seven, eight times a week. What would they call a thing like this? There are various terms, all crude and all with somewhat negative, seedy connotations. She considers pushing for a commitment, but he is younger than her and wouldn’t understand. She bakes oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips. He is two years her junior, on the verge of being born in a different decade. She has an eating disorder that appears to go unnoticed, though he sometimes slides his hand down her hipbones and remarks on their jaggedness. He is leading on a girl in West Hartford. She sees the emails this girl sends him. Where did he meet her? Filled with something resembling jealousy, she googles the WeHa girl. Mentions West Hartford in front of him. Hm…what? He says, looking up from his cereal with a blank face. After the Hartford girl incident has subsided in her mind, he buys her a present. A wooden bookmark, carved like a tree, bought at the Christmas market in the neighborhood. This alters the meaning of everything. Startled by this new action of gift-giving, she decides on something hastily and without too much creativity. He receives a new copy of The Tropic of Cancer and homemade raspberry brownies. She wraps the first in The New York Times Book Review. He appreciates the humor. He tells her he would like to seriously date her in a few years. He’s not ready now. Why does he say this? Perhaps he is genuine. Or maybe, more likely, he wants to pacify her. He goes to visit the girl in West Hartford. He wants to pacify her too. He likes to keep his options open, as he is acutely aware of his youth and attractiveness. In his presence, she feels old and almost sagacious. She is only 23.
They go out to dinner several times a week, sometimes with his
father. She realizes that his parents think they’re dating.
His mother tries to discuss their future together. No, no, your son
has issues with commitment, that’s what she wants to say. Instead
she smiles with her mouth held tightly together and listens to parenting
tips. Goes to Dean & Deluca, prepares lobster risotto. She has
no contact with her own parents. It is a mutual understanding of
inevitable separation. Her parents divorced when she was an infant.
Father is a surgeon whom she has barely seen in twenty years. Mother
is an alcoholic Presbyterian minister who is addicted to crosswords
puzzles and venomous critiques of her daughters. These daughters
inherited their mother’s dark good looks and tendency toward
addiction. Now, in lonely winters, she withholds food as a form of
comfort. He notices this. Her abandonment issues and low self-esteem
combine to form her passionate attachment to him. Pretending to be
aloof, he secretly idolizes her. What are they doing? There is no
word for this. Lovers: implies an ending and an obstacle. Friends:
does not contain room for sexual encounters. Fuck: can’t explain
the dinners and the kissing of her inner wrist. Undefined. This conversation
they avoid. He worries about emotional investment. She is concerned
about her intense---perhaps unhealthy---attachment. A definition
is needed to establish boundaries, and when they have none, the situation
is peculiar and uncomfortably amorphous. A solid, silent, secure
understanding is found only in the liquid fusion of their bare legs
and torsos. The sex between them is: karma-phala, mitzvah, asa. She
makes breakfast. Eggs with cheese he can’t pronounce, French
toast from thick slices of challah, Kona coffee, strawberries. What
are they doing? They go to his brother’s wedding and dance---she
removes her heels and is barefoot. They have had too much champagne
and too few pigs-in-a-blanket. Back in their shared hotel room, they
fall onto the bed, still in their dress clothes. He traces the curves
of her face with his index finger, drunkenly and softly. She starts
to babble about language. It doesn’t mean anything, she says.
Labels can’t confine us and define us and it doesn’t
mean anything at all, she sings. She says that their fucking and
their dancing and their Sunday mornings don’t have to be called
anything. She says they exist outside of a definition. He looks at
her. He brushes her hair off her face. He looks at her. He looks at
her. They have sex, slow motion and wet and warm and sweet. He says,
I love you. What? She asks. How does that feel? He pretends to repeat.
Oh, good, it feels good. What does this mean? Realizing that it doesn’t
have to mean anything, they continue to have it silently mean quite
a great deal. What are they doing? There is no word for this. Back
in the city, she learns how to make Beef Wellington and crème
brûlée. He gets a job as an editorial assistant in Midtown,
earning twice what he was earning at his previous job. Gets a two-bedroom
apartment in Williamsburg. She is thrifty, to a fault, and still
lives in a cramped studio space with college friends whom she would
no longer consider friendly. He asks her to move in with him. Separate
bedrooms. Roommates. It is a faulty attempt at gaining a word for
this. Each night they have sex and then one sleepily retreats back
to his or her own bed. In the morning they share a pot of coffee
and the arts section. She notices that all their friends are getting
married. They get invitations to these weddings. Recycled paper with
organic ink, letterpress with woodcuts, one is even from Pineider in
Florence. Each invitation is addressed to both of them by name. Aching,
she has no word for this. While grocery shopping, they run into the
girl from West Hartford. Girl: blonde, stocky soccer-player figure.
They invite the girl over for dinner. She prepares salmon roulade,
arugula salad, rosemary couscous, and marzipan cookies. After the
girl leaves, she asks if they can share a bedroom. Why? He asks,
genuinely puzzled but not suspicious. She tells him one of the bedrooms
should be made into a study---they both need their space to write---and
maybe they could leave a bed for their crashing friends. He agrees
as he takes his fourth cookie. The merging of bedrooms is swift and
charming. Her female friends are ecstatic; they take it as a promising
sign. At a bar one night with old school chums, he is teased about
his enviable relationship. These statements of friendly jealousy
are met with confusion and raised eyebrows. What relationship? He
asks. His friends laugh and shake their heads. What are you doing?
They ask. That night, for the first time in their history, they fall
asleep without having sex. He pulls her head towards the nook of
his chest and shoulder, as if this act was natural and commonplace.
What is this? They both search for words. He receives a call at work.
His father has died. Heart attack. 67. Smoker. The funeral is in
Brooklyn with echoes of Manila. She learns bits and pieces of Tagalog. Natay:
death: the process of transformation from one state to another. She
likes this definition. His mother, a WASP from Pennington, New Jersey,
throws herself headlong into Filipino rituals. The mirrors and glass
surfaces in the house are covered with black fabric. Are they sitting shivah?
She wonders. He and his mother don’t take baths for a week.
The process seems oddly familiar to her---her father was raised Hasidic.
Searching through his father’s study in the Greenpoint apartment,
he finds three novels by José Rizal, a Welsh love spoon, and
a worn copy of Go Tell It on the Mountain. He takes them all,
dissonant fragments of the man who raised him. Leaving his parents’---his
mother’s---apartment, they travel home together silently. Somewhere
along Bushwick Avenue, she starts to drag him in the direction of
home. He feels heavy and sore, fingers raw in her palm. Back in their
apartment, she fixes kubeh and borekas and spitz cake. This is all
she knows to do. Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba . She
is conveniently chopping onions. Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar.
They eat in solid quietness. In bed that night, they lie next to
each other, unmoving, unsleeping. A hand wanders over the imaginary
boundary---there are bits of stomach flesh and salty skin slowly
mingling. The sex is silent and mutually understood. She is pink
and soft and cool to the touch, a familiar body to move with. His
eyes are wet and his hands are sweaty against her hips. Is there
an answer to all this? Could there ever be an answer to this? There
is a sybaritic sadness in death. Afterwards, she lets his head rest
on her naked chest. They fall asleep like this. Her: propped up on
pillows, clutching his head and shoulders, one thin leg exposed to
the air. Him: Curled, wrapped, pressed into her, mouth on her collarbone,
hurt and unwashed. He takes weeks to mourn, more than she thinks
is healthy. He recovers slowly---blinking, unstretched. She bakes
dark chocolate cookies and fruit tarts. What are they doing? Neither
knows a word for it. They make a ritual of evening walks in Prospect
Park . He contemplates a trip to the Philippines , visiting relatives, “discovering
his roots.” She tells him it’s a good idea. It will help
your writing, she says. She bites her lip. The end for him. Apartment:
now worn and common. Her body is a shape of divinity that fits into
his hips during nights of quiet taxi noise. The Philippines will
not help his writing, he understands this. New Year’s Day Night.
She is pregnant. Decides to tell him. Decides not to tell him. She
makes homemade mushroom ravioli. Tells him. Eyes wide, there is a
word for this.
About The Author
Jenna Clark Embrey, a native of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is a 2008 graduate of Dickinson College with a double major in English and Theatre. In addition to writing short stories and plays, Jenna enjoys ice skating and reciting the alphabet backwards.