Fiction · 01/29/2020

Seven Kinds of Loneliness

1.

Thirteen, first time away from home, the 3×7 box of the lower bunk at Camp Piney Mount. My ribcage constricted with homesickness, breathing a conscious effort.

A curtain of black hair fell over the side of my roof/your floor, followed by your all-seeing eyes. I crossed my arms against my sprouting breasts and pressed until they hurt.

“Welcome to Camp Whiny Snout,” you said.

I considered this. “Slimy Mount.”

“Briny Trout.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Hang on.” Glimpse of your olive-brown legs coming down the ladder, open wound on your shin.

“Rindy…” You thought for a second. “Orange?” You were messing up the game, but you didn’t seem to care.

“Squinty Pout,” I let my eyes dart across the cabin to a girl whose shoulders were so golden they looked like they’d been bruléed with my mother’s kitchen torch.

“Spiny Cunt.” You nodded sagely.

I whooped and we fell onto my bed.

We had our first kiss that summer, you and then me. After I had mine, I protested, “You could’ve explained it better.”

“For example.”

“For example: You don’t feel the top of the guy’s tongue. You feel underneath. It’s softer.”

We both tried bending our tongues to touch the underside. Finally I let mine hang out like a dog’s.

“Aire,” I said. “Ya can heel it on ee ack ah yur ip.”

“Yah,” you said, trying it.

I swear there was a time when my experience was your experience and yours was mine, and we divided it equally between us.

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2.

Fifteen, the suburbs of our city. We went to different schools but talked every day. In class, in the hallways, I could float away from whatever was happening just by picturing your half-smile. I wanted to be somebody’s girlfriend. You said you wanted to be a pilot. You’d jet from place to place so much, you wouldn’t have time to get married. I couldn’t tell if you were serious. Your parents wouldn’t stop fighting.

“It’s like, ‘You’ll hear me better if I break your eardrums,’” you said.

“Like, someone in a foreign country, and he thinks if he yells the locals will understand English,” I said.

Things had to be like other things because we couldn’t say what they were.

Sophomore year you started taking a day, sometimes two, to return my calls. You said, Gawd, things are so busy right now, and I wanted a sorrier apology.

“Do you think time’s speeding up?” I asked. I was trying to invent an existential excuse for your lack of attention. I’d just learned the word “existential” and loved how it could make things important and impersonal in a stroke.

“What are you talking about?”

“I mean, a day seems faster. When we were at camp a day took forever. Did you realize it only lasted a week?”

“We were there for a month.”

“That’s what I thought. But I was looking at the photos, and a session was a week. So a week that first summer, and two weeks the second.”

“Huh.”

“I know. How did we make two weeks last that long?”

“We had nothing to do,” you said.

You meant: “Our poor empty preadolescent lives.” While I meant: “Let’s go back.” Part of me believed that if we both wanted it badly enough we could go back.

+

3.

Sixteen, the morning after. Matt was my first boyfriend, his best friend Joe your third. By now it was clear you were the beautiful one, with your night-dark hair and moon-pale eyes. No one could figure it out: Were you part Asian? Irish? I didn’t tell them you were a mutt like me, with Iranian great-grandparents on your father’s side.

Now that you were with Joe, I saw you every day. We made Kraft mac and cheese in Matt’s mom’s kitchen while the boys played video games. We moved from how to kiss to stickier maneuvers. When Matt’s mom went on a business trip, we bought our first box of condoms. You were the one brave enough to bring it to the cashier. I was the one who divided them in the car, the foil packets surprisingly heavy and cold in my hands.

When we pulled out the sofa bed for you and Joe, you caught me by the waist and said, Good luck. When it happened, I wouldn’t be alone.

In the morning, you told the boys to make us breakfast while we went for a walk.

“Well?” you demanded.

“You first.”

“I don’t even know if we did it.”

“How can you not know?”

“I couldn’t tell if he was in the right place.” You detailed wrong angles, Joe erupting while you tried to get the condom on. If you’d told this story the night before we would’ve been paralyzed by laughter, drunk on our own bravado, but not in front of the closed-faced houses, not in this gray light.

“It didn’t hurt. I must still be a virgin if it didn’t hurt. Right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

“My mom says you can’t go too far with a boy or you’ll get carried away. That’s how she talks about sex. This big wave of passion overwhelms you.”

“Wow.”

“I know. She makes it sound good. Maybe she’s never done it.”

I laughed then. It seemed safe to laugh.

“Are you okay?” You peered at me.

“Yeah.” I paused. “We didn’t even try.”

“Why not?”

Instead of telling you the truth, I said, “We messed around some.” I said, “We just sort of held each other and fell asleep.”

“Huh,” you said. “Maybe he’s gay.”

What happened was he stripped me, and I stopped making mental notes for you; I was too busy remembering how to breathe. I didn’t want to tell you how he’d taken me apart, piece by piece.

I was afraid of your half-smile.

After this betrayal, time not only sped up but spiraled upward and bottomed out. You and Joe split up while Matt and I stayed together. I lost my virginity and gave you every detail, a blood sacrifice on the altar of friendship, but it was too late. You lost yours with some guy you met at a party. You didn’t tell me until a week afterward.

We left for different colleges. Matt and I broke up and so did your parents. When I asked how you were doing, all you’d say was “fine.”

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4.

Twenty-three, Thanksgiving. You in our kitchen, tearing hot cornbread into stuffing, cheerfully yelling “Fuck!” as you burned your fingers. You singing It’s only life after all with the Indigo Girls loud and off-key as you ran water to cool them. As if life were something we could shed and still be us. As if we were only partly under its jurisdiction.

I was at law school where you’d gone to undergrad. A friend of a friend told me you were looking for a roommate. You no longer talked about becoming a pilot. You were a temp who wanted to be a house appraiser, maybe a management consultant. Your hands made boxes in the air as you spoke.

We invited my law school friend Henry and some of your friends from work. Your brother Ben came over with his girlfriend Marina, whom we adored and suspected of being a lesbian.

“She’s too cool to be dating you,” you kept telling him.

When we drank good cheap wine in our front room, I thought this is what it’s like to be an adult. People you’ve chosen around your table, eating what you’ve made. It wasn’t until Henry and I finished cleaning up that I realized you were missing.

I found you in my bed, curled rigid around my pillow. Your face was wrecked by what looked like rage. I almost stepped back out. “What happened?”

“I want to go home,” you said in a clamped-down voice.

The home you grew up in had been sold in the divorce. “We are home,” I said.

You didn’t move. I looked at the stained plastic baseboards, the cracked window frame. All these years, I had no practice comforting you.

“This is our home,” I tried again. “We get to choose now.”

“No,” you said, sitting up like you’d been called to attention. “You get to choose. You could’ve gone back to your parents, but you decided to play house. I didn’t have a choice.”

My stomach dropped. “Just because you’re feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t mean I’m playing house.”

“Your problem,” you said. “Is you have no idea what it’s like to be alone.”

The strangeness of this stopped me cold. I did know what it was like to be alone. I learned it every time you disappeared.

“You always have someone,” you continued, sensing your advantage.

“You’ve had three times the boyfriends I’ve had!”

“Exactly.”

I stared at you. “I’m as single as you are.”

“Not for long.”

I frowned. “Henry?”

“Of course Henry!” Your unshed tears disappeared under your triumph. You stood up and wrapped your arms around me.

“I knew it! It’s you two who are the lesbians, not Marina!” Ben had materialized in the doorway.

“Who’s a lesbian?” Marina asked, coming up behind him.

Only you and I could see Ben’s stricken face, and all we could do was laugh.

Who’s a lesbian was our last good line.

+

5.

Twenty-six, my wedding day. You were right about Henry. He moved in and you watched our romance like a slightly bored fairy godmother in dark lipstick and black leggings. You brought home beautiful boys with pierced lips, self-conscious corporate types in pressed shirts. I pretended to envy your freedom to cover up my confusion. How could our lives turn out so differently when we were the same?

We both knew I was leaving you again.

Henry and I got engaged and moved south for his new job. You flew down to be my maid of honor. The morning I got married, I didn’t tell you I was scared. Not scared that Henry was the wrong person, but scared that instead of an infinite number of possible lives, I was only going to have one life.

In the pictures you look ethereal in sea-foam green, your hair cropped short, flowers pulled forward by gravity, forgotten in your hands.

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6.

Twenty-nine, our last phone call in the heady blue twilight after the baby had gone down, before Henry got home from his late meeting.

“How are you?” I asked when you picked up in our old city. I leaned heavily on the “are,” trying to pack it with my regret for how long we’d gone without speaking.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” you said. “I’m having lots of sex.”

I laughed. I hadn’t realized how much I missed you. “With who?”

You told me about the party where you met the new guy. I remembered parties. I could picture the last milky light coming in through your window. I could still, almost, inhabit your life.

When you asked about me, it was a lost cause to give shape to my days. You’d sent a stuffed lizard when Jeremy was born but hadn’t been down to meet him. I couldn’t explain playing open-ended games that had no rules or being desperate for a moment’s glance at the paper. I couldn’t tell you I’d been ground up by love into powder. I didn’t know you well enough, now, to guess whether you would envy or pity this.

I talked around the crater left by motherhood. You listened. I guessed you were listening. There was silence on the other end.

I heard the key in the door and said, “I’d better check in with Henry. We haven’t seen each other all day.”

You and me, we haven’t talked in months, you could’ve said. But you just said “goodbye” like you were relieved, too.

I wish I’d told you that I’d figured out what it means to be an adult. Not mastering skills or gaining poise. Not getting to choose what used to be given. You and I used to brood together over every infinitesimal change, and then too much was changing, and that’s what growing up meant: the accumulation of these nearly invisible, unmourned losses.

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7.

Twenty-nine, the studio apartment you moved into when I left. I’m sitting on the edge of your bed. Someone has pulled up the comforter — not you, I’m guessing; I’ve never known you to make your bed. Not Ben or your mom or dad. Someone close enough but not too close.

+

Ben was the one who called. I stared at a small fingerprint of jelly on the counter while he told me something that couldn’t be true. Your bike, the tire that slipped, the driver who felt, instead of saw, you.

“The days are getting shorter,” he said after a while.

“Yeah. That’s what happens in November.” The leavening of sarcasm was all wrong, but this was our language with Ben. Some vestigial organ of normality was pumping its chemical through my body.

“No. Up north it’s more so, because we’re out on the edge. I’m saying the light was bad. It was harder for the driver to see her.”

We were quiet, making up alternate endings. There was a muffled thud from Jeremy’s bedroom.

“I googled ‘traumatic brain injury,’” Ben said.

“Maaa?” Jeremy’s voice was low, exploratory.

“Did you know, it’s the most common reason for accidental death?”

“No. I didn’t know that.”

“Maaaaaaa?”

“Ben, I need to go. The baby’s waking up. I’ll let you know when I book a flight for the service. If there’s anything I can do — ”

Anything besides this, I meant. I walked back through the family room. I felt dry and hollow, like I could drift up to the ceiling. When I opened the door to Jeremy’s bedroom, his face was lit up with surprise that I came so soon, and there it was: the truth without its protective wrapping of numbness. I stepped toward him and my legs collapsed out from under me.

It was wrong to believe you were a more interesting version of me. Some part of love is narcissism, but not all. You are you, and I don’t know anything except you can’t be gone.

+

I lock up your apartment and pocket the key. Sunset is an hour away, and the sky is that pale New England blue that gets more and more fragile-looking until you think it’s going to break: clouds going inky, not light but stain. I don’t have to walk by the place where the accident happened to get to Ben’s, but I do. Cars are parked against the curb with no spaces between them, no way to see the gap you fell into.

When I look up, the sky is glowing a blue that isn’t day or night, no point of concentration, all aura. This backlight of loneliness is what I keep from you.

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Deborah Forbes is a 2020 Pushcart Prize winner. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Electric Literature, The Hudson Review, and Carolina Quarterly. She a recovering academic and author of Sincerity’s Shadow: Self-Consciousness in British Romantic and Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry. She lives in Clifton, Virginia.