I couldn’t wait to see you and I couldn’t wait for you to see me. I’m all grown up now, after all, and not the willowy scared thing you knew in Chicago when we were both lost, you and I. You’ve moved on, down to Houston but not yet into a successful relationship, and I’ve married a male, which I think of as an accomplishment for someone like me, I suppose, even though I don’t like it much, being married.
My husband is gracious to you. Overly so. He insists on picking you up at the airport while I’m still at work and by the time I get home you two share giggly inside jokes about that experience, laughing about the hilarious lady at baggage claim but I had to be there. I wasn’t, of course, so I smile stupidly in the way people do when they’re left out and there’s nothing to be done about it.
When I get there you’ve already unpacked. You’ve already taken a nap in the bed my husband turned down for you and showered in the bathroom he waved you toward with his long arm. I’ve already missed several hours of your presence and my arrival stumbles awkwardly into the middle, somehow, of your visit, but you’re exactly the same and I treasure that. I’m different, certainly, and I want you to notice my growth, my maturity. I’ve missed you terribly and your face refreshes me thoroughly, because no one else knows me so totally.
I so envy your smoking. My husband insisted I quit right after we married and I kowtowed to the demand for some reason I stammer trying to explain around you. Perhaps it’s because he’s a man and there’s something in me, maybe, that makes me servile, like his parts entitle him to order me around. It’s in the Bible, after all, that I’m supposed to submit, and smoking’s bad for me, anyway, so it’s love he’s showing, surely. In Chicago, I used to let you boss me, sometimes, but then you also took your turn. I liked our way better but this is the right way for now, for having a real life and making babies, and no one gets to stay twenty-two for always, anyway, right? Not even those who can afford to look youthful forever get to truly escape the expectations of their societies and families; they weigh on all of us with the inevitability of gravity.
There was a character I noted, once, who was supposedly free. She was played by Sharon Stone in that movie and she’d killed her parents and had a ton of money and didn’t wear underpants and followed no rules, but she seemed unhappy and all I wanted while I watched her was structure and someone to answer to. You.
But now it’s him and also Him and I know my place so I stopped smoking. I tried, anyway, which sounds like a copout but I swear on all that’s holy I truly tried, except then I failed and started lying, saying I’d quit when I hadn’t. I got grateful then for my husband’s opposite schedule, for rarely seeing the guy I moved here to live with, because I smoke while he’s gone or while I am. When he’s home, I’m agitated all the time, waiting for one of us to leave. Edgy.
He likes that you smoke, though, and even sucks on a cigar (that hypocrite) while you have a cigarette during the ride to dinner in the car I’ve never been permitted to light up inside. I lean forward to be near you, inhaling your second-hand breaths and wishing my husband would die, would go away, would get called into work, would go find his own friend. This one is mine, I think. You are mine.
You’re not, though. I mean, I don’t own you and my spouse shows you the sights. I can’t because I don’t know the place myself, having only lived here six miserable months. He’s never shown me the town and I ought to take pleasure in its newness with you, revel in its remarkable attributes, but envy sears to jealousy while you lay your head back, laughing at yet another front-seat joke. Smoke escapes from your nostrils in happy puffs because you’re enjoying yourself.
I turn sullen.
It’s not intentional. It’s just I hate my husband.
Who could blame him, right? Who would fault him for being kind to his wife’s old roommate, to the traveler who’s dropped by; what a great guy; what an affable host. I catch it, though, in ways you’d never because I know him, now, more deeply than I’d intended. I see the annoyed looks he shoots me, the “Are you still here?” glances he throws my way. He’s making me watch it. He’s showing me he can pick you up, I suppose, even though there’s no way in hell you’d ever let him actually do anything with you. You’re my friend, after all. Besides, he’s not that attractive.
This is my life, apparently - lying about smoking and other vices, too, and being perpetually uncomfortable in my partner’s presence, physically because I want a cigarette and emotionally because I want out. It’s all a gigantic mistake, and as pitiful as I was in Chicago, this is worse. I brought you here to show off my house, my respectable man, my nice new conservative world, but you’ve always been able to reveal the truth and here it is, ugly before me, spread like a reeking autopsy.
“Would you care to accompany me?” he asks, pretentious as hell and in an awkward accent he’s put on for you, and you nod cheerfully, taking his arm. I’m sitting on a downtown bench dying for nicotine, itchy as hell for it, honestly, and I’ve already told him I hate that restaurant. I don’t eat buffets, as he knows, so he’s picked one and described it to you in a way that it sounded appealing, like it’s not the sneeze-guard covered rows of crap he knows I can’t eat. I’m an uptight bitch, of course, because it’s food, for God’s sake, not nuclear waste, but I follow a little girl through and watch her put back an olive, watch her wipe her nose and then touch the salad grippers with that hand. I watch her decide on a fork; they’re all facing up and she can’t help but touch three or four before she picks one with her snotty fingers. My husband glances at me from the other side of the sunken can of shredded cheddar sprinkled with stray peas and a single torn crescent of dropped egg white. He smirks, victorious.
You bond over the food, too, over the greasy spaghetti and the gelatinous garbanzo beans – who knew you’d both love those? Wow! Small world!
The rivalry is unexpected and I’m a clumsy, unpolished combatant. I have no stories you haven’t heard, no nuances unexamined to discuss over the much-handled bowl of Parmesan. I bring only covetousness to the table and this game makes me ache. I bang on the dried red pepper canister but the holes in the top are too small to release even the yellowed seeds from the mix “Unscrew it,” my husband suggests, winking at you because what kind of dumbass wouldn’t think of that, right? I do it, but the top is slimy from someone else’s butter and I clench my eyes closed as my stomach lurches. You reach your hand right into the opened jar and pinch some for me, sprinkling brown and red crumbs onto my food. “There you go,” you say, like how people speak to those who are easily flustered, such as the emotionally feeble or sometimes the elderly. My husband leans back and slips his arm around the back of your chair, nodding his approval because you guys are such an efficient team, dealing with me when I’m such a pain in everyone’s ass.
I say I’m going to the bathroom but I sneak outside to smoke alone. You join me, sans your new boyfriend, and I know you meant well but I know he’ll bust me, for sure, now that you’ve abandoned him, too, and here he comes, shaking his head angrily when he catches me stomping out a butt. I’m a huge disappointment to him, his expression says; that’s crystal clear. “We’ll talk about this later,” he hisses at me, like how a father would speak to a bratty kid, and I become the bratty child, just like that, and my vocabulary evaporates like that, too, and all I can think to say is “Fuck you,” to him, but I don’t utter it and tear up, instead, stressed. This is the new me. The post-Chicago me. This is what I’ve moved on to become. Pretty impressive, huh? So glad you could come see this.
“Why can’t you just chill?” you ask, and it’s not affectionate, not comforting. Accusatory. I think you’re talking to him, standing up for me, but your eyes reveal it’s me you’re furious with, me you’re scolding. “It’s always something with you,” you spit, and I react as one struck, bringing my hand up to protect my face, to deflect another blow as you continue, “You think you know what’s best for everyone. It has to be your way all the time or you have to go and be all morose. Your pouting ruined dinner and honestly it’s sickening to watch.” You walk briskly after my spouse. He opens the door for you and you settle into my seat and light another cigarette. I want to follow but my legs won’t hear me. “Just come on,” you sigh, frustrated wind forcing out of you in white swirls through your open window. “Jesus Christ,” you mutter to the driver, who grunts back a disgusted affirmative, revving the accelerator impatiently while you suck on your smoke and it responds to you, glows warmly orange at its end.
I’ve fantasized about your visit for weeks. In my dreams, he leaves me or at least leaves for work. Maybe he’ll go browse for hours in clothing stores to purchase three more of something expensive he doesn’t need with money we don’t actually have and you stare at me over your wineglass like you used to when I was someone you enjoyed. In my mind’s plan, you say phrases humans don’t mean in real life; you say I’ll never have to worry because you love me and you always will, and you touch my face like they only do in movies and I cry but it’s relief and not agony. How it actually goes is he rolls his eyes when I admit I forgot to buy the special refrigerated coffee creamer you like and he drives off to pick some up because of course, of course. He wants you to come along to the market. He wants to breathlessly enter you, to grind inside you in the grocery store parking lot with the truck engine running – that’s obvious to all of us - but he can’t find a way to invite you and you smile coolly at him because you don’t mind being left alone with me even though I’m such a ditz.
When the garage door finally closes you turn and there are your eyes over the rim of the glass. My heart hastens and my hand trembles when I touch your arm. Your lips taste of Carmex and your tongue of cigarettes and Chablis, and even standing in my own kitchen your kiss is the only home I know.
My mouth is relieved to be at your neck. My eyes close gratefully as I breathe you in, and you say, “What the fuck is wrong with you, anyway?” Your fingers tug at my bra to uncover my breast, but your hand caresses and shoves, simultaneously, and I’m off-balance and exposed and confused, because that is the question, isn’t it?
Samantha Hegarty has stayed in the Midwest all her life, despite her dread of winter. She now thrives in Omaha, Nebraska, where her family lives.