The lawyer was a dud.
At the airport check-in counter he wished me a good life, giving me a last kiss and handing me a copy of the New Yorker for the flight. It was August, so the New Yorker was the Love Edition. Two hours later, it lay open on a food court table in Cincinnati as I ate the worst pizza in recent memory, not looking at the magazine, knowing if I waited until after dinner, read every article and studied the ads, it might just last the evening part of the flight. In the morning, I could get a newspaper off the caddie as the flight attendants came by and hope it was in a language I could read. It was only when I managed to pick out my own name and the word immédiatement in a loudspeaker announcement that I realized Ohio was possibly in a different time zone from Chicago and started running.
The lawyer had never been late. Traveling together, we often arrived at airports so early that we ended up taking earlier flights. A nonrefundable ticket had been nearly wrecked because I didn’t know what time zone Ohio was in. It was a sign I was finally on my own and didn’t seem like a very good sign. As the stewardess hurried me to a seat, a last thought, buoyed by endorphins from the run across the terminal, surprised me; I hoped the lawyer would fall in love some day. Not with me, perhaps—that hadn’t happened—but with someone.
A banker, I saw in retrospect, would have been a wiser choice. A dentist, a doctor, a rafting instructor, or an underwater photographer specializing in shark cages might have been better choices. But lawyers were what I knew. I’d watched my father go through several on his own slow rises and descents. Smiling, friendly, capable of mental acrobatics to which my own conscience could never quite extend, lawyers took up more space than ordinary men. Enormous white fingers splayed to exhibit various earnest gestures, they whispered things that made quiet rooms jump, then sauntered into elevators redolent of aftershave, descending to bars, downing glasses of Merlot like medicine, the wool of their suits stretching slightly at their joints. Nothing but a lawyer would do for me.
Here’s how I met mine. There was supposed to be a recession on. Young America was supposed to be nihilistic, or confused, or jaded or something. Most of the people I knew did things like pulling coffee shots or reading tarot cards or delivering packages on bicycles. Our parents were concerned as to when, exactly, to let us have some money. Too early and it might ruin us entirely. Too late, and we might go bad by degrees, follow aging rock groups in someone else’s utility vehicle, returning for holidays with our speech patterns marred by superfluous prepositions. It didn’t help that a relentless series of contemporary films was depicting a generation as likely to die vomiting from a heroin overdose in the staff washroom as to take the tree-planting sabbatical in Kenya they’d been talking about at the office water cooler all winter.
I’d been working as a Christmas caroler in a strolling quartet. For this job, they dressed you in a Victorian costume then hired you out to seasonal office parties. Which allowed entry into entire offices full of relatively sane people with cars, working parking brakes, frequent flier miles, and season symphony tickets. One night by a makeshift bar in an office lunchroom, as his face slowly came into focus, I saw it was focused on mine. The other three of our quartet had left. He and I took the elevator down and stood in the lobby. He’d forgotten his umbrella, and it was raining. Under the awning he described his apartment, acres of hardwood floors cold to the feet at night. What he really needed was someone to help pick out carpets. He didn’t live far, just a few blocks away; he mentioned it as I unlocked my bike, and he repeated it in the same voice used to calm a frightened animal, for all the ten blocks to his apartment.
Without thinking, I got up and turned out the light he’d left on in the hall. When he smiled, that’s when I first thought it might work. Sentimentality is one way you hold onto a lover, though not necessarily the means you want to attract one from the start. A frugal instinct isn’t, unfortunately, among the prime habits inspiring it. Sentimentality can be cultivated or inspired, but expect a difficult ride if it doesn’t set well fairly early on. Sentimental lovers take the occasional nudge, but otherwise they’re easy work, unless you want to leave them.
Sentimentality’s a learned habit, and learned young. Maybe those neurons in that particular part of the lawyer’s brain were never fired when he was young enough to build up tissue between them.
Brushing past him in the kitchen, grazing his shoulder as he read, or turning to smile at him while he drove, sometimes I could almost hear those neurons in his brain flickering, reaching out, sensing something was happening, seeking some other neuron to connect with, then left dangling in mid-air, twitching like nervous fingers or severed limbs. I’d seen severed limbs once in a biology class, and sometimes remembered them when he looked at me. Autism is normally only diagnosed in its most extreme forms, but, like most things, it’s probably a matter of gradations.
He rang my phone all fall. Politicians were planning dinners. I had an ill-fitting chorus tuxedo, so he took me along. There were receiving lines and speeches, a governor with a disarming, lopsided smile, and lesbians, awkward and proud in glittering dresses with strangely piled hair. At the end people danced in ballrooms to 1960s music, dances appearing to have actual steps.
“It’s like fishing with you,” he said. “You’re my lure. I let you off into a crowd till you attract someone interesting, then I pull you back and already have an introduction.”
Mornings, he asked me to stay to open the door for the cleaning lady. After a few months, he didn’t see why I was keeping my own place. So I moved in.
“What do you want?” I asked him.
“I want to fall in love,” he said.
People are always trying to capture all the facets of love in only one facet of it, I thought. Loving someone because they make you feel safe is loving what should be the result of love as if it were love itself, I knew, but, still, nights, when I turned in the bed in my sleep, he followed me.
A plant store down the street had a banner announcing a lawn and garden sale.
“Can we get a lawn and garden?” I asked.
“Where on earth would we put it?” He laughed.
This story begins on a night he came home late, in the hall in his coat with the newspaper under his arm, a glowing look of drunken revelation on his face, and said, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
Lawyers work late. Whenever you ask, “What are you thinking about?” they answer, “Work.” They leave on trips. You sit at the window smoking cigarettes one after another, trying to appreciate the view.
That summer, we told friends I was going to Europe to find myself, which is what we
supposed people expected to hear when someone left America for an extended vacation without any particular air of frivolity. It had worked well enough as an excuse in our parents’ generation, a meaningless statement steeped just deeply enough in tradition to dissuade serious broaching with questions, without seeming to avoid their being asked.
Mornings, I sat in hostels drinking espresso-like drinks, eating croissant-like pastries. Afternoons, I stumbled through medieval alleys, examined bulletproof cases of masterpieces, wandered up and down cathedral naves. Standing on train station platforms, there was that half-minute of exultation at getting where you are before you’re submerged in the details of being there, but I didn’t find myself. Annoyed on that count, I decided I ought to try having fun, then, having done so, rode trains across some small rainy islands on Europe’s northwest edge, stood at a series of humid phone booths trying to master understatement, and took a plane back to the lawyer.
So I figured that’s how Europe was and woke up ten hours later in an apartment where the radio alarm went off before the sun was up and my one daily luxury was lying under the blanket for a few minutes waiting to hear the temperature so I could decide how many layers to wear for work. We always woke to NPR, the lawyer and I, clenched in each other’s arms, and the first thing I heard coming out of my dreams the first morning back was the science report. The universe is expanding, a voice reported. Bits and particles of it are shooting out from some ancient central point like sparks from a Roman candle, and some day, when all the expanding glowing bits of matter in our universe have stretched themselves out tight like a rubber band, instead of it all coming roaring back to the center, as we’d thought, the universe may instead simply continue to expand. So any parting of ways could be permanent.
There was nothing to eat in the house when I came back, and the lawyer had asked me not to put garlic in his food anymore, so I opened a can of crushed tomatoes, seasoned it with oil-cured kalamata olives and red pepper flakes, dug out a dusty box of gnocchi from when I was first excited about finding an Italian grocery, scraped some parmesan over the heel of the weekend’s bread and toasted it in the oven. He was doing his finances when I went into the study.
“I’m so poor,” he said. What he always said.
“You drink too much,” I said, collecting his beer bottles to take to the kitchen. “It’s practically Fitzgeraldean. Your wife runs off to Europe, and you end up in the Midwest alone and ruined.”
“You’re the one drinking up my money,” he said, jerking my waist at the tail of a shirt of his I was wearing.
I’d been stealing clothes. From the beginning, he would come home and I’d be wearing something from the closet, and he’d admit I looked good in it, and from there it was all over. That’s no reason to give a person clothes, but I looked good in anything a size too small. I didn’t borrow ties and never touched anyone else’s shoes or socks. But cashmere was the worst. Cashmere just stuck to me.
“And I bought you those black running shoes,” he said, following me into the kitchen.
“That was three years ago.” We’d never run together; I smoked, and he had a bad knee.
“It was a year and a half.”
“It was almost three.”
“Well, somewhere between two and three years ago.” He was honest and even accurate, even doing his best to be nasty. The previous year’s finances were mapped out in colored graphs on a screen in the study. “Here’s that hundred-twenty-dollar phone bill from Europe,” he said. And there was a pair of six-hundred-dollar season opera seats, for hedging dates once I was gone, and the sum mysteriously spent every time he was in New York, I said. Because there it was, on the graph.
The lawyer was going out with Edwin, an unsettling type who, having grown up outside the boundaries of political correctness and, being homosexual, found pleasure in taking traditional patterns of misogyny and applying them to others of his own gender. Probably the worst thing I could do would be to go out with those two, but after sitting around thinking about it for a minute, there wasn’t really anything to think about. It was snowing outside and around midnight or something. The lawyer was at the bar with Edwin and some other guy who he introduced me to. He didn’t introduce me as his boyfriend. So I guessed I’d gotten that right.
Edwin and I watched videos on the TV screen. It was the same thing every time, but they thought it was great every time.
“You ever seen this before?” the lawyer asked. It was the Simpsons episode with the gay steel mill.
“Probably five times,” I said.
He looked perplexed.
“Three or four times. Here. With you.”
“Oh my god, I’m so wasted,” Edwin was saying as I said goodbye to him and told him to have fun. “Oh, I always do,” he said.
The lawyer started to dawdle, but I pulled him on. He’d pulled a newspaper off the floor in the hall and had it under his arm. We didn’t say anything on the sidewalk. We didn’t say anything until we were practically turning the corner to our street. I made drinks, and we sat in bed. He reached over and turned out the light, quiet. A sort of nothing quiet, like just tired from work.
Saturday’s traffic was horrible. The whole city vibrated with car engines. I went over to bring an artist friend some paint I had. Stranded on a bridge, in the rearview mirror, the license tags of a dozen Jeep Cherokees moved slowly forward then shuddered to a stop again. The lawyer was home. I made a salad of arugula and mozzarella and set the table.
“I don’t see why you had to leave all of a sudden,” he was saying. “And to spend all night driving around to help your stupid friends with their stupid problems.”
Something hot and light rose in me. As I walked past the back of the couch to the kitchen counter, my hand went out, and I smacked him in the back of the head. Then I sat on the couch while he paced up and down the room. My hand smarted.
“You hit me,” the lawyer was saying.
“You hit me. Things were bad before, and it was my fault,” he was saying. “But now it’s yours.” I expressed a wish to go for a walk.
“You just want to smoke,” he said. Which was true. I certainly did want a cigarette.
A few people passing me on the sidewalk on their way home or moving their cars gazed up at my face, registering shock or distaste, so I knew I wasn’t smiling. A figure a block away let out a low hocking noise that echoed in the street, and when I walked to where he’d been standing, I looked down and saw his loogie already frozen solid on the pavement.
At home the lawyer was pacing the floor, poking at the spines of books in the bookcases. I tumbled into bed and fell into a dead sleep, woke up at 6:30, knowing he’d left and hadn’t come home when I saw the living room lights still on. I went to the grocery store, asked the meat counter guy to cut a quarter pound of prosciutto. He gave it to me in about three slices. So I was like, okay, well, I really wanted it thin, you know, cut, like, like prosciutto? He cut some more just as thick and pitched the whole thing over the counter at me. Italy it ain’t. The most ethnic things about the north side are rap and Taco Bell. At home, the lawyer was pacing the kitchen floor. He’d made coffee, and as he held me, I could smell it burning on the base of the machine behind us.
“Maybe I could make you jealous,” I said.
“It wouldn’t work,” said the lawyer.
He began introducing me as his ex.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to put that kind of label on our relationship,” I said.
“I might be ready,” he said. But when I turned in the bed, he followed me.
We went to New York, staying in the same place the lawyer’d always stayed on his trips there alone. Each room had a theme. Standing in the Washington room with our luggage, I watched the lawyer’s eyes go over the lithographs, the kitchenette with its row of faux Delft porcelain, and the big iron bed. “I haven’t had this room in a while,” he said. I never wanted to hear that tone in his voice again. Yet knew I’d better learn to listen for it. Every time I went to the bathroom, Martha Washington over the mirror, I imagined the lawyer fumbling in his Dopp kit months earlier, imagined a stranger on the bed, patiently or maybe impatiently gazing at the brass wall sconces, the lead plate engraving of the Capitol over the mantle, Martha Washington’s face smiling from beneath her pink bonnet striking him as amusing as he ripped open the condom package.
I listened to French lessons on a walkman over the blare of the stereo at our gym. Told them I was leaving and needed to cancel my membership. Filled out a form.
My cashmere predilection raised a good fight. But I only took one worn sweater and his school sweatshirt, because they smelled like him. Nights before leaving, I lay beside him, a pleasing rhythm in my head lulling me to sleep. I realized on that last night it was my teeth grinding methodically against each other, waiting for my dreams to start.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your world, Horatio,” he said at the airport.
“Maybe,” I said. “But still more in mine than in yours, maybe.”
On the plane, then for the first few days away from him, I was angry. Then missed him and felt angry for missing him, then kept missing him because I didn’t know what else to do. I went back for a visa. We sat on the couch talking about new books, then walked down the street, ate sandwiches, and sat on the couch again. It was quiet, the walls were beige, and it was all more tasteful than I’d remembered. When it was time to go to bed, he turned off the light. We lay there for a while.
“You feel so familiar,” he said, when we found time to breathe. But there was nothing familiar or unfamiliar about it. Tasting his spit made me break out in laughter, his smile pressed to my own so our lips had to struggle a little against their smiles to kiss. I lay there unable to decide if it was better to stay awake to hear him breathe or to enjoy falling asleep beside him. Turning in my sleep, he followed me.
It was strange seeing him in the morning.
“We’re broken up now,” we said and, “Yes, isn’t it strange?” We got up to make coffee the way we liked it.
“Isn’t it strange being broken up?” he said.
On the last car in the train to the airport, a view of the receding city, I realized I’d expected him to come with me somehow. That we’d go on talking and eating and making love. My throat, stomach, eventually everywhere, had a sick feeling, like I was going to cry. I spat on the sidewalk at the door to the terminal. Fortunately, international flights had stupid movies and gin, so you could pass out after the movie.
Our phone conversations were short and to the point.
“How are you?”
“How is it?”
“Being alone isn’t so bad. How long do you plan on staying?”
“I’ll come back if I can.”
We met at the Gare du Nord. In train stations, you stop noticing people and voices, hear just echoes, see just shadows, scraps of cloth, pacing, hurrying, calling, a space of empty movement. Waiting for a single live man, you wonder which will see him first, your eyes or your heart. On the station platform, alien under an acre of pigeon-shitted glass, among echoes of wheeled luggage on tiles, he couldn’t have been anyone else.
“You look so French,” he said. I began saying the same things I’d said to him normally, until a smile of recognition spread across his face.
“I’m a ghost,” he said, as I took his bag. “I’m not really here. I don’t want to cause any problems.”
We ate raspberry tarts, drank coffee, looked for books. After a while he stared into space. When he kissed me, I was horrified to find myself reflexively wiping my mouth of spit.
“So I suppose you can’t walk on the lawns,” he said in the Luxembourg Gardens.
“No. No one does.”
“At home there’d be thirty Frisbee players out there in a minute.”
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t imagine any of the French people I knew throwing Frisbees. Pretending we’d never broken up and were simply on vacation, he wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower. Gustave Eiffel once lived at the top of it. They had a mannequin representing his wife in a hoop skirt, staring at a barometer. If it had kept raining, it might have seemed sad, and I might have cried. But the rain stopped and the dome of Invalides shone in the sun. He wondered if Gustave Eiffel had possibly taken meals in the restaurant downstairs.
Everything seemed interesting to him, even the crowds in the Place du Terte. He drank coffee. I ate his chocolate square.
“I don’t think we’ll be together again,” he said. “It’s the ligne Maginot. People are always fighting the last war.” Things went better for him, but I felt worse myself and couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You’re more like a person I would want to be with now,” he said.
“You’re bad at goodbyes,” I said.
“That’s something I plan to work on,” the lawyer said.
“You should watch Casablanca a few hundred more times,” I said.
“But we’ll always have Paris,” he said. The square was empty. Stone animals at the St. Michel fountain spurted water from their lips into the basin. A man was reading Le Monde, the backs of his ears very clean and tan. When the lawyer said, “We’ll always have Paris,” everything was silly and seemed empty. We hadn’t had Paris, I thought. We’d had Puerto Vallarta, Springfield, Denver, and Veracruz, and even New York, but we’d never really had Paris.
We parted on the steps of the métro. He wanted a kiss. He was going to Versailles. Why, I don’t recall, except that it was historical. I pulled him from the ticket counter toward a corner by the stairs; he wanted to say something, but nothing we said would’ve had any resonance. Climbing the stairs, knowing if I didn’t turn to look back he’d always remember that, I turned to smile. His shoes lingered in a patch of sun on the concrete floor, pointed toward me, as he watched mine pause on the stairs.
Later, in a city where we’d once lived together, I had tickets to something. We sat side by side in silence for two hours. Then, pulling his umbrella carefully from under his seat, he slipped into the crowd before I could get to the door.
J.M. Parker is the author of the novels A Budget Traveler’s Guide to the Museums of Europe and Seattle or, In the Meantime. His short stories have appeared in Roanoke Review, Cleaver, Foglifter, Frank, Gertrude, SAND, Segue, and Best Gay Stories 2015.
Swedish artist Gordon Skalleberg paints in oil on untreated wood, unique grain patterns are visible beneath the paint, intensifying movement and texture. Now residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Skalleberg transitioned to full-time artist after years in the family’s business. His relocation inspired a distinctive twist on Southwestern features – desert landscapes, mountains, open skies – in a semi-abstract landscape-style. His work has shown in Sweden, New York, and Santa Fe, and he has done commissioned portraits for a Netflix production.
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