He says, “I don’t blame you for not understanding. My words only ever form a line of best fit for my thoughts,” and other things in that vein that let me into his curious mind and his even more curious distance. He looks through me, never at me, his green eyes puzzling out where my tears might be coming from without ever becoming wet themselves.
We’re standing on a quickly disappearing riverbank on a deserted stretch of the Pacific coastline, where the Russian River meets the ocean and where the white hollows of tree-trunks turn into ghosts and where the sun shines unflinching gold upon a Dalinian landscape.
He says, “This is where I got dragged out to sea. I’d lost my shoes in the current and there was a gash in my wetsuit through which the salt burned. The waves were over ten feet high. They spat me back here. I climbed up the ridge and walked to the car a mile and a half away.”
He says it in a monotone, as if reading from a book. I can’t speak. He walks toward a large rock and begins climbing it, camera slung over his shoulder. He wants to take pictures of the underbellies of the gulls circling above. A tidal wave of urgency hits me, the immensity of what I nearly lost, his adventurousness, his maddening focus, his quiet, measured way of speaking, his peculiarly guileless honesty.
I am the best friend he feels no passion for. Occasionally a fantasy about me crosses his mind and he’s generous enough to share it with me so I know he finds me beautiful. He hugs me with affection but without abandon. He’s now on top of the rock, thirty feet above me, and doesn’t hear me calling to him.
“Peter! Get down here! The tide’s coming in!”
The roaring wind and waves make me dizzy. My mouth feels dry and I sense shards of glass in the shimmering sand under my bare feet. Sea-foam sisters shriek warning of heartbreak but I ignore them.
He climbs down eventually, walks over to me and gives me that look of puzzlement that says he doesn’t understand what I’m feeling. I pull him in for a hug and sob into his neck, tears he’d never shed for himself.
“I’m glad you’re still here,” I tell him.
He pulls away after a few moments, uncomfortable with prolonged touch.
He says, honest as ever, “I don’t think I feel things with the same intensity that you do. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Don’t try to manage my feelings,” I tell him. “I can take care of myself.”
I give him everything, the way waves surrender themselves, unthinking and lavish. We lie together and hold fast, hearing the ocean. The sheets are white, their textures sudden. Peter’s skin shines, the white scar on his temple blazes, his eyes blink at me with sleepy, unprecedented innocence. That’s the first time I think of you, my buksvägerska. I think, Jessica was here. He held her just as he’s holding me now.
Over the years he’s told me more about you than you’ve told me about yourself. I know the shrug of your shoulders when he asked you for something new, something terrifying, and you said, “Yeah, let’s try that.”
You’re deeper in his skin than even he realizes, but I can taste you there. I think, when I kiss the crook of his arm, when I reach inside him with my fingers, Jessica was here.
Was he so distant with you? I tell him, “My dad needs surgery. I won’t be back for a few days.”
“Your dad is strong as a horse,” he says. “Don’t worry.”
He doesn’t sound impatient but he doesn’t sound concerned either. I am more jealous of the places he goes to in his mind than I am of his lovers.
His brain works differently from ours. More focused, more literal, less prone to error and emotion, as if the two were interchangeable. One of us is more human and I’m not sure which.
“Does he feel things and just not express them?” I ask. “Or does he not feel them at all?”
“He feels, just differently,” you say. “It would be the same as asking whether dogs hear airplanes differently than we do.”
“Do you think he feels love?”
You don’t answer. You pour the wine quietly and cross your legs on the couch.
We are young waves, flinging ourselves against unyielding rock, bursting into tears upon impact. We dissolve, we regroup, we return. In a few years we might lap gently at soft, abraded sand, out of weary habit, when both love and violence are salty memories.
“Who’s the new girl?” you ask.
“Someone gentler. She asks nothing of him.”
“How did you find out?”
The memory overwhelms me, forces me to double over.
“Breathe,” you remind me, pulling me into a hug.
I asked Peter once, “How did you find out that Tina was cheating on you?”
“She told me. Came in one day and said, I’m leaving you; this is Kelly.”
“You were living together at the time?”
“How did you not know?”
“How was I supposed to know unless someone told me?” he asked, shrugging as he sliced his French toast. “I can’t read minds.”
Yes, you can, I thought, but didn’t say aloud for fear it would sound condescending. If we can’t, why do we try?
A student gives him a card, thanking him for inspiring her. He brings it home, rotates it thoughtfully and then hands it to me.
“What do you think that’s about?” he asks.
“You inspired her. What’s so surprising about that?”
“I just told her how I go about solving a problem that seems too complicated on the surface. Break it down into smaller pieces, find a piece that looks like a problem you do know how to solve. Basic stuff. I don’t understand why she made me a card.”
“Have you never sent someone a card?” I ask.
“No. I’d write them an email if I wanted something.”
“What if you didn’t want anything?”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” he says.
You tell me, as we soak up the sunshine, lying in Dolores Park, “He doesn’t, really. I’ve never seen anyone use language the way he does. We were only in Hong Kong for a week and he was conversing in Cantonese. Cantonese! He picks up languages instantly, but uses words as if they were—”
“Composed entirely of straight lines?” I suggest, and we laugh together, salt in our throats.
“Curves are messy.”
“Do you believe in love?” I ask him one day when I feel brave. “Do you believe that I love you?”
He squirms. “I worry, when you say that. You’re going to get hurt.”
“But you’ve known me forever. There are no skeletons here.”
“I figure we’ll drift apart, find other people. The odds of a single relationship lasting a lifetime are infinitesimal. Our species was not meant for long-term monogamy.”
I’ve learned over the years not to show it when his honesty stings. He can’t lie.
“David asked to come over the other night,” I tell him. “When I wouldn’t sleep with him, he begged me to at least let him bring me off. I’ve never had a man beg me before.”
“We can try that if you like,” he says. Casual shrug. Did he learn that from you or you from him?
“I said no to him, Peter. I know we’re allowed, but I don’t want to. There’s just you.”
He looks up, and I don’t imagine the hope in his eyes. I won’t leave you. I’m not Tina. Let me in.
He kisses me, makes love to me for the first time. Many people spend their lives not knowing what that phrase means. We bury ourselves in each other, scream, shudder, shatter.
“I think we should go back to being friends,” he says. “You want a real relationship. Romantic, exclusive, intimate. I can’t give you that.”
“What I have with you is all I want,” I tell him. “You’re not letting me down.”
“There’s something you have to know. Kate and I fell for each other last week when you were visiting your dad. I didn’t plan it, didn’t expect it, but that’s where I am.”
He doesn’t look away, doesn’t mutter guiltily.
“I don’t want to hurt you anymore,” he says.
I need to know, “Hey Jessica, how did he end things with you?”
I see you sitting on the sofa, your hair curled up the way it does when you’ve just come out of the shower. You’re playing with your cat. He probably eyes your cat strangely, thinking about its irrationality and your own irrational attachment to its nonverbal being.
“I never saw it coming,” you say, sipping your wine, blinking behind your sunglasses. “He came home from work. I asked him how his day went. He said, ‘I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I think we need to break up. I’ll be moving out tomorrow.’ I should have expected it since it happened to Suzanne before me, but I didn’t. We’d been together two years. But he thinks there’s a horizon to all relationships, and so we share moments without futures, always anticipating the end of our time.”
“What went wrong between you two?” I ask.
“He wanted to end it before anything did. That’s the only explanation I can think of.”
“How did you make it through?”
“I called Suzanne. Just as you called me.”
The landscape is the average color of the universe, a cosmic mocha. We’re in the car, coffee cups by the gear-shift, asphalt and concrete smudging a pixelated sky. On the left, flatulent factories exchange carcinogens for carbon.
“They can convert your ashes into diamond,” Peter says.
A mundane transubstantiation. I unfocus my eyes so that the long stream of brake lights ahead forms a pointillism on the dirty windshield. I have no tears.
The red of the brake lights rings false. It’s the same red of vinyl seat covers in diners, children’s lunch boxes, lacquers in lipsticks and in the paint of overcompensating cars, the red of plastics and polymers cast by the roadside.
“It’s carmine,” he says, facts rolling off his tongue nervously. “A color rarely occurring in nature. Made from the secretions of millions of cochineal insects, by boiling their bodies in ammonia.”
“Jesus Christ,” I say. “I’ll just walk home from here. You don’t need to drop me off.”
You tell me, shaking your head, “He doesn’t understand what he’s done. He doesn’t comprehend pain the way you and I do. When he broke up with Suzanne, he said he liked her but she didn’t make him laugh. Then he went and nearly got himself killed swimming in Russian River.”
“Jesus Christ,” I say again.
In the fog between San Francisco and Mendocino, the radio shuts out. Visibility drops to five feet. We pull over into the parking lot, stumble down to the beach, hold hands.
“Just because he’s insane doesn’t mean we have to be!” you yell over the ocean’s roar. “He’s just another guy with intimacy issues. I can’t believe we’re skinny-dipping in the Pacific fucking Ocean!”
“You didn’t smile for four months, Jessica. I remember.”
“Fine then,” you say, teeth chattering. The sound of unzipping howls through the night.
The water slices.