It is November second and Sandra has been driving for seventeen minutes. Forty minutes ago, in the alley by her apartment, Sandra stood long after Miles' cab had disappeared into the distance. If she couldn't bring Miles back, she thought, standing where she last saw him could at least preserve something of that moment. Her legs grew tired. She let her body slide into a sitting position against a telephone pole. She tried to make herself cry. She could cry in front of Miles because she wanted him to feel bad, but now that she lacked an audience, it didn't seem worth the effort. Miles had left her apartment many times, though they both knew this would be the last. The door to her building is seven feet away and she doesn't have her jacket.
Sandra does not want to go inside and see the artifacts left scattered by Miles—his toothbrush, the stained sheets, ashes from his cigarettes. Her apartment feels like it has been fumigated for roaches. It is not safe for at least twenty-four hours. She walks to her car, unsure of where she wants to go.
Thirty-three minutes ago she walked out of her building with Miles, whose eyes focused on a horizon that felt too high for her eyes to see. Her face was the thick mask of a person who'd been crying for some time. She thought of white blood cells rushing to open wounds, assigning a swollen, sensitive quality to the skin. Was she still attractive? Miles said something conciliatory, which Sandra ignored without spite. Two men approached. One said, "How y'all doin' tonight." Sandra quietly said, "Not too good." Miles laughed. This comment echoed a quality of Sandra's he had found endearing for the past two months—a sort of half serious, self-effacing sarcasm. Sandra attempted a smile.
Two hours ago, Miles and Sandra sat with a group of co-workers at a bar. Sandra is a temp at Miles' advertising agency. She overhears him saying, "I wish I could fuck every woman in the graphics department." Miles has created a social persona in which comments like this are acceptable. Sandra hopes someone else will say something soon. She drinks more of her beer.
Shortly before this, Miles leaves to smoke a cigarette. At the same time he is outside, his girlfriend, Adrienne, settles into her dorm in Greece. Sandra has trouble remembering what it is Adrienne studies, exactly, and why she went to Greece. It's for a Master's degree in something. Philosophy. Architecture. No, something stranger, less practical. Astrology? Archeology. Adrienne is something alive and occurring, but at such a distance that she is not real. Sandra sometimes thinks "archaeologist," pictures Indiana Jones looking dusty and rugged, then superimposes Adrienne's face onto his. What does Miles love so much about an Indiana Jones-like woman. Sandra tries to act Indiana Jones-like around him, without knowing what "Indiana Jones-like" is.
When there is nothing else to do on the internet, Sandra looks at photos of Adrienne on Facebook and invents reasons to hate her. For instance, her facial expression never changes in photos. Her smile always slightly exposes her lower teeth. As a teenager, Sandra would watch Entertainment Tonight with her mom after school. They would take turns making fun of celebrities. Her mom hated Kate Hudson's smile, which, like Adrienne's, slightly exposed her lower teeth. Kate Hudson wanted to appear effortlessly gorgeous. She wanted her smile to showcase hoards of unselfconscious joy pouring out of her face. This is not achievable with just one row of teeth exposed. Sandra's mom would say, "Close your goddamned mouth, Kate Hudson." Sandra would say, "Seriously," without looking up from her homework.
It is after midnight in Greece. Adrienne undresses as her bath water runs. Her face is calm. Her inner monologue is lazy and formless, but on any given day most of her thoughts are composed of comparing and contrasting the Grecian climate and landscape to hers at home, remembering the past and envisioning her future with Miles, what she will eat next, and how to make herself likeable. She is not aware of a person named Sandra Elaine Dembeck, whom Miles has seen nearly every day since mid-September, when she left to study abroad. She has no reason to believe Sandra exists. Before Sandra were Michelle and Lisa, who Miles has told Sandra about, but will never tell Adrienne. Michelle and Lisa both had medium-length blonde hair and were immediately repulsive to Miles after he had sex with them.
Miles explains to Sandra that she is different. He buys her meals. He lends her books. He places his head in the corner of her neck and shoulder as they stare blankly at the large poster of "Saturn Devouring His Son" hanging on the wall across Sandra's bed.
"Why's he eating his son," he says.
"I think it's, um. It's because if he doesn't, his son's going to take his place one day," Sandra says.
"So he has to eat him?"
"Is it really his son? The ass looks so big. It looks like a girl's ass."
"But the title...yeah, it would have to be his son. A daughter can't, like, overthrow her father."
"He had daughters, too?"
"Yeah, probably. They didn't have birth control back then."
Five days earlier, Miles sits in the basement of his childhood house. It is a Saturday. He is consciously avoiding contact with Sandra, though he looks at her internet presence multiple times a day. The first day he was home, he felt guilty and sent her a text message. She responded. He didn't.
He looks at photos of Sandra. He looks at photos of Adrienne. He remembers sitting in Adrienne's car five and a half years ago, parked in his driveway, their faces glossy with tears. He was moving out of the state and might not be returning. He can't remember exactly what they said. If he could, he knows they would feel less meaningful than their current existence in his memory, but he doesn't care. He needs to be in that moment again. If he were of a different disposition, he would distract himself by thinking of the steps and physics involved in creating a time machine. Instead, he lies on the couch, wanting to drink gin, knowing he won't because his parents are upstairs watching TV. His feet hang off the couch. He is too big for the couch. He knows he needs to stop seeing Sandra soon.
The day before Miles leaves for his childhood house, he snores loudly in Sandra's bed. Sandra reads on the couch in her living room. It is six in the morning. The sun is rising. It is easier now for Sandra to sleep on the couch instead of repeatedly waking Miles to ask him to roll over. She won't let him sleep on the couch, despite his repeated offerings. She says, "I'm the one who has the problem with your snoring, not you. I should move." He always apologizes in the morning. Sandra always tells him not to worry about it.
Six hours before Sandra watches the sunrise, she watches Miles on his stomach, holding her pillow under his head. They are naked. He stares at her pillow and she stares at him. He sees her looking at him, makes a face of embarrassed amusement, then turns and covers his head with the pillow.
"Stop that, your eyes."
Sandra pokes his shoulder. "What? I'm just looking at you."
"Your eyes, you're always looking for secrets or something, you're trying to find me out or something." Fabric muffles his words.
"No I'm not, I'm just. I don't know." She pries the pillow back, smiling. One eye looks into hers. The room is quiet for three seconds. Miles throws the pillow back and embraces Sandra. He exhales audibly. Sandra feels his breath on the top of her head.
"What do you want from me, what good am I to you, I'm an old man, I'm dying."
"You're six years older than me."
"I'm an old man."
Sandra breaks from his arms and rests her head at an angle on her palm. "You are thirty-two years old."
"I'm dying." Miles coughs wetly.
"So am I. So is everyone. You're being dramatic." She kisses his forehead. Miles rolls to look at the ceiling.
"What do you want with me," he says.
"Nothing. I don't know. I just want you. I like you. I just like being here with you." Miles looks at Sandra's stomach, rising and falling. He puts his hand on it.
"Yeah, I like being here with you too."
Two weeks earlier, Sandra walks to the coffee shop seven blocks from her apartment. She smokes a cigarette. The coffee shop will be in front of her when the cigarette ends. Cigarettes are devices she uses to mark time. It comforts her to know that just by holding something, she receives a temporary identity of Person Smoking a Cigarette. People on the other side of the street will see her smoking and know that she is part of the world of cigarette smokers. They will not ask questions. She has always feared that the world sees her as she sees herself—a strange, wandering thing that could easily become detached from gravity, float out of the atmosphere and into space without anyone noticing. A cigarette is, in a way, an anchor for Sandra. She can see her breath leave her body as floating gray proof that her lungs are not ideas, but real things inside of her, churning gasses into other gasses. When she thinks too much about the reality of her lungs, or any internal organ, she becomes slightly nauseated. It is better to watch the smoke dissolve into the air and think, "here: a thing that is happening which is real."
Sandra and Miles spend the morning waking slowly. They get breakfast at a diner. Sandra has a Belgian waffle and bacon. Miles has eggs and ham. They both have home fries. Miles pays. After breakfast they meander around an industrial area of the city, each periodically asking who's leading the way. The sun is bright in the way it only is in mid-fall. Sometimes they have to squint. They approach an alley.
"I puked in that alley one time," Miles says, "I was really drunk and puking and I saw this styrofoam container of Chinese food and it made me puke more. Then I wanted to eat Chinese food."
Sandra laughs. "Let's see if your puke is still there."
"Nope, that's the spot, nope, no puke, it's long gone," Miles says.
"No Chinese food either," Sandra says.
"I kind of want Chinese food now."
To their right is the back of an abandoned building. There is a small yard before the back door. Sandra enters the yard.
"You're going to step on a nail or syringe or something and get AIDS," Miles says. Sandra says something and Miles follows her.
They enter the building, looking jittery and cat-like, stepping lightly. Littered throughout the building are broken bottles with sun-bleached labels, empty Doritos bags, old silverware, and displaced rectangles of synthetic wood with original purposes so obscure that they are impossible to imagine.
On the way out, Miles notices a small blue figurine of a gorilla. Its head is almost detached from its body.
Sandra sees a small soldier of the same color, ten feet from the gorilla. His leg is missing and he is caked in dirt.
"I like it. I'm keeping it I think. Souvenir. Will anyone be mad?"
"No, definitely not."
She stows it in her purse and later transfers it to the dashboard of her car. She has never been the kind of person who crowds their car with trinkets, but she likes the soldier. She likes his shade of blue. She likes his missing leg. She likes that he has a story she will never know. She wonders where his leg is.
Sandra decides to keep the soldier at the same moment Adrienne sits down to dinner with two friends. The friends are laughing about something private and drinking too much wine. The sun is large and orange in the sky. Adrienne thinks, "I'm okay here, I'm happy here." She checks her phone for text messages and sees none. Today, during a lab dig, she imagined bringing Miles here. They would walk between broken columns and she would tell him stories about ancient Greece. Something funny, maybe. Smart and funny at the same time. He would be interested. They would stop in the restaurant she's in now and drink tea out of glass mugs. Somebody sighs. Adrienne realizes she has been quiet for some time. Her friend says, "Adrienne! Tell the story about," she breaks to laugh hard, "about the man, oh, Jesus, sorry, okay," she catches her breath, "the man today with the beans!"
Six days before the abandoned building, Miles sends Sandra an earnest, confessional email. Sandra sends Miles a damning, accusatory email. Miles calls Sandra to say she can't expect him to leave a six-year marriage for a person he's only known for a month. He says it was too early for them to have such an emotional conversation, and that maybe, if they were to have that conversation in a month, maybe things would be different. Sandra feels suddenly optimistic. If they continue see each other until Adrienne returns, he might consider her seriously. Seriously, like Adrienne.
That night, Miles asks Sandra if she wants to get a beer at 10:30. Sandra meets him at the bar next to her apartment. She has been weeping intermittently all day and it shows on her face. Miles' jacket is on the same table they sat at eighteen days ago.
"The bartender told me to sit here. This is where couples go to have awkward conversations."
The bartender's foresight intrigues Sandra, then she realizes Miles is joking. They sit for a long time, sometimes in silence and sometimes speaking in abstractions, then looking at each other apologetically. As they talk, Adrienne walks down a busy street in Athens, wanting to ask where the library is, unable to remember the Greek word for "library."
Miles and Sandra stand in the elevator going up to her apartment. Miles tries to unscrew a knob on the back wall of the elevator. Sandra rips it out and gives it to him.
"Thanks," he says. "Souvenir."
In her apartment, Sandra says she has decided that she wants to continue seeing him, that she likes him in her life, and doesn't care if it has to be in an unconventional way. Miles agrees.
"Okay," Sandra says decisively.
"Alright," Miles says.
They look at each other as if they have just invented a joke. "So I guess we talked about it then," Miles says, smiling. "Yeah, we talked about it," Sandra smiles. She jumps onto his lap.
Two days before their temporary situational resolve, Sandra dreams she is walking Adrienne's and Miles' dog. Adrienne answers the door. "Thank you for walking our dog," she says, glaring at Sandra. Miles wakes and Sandra tells him the dream.
"She said 'thank you,' that's funny," Miles says. This leads to a discussion about the nature of their relationship, where Sandra cries a little bit and Miles looks at the floor remorsefully. He says that he didn't expect Sandra to be who she was—he wished she was someone he didn't care about, someone disposable.
When it felt like there was nothing left for either of them to say, Miles stands and says, "I guess this is the last time I'm ever going to see the inside of this apartment." "Melodramatic, but nice," Sandra thinks. Miles holds her close to him. She is crushed into his sweatshirt. It feels soft and welcoming. It smells like cooked food and deodorant. She doesn't want him to stop holding her. She mentally pictures the freckles on his back taking up her entire field of vision. "What is going to happen," she says. "Are you going to—we'll just matter less and less to each other, I guess."
"Don't say that," Miles says. "That's not going to happen."
Sandra turns from Miles's arm and sees his phone on her coffee table. "His phone on my table," she thinks. Something large and painful is happening in her throat. "I'm so fucking profound, every time I feel an emotion it's so fucking profound, isn't it," she thinks. She tries to remember the last time she felt a sadness like this, impervious to her own ridicule, and gives up.
At this moment, Adrienne stands on her balcony with a friend watching a parade. Her friend is the kind of girl who tans too much and will probably have a group of girl friends into her thirties she'll refer to as "the Ladies." They will complain about men, drink too much, and gossip. Adrienne will participate so she can feel like she has a group of friends, but most of the time she will wish she were alone or with someone else.
Sandra and Miles have been seeing each other almost every night for a period of eighteen days. He frequently compliments her and acts jealous when other men give her attention. He points out character traits about Sandra she didn't know existed. Some nights they stay up late, talking about books, funny scenarios, the differences between men and women, their jobs, their pasts. Sometimes they have philosophical arguments that engage areas of Sandra's brain she has previously accessed only when alone, reading. Her comfort and excitement levels are nearly the same when she is with Miles. Most of her life has been spent alone. She enjoys socializing as it is occurring, but it ultimately feels draining. Miles feels the same way.
Eighteen days before they discuss the nature of their relationship, Miles text messages Sandra to ask if she likes the sounds pianos make. Sandra says yes, sometimes, some sounds. He takes her to a free concert at the Peabody academy. Neither of them like classical music but are excited by the prospect of spending more time together. During the concert they sit close without touching, and afterwards, both agree that they liked the music more than they anticipated. They go to the bar next to Sandra's apartment after the concert. A couple sits at the table behind them. They appear to be having an uncomfortable conversation. Sandra starts to answer one of Miles' questions, but is distracted by the uncomfortable woman's voice.
"Um," she says, gesturing behind her.
"Yeah, I know, what are they saying, can you hear what's going on?"
"Hold on a minute."
Sandra and Miles try to listen to the couple. Sandra looks mostly at the neon sign to her right, but sometimes locks eyes with Miles and feels funny and excited. She is never sure where her eyes belong in situations like this.
"Come on, let's go out and have a cigarette," Miles says.
Sandra feels dizzy from alcohol. She follows him outside.
"Okay, the woman—it's like, a friends with benefits scenario—she's mad at him for like, not 'being there for her' or something, and he's kind of tolerating her because I think he wants to keep her around so he can have sex with her. That's what I think is going on," Sandra says.
"No, maybe he just fucked up somehow, he looks like an asshole," Miles says. He lights Sandra's cigarette.
"Maybe. She looks like a bitch, though. Like, not very generous with oral sex."
"Neither of them are."
"Maybe they deserve each other."
Sandra and Miles laugh. They like each other. They take the elevator upstairs to her apartment and talk for two hours, feeling slightly giddy and euphoric from the beers they drank. Eventually it's quiet. Miles looks at Sandra's television, which has been broken for a month. He blinks rapidly several times and moves his head backwards into his neck, as if he is taking note of something. This is something he does frequently, but less as he gets to know Sandra better.
Sandra asks what he was thinking.
"Nothing," he says, moving his eyebrows upwards and shaking his head.
"No thoughts? Really? None?"
"Yeah, no thoughts." He blinks rapidly again.
"I want to try that, I want to try having no thoughts. How about, whoever has a thought first, loses."
"Okay, I'll just lie to you and I'll win."
"No! You can't do that. You have to be honest. Otherwise it's not fun. It'll be fun to hear what thoughts we have."
"That's impossible, you're always thinking about something, like, I don't know. The way things look in the room."
"That doesn't count, those things don't count. You can have thoughts like, 'there is a green chair here, there is an attractive person next to me, I had Thai food for dinner.' You can't have thoughts like, 'that food reminded me of a time when I was on vacation and, whatever...' Or 'I want to have sex right now,' or, okay?"
Miles laughs. They try four times. Sandra loses once.
Three days before the piano concert, Miles and Sandra sit at the coffee shop near her apartment. They discuss what happened the other night, when they were drunk and had sex for the first time. Miles says he wants to see her again. He tells her his girlfriend, Adrienne, has been in Greece for three months, studying abroad. She will be returning on November nineteenth.
Sandra asks why he wants to see her if he already has a girlfriend. He says he likes to collect people, that everyone has a secret about them that he wants to know. Sandra wants to say, "Isn't that what Ted Bundy said he liked to do," but is neither comfortable enough around Miles to make that kind of joke, nor sure Ted Bundy actually said that. She is apprehensive about Miles, but also bored and he is interesting and attractive. She says she wants to see him again.
Four days before the coffee shop, Miles and Sandra go to a bar in the city with a group of co-workers. Sandra asks Miles questions like "What is your favorite color", "Who is your favorite author", "Where did you grow up", and "Why do you wear the same clothes all the time?" They are both drunk and quickly becoming drunker.
Miles says, "Why are you asking me all these questions, Jesus, I feel like I'm being interviewed."
Sandra says, "It just means I like you. I ask questions when I like someone."
Miles walks her back to her apartment. He kisses her for a long time. She brings him inside, pulling him by his sweatshirt hood. They are laughing.
Two weeks earlier, Miles sends Sandra an email saying he is impressed with the things she's published online. He uses the word "smitten." He says he's interested in her not just because of her writing, but for "other reasons, too." He tells her he writes things too, and sends her links. Sandra reads this email with a high level of interest. She imagines what it would be like to kiss Miles. She is worried she won't like what he writes and won't want to kiss him.
One-month prior, Miles pulls Sandra aside after work. "So I know you're just a temp, but I keep hearing you do all this writing stuff on the side. I do that too. Send me some of your things. I'm very judgmental, I want to decide if you're good or not."
Miles intrigues Sandra. From a distance, his face seems sad and full of anger, but recently she's heard him giggle childishly around co-workers. He appears depressed and confident at the same time. He seems almost unreal, like some kind of lost cowboy, or someone who thinks of himself as a lost cowboy. She wonders if he is secretly introverted like she is, if he is maybe someone very similar to her. She also wonders if he is just one dimensional, full of himself, obsessed with appearing tough.
She laughs at him. "Okay, sure, I guess. You have to send me some of your stuff too. I have to judge you too."
He gives her his email address, which she puts in her pocket and forgets for one month.
Six years and three months before this, Miles meets Adrienne at a gas station. They are both in college. They spend all of their time together. Adrienne laughs loudly at Miles. She has had only one boyfriend before him. Miles is nervous around Adrienne. He is certain she will discover something unlikable about him. One night, as he is about to leave the state for a long time, they look at each other in her car and don't say much. "Someone is here for me," Miles thinks, "and I am here for someone."
Twenty years before Miles and Adrienne meet, Sandra is born two weeks late. Her mother and father drink a glass of champagne with friends before going to the hospital. They photograph themselves toasting the birth of Sandra. On the way to the hospital, they hold hands. After twenty-one hours of labor, Sandra emerges, confused and panicked but unable to assign names to these feelings. Everyone around her behaves as though her birth is something worth celebrating, but she is a hungry, near-blind creature, and this is not relevant to her experience.
Twenty-six years, one month, two days, twenty-one hours, and thirteen minutes later Sandra is driving in a car, confused and panicked, wondering what she is doing here or anywhere. She has been driving for over an hour and is still unsure of her destination. She envisions her car lifting off the highway by a force pulling it out of the Earth's atmosphere. She would watch neighborhoods and skyscrapers become tiny bright points in the distance, enveloped by clouds, disappearing into nothing.