Anne is sitting at a bar in Portland with a group of people she just met. She lives in Philadelphia, and has flown here for her friend's birthday. Everyone has been vying for the birthday friend's attention all night, which has left Anne to fend for herself socially. She is tired of having the same conversation with everyone. Even if their exchange results in something genuinely stimulating, Anne is eventually traded for something more interesting, or the bathroom. The only person Anne has not connected with is Nate. She wants badly to interact with Nate, because he is quiet like her, but seems to care less about being quiet than she does. She is very attracted to him. She is drunk enough to feel charismatic and invincible. Nate is sitting in a booth, three feet from anyone. The ceiling is leaking. Anne sits next to Nate, points to the ceiling, and says, “uh oh.” Nate smiles and says, “yeah, I know.”
“Give Me Just a Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board starts playing. People have been talking about dancing all evening. An unknown force seems to have made everyone get up to dance. Anne joins them and sees that Nate is still sitting. She walks to him and grabs his wrists.
“Come on, come dance, it will be fun,” she says, and immediately feels worried about promising this action to be “fun.”
“No, I don’t want to,” Nate says, but doesn’t protest as Anne pulls him out of his seat.
“What’s wrong, do you feel self-conscious?"
“What do you think?”
“Yeah, probably, you probably do, it’s okay though.”
Anne realizes she has no idea how to move Nate once she has him where she wanted him. They gingerly spin around a few times. The song is about to end and she feels relieved.
“You want to get a drink?” Nate says.
“Sure,” Anne says. They walk over to the bar. The bar has a list of drinks with names from western movies that don’t describe the drinks at all. Nate suggests they get a drink called “Cool Hand Luke.” The bartender acts disapproving when he orders two Cool Hand Lukes.
“Damn,” he says, “guess we picked the wrong thing.”
“It’s just that no one ever gets this,” the bartender says, “I forget how to make it, no one ever orders it.” She pushes two blue things in whiskey glasses at them and walks away.
Anne shrugs at Nate and makes a face which attempts, “I had no idea this was going to happen.” She wants to laugh. Nate makes the same face at her. They smile.
They talk about other people in the group. Some people are more socially awkward than others. They talk about feeling awkward, how different people cope with feelings of awkwardness. They talk about displaying personas. They talk for a long time. Anne wonders if and when they are going to kiss. Sometimes she catches herself staring at his mouth.
“I liked it when you made me dance with you,” Nate says.
Anne can feel her stomach heating up. “Oh, sure, yeah, I wanted to. You were alone, I don’t know."
“Where do you live again? Pittsburgh?”
“Philadelphia, I live in Philadelphia.”
“Why can’t you live in Portland?”
Anne's mouth opens as if to say something. She looks at the illuminated bottles behind the bar.
“Hey, can I be honest with you for a second," she says with a vague awareness that she is acting like a teenager cliché in a John Hughes movie, "I really want to kiss you right now.”
They kiss. Anne is too preoccupied with the action of kissing to tell if Nate is a good kisser or not. She feels like she has swallowed a small, energetic frog. Nate looks around to see if anyone from the group saw what just happened. The group has gone outside.
“Hey, we should go outside, I think they’re all outside,” he says.
“Yeah,” Anne says, “oh, yeah.”
Nate is taking the bus back with two other people. Anne is walking. Everyone is taking turns saying goodbye. Anne dislikes the slow social obligation goodbyes create, but she is excited to say goodbye to Nate because it will validate their meeting in some way. She goes in to hug him, knowing the Parameter for Acceptable Physical Contact with Nate now includes kissing.
“We can’t,” Nate says to Anne.
“I know, I didn’t think we would."
“Are you going to be at the barbecue tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I think I’ll be there.”
“Okay. Good. Great. I’ll see you there, then.”
“Okay.” Anne is grinning.
“Okay.” Nate is grinning.
At the barbecue, Nate shows Anne the contents of his wallet. He finds a small picture of his face.
"Here. You can throw it away or keep it, it's yours if you want it," he says.
"Oh, cool," she says, "I'll keep it."
It is Anne's last night in Portland. As the sky gets darker, people leave the barbecue to go to her friend's house party. It is loud inside, so Nate and Anne spend most of the time on the porch, drinking forties of Budweiser. A couple Nate is friends with comes up to talk to them for awhile. The girl talks to Anne and the boy talks to Nate. Nate's arm is around Anne, he is squeezing her hip. Anne is talking with the girl about moving to Portland. She is distracted because Nate keeps moving his hand on her side. The boy bumps Nate's and Anne's heads together, and everyone laughs a little. Then Nate and Anne are alone again. They kiss for the second time. Anne wonders if the objective of kissing is to try to pass through the other person and come out the other side.
As other people filter onto the porch, Anne realizes she has been talking only with Nate all night. They go inside and share a bowl of noodles on the couch. Sometimes after Anne says something, Nate's neck straightens, a slow smile forms, and his eyes narrow almost as if he got too much sun in them. Anne has never met anyone with this facial expression. It makes her feel safe and liked. Many people are around, but appear occupied with other things. Anne and Nate gradually slide down to a lying position, and fall asleep tangled together.
Anne wakes up before her cell phone alarm and gets dressed. She says goodbye to her friend who had slept in another room. She needs to be at the airport soon. Other people are still sleeping around Nate, on the floor and another couch. Anne tries to be as quiet as possible when packing her suitcase. She sits on the couch where Nate is waking up. She pats his thigh a few times and says, "hey, so, I guess I have to go now."
"I know." Nate is looking at the ceiling and it is impossible for Anne to tell what he is thinking.
"Here, write your email on your picture," Anne says. Nate does. She writes hers on a sugar packet and gives it to him. She wonders who is going to say something next.
Nate gets up and hugs her for a long time. He watches Anne pick up her suitcase. The air between them feels compressed and nebulous. Nate says, "hey, you have a stain on your shirt."
Anne is taken aback and almost laughs. She says "okay," quickly looks at her shirt, and smiles while squeezing his shoulder. “I really have to go.”
“Okay. I know." Nate holds onto Anne's hand a little as she walks out the door. "Bye."
With each email, gchat, or text message conversation Anne and Nate have, she feels less connected to the memory of her time with him in Portland, and more adjusted to a new, faceless dynamic. There is an equation operating behind all of their textual interactions:
(-physical interaction)/(Time) * (increased need for contact)/(detachment felt when relating to text on a computer screen) = (x)Stream of Conscious-like Honesty
This allows Anne to feel comfortable divulging things she normally wouldn’t, but would want to. It is exciting. It becomes clear to her that Nate functions with this kind of honesty both inside and outside of their emails, which makes him interesting and slightly frightening. She feels what she perceives to be a logically unjustifiable longing for him.
Anne has small superstitions which she uses to dispel anxieties. For instance, if she can make it to the fourth stain on the carpet by the time the elevator door closes, that means Nate has thought positively about her today, and there is a future where they know each other. It becomes a one-sided competition when a negative consequence is imagined: if she cannot touch two different kinds of tile with her feet by the time the toilet flushes, that means she said something crucially “wrong” in an email, and Nate will never contact her again. She doesn't keep track of which side is winning.
Nate expresses interest in visiting Anne. Their conversations become focused on the possibility of his visit, and often end inconclusively. Nate asks Anne to send him a list of things they would do if he visited. She sends it, feeling slightly more like a salesperson than a romantic interest. Three days later, he buys a ticket to Philadelphia.
In the month and a half between the purchase of his ticket and his arrival, Anne uses previously unoccupied mental space to daydream about Nate. Often, the daydreams will not have a linear structure, but most contain looking at him up close, kissing him, and exchanging sincere compliments. Sometimes she imagines them sitting on a boulder, drinking beer and looking out into a lake. She feels less of a need to be social. She anticipates seeing "Inbox (1)" and Nate's first and last name on her Gmail home screen, and tries to prepare herself not to feel disappointed when there are no new emails from him. Each email from him contains a phrase or two which indicate he is thinking about her daily. This gives Anne permission to think about Nate daily.
Nate writes to Anne about wanting to see her and feeling dissatisfied with his life in Portland. Anne feels less satisfied with her life in Philadelphia the more they talk. They text message each other pictures of things they see. Anne no longer picks up her clothes or does dishes. The night before Nate comes, she spends hours scouring her apartment, vacuuming the couch and hiding potentially embarrassing objects.
At the airport, Anne paces and compulsively chews cough drops. She has forgotten her gum. She goes to the bathroom to confirm with the mirror that she is still attractive. She resumes pacing.
Nate is descending from the escalator, wearing a green jacket and carrying two small bags. Anne feels a sudden loss of control of her face. She hugs Nate and he kisses her, which she did not expect. She is vibrating.
“Hi,” she says, close to his face. His eyes are bigger and darker than Anne remembered.
“Hi,” he says, and hugs her again, “are you nervous?”
“A little, yeah, yeah, I feel like I look visibly nervous. Are you?”
“A little.” It is quiet. Anne doesn’t know where her eyes are looking.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi," Nate says, "let’s go.”
Nate is sitting on Anne’s couch. She looks at everything else in the room and can’t get used to seeing him sitting there. They are talking about the friends they have in different states. Anne can’t look at Nate for very long.
“You keep looking away from me,” he says.
“I know, I don’t feel comfortable yet, I think,” she says, “what are you thinking?”
“I was thinking it seems like you really like me.”
Anne feels exposed and vulnerable and desperately wants to convey the opposite, but knows that Nate will feel alienated if she is any way but honest. She wants to run into her closet and scream the word “confidence.”
“I like you, I mean, sure, I. Don’t you like me?”
“Yes, I like you.”
Nate looks at Anne and moves his eyebrows together.
“It seems like it really matters what I think of you.”
“Well. I think I worry about what everyone thinks of me. I think it matters what a lot of people think about me. It matters what you think about me, yeah.”
Nate exhales and looks in the opposite direction. Anne thinks he has looked in the opposite direction so he can roll his eyes at her without her knowing. She thinks of every word for “god” and “shit” she knows. She looks at a crumpled receipt next to a tiny swirl of wood in her floor. She must have forgotten to throw it out.
“You’re very honest, it’s different for me."
“I think it’s important to be honest. Honesty is the only thing that leads to significant experiences.”
“Yeah,” Anne feels like she has lost all contact with her brain and is functioning on reserve power, “I guess it is.”
It has been thunder storming all afternoon. Nate and Anne have been drinking vodka tonics and playing cards. They sit on her chair and ottoman and smoke cigarettes out the window, holding their drinks. Anne feels more like a person Nate would want to be around the drunker she becomes. Nate accidentally touches her leg with his leg, and then puts his leg on top of her leg. Anne thinks, “successful leg contact” and starts hearing the song “Success” by Iggy Pop in her head. She laughs through her nose.
“What’s funny,” Nate says.
“Oh, it’s. Oh. Nothing, I forget,” Anne says.
They listen to music from Nate’s iPod and he makes dinner. The rain is coming down hard. When lightning strikes, they stop what they're doing to make a directionless but somehow necessary comment about it. After dinner, they go out to get ice cream and more tonic water. Anne thinks anyone observing them in the convenience store must assume they are a couple. She wonders if Nate is having this thought too, if he would be happy with that reality. She wonders if she would be happy with that reality, decides it doesn't matter, that it's just nice to come into the convenience store with someone else, and glad that the "someone else" is Nate.
Nate makes them each another drink. They sit on the couch watching Star Trek, Anne's head in Nate's lap. During commercial breaks, he leans down to kiss her. Anne is aware of her neck craning upwards after Nate kisses her, still reaching for something unsatisfied. Anne thinks her kissing ends in deep space, Nate's ends at the appearance of Patrick Stewart. She tries to dismiss this thought, his unmatched eagerness could simply be a product of the weather, a fluke.
After they have sex that night, it is completely dark in Anne's apartment. Nate rolls over and doesn’t say anything.
“What, what are you thinking right now,” Anne says.
“I was thinking... I don’t have feelings for you, I don’t feel emotionally attached to you, I just had sex with you.”
“Oh.” She tries to negotiate the gravity of the situation, was this appropriate for Nate to say and she has just missed cues all along? Should she replicate his response with the same aloofness? She looks at the graceful curve of his calves in the dark, how they seem somehow smaller than human. She realizes no one has said anything for awhile, that the silence feels sharp and oppressive, that she needs to leave the bed and go as far away as possible. She puts on her pajama shorts and t-shirt. “Okay,” she says. “I feel really shitty right now. I feel like a piece of shit.”
She walks into the kitchen and stares at the hotel outside her window. A few lights are on. She wants to be any of those people with a light on in their room. The possibility of being an anonymous hotel guest or any other person in the world seems defiantly close to her, tempting her. She is jealous of her window glass. To be anything else right now must be better than being what she is. She begins to cry, softly at first, wanting to keep it private, but with each second she cries, it matters exponentially less that she is doing it softly. She is sobbing.
Nate approaches her and they have a conversation. She tries to explain what she's feeling, but the alcohol she has consumed has made her thoughts both more intense and less communicable. Nate presses her to talk about her feelings. She reverts to explaining her sexual history, hoping this will somehow present raw research material for him to gather a thesis on his own. When she remembers this conversation the next day, only select words and phrases resound: “worthless,” “I’m sorry,” “honesty,” “important,” “Jesus,” “I’m not thinking ’Anne is emotionally fucked up, I will stay at a motel for the rest of the time,’” “relationship,” "meaningless," “I don’t know.”
Nate hugs Anne hard while she cries. They move back to the bed and she falls asleep on him.
In the morning, Nate's eyes are suddenly open and looking at Anne. He asks her how she's feeling. She says okay, but a little embarrassed about the night before. He tells her not to worry about it. She almost feels reassured. She tells him she feels reassured.
They decide take a day trip to the beach. Anne has a mental picture of them spending all day at an old arcade, getting cheeseburgers and sitting on the boardwalk, then running onto the sand at night with a cheap bottle of wine, sitting on their towels to keep them from flying away. Then they will swim, kiss passionately in the water, and check into a motel with a carpet that smells like stale cigarettes. Their interaction last night could’ve possibly not happened.
Nate makes salads for lunch while Anne researches motels on the internet. Everywhere seems too expensive, but she assures Nate that there will be more affordable places when they get there.
Anne drives them to the beach. Nate stares out the window and talks about corn. Periodically, Anne gives a mile count and the energy in the car raises. They stop at a gas station. Anne thinks that anyone observing them now would not first assume they were a couple, but something irregular instead -- estranged cousins, possibly a hostage situation.
When they get to the beach, they spend fifteen minutes looking for parking and walk to the boardwalk. It is not the same boardwalk Anne envisioned and described to Nate. They walk behind a morbidly obese woman in a beige shirt and shorts. People are carrying jumbo buckets of french fries and stuffed animal prizes. Families are having conflicts. There is an abundance of flesh being displayed, flesh that shouldn't be seen. "Barbie Girl" by Aqua is playing on a ride that spins people around at a high speed. Someone in a Spongebob Squarepants costume is sitting, playing the banjo with a hat in front of them. Children yelling, people talking, vendors on loudspeakers, seagulls, the ocean, and the clanking metal of rides has elevated the overall volume of background noise to an uncomfortable level. Anne feels guilty for having brought them there. She thinks Nate is picturing her face on the bodies of everyone they see.
They walk on the shoreline.
"So fucking loud," Nate says, "the people and the ocean together."
"I know, it will be better if we keep walking, I think, I think it gets quieter down there," Anne says.
"The tide seems, I don't know, high, the tide seems high."
"Yeah. I think it's a high tide."
A young boy dressed in black has buried himself in the sand and the tide is washing over him. Anne makes eye contact with him as they pass.
"That kid looked so depressed," Anne says, smiling a little. Nate says nothing.
Anne points out the tiny bubbling holes in the sand, "you know what those are?"
"Um. Fleas, sand fleas."
"Yeah, or like, really little clams, I think. God, it would suck so bad to be one of them, just getting stepped on by feet all day, underground, water dumping on you all the time," Anne's voice is loud in her ears, "you'd just feel totally out of control. You have like, they have like, no control over their lives, clams."
"Yeah. It would suck."
They walk silently down the beach in single file for a long time. Anne stares at three stationary kites. They stop walking and look in opposite directions.
"Some people like, come here and like all of the noise, they like it to be loud, really externally stimulated people," Anne says.
"Yeah," Nate says, "I don't think I want to stay here overnight. I don't think it would be worth it."
There is a pause. Anne is desperate to fill the pause with goal oriented behavior.
"Okay. I know. I'm sorry."
"Okay. What are we going to do. Are we going to leave? Should we leave?"
"I don't know. I don't care. Sure."
"You want to go back?"
"Yes. Okay. Let's go back."
Anne drives for a long time, intermittently lighting cigarettes. She wants to have an interesting conversation with Nate. She considers several topics and decides that attempting conversation would show defeat in some way. She is strong. She does not need to talk. She wants Nate to know that she is having fascinating private thoughts that he could know if he asked her a question, any question. She directs the thought "ask a question ask a question ask a question" out of the right side of her head. It is too quiet. She needs to say something. Her throat tries to say something before her brain can think of something to say. She chokes a little, and swallows.
"I'm really tired," she says.
Nate offers to drive so Anne can sleep. They pull over at a Comfort Inn. Anne realizes that Nate's picture with his email address on it is in her car door, in plain view. She doesn't want him to know that she has seen his face every day for the past month and a half. She tries to hide it between two boxes of cigarettes and takes the boxes to the passenger side of the car. Nate sees her taking the boxes and knows that something is happening. After Anne wakes up, they switch seats at a red light and she drives them home.
When they arrive back at her apartment, Nate picks up the boxes as he is getting out of the car and finds his picture. He is holding his picture and looks slightly amused. He turns it over and sees his email address. Anne shuts her car door.
"Oh," Anne says, "yeah. That's."
They say nothing. Nate doesn't look at Anne. He puts the picture back and shuts the door.
In Anne’s apartment, they drink beer and Nate turns on the television. “Goodfellas” is on and they decide to watch it. During boring parts of the movie, Anne takes inventory on the space between them on the couch and tries to decide if they are moving closer together or further apart. Further apart, she thinks. Joe Pesci stabs a man in the trunk of a car, then shoots him five times. Anne and Nate have each had three beers.
“You want another beer, I’m getting one I think,” Anne says.
“Sure.” Nate looks unsure.
Anne is mystified by the change in their dynamic. She thinks of Nate kissing her at the airport. She wonders what she has done wrong. Joe Pesci is sitting in the back seat of a car and stabs the head of a man sitting in the front seat. Nate eats tuna from a can. The movie is over. They go to bed. Nate opens his arms, signaling to Anne to put her head close to him. She does. They are quiet. Anne pictures falling asleep in his arms, waking up the next day, attributing their lack of sex to exhaustion, and gradually reaching a point where they don’t speak at all.
“What’s going on Nate, why aren’t you being affectionate with me anymore,” she says.
“I don’t know. When I’m with a girl I’m interested in, I just want to touch her and kiss her all of the time, it’s like, it’s natural to do that.”
“But didn’t you feel that with me? I thought you felt that with me, I thought that's why, you know.” Anne isn't sure if she has finished talking.
“Yeah, I did. I just don’t feel like having sex with you anymore.”
“You just don’t feel like having sex with me anymore.”
“No, I don’t.”
Anne thinks “honesty vs. tact.” She pictures Nate’s face on a child’s body, then a robot’s body, then a sort of hybrid child-robot. She remembers his voice saying “honesty leads to significant experiences.” She is not wearing shoes, and hasn’t been for awhile, but feels markedly shoeless at the moment. She predicts that in the future, she will want to go back to this moment and punch Nate, but right now she feels no drive to engage in any activity that would make her physical body apparent.
“So why did you even come here then,” she says.
“I came to see if I wanted to have a relationship with you.”
“And you decided you didn’t want to.”
“Well that’s weird, that’s like. That’s just weird. I thought you were just coming here for an experience, you know, not to find a relationship, that’s just weird.”
“I don’t think that’s ‘weird,’ I think someone flying across the country to see about me, I think that would be flattering.”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry, that was dumb. I didn’t mean ‘weird,’ I was just being defensive or something, I feel hurt, I’m sorry.”
"I understand that." Nate inhales and exhales. "I mean, look, I didn't come here to like, fall madly in love with you or have some kind of cathartic experience or something."
Anne is fairly sure that he has used the word "cathartic" incorrectly. Maybe not incorrectly, but atypically. She becomes distracted and momentarily forgets her goals in this conversation. She remembers feeling bad.
“I didn't think you came here to fall madly in love with me. I don't know. I guess I just feel rejected and like there is something fundamentally unlikable and disappointing about me that I don’t know about and I’m just like, I’m powerless. I have no power. You decided you don’t want me, and here I am. What is to be done. You know. You’re here for three more days. Fuck.”
“I don’t have to be here.”
Anne has moved to a sitting position. She feels like the only person in the universe.
“Okay. I think I want you to go, then. I think you should go.”
There is some debate over where Nate will sleep. Anne puts him on the couch. She limply throws a blanket and pillow to him and says, “here, want a blanket.” It is three thirty in the morning. She takes her computer into her bedroom and looks at Facebook photos of nice people she knew in high school.
Anne wakes up at seven thirty and the sun is making everything in her room yellow and hot. She stares at pieces of dust floating in the air. The air seems harder to breathe at this temperature. She goes into the bathroom and takes a shit. When she gets out, her computer is gone. Nate has taken it into the living room. Anne feels a latent embarrassment about shitting within his earshot. She puts on clothes and walks into the living room.
“Hey. I’m going out to get coffee. I’ll be right back.” Midway through locking her door she thinks, "why am I doing this?" and envisions Nate as some kind of captive. She debates unlocking the door after she has locked it, but just keeps walking instead. She doesn't know where her hands should be.
Anne spends an hour getting coffee. Her thoughts are fragmented, fast-moving, and mostly detached from emotions, though she vaguely senses that she should be having some kind of profound, dominant emotion right now. She has an overall feeling of existential bankruptcy. She wants to be a mosquito, operating autonomously with blind fervor, unaware of its rapidly forthcoming death.
When Anne returns, the door is open and Nate is gone. He has taken the book he said she could borrow and left all of the vegetables he brought. Automatically, because she doesn't know what else to do, she begins washing dishes. She touches a glass he used last night and feels an almost electric shock when she realizes how close in time she is to last night. She scrubs the glass hard. She thinks about it breaking into tiny pieces in her hand, and molecules of Nate's saliva or skin cells being absorbed into her blood. She feels unable to control the pressure she places on the glass and stops doing dishes. She walks around her apartment, aimlessly at first, then with a fury to erase all physical evidence of his presence. The cushions go back on the couch. The beer cans are thrown away. Her computer is open and she looks at its web history. Nate has googled "hostels in Philadelphia," flight changes on Orbitz.com, and directions to public transit. Anne's blood feels as though it is changing from a liquid to a solid form. She walks to her bed and falls asleep for most of the day.
Anne wakes up with her face on the pillow Nate was using. She has not yet opened her eyes. She breathes deeply and knows that something smells hazily good and masculine, but is not sure what it is. She breathes deeply four more times before waking up enough to recognize the smell as Nate. She stops and sits up, still seeing the pillow in her peripheral vision. She averts her gaze from it as if it were a person.
She checks her email and sees Nate's first and last name listed multiple times in her inbox, on already viewed emails. Out of habit, she feels excited for .6 seconds before correcting herself.
She calls her mother and asks if she can come over.
It is four in the morning. Anne can’t sleep. She sits on her mother's balcony smoking a cigarette and watching the trees move from the breeze. The trees look as though they could be sea anemone, moving softly with the current. She thinks about how it is impossible to be in any other time than this, but any other time than this would be preferable. She remembers the taste of Nate’s cooking and tries to remember the taste of his mouth, but realizes his mouth had no distinguishable taste. She throws the cigarette off the balcony and it lands in an orange burst on the grass. Insects and bacteria around the cigarette feel the impact of an atomic bomb.