I'd never seen him like that before. He was grinning as he came in. A grin that had begun before he even entered the doorway. Had he started grinning in the subway on the way home? Or had he been grinning to himself from the moment they parted until now? Or, even worse, had the grin been perpetual, happening the entire time they were at the bar, punctured only by laughter?
The grin was sustained—a galactic, ever expanding thing. It was private. He only became aware of it when he saw me sitting at the kitchen table with my yarn and needles. I must have looked like I was at an operating table. Serious, splayed out. At that point, the grin was replaced by an obligatory smile. It was pitiful to be smiled at like that.
Hey! he said, taking off his jacket. I said hello back to him.
Tonight was so great, he said, plopping down on the couch.
He hadn't even taken his shoes off, that's how lost in thought he was.
Where did you end up going? I asked, continuing my knitting. I thought to myself that if I refused to look at him for at least half an hour he might notice and do something to gain my profound attention.
Oh just Larry's.
Larry's was where our friends often went. He had been away for a long time, longer than we usually stayed when I was there. Was I the one making the night end? Did I give off vibes that I needed to get back to my knitting? I didn't. I would leave the knitting for dead if something better came along. It's just that better things never came at the right time.
Annie was telling this hilarious story, he said suddenly, emitting a laugh.
I realized he was drunk. Of course he was drunk! He'd been at the bar. Did he ever get drunk with me? Yes, he did. Was it the same kind of drunk?
Oh yeah? I said, still not looking at him. I was using beige and hot pink yarn, which I felt might be avant-garde.
Yeah, about throwing up on a dick, it was so funny. She's just like, she just has the greatest way of telling stories. You know?
I did know. I loved listening to Annie tell stories. When it was just the two of us, especially. When I was the only one in danger of being charmed. She was very generous as a storyteller. She made you feel included. If you didn't know who someone was, she would explain it. Like her boss, who was a vintage bookseller. She would tell me background details about him—how he vacationed in Cape Cod every year on his dead wife's family money, how during the interview with Annie he'd told her that his last assistant had left due to "insanity." It made me feel as though I were in on the wonderful private joke of Annie's life with her.
But tonight, something felt different about him loving the way that Annie told stories. It must have to do with the grin.
Ha ha! I said. Totally.
We really got into some amazing topics tonight, he said, going to the kitchen to open a bag of chips. He crunched on them with such satisfaction and not a thought in his head about messing up a day of clean eating.
You know, the kinds of conversations where you're like whoa, I can't believe we got here.
Did he ever feel like he had those conversations with me? Did Annie? Did anyone?
Like what kind of topics?
I can't even get into it, he laughed and out of his mouth came all the air at the top of an unopened chip bag. He wiped salty crumbs off his shirt. There was something secret and elemental that had transpired tonight, and not only had I missed it, he couldn't even tell me about it.
You gonna stay up for a while? he said, coming over to the table and rubbing my shoulders. It took everything within me not to shake his hands off. I nodded.
Looks great so far, he said, nodding to my half-knit vest and kissing my cheek. We'll thaw chicken in the morning for dinner tomorrow night?
Devastated, I nodded as he returned to his grin, heading to the bathroom to brush his teeth and perform no kind of skincare routine.
I couldn't even be palpably upset in a way that would register as legitimate about not being invited tonight. I was invited. But not really. I was invited in the way that, after everyone was already there, he thought oh shit, I should let her know I'm here. So he texted me hey, few of us going to get drinks tonight you should come after work!
By that time I had already gotten home and taken off my pleated trousers and was heating up leftover curry. By that time I had on a face mask and a large indoor shirt and was thinking about what word to use on this vest that I would knit. The night was irrevocably unpivotable to me. Someone like Annie would surely not interpret the text as a pity invite. She'd wash off the face mask, turn off the burner and leave the curry on the stove. She'd throw on a little dress and sneakers, show up to the bar in a puff and laugh at the fact that she forgot to put on makeup and that her hair was unruly. She would be effervescent in the mess she'd situated herself in, the mess only emphasizing her splendor. I could not do that. I would look like a fool if I did that. So I didn't.
Instead I was working on this vest. I had started knitting as a way to feel as though I wasn't completely wasting my life while I watched TV. Then, I found I was actually good at it. I started selling these vests with words of a different color knit onto them. They were knit in academic, basic background colors, with gaudy colors for the part that had the word. I used words like SACRILEGE, or PLEASURE. Words like HYPERREAL and MORTAL and MELODRAMA. I didn't really know why but this seemed to work. They were becoming sort of popular online. Not popular in a way that would lead me to become deluded and leave my job, but enough that when we were at a party, people liked to tell other people about my vests. Annie, in particular. My boyfriend never really did that, though he did occasionally repost pictures of people wearing them. He never posted his own content online. He would only repost content of others, which either explicitly or implicitly involved him. Before I knew him, when we just followed each other, this gave me an odd impression of him. But it was one that I was drawn to. His online presence had no narrative soul. He was a reflection only of those around him, using what they presented to the world as a language for reading him. His soul was a collage of his friends' output. He refracted. He was aloof. Now I was a part of that aloofness. I had gotten myself there, and now he could use me and my vests as part of his soul-collage.
It was natural to go to bed so I did that, even though I didn't really feel like it. It felt false to lie next to him when I felt that he had wronged me, though I couldn't tell him that because I would sound crazy. He rolled over in his sleep towards me and muttered you're so sexy and confident. I felt smacked in the head with a baseball bat, cartoon stars buzzing around my head. What? I said. Hmmm, he said, eyes closed. What? I said again, wanting some elaboration. Mmmm, was all he replied. Was he dreaming of someone else?
Turns out I wasn't ready to go to sleep. Something wasn't finished between me and this light betrayal. I decided to go for a walk. He went out, I could go out too. And I could have experiences. I had long since rinsed my facemask off, after all.
Annie was always having these objects around her that linked to both a fantastical story and a life lesson. Like, she had a t-shirt that came from a Scandinavian lover whose parents owned the most famous high-end t-shirt retailer in Scandinavia. This taught her that a right-fitting t-shirt is very valuable, in terms of where it can get you and what it can demonstrate. I had a pair of blue silk pajamas from an old roommate. Wasn't her father a playwright? That was something. I would tell someone that, if I ran into someone. I put on the silk pajamas with heeled sandals. I left my knitting on the table, unfurling out like intestines, halfway through the word.
I had forgotten for a moment that we lived in a city and that there would be so many people around when I stepped outside. In my mind sometimes I felt as though I lived on a farm in a distant small town of my imagination. I was a woman of the wilderness. But I was not, I was walking down a main street of the city. Many people were out, between locations of the night, retrieving bottles of gin from hiding places in the bushes. I had left my phone at home, and my keys too, since my pajamas had no pockets and I was ashamed to bring a tote bag after Annie had told me that we were young adults now, and it was time for us to graduate from tote bags to the realm of little purses. She was kidding, but she did have a collection of little purses.
I went to buy a pack of cigarettes. I didn't smoke, which made the prospect seem better because it was unusual. At the register, I realized I didn't have my wallet.
Sorry, I just realized I don't have my wallet, I said to the guy I always bought chips and cleaning products from. He was wearing a navy polo and a chunky silver chain.
He wordlessly shrugged. He had his phone balanced face up on a can of Redbull. I would feel defeated if I just left now. There was something I needed.
Do you want to hang out? I asked him. He was around my age, after all. At least I thought.
He looked at me with furrowed brows.
Right now? he asked. I nodded.
I have to work right now, he said.
But it's Friday night! I said doing a little swaying dance. I thought that the sandals made my outfit look purposeful and chic, but I don't think he could see my feet.
Are you just saying this so I'll give you free cigarettes?
I put a hand to my chest, shocked.
No! Haven't you ever wanted a spontaneous experience? I asked.
He shrugged. I really wished he could see my sandals.
If you want to hangout here, you can, he said in a flat voice.
He opened a flap in the counter, the part that advertised lotto tickets. This must be how he got behind the counter every day. I became excited to be given the opportunity to walk through it. He pointed to a stool similar to the one he was sitting on. I sat with him behind the counter, looking at the convenience store now from the other side. It was brimming with objects. Rows of bright-packaged goods. This guy's domain.
I considered what I should ask him. Everything seemed too obvious. How old he was, if he had gone to school, if he'd grown up here, what he liked to do for fun.
An old woman walked into the store, wearing a floral dress and hunching a little.
What do you think she'll buy? I whispered to him.
I have no idea, he said, looking at his phone.
So far, he wasn't very game for this whole thing.
I bet she's buying a pregnancy test.
He snickered a little. I felt evil to have said it.
She came to the counter with two bottles of lemon lime Gatorade.
Preparing for the hangover? I asked her. I was really trying my best.
She squinted at me.
My lizard is sick, she replied. She paid quickly and left.
Her lizard is sick? I asked him once she left.
Finally, we laughed together. I felt it was something we'd say to each other now. I'd come into the store to buy cigarettes and flowers, and place them on the table and say with a shrug, My lizard is sick, and we'd both burst out laughing.
A group of girls around my age came in, spilling off the street. Their eyelids were glazed like pretty pastries. Their eyeballs showed they were in a slightly different dimension than us. I got nervous. I was in pajamas. They were silk, yes, but still pajamas, and now that I was behind the counter the girls wouldn't see my sandals either. The lighting in here was way too fluorescent. Why didn't convenience stores have dim lighting in the evening? Like a bar!
I turned around and pretended I was restocking the cigarette shelf.
So you did just want free cigarettes, my guy said.
No! No, that's not what I'm doing.
But my earnestness was lost on him. He turned to the girls and their giggles.
Wait, should we get whipped cream? A girl in a silk slip said. She was almost on the ground with laughter at this idea.
Yes, yes, get it! Another girl with a little purse replied. Wait, no, ice cream. Wait, no, marshmallows. S'mores! Ice cream sundaes. Do you guys have bananas?
My guy shook his head.
Okay, so then just the gummies, plus this stuff, she said, dumping s'mores ingredients on the table.
By this point I was sitting back down on the stool, admiring the night they were having and no longer pretending I worked here.
A man walked in. Fuck it, he said loudly.
He had forlorn eyes, like he was somewhere else. Not in the way that the girls seemed somewhere else, like they were flying on stardust and holding hands, but rather like he was bound to the underworld and Hades had let him up for a brief stint. He grabbed the wire chip stand and threw it to the ground.
The girls cowered towards the cash register with their eyes widened. We were a team now. My guy pulled a wood baseball bat from under the counter, and held it in his fist, low enough so the man couldn't see it.
Fuck this! Fuck this! the man said, his arms expressive. He grabbed a chocolate milk from the small fridge, and turned and ran out the door.
Whoa, the girls said. They turned back sheepishly to the counter and the girl with the small bag tapped her card on the machine.
Cool outfit, she said to me on their way out.
Thanks! It's an old roommate's, her dad—
But she waved and was gone.
That was kind of crazy, I said.
That was nothing, my guy said. Working the night shift...
I nodded like I knew how to comfortably negotiate many high-emotion situations and often interacted with a myriad of people who behaved erratically.
Want me to help you clean up? I asked my guy.
Sure, he said.
We walked out from behind the counter. He held the flap up for me. He lifted the wire shelf up off the floor, and we started putting chip bags back on it.
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened here? I asked.
He paused for a moment, looking deeply at a bag of BBQ ruffles.
Someone got shot outside the front door.
Oh, I nodded solemnly.
I guess I should probably get going, I said after we put all the chips back.
He nodded. He handed me a bag of salt and vinegar chips.
On the house, he said with an emotionless shrug. They were the kind of chips I often bought when I came in here. My heart quickened and I felt a little like a celebrity.
I walked to the threshold of the door and opened it to the night air. Half in and half out, I paused and turned around.
My lizard's sick! I said with a glimmer in my eye.
He looked up from his phone, his head moving up before his eyes.
What's up? he said.
I coughed, and waved goodbye.
I was sort of hungry, but resisted opening the bag of chips. I had forgotten that the door to our apartment locked automatically.
I laid myself down in the hallway, having no phone to text my boyfriend to open the door. That was okay. I was enjoying the idea of him wondering where I was. I wondered what I would tell him. I wondered if I could make it as good as Annie would, if it had happened to her.
The chip bag worked fine as a pillow. I tried not to move too much so that I wouldn't pop it, which would then make it a terrible pillow.