by Richard Hackler
In November, your joints will stiffen and your hands will crack. Ask your roommate for hand cream: she keeps a bottle on her desk, and you’re always looking for reasons to talk to her. She’s on her bed with her legs folded beneath her, a Brit Lit textbook spread open on her lap. Of course, friend, she says, my hand cream is your hand cream and you know how I feel about Brit lit so I welcome the distraction. Lean against her doorway and massage the cream, which is purple and smells like lilacs, into your skin.
Talk about the wind. Say to her: listen to that wind. Point at her groaning, leaking window, at her lace curtains stirring in the breeze. She nods.
It’s spoooooky, she says, arching her eyebrows. The gales of November.
Then she smiles and leans back, drawing her quilt up to her chin, stretching her legs so her socks pop free, as drowsy and limber as a cat. She looks up, pressing the top of her head against the wall, and squints at the ceiling fan. I don’t want to read Chaucer, she says. I don’t care about Chaucer. Would you read this Chaucer for me? And take my place in class? And take all of my tests? And graduate? And then walk for me in the commencement ceremony? She levels her head and looks at you, her eyes half-shut, the hair at the top of her head standing and waving at you like underwater plants. Would you?
Look at her: her hair bronzed and shining in the glare of her bedside lamp, her face lined with pillow creases, the skin beneath her eyes bruised and puffy—she’s been keeping late nights, you know, slogging through Chaucer and Beowulf and Bacon. She is all light and color: blurred and fuzzy, glowing and lemony and soft around the edges. She is a painting by Monet. Young Woman Reading Canterbury Tales by Lamplight.
And something is lurching in your stomach—there is a squirrel in your stomach—gnawing at your guts, rupturing arteries, tearing through nerves to build a nest, quivering in your chest. You want to break into song. You want to dance. You want to grab a notebook and plop down on the floor and compose for her a quick sonnet.
Say: That sounds fine. Though I’d need to borrow one of your sweaters.
Say: But I’m not nearly as pretty as you, so it might be hard to pull off.
Take a breath and read her face: sleepy, content, blank as a dinner plate.
Say: But I’ll leave you to your Chaucer, and nudge yourself upright, out of her doorway.
She rolls her eyes. Oh, thanks. You know how I love my Chaucer.
Look at her hard before you leave. Don’t look at the floor: meet her eyes. Smile sadly. And try, as you always try, to pack your smile full of meaning—with love, with poetry, with the patient suffering of unrequited longing—and send it to her like a letter.
She smiles back crookedly, quizzically, and turns back to her book.
How could she not understand? She must be blind.
Pause in the hall outside her room and lean against the wall: you are echoey, suddenly empty, a room after a party. Sink onto the floor and stretch your legs across the hall. Stare at your socks.
You want so badly to be bold: to rise up and glide briskly into her room. To lift up her quilt and slide underneath, wrapping both of you up in her blankets. To hook your arm around her waist and pull yourself closer, to rest your head on her shoulder, filling yourself with her perfume—lilacs and spiced-tea and peach shampoo. To read The Canterbury Tales by lamplight until you both fall asleep, your fates merged and your bodies meshed, her bed a boat drifting slowly toward the far shore of your shared happiness.
But this isn’t something you can do.
Jesus Christ, stand up. Go to your room. Let her read her Chaucer.
You are a coward.
No, no, stop: you’re not a coward. The timing was wrong, is all.
You are waiting for the right time.
You know what you’re doing.
* * *
Walk to the park. Sit on a bench overlooking the lake and shut your eyes. You have the park, the world, to yourself. Stretch your legs sideways on the bench and lean against the arm. Let your head fall back; let the wind scour your face like steel wool. Hold your breath and listen: to the waves crashing over the break wall and splattering the pavement, at the flattened beer cans skittering by on the sidewalk, as though they’re running errands.
The bench is cold and damp against your legs. Ignore this. Let the cold seep inside you, become a part of you. Try not to shiver.
Think to yourself: I am all alone in this world.
I am sitting on a bench in Antarctica.
I am an explorer on the moon.
Open your eyes: the lake is gray and turgid and roaring. The lake is alive. The seagulls are flying in place, like marionettes.
Look at the lighthouse, at its slow green light blinking narcotically across the harbor. Think about shipwrecks. Consider learning the guitar.
You could write songs for her, sweet, jokey songs that would make her laugh, make her cover her mouth and look at her shoes. Oh, Richie, she’d say, her eyes full. I have something to tell you.
Shudder and shake your head: no, no, no, no, no. Stand up and blow into your hands, shove them into your coat pockets and start walking, quickly, scattering a flock of seagulls loitering on the sidewalk, hopping over a puddle left from the lake, quickly, to work out this tightening in your chest, this sinking in your stomach: you are twenty-two years old. You are an adult!
You need to sit down with her, stare soberly at her from across a table. You need to say plain, earnest things to her.
And you will talk to her. You will talk to her tomorrow.
Say this out loud: I am going to talk to her tomorrow.
Walk faster so that you’re trotting, panting, shivering. Say it louder, over the waves: I am going to talk to her tomorrow, I need to talk to her tomorrow, my god, I can’t keep doing this, I need to talk to her tomorrow.
* * *
Wait for her to come home from her Chaucer class. Open a book. Read the first paragraph seven times. Close the book. Stand up. Squint out your window, at the cars whooshing by, at the stoplight swaying in the wind like a metronome.
Walk to the other side of your room. Look at your wall, at your poster of Johnny Cash giving the finger. Practice speaking in a level voice—a casual, throwaway voice:
Hey, so, I need to talk to you about something. Or, hey, do you have a minute?
Walk to the other side of your room. Look at your face reflected in the window, at the leaves clouding the air beneath the streetlights, swooping and circling like birds.
Or, hey, so, I need your advice about something.
All right, she’ll say, her voice lilting and vowelly. She’ll shift her weight and inch closer, closer to you on the rock, so that your thighs are touching: it’ll be so cold by the lake. And this is part of it—the cold pulling you together, coaxing you toward an intimacy that’d be impossible indoors. The waves will break on the rocks, misting the air.
I’m not very good with advice, she’ll say, but I’ll try. She’ll gulp her whiskey and tea and turn to face you; she’ll raise her eyebrows and tilt her head. She is such a good listener.
You’ll blow the steam rising from your mug and look calmly out at the water. There’ll be a ship, its lights glowing faintly in the distance.
Well, you’ll say. There’s this girl. And I’ve known her for a long time, and we’ve gotten to be good friends—very good friends—and I wouldn’t trade this for anything, would saw my arm off before I’d lose her friendship. But the problem is—you’ll take a breath here—the problem is that I’ve fallen in love with her!
You’ll take a drink from your tea, let the lemon and whiskey burn a trail down your throat and ignite in your stomach. You’ll say: But I don’t want it to get weird. You know how things can get weird.
And she’ll narrow her eyes, bite her lip.
Walk to the other side of your room. Realize, suddenly, how cold you are. Curl your fingers into fists and let go—they’re slow to straighten—they ache and creak, as though they need to be oiled. Sit down on your bed, and shove your hands under your thighs.
This is exactly how it will happen:
She’ll narrow her eyes, bite her lip. Okay, she’ll say. Go on.
So I don’t know what to do! And here you’ll turn to face her. She’ll lean into you—your shoulders will be touching, her hair will blow into your face, and the steam from her tea will fog your glasses. You’ll keep talking, brushing her hair from your eyes and tucking it behind her ear: I don’t know if I should talk to her about it. Or if I should let it go. I don’t want to wreck things, you know.
And you’ll pause and look hard at her—you’ll watch her eyebrows sink, her face soften. And slowly, slowly, it’ll come to her. Wait, she’ll say. Me?
You’ll take a gulp from your tea, letting the whiskey linger in your mouth, stinging your gums and coating your teeth. You’ll look away, look back at her. Well, yeah, you’ll say, because you are suave, and you’ll circle your arm around her waist, dropping your hand to rest on her thigh.
This is exactly how it will happen.
Fall back on your bed, look at your ceiling, sit up.
This is not how it will happen.
Outside, a bus barrels by, rattling your windows.
She’ll be home soon.
* * *
Remember your conversation last night with your friend, Nicole. You sat at opposite ends of the couch, watching cartoons.
Nicole, you said, during commercials, stretching out your legs so that your toes brushed against her sweatpants. You’d been drinking wine; you were feeling warm and wise. Tell me what you think of this idea, you said. Tomorrow night, I’m going to drink a bunch of whiskey and confess to my roommate all of the profound things that I feel only for her.
Nicole didn’t react, stared at the TV for a second longer, and slowly turned to face you. She was frowning, looking concerned. Her eyes traveled slowly across your face, as though she were reading subtitles.
Um, you said. Because the whiskey will help me speak more fluently. And because I can’t keep feeling so impotent, can’t keep resolving to talk to her, can’t keep not finding words, can’t keep stuttering in her doorway and asking for hand cream, to borrow her stapler, what’s she doing this weekend, how’s her Chaucer homework coming. Because it is so exhausting, and so freshly disappointing, every fucking time. And because, Nicole, if it goes poorly, I can just say the next day, Oh, never mind all that stuff I said last night: it was the whiskey. You know how I get when I drink whiskey.
She kept staring at you, frowning, then shifted her gaze behind you, over your shoulder, at Bob Dylan taped to the wall and scowling over the end table. Her mouth dropped open, closed, fell open again.
That’s probably a bad idea, she said, slowly. If you need to tell her these things, you should probably do it when you’re sober. She squinted, met your eyes. Don’t you think?
You shook your head and looked at your knees. No, you said. No, no, no, no, no.
When you hear your roommate come home and walk into her bedroom—her door groaning, her backpack sliding from her shoulders and hitting the floor with a whump—draw a deep breath and hold it, hold it, before you let it out.
Get down on your floor and lie on your back. Wait one minute, two minutes, and shout her name at your ceiling.
Rich-ie! she says back.
Funnel your hands around your mouth and say: We should make hot-toddies! And pour them into travel-mugs! And drive to the park and drink them by the lake!
She laughs, and something hot and charged streams through your legs and pools in your chest because it thrills you when you make her laugh, and who could blame her for laughing, for you are a funny, funny man.
Oh-kay! she shouts back.
Jump to your feet and steady yourself against the dresser; run downstairs and sock-slide to her bedroom. She’s at her desk, her chin on her palm, staring avidly at her computer.
She glances at you, smiles. Just let me check my email, she says. I’ll be quick.
Look at the corkboard over her desk. That button you gave her—with the drawing of the three pine trees, and treesome scrawled beneath it—it’s still there—pinned at eye level, over her computer, where she can gaze at it and forget her work and be filled like a cup with thoughts of you.
Drum your fingers on her door. Say, I’ll make the drinks, and wheel around, thumping downstairs toward the kitchen.
She’s told you that she likes the Kinks, so play a Kinks album in the car. When you’re stopped at a red light, turn to her and sing with the chorus—tighten your right hand into a fist, hold it in front of you, shut your eyes, you are digging deep:
I’ll take afternoon tea!
If you’ll take it with me!
You take as long as you liiiiike,
Because I like you, girl.
She’ll flick her eyes sideways and smile, humming along, turning back to the windshield, staring up at the moon—her eyes wide, her mouth hanging open, her breath freezing a circle on your windshield. The air from the defroster is blowing her hair into her face, and your hand is twitching, you want so badly to reach over and brush it from her eyes, but you know that you can’t do that, at least not yet.
It’s green, she says, nodding.
Shift into first gear and go, go, go.
Grip the steering wheel. Grip it hard, harder, until the skin around your knuckles is stretched taut and tearing.
Fucking look at her!
She’s slumped forward, the seatbelt straining against her sweater, her arms folded on the dash, her chin on her arms. She’s still staring upward, still humming, her mouth pressed tightly shut.
Just say something small, something casual and plain and true, something to open a door to something larger. Say to her: you look nice tonight. Or say to her: you look so peaceful, staring up at the moon. Or no, no, just say it, just dump it over her like a bucket of syrup, say to her, my god, I’m so in love with you, have been in love with you for so long, let’s forget about the park, let’s forget about Chaucer—let’s leave this all behind. Let’s drive to the mountains. Let’s fell some trees and build a cabin. We’ll sit by a fire, and I’ll smoke a pipe, and you can knit socks, and we’ll read novels set in England! My god, how have you not figured this out yet? I haven’t been subtle. I baked cookies for you. I sat through My Fair Lady with you. I make dinner for you every fucking night.
I light candles! I fucking light candles for you!
Instead: straighten out your arms and shove yourself back into your seat. Let out a sigh—a long, slow sigh. Draw it out, shudder a little, wince: for you are an artist of sighs. Your sighs are a language, subtle and coded and varied.
Look at her: she hasn’t moved, is still staring at the moon, her eyes wide, collecting its light like rainwater.
Her face is so placid, so calm; her face is a frozen creek covered in new snow. Maybe she’s praying. Does she pray? Or maybe she’s thinking of things to say to you, has been waiting so long, the words collecting in her like dead leaves, and now she’s alone with you, finally, and there’s whiskey, and the moon is full—
She turns to face you, her cheek resting on her arm. What if there were dolphins in Lake Superior? she says. Wouldn’t that be something?
Blink. Nod, once, twice, again. Say to her: that would be something. Look at the road.
She will never be in love with you.
Drive to the park. Get out of the car and walk to the shore with your chin on your travel mug, the steam wetting your face, stinging your eyes. She is clumsy—grab her elbow and steady her while she steps around the rocks. I’m sorry, she says. I’m such a klutz.
Imagine that this means something, you holding onto her arm by the lake. Let go.
Find a rock large enough to sit on. Sit and stare sleepily at the lighthouse. Ask her about Chaucer, about her day, about her plans for the future. These are the things you talk about when you’re sitting by the lake.
Look at her: her chin propped on her knees, her face bleached white by the moon. Listen to the waves lashing the shore, at the foghorn lowing across the harbor like an animal.
I don’t have plans for the future, she says. I barely have plans for next week.
And keep looking at her, until something bends and snaps inside of you, until you want to cry out because she’s receding from you, as if on a conveyer, because you know that you will never drop your hand to rest on her thigh and that you will never drift asleep in her bed.
Keep looking at her until she turns to face you, then flick your eyes away, to the left, to the lighthouse. You were only looking at the lighthouse.
Richard Hackler is 6’1” with an athletic build and cool, penetrating eyes. Looking for 22-32-year-old SF who shares his interests in independent cinema, boxed wine, and the slow food movement. Nothing serious—let’s just meet for dinner and see where the evening takes us! Picture available upon request.