I did love you, and I still—only I didn’t realize it really was love because it was more than love and it wasn’t just some stupid feeling in my stomach like everything else and I’ll never love anybody as much as you and I hate you! I hate you!
—Corey (Liv Tyler), Empire Records (1995)
Loneliness was a Netflix account Cooper still shared with his ex-girlfriend, Aditi, though they hadn’t kissed in two years, hadn’t “done it” in thirteen months. They still exchanged “Love you”s when they hung up the phone and, sometimes, in person.
When Cooper received emails from Aditi, she still addressed and signed them “Cricket,” their pet name for each other begun years before, when she’d shave her legs at bedtime and they were perfect, smooth on his palms, and she said everything that brushed against them became silk: his stubbled cheeks, their cotton sheets, the soles of his old socks as her legs and his rubbed together. They called their post-shaving lovemaking “sexy cricket time.” And it was like a tiny summer symphony.
From his new home in the South, twenty-nine hundred miles from Aditi, who remained in San Francisco, Cooper thought cicadas might be a better lovemaking mascot. How their buzz started soft and grew to an all-consuming racket until it disappeared, and one didn’t really notice the absence, didn’t appreciate the silence, until it started up again, delicate before the crescendo.
It was October in North Carolina, on his bungalow’s front porch in Wilmington, on the Cape Fear River, where his job in the film industry had thrust him that summer, a production company hunting tax incentives. The cicadas had left, or if they didn’t leave—he didn’t know much about the migrations and lifespans of cicadas—they had died away; only crickets serenaded him.
The day’s humidity dropped with the sun, but sweat still formed in creases and on his lips. He relished the nocturnal living room he’d created on the porch: lights strung from the rafters, a trio of citronella candles doing their part to keep away relentless mosquitoes. His neighborhood, set in a grid under a canopy of live oaks, was composed of mostly one-story porched bungalows. The homes were filled with students, professors, and young couples beginning families. He had gotten to know them, though only a handful by name, as they pushed baby strollers, walked dogs, waved. Like most nights, Cooper wasn’t completely alone: he’d read the same page of his book three times, while drumming up an excuse to make conversation with his attractive neighbor, Nora, who read by candlelight on her porch, not fifteen feet away. He asked, “Is it true porch ceilings are blue to keep the ghosts away?” He swiveled his porch swing toward her, spotted a scuttling cockroach.
“You having problems with ghosts these days?” Nora lay on her stomach, on her couch facing his porch, and lifted her head out of her book. “Haint blue,” she said.
“Come again?” Sometimes he misunderstood her slight Southern twang.
“The color for porch ceilings. Ghosts, haunts, haints—restless spirits that still have business on this side. They think blue is the sky, pass on. Mama always said it worked for bugs, too.”
“Not these water bug bastards, apparently,” said Cooper, as a cockroach flew by. Flew. In San Francisco they hadn’t even had mosquitos, let alone roaches with wings. When Cooper wrote about Nora in his journal—he often did—he called her The Girl Next Door. She was his neighbor, yes, but also she had the air of someone overlooked. Pretty enough, but no one feature more striking than another. Probably his equivalent in attractiveness, he thought. At thirty-three, he’d turned out better than other possible outcomes: good skin and his nose much smaller than his father’s; he stayed in shape without having to diet or exercise much; his hair had grayed, but most of his friends fought bald spots. If he had to confess, he found himself handsome, but worried it was just that he was familiar with himself. Familiarity did not actually breed contempt.
Nora closed her book, swung her legs in front of her, a toe-ring glinted in the candlelight. “The blue’s actually appropriating. Borrowed from Gullah people, you know about them? Enslaved near Sierra Leone and brought to the South to grow rice? Even all the way north, up here in Cape Fear, slaves. Their culture thought blue paint tricked the haints, used it on doors and windows and ceilings, so ghosts would rise up, pass on by.”
“Is that appropriation?” Cooper asked. “Or just cultures blending?”
She shrugged. “Rubs me the wrong way to see blue ceilings featured on fancy design blogs. No mention of the Gullah, no touching on slavery, just sweet tea and great-granny’s porch. Part of the tone-deaf antebellum revival bullshit, right? A few years ago? No real backlash. Then poor old Ani DiFranco gets boycotted because she hosts a writer’s conference on a plantation. I get how that felt wrong, or out of context. I don’t know. My porch ceiling’s blue, and I don’t hang a plaque to explain it, so who am I to talk?” Cooper had never seen Nora so heated. “I’m worked up. Need some water to replace my liberal white lady tears.” She excused herself to her kitchen.
He’d always been afraid his ex, Aditi, and their San Francisco friends might have bestowed upon Nora their lowest insult: “a normal.” “Girl-next-door” seemed kinder, though she was a woman, probably his age, thirty-three, or so. It was hard to judge ages anymore, but they shared the same cultural references. Cooper still assumed people who had authority over him were older: pilots, policemen, parents. He was shocked to learn his across-the-street neighbor, Randy, was only twenty-seven. Randy, whose kids wore homemade tie-dyed shirts, chalked up the sidewalk promoting lemonade stands, Rollerbladed and biked, also on the sidewalk, without wearing helmets. Cooper would insist his children wore helmets. If he ever became a father. He assumed women he found attractive were at least twenty-five; his stomach lurched to find out they were younger. His production company’s college interns barely seemed formed: skinny, acned, underdressed. And yet, when he’d been in college, he’d already felt so burdened.
Exact ages seemed a significant qualifier, though he knew they weren’t. What did age matter? Working with young filmmakers he quickly learned: life experience mattered, places traveled, books read. Even those, perhaps, were privileged, flimsy views. Expertise mattered. What was he an expert of? Certainly not relationships, though he’d spent his life trying to navigate them, had put his desire to be a healthy partner to Aditi ahead of his own interests and even his career, his desire to become a filmmaker.
Nora returned, slipped back into her reading. He waited, read a chapter in his book, planned his next interruption. This was how they spoke: non sequiturs bandied from porch to porch. An unspoken pact between them not to bother one another too much: an open book certainly a signifier for silence. But a similar acknowledgment existed of their shared aloneness, that both sometimes needed to reach outside their mind for a moment, to offer and receive fresh ideas—a percolation of one’s own thoughts could quickly stagnate creativity and happiness.
A marmalade cat mewed from the sidewalk.
“Beethoven’s back! Here kitty, kitty,” said Cooper.
“It’s Ringo,” said Nora.
“Only when he’s on your porch,” Cooper said. “You know someone asked Paul if he thought Ringo was the best drummer in the world?”
Nora twisted her Southern accent into Liverpudlian, “‘Ringo? He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles!’ Paul’s a dick.”
The cat sauntered down the sidewalk. Cooper had spotted him a few times that week, was worried he was lost or abandoned. He asked Nora, “Are you the best in the world at anything? Think you’ll ever be?”
“Like, am I an expert?” Nora mused. “There’s that theory, the ten-thousand hours?”
It sounded familiar, like many facts Cooper’d once been able to recall, now obstructed by junk.
She continued, “The theory you can’t master something until you practice for ten thousand hours. The Beatles had already played together ten thousand hours before they left Hamburg. Paul wrote “When I’m 64” when he was sixteen.”
“Beethoven,” he said, “composed three harpsichord sonatas by thirteen.” Cooper was writing a screenplay about Beethoven, couldn’t help inserting the maestro into conversation, related or unrelated to music.
“My parents married,” she said, “because of Beethoven.”
“How have we never discussed this?” Cooper blushed, because really they hadn’t talked much, it was just that he savored every interaction.
“My daddy was my mama’s piano teacher, and she wasn’t allowed to court anyone, but he got permission to take her to a Beethoven concert and they fell in love.”
“That’s how Beethoven dated too, seducing women he taught. Or it seems like that, from the letters. Don’t you wish we wrote letters? Instead of Facebook?” He reddened again, not necessarily meaning “we” Cooper and Nora. Then again, he did wish that. He imagined tucking postcards into her mailbox.
“What are you saying about my mama, Cooper?”
Dangerous territory. He steered the conversation back on course. “I don’t think I’ve done anything for ten thousand hours,” he said. His series of film jobs, each position better than the prior, must add up: location scouting, casting; now, script supervision and a hand in fundraising and production. But he kept shifting focus, never honing one particular skill. He wanted to be a screenwriter, the industry cliché: who didn’t have a script? “Did you know? That Beethoven studied under Mozart? And Haydn? The proximity never gets talked about. It’s like, John and Paul. And George. How far would they have gotten if they never met?” He left out Ringo because Ringo was Nora’s favorite Beatle. He prepared for her rebuke. But she just nodded. She was scrolling through her phone, which planted in Cooper a seed of hurt: she was bored.
“Showering,” Nora said, just as the ache for more conversation manifested as a clench in his gut. “Have I showered for ten-thousand hours yet?”
Cooper did quick math. Twenty-minute showers, give or take, three hundred days a year (he was not an every day showerer), thirty-three years. “I’ve only racked up about three-thousand shower hours,” he said. “Give or take. And I take really long showers.”
“So you’re an excellent showerer by now, but no expert.” Nora’s face, mischievous and tilted towards him, replaced the queasy stomach ache.
They flirted like this, subtly, since she had moved into the brick house with the sprawling porch two months before. Cooper thrilled: perhaps they were both thinking about the other in the shower, which presupposed a lack of clothing. But it wasn’t enough of a flirtation, or friendship even, to pose his real question. Had he had sex for ten thousand hours? Had she? No, it was certainly less than time spent showering, though a not-insignificant Venn diagram existed. He wished for a lifetime sex-hour counter. Easy in the year since he’d moved from San Francisco to North Carolina: zero.
A shame: it was probably easier than it had ever been to move to a new town and have casual sex with strangers, but Cooper hated and feared sex with strangers, hated and feared dating apps in this small of a town. This invisible hum that vibrated underneath interactions IRL. He worried he might buy apples at Trader Joe’s from a woman who earlier that day swiped the wrong way on his photo. She might have even really considered his profile, appreciated his line about wanting the “more-than-stupid-stomach-feeling” kind of love Corey had for AJ in Empire Records, recognized it was filmed in their town and been intrigued, but swiped left anyway, not finding him handsome. Worse: a match that went unacknowledged in person. His greatest fear though, was matching with Nora and not knowing if she’d swiped right as a friend or was actually interested. He deleted the dating apps from his phone the first moment Nora’s profile popped up, smiling from a field of sunflowers, not wanting more information about her than what she, in real life, offered.
Ringo/Beethoven approached Cooper’s porch, cautious, and then leapt onto Nora’s. He strutted straight to the couch where she lay, hopped up, and flopped onto her book.
“I feel so rejected,” Cooper said.
“Please,” Nora said. “Come take it. I’m not really a cat person.” To construe this as an actual invitation was wrong, but what the hell. Nora’d never issued even an offhand invitation before. Despite two months of banter Cooper had never set foot on her porch. He rose from the wicker swing; its chain jangled in his wake. He strode down his path to the sidewalk, turned, and strode up hers. He felt like a pawn being moved in a human-sized chess game: awkward and too formal. Why hadn’t he just jumped over the porch railings separating their homes?
“Hi,” he said, wishing he had not come empty-handed.
“Oh,” she said. “Welcome.” She tucked her toe-ringed feet beneath her, and gestured for him to join her beside the cat. Her candles smelled less like Deet and summer camp, more like grown up.
“So you’re a dog person?” he asked. She told him she grew up on a farm and as if to prove her grit, swatted an approaching cockroach with her sandal. “Cats, dogs, horses. I always pictured myself with a dog when I raise kids, and when I’m old and become a lesbian, then I can be a cat person.”
He asked her to elaborate, eager to abolish her “normal” status if Aditi were to prod. (Aditi knew about his crush; they kept each other informed, rooted for each others’ happiness. Aditi’d said, “It’s not serendipity just because you both like the Beatles. Everybody likes the Beatles, Cricket.” But that wasn’t true. And they really liked the Beatles.)
“Oh, you know,” Nora said. “I’ll find a husband now for partnership and parenting and,” she rolled her eyes, “love. But he’ll go before me. Sorry.” She drummed her fingers on his arm. He noted their first touch. “That’s just how it tends to be for men, right? He’ll die before I do. Maybe this is better: he’ll get sick of me, take up with another woman, and we’ll get divorced. Either way, I’m pretty sure I’ll want a companion for growing old, and I’d rather it be a woman. We’ll be eccentric, let our hair turn silver, wear big jewelry from our travels. That’s how I hope to be when I grow up. A lesbian and a cat person.”
Pussy oriented, he thought, but not out loud, not knowing her sense of humor, or if the thought was funny, or just clever. He stroked the cat.
“We should adopt him,” he said, and stressed the “we” this time. He imagined a shared cat parenthood, a schedule for grocery shopping, split vet bills, and nights each would try to lure the cat to sleep in one home, not the other, until the humans, too, could not resist cohabitating. Then, at their wedding: the toasts, the jokes, the cat’s responsibility for their union, stemmed from shared-cat-parenting. Mock concern for the spoiled cat: its trouble adjusting to only one house when they built their new home together. He would draw the line at including the cat in the ceremony. This was Cooper’s problem: imagining wedding ceremonies before romance had been established or even offered.
They played with the cat until the bugs were unbearable.
Cooper slept in spurts that night, dreamt of cricket legs and cats, their scratchy, searching tongues.
Though Cooper had not shared a bed with anyone since he moved to Wilmington, and infrequently the year before since he and Aditi slowly fizzled, he still had to remind himself to take up the whole mattress. He moved into the center cautiously, not wanting the luxury to become routine. He feared getting set in bachelor ways would close him off to embracing someone new. “You’re ready,” Aditi noted in San Francisco, the first time she’d seen his room—a house party, when he’d taken her coat to join the other guests’ coats on his bed.
“Ready for what?”
“A partner,” she said. “Your bed has a way for people to get in from both sides. It’s not against a wall or in a corner.”
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“My bed would not indicate so,” she said, and did not join him in his bed that night, though he imagined her there then and every time he walked in his room welcomed by the beckoning bed, until she did.
When Cooper arrived home from work the day after his first night on Nora’s porch, the cat waited on his stoop. Nora, from her porch, told him he’d missed the photo shoot. “We’ll see if the cat belongs to anyone. I’ll post pics, and you can share them with your friends here, and we’ll go viral.” He was glad she thought he had made friends in Wilmington, hadn’t noticed how rarely he had company. “What’s your last name?” she asked. “I’ll friend you.” He didn’t want to be friended by her. People disappointed on social media. Some of his women friends looked pathetic taking selfies: cheeks sucked in, lips puckered up, deep cleavage offered. Needy, desperate. He hoped he was wrong. Perhaps they looked empowered. Those photos weren’t meant for him, he thought. If selfies were expressions of how good the women felt about their bodies, who was he to judge? Confidence was challenging for anyone. But he was not certain: what if they were meant for him, or any available person—passive aggressive attempts at mass-seduction? He never “liked” those posts, didn’t want to acknowledge he’d seen them. He didn’t want to be sexist or unkind—he wasn’t even sure what the “like” implied. He didn’t want to send the wrong impression. He disappointed himself on social media, too. His photos were only in black and white, only interesting compositions of light, never himself or faces of friends. He’d edit a photo and then debate for an hour or two whether or not to post, whether the image offered some beauty or insight or joy to the cascade of images or was simply a raw display of his ego.
Now Nora would be the ghost on his shoulder; he’d craft posts with her in mind (or spend time trying not to, attempt to post for himself, totally unconscious of audience). See how I live my life? All these quiet adventures? Do you want to be part of it? Perhaps that was the reason he’d never invited her for dinner or to watch a film. He wanted his world to remain a projection. Did she imagine his home the way he spent time imagining hers? Would his reality disappoint? He left cabinets and drawers open. He stepped out of his boxers each morning before showering, and did not put them in the hamper, waited until Saturday mornings to scoop them off the bathroom floor when he did his weekly laundry. He did not kill the cockroaches that flipped to their backs, waited for them to die while they kicked their limbs. He waited, sometimes days, to ensure they were dead before sweeping them into the trash. This, and a myriad of other things, Nora might find revolting. Deal breakers, even. If only she could fall for him first, for his potential, he would fix the little things sooner or later.
“What were you listening to when you lost your virginity?” Nora asked over the porch railing one night, the cat curled up on her lap. “Beethoven or the Beatles?”
“Neither,” he said. “Guess again.”
“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess literally no one has ever had sex listening to Hanson,” he said, and lassoed a long piece of string from his porch to lure the cat over. “Whole new meaning to an ‘MMMBop.’ Did you know Hanson was super Christian? Like, starred-in-Bible-movies Christian.”
“My virginity-loss album was just as frenetic as Hanson,” she said.
Nora threw her book at him. “Shut up, Cooper. How’d you guess?”
“Frenetic? Around high school, right? I can see the Offspring covers in my CD case right beside Hanson.” He blushed, had never before copped to owning Hanson’s album. He missed those big cases of music, the CD covers he slipped behind the discs, pairing the art and lyrics. “There’s a theory Beethoven’s work was frenetic because his metronome was broken. His Fifth is 108 beats per minute.”
“108! That’s a sacred number in yoga. In Sanskrit. Did Beethoven know that?” Cooper did not correct her: sacred in Hinduism not in Sanskrit, a language. He knew this thanks to Aditi’s practice of Hinduism. He did not know if Beethoven had had that information.
“The Beatles knew about 108,” she said. “Do you think if they hadn’t practiced yoga it would be so popular today? They basically brought it west. Can you imagine our world if the Beatles had never met? It was the Beatles the first time I orgasmed. Their most frenetic song, actually. Maybe their metronomes broke.”
“Two for two, Coop. Lotto ticket time?” Cooper didn’t know what to say. His mind’s eye began to trespass on Nora’s friendship. He imagined her orgasm—did her face scrunch or relax, eyes close or open, did she want touch after or need space? Was it trespassing? Had her statement been an invitation to ask…what? He didn’t want to say anything he couldn’t take back. It was so much easier to flirt over text, when he could craft a careful response—or not respond. Pretend he’d put down his phone and walked away.
He said, “You know ‘Helter Skelter’ inspired Charles Manson—”
“I know,” she said.
“He thought it signaled a Black revolution about to rise—”
“I know,” she said.
“We can’t hold artists responsible for meanings, interpretations they didn’t intend.”
She nodded. “It was Paul,” she said, “who wrote it. But my man Ringo at the end. I’ve got blisters on my fingers.”
Cooper hadn’t known that.
Days passed at work when he felt incompetent. Other days he felt close to accomplishing every goal he’d ever set. Still, a gap existed between where he was and where he wanted to be professionally: no footholds, no drive, no sense of pride. Cooper went to films by himself, which wasn’t new to Wilmington, where he hadn’t met many friends. He’d spent much of the past decade alone in dark theaters, his filming schedule absurd, often free in the middle of the day when Aditi and his friends worked. His twenties tasted like oversalted stale popcorn and Diet Coke, often a meal substitute. He only treated himself to this when he watched films alone, never at industry screenings.
He sat in the theatre. His phone remained in his pocket though he wanted to check it. He always stayed until the end of the credit scroll, out of respect and to see if anyone he knew had worked on the film, so he might get in touch, congratulate, network. He gave up and glanced at his phone. No missed texts, no missed calls. How disappointing, to have denied himself the phone for two hours, and not have been sought by anyone. For whom did he hope? Nora didn’t have his number. In the past weeks his long-distance friendship with Aditi had diminished to likes on Instagram and infrequent emails; she no longer sent him quick, scattered thoughts as they came to her. The line “waiting by the phone” wouldn’t make sense to new audiences. It was like this now: people endlessly waited by the phone.
“I had a dream last night,” Nora announced from her porch, “that I ripped off all my pubic hair.”
“I wonder if that has meaning,” he said. “You know, Jungian, like teeth falling out.”
“I was just running my hands through it,” she said, “in the dream, that is, and I noticed it was coming out in clumps. It was so satisfying, I just kept tugging until it was gone.”
“Did it hurt?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “But it was so real. I was surprised when I woke up.” He wasn’t sure how to take this: surprised to find hair? Surprised because she didn’t have any to start with, and that was part of the dream, too? It was a thing you really couldn’t guess about a person, their private grooming. It was too personal. He did and did not want to know.
The Sunday they set their clocks back for daylight savings it was dark by six p.m. when a week before it had been light. It was dark and getting cold. Cooper unpacked jackets he wore year-round in San Francisco, embraced them like the friends he missed. He took photos of light dappling down his street first thing in the morning, through fall leaves. The canopy that had been so green now browning. The geraniums on his porch still thrived. He plucked and snapped their stems. He forgot to water for two weeks. Even more blooms appeared. Perhaps he’d been overwatering.
Cooper read on the porch. Nora’s car wasn’t parked on the curb as usual. He waited, through dusk, into dark. Nora didn’t come home. His stomach tightened and tightened. Nora frequently flirted with him. She told him weird personal stuff. And hadn’t he reciprocated? Wasn’t it obvious he liked her? If he confessed his crush, it wouldn’t be this unknowing hurt—worrying she was out with someone else. One day she would be. One day she would return to the porch with a man in tow. He imagined her sitting on the man’s big lap, her exposed toes, imagined her bare shoulders being casually kissed. It would hurt to watch this; it hurt to think about it.
He wanted to take a bath. With Nora, with anyone. He missed baths. He missed touch. He didn’t have a tub in his new home. He was cold, the kind of cold a shower wouldn’t conquer. Cold to the bone. He made a list of reasons he didn’t like Nora. He hated her toe-ring jewelry, feet like a teenager’s. Hated the tone of her Instagram posts: as if she were having a conversation with someone specific, someone not him. He hated that she left her porch lights on all day while she went to work. A pathetic list. What if he told her he’d tried to make a list to convince himself he didn’t like her, and couldn’t come up with anything? Was that a way to woo? Like in Empire Records, when AJ told Corey he knew he loved her because he despised her ugly skirt and still liked her. But if Nora didn’t like him back, he didn’t want to jeopardize what he already had. Conversation on the porch. Someone to come home to. Someone close enough.
He wanted to watch a sad film. Weren’t there any sad films he hadn’t already seen? A film where the boy doesn’t get the girl and doesn’t get anything else. A film with a slow score, set in the winter, in the cold, snow turning to slush and cars driving through puddles out a window. He signed into Netflix: a third profile showed on his account. WILSON. He texted Aditi, “Who’s Wilson?” before realizing he didn’t want to know. He saw the little ellipses wiggle, then disappear. Nothing followed.
The next day it had warmed up again, and Nora’s car was parked at the curb. Cooper washed his car, read his book in the sun, Beethoven/Ringo beside him. He ordered takeout from the town’s only Indian restaurant and drank a beer on his porch. It was almost like summer, but without the cicadas, the sweat, the mosquitoes. Nora played a game of solitaire on her porch, flipping through the card pile.
“What kind of a name is Wilson?” he asked.
“A last name?”
Wilson, he imagined, was a guy who worked out, who had piercings, tattoos, a tongue ring.
“You know how to play solitaire?” Nora asked. “Wanna play double? BYO Deck? My cousins rented a place at the beach this week and we stayed up all night playing cards. I forgot how much I love cards.” All that stomach worry and hurt and she’d been with family—not sleeping with someone else.
Cooper joined her and tried not to think about Wilson and Aditi watching Netflix. Every time he watched a film, hunting selections, adding to his queue, he imagined Aditi approving or disappointed by his choices. He awaited texts calling him out: “West Wing again? You depressed, Cricket?” But maybe she didn’t look. And for all the nights he felt observed, he had never gone into her profile to see what films and shows she binged.
“I’m going to a party tonight, down the street. You want to come?” asked Nora.
“Like, leave our porches together, go some other place?”
“Cooper,” she said. “I’m asking you out. I like you. A little bit. I think you like me a little bit, too.” Had it been that simple all along?
They sipped keg beer from Solo cups by an outdoor fireplace in a neighbor’s backyard. He felt nervous when men talked to her, but felt it important he circulate, talk to other people, not depend on her.
After almost two hours, she whispered in his ear: “If this is a real date, a first date, maybe we should spend it just the two of us.” They snuck out, returned to his porch couch. He turned on the year-round Christmas lights, lit the citronella candles, and they relaxed into the familiar. They cuddled under a blanket, tucked their feet into his nylon sleeping bag.
“What?” she asked, when he chuckled.
He couldn’t explain the strangeness of this proximity: that for months a boundary existed between them, rarely closer than fifteen feet apart. Now they touched as if they always touched. He savored the smell of bonfire smoke in her hair. This was what family smelled like. Was she a woman who wanted to start a family? He smiled when she kissed him, grin stretched so wide he could barely pucker. It could hurt from here on out. It could hurt, but was worth the risk. Campfire in her hair, her skin. He didn’t want to get hurt again, but he didn’t want to live with that low-grade constant desire, either—always hurting a little bit.
“Are you inhaling me?” she asked.
“You smell like my favorite mescal,” he said. “Like the most complicated parts of Christmas.”
“This is a compliment that you give to a woman?”
“Yes,” he said.
They lay on his porch couch, his arm under her, numb, then reviving. “What if we slept outside?” he asked. “Under the blankets. A sleeping porch.”
“It seems meaningful,” she said, “that you won’t invite me in.”
“We’re protected out here, aren’t we? Haint blue porch ceiling?”
“No,” she said. “There are ghosts out here that want to be let in.”
“I h’aint afraid of no ghosts,” he said.
“What are you afraid of?” she asked. “Tell me three things.”
He looked at the wicker table, unraveling. “That I don’t have the drive to actually make it in film. That I’m never going to be a father. My family dying, all together, without me.” He’d never said this final one aloud, feared truth in articulation. “What are you afraid of?”
“Socks,” she said, her feet finding his. “They’re creepy, right? I hate them.”
“Stop,” he said. “I told you real things.”
“You stop. I really don’t like socks. You’ve never seen me wear them.”
She closed her eyes, like an exhale, reopened them. “I’m scared you like me too much without really knowing me. I’m scared I don’t really know myself. I’m scared of dying before I accomplish everything I’m capable of.”
“And socks,” he said.
“Those too, a little bit.”
“You want to play cards?” he asked.
“I like you just holding me like this.” She asked him to play music. He pulled out his phone and asked what she craved to hear. “Patti Smith,” she said. “Her Nirvana cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’”
“My ex is listening to the Spice Girls right now,” he said. Aditi’s current activity always showed on Spotify, beside his. “If you weren’t here, I’d text her to say: ‘Busted, Cricket!’ That’s my ex.” He hadn’t meant to use her pet name. “She posted pictures last night from this bachelorette in New Orleans. So really, I know why she’s listening to 90s nostalgia.” Was it taboo to mention digital habits in conversation? To mention an ex while holding someone new?
“Any given moment we know what all our exes are up to,” said Nora. “My ex always posts pictures of places we used to have sex. But now his daughter is in them. I don’t think he does it on purpose—I know he doesn’t. But his daughter’s birthday party was at the same exact spot in the park by his house where we met—at his birthday, years before. He wasn’t thinking about that when he posted pictures of his daughter blowing out birthday candles, but we had sex on that same picnic table. Several times. Our lives just simultaneously change and don’t.” Cooper momentarily was jealous of this person who’d had sex with Nora in multiple places. Public places.
“It’s weird we’re the same people we’ve always been, have lived this whole thing,” Cooper said.
“You ever think about what you know by heart?” Nora asked. “Like what all that information is doing in there, taking up space?”
“Is it taking up space? Or are we infinitely capable of acquiring knowledge? Like professional memorizers who use memory palaces.”
“Right,” she said. “But memory palaces are when you’re actively trying to remember. Today Sinead O’Connor came on the radio—and I knew every single word to ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Even my timing, perfect. Probably hadn’t heard it in a decade. But I guess for a while it was my get drunk and cry song. When’s the last time you got drunk and cried? Some people listen to happy music to come out of it. I’d rather wallow. Add the musician’s hurt to mine.”
A few cars passed, the wind picked up, their neighbors’ wind chimes tinkled. “Ben Folds,” he said. “‘Still Fighting It.’ That’s my get drunk and cry song. I don’t even need to be drunk.”
“That’s a good one,” she said. “That shit’s raw.”
It could become a code. He could text her, “I’m listening to Ben Folds,” and she would know he hurt.
He knew better than to offer so much of himself at the beginning. When he did the beginning often became the end. But he couldn’t help it. He wanted the hard part to be over, the uncertainty. Would they, wouldn’t they, for how long, on what terms? He felt alive, though not creative, when he was in “the wilds,” as he called the crushing vulnerable phase. He wanted to skip it this time. Nora felt right. Intelligent, funny, kind—and her parents married because of Beethoven, his obsession, wasn’t that a sign? He wanted the part where she kept a toothbrush at his house. Beyond, a drawer in his dresser, beyond beyond beyond to where she moved in and got in their bed whether or not he was in it, read books, her favorite sentences out loud to him, kept the lights on while he drifted to sleep, and when they woke up they knew how to make each other’s coffee. Beyond to the part where they trusted each other and didn’t even need to talk to communicate everything, but they would talk. He would talk out everything, not make mistakes he’d made with Aditi, back when he bottled himself in.
He hoped for hiking trips with a little family, tucking each little person in, zipping them up in child-sized sleeping bags, saying prayers and thanking the stars above, our lucky stars, his wife might call them, now let’s thank our lucky stars, for each other, for all we’ve been given.
“Cooper,” Nora said. “Hold me while I fall asleep.” Her nose was exposed, cold and kissable, so he kissed it and wished her sweet dreams.
Aditi’s name meant Fertility, mother of the gods. When they had gotten pregnant—accidentally—they navigated her strict parents carefully and, eventually, received their blessing. Her parents even joked with them, warning to select the baby’s name carefully: names contained such power, omens for the future. (What kind of name, they asked, is Cooper?) But then, a miscarriage, not a fertile destiny after all. Cooper and Aditi stayed together, planned their next pregnancy, began tucking away little details for a wedding down the line. But when a second miscarriage resulted, they didn’t have the energy for a third try.
Nora woke up early. “I have to pee,” she whispered. He could see her breath.
“I’ll let you in,” he whispered back.
“Don’t be silly, I’m going to my place. To sleep in my own bed.” He waited for an invitation. He considered demanding she stay. He said nothing, unsure of the right thing to say. She extricated herself from his arms, the blanket. She stooped to kiss his forehead.
He reached for her shoulders, like a baby put to bed. He pulled her back in. “I want this,” he said. It was past dawn. Dogs and their walkers would emerge soon. He imagined the neighborhood rooting for them, witness to their budding romance.
That morning it felt like the universe was aligning—like messy loose ends were ready to be tied. Months before, he’d purchased two tickets for a Beethoven symphony at the performing arts center that night. Why wait a certain number of days to text—or even hours? It was Nora. Girl Next Door Nora, they were friends. And Beethoven! “Beethoven,” he texted. “Tonight! I have two tickets.”
“Like a date?” she responded.
“Not like,” he texted. “A real date, not a metaphor.”
“Not a simile,” she said. “Similes use like or as.”
He grinned from ear to ear.
At the grocer, he picked up a bouquet. Too much for a real first date? Not enough since she’d slept in his arms most of the night? A simple bouquet. Tulips. Because he liked to buy tulips. Because he liked the idea of surprising her, bringing her joy. Of putting an extension of himself into her apartment assuring she would think of him.
The flowers, the fact they both dressed up for the occasion—he in a jacket and tie, she in a dress—added to the formality, as if he were escorting her to prom. She accepted the flowers, kissed him on the cheek. “Let me just grab a vase for these,” she said. He waited on the porch, considerate of her space. The cat saw them off, like a chaperone. Then they walked down her path and crossed the sidewalk to his car, which she’d never been in.
“We’re leaving the neighborhood together,” he narrated as they drove.
“We only left our porches for the first time yesterday,” she said. “Do you think we’re rushing things?” And it did seem so familiar, yet so new, her in the passenger seat beside him, in the flesh, instead of her ghost riding along in his head.
The concert hall already boasted holiday décor, gingerbread houses displayed between entrances to the orchestra and mezzanine. Families dressed in formal wear, children in coat and tie, girls in smocked dresses and patent leather Mary Janes. Less chic attendees, too, who he assumed were librarians, teachers, other underpaid public servants supporting the arts. In their row beside their seats, two rotund priests spilled over the allotted space into each other. Without their heavenly presence, the ritual of a symphony beginning would still feel like church, lights dimming, orchestra tuning in the jarring, thrilling way, the initial burst of applause for the conductor for simply taking the stage. Cooper watched the musicians, each movement so precise. Would he notice if one made a mistake? He and Nora occasionally smiled at each other, sent fingers over their armrests like explorers finding each others’ hands as the first piece played. Then, Beethoven’s Fifth; his soul lifted. He turned to Nora, but in the dark she slept. He didn’t want to touch her, and yet he had never wanted her more. To trust him, to rest, to sleep in a room of strangers bewitched by music. Eyelids fluttering. He closed his eyes, too, and tried to isolate the instruments. The strings, the winds. Triumphant sounds, hopeful moments. Others, like tiny wisps—fragile notes skating. Then urgency. Despite his interest in Beethoven’s life, his own musical training had not gone far beyond the Peter and the Wolf record his mother played him on Saturday afternoons while she cleaned. The oboe, the French horn, the kettle drum. He listened for them. Duck, cat, grandfather. Would he associate music with imagery if he had not spent his childhood listening to Peter and the Wolf, watching Fantasia? An idea surfaced in the little jumps and hops of the strings—yes, wait, brilliant—how to restructure his Beethoven project. He would attempt a sort of translation. Take the symphony and use it to create a script. Have someone else do it, too, and compare, try to understand the differences. The first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth: was there an option for anything but someone knocking at the door? Or this section, light strings: how could it mean anything but morning, sun bleeding in? He wanted to wake Nora up, so she too could hear the music and be inspired (muse-ic!) and after the concert they could share the cascade of thoughts stifled during the symphony. Had they seen the same images, felt the same feelings? Or, or! He could start an afterschool film program. Play music for children, have them close their eyes to listen, then share what they’d imagined. He’d help them turn images into stories, and by the end of the semester they’d film it. Children making movies, empowered by seeing their ideas translated to screen. Yes! This was his calling, required everything he’d been learning his whole life—fundraising, teaching, film, music! Reaching underserved communities, helping them communicate with each other, with their feelings. It could translate to workshops for the elderly or veterans or the grieving—anyone suffering. One successful semester, and they could turn it into a curriculum, scale it for schools and education centers around the country. People would be empowered, would listen to each other, find empathy. Technology, used for good not evil. Cooper couldn’t wait to begin. Not wanting to disturb anyone by writing his ideas, he tried to attach them to objects in his head, like a memory palace.
Nora snored. The priest on his other side snored. Would it be appropriate to elbow them? Could he make it seem accidental? Better to nudge one at a time or simultaneously?
A pause in the movement. The rustle of programs, throat lozenges unwrapped, a cough barely stifled, anticipation. The music returned and built in such a way he continued to think they’d reached the end—each time he filled with dread. Yes, he wanted to begin his projects, but if given the choice, would he ever leave this moment? The woman beside him, the right woman, and surrounded by a community equally or perhaps even more in awe. He felt satisfaction. Though he’d no hand in the music’s creation, he felt potent. Uncertainty awaited beyond the concert hall doors. Moments unfolding to eternity. He could fumble at every one or succeed. He didn’t know how to maintain all of it. How delicate, each and every decision.
They drove home from the symphony past historic houses, festive gatherings overflowing onto balconies, under oaks and magnolia trees. Heat blew on his feet and in his face; again he felt the pull of inertia, a warm car’s comfort on a brisk evening. Christmas lights were already tastefully strung on some columns, wreaths and pine roping—in other yards, large, tacky inflated decorations.
“Have you ever,” Nora asked, “seen Christmas come so early?” He had not, really could not recall a time he had seen decorations before Thanksgiving.
“Is it a Southern thing?” he asked.
“Not in my home,” she said. “No carols until Santa appeared to end the Macy’s Parade. I broke the rule, hid Phil Spector’s Christmas album when my mother packed up Christmas and listened all year long on my Walkman. For years. The ink on the cassette faded.”
“That is the best Christmas album,” he said. He imagined her dancing around a kitchen, rolling out gingerbread dough with their children, flour in their hair, flecking hard-to-imagine faces.
He pulled to the curb in front of their houses, parked behind her car. “Would you like to come in?” He had scrubbed the kitchen, the bathroom, everything. But she said no, not tonight. He walked her to her door. When he asked, “Can I kiss you?” she obliged, but sensing her hesitation, he pulled away quick, pecked her on the cheek instead.
At his desk, he wanted to ride the Beethoven high, the pure hit of his muse, write down his ideas. Instead he sulked, his stomach in a twist.
Come over, I’ve changed my mind, he willed her to type. But his phone didn’t light up.
Come over, come over, come over. Nothing.
He hadn’t texted her either. Was she like him: considering, resisting? Or was she doing something else, totally satisfied, and not thinking of him at this moment? His light was on. She knew he was awake, if she wanted company. He told himself not to open his Instagram feed. When he did, he scrolled past posts she’d been making all night: the bouquet, not arranged artfully, just a vase against a yellow wall. A photo of the grand piano on the otherwise empty stage, captioned “Date night with you-know-who.” He hadn’t noticed her take that, perhaps at intermission. But who-did-know? He’d never shown up in posts before, not that he’d detected. Were captions indicative of incompatibility? They could date in person, but their online personas maybe could not. Would his parents have married if they dated today? Navigating texting, friending, likes? Cooper couldn’t imagine them courting outside of the ’70s. He had been born in the wrong time. He wasn’t Internet funny. He didn’t appreciate memes. Nora’s posts elevated and demeaned the date simultaneously. A teasing caption with the tulips hinted he was significant, and yet, she detracted from the gift by posting the photo, making it public.
“We’re like a cake,” he had said, trying to explain why he didn’t want to take a selfie in the symphony hall’s art-deco mirror. “We need time to bake before you take us out of the oven.”
“We are nothing like a cake,” she said. “Find a metaphor that’s vegan.”
“Similes use like or as,” he said. But she didn’t laugh, or maybe hadn’t heard.
Cooper lay in bed, on his side, not Aditi’s, unable to move to the porch, fearing he would look desperate, needy. But then he heard the cat. Neither Nora nor Cooper had ever let the cat into their homes, agreeing that would cross the invisible cat-stealing threshold. But it was cold, and Cooper did feel needy. He opened the door a crack. The cat darted in, then paused.
“Whole new world, buddy. What do you want to explore?” He feared the cat might pee or spray, but it wasn’t anything laundry couldn’t handle. The cat sniffed: the bookshelf, the carpet, the keyboard. He settled on the piano bench, then rose, swished his tail, extended his paws. Cooper raced to his phone, got a perfect picture of the cat playing piano before leaping onto the keys. He filtered it, cropped it, how perfect: sheet music for the Beatles he’d been practicing framed the cat’s ears. “Great night with Beethoven” he captioned and posted. If Nora liked it within a minute, he would invite her over. Within two minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Maybe she’d gone to sleep.
He wanted to return to the concert hall. Could time travel—just this once—be real so he could relive the night? Make any choice that led to him not being alone? Kiss her instead of asking to kiss her? If she simply kissed him again, she would feel something urgent, wouldn’t she: desire, safety, delight? Not safety, not if he kissed without asking. Damn Hollywood, all their sexy sexist non-consensual kisses. He could let himself be in her silly mirror selfie, no protesting—make the silly faces couples he disdained on the Internet made, one small sacrifice for such a gain: Nora, pleased. He wanted to remain incubated, to live in the concert’s cocoon—his ideas swirling, her fingers clasped in his, their potential, music sweeping over them. Side by side, surrounded by sound and beauty.