By Brittany Kerfoot
It’s a fifteen-minute drive to the dead-end street where they park the car and climb into the backseat together. They make the trip twice a week on their lunch break, stroking each other on the way and kissing at red lights. She tries to make conversation but he’s a quiet man, she knows this, so she watches him drive her car with one hand, the other resting heavily on her thigh or petting her between her legs as he swerves around slow-moving minivans. It comforts her to know he’s just as eager to reach their spot, an empty cul-de-sac of half-built houses and plots of barren land. She locks the keypad on her phone every time, paranoid her foot will accidentally bump her purse and dial her boyfriend’s number, leaving him a voicemail of her screaming another man’s name.
They take off their jackets and toss them into the front seat; she kicks off her shoes and lunges for him, awkwardly straddling him as he grabs a fistful of her hair and bites her bottom lip. She sucks his long fingers and digs her nails into his shoulder, a small part of her intent on leaving a few semi-permanent marks. When they’re done, her body aches and she lies across him, naked and unafraid. He looks at her shyly, smiles and says, “You’re amazing. You’re the best I’ve ever had,” and she almost believes him, and she almost starts to cry.
They met on a Tuesday. She doesn’t remember seeing a ring, but she does remember his soft voice and his sad eyes. When she pictured meeting her new boss, she imagined an older man with a salt-and-pepper beard in an office with glass doors and a mahogany desk; she never imagined the timid thirty-something in a black blazer with darting eyes and a softness that seemed to cloak him like a blanket.
He stumbled over his words, and she spoke too quickly, too excitedly. She giggled and talked about herself too much. He kept his hands in his pockets. Finally, she shook his warm hand and said, “It was nice to meet you, I’ll see you next Monday, bright and early, bye!” and rushed out to her car with her heart beating and her face flushed.
Now, they talk on the computer every day for hours; he makes her laugh and she makes him feel a little less invisible. He has never been comfortable around anyone, not even his kids—the fear that he’s not a good enough father, not better than the one he had, gnaws at him like a dog with a rawhide; with her, he knows he is good enough and for this, he loves her.
One day he tells her she is the only thing in his life that makes sense. She looks up to meet his eyes and beams at him, color rushing to her cheeks and an ache in her chest that overcomes her, like the feeling of jumping off a swing at maximum height and, on the way down, being suspended in air for a split second—excited but afraid.
She asks him not to talk about his wife, the mother of his children.
In the evenings she goes home to her boyfriend who is always relieved to see her and is constantly asking, “Do you still like me? Do you still love me?” and she purrs, “Of course I do, of course” and strokes his white blonde hair, but before bed she undresses in the bathroom to hide the scratches on her back and the finger-shaped bruises on the inside of her thighs. She lies awake and anxiously waits for morning, for the chance to glance at him as she walks to her desk and feel his eyes on her as she takes a little too long to slip off her coat and slide into her seat.
One night, when the white-haired boy is on top of her, she closes her eyes and propels herself far away from the moment and into a memory:
She is eight years old sitting on the concrete steps outside of her first house, the same steps she carelessly rolled down two years before, marring the right side of her body with bloody scrapes and purple bruises. Ralph, her imaginary pet mouse, sits in her lap and she strokes the air in gentle wisps as she watches some neighborhood teenagers smoke cigarettes under a tree across the street. She longs to be one of them, with their T-shirts of bands she’s never heard of and unwashed hair; she feels a pang of embarrassment at her cartoon overalls and jelly sandals, but then she remembers Ralph, picking him up and pretending to place him on her shoulder, twirling his make-believe tail in her small fingers.
She has a hamster of her own in her room upstairs, and her father constantly reminds her of it whenever he spies her cooing to the empty space in her hands. I don’t clean out that rodent’s cage for my health just so you can play with an imaginary one, you know, he says, but the truth is her father does not clean out any rodent’s cage, real or pretend. Cage-cleaning is in fact number four on the list of weekly chores she has taped to the mirror on her bedroom door. She keeps trying to explain to him how Ralph doesn’t bite or pee in her hand or run away when she tries to hold him, but her father is always too absorbed in the newspaper or an old movie on television to really hear her.
“Tell me about you,” her boss coos. “I want to know everything. I want to know about the things that have made you so wonderful.” So they sit in a tucked away room and touch their knees together and she tells him about the father who never loved her and the mother who loved her too much and the boy who threw her head into a bedpost when she was only seventeen but she loved him anyway. When she’s done she says, “So, now that you know all my secrets, do you still like me?”
“I more than like you,” he says, and for a moment she can’t breathe.
I do not love you, she thinks, I cannot love you.
They eat lunch together and their feet lie still, touching under the table. She takes small bites of her sandwich and covers her mouth with her hand as she chews. She looks at her watch: only seven minutes left in their lunch hour but she never wants to leave, wants to stay here forever, leaning over the table a little too far and pretending not to know how lucky he thinks he is to have her attention. No matter the number of lunch dates or backseat rendezvous they’ve had, she still cannot seem to ease her anxiety whenever he’s near, or slow her heart whenever their eyes meet. She walks quickly everywhere she goes, the tangled ball of light—a perfect conglomeration of anxiety and contentedness—in the pit of her stomach propelling her forward like a gust of wind at her back.
She pauses before speaking, calculating how to deliver each word and wondering what it means that he slid his foot back under his chair, away from hers.
“Sometimes I wish I had a machine that could stop time for everyone but us,” she says. “We could be together whenever we wanted.”
“That would be nice,” he answers, and smiles at her, knowing she wants him to say something more but not knowing what.
At night she listens to the sounds of her sleeping boyfriend, staring at his bare back, long and winter white, and wonders if she could ever love him again if she tried her very hardest. She thinks of getting drinks with their friends and the wedding they’re both in this spring and his family who loves her like one of their own. She recalls his dress clothes pressed flat against the rain-soaked pavement when he left work early to change her flat tire. But then she remembers how she loses her breath when she walks the hallway that leads to her desk each morning, and the stabbing pain she feels every Friday evening when her boss leaves to return to his life without her, and the ache that overcomes her when he drives her car with both hands on the steering wheel, not touching her.
Feeling restless and hollow in bed, she’d often slink downstairs and rummage through his internet thumbprint for something, anything, about his wife: a woman with a round face and hair the color of faded wood. She once found a picture of the whole family outdoors, in what appeared to be their front yard; he is holding a little girl of about three or four while his wife cradles a baby, both of them laughing. He is happy—a kind of happy she doesn’t recognize in him. The picture is dated to a time long before they met, but still she is angry with him—angry that he could have ever been happy before that Tuesday, “the best Tuesday of his life.”
She remembers their conversation earlier that day and allows herself to get lost in the memory, shrouded in a dusty haze like a flashback scene in a movie.
“I almost won the lottery last night,” he told her one afternoon. The flash of his name on her computer screen still makes her jump.
“Almost doesn’t count,” she said, winking at him from over her cubicle but unsure of if he saw.
“I was two numbers away; my heart was beating so fast.”
“What would you do if you won?”
“What wouldn’t I do? I’d set the kids up with nice trust funds. Buy a summer house somewhere exotic. We could run away together—Spain or Prague or the Maldives.”
“Good answer,” she said, picturing their legs entangled under a table in a café and reading Tolstoy together on the beach.
“It’ll be wonderful,” he said. “We’ll go all those places when we win.”
Her fingers hovered over the keyboard for several moments as she stared at the word “we,” running her mind over all of its possibilities.
She wrote this exchange down in a notebook she keeps with all of the lovesick things he’s ever said to her. Sometimes, when she allows her mind to go too far, she imagines reciting them in front of their family and friends, her hands shaking and her white dress stained with drops of happy tears and black mascara.
“Let’s go somewhere,” she says one afternoon. “Out to my car, a conference room. I just want to be alone with you.” But he can’t be home late, not today; he has things to do: pick up his daughter from ballet, make dinner because his wife is working late. She walks to her car and tries to ignore the dull pain in the pit of her stomach. He is gone; the thought of waiting until morning to see him again sickens her and she can taste a sourness rising in her throat. She can still smell him on her hands from their morning meeting and she breathes it in until she has devoured it away.
One weekend her boyfriend mentions the state fair, claiming it would be good for her—for them—to get out of the apartment and do something together. She knows that nothing will ever be good for them again, but she allows him to drive her the fifteen miles south anyway, staring out the window at the trees and pavement whizzing by, blending into a gray blur as the car speeds toward its destination.
The smell of barbequed pork chops and horse manure emanates from two blocks away, only exacerbating her already churning stomach. When they stop at the gate to buy tickets, she scrutinizes the crowd: men in cut-off shorts, overweight children licking dripping fried ice cream, women in animal print spandex with big hair. She spots a couple on a bench a few feet away, unattractive and crude, his hand up her shirt, hers fiddling with the crotch of his dirty jeans; without warning her eyes and cheeks are wet—big fat tears like summer rain—and it feels good.
Her boyfriend hands her a ticket and, despite her pink and sticky face, puts an arm around her shoulder and silently leads her straight to the ferris wheel at the other end of the park. Once aboard, her hand limp and sweaty in his, she listens to the squeaks of the tinkering gears and looks out into the vastness of the sky ahead. As they creep toward the top, she imagines the whole machine coming apart, screws and scraps of rusted metal tumbling to the ground below, and she wonders how badly the fall would hurt.
Brittany Kerfoot is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she also teaches English Composition and acts as coordinator for the graduate student reading series. This story is her first published work. Brittany loves dancing, watching too much TV, and animals of the furry kind.