I’m sitting here eating what’s left of your cheese puffs and telling Derek the story of my life with you. As soon as he walks into our apartment, I say, “Lily left.”
He says, “Oh fuck.” He looks around the apartment as if to see if you’re really gone. It doesn’t look like it. Your shit is still everywhere.
“We’ll be late for work,” I say, because I know I need to talk about this to someone and Derek is the only one I have since you left.
“No big. Patty will literally never fire me. I’m too good.” I don’t remember if I ever told you or not, but Derek has been sleeping with our boss at the restaurant since before I started working there. He got her to hire me in the first place.
“Mm,” I say, because I don’t remember if he was good or not. The only thing I can remember is him finishing and my absolute certainty that I was a lesbian.
Derek hugs me, and he’s too bony for comfort, but he’s allowed to hug me because he’s known me since my blond-hair and mini-skirt days back in junior year of high school. He knew me before I chopped and dyed my hair and stopped showing my legs even though I still shave them. I think that this keeps me from intimidating him the way I seem to intimidate everyone else. Derek was my best friend, before you. He’d been my one and only guy and you were my one and only girl. I’m not sleeping with him now. I’m not sleeping with anyone.
“I keep writing her letters,” I say about you, “but we don’t have any stamps so I can’t send them.” You were supposed to get stamps on Monday but then you drove away and took our car with you.
“She just left today?” Derek says, but he knows it isn’t the case because he knows me and he knows I’m bad with these things.
“Last Sunday,” I say. I feel bad about not opening up sooner. Derek’s always been open. Today, maybe because you updated your profile picture on Facebook and I stared at your face for an hour and it didn’t change, I broke down and now I can’t stop talking. “She stole the car.” Derek kicks off his shoes into the corner where he always leaves them, beside my torn blue umbrella and on top of an old beach towel. I look at his pale feet. Derek walks to the living room and I follow. We sit on the floor, our backs against the blue velvet couch you got from your parents basement when we decided to move in together.
Derek says, “Lily will literally die without you,” and I nod. He keeps saying literally and I keep thinking about how much you hated that word and how, if you were here, you would wait until he left to launch into a rant on how people use literally incorrectly all the goddamn time and how people are so stupid that you just can’t stand it and how you don’t even know why I spend so much time with him. Derek and I stare at a game show on the television screen. I always keep the television on. The house is silent without it. A contestant hits a lever. The bulbs surrounding the board flick to life and begin to dance like twinkling Christmas lights.
“Lily’s mom is still sick,” I say. I tell him this because I want him to nod and tell me that her illness is probably why you freaked out and left. Derek’s mom had cancer, like your mom, but she’s dead, unlike yours. Hers was lung, though she never smoked. When he first told me about his mom our freshman year of high school as we sat in his basement and picked at stale peanuts, Derek said it didn’t make a difference, whether she smoked or not. He said no one deserves cancer, either way. I knew I could trust him, then, just like I know now that he won’t blame me for you.
“That sucks,” he says. I remember how you didn’t like him much. You didn’t understand our silent comfort. On a normal day Derek and I would go hours without speaking, just playing FIFA and staring at the screen and communicating through nothing much but sighs and grunts. You never said anything, but you always left the room when he came over and started banging around in the kitchen. I think you need noise too.
“Yeah,” I say. I put my head on his pointy shoulder and we watch the board on the game show glitter and glimmer before snatching away thousands from eager contestants with quick-drooping smiles. The room is silent but for the sound of the audience booing and our upstairs neighbors shuffling across the floor. The lack of conversation between me and Derek gives me time to think of you and I’m greedy enough to take it.
I’m halfway through my second Sunday without you and my fingers are orange from what’s left of your cheese puffs. I’m spending time on the living room floor more often than not just to be closer to that orange stain that smells like duck sauce and always gets “The Color of the Wind” stuck in my head. You sang that song in the shower for a week after Pocahontas got stuck in the VHS player. You were singing it when I snuck into the shower on Wednesday before work and kissed your stomach while you washed your armpits and dragged my tongue across the little hairs around your belly button while you washed the hair on your head. I know it was a Wednesday because your mom called before I could get you off (I forgot she always calls on Wednesday) and you had to struggle to be nice to her on the phone because you were still hanging out on the borderline between coming and not coming and every shift of your thighs as you paced made it worse so you hated her a little bit even though she’ll probably die soon and you’ll have to go pick up her body at the hospital. You probably shouldn’t hate someone you have to do that for, but I know how you are when you don’t get to come. You told me it was the reason that you dumped the boyfriend that you had before you got with me. You told me that you loved that I always let you come first.
I say, “I’ll be right back.” I feel like a failure but I grab my phone from the charger and go stand on the balcony anyway. I bounce my phone from palm to palm. There are still cigarette butts in a ceramic seashell from the person who lived here before us. I tell myself this, but I think that maybe you were lying when you told me you stopped smoking as a part of our New Year’s resolution. I finger the ashes.
I call you, because thinking about your mom made it impossible not to. When I call, you don’t pick up the phone, but I don’t expect you to.
“Lily, it’s me. I want to know if your mom is okay. I know you wanted me to help you with the arrangements. I love you and if you’re by H Street you need to go pick up stamps.” I pace the balcony of our one- bedroom and listen to the sirens and wonder what time it is now. A group of boys wearing oversized hoodies and snapbacks stands at the crosswalk. They push and shove each other, they laugh, and they look both ways before they cross the street. Across the street, a woman steps out of an office building. She stands beneath a crumbling concrete archway and exchanges her heels for tennis shoes. She holds her hand out, checking for rain. The air feels damp and the sky looks tired, but there is no rain. She looks relieved. She begins her walk. I think of how, if you were here, you would catcall the boys and mock the woman for not bothering to check the weather.
I walk back inside and plug the phone back into the charger. It hasn’t fully charged since it fell in the bathtub. Keeping it on the edge of the tub was your idea. You wanted to be able to choose the songs while we had sex. When my phone splashed into the tub, you thought it was hilarious and kept fucking me even though the motion made the phone clang against the tub. I told you we could get electrocuted. You said that could only happen with stuff that’s plugged in, like blow dryers, but your eyes got wide and I knew you were scared. I helped you out of the tub and rubbed the blob of soap resting on your forehead with my nose.
I walk toward Derek and sit at his feet. He moved to the couch when I was gone. He scoots off of the couch and sits beside me. I can’t stop thinking about how you taste. I can’t stop thinking about how often I tasted you and how you still won’t pick up the phone.
“We’ll just skip work,” Derek says.
“Thanks,” I say. He nods. We sit together. The television hums. The game show restarts. A new set of eager eyes to darken with glimmering lights that steal money and dreams away. I run my finger across the edge of the duck sauce stain.
“You need to keep talking?” he says. I nod.
“I called Lily,” I say. I watch his expression shift. I want to tell him I’m normally stronger than this. I think that that would be a lie though and I can’t lie to Derek. The thought sends a chill down my spine. I am weak. I lean on Derek, press my finger to the center of your stain.
“Did she pick up?” Derek tilts his head and his curls flop over his big eyes. He looks like a doll.
“No. I knew she wouldn’t.” I take my finger off of the stain. I think of the night you made the stain. Do you remember? We sat on our couch and spent Saturday night rewinding your old VHS tapes. We didn’t have a coffee table so we put our feet on each other’s. Pocahontas got stuck, and you knocked over your Chinese food trying to stand up. You didn’t clean up the stain. I didn’t either. “I’m sure Lily will come back,” Derek says.
“Let’s play FIFA,” I say. I crawl across the carpet. I can’t feel the carpet scraping my knees, bare in my torn jeans, until I sit up, and then my knees start burning. I grab two controllers and a pen, then push the pen into the hole in the television where the menu button should be. I keep pushing until a new screen buzzes to life. I raise my hand so I can feel the static. It hums against my fingertips. Derek leans back against the couch. I stay by the stain. We play. I thought the game would dull my thinking or at least distract me but still your presence fills my thoughts.
You left one and a half Sundays ago. It was raining and you backed over the flamingo in our front yard when you left. When you backed out, I thought of how I taught you how to drive every day during lunch throughout our senior year of high school because we had no one to sit with and you cared about that a lot. You’re still shit at backing out, probably because you spent a lot of the lessons crying. I ended up doing most of the steering. One and a half Sunday’s ago when you backed over the flamingo, I saw your face through your dirty window – you looked like you’d killed your child – and I held it – our flamingo child – and you drove away. Now the flamingo watches me and Derek from its place beside the television, its ragged nose keeping it standing. The flamingo escaped most of your damage. Its chipped nose is the only sign that you ran it over at all.
Derek’s winning. He laughs. I don’t cuss, even though I want to. For New Years I promised to stop cussing. The volume on the television jumps. It always does that. Derek doesn’t react; he’s too focused on the game. I score a goal. I think of you.
You broke up with me on Sunday because I said I felt like our relationship was symbolic and not real. You said I could fuck off with my pseudo-intellectual bullshit, turned up the volume on the rerun of The Mindy Project, and said my college class had turned me into an asshole. You smelled like cheese puffs when I hugged you and felt like you’d gained weight in my arms. I said I was sorry and you said we were over. I didn’t understand why you were overreacting. We’d fought before but you always backed out of the argument before it got to the point of it turning into a real fight. You didn’t then, though, and you wouldn’t tell me why you were so upset. You’ve never been secretive about your emotions so I knew that it was something that would hurt me. I knew from the way you couldn’t look me in the eye even as you broke my heart that leaving me had something to do with the phone calls you’d make while I showered as if the running water could silence your high pitched laughter.
My phone rings.
I drop the controller and run. I feel Derek watching me. I yank my phone off of the charger. I know I am pathetic for still wanting you even though you tore me in half. I know I am pathetic for being so desperate to hear your voice that I’ll leave the one person who has never lied to me in favor of you. I know I am pathetic for wanting to speak to you so badly that I’m willing to ignore the fact that you chose someone else.
In the seconds it takes me to get to the balcony I remember how we spent the Saturday before you left me in the front yard. You, my black lily, bowing in the sun. I kept my hands beneath your back, held you up, kept you stable. The passing kids laughed at you for being twenty-two but looking younger, more their age, either more or less worthy of mockery, and needing assistance with a backbend. I said, “You’re doing great. You’re perfect.”
You said, “Fuck you,” to the kids and I knew it reminded you of high school and how the kids laughed when you shaved your head in a show of blatant lesbian solidarity. You didn’t realize they’d long since decided I was a boy, not a lesbian, and no longer cared about my lack of marks of femininity. You cussed at the guy who grabbed your tits after class and who said that if you got laid by a real man and not a pussy like me you’d be a real woman. I punched him in the throat and the teacher pulled me off of him and said he would have done the same thing to protect his girl. I looked at him and wondered if he’d forgotten when I was the girl with blond curls and short skirts in his sophomore English class or if he was, in some pseudo-ally way, deciding to accept my identity (or the one he assumed I had) as a guy.
Now, I wait for your voice.
“My mom is fine,” you say, and I grip my phone like it’s a balloon string and there’s a tornado coming.
“Lily,” I say, and the word is a sigh and a breath and a curse. “We need stamps, Lily.” I can’t stop saying your name. It tastes like all of you.
“I’m not coming back,” you say.
“You can’t survive without me,” I say, because Derek has turned around and is staring at me so his words decide to fill my mouth.
“I’m staying with Rida,” you say, and you mean your older sister, and I know you’re lying because she was the one who told you to grow up and get an apartment in the first place. I imagine Rida and her son and how the first time I met him you looped your arm in mine and announced that we were lesbians and how I’d wanted to shove your scarf in your mouth because it was irrelevant, whether or not you and I were having sex, and because you were so proud. I think of how my mom sent me to live with my aunt in an apartment a few streets over when she found out I was a lesbian and how I only got to see my little brothers on weekends when my mom was sleeping off the night shift. I think of how before she found out, I was their caretaker and babysitter and people in our neighborhood always thought I was their mom, I was with them so much. I wonder if I’m using you to give me something to take care of. I decide you were always using me, too. I want you anyway.
“You have to come back. You left all of your spring clothes here.” I think of the boxes under our wiry queen bed.
“It isn’t spring yet,” you say.
“It’s the end of March. You know it’ll rain. You’ll have no jacket. No umbrella. It always rains all spring in the city.”
“I’ll move to the suburbs,” you say. I try to imagine you driving kids to SAT Prep Classes and packing lunches. I can’t imagine it clearly because I know your worst fear is being boring. I try to imagine another person living with you. I know they wouldn’t eat you out as often as I did but still this is easier to picture because I remember how you said if you got married you’d probably marry a man because marrying a woman just seemed weird, but what we were doing was okay. I wonder if I was nothing more than your Intro To Lesbianism course and if I’d give you a passing or failing grade.
“The floor still smells like duck sauce,” I say.
“Why the hell haven’t you cleaned it up yet?” you say. “I told you to use the Clorox and one of the blue sponges from under the sink. Jesus.” I pick the remains of cheese puffs from beneath my fingernails. The remnants of your red nail polish rest in chipping red moons around my uneven cuticles.
“Come home,” I say. “I didn’t mean it, what I said. I was reading too much.”
“Well, duh you were reading too much. I told you not to take that class but you decided you had to learn anthropology even though I know you didn’t even know what it was.” You suck your teeth. I can hear your spit. “Symbolism my ass.”
“What? I said symbolism.”
“No, it’s sociology I’m studying. Not anthropology.”
I hear you inhale sharply. You start coughing. I hear the phlegm in your throat. Your smoking cough is back. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”
“Just come home,” I say, and it’s broken but I can’t not beg you. I can’t even sleep on my side of the bed anymore because I need to be where you still exist in strands of hair on your silk pillowcase. At night I stare at the drawer of shit you left behind: open chapstick, empty chip bags, a mug stained with coffee and lipstick marks, a hot pink vibrator. I leave the drawer open. I go back to it every night. I fall asleep wondering about the body of the person you fantasized about as you used your vibrator. You didn’t know that I knew you had a vibrator, but I always knew. You aren’t as good with your secrets as you imagine.
“I have to go,” you say, and I can hear a voice and it’s deep and I want to gouge my eyes out.
“Just tell me,” I say, but my voice is wavering and all I can think of is how you flirted with the men at the bar and told me it was no big deal and that you were saving us money so that we could finally take a trip to the Slutwalk in Chicago. I have to pause and push back every thought of you and of every time my stomach told me you weren’t mine. “Lily, tell me the truth,” I say, finally, and I hear you breathing and I know you hear me and I know I know I know but you hang up the phone anyway.
I don’t know I’m crying until Derek’s arms are around me. Wind blows across the balcony and scatters ashes on my bare feet. I guess I start sobbing because Derek hugs me tighter. He smells like cheese puffs so he smells like you and for a second I consider kissing his neck because it’s right there and I want the combination of my lips and the cheese puff scent to morph his body into yours instead. I think of how I’ll never touch you again and I wonder if you ever even liked it, anyway. I trusted you too quickly because you were never ashamed of loving me. I thought that it meant that you were safe.
I hold Derek and I remember sitting on the metro with your head in my lap and playing with your hair. You were thinner than you are now and you felt like a wisp in my grasp and I should have known then that one day I would lose you. You asked me if I loved you and I drew a heart onto your thigh with my forefinger and thumb, spreading either finger in a jagged half- loop. I was sweetened by the moment of us, a girl sitting on the metro playing with the hair of a girl who hummed a song halfway before forgetting the words and changing the tune completely. I didn’t realize until you were home that I knew the song and could have given you the rest of the words.
Rachel Charlene Lewis studies creative writing at Elon University in North Carolina. She writes almost exclusively about women who are/want to be/were once in love. She is on Twitter @RachelCharleneL.