While I wait for him to pull the trigger, I drive to the grocery store. Pick up milk, chewing gum, sponges. Drop off the dry cleaning: the dress I splattered with a spaghetti stain at Shana and Calvin’s wedding last month. Ignore the stench of the rotting plant in the backseat and keep the AC rippling. I drive my typical circuit around town, the usual left and right turns past the elementary school, the park, the bakery. Ask myself as I always do whether I should get a cupcake—they’ve got this lemon Earl Grey flavor even David loves. But the thought slides down sour, explodes a memory bomb that curdles my stomach. I veer into the right lane, cutting off a van plastered with Gifted & Talented bumper stickers and turn off at the car wash.
It’s Monday morning and there’s already a line. I shouldn’t be among these idlers. I should be answering the phone on the first ring with a voice sweet as honey: “Mitchell, Barber, and Hancock Legal. How may I help you today?” But as soon as I woke up and saw David folded over that slick black package, I knew it would be another dark morning. Still I couldn’t bring myself to call in sick. That’s what I tell people about my partner when they ask why I dodge all company outings, show up wearing the same clothes three days in a row, and never turn my phone on silent. They probably think he has cancer. So I let them think he has cancer, even old friends from school or the restaurant. Everyone thinks I’m noble, carting him around to chemo and shit. Pity makes their eyes sparkle. But if I had to say that word this morning—sick—the hiss of it, the cloying k—I’d throw up all my guts.
It’s a good thing there’s a line. I’m in no rush. And I pat myself on the back for my positive thinking. David’s therapist would be proud. “Can’t you see the silver lining?” she’d ask. But David never could. And truthfully, neither could I, though I was better at pretending. “Your depression gives you more empathy,” I’d say, caressing his leg in a way meant to signal affection. But his face was like a sauce that wouldn’t change color or texture no matter how much you stirred it. Anyway, it was a lie.
For late May, it’s hotter here in New Jersey than in Arizona. And it’s not like Arizona heat, not like scorched skin and flaming sun. New Jersey heat is a bloated woman begging to burst. I turn off the car, roll down the windows. A swath of air dense and moist as sponge cake invades the car, glues my thighs together. But at least I’m not killing the planet. The dying plant exudes its funk, encouraged by the heat. Fishy, metallic, almost menstrual. Fucking Shana, giving out potted plants as party favors at her wedding. There’s a reason some of us don’t have children or pets. We don’t need another thing to worry about. I told her this—I felt it my responsibility as her maid of honor—but of course she rolled her eyes and cooed at the plants arranged all across her kitchen counter. Her adorable mutant babies.
“Just because you’re not happy in your relationship doesn’t mean others don’t get to be,” she blurted, and I could tell she’d been rolling this remark like a shiny marble beneath her tongue since her last therapy session, desperate to dislodge it.
“Jesus, I’m talking about the plants.”
“No, you’re not. You’re convinced Calvin and I don’t know each other well enough to get married because it’s only been six months. You and David have been together three years and it’s hardly like you’re the portrait of bliss.”
“It’s just a plain fact. You can’t get to know somebody that fast.”
“Mom and Dad were engaged after three months and they were—”
“Cheating on each other their whole marriage?”
“—mostly really happy together. You’ve really got to stop it with that whole Dad cheating thing. You don’t have any proof.”
“I saw it, Shana. That’s my proof.”
Shana sighed and gazed out at the jungle overtaking her kitchen. She’s never believed me, no matter how many times I’ve told her. Instead of suggesting—as I’ve done just as many times—that she should talk with her therapist about that, I shrugged myself into the nearest chair and picked cat hair off my leggings.
“Do you really not think they’re beautiful?”
I made myself look at the plants. Lush and blooming in all shapes and sizes. They reminded me of the cakes I used to bake, molding thick layers of mint buttercream into the tips of leaves, sprouting pink petals with my fingers. People like flowers. People like to grow things, keep them alive.
“I think they’re very beautiful,” I admitted and watched how Shana’s shoulders softened, her face blooming again with hope. It’s her worst quality: she’s always cared too much what I think.
The plants were a hit at the wedding. People were legitimately fighting over them, throwing passive aggressive hints at each other all throughout dinner—“Oh, my mom would just die for these flowers” or “You know, I’ve always wanted to take up gardening.” I tried to slip out of the room unnoticed, but Shana caught me and forced one of the pots into my arms. One with perky violet flowers and checkered leaves that looked like a cut-open fig. Seeded and blood-red.
“How am I going to get one of these home to New Jersey?” I complained, but it wasn’t what I meant. What I wanted to do was nuzzle its fuzzy leaves against my nose and whisper I’m sorry. I knew it’d be dead in a month.
A car honks behind me in line. It’s that soccer mom van again. I slam on the gas pedal and stop just short of the car ahead. My foot spasms with energy—I’ve gotta get out of here. The milk will sour if it’s out too long. I glance at the clock. I don’t mean to, but I do the math. It’s only been 44 minutes. If I go back now, I’ll never be able to leave him again. I ramp up the radio.
Rihanna’s propulsive rhythm throbs through the car. “Only Girl (In the World).” I remember that wanting, how it shoots right through your nostrils and heads straight to your brain. That wanting to be wanted. A hunger deeper than anything they taught at La Tulipe Patisserie Institute, even deeper than what we learned perched over the mirror in the bathroom stalls or leaning up against the alley between shifts crumbling cigarettes. The rest of the time we learned about crème chibousts and mille-feuille, a dozen ways to slice a strawberry, which flavors paired best with hazelnut. The pastry chef must speak to the deepest parts of the human soul, the part that craves nothing more or less than absolute pleasure, Mrs. Canticle crooned in her slow and sumptuous way, as if each word was a finger dipped in cream and she was sucking on it with relish. We laughed at her, David and I, first from across the room as we caught a spark in each other’s eyes, then in each other’s ears, and then late at night in bed together, rolling around like globs of dough, sticky and ready to be molded, awakening the deepest parts of each other’s souls. David had never been happy before he met me. That’s what he always said and I accepted it as fact, like everything else we were learning: hazelnut pairs splendidly with apricot, banana, mint, and plum.
No, the truth is: I took it as a compliment.
“Make up your mind, Harvard!” the lady behind me squawks. I rack my brain, then remember the crimson Harvard sticker plastered on the bumper. In the rearview, I relish a glimpse of her bad perm. All her millions of tendrils of hair capitulating to this heat. I flip her off. She rushes to shield her children’s eyes.
The sticker’s not mine, of course. I’d done what everyone expected and gone to the University of Arizona, ten miles north of where I was born. An average student, I never felt brave enough to raise my hand in the cavernous lecture halls. The first time I felt seen was when I baked a birthday cake for one of my sorority sisters. Vanilla mousseline with strawberries and almondine-soaked sponge cake. Soon my cakes and pastries were expected at every social function and I discovered the only thing more thrilling than being wanted was being needed.
Attending culinary school in New Jersey was the only time I’d ever lived outside the state. David dropped out of Harvard after a year, and two other schools after that. Still, he was more comfortable at La Tulipe than I was. He had a ragged sort of grace, his thick black hair never tidy but always handsome, and a sense of entitlement that bulged from his shoulders. He didn’t bother socializing with other students. He only focused when he felt like it and had no qualms about wearing his disinterest on his slouched muscular chest, yawning loud as a yodeler while Mr. Pettigrew covered basic safety etiquette. Where I followed the instructions, hammered the dos and don’ts into my head each night before bed, David flambéed Milk Duds as his final project. Every teacher sang his praises, but the week before graduation, David decided he didn’t want us to go. It’s just a stupid ceremony. We don’t even like any of those people. My stomach churned. The truth was that I liked many of our peers and teachers, but David found something ugly, stale, or saccharine in each of them, and I’d started to see them that way too—the way we learned to critique our food so harshly we couldn’t tell what it really tasted like. We’re the best ones in the class, he’d say, and the others are just trying to find out our secrets. His paranoia tugged at me, but the “we” beckoned like the smoothest whiskey at the end of the shift.
Instead of graduation, we booked a hotel room on the Jersey Shore. All week, relentless rain obliterated our promised view of the ocean, but we lay in bed eating truffles we had made ourselves and licking the dust off each other’s palms. Four days later, truffles long gone and our budgets exhausted by the restaurants on the strip, David cracked. He blamed me for missing graduation, for choosing the Shore where it was always raining in April, for what he called the most depressing vacation ever. He flung the tacky sunset paintings across the room and ran into the rain.
I followed as if pulled along by a current beyond my control. When David finally turned around, his face was twisted with derision.
“You’re like a snake, always making me do the wrong thing.”
I opened my mouth to argue, defend myself, declare my love. But no sound would come.
“See, you have nothing to say. You’re a nobody. That’s why you cling to me.”
I fled to the hotel room and assembled my things, trying to disentangle my clothing from his amid the piles we had shamelessly strewn around the bed. I carried my suitcases out to the car, where I found David slumped at its rear, slick as a pup born dead. Frantically, I probed beneath his sweatshirt for a pulse.
“See, you still care if I die.” He was almost smiling.
Carting him back to the hotel room, I remembered my father collapsed at my mother’s feet, begging her to forgive him, while I watched belly- down from the crack in the stairs, peering at the scene upside down. I was sure she’d say no, my strong, defiant mother, and I braced myself, imagining the inevitable new arrangement to come, but instead she caved around him, and from my distorted view, it looked like she was dangling from the floor and he was the one holding onto her, holding her not just upright but together, and I peeled David’s clothes off his blue-gray skin, draped him in all the blankets, towels, sweaters, and scraps of fabric I could find, and pressed against him with my whole body, my anger dissolving. What love ran deeper than this? Two bodies, keeping each other alive.
Rihanna shimmers to a close, replaced by an overly sentimental Maroon 5 song. I shut off the radio. Where am I again? Oh right, waiting at the car wash. I’ll get groceries next. We’re out of milk. Sponges, too.
The plant isn’t dead yet, but it smells like it is. When we left Arizona, I stashed it in the overhead bin, actually remembered to carry it off the plane, then promptly deserted it in the backseat of the car. I won’t lie. I thought about taking it inside and giving it a shot. Creating alarms on my phone that reminded me to water it twice a week. Googling plant survival tips. I fantasized about Shana visiting me for the first time in years and how shocked she’d be to see the plant thriving. Maybe she wouldn’t even notice the Big Mac wrappers overflowing from the garbage bin or the gloomy flesh and semen smell exuding from our blankets. She’d be so impressed by my newly minted green thumb, she’d even overlook the mummified David on the couch, staring at the ceiling like a piece of abstract art he couldn’t figure out.
“Isn’t he seeing a psychiatrist?” Shana has asked me too many times to count.
“Yes, and he’s tried just about every medication out there.”
“What about a therapist?”
And before she said what I knew she would—that maybe her therapist could recommend someone—I reminded her what she didn’t want to hear.
“He’s been in therapy his whole damn life.”
This always shut her up for a while. I knew she wanted to help. But I also knew she wanted me to leave him.
“You know, I was reading the other day about a new treatment facility…”
Back and forth we’d go until the words became mundane as dish soap. The truth is, I haven’t told Shana about the bathtub or the hospitalization afterwards, how he walked around for weeks with deadened fish eyes. The thing nobody tells you about these hospitals is how useless they are. How all they do is pump you with medication, lock you in a fluorescent-lit room, and turn you out the minute you promise not to kill yourself, leaving you with a bill you’ll never live down because restaurant jobs don’t give insurance. I don’t know why I haven’t told Shana, except there are things I don’t tell anyone. Like that I keep a secret line item of my budget, so one day we can maybe afford the pristine center with rolling hills that Shana suggested. Or that I’ve always known I might need to take that money and make a run for it.
Dread surges across my sternum as I jerk my head around. Blue-red- blue-red-blue-red. In the backseat, I spot the paper bag of groceries, fallen on its side. When did I go to the store? It’s the memory bombs. I keep trying to dodge them, but they’re too strong, lurking beneath every thought. The cops dart past the car wash, chasing after someone else. I knead the leather of my seats. Keep me here. Free of the past, sharp to the present moment. Soon the car will be clean and I can move on. But it’s too much of a coincidence, this cop car sailing past.
All I can do is roll up the windows. Blast the AC again. Inch myself forward every time another car disappears through the tunnel. Turn on a mariachi station and keep my brain quiet for a while in a place where no memories live. All I can do is reach into the backseat for the plant. Hold it in my arms and breathe in the rot.
There are other things I’ve never told Shana. Like that sometimes I come home from work to find he’s cooked dinner for us. Seared scallops with garlic and oranges. That we eat together and drink too much wine and it’s almost peaceful. That other times I’m the one who goes and picks up McDonald’s for the both of us. I join him on the couch and we watch stupid shows together, making fun of Snooki and Tyra Banks and Kim Kardashian with relish. That he’s still the smartest person I know.
I have to stop him. Swaddle him in my guilt. Chain my body to his wrists. Tattoo his heart onto my throat. Bind our flesh and make sure we won’t ever be parted again.
Something vibrates behind my hips. I wriggle around and reach for my phone, but it’s not there. Where did I put it? I rake through the car and come across the bright orange coat ticket from Shana’s wedding at La Fortuna. David couldn’t have hated the venue more—the sagging palm trees, the absurd fountains outside each room, the cringingly sweet shrimp cocktail appetizers. But he turned quiet when Shana and Calvin said their vows and abruptly excused himself during the second course. I stood up too fast, knocking over my fork, staining spaghetti sauce on my pale yellow dress, and as I hurried out of the room, I tried not to catch Shana’s eye, but of course I looked right at her. Saw her perfect day protract and shatter.
David wasn’t in the lobby. I remembered with relief that I had the car keys and found him smoking a cigarette in the parking lot. My high heels teetered on the loose gravel, the bridesmaid dress closing my legs shut like a mermaid.
“I don’t deserve you,” he whimpered. “Without me, you’d be free. You could go back to the restaurant. Go back to what you love.”
He began to throw fistfuls of gravel—not quite at me, but like he didn’t care if that’s where they landed. His face drew back behind a dark curtain.
“I’m going back in.”
“Don’t leave me, Julie. Please.”
I wiped my dress and remembered the splotch of red at my hip. I considered staying there with him. Going back to our room and crumpling this ugly, butter-colored dress in the hotel trash bin. Then I remembered my sister, how much this stupid wedding meant to her. The way her gaze turned soft as rose petals when she looked at Calvin. Her pupils bright with alarm and horror when she looked at me, barreling after David.
Shana may care too much what I think, but the truth is, I care even more what she thinks of me.
“I’ll meet you here after. I promise.”
Wobbling back to the wedding was when the thought first came to me. Maybe David was right. I felt dangerous, on edge. I locked eyes with someone at the table next to me, a boy barely out of high school, daring him to dance. I choked up during my parent’s embarrassing toast about Shana and me naked in our ducky costumes—not from the story, but from the way my parents squeezed each other’s hands the whole time, as though they were in love and had always been. Calvin’s mom noticed my trembling lip and handed me a tissue. “Aren’t they perfect together?” she said, fawning. But the tears wouldn’t come. At the end of the night, when Shana thrust the silly plant into my arms, my first thought was that it probably weighed as much as a baby. I didn’t mind like I’d expected.
The car wash billboard shifts into view. Big bright squares of options gleaming bright as a lottery ticket: The Regular, The Deluxe, The Special, The Ultimate. Each category is arranged with checkmarks for hot shine carnauba wax, triple foam polish, double bond with teflon, something called “Complete Protection.” But what the fuck is carnauba wax? I wish I’d brought my dumb phone. A huge banner reads in bold red print, UNLIMITED MONTHLY PASS – WASH YOUR CAR AS OFTEN AS YOU LIKE. I do the math. At $46.13, it’s a good deal. Besides, I really should be washing the car twice a month, probably more. Then I remember this Toyota belongs to David and once everyone finds out what I’ve done, I won’t be washing any cars ever again.
Three knocks at the window.
The attendant is a young man with good teeth, square and bright as Chiclets. Too good to be working this shitty job.
“Shit, uh, give me ‘Complete Protection.’”
“You mean the Ultimate?”
“What’s your name?”
I want to draw out this moment as long as I possibly can, kiss each one of his teeth. I want to tell him, “Leave this crummy town and this miserable job. Do what you love. Believe in yourself.” I want to read him all the inspirational slogans my sister sends me on Pinterest. He could be an actor with those teeth, or a lawyer, or a social justice activist.
“I mean, what’s it gonna cost?”
He cocks a sweaty eyebrow and points to the sign. “All the info’s up there, ma’am.”
He stares at me expectantly. “Ma’am, you can wait inside the building while we wash your car.”
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“Only the outside, please.”
“But the Ultimate comes with everything,”
He shrugs and I watch him vanish from my gaze, into a future I’ll never know. Away from all these other stupid cars, the soccer moms I’ll never be, the G&T kid I’ll never have. Away from what I’ve done. Who I’ve become. I drive up to the entrance and turn off the car.
Nothing happens for a while. Long flaps of black rubber hang loosely from the ceiling. Then the car glides forward and water spits at all the windows. Foam gathers, blotting out the world. We are somewhere warm. Somewhere warm. Spread-eagled in that Jersey Shore hotel room watching the rain come down.
Rubber guts mop the windshield. Hoses whirr and wheeze. I clutch at the gears, but there’s no escaping. Everything blurs.
This morning I woke to David folded over himself, fiddling with the gun.
“I should just do it,” he moaned. “Stop tormenting myself. It’s the only way.”
Black ribbons thrash at the roof. Pummel at the doors.
I knew what he needed me to do. Tell him why I loved him. Beg him to stay alive. The world needed him. His goodness. His genius. I glanced at the clock and did the math. I’d be late for the one hundredth and second day in a row.
The gun glinted in the morning sun.
“How can you be so smart but also so unhappy?” I’d asked David once. When I told Shana later, her reply was pinched and quiet. “I’ve always wondered that about you.”
“Just do it,” I said.
The words came out like a hiss. A voice I’d never heard, shaking its rattle.
David sat up and for a minute he was really there, curtains open, looking straight at me with his intelligent eyes.
Water prisms the windows.
Then he looked down at the gun. I knew I should take it away. But I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want it to be mine to carry.
Spinning brushes batter at my sides.
“What’s stopping you?”
I forgot myself and touched his cheek. Dry. When was the last time he’d cried? When was the last time I had?
He blinked and his soul vanished again. Lips quivered on his chin like a dumb child, and I knew I had to leave.
Soap. Splattering. Fractals.
Evaporation. Empty circles spreading.
I left him there like that. Stroking the shiny gun.
Pluck off the plant’s withered leaves. Rotting flowers. Wrest the stalks from their soil. Some pull easy, a few resist, so I tug harder until they tear up the roots.
Water travels down like snakes.
The windshield sparkles.
On the other side, the sky appears again, blank as a canvas. A different attendant taps on the window.
“Your car looks good as new, Miss. Now can we do the inside?”
“I don’t need it.”
“Are you sure?”
I look down at the shriveled flowers and leaves scattered across the floor. Scrawny stalks holding onto their nest of roots. Exposed, but intact.
I nod and hand him two twenties. Twist the keys into ignition. Ram my foot onto the gas pedal until the tires squeal for mercy.