He’s tall, the tallest guy I’ve ever been with, structured face, stubble on his chin, runner’s build, practices yoga.
He balances a blanket under his arm, a bottle of white wine and two glasses, and nods at the large plate he set for us, filled with cheeses and meats and crackers and olives and all of these things I see in restaurants but never actually order—“Grab that for me?”—and I follow him from his tiny lived-in kitchen through to the fire escape and up to the roof, where we take a seat with the food in between us. I like the atmosphere of his place: the sunken-in vintage furniture, the knives and forks all organized in the right places, a bowl of fruit always filled. When it’s just the two of us it makes me feel like we’re in a romantic comedy; a couple in love just before the plot twist that tears them apart. But we’re not in love, and this is New York, so in truth he has two other roommates: internationals from Spain and Nigeria who are mostly heard and not seen. I’ve only caught glimpses of one roommate, a man named Bruno from Granada, who flits through the house in a soccer jersey and leaves their tiny kitchen smelling of potatoes and peppers and saffron.
"Hold up, hold up,” he says before I sit, so he can lay the blanket down. He fluffs it a little in the spot I’ll be sitting. Sometimes I find his kindness intimidating; I’ve never known a man I was only occasionally sleeping with to be so kind. We sit and he puts the wine bottle between his knees and pulls out the cork effortlessly, and I take it as another sign of his niceness that he doesn’t ask me to do this. The last time we shared wine, on a night not so dissimilar to this one, I mentioned the years in high school I worked at a country club upstate and how much practice I’d had opening wine bottles, but when he offered it to me to open, I broke the cork in half and we spent the night dodging the bits of floating material that fell into the bottle and poured out into our glasses.
He pours me a glass and him a glass and then leans back on his elbows, stretches his body long, sighs into the evening. I sit with my legs tucked up near my body, my arms wrapped around my knees. It’s the same position of comfort I’ve taken since I was a little girl, an attempt to minimize my presence.
“So, soul mates, that was the question?” he asks, continuing a line of conversation we started an hour ago on the phone, before he invited me to come over.
“Yes, soul mates. Real or Hallmark bullshit?”
“You’re not leaving me with a choice of a gray area in between, I guess?”
I shake my head. He’s older than me but I don’t know by how much, but this fact alone makes me judge his experience. I’m positive he’s had many girls fall in love with him and treated them all very kindly. While he ponders this, his face forming that far out look he gets when he’s thinking, I take a sip of my wine and stare out at the city and all the cars moving in the distance and the people on the sidewalk. If I shut one eye and put my finger in the right place it looks like I can squish all of them.
“I suppose there is the possibility,” he says, uncrossing and re-crossing his ankles. “But I’ve been in love before, and things had felt very real in those moments, you know? Everything’s heightened. Like, you see colors differently, almost? Don’t laugh, it’s true. Those times I thought, yes, this might be it, we might be soul mates. That’s usually right around the time things start to fall apart,” he says this with a laugh. He says it expecting me to laugh, too, but the sentiment only makes me feel sad. I don’t believe in soul mates either, most of my past relationships had never even gotten to the point of love before one or both of us cut it off, and those that did get close turned sour just when you would think they’d become great—each of us equipped with a more intimate way of cutting the other down. But still, I wanted someone else to believe. We couldn’t both be cynics.
I change the subject and mention something about my job, the one he’s suggested I quit. “I was on the phone with my student loan provider. They said if I just stay at my job for ten years my loans will go away.”
“But you hate your job,” he says, popping an olive into his mouth.
“I don’t hate it. I just don’t really like it.”
He chews, swallows. I take a swig of wine and swallow too hard, feel it burn my throat.
“Every time I see you you’re complaining about it,” he says.
“Not every time,” I say, but he gives me a look that tells me he’s right. I took the job, some humanitarian nonprofit that does work in West Africa, because I thought it meant I could travel. Instead I organize folders and format documents and edit things I don’t know how to edit and listen to everyone complain that they’re not paid enough, that they’re not doing enough, that they’re not respected enough, that nothing is ever enough. “I just thought, I don’t know, that I’d be doing some good in the world,” I say, lamely.
He’s nice enough not to laugh. But he suggests, again, that I quit. “Nothing that is making you miserable is worth it.”
I tell him I’ll think about it knowing that I won’t. I’m envious of his maleness; his assurance that quitting a job in a city like this is something that could feasibly be done.
I pull out a cigarette from my purse and he tut-tuts at me, though midway through my smoking it he asks for a puff and takes one sharp inhale and blows it out his nose, a trait of a former smoker, though he claims he never was one. One night after we both drank too much whiskey, he confessed to me that he likes the taste of it on my mouth, the wrongness of it. I don’t tell him it’s a habit I picked up and kept from a heroin-addicted musician who I briefly convinced myself I could change.
For a while we sit there, sometimes in silence, sometimes one of us makes soft chatter about the weather, the state of New York housing, national politics that we agree on. He talks about his family, his brother in Denver, his sister in Santa Cruz. He loves his mother and adds a reminder to his phone to call her tomorrow. He asks, but I never answer questions about my own family. My dad left when I was young and I haven’t talked to my mom in years, but I can’t explain this to him. Something about the way I know he’ll look at me, with eyes betraying pity, prevents me. The subject of love or soul mates doesn’t come up again.
For a moment, while we sit, blanketed in the glow of the sun just beginning to set, I look at the angles of his face and can see into our futures, can understand with complete clarity how this will all work out. He won’t be my soul mate, or even a great love, because I’ll sabotage it before it can get to that point.
I feel him glance at my exposed legs, tanned from the sun-soaked days of late summer.
“Hey,” I say in a low voice we both recognize to mean something, “c’mere” and I push the plate in between us away and he smiles, pulls me in towards him. And I know, I just know, that we’ll carry on like this, at least for a little while, and all of the things that he likes will become the things I like, and he’ll pretend he knows me and I’ll pretend he does too, and all those things will stay the things I like long after we stop speaking, until I find someone new, a new home to inhabit, a new person to find myself in.
About the Writer
Alisha Ebling is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her fiction and essays can be seen in Junto Magazine, Yalobusha Review, The Avenue, The Rumpus, Luna Luna Magazine, The Head & The Hand Press, Bangalore Review, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Dhaka Tribune, Apiary Magazine, The Stockholm Review, and other anthologies in Philadelphia and abroad. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. In her writing she explores family, femininity, and the relationships that shape us. Read her work at alishaebling.com.