Sammy was alone and she was dancing half-naked in front of a full-length mirror they had purchased together. It was technically his because he bought it with his money. She bought the television. He bought the grey couch and the kitchen table. The mattress was the one he had at his old apartment, the apartment with the rusty sink and the refrigerator that never seemed to get cold enough to keep the vegetables fresh for more than two days.
It was six in the evening in the center of winter and it was miserably dark outside, the sky just this impossibly depressing, inky thing and not the source of joy it was during the summers full of evening heat and possibility.
Department of Eagles played loudly from some corner of the living room, filling her hallway with “No One Does It Like You.”
But I tried so hard.
I tried so hard.
I tried so hard.
It was and had been on loop for the better part of thirty-seven minutes. She danced what she intended to be an attempt at ballet even though she had never been properly trained. When Sammy was a child she took classes but quit after being scolded for dancing to “Under the Sea” with her fist closed tightly around a pink rhinestone. It had fallen off of her ballet slipper and she had placed it on the floor next to her until she saw the girl with the brown hair eyeing it suspiciously. When it was Sammy’s turn to spin around the room to the voice of a singing lobster, she did it while protecting that stupid plastic thing and she cried when the teacher told her she couldn’t do that and she might break her hand if she fell. She wasn’t in trouble but she felt like she was and she sobbed deeply and her chest heaved within her leotard and she was thankful when she got chickenpox the next week. She never went to ballet class again.
Sammy was alone in the apartment for the first time in months. Carl was away on some work trip, probably flirting with foreign girls and feeling the invigorating power of lust. People needed that, Sammy knew. It made you feel worthwhile. It affirmed things that you should have already known without the validation of a person who wanted to kiss you, have sex with you, date you. None of that mattered. At the end of the day, all you were left with was you. They had been together for years and still all Sammy had was herself.
No one does it like you.
No one does it like you.
The song had started again and Sammy watched her arms move with an unknowing grace. She looked at a face that was older now but oddly more beautiful. She leaned and stretched and her toes bent in limited, unqualified ways. She was alone and she breathed and she danced alone.
It had been too long and she had been consumed by this – by them, by this house, by the expectations people placed on the chronological order of monogamy. She wanted disorder. She wanted chaos and groping, grasping, desperate love all over again. The frantic hands filled with newness. It had died living in this house because of the control. The rent that was due every thirty days and the bills that they split in half.
She was tired of him and she was tired of the her that she had become as a result. She was tired of not wearing that dress he didn’t like and not wearing her retainer to bed at night and negotiating what concerts were worth spending the money on. She was sick of listening to his music even though it was good – even though it was better than her music, which had was now a three-year-old archive of her single life, back when she dutifully searched for music that moved her personally. His soundtrack had become her soundtrack and these songs were doomed to be only memories of him. But she would always have this memory – this moment of temporary levity, like that part of the day where the sun burns off the marine layer, that particular moment when light supersedes fog. She would remember a moment that she had not lived in some time, dancing freely to a song that was hers because he hadn’t beaten her to it.
It was winter and she danced and Sammy felt the love melting away like the snow in their backyard – full and abundant and alarmingly pure at first and dissolving over the course of its short life, layer by layer, unnoticed until the sad brown earth revealed itself in muddy rough patches.
She once had a boy who loved her so much it terrified her. So much, in fact, he was not a boy at all but just a mirror of all her good and none of her bad. A pool of nothing that he wanted desperately for her to fall into. Love me. Love me. Love me. But she didn’t know what to love because he had given up so much of himself in loving her. No one was worth that, she thought. No matter how beautiful or smart or funny they thought them to be. These adjectives were just projections of what the other person wanted, exacerbated lies that made a person believe in soul mates and true love.
Feeling him fall in love with her was like watching someone drown: gasping for air and only taking in salt water. Watching him fall out of love with her was much the same, only without the sweeping grace had accompanied the initial ascent of delusion. At first she felt badly for her inability to love him as much, but at the end of it – after watching him suffer with questions about forever and always and things she had no way of answering or knowing – she wanted to push him underwater, keeping him there until he was dead dead dead. She wanted nothing of this to survive.
The night she killed it for good, she was mean, awful and mean because she had to be. He egged her on with questions that became more prodding, more roundabout; increasingly begging for a maliciousness she never desired to be capable of. Arguing with him was an art of semantics and she knew it was because he wanted so desperately to keep her. His words twisted around like the roots of a banyan tree, trying to trap her, keep her, eat her alive. He said things she wasn’t sure he actually felt; he was living his life according to a script he had written in his head, a romantic drama starring Javier Bardem and an actress no one had ever heard of. He was making her hate him and this would make everything easier. And finally, after hours of wanting to punch walls or run away or take a shower or bite him savagely, she screamed, “I hate you! I hate you! Is that what you want? This is what you want?” The words burned her throat and made her hands shake. It wasn’t what he wanted but the hate would make it easier for him, too.
He was fighting for a train that had already left the station, one that he had missed by an entire day. He stood on the platform, holding a golden ticket he had created with his mind, trying to call back what had never been there.
Olivia’s wrists ached under the weight of a five-pound apple pie, a treat her mother had taught her to make when she was still small and could be taught things. She wished her parents had pushed her harder during those malleable years – force-feeding her Spanish and French lessons, throwing her in front of a piano or a guitar or anything that she could use to channel her occasional malaise. Instead she had turned twenty-five and was just another useless, ignorant American, speaking English and going to concerts, not performing in them, making pies for holiday parties she didn’t really want to go to anyway.
As an adult she had found herself more reluctant in the acquisition of new knowledge. Knowing too much made her feel small and insignificant; the more she knew about one singular topic, more subtopics would spring up around them like relentless weeds begging to be pulled, though when those were pulled new ones just grew up in their place. Knowledge was an infinite void. Stella never felt satisfied because there could be no satisfaction in the infinite.
Olivia should have taken a car. Her pack was heavy with two bottles of wine and a festive homemade trail mix of dried cherries and pistachios, less obvious shades of the holiday season. Instead, she was left to awkwardly negotiate the pie in her hands with the subway turnstile, onto a platform filled with the only other idiots in New York City willing to endure a similar hassle.
The voice of the robotic subway announcer – a sexless woman always telling Olivia when her Manhattan bound train was arriving – echoed around the filthy tiled halls, absorbed into nothing and no one the same way her apartment did.
She had been in her place five months already and hadn’t bothered to invest in any furniture save for a mattress, two forks, and a knife. She had nested before, inspired by a boy and the concept of home. She knew what it was like to spend weekends at flea markets, finding trinkets that accurately expressed her personality in brass and porcelain. “I’m like this,” the chandelier in her dining room proudly stated, shining down over the faces of her beautiful friends in a beautiful kaleidoscope of light. That time was beautiful. Their apartment was beautiful. They were beautiful and then they were over.
Olivia found an apartment far enough away from that place so she never had to walk past it. He didn’t live there anymore but she couldn’t be bothered reliving times that had already passed. There was no point in looking back; life was about charging relentlessly forward. Forward and away. Inventing new parts of yourself so you could forget about the old.
Her new place was not as beautiful as the last, in part because she couldn’t afford what they had been able to afford as a couple, but also because she just didn’t care. It was a newer building, without crown molding or high ceilings. Her neighbors were twenty-somethings who dressed like people who didn’t understand aesthetics. It felt a bit like a prefabricated cave with that fake wooden flooring that gave underfoot. An apartment was just an apartment. It lacked all of the things that Olivia had always associated with home and that was precisely the point; if it was perfect, if she made it perfect, she would get attached, and when the day came that she had to leave it, it would be that much more difficult.
When she moved, she vowed not to repeat the mistakes of her past. Everything was temporary and everyone was transient. Everything about New York City was a constant reminder of that fact: the internationals who came and went, the weather that changed by the hour, the constant flood of new things that indicated a forcing out of the old. She knew all of this and she spent her time and money accordingly: sparsely and with a hesitant hand.