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The Lovers

Everyone who asks questions, asks in some way about love. The question is one half, the answer the other. If you separate the Lovers you don’t end up with two distinct people. Instead you’re left with two halves of a self, incapable of doing much on their own. Imagine a coin with one side, or a story with one side. Imagine peeling the skin off your arm. Imagine the worst thing that could ever happen to you, happening to you. When one Lover’s gone, the other doesn’t know what to do. When a Lover was a waitress she dropped all the plates she carried. When a Lover was a cashier he could never count out the right change. When they worked opposite hours they lost entire days. They looked at the moon more than they looked at themselves. They’d rifle through medicine cabinets in other people’s houses and read the magazines other people subscribed to. They went to the places where others decided to go. When they’re apart they forget their names; when they’re together they don’t respond to them.

 

‘We can tell you your future, if you tell us your dreams,’ is what the Lovers say upon being found. They listen to one of your dreams if you buy each a Moscow Mule, and after will tell a part of the coming days. It can be insignificant, like a bee. ‘Watch for bees,’ a Lover says to you. ‘Are you allergic?’ You’re not. ‘That’s good.’ Their smiles are sleepy; they ruffle each other’s hair.

 

The next Tuesday you step on a bee. You see the Lovers later that week at the Mercantile. You ask how they’d extracted bees from your dream, in which there weren’t any bees. ‘There’s no future in dreams,’ one Lover says, the girl. ‘None that would be worth telling, anyway.’ You expect the Lovers to evade but they don’t. ‘It’s about faces,’ the boy goes on. ‘Seeing what’s there. The past is in your teeth. The future’s in your eyes.’

 

You wonder why they asked about dreams, until you run into the ex-girlfriend of one of your friends, whose face you recognise better than her voice. ‘They just like hearing people’s dreams,’ she says, bored already. ‘They don’t have any of their own.’

 

It’s like this, when you talk to them, or about them. Half-answers that in the end, amount to nothing – much like the Lovers themselves. They live in an apartment on Poverty Ridge that stinks of resin fumes because one of them makes orgonite, a device used for energy channelling in reiki circles. The Lovers sometimes sell these in the markets beneath the freeway, but most often just scatter them places – under park benches, behind trash cans. Inside other apartments that they’re only sometimes invited to and occasionally stay in for too long, when they find themselves homeless, which happens sometimes. Old classmates of theirs sometimes run into teachers they used to have at bars they now go to, and it is always awkward, and inevitably, someone brings up the Lovers. The teacher recalls a time in class, a time before the Lovers were the Lovers. Tenth grade, he says, World History. Remember what they were like? Empty, the teacher says. Stupid? The classmates writhe inside, these adult perspectives, a sieved understanding of their previous identities. No, the teacher says; just empty. Nothing inside. The girl threw up in my class once, he says, his beer halfway drained, and there was no buildup, she didn’t look sick. Next minute she’s retching. And no food comes up, though it’s violent enough to have purged a day and night, easy – just clear acids. She wasn’t sick; she wasn’t drunk. They breathalysed her and nothing. Just threw up for nothing and didn’t know why. We asked her point blank and she didn’t know why.  But that’s an unfair assessment, really.

 

Everything happens for a reason. (History teachers should know this more than anybody, it seems.) We’re boiling down to the bunk that all reasons have to be bodily, since they stem from the physical. What did Freud say about melancholia? ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.’ From where do we stem if not ourselves?

 

It was a Sex Ed class that had overtaken World History; the teacher was showing birthing videos. Tenth graders, boys and girls, eyes zipped to the female anatomy, all uncomfortable protuberances. The boys rattled around the bumpy inkling that a girl’s parts aren’t always sexual. The girls watched their horror-movie selves. Bodies spewing bodies and other viscera. Their ugliness splayed between stirrups for all to see. How did we become the way we are? Look back, to when events slip from their cause. We were once nothing and now we shrink, blush at the evidence. Amoebas split to become more themselves. We look for our halves anywhere but the mirror. Their old classmates remember these days, when everyone was uncomfortable just sitting too close to someone in a small space that they’d have to spill into one another’s interiors, cutting the tension. This was before anyone knew the true nature of someone else as well as their own. They think back on this time as the dissolution of all that was held sacred in the world – a time they would still occupy basements, even when the delta was at high risk for floods. An unknowing, someone puts it. When what we didn’t know wouldn’t kill us. When what we did wouldn’t either.

 

Nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find the Lovers awake before noon. If you haven’t seen a Lover in the morning you don’t know how well sleep can resemble death. The Lovers would rather give you their eyes than wake. They wear their pajamas to the coffeehouse, forgoing showers. They forget to brush their teeth.

 

Anything so gross is generally avoided; still, whenever the Lovers are spotted, someone inevitably bothers them. A brunch-drunk realtor pulls up a chair near their booth, probing for information about markets. In the morning the Lovers accept payment in the form of Ambien, Halcion, phenobarbital, diazepam – drugs that could offer comfort, if they weren’t used to buy fortunes delivered too late to stop the construction of housing developments on flood-zoned rice paddies. As if knowing what is imminent staves off any anxiety.

 

Some have wondered why the future is always a warning, from the mouths of Lovers. Whether what’s waiting at the far end of time is inherently violent, or if there’s no other way to deliver a fortune. This will happen to you; beware. Some warnings, like some moles, are benign. During the day the Lovers split to go to their separate jobs and it’s the opposite of benign. They move slowly and are often fired. In the past two years the Lovers were evicted from three apartments, and still know everywhere to call home. They buy scratchers to lose to California. They remain loyal to their brand of cigarettes.

 

In this way the Lovers are a product of a collective imagination, messengers ripe for blame. They are the goat heads found sawed off in the park, draped with Mardi Gras beads. Sacrifices achieving an abject clarity and no solace, but at least utilise public spaces before they are all submerged, us along with them. It’s apocalypses that run boys’ mouths and silence girls, though the moon, to her credit, speaks her mind. She asks: whatever happened to sacrifices, anyway? Sometimes I wonder why every word out of the mouth of the moon is a lament. People used to worship, she says. I used to be God. Until you were phased out, I say. Shut up, the moon says. People still wonder about cycles that have already happened, happening, complete. They want the world to rewind until the film snaps. We all badly want a new start we’ll take the end, just to go back around. What a wild ride, I say. You’re not watching, the moon wanes.

 

But for an asteroid she would still be part of us. We’d stomp all over her face until it was formless, smooth. They say the footprints on the moon left by astronauts remain – a lack of weather – but our crimes wash away, traceless. We duck in the ambiguity of rain. Cleanliness is next to godliness; after all, water is the universal solvent. Give it time to sink in, before you go around spouting blame.

 

*

 

If you find them in a bar or on a patio they’re likely to be holding hands. Sometimes they kiss. They kiss whenever they have to separate, usually only to pee. ‘I wish I could pee through you,’ one Lover says to the other. ‘I wish that too.’ Sometimes they squat together in a parking lot instead of splitting for gendered doors.

 

Someone once asked the useless question of what sorts of bars the Lovers prefer– assuming the Lovers have any standards when it comes to this kind of thing. They’ve been found in upscale joints and midtown clubs, sharing the company of all manner of people, always on someone else’s dime. Once they were spotted at the bar in a Mexican restaurant, swaying softly to mariachi music. Watching a soundless basketball game and prodding at the watery margaritas in front of them, stirring the slush thin.

 

The man who saw them was also a drunk. He bought the Lovers fresh margaritas and asked them about the efficacy of his wife’s cancer treatments, detailing a dream he had a few nights ago about swimming with gigantic fish in an aquarium tank. ‘She should be fine,’ the boy told him – an answer which incited a deluge of tears, another round of drinks, and twenty dollars slapped on the table as a departing gift, which the Lovers used to buy drinks, until someone else comes by.

 

I saw the Lovers once in a bar bathroom, standing in front of a mirror, examining themselves. Fingers probing for where one ended and the other began. It was like watching a surgeon suture a wound, a practiced grace toward a body that the Lovers had down pat, though in the end remained stuck in two places, hands doing the work of stitches. There are people who eat substances that aren’t food for the simple reason that the heart wants what the heart wants, even if it kills you, and this is why the Lovers sometimes can’t sleep, for what are the risks embedded in dreams?

 

Over the nights they nod, to each other, to their drinks. To the tide of questions swelling and receding around their ears. To the people who want to know the future so they can change it, the Lovers thinly smile. And ultimately of the Lovers stands up, kisses the other on the neck, and leaves – a job he has to go to, because the Lovers need money, more than they need anything else. When he leaves the girl hunches over her drink, caging herself in her shoulders, distancing the propositions and slurs from adjacent bodies. She thumbs for bills in her empty wallet. Someone near her laughs hard and spits out gum into her hair –an accident, probably. Someone else sits down and buys her a drink, and talks about dreams.  

 

The world is harsh to Lovers. It won’t let them be. Lovers need jobs and roommates, and roommates especially if their jobs are only part-time. Lovers need to eat and sometimes their tastes are different: one likes cilantro, which to the other tastes like soap. One Lover eats soap sometimes when no one’s watching. There’s no way to get clean that tastes good. When tongues that taste differently taste each other, the plates are on the table, the parts the self can’t know piled on for the other to try. The you a Lover knows can never be known by you, nor explained, nor described. You never know if you like the way you taste.

 

*

 

The desire to know futures is only outweighed by the desire to forget pasts, and bars are blank slates, much like the Lovers. They have their old favorites and faithfuls, broken jukeboxes and smoggy patios. Bars with dollars stapled to the ceiling like an insured Zodiac, some monetary recompense for a damned existence. An astrologer wonders what the Lovers’ rising signs are, if they were destined. Classmates and basements everywhere keep quiet.

 

In Round Corner the Lovers’ legs tangle in their stools. They chew the ends of their straws, they kiss, they say their names forwards and backwards. They talk about the moon and its abscesses, and how time can be counted backwards if you started at the end of the world. How the end of the world can be traced back to history class, a curse, a Tuesday at four in the morning. One Lover has to be up for work at four on Tuesday. It’s not worth going to sleep if they’ll wake up anyway. When one Lover wakes up, the other does too.

 

Lovers are like lungs. The health of one is the same as the other. They blacken at the same rate because they take in the same air. If Lovers had their way with the world, one could inhale the air that the other expelled from their lungs, and there would be no sickness. There’s a reason, one might posit, that the lungs surround the heart.

 

If you wait through last call you’ll see the Lovers in a different light. When the alcohol has thinned their blood and their eyes dilate and their words leveeing increasing lengths of silence between, and their heads fall together like two cards propping up a tower. Their faces are damp and stick together; their noses whistle as they breathe. Their pulses gallop and jump and gallop, and under the lights that turn off, amid the hands that wave them out, you might think that it’s not fair, the way the world treats Lovers. That it’s not right to let them lose. It wouldn’t be the first night the Lovers go to sleep wondering if they’d wake. It wouldn’t be the last time the Lovers, before morning, loiter outside the hospital, asking for beds. They’re turned away on the nights they’re not arrested. ‘This is for emergencies,’ the nurses tell them.

 

The Lovers never fight back, because they’re not fighters. They walk home and puke in their own toilet. They sit in the bathroom for too long. One Lover talks, too many times, about lungs. How when a lung collapses, the air is trapped inside the chest cavity, and the lungs can’t expand as much, and the more you breathe the more air takes up space but the wrong space, and you literally drown in your own breath. How to live, you need to empty as much as you need to fill.

 

*

 

The Lovers don’t dream, but one of them got close. It was the space after night but before morning, before the earth inverts and the dark returns to shadows, light waiting behind it all. One Lover sleeps and one is awake, and watches through his eyelids the hour when light is the shadow cast by trees. Time can be counted backwards if you start at the end of the world. It’s black, he sees, like if you poured all the stars down a sink drain and then poured the drain down the drain. Stars start floating in the way ships appear out of the horizon, but there’s no horizon and they come from all directions, establishing directions. The distance shrinks and so do the stars; they are old; before they were old they didn’t exist. Before that was the end of time. Before the end of time there were Lovers, sitting in a dark room. If you could spit out five things from your body, one of them asks, what would they be. That’s easy, the other one answers; my wisdom teeth. The stars choose rocks, gas, dust – things that clump into planets and turn, atmospheres and oceans and weather systems cycling between. People at the oceans, looking for ships. Time can be counted backwards if you start at the end of the world. Personalities determine the chemical makeup of brains, excrement the content of stomachs. People die before they are born. Their deaths are their resurrections. All boxes in the dirt wait to be unburied. All the dead wait for their skin to sprout like moss. Fossils melt, rocks turn to life. There’s only four wisdom teeth, a Lover says; you have to choose five.

 

Time can be counted backwards if you start at the end of the world. Soon we’ll get to our time. Cities strip to their bones and uncover the ones before. Food is returned to shelves after being eaten; clothes are returned to stores. Shoplifters are good samaritans, returning the things they’ve taken. Missing girls return to their families with younger eyes. Children spring from nothing and we know their lives before we know our own. We watch ourselves shrink, become lighter, become teenagers in a basement that’s not ours. We sit with five other people in a circle, looking at cards. Our eyes meet across the circle. ‘They look like you two,’ someone says, meaning us, ‘the people on the cards.’ The Lovers. Next to the Four of Swords, the Seven of Cups, the Hanged Man, the Three of Wands, the World, the Hierophant. The anticipation before expelling breath. ‘Tell me my future,’ I ask.

 

We’re in the same circle, you and I, but we’re not the Lovers. The cards haven’t been flipped. They’re dealt and passed between another person, for another future that’s already passed. We’re in the same circle, you and I, but our eyes don’t brush and my thoughts don’t go to you; someone says your name and I’m grateful because I forgot it, though I forget it. I hear it for the first time and I don’t know it. Soon you arrive and it’s before, and I don’t know you at all, and the sky outside is indented with trees, like the imprints left by shoes.

 

You have to choose five, a Lover says. They sit in a dark room where they can’t tell themselves apart. One Lover is thinking, and one is waiting, and both are remembering their childhoods all the way back to their wombs. I’d give it all up, is the answer. The skin that someone else touched, the bones that a doctor healed. The cord that tied me to someone else. I’d give up everything that wasn’t made by you.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

 received an MFA from Columbia University and is writing a novel. Her work has previously appeared in Tin House and the artist book Girls In Trees. 'The Lovers' was shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize (US & Canada).


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