Ben Philippe

This Is Having

My girlfriend has lost fourteen pounds over the past three months. Because of this—this and other significant clues—I believe that she is getting ready to leave me.

She holds my gaze when we have sex and says things like, “Right there,” or “No, I’m not done yet.” Last night she cupped my cheek and said, “Hey, stay with me,” before she came. And when I did, when I kept my eyes wide open, gazing into hers, all I could focus on were the sounds we were making together. We sounded like a lone frog swimming across a pond. Afterwards, she went into the living room and wrote letters for a while, with Leno loud in the background.

She does that a lot now too, I should say. Writes. Corresponds with people she once knew, way before me. Cousins I’ve never heard of, old friends from her wild days that require two stamps’ worth of delivery. People I don’t know and probably never will. What I do know is this: she isn’t looking for an out, isn’t bored with our life, and is allowed to have meaningful relationships with people other than me and, really, how dare I? These are all things I know, the same way I now know not to go through the letters.

*

My girlfriend also now sees a therapist once a week.

She sits on what I imagine to be a large and chipped leather couch conversing with this astute professional, while I keep myself busy at home waiting for her. I tidy up the things that ought to be tidied but never are—like the fridge and the kitchen table—and once I see the bus stop below our apartment building, I fill the kettle for her. We’re off coffee now. Tea soothes and more often than not, she’s nothing but nerves after these sessions.

In the background of the running water, I’ll hear the scuffing of shoes on the carpet and the weight of her coat coming down on its hook. Some days like today, she’ll have raccoon eyes, which imply that it was, in fact, a good session. Flawless makeup only means that the previous coat ran so badly she had to reapply before taking the bus back. Six sessions in, these are things that I now know.

“Hey, you.”

She kisses me and rests her forehead on my chin for a while, sighing. I’m asked about my day and about whether or not that’s the same undershirt I’ve had on all day, because there might be a smell. From the closet, I tell her about the beams finally being up at the site and the new second-floor layout that Sanchez is finally, finally going with. When I step back into the kitchen, the soymilk has been moved from the door to the back of the fridge, and the tablecloth somehow pinched straighter than it just was.

“Thanks for the tea, by the way,” she says.

We’re aimless but focused, lost in a slew of unearthed flaws and inadequacies. Well, new. I sometimes like to guess at what these could be. You let others walk over you, probably. You don’t stand up for yourself. You weren’t responsible for your mother’s failings. Whatever
today’s discovery was it clearly got to her. Them.

See, we’re a “we” now and a crowded one too. It’s no longer just me and her, but also the many new hers she excavates each week. New hers I’d never met before and that I don’t necessarily like. There’s already the insecure her; the angry her; the her who’s ashamed of being a townie; the college her who doesn’t technically exist and therefore stands a few inches taller above the rest. There’s also the fat her she sees every morning, the not-so-fat her she’ll be in a week, and the size-two her she’ll be in a year, “with time and discipline”. This is still only an approximation and I believe there are plenty more still lurking about, since I only occasionally get to glimpse at these women. When I asked, I was told the idea is that together they all theoretically make up to a better, ‘wholer’ her. A bold new woman still simmering under the weight of all these strange girls of various shapes and sizes. Her, we haven’t met yet.

She hugs me again without a word. When my fingers rub a little too close to that sore spot on her fourth finger, she untangles us quickly and soon after disappears into the bedroom with a cup of tea and a protein bar.

We lock ourselves up in our room for three hours, skipping dinner. When the game is over—five to one, Detroit—I find her, them, on the bed in purple socks chewing gum with the journal in her lap. “Be supportive. It’s going well on my end,” we tell me of the diet. I brush our teeth twice to hide the chips.

The journal is not to be touched and only occasionally—non-confrontationally, and in a supportive and constructive manner—inquired about. This was established the day it was first brought home from a session, two pages already scribbled into it and the words made cursive by the bus ride. When we reached for it, our hand was quickly slapped away.

We have boundaries now. Distance is very healthy.

*

How we met is technically, a matter of perspective.

From mine, it happened when her blouse fell over my head at a party I was hosting two years ago. My old roommate Cedric was moving out West, and my goodbye present had been the go ahead for him to trash the place with a level-two rager that he wouldn’t have to help clean up. She had been up on a table with two other girls, discarding item after item for a growing crowd, and was already bare breasted and unbuttoning her jeans by the time I could make my way to her. It wasn’t necessarily a pretty picture, and the other two girls, who had stopped at their bras and skirts were now joining the crowd in taking out their phones and pointing them at her. I dragged her out of the party and into my room, ignoring the jeers.

“No one asked you to do that, y’know,” she grumbled, defensively clutching one of my pillows in front of her like she was still too naked, even with her blouse back on. I chose not to engage.

“Want me to go get one of your friends?” I questioned.

“Those girls weren’t my friends. I don’t–” and she’d stopped there, looking away.

Both beer and liquor were heavy in the air and would probably be making their way up at some point, hopefully into a toilet. She wasn’t completely wasted yet, though had obviously been planning on getting there judging by the way she was standing: sideways and without the sureness table dancers usually had about them. There was something sunken about her eyes.

“Bathroom’s right there. You can sleep it off in here. Until you’re ready to leave or whatever,” I’d said. “I’ll make sure the room’s off limits,” and really, I would have.

“I haven’t slept in days,” she mumbled, settling into the bed nonetheless, and pulling my bedspread up to her mouth. Her eyebrows shot up when she noticed the Red Sox logo at the center of it.

“If you ask for a Yankees’ one, I’m kicking you out,” and thank God, she’d laughed loudly at that before quieting down with her knees pulled up to her, like she was still somehow showing too much.

“God, I’m such a fucking mess.”
“I don’t think so,” I immediately replied, realizing that I really didn’t.

“I’m not going to fall asleep at a party with some guy in the room. No offense. Juss, I don’t know, sit with me?” And the drunken demands hadn’t stopped there.

“Tell me a story.”

“What?”

“When I was a kid,” she’d said, scooting towards the wall and making room for me on the bed, “my mom used to make me tell her stories until she fell asleep.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?”
Something changing in her eyes, “Yeah, well, she didn’t think so.”

“I don’t…”

“What d’y’do?” she’d suggested, her words still soaked with booze.

“Construction. Condos, mostly.”

“Explains the arms.” She smiled when I stared back too long. “So you build houses then?” and there hadn’t been any judgment in her voice or any of that overcompensating smile along that happened with girls around that time. Just intoxication and a hint of curiosity, maybe.

I’d nodded, lying down, head to toes and over the covers, next to her.

“Well then tell me: how do you make a house?”

So I’d told her. How after the lot was secured and the permits in order, you had to go about excavating the terrain, moving the dirt around and all of that. How the contractor then puts in the footings, followed by the foundation walls—“poured in concrete. Keeps the house standing, basically.” I built a house right there for us, going through the waterproofing, plumbing, radiant floor heating and moving upward from the basement to the HVAC—“heating, ventilation, air conditioning”—and finally the roofing.

“…And then you add the kids and the dog and the white pickets and that’s it, I guess.”

“Did you always want to do that?”

My shrug hit her foot, which had moved in closer at some point. “I like it enough. Money’s good.” By the end, my own words were slurring together and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open.

“Hum, Billie, right?”

“Hmm?”
”You ready to sleep?” “Mmhmm.”

So we’d spent the rest of the night like this, listening to the party die down outside while various things, none of Cedric’s, shattered. It was the scent of vomit that had woken me up when she’d stepped out of the bathroom the next morning, embarrassed. “We should do something, sometime,” had been enough for her to smile and nod before sneaking out. From what she recalls of the night, that’s how we met.

*

After the third therapy session, I was her soulmate. We complete each other, she’d said, which is why we (hand on breast) can’t get better until we (flailing in the space between us) get better.

“Until you get better too,” she’d eventually sighed when I was silent for too long. ‘Obtuse’ is one of those things I need to work on.

Today she teaches me a new term still fresh on her mind: unnatural attachment. We discuss its meaning for a while. It means that my mother practiced a ‘laissez-faire’ style parenting and shouldn’t have let me sleep in her bed until I was twelve. When I had first told her about that on our first official date, she’d found it cute. It means that as a result of our soul mating, she herself can’t be fulfilled until I’m fulfilled— “And honestly, sometimes, I really don’t think you are.”

*

My girlfriend has a new friend named Annette she met at a bookstore. Annette is the most successful entry of the “I need new people” initiative.

She is a part-time anthropology major at B.U. She is thirty-four and what’s known as a non-traditional student, which means her original college years were at some point interrupted in favor of a state map, shaved head, and an alternative rock female band that stayed on the verge of making it for a little too long. All of this ultimately left her ten years behind schedule. These are also, apparently, the things that make her admirable and brave.

She has causes and a nose ring and is one of those vegetarians that expect something more than salad or even pasta when she’s invited to dinner, and will let you know in a way that your menu isn’t all that it could be in a way you can’t reply to.

“It’s an entire style of cuisine. People just don’t bother looking into it sometimes, which is such a shame. There’s this tofu casserole recipe I have to, have to, have to give you.”

I don’t really like Annette. But her having dinner with us tonight, for the first time since last month, is something of an event, one that requires fancy groceries and a dress shirt. “It’s a chance to mend fences,” my girlfriend says. “I don’t like it, this tension between you two. Please make an effort; I really like her.”

Last month, I came home to find them at the dining table with an opened bottle of wine, on its last leg, between the two of them. It hadn’t been a great day at the site and the gist of it is that when pushed, probed, to sit down and talk about my day, I obliged and told them about that cunt Jeanine in management, who had split the crew between two different projects and promised a new timeline to the clients, suddenly putting us four days behind schedule with one mouse click.

Annette got quiet, gave Billie a look, and conversation died. And I mean absolutely flatlined. “Did you really just say that?” Annette eventually said, after putting her glass down. Things had gone downhill from there. Subjugation of women, the Woman, through gendered appropriation of language was one of her causes as it turned out. When I looked for help from the other side of the table, there was none to be found, and the tablecloth was apparently fascinating. I sometimes wonder if therapy has a Backbone Her in the works.

Tonight, Annette makes it clear that she isn’t here for me. Conversation mostly revolves around some local politician with a “despicable agenda.” America is also a two-tier system and that’s always a shame. Every few minutes, Billie takes a moment to give me the needed backstory until she eventually stops bothering altogether. This isn’t a conversation that requires much of me, and that’s perfectly fine. The wine makes everything a bit easier this time around, until Annette eventually starts talking about the prospect of getting her Ph.D. once she’s done with Boston University and my face slips. She locks eyes with me while Billie is busy cutting herself another slice of tofu casserole.

“I think I forgot, where did you get your degree, again?” her voice is nothing but friendly, but there’s an edge to it that once again can only be noticed and not returned.

“Wesleyan,” Billie answers for me. “Didn’t I tell you? He majored in Architecture.” Annette takes this in stride, blinking a few too many times, and conversation soon flows back to the problematic nature of a term like “Axis of Evil”. I go back to the wine. Later, when Annette finally leaves—a tight hug to Annette and a firm, squeezing handshake to me—the air once again becomes breathable. No more landmines to avoid, except the one we’re standing on.

“That went well,” she says, closing the door and moving to cup my cheek. “Thank you, really.”

I have questions, I do, but alcohol does funny things to the brain chemistry, and she does complicated things to my chest, and that fancy dinner dress she’s wearing, along with those missing fourteen pounds and tightening new hips, do simple things to my pants and that’s that.

Later, when we’re in bed, I finally ask, “Wesleyan?”

“She already knew you grew up in Connecticut… It made sense,” she breathes heavily and even in the dark I can tell that she’s looking right at me. We leave it at that, both focusing on the lone fog again.

*

I practice what is known as emotional blackmail.

That’s how it was explained to me on the drive home from the stadium last August, breaking the radio silence that had taken us all the way from the Longefellow. “It’s just not something I think I’d be good at,” she’d said. I didn’t say anything but the steering wheel leather still creased into my hands, which she must have noticed.

“You can’t be mad at me, here. You knew that would happen; we talked about this.”

That proposing on a JumboTron is neither as easy nor as cheap as it looks lon television, is what she didn’t seem to realize. It had been just shy of seven-hundred dollars in fact. As the man behind the small desk deep below Fenway Park stadium had explained, they processed about a dozen proposal requests every month.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of guys that chicken out at the last minute,” he’d said. “Excuse themselves to the bathroom and then start tearing this place apart trying to get to the control room at the last minute, before we run it.” He didn’t know me though, because I don’t chicken out, not ever. And certainly not when it comes to her. In the back of my mind, I had the feeling that if I explained it just right, made a right argument for the once-in-a-decade televised magic he would be getting, he would waive the fee altogether. Still, at the end of my spiel he’d simply said, “Yeah, love’s a grand thing. It’ll still be $685.”

And just like predicted, I didn’t chicken out, not for a second. I paid close attention to the game, to the screen, and to my watch. Timed it flawlessly. There was gum on my shoe and something wet was soaking through my jeans at the knee but I stayed the course.

“Psst, Billie. Stand up, will you?”

A small part of me was very aware of the people around us, suddenly tugging at each other’s sleeves and pointing at us, almost interrupting in their noticing. The rest of me however, told that part of me to go fuck itself because this, well, it was important. Her eyes were fixed on the screen ahead and her blinking reminded me of Morse code.

I gave her the speech and there was a smile tugging at her cheek the entire time. She seemed to catch herself and forcefully shook it away at least twice. By the end, her head was bobbing in low arcs from side to side, but I really didn’t think she was saying no.

“Jesus, Reggie, no.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” she’d whispered, squeezing herself down the row, past the gasps and laughter, without ever looking back. And that was that. People, incidentally, are assholes. When I found her in the parking lot, she was leaning against the car with her arms crossed and her eyes red, a hair trigger away from either bursting into tears or a loud continuous shriek. Maybe both. Seven- hundred dollars down the drain and she didn’t care.

“How can I trust you?” “You always make me feel like a villain. Always…” “What, did you think a crowd would make my answer any different? It’s wrong for you to do that.”

And that was our drive home. Her talking, nodding along with herself to emphasize just how right she was, and me clutching the wheel wishing it was the stadium attendant’s neck. “You,” she’d concluded when we finally pulled into the driveway. “Make me feel like I’m crazy”.

“You are,” I finally said, low and mean. “You’re absolutely fucking insane.”

And maybe that was melodramatic and unfair, but you know what, we were building something, and in that moment it was crumbling; so no actually, it was neither. She immediately disappeared into the bedroom and I sat in the living room, unplugging the phone before my mother started calling like I had told her to the day before.

Later that night, in the shower, I’d found half-moon imprints of blood in my palms, mimicking the steering wheel’s pattern.

She’s never seen the ring, I don’t think. She may have glimpsed the diamond but the inscription—“To You, My Heart”—chiseled inside for an extra two hundred, is still a mystery to her. A nice surprise one day, maybe, since jewelry can’t be returned once it’s inscribed.

*

My girlfriend doesn’t want to be my wife.

Well. She doesn’t want to be a wife is the thing.

It’s complicated, you see. When we finally talk about it nearly a week later, when the frog’s backstroke gets unbearably loud, there’s boiling water whistling behind us in the kitchen and in all honesty, the pot’s shrill makes more sense than her. I only really catch the highlights:

“I don’t want to be a divorcee, ever…It’s not about you, I swear…would you even want me to walk down the aisle like this?… A ring doesn’t mean anything…My parents had a ring….”

Still, by the time we’re done discussing it—her talking, me listening, with mugs in our hands—she’s smiling and seems relieved. Healed somehow.

“I’m still right here,” she promises, kissing the left corner of my mouth with tight lips when she finally stands up. It’s a kiss that says, not asks, that we’re okay now. That she still has some contemplation to do, alone, and that I need to understand that.

“I’m not going anywhere. You know that, right?” The placating her. “Maybe,” I allow.
She goes into the bedroom and starts to get ready for the gym.

*

My girlfriend has “University Writing” Monday and Wednesday mornings from 10:15 to 12:15, “Principles of Accounting” from 12:15 to 2:15 PM Thursdays, immediately followed by “Introduction to Anthropology,” 4:15 to 6:15 PM. The last one, I’m told, has nothing to do with Annette—“It really is a fascinating subject.”

She has cut her hours at the temp agency, taking call center shifts on weekends instead and we’re tightening our belt to make it happen. She goes to the Bunker Hill Community student gym in the mornings now, which means I get to drop her off there on my way to work. We have less time together at night or on weekend, but the drive is about twenty minutes—“Look at the chart, it completely evens out.”

On chilly mornings, she puts her hand over mine on the stick shift, sharing the warmth of her mittens, and we drive like this, with me steering us, watching the winter sunrise. Occasionally, I’ll go through what’s on the agenda for the day ahead and she’ll nod along.

“Do contractors ever start their own business? Like on the side? What? You could do that, with a few of the guys from the site maybe? It can’t be that hard.”

“Why?”

“Why? Well there’s probably lots of money in it and—”

“No, why are you saying this now?”

“Nothing, just. Something Doctor Tinsley said,” she says, tightening her hand around mine on the shift. “Nevermind.”

*

My girlfriend wants to know my weaknesses, those she can’t see or touch on her own. She craves them, I think.

“You don’t always have to be strong, you can let me in.”

And just like that she’s on the bed, propped up on her knees, holding my hands in a way I think might qualify as pleading. “Just, one thing. Please. Deep down, what scares you?”

“You already know I hate flying.”

She sighs my name and tightens her grip around my hands. It is warm, but not comforting. “Just, tell me a story, please?” she asks with a desperate smile.

I’m not sure which one this is but she’s pushy, stubborn. A lot like on our first trip away together when she wouldn’t budge from the hotel’s check-in counter until we could talk to the manager, keeping me there as visual back-up. But what she wants now isn’t a room upgrade she was promised online. But what she wants now is nowhere near as valuable.

It’s stupid, and insignificant, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. But it’s a weakness, one she doesn’t know, and that I hate telling people about because they either think it’s funny or tragic, when it’s actually neither. It’s annoying, sure, but it’s not cancer.

“I can’t see red or green very well,” I finally give.

“What?”

“Colors. Y’know that test? With the dots?”

She nods, slowly, trying to understand. I’m used to a tenth of her full attention these days. Maybe half. Two-thirds if we’re alone and she’s drunk, and there is no computer around and I’ve done something she considers especially astounding. To have the full weight of it on me like this isn’t, well, overwhelming is what it is.

“Okay, well, I can’t see ‘em. Took the test and everything.”

She lets go of my wrists softly, putting one down, then the other.

“How did I not know that?”

I shrug. “Didn’t feel like something worth sharing.”

“That’s it then, you’re color-blind?”

You can’t become a licensed electrician when you’re color-blind. Not officially, not if you’re stupid enough to disclose it as a condition. Not even if you take the course, not even if you score great and have an in at the electric company. They’ll shrug and say, “Sorry bud,” after the first interview. But again, this is simply annoying and there’s enough annoyance in the apartment these days. Less benefits than a site job, anyway.

I shrug again.

“Why can’t you ever just—” I can see two hers struggling to come up to the surface, hysterical and angry, probably and eventually it’s a stalemate. She sighs and steps off the bed, arms raised and palms out. “I’m not doing this,” somehow closing the door with more noise than if she’d actually slammed it.

I pick up the remote and change channels to something loud, booming, that even the walls feel. Let her write through that.

*

My girlfriend is something of a hypocrite as it turns out.

“She’s not licensed,” I tell her one day, as soon as she comes in. Her make-up is flawless but that doesn’t deter me—tea can wait—she needs to know this.

“What?” She frowns with her forehead and smiles with her mouth in a way that’s more threatening than anything else.

“Your Doctor Tinsley? I looked her up online. She’s a life coach. That’s not therapy.”

“So?” she says, dropping her bag unto the counter and inhaling.

“So you’re getting help from a quack.”

“I really thought you were past this,” she says, shaking her head. “She’s been doing this for years. She spent years studying this; she used to work at a practice in New York. She helps me!”

“None of what she does requires anything! This is why you’re not getting better.”

So many things pass through her face that I can’t read them quickly enough. A new her stands there for a few seconds, one I can’t recognize.

“Getting bet –” This isn’t about a damn ring. Do you still not get that?”

“I’m just saying, you should see someone who actually studied this stuff. What you’re getting is just back-alley surgery. “You’re kidding yourself,” I say, slamming the kettle down and throwing my hands up. “Just, whatever. Thought you should know.”

We spend the rest of the evening in silence until, just as I’m about to turn off my lamp, we’re not anymore.

“…And where’s your degree exactly?”

*

My girlfriend’s therapist understands my reservations and wants to meet us together.

It’s not couples’ therapy. “You don’t even think it’s real therapy, remember?” She, Sarah not-a-doctor Tinsley, just thinks that since I’m such a big part of the picture, we should all sit down.

“Me. She wants to meet me.”

I tell her that I don’t believe in these things. I don’t believe in them when the person’s a professional, and certainly don’t believe them when they advertise on Craigslist.

“Would you just do this for me? I don’t ask you for anything, not ever.”

I list everything, with laser precision, the many things she asks from me on a daily basis. I leave nothing out.

“Wow. And you don’t think we could use some outside help? Are you just afraid of being proven wrong or something?”

It’s unfair. This woman has been seeing you for eight months now, I say. Ever since she walked by a bus stop ad on the anniversary of her mother’s death and felt it to be significant somehow. Eight months, of course she won’t be on my side, I say again and again.

“Just stop it. There aren’t any sides here. There’s just getting better. Together.” I concede. Good, I think.
Something.

We sit down, look at her schedule and find a session that fits our schedule, the week after next. Later in bed that night, I still notice but don’t particularly mind the lone frog in the wide pound. He’s having a ball, until we stop mid-thrust, “Wait, wait. Stop. Look at me. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.”

“Happy? Just, really happy.” She smiles.

When it’s all said and done, her breath is warm and comforting in my neck and she’s snoring with one hand on my chest, above the heart. Which her exactly keeps insisting, however implicitly, that my heart is there and that it might need healing, I still don’t know. All things considered, I’m also not sure what this means – her sleeping and me watching.

*

My girlfriend’s would-be therapist runs her scam from her a small, yellow house near the college part of town. “Home offices are very popular in the field. More conducive.”

Her neighborhood consists mostly of young families and in the middle of a weekday afternoon, there’s barely a car in sight. She has a picket fence but there are no tricycles or children’s bikes to be found on her yard. She also keeps her garage door open when she goes out, presumably because it’s a safe neighborhood, but really, she has nothing to protect.

There’s an alarm system on the premises but these things are only helpful if the intruder doesn’t know how to disable them manually. The number of people who know how to do this is, in fact, far higher than most national surveys assume. Especially the old XY-400 models whose override panels reveal themselves by a simple pressing of the upper corners. We offer them in our condo packages and it’s really quite the con. The smell of cat that floats through the living room confirms to any burglar that there’s absolutely no security in this house.

The rest of the house itself is ordinary. There’s a half-empty box of cereal on the table and it is nothing too healthy either. Lots of nuts and raisins that sound wholesome but really, have more carbs than a waffle. A real doctor of any kind would know this, I remind myself. This is just an ordinary lady who probably ought to watch her cholesterol, and gets nervous when cars filled with teenagers pull up next to her at red lights. There’s about three old Y2K books in her library, and I wonder if the good therapist discloses to her patients, or even her friends, that her bookshelf hides a monument to her stupidity. Her laptop is on her bed upstairs, opened to a dating site. Of course. Unfortunately, she was smart enough to log out before leaving. There’s nothing of value on there, only music and movies.

Going by the radiator under the window, her “office” was clearly designed as a second bedroom. There are actual chairs as opposed to bags of beans and some thick books on her shelves, lots of them in fact. All part of the illusion. There’s also an interior koi pond in the corner. It all falls somewhere between professional and inviting. The computer in there is password protected, and just like that I’m sure that everything I came here for is, in fact, on there. All my guesses fall flat.

It’s angering.

Right over her desk is a framed diploma, looming with self-importance. It smashes
against the floor and somewhere below in the kitchen I hear the cat. And just like that something snaps. You can’t break people’s homes and not expect retribution. You simply can’t. The books, DSM manuals, self-help, and even Doctor Phil’s stupid face, all rip apart with surprising ease. Especially those thicker library-looking ones. There’s a stack of paper that looks like questionnaires, filled with small bubbles that could be either red or green and I shred through them without bothering to read. I know exactly what her scam is. Cramming people into number two pencil boxes just to feel smart when she writes them off as simpletons. Turning the world into made-up boxes I don’t fit in. The cat eventually makes its way in, meowing frantically at me. See, absolutely no security.

The thing she doesn’t get, that she won’t get, is that I don’t weigh her down, not any more than she weighs me down. We’re each other’s tethers. She doesn’t stop me from running towards the cliff, from jumping off it even, but we always give each other enough rope so that we can climb back up and find safe ground again.

But this woman doesn’t get it, she just… She’ll take one look at me and see a blue-collar Neanderthal who, silly non-self-actualized him, thinks adults shouldn’t be going around pretending to be school kids, that they should move forward and not backwards. She’ll see that because that’s what she’ll want to see. She’ll tell Billie that she can do better. That a relationship shouldn’t ever be hard, that she’s hardly ever dated. And Billie, Billie, she’ll believe her. She won’t get that this is what having feels like.

I blow my nose into her curtain and it’s her fault because really what kind of backwards therapist doesn’t even have a box of Kleenex around. I don’t touch the computer because those things are expensive. Same for the koi pond since there’s an actual fish in there. When the cat’s about to get a paw in there, I pick it up by its neck and carry it out with me, “C’mon, you fat fuck,” closing the door behind us. I’m a good guy, dammit. I look away when women have acid reflux swell up in their mouths. I would even let Billie name our kids something weird and complicated like Feather or Cincinnati, if that was what she really wanted. I wouldn’t care.

On my way out, I notice that her bike, just below the staircase, has too much air in its tires. It barely takes a poke of my keychain’s switch knife to pop them. I’ve probably saved her life.

*

My girlfriend doesn’t want us to be late to the therapist’s.

It’s the sound of the teapot whistling on the stove that wakes me, twenty minutes earlier than usual. Doctor Tinsley has been having some personal issues and had first suggested pushing the appointment back by a week, but Billie had apparently insisted and so she had agreed to see us today, before Billie’s first class.

“C’mon, get dressed already. We don’t want to be late,” she greets when I step barefoot into the kitchen. She’s already dressed in a button-down and striped pants, reading over her notes with a cup of tea in her hand. Her hair makes her look like a librarian these days.

The difference between this woman and the one who’d first thrown that blouse feels like an entire universe. When she turns, her face is gorgeous, washed gold by the morning sunlight that’s flooding in through the window. It hurts to look at her, but even more not to.

“You look great, y’know.”

She smiles weakly, “Please. I barely slept last night. I am so flunking this test.”

The insecure her? The humble her that will shrug it off as a fluke when she brings in here next A+? The considerate her that doesn’t want me to feel intellectually intimidated? Who knows? They’re all in there, greedy little things with eyes a shade duller than my actual girlfriend.

We drive in silence with her flipping back and forth between her notes, hands occupied. We pull into the familiar drive and before ringing the bell she suddenly pulls me down for a kiss. It’s one of those full-on kisses, too. The kind you have to sit through the entire movie to see, the kind that makes you turn your head like a car crash if it’s happening to someone else and think, that could have so easily been me. I’ll remember that kiss, I think.

“Come in, come in.”

The woman that opens the door is both nothing and everything like expected. There’s no uptight bun or hippy braids but a loose schoolgirl type of ponytail, hanging from one side of her head. And it’s not so much a power suit or a floor- length hemp skirt as a pair of jeans and flannel shirt. There are boxes and packing material everywhere inside.

“Sorry about the mess,” she says out of politeness more than anything else, looking tired.

“Hell of a business, Doc,” I hear myself chuckle without meaning to, and something starts burning at the side of my face. I don’t have to turn to know exactly which her is staring at me right now. The woman smiles, distracted and barely seems to hear this.

“Sarah, I didn’t know you were moving,” Billie says, clearing her throat.

The woman smiles without much conviction. “It wasn’t planned. The neighborhood just isn’t what it used to be and my sister has a sublet. Let’s go into the kitchen? My office is an absolute battlefield, I’m afraid. Boxes everywhere.”

Something darts between our legs and makes its way up the stairs so quickly that I barely catch its tail.

“He’s usually so friendly,” Billie notes.
“Ignore him. He’s been like that for days. It’s the weather.”

There’s already a notebook on her table, opened to a new blank page and we sit down across from her.

We settle into our respective chairs facing her and Billie sends a throat clear my way that causes my back to instinctively straighten. Nothing is written down but the Doctor notices, I can tell. The air is stifling. Dry, re-circulated air in a room that’s not properly ventilated and keeps itself hot but never cozy. Our apartment’s cozy.

My girlfriend exhales, a quiet, nervous little sound and that seems to start the clock.

“So, Reggie,” she eventually says from across the desk, “Let’s dive right in; why do you think we’re here?”

[BIO]: Ben is a Fiction Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas.

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