This weekend we have a love story from Karissa Chen, a love story that starts where many love stories start—in bed—and then goes places the reader might not expect. It is a story as full of surprises, of the twists and turns of time and affection, as any true love story. Watch out for this writer. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Our legs intertwined in the moonlight. The slice of night sky hanging above us from the attic window. We angled our heads and caught the single star dotting the side of the moon like a mole. It wasn’t a star, he told me. It was Venus. I cracked a joke about the goddess of love, and we laughed. We both knew this would never be love.
I forget his name now, something that began with an R, Robert maybe, or Roger or Richard. Or maybe it was Nam or Juan. I have never been good with names.
We’d met earlier that evening, at the bar of a restaurant that served raw oysters. I was having my second dozen while reading a book when he came up to me, a lowball cocktail in his hand, a pretentious comment about the author on his tongue. I told him I had a love/hate relationship with arrogant assholes. By the end of the night, I was getting in a cab to the house in Queens he shared with three others.
As we lay on his mattress, the cool summer air from his window slipping across our naked skin, he told me about the first girl he’d ever loved. Blue shadows flickered across his face. Behind him, a small bat ornament swung from the bent neck of a tree lamp.
She wasn’t a girl so much as a woman, he said. She was older, though he wasn’t sure how much older. How did they meet? I asked. He told me it was in line at the movie theater. He was 16.
He was a solitary kid, he said. He liked watching movies alone. He found the darkness of the theater comforting and absorbing. Movies were strange, he said. You were so much a voyeur of the world onscreen that you melted away. They weren’t like books. You never had the option of a first- or second-person point of view. You were always a third person. Always the outsider. He’d felt the outsider for so much of his life that the movies seemed the preferable way to experience it. Nobody would look at him strangely in the movie theater for being the man apart because they were all exiles, and if they did, he couldn’t see it anyway.
The movie was Life is Beautiful. She stood in front of him, smoking a cigarette, her nails painted white, her dark hair swaying, and when she arrived at the front of the line, she turned around and said she would pay for R also. The cashier had given her an incredulous look when she’d said she wanted only one ticket, he told me. He couldn’t understand why.
R thanked her, intimidated, and she smiled at him and told him her name. I don’t remember her name anymore, either; I don’t even have an initial. So I’ll just call her E.
R had been prepared to part ways, but she’d followed him, nudging him towards seats further up front. They sat together in the dark, R aware of the citrus of her perfume hanging between them. Soon after the opening of the movie, she’d placed a hand on his knee. Halfway through, he felt her go extremely still. He looked over; tears were bright in her eyes. Uncertainly, he put his palm over hers, and she turned her hand over and squeezed his tightly. She cried through the entire rest of the movie.
When the lights went on, she led him outside. He wanted to ask her why she’d been crying. He was touched that she’d been touched. He wanted to know if she was Italian, or Jewish, or was close to somebody who’d died in the Holocaust. But he was young, and she was beautiful, and so he simply followed her. She lived around the block, in a small walk-up. He didn’t pay much attention to the apartment.
He lost his virginity that afternoon, he told me. She was not a tender lover, nor a giving lover. She didn’t ask him if it was his first time, and it seemed she didn’t care. When he came embarrassingly fast, she rolled off of him and lit a cigarette without a word. He lay still on her sheets, humiliated, and waited for her to tell him to leave. Instead, she stubbed out the butt after a few minutes and turned back to him.
Later, as she lay back with another cigarette, ribbons of white smoke swirling from her fingertips, he tried to ask her about herself. What did she do? Where was she from? He felt hungry for more of her, to know her beyond just the weight of her body. She stayed silent, as if in thought, and when she finally spoke, it was to ask him about his family.
He went back to her apartment every few days for weeks, months. He quit the track team so that he could spend afternoons with her. He had been infatuated, he said, kissing the inside of my arm. We must have lit a candle or turned on a lamp by that point, or maybe it had always been on, because I watched a trail of pink hives blossom up my sensitive skin. I told him I understood—what boy wouldn’t be intoxicated with sex, any promise of sex, and confuse that with love? But R shook his head. He told me he’d loved her, that even with the perspective of 15 years, he was still certain he’d loved her. I found this hard to believe. What had he known about her that would elicit such a strong and rare emotion?
R paused, his chin resting on my stomach. I noticed a turtle-shaped birthmark on his shoulder. I began to worry that I had offended him, but suddenly he lifted his head. There was a footprint, he mused. I looked where he was pointing, at a faint bruise visible on the paint. I had left the smudge of my heel against his slanted wall. It was a gift, I said. In response, he pressed a thumb on the white ridge of my hipbone and bit my thigh.
What he’d loved about her, he continued, was that even though her lovemaking was rough and self-absorbed—in fact, he wondered sometimes if she was even aware of him beneath her at all—afterwards she was always very attentive. She nodded empathetically while he rambled on about the way his parents fought, grew indignant on his behalf when he told her about a run-in he’d had with one of his tougher classmates. She encouraged him to talk about his hopes and fears, probed him when something troubled him. R said he’d never had anyone in his life so willing to listen. It wasn’t until he’d met E that he realized he’d been lonely all along.
Wasn’t he curious about her life? I asked him, and he responded that of course he’d wondered, but he had been too nervous to ask things she hadn’t volunteered. She dictated the terms of their arrangement, and he followed. Although R now knew he must have sensed how delicate their situation was, at the time all he was certain about was that he wanted her, wanted to continue having her, and therefore was eager to do whatever he could to keep her happy.
E seemed most interested in his dreams for the future, and his plans, no matter how outlandish or impossible, pleased her. So he told her about his wish to one day travel to Egypt and see the pyramids, to one day own a house by the southern coast of France. He wanted to be a filmmaker or perhaps a novelist. He hoped to hike across the expanse of the American continent with only a backpack. She always asked him to recount these fantasies in detail; how big his house would be, what route his trip would take him, what kind of books he would write. R said it felt like she was trying to claim her own future by borrowing his imagined one.
I asked him how many of those plans he had actually followed through on. He admitted he’d accomplished none, although he hoped to go to Egypt in the next few years, and he was, at least, pursuing a career in film. If you counted being a coffee runner a career, he joked, pinching my toe.
Once in a while, she’d let slip details of herself, and he hoarded these hungrily, committing them to memory. When he was deliberating about which colleges were the best for an aspiring writer to apply to, she told him she’d taken a creative writing class before dropping out and enjoyed it. He asked her why she’d left the school, but she only shrugged. When he was telling her about an aunt who’d visited from California, she told him that someone she knew lived out there and said the earthquakes were terrifying. This intrigued him, as he’d never considered the possibility that she might know other people. Of course, intellectually, he knew that she must have family and friends somewhere, but because she never mentioned them and he never saw evidence of them in her sparsely furnished apartment, he had come to think of her as an isolated being. He’d begun to believe he was the only person she had, and that, like him, she’d been lonely, and that’s why she’d chosen him.
I wanted to know if she’d had a job, how she made money for rent, what she did during the day when he wasn’t around. He said he hadn’t known; she never told him.
R paused for a moment before continuing. As he talked, he kept his eyes focused on his fingers, which he brushed back and forth against my kneecap.
Four months after the start of their affair, he went to her apartment, and she didn’t answer his knock. He thought perhaps she’d stepped out for a moment, so he waited by her door well into the evening, before finally going home. He went back a few days later. She still wasn’t there. After R had waited an hour or so, a neighbor who lived downstairs saw him sitting by the landing. She came up and told him that E’s estranged husband had come back a week ago and they’d moved out soon after.
I drew myself up into my thighs. I asked R how he’d felt. He shrugged and smiled, darting his head forward to lick the underside of one knee. He’d been heartbroken, of course, but life went on.
R and I talked about other things that night. Books, films, astrology, celebrities. I don’t really remember the details anymore. As it grew light outside and both the moon and Venus began fading from view, we drifted off to sleep, his arm curled around the small of my back. When I woke at noon, I scrambled to my feet, realizing I was late for a brunch date with a girlfriend of mine. He watched me dress from his bed, still half-asleep and fully naked. Before running out, I gave him a quick peck goodbye, apologizing for my hasty exit. I can still see R as I closed the door behind me, his dark hair mussed and sticking up, one arm raised in a halfhearted wave. He looked sad or shocked or perhaps confused by what was happening. Perhaps he’d dreamt of E and imagined I was her, leaving him.
Years went by, and I occasionally wondered about R. He and I had never exchanged phone numbers, and in a city so big, we never ran into each other again. I thought for sure I would bump into him on the street one day, or perhaps in line at a theater, but as time passed, I couldn’t even be positive I would recognize him if I did. The last image I held of him was still vivid – the cock of his head, the crook of his wave, the look in his eyes – but after a while his features began to blur with the features of other men I’d known, men I’d dated or slept with or even saw on television. I became an editor at a large publishing house, and sometimes I wondered if I might have read his manuscript, rejecting it without realizing it was his. I married, had a daughter, started writing my own novel after years of putting it off.
One day, on a rare Saturday to myself—my husband was traveling and my daughter was sleeping over a friend’s house—I decided to see a film. The movies at the small indie theater by my apartment were all ones I didn’t know much about, so I chose whatever was playing soonest.
The film opened with an image of an ankle tattooed with a small navy sparrow. The camera slowly zoomed out so that soon it showed an entire leg, and then the buttocks, and then the curved expanse of a back, its contours bathed in the soft glow of light, the hint of a breast disappearing into the shadows. There was a shot of the window, a full moon hanging brightly in the sky and another of a fat candle, cold and extinguished. The film cut to a wide angle, and the setup of the room became apparent. The slanted angles of the ceiling, the mattress pushed in the corner, the other figure sitting on a chair below the window. Then it cut to a close up of the man’s face, blue with the evening light.
A chill of recognition spread through me. As the film proceeded, I had the strange sensation of being the supporting character in an alternate version of my life. I felt pinned to my seat, unable to move, and uncomfortably I watched the story unravel.
A man recalls his first lover, who disappeared years ago without a trace. The woman in the bed is his current girlfriend, a woman who loves him deeply, if foolishly. She elicits a nagging guilt in him that he is undeserving of this love, and he pushes her away. He realizes soon that he’s been unable to succeed in his relationships because he’s never resolved his relationship with his first lover. He begins to interview people from this former lover’s past, and soon he pieces together a grim story. From what he can tell, his lover had been in hiding from her abusive husband after a brutal beating caused her to miscarry. Months later, their affair was helping her heal the trauma of her past. Soon she’d become pregnant again, but before she could present her lover with this happy news, her husband appeared, having finally tracked her down, and the two of them disappeared. Nobody heard from her again. The protagonist, having learned all this, is distraught, not knowing if his lover was killed by her husband in a fit of rage, or if perhaps she is living somewhere with his child. The movie ends with him going back to his girlfriend, resigned that he will never know. He asks her to marry him, and the poor girl, knowing nothing of his past, consents with delight.
The film cut to black.
I sat in the darkness, still. Flashes of images associated with R were flitting through my mind at such high speed that I couldn’t hope to identify them concretely. I swallowed. I expected that soon I would see R’s name on screen. But when the director’s credit appeared, it was not a name that rang with any familiarity. It didn’t even begin with R. I waited for the name of the screenwriter, but it turned out the movie was written by the director himself. I sat through all the credits, watching them roll with a mixture of disappointment and relief, finding no names that confirmed my suspicions.
As soon as I arrived back at home, I pulled out my laptop and began searching for information about the movie and its director. The movie was torn apart by critics and audiences alike—one reviewer called it a “dreary, self-indulgent melodrama”—but little was said about the director himself. His profile said only that he was a native New Yorker. He was around my age, and he’d directed only a few short films prior to this. This was his first feature. No photograph was available.
When my daughter came back later in the afternoon, she went to check her email on my computer. She came across my open browser and asked me who the man I was searching for was. I told her it was somebody I once knew.
For weeks, I thought about the movie and about R. At night as I lay in bed, trying to sleep, images from the movie began to mingle with the memories I had of R. It began to feel as if the brief moment we’d shared had been unfinished, that R’s movie was the true coda. Whether or not R was actually the director was inconsequential; there was too much familiar about the story. I felt certain that R had a role in its making.
Often, I turned my thoughts to the girlfriend in the movie, a girl who seemed to be based upon me, although I certainly wasn’t as naïve and lovely as the creature in the film. Perhaps the film expressed his perception of me from our brief encounter, or perhaps it represented his fantasies of what could have happened between us had I not rushed out the door that morning. Or maybe I was being too vain. Maybe he simply found the memory of the attic under the moon sentimental and inspiring, and the girl was another girl, a girl whose heart he’d broken or a girl he never should have married.
In the end, it occurred to me that perhaps none of the above was true. It was entirely possible that R had told somebody else this story—he had so easily shared it with me in the one night we’d been together, after all—and that person was inspired to create a movie. It was possible R had no idea this film even existed, given its poor reviews and limited showing.
I kept an eye out for news of the director over the next few years, but he never made another film. I finally finished and published the book I’d been working on, a novel with a scene that closely paralleled my night with R, and it became a bestseller. I did some interviews, and for a while my face could be found in book review sections of newspapers, on certain websites, and even in storefronts of bookstores. Sometimes I wondered if he might have seen my photograph and purchased my book. If he read it, he would know that I still thought of him. At public readings, I scanned the crowd for him. Then I wondered if R had done this too when the film came out, searching theater lines for E. How sad, I thought. We were two people hoping we hadn’t been forgotten.
I must confess now that I haven’t been entirely truthful in this account. Because in fact, I do remember his name. I even remember E’s. And the night was not one night, but several. But I have been honest in many ways. I am a writer. I live in New York. I enjoy oysters at bars and sometimes I smoke. While I have never been married, I do have one daughter. And I do occasionally watch movies alone.
The summer before my daughter’s senior year in high school, she and I took a road trip to look at colleges scattered in Boston, Pennsylvania and other areas of the Northeast. We stopped at a rest stop near Pittsburgh for lunch, and while she went to the bathroom, I crouched over the souvenir penny machine and inserted three coins. When my daughter had been a child, she loved these pressed treasures, insisting on cranking them out herself whenever the two of us traveled. Now a teenager, she scoffed at the kitsch, but I continued to make them out of nostalgia.
As I rotated Lincoln’s rolled-out face between my fingers, I noticed my daughter had emerged from the bathroom. She was standing beneath the foyer, talking to a middle-aged man who wore a pale yellow polo hugging his drooping gut. I did not move towards her or call out her name. Instead, I watched the two of them together, watched as she gesticulated and he nodded. When he walked away from her, he passed me near the penny machine, but did not look my way. I felt the warm air brush between us.
I asked my daughter who she’d been talking to. She told me he had been asking for directions to Philadelphia. I wanted to know why, of all people, he had chosen her, if he had sought her out, but I did not ask my daughter this. Instead, I asked her if he’d told her his name. She looked at me and rolled her eyes, and then headed towards the parking lot. I palmed the penny and slid it into my back pocket, to give her at another time.