The boyfriend took a seat beside me on a worn, corduroy couch. After a while he looked up from his computer and said his name. I said, “I know who you are.” He was famous. When I learned he was coming to the colony, a gear began to tick inside me. The other people were a little careful, a little dull, including the painter he had come to be with.
I asked what he was working on. He said, “A memoir,” and shot me a nervous smile. He was from Finland and had one of those Nordic faces with a long nose and thin cheeks. He said, “I think this shows an unhealthy interest in myself.” I said, “What else is there? Besides, people want to see if you are willing to look bad on the page. No one is interested in success and happiness.”
Actually, I was interested in the boyfriend’s success and happiness. I was interested in things that gave off light. Like a moth.
The painter floated in, and the boyfriend touched the top of his head as if reaching for a hat that was not there. We were in the Wi-Fi room, the one place that was wired, and people drifted in and out all day, staring at laptops or out the window at trees and moody skies. The painter was wearing a black leather skirt, and her eyelashes were thick with mascara. The boyfriend was wearing a long wool sweater and a striped scarf. I had on jeans and a t-shirt.
She sat on a chair beside the boyfriend and said, “I’m glad you two are talking.” I thought she was telling the truth, and I thought she was not telling the truth. We would run into each other at parties in New York. She was younger than me, very pretty with pale skin and a pixie cap of chestnut hair. She knew everyone. It was almost her job. We would say hi to each other with excited surprise then stand gripping each other’s wrists as if about to dance until the knowledge settled in we had nothing to say. She would glance over my shoulder and move on. It was okay. She had a starved look, and people felt an impulse to feed her. Not me.
She opened her computer, answered some emails, then said she was going back to her room for a nap. She kissed the boyfriend lightly on the cheek, and their pale skin blended into each other like photographs that are over-exposed. She was recovering from an illness. It was the reason the boyfriend had come. She had had a relapse of a blood disease she had thought cured, and at first her condition had seemed alarming. Now she was on the mend.
After she left, the boyfriend said, “I have another problem with memoir. I make up memories. Like if I were writing about this, I would say you were wearing a blue dress and muddy boots.” I said, “Because I had just buried a body in the garden.” He said, “Exactly,” and he laughed, pushing up his fancy glasses to rub his eyes. He had thick blond hair he pulled his fingers through. I said, “Everybody makes up memories. We can’t help it. It’s the way our brains work.” He said, “Do you know about the brain?” I said, “A little, but every time I read a new book about it, I realize I have forgotten all the others.” He shifted to look at me and said, “I like to think about brains, even if I don’t understand what they are.” I said, “Me, too.”
I was enjoying myself. This was the thing I was always looking for, easy connection, and it made me forget who I was. I was surprised each time by how quickly people could feel attuned to someone they hardly knew and how, conversely, we could let go of important things just as easily. When my father died, he left his belongings and money to my mother. This was normal in the world I came from. I do not remember how I came to possess his wristwatch. I had thought it beautiful, a thin, silvery disc, when my father wore it, but by the time it came into my possession, it was scratched, and I saw it had never been an expensive watch. One day I gave it to a man I did not know well and soon lost track of even though the watch was the only thing I owned that had touched my father and even though I had loved my father very much. It had not been hard to let it go once I had decided it was not beautiful.
The boyfriend made art installations for museums and designed sets for plays. I said, “Are you interested in robots and artificial intelligence?” He said, “Yes!” He said, “We are robots of a sort.” I said, “I know, right? On a feedback loop with our technologies. Brain makes environment and environment makes brain.”
He said, “I am working on a project about cities, and I have been thinking about how cities are like brains and brains are like cities. The brain develops the way neighborhoods do, through networks rather than according to an overall plan.” His fingers were long and twirled as he spoke. His English was hardly accented. He said, “Thoughts are like streets, don’t you think? Some are winding and move into dangerous neighborhoods. Some are like big, open piazzas, where everything is visible.” I said, “Wow, that’s brilliant,” and I could see myself on Broadway, ticking along, a nerve cell with no particular destination.
I drew up my knees and leaned back. It was gray out, but sun was peeking through clouds, and the room was dappled with the shadows of branches and leaves. I looked at my watch and said, “Uh-oh, we missed lunch. Are you hungry?” He said, “Ya.” I said, “There’s a café we can walk to.” He said, “Okay.”
Along the way, I pointed out trails I hiked on and thought he might like. The colony was situated on a mountain above wild Pacific surf. At the café, Mozart was playing, and no one else from the colony was there. I ordered a cappuccino and a muffin. He ordered a pint of beer and a plate of cheese and fruit. He ate carefully, peeling the skin off slices of pear, spreading butter to the edges of squares of bread. He said the painter’s health was improving and that they had been together for four years. He said he had been frightened for her and was still worried for their life together if she was really ill. I had a sense he did not want to take care of her, did not want to be burdened. I did not think well of him for that.
He asked if I was with someone, and I said no. He asked if I was happy, and I said no. I did not think he was interested in me. I thought he was interested in whether happiness could exist. He asked if I had ever been happy, and I said, “I think so, but even when I have someone to love, happiness flickers in and out.”
A memory floated up of a boy I had found breathtaking. I could not catch my breath. His smell was my smell. I did not stop to think if he was intelligent or curious. I feared he was lazy, and he was lazy. Almost from the beginning I saw a crack, and yet all those years later I was breathless remembering him.
I did not share the memory. But the thing is, when someone questions the existence of happiness it makes me happy. I broke off a piece of muffin and popped it in my mouth. It was loaded with blueberries and nuts, and it tasted sweet and rich. I met the boyfriend’s eyes and said, “I’m happy, now,” and I laughed. For a moment I felt exposed, and then I remembered we were strangers just passing time.
That was pretty much all that happened. We returned to the colony and parted in a friendly way, but we did not speak again, and after dinner that night the painter and her friends—a woman and a man—made a show of whispering and afterward avoided me. No words, no eye contact. I could see the lunch had been a mistake, and I felt bad. I did not press for an explanation. I felt the painter could do as she pleased. She was still recovering and scared. For the rest of my stay I felt like I was watching a play from backstage, in slivers, behind pulleys and props. For several nights I dreamed I was walking in a city when I was seized off the street and held prisoner. I was to be made an example of. An example of what?
I did not learn the reason for the freeze until I was on the plane, headed back to New York. I was seated beside the female friend of the painter, and I said to her, “What is going on with you?” Her mouth twisted, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She said the boyfriend had told the painter I had made a pass at him. I said, “And you believed this?” She said, “I wasn’t sure.” I reviewed my time with the boyfriend for her, frame by frame, as if I were scrutinizing stills from a surveillance camera. She was pretty, with long eyelashes and a wide forehead, inside which I imagined pages of a book being turned by different people. She looked at me with a wary expression that gradually softened.
When I got home, several friends told me the boyfriend was crazy and that he and the painter were locked in a pattern. He would tell her a woman had come onto him, and she would get jealous and worked up. That was the story going around about them, the way stories go around about people. In this version, I was relegated more or less to the role of a screwdriver, used to pry open a lid. Low status, but not to blame.
Some months later I ran into the male friend of the painter at a party. He was the one, I had learned, who had spread the boyfriend’s story around the colony. We sat at a little table, and he leaned in. He had had a few drinks. He said, “I’m sorry.” He had fuzzy hair and round eyeglasses. He looked like an owl that could appear comical one moment and vicious the next. He had spoken to the female friend and said, “I know now it wasn’t true.” I said, “Why did you do it?” He said, “It was just that you looked so guilty.”
I laughed. What else could I do? I always looked guilty. It was out of my control.
But I thought about the conversation for a long time, and I replayed the meeting with the boyfriend in my mind over and over. I was on my couch one night, eating almond cookies from a flimsy plastic tray. I broke each cookie into three pieces, in order not to scatter crumbs, and I began to feel uncertain about what had taken place. This was not a bad feeling. It was sort of warm, like a bath or a part of a lake heated by the sun, where you can see mud at the bottom and flashing orange fish alongside you.
The boyfriend was smart, and it had been fun to keep up with him. There was a moment, too, when we were walking. He grabbed me back and said, “Shush,” pointing to a giant rodent on the side of the road. It was standing on its back legs, staring at us. It did not move and we did not move, and I had the sense we were all making a break for freedom. The boyfriend’s hand lingered on my arm a moment longer than it needed to. He whispered, “How do you call that?” I said, “I’m not sure. A woodchuck? A badger?” He said, “Ah, yes.” The animal had a remarkable sense of balance, peering out, and then it turned its back on us the way the painter would turn her back on me at parties, and it scampered away, faster than you thought it could.
When I was with the boyfriend, we had both felt keenly that life is short and joy is fleeting. I was a lonely person, and out of that mix of emotions, I do not know how I appeared. The boyfriend was afraid of the painter’s illness, both for her and for himself. Out of that mix, he concocted a story about a pass. He thought something sexual had taken place. Or he was lying, but it’s the same difference. The thought was there.
Maybe something sexual had taken place, if you thought of sex as a wave that slips into life at odd and inconvenient times and for no reason. If you thought talking was sex.
The thing is, I was capable of making a pass, although maybe not at the boyfriend of a woman who was sick, a woman whose fear I had witnessed in the hospital, where she had laid stretched out on sheets, hesitant to call the boyfriend for fear he would pull away. I had thought how strange their relationship must be, and I had felt jealous she had someone to call. I was capable of making a pass, and as I sat on the couch, it seemed that the pass was always imminent and that a thought could sometimes be a kind of action in that the mind is part of the body, whether or not we want it to be. The thing is, I was capable of making a pass, although maybe not at the boyfriend of a woman who was sick.
© Laurie Stone
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick]