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Day One

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Day One

    By Jessica Maher  

 

      It’s almost like the beginning. It’s what I’m thinking, and soundtrack has a lot to do with it. Not only is Bob Dylan crooning again about the girl from the north country, he is doing so in crisp precision that lets me know Johnny has unpacked the record player.

      But it’s not the beginning at all. One of the hardest things is knowing it never will be like the beginning again. If it were, Johnny would tug me by the waist into the middle of the living room and begin to move me around it, boxes and all. And I would reach above his head and clasp my arms around him, letting my ear be tickled by Johnny’s voice, Dylan’s words.

      “We don’t have a plunger.” It’s what I hear instead, the shift from memory to reality fulfilled. Johnny leans, shirtless, against the bedroom door. A thin, wet line of sweat is visible on his upper lip; his chest shines. 

      “Oh,” I say. Cross-legged on the floor with a hammer in one hand and in the other a two page instruction kit for a dresser I’ve been staring at for the past twenty minutes, it’s all I can really think of to say. “Add it to the list,” I tell him when a bead of sweat drops from his upper to lower lip. He shrugs his naked shoulders and turns around.

      The instructions for the three-drawer, particleboard dresser are, simply, elementary. Listed by giant numbers circled in black, there are twelve steps in total. Number one reads “assemble all parts in front of you” and the rest are as self-explanatory. And yet I can’t make sense of it, not past number one. I read and reread, look back and forth between the materials and Johnny’s toolbox I’ve dragged in.

      “How’s it going in there?” he shouts through the wall.

      “Okay.” There was a lot more to be done in the bedroom. I can afford to walk away from the dresser. I find a box of sheets to unpack, a task I can do well. 

      We don’t tell people how we met. If we do, it’s the edited version. I tend to tell different versions to different people, though it’s gotten so that I can’t remember who thinks what anymore. My boss thinks we were lovebirds in high school who broke up only to rediscover each other in the same city five years later. At least two of my friends, Michelle and Kira, think we met at a bar, that he approached me and said I had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen, ones he’d noticed from across the room. That story I’m sure of because I remember Kira had been snide: “no one ever meets a boyfriend in a bar.” Other times, acquaintances who’ve asked, I’ve made things up on the spot. We really met in therapy, and as time goes by I’m less embarrassed by it and wonder why I ever lied to so many people in the first place. But now it’s too late, and like so many other things there’s just no going back.  

      Johnny never thought it was a big deal, but then he wasn’t the patient. He delivered the water. Those big jugs of water next to the dispenser of paper cups in waiting rooms across the nation, someone has to deliver them – roll them in in pairs on a metal dolly. He didn’t comment on my eyes, but something else did catch his attention.

      “I love him.” I heard his voice the same way that I’d heard the water glugging down the hallway – it made it to my ears but didn’t pull my eyes from RedBook. “Dylan,” he said, at which I looked up. He was staring at my chest, or, as I reconstructed the past forty seconds, my tee shirt with Bob Dylan’s wild-haired profile.

      “Oh, yeah,” I said, for lack of anything else. His own shirt caught my eye. Just a button-up blue and white-striped shirt with a nametag, “John,” on his chest, it was short-sleeved and hugged his shoulders. “I love him a lot.” I was immediately all too aware, not only of the dumb thing I said, but of how awful my voice sounded as it echoed and played over and over again in my head. Johnny’s lips parted in a smile that revealed the most perfect set of teeth I’d ever seen, straight and proportioned, not shockingly white but just enough. I couldn’t hold my own back, inferior as it was.

      That was a long time ago. Not even the beginning, but the pre-beginning. Was it love at first sight? No, because at first sight I knew that a guy like Johnny could never fall for someone like me. Until only recently, when he asked me to stop and I obliged, I would tell him during fights that he never should have gotten involved with me, he should have known better from the mere circumstance of our meeting. And I should have known too, after he told me about his family, his childhood, his hopes and dreams. Everything was tidy; he had several marks on his back and chest from the chicken pox, a light outline on his knee from a basketball injury, but those were his only scars, inside or out. Later, he would scream apologies for this, which he rightly claimed to have no control over. (“If I could choose to be messed up to make you happy, I would,” he’d said.)  

      “I don’t like these.” Johnny has approached the bedroom silently, before I have time to sit back down with the dresser. Holding a set of crocheted doilies by the edges, he doesn’t seem to notice my new job. 

      “My grandmother made those,” I tell him. “They’re for the end tables.” Johnny holds them like a specimen with combustible qualities, and he stares them up and down, ragged edges, stains, and all.

      “But they’re kind of…ugly,” he says, as I expect him to. Even though I flash him a look, the look, the one I give directly after I roll my eyes, I agree with him. It’s just that I already got rid of my lavender bedspread, my daisy shower curtain, my piggy bank that says “Hot Date Fund.” It’s just so much, too much to lose at one time and so quickly, and the doilies had to stay if there were to remain any sort of balance to my life. But that’s not what I tell him. Instead I attack him for not respecting my wishes or my family. When I’m done he apologizes, says he didn’t realize and that he’ll put them on the end tables and even one in the center of the dining room table. He says he hopes it makes me feel better. It doesn’t.   

      I never expected him to call me in the pre-beginning. That was another reason, besides the circumstances of our meeting, why I didn’t tell anyone about him. Talking about it would make it real, and him blowing me off just as real. But he surprised me, caught me completely off guard and took me on a date. It ended with a late-night dance around his living room, the beginning. I remember being more than happy. It was frightening.

      I choked when he told me that he loved me. I may be the only person in the world to have choked on mashed potatoes, but what can I say, I hit a small lump at exactly the right time. Our waitress knew the Heimlich maneuver, and it surprised me how painful in was. What came up, out, and into the basket of bread was a clump of white goo along with a single pea, astonishingly whole. I didn’t speak until we were in the car on the way home.

      “Are you sure?” I asked.

      “Aren’t you?” He was calm, always calm. When he said something he meant it, that much I knew. But it’s harder for me. Not only to say what I mean but to know what I mean.

      “I…I don’t know anything about love.”

      Johnny laughed. “I’m no expert either,” he said. “But I’ve never felt this way before. Have you?” 
 “No.”

      “I’m really happy.”

      “Me too.”

      “I love you,” I tell him now across a pizza box.

      “Love you too.” He says it fast, almost like it’s a single word. It’s the way he’s taken to saying it lately. He’s looking around the room, sizing up my work. Splitting up rooms to unpack was my idea, but now I can see how much more successful he was.

      “I think we need blinds,” he says.

      “Do you really?”

      “Yeah, the curtains won’t cut it.”

      “No, love me?” He flashes me his look, eyebrows down, gaze centered, and says my name in that pleading way. He sounds tired. I can’t blame him.

      Moving in together was almost a necessity. If not a necessity, it was the thing that made the most sense. Both of our leases were up, both of us had outgrown and tired of our roommates. And I wanted to live with him, take turns doing dishes and laundry and cooking; kiss his eyelids when he was sleeping so that he would never ever know. Still, I was apprehensive. I just didn’t think it could work. Sometimes I’m still not sure. How can it work? What is it that people say, one of those ridiculous sayings that mean absolutely nothing: “patience of a saint.” Johnny has that, but he won’t always. The most cutting thing he’s ever said is that I make him sad. He said that only weeks ago, when I said more horrible, disgusting things to him that I couldn’t keep from coming out of my mouth. They just poured out, all over him and the soft skin of his cheeks that suck in just a little when he’s listening to something very carefully.

      “You’re pathetic,” I’d said to him after my jealousy had been piqued. “All you want is one thing. You don’t care about me, or that I love the heck out of you. You think you’re so perfect, but your flaw is being a major fool…” I went on. I don’t know why I was surprised or bothered when he said I made him sad. That was what I meant to do.  

      “Long day,” Johnny yawns into my ear. We’re lying on the futon, our only assembled piece of furniture. In his arms I feel warmer, stronger, more beautiful and peaceful. He smells of sweat unpackaged, and he’s holding me so tight I know I’ll smell that way too. I don’t care. It almost feels like the beginning again. Maybe there’s no end – maybe there’s an after beginning. Before Johnny falls asleep, right there, nose burrowed in my hair, he tells me that tomorrow we’ll work on the dresser together. His breath tickles the back of my neck, as do the deep sounds that come from his mouth. Me, I’m not tired yet but I stay there with him and close my eyes.    
 

 

 

 

 

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