Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns
Robby sat on the stoop outside my apartment building, cigarette twitching between his fingers. I stepped in circles along the stone path winding through the courtyard lawn.
I tiptoed, wavering in scuffed patent flats, and looked at Robby to see if he was watching me. Wine from my plastic cup splashed over my knuckles and left an imprint on the stone, the shape of a lightening bolt or passing clouds. Those shapes twisted my brain, floating in a pool of wine and whiskey.
Most of the three-story apartment windows were dark by midnight. A few toasted lights glowed among scattered rows of windows. Robby stayed over so often, most of the tenants just assumed he lived there.
In the early evenings, we could see a white-haired man in a rocking chair, his walls lined with books. Every night he sat in his dim library and read. The scene, a magnetic painting. Longing, Robby watched him with a sniper's eye.
"I'm confused," I said. Robby said my voice sounded like smoke. He had said it even before I began smoking two months ago, just before the affair came out and Will left me. I inhaled my cigarette. Robby exhaled, smoke dripping from his lips. He lowered his gaze from me.
"So we're nowhere?" He lifted the burning cigarette to his ear, so close I thought it would catch his matted hair on fire. "My god, Blair!" He shook his head, daring the flame to do it.
We had been drinking. We had always been drinking.
"I'm getting divorced, no? Jesus, Robby." My voice cracked, dead bark in the wind. I walked up to where he sat and looked down at the crown of his head. I reached for his chin and raised his face. His eyes widened, squinty things burrowed above round cheeks. I let go. "Do you know what I've sacrificed for this?"
He breathed deeply. He did this sometimes, not out of a thirst for serenity, but out of fear his heart may explode and leave nothing but shrapnel.
"I just want us ALL to be okay. I want you Blair—for my own. I want to be better, for myself. I even want that brainless husband of yours to find another wonderful life he can neglect and just fucking be happy."
"He's not a threat anymore, R." I knelt on the step below him and stroked his bristly cheek. "You believe me, right?"
Withering things drifted in the skies.
It was winter. Outside the bar, stillness engrossed a cloudless gray sky. I had sat down at the bar in College Square that Tuesday night with my friend, Vicky. We were semi-celebrating, or lamenting, our upcoming commencement from graduate school. Vicky whispered, "He's cute," and pointed at Robby—then, only the bartender to me—forgoing any attempt at discretion.
"Oh, Blair, I'm talking about for me. Every guy isn't always in love with you and your curls and skinny shoulders." She smiled at me, then steadied her gaze at an aloof Robby.
I batted my hand, which caught Robby's attention. "He's not even working this end of the bar," I said.
"Well it doesn't look like that's going to stop him." Vicky folded her arms across her stomach. "Married, and you still get them, Blair—jeez Louise." Her slight smile twitched.
Robby walked over to where we sat. The bartender who had been manning our end of the bar rolled her eyes and stomped in clunky black boots into a back room.
He pressed his palms into the cognac-stained bar top and leaned into me. "I read your name somewhere." I raised my eyes suspiciously. "I swear." He raised both hands in surrender. "So what is it again?" He smirked.
Robby served me a drink that night, then two. He poured us tequila shots twice, and all three of us cheered, our drunken laughter drowned in the noisy barroom back-soundtrack. The following week, I came back alone, already buzzed off cheap champagne I'd downed in my empty apartment. I'd lived there alone since Will began traveling out of state on seemingly never-ending consultant jobs, which he would synopsize during our minute-long phone calls once a day. He'd "left" nearly four months earlier and only returned from New York, or Austin, or Charlotte, or wherever the fuck, on "lucky for me" weekends.
I kept going to the bar and would wait for Robby's shift to end so he could walk me home. We would hold hands as he walked me. And walking me home became walking himself inside my apartment, and given the late hours, it began as innocent sleepovers that never ended in more than holding one another, our hands, then our bodies. The physicality escalated to sex after a few weeks of innocent sleepovers, and then everything else people who have sex do.
Holding made us what we became, what we are: mad people in love, lovers who are simply mad.
I cried one night about three months into the affair. I was guilty, and I knew this was only temporary and I would have to face the consequences of it all, the dissolution of my marriage and entering into a life of uncertainties. But what life was I living now but an uncertain one?
I lay in bed crying, Robby beside me. I faced the dim light on my nightstand. He sat and gently pulled my streaked face toward him. He stroked my forehead again and again.
"Beautiful girl," he said, and took a paused breath. "Smart girl." He stroked. "Talented girl." He smiled. "Beautiful." Breath. "Determined girl." He sighed. "Kind girl... Kind."
Somewhere among the words and the breathing and the stroking, I had stopped crying. You are kind, Blair, I repeated in my head. And he kissed my dry cheek and switched off the light.
"You don't want me," I provoked him
"Shut up! Just shut up!" He shook his head.
The sky hid its precious stars that night.
A light switched on in the street-level apartment directly behind where we sat. I perked up, and Robby turned around. An old Hispanic mother of three pulled back her makeshift curtains and looked at us—an oatmeal face, I thought, in tone and texture. She didn't scowl or shake a finger or tell us to quiet down; she just looked. Six eyes seemed to triangulate in that moment, and we all knew something, something not one of us could say. Then her oatmeal face withdrew from the window and out went the light.
We sat, heads lowered to the ground. I clutched his sticky hand. A fallen branch crushed underfoot. A man walked up the path, closer and closer out of the night. But even before I could make out his face, I knew it was Renner. Where do you get a name like Renner?
"Someone's coming," I said, imagining myself playing a game of Clue, moving the miniature replica wrench and red plastic marker into the Conservatory.
"People," I whispered to Robby, even though I knew it was Renner.
"What kind of people?" Robby played along.
"A human," I said. Ms. Scarlet moved through the secret passageway into the Dining Hall. The candlestick already lay on the floor.
"Ah, the worst kind." Robby sighed. He wore a sarcastic, close-mouthed smile and sipped his beer.
The mood stiffened. It was no longer just us at this midnight hour, in the midst of a lover's quarrel, but a third party, potentially threatening, was breaking into our space.
I rested my hand on Robby's shoulder. I knew what Robby was thinking, knew he may have even been scared of Renner, since Renner moved into his cousin's apartment above mine a month ago after getting released from jail for a number of alleged assaults and drug possessions. The apartments talked—not so much the tenants, but the creaky stairs and drab mossy hallways. We all heard each others' whispers among our own.
Renner had taken a special liking to Robby and me, since we were younger than most of the tenants and openly wandered about the courtyard, staggering steps and slurred tongues sometimes kissing, sometimes screaming in the middle of the night. The Super had been called more than once. "What a happen to you, Blair?" he said in broken English one afternoon. "I get calls all night. You in with bad people now?" I smiled and tightened my bathrobe around my otherwise naked, aching body, having just risen from a night of binge drinking and blow.
"Hey, guys," said Renner, red-faced, raccoon-eyed. He stopped at the steps a few feet too close to us.
"Renner," I said and drank from my cup.
"Yo, Robby, your girl—" He flapped his hand toward me and leaned in close to Robby's ear. "She looks like a porn star." I stood there in the cheap jean skirt I'd bought eight years ago in high school and only wore when I didn't "care." I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. My loose sweatshirt slipped off one shoulder.
Renner grinned and rolled his jaw. I knew Robby wanted to punch him but wouldn't fuck with someone like Renner; he was too smart for that.
"Having a good night, man?" Robby asked, and with a flick of his wrist, his cigarette stub glided into a bush like a paper crane.
"You know," said Renner, "You guys, ah, looking for something?" Renner swiveled his head left then right. We looked at each other. "I just picked up a few bags from some guy I know down in Dedham... If you're looking for something..." Renner reached a hand under the breast of his dusty coat.
"How much?" I asked.
Robby shook his head. I knew what he was thinking: "Why would you fuck with this guy, Blair? We have our own connects." Robby was patient and brooding; I was manic and brooding.
"Twenty a bag," he said and adjusted himself.
"We're good tonight, Renner."
Robby nodded. "Thanks, man." Robby reached his arm around my waist and pulled my thighs to his head.
"Alright," said Renner. "If you ever feel like sharing..." Renner clicked his cheek and eyed me quick, then winked at Robby, slapped his shoulder, and walked into the building.
Robby reached for the bottle on the steps and gulped his beer. He placed it down and looked straight ahead. I saw something quiet and stirring in his face.
The September leaves swirled through the charcoal sky—wraiths of the night.
"Don't talk to that guy, Blair. Alright?" His voice was restrained.
"I don't need to be protected." I was drunk but still detected the silliness of that statement.
I started circling, tiptoeing and stumbling on the leather soles of my flats grinding against the pavement. I felt like the ballerina I had hoped to become in graduate school, like an angel soaring through the night—free from the reality of my ballet failures and rejections.
"Got your balance there?" Robby laughed. He reached for another beer behind him and opened it by curbing the tip of the cap on the edge of the steps. I thought it was sexy how he could do that.
"You're everywhere, Blair," he said. He shook his head, and through my shaky movements I glimpsed a flicker of sadness crawling over his face. I stopped moving, legs straight, arms draped, feet pressed into the path. But it felt like I was swimming.
"I've lost everything." I drank from my glass—a blue glass obscuring its contents (I had been too lazy to rinse out a wine glass). "My whole life has changed." I looked up into the sky, a dramatic touch, I thought. "And you?"
He sighed, a laden inflection buried in his throat.
"Time, energy," he said. "A waste of my fucking time, Blair." He drank his beer. I watched his Adam's apple roll.
He cracked the empty bottle down on the brick and surveyed the courtyard. I knew that look—looking for a refill.
I sat beside him on the stoop. I pressed my hand, dry as an autumn leaf, to his heart. I would have crushed it if I could.
"How can you say I was a waste of your time?" I swallowed a shaky breath. The night became cold, and I grasped my arms across my chest. A tingle circulated through my body like the tiny legs of a spider wandering inside me.
I drank. I was crying then. Tears had become so familiar, I barely distinguished their presence on my cheeks from bronzer or sweat on summer days. I finished my cup and threw it on the lawn.
"I thought we were past this," he said. I leaned into his shoulder but he pushed me away. The force of his hand swung my body back and forth like a cable in the wind.
"Past a divorce?" I shook my mocking head. The tears had stopped. The drinks were empty. Robby patted down his pockets, a guard at security checkpoint. He pulled a pack out his left pocket and extracted two cigarettes. He lit them both and handed one to me.
"Please don't be angry with me, " I said and inhaled. "I've been scared to tell you how confusing everything has been since Will found out about us. It's been hell." I laughed. "Fucking hell."
"God, Blair." He looked up at the sky, but it didn't seem dramatic. I looked into his searching eyes, and unlike me, I believed he actually saw something, something inspiring, something to appreciate. That's what I loved about him.
"I'm sorry, R," I said and nuzzled my forehead into the shoulder of his teeshirt.
He put his arm around my shoulder and kissed the crown of my head. He kissed my wild hair, untended to in days—days, weeks, months we'd spent drinking and laughing and fucking and comforting each other's guilt and depression.
"You'd be surprised how time just slips away from you."
I mourned to the sky: Save me, please. Please save me.
I lowered my head, our faces so close.
"I've been waiting, so long," he said. I could feel his breath on my neck, his words inscribed on my skin.
I didn't know how it all happened, how I'd fallen so far. I missed Will. I only knew I knew so little—that I was lost.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. My ember eyes, now coal in the moonless night.
"It feels like nowhere to me." Robby pressed his palms on his knees and rocked back and forth. "God, the way you see the world—" He smirked. "You're so open."
"There's no place for my heart in this world." Tears floated above my bottom lashes.
"We're all wanderers, in between stages... in your world," he said. He reached under my sweatshirt and grabbed my bare waist. His hands were lustful; Will's had never been that way. "You're a masochist." His hands were cold. I shivered when he leaned in and kissed me hard—whiskey tongues.
Robby released me and lit another cig. I stood up then and began a Bacchic-like dance about the path.
"Stalemate," I announced mid-skip.
"No one wins, because nowhere either player moves can they achieve anything—a win, that is, or a killing, however you prefer to think about it." My cheery voice emphasized all the wrong syllables as I skipped, and my speech shook with each landing on the ground.
Midnight cloaks all wounds.
"No end," he said, face to the sky. He picked up his beer. "So you've resigned us to a path of emotional perdition."
He polished off the second beer and threw the empty bottles in the bushes.
I had stopped circling. We both sat on the stoop. Robby took a drag, and I leaned in to kiss him so he exhaled into my mouth. The smoke choked as it slithered down my throat into my chest. I closed my eyes and listened.
The cunning heart whispers, run run away away away.
We rose, tossed our cigarettes into the darkness and went inside for another round.