Lonely Plus One

Lonely Plus One

Two hands, depicted as outlines, nearly touch, overlaid at the center of a black-and-white photography and painting collage
A Poetics of Reaching (2019), René Sharanya Verma

I hate drinking games.

Why do you need words to consume alcohol? Why do you need alcohol to consume words?

I also hate couples. How does New York City have so many couples? And why are all of them my friends?

There’s Abby and Steve, who are one soymilk latte away from being the most boring couple of all time. There’s Vince and Kabir, whose collective beauty makes the rest of us look like their groupies. There’s Ella and Gav, who are as mismatched as my socks. And then there’s Dave from my editorial team, whom Abby has dragged to this rooftop bar. She pities my singlehood.

In the midst of my ethnographic evaluation of my work buddies, I do not realize that we are now talking about ideal partnerships. This entire evening is about love, compatibility, cohabitation and other nausea-inducing phenomena. It’s terrifying. Each panellist speaks with panache, but I can see the cracks. Abby’s barely eating. Steve is at his monosyllabic best. Vince and Kabir want to score some hash. Ella is on Snapchat. Gav is not on Ella’s Snapchat currently, and it is probably because he is debating the merits and demerits of boxers and briefs with a hapless Dave. Vince suddenly turns his attention to me. “So, Lili, what’d you like?”

I’d like a Xanax. I’d like my paycheck on time. I’d like to not live in Bushwick someday. I’d like to not wax my face every two weeks. I’d like to be anywhere but here.

As usual, I misread the room. “I’d like it rough.” Vince chuckles, Kabir is in a haze. Abby looks like she swallowed a gecko. “Just like all my writing drafts,” I add, laughing hastily. No one laughs. Suddenly, this crowded-ass rooftop bar decides to get silent. Dave chugs his beer like it’s water. That might not be wise.

Vince saves me, as usual, asking me what I’d like in a partner, before steering the conversation back to Gav, who is trying to frame his bottle of wine perfectly for Instagram. I studiously avoid Dave’s gaze as I sip on my drink.

There’s a little ball that starts knotting up in my stomach. I think about Abby, furious that she thinks I can’t find someone on my own. Or that I need someone. I think about Riz, remembering his sweetness, his sweat, his slick lies. I think about home in its pathetic attempts to not crumble. I get up, mumble, as I fumble for my phone.

“Hi Adam, can I come over?”

There’s wine on my lips and rain in my hair, not in a sultry way, but in dishevelment which only promises to escalate. I reach his apartment, and he opens the door, rolled up sleeves, kind gray eyes. “Lilith, are you oka—”

He doesn’t complete. I don’t let him. My mouth meets his, finding home in its corners, our tongues dancing like flames. I press myself into him, before I nibble his ear. “I want you to punish me.”

She’s washed over me. Glistening. She absentmindedly runs her hand through her hair, as I unlock the other handcuff, her arms grazing against my chest. I’m resting next to her, cradling her head, sighing with the pleasure of release. The record is about to end. Perfect timing. In a couple of minutes, Lili will book a Lyft and be out of here, without wanting a coffee or a drink or a chat. I understand it, but sometimes, I want to linger.

Every time I’m in bed with Adam, I discover something new. Today, I learn that he has a tiny scar on his index finger. It’s quiet, but it looks like it was bigger once. It looks like there was a time it hurt. I rise up to look at the wall clock, and see his photograph, a tintype from near Chelsea Market in 1997. I want to touch it too, see if there are tiny scars on its surface. I’m too spent though.

“I wonder why you’ve never offered to click a photograph of me,” I say, as I wonder why he’s never offered to click a photograph of me.

I don’t know how to answer this question without telling her why I don’t click photographs anymore. I don’t know how to answer this question without telling her that a photograph would do her no justice.

He’s lying next to me, looking up at the ceiling, as if he’s star-gazing at the mould. I feel ugly. Each stretch mark on my body seems to crawl, move into my stomach like a stab. I had realized this early, but the alcohol and the sex and the loneliness confirm what I knew when I was five and seven and twelve and seventeen. I will never be a muse. No songs will be written about me. No letters. No poems. I shut my legs together and feel my hair bristle against my inner thighs.

Someone like Lilith cannot be captured in a photograph. She cannot be framed or tamed or caught. She is iridescent. She changes colours with the light. There are times her eyes are light brown when the sun catches her through a window, there are times they are dark, but they are always brimming with knowing. Her dark brows furrow when she is skeptical or questioning, before the corners of her lips break into a gentle smile or grin, depending on the situation. Words dance on her lips like dervishes—there is conviction and chaos in the way she speaks, so that everything she says sounds like a poem. There is something tender and fierce about her voice—it is a battle cry and a lullaby. Each line on her face has purpose she is not fully awake to. The eyebrow that cocks up of its own volition. The nose that scrunches when she is truly delighted. The tiniest dimple that appears only occasionally. The smile that is just a little lopsided when she’s being cheeky. The way she looks at you when she processes and sits with everything you say. No photograph could capture Lilith Naseer’s beauty. Her beauty arises from how she moves in the world.

He is still lying there, and suddenly I feel his arm pull me close, cupping my shoulder, and then my breast. It feels like a shirt. It feels like home. A home I can’t enter.

I am not in love with Lilith Naseer.

I like the silence. I like how my chin fits into his neck, my shoulder in his palm, his legs in mine. I like that this feels eternal, in all its ephemerality, in all its flesh, in all its stickiness and sweat and scent of pleasure. I like the spaces in between words. The sound of him breathing.

I am not in love with Lilith Naseer because I am a small, weak man. I have nothing to give her. I am a forty-nine-year-old kinky white New Yorker who thinks drinking coffee in compostable cups is somehow going to save girl children in Ethiopia. I cheat on crosswords way more than I’m comfortable admitting. I battle my midlife crisis by typing LOL when Lilith says something cute and millennial that eludes me entirely.

We can never be together. There’s twenty-four years and a whole lot of missed pop-culture references between us. There’s the fact that our sadnesses can’t collide because we will both sink. At best, our sadnesses can buoy each other, we can hold each other, and explore our guilt and pain and pleasure in the safety of each other’s warmth. At worst, we can empty each other out, scream and thrust and fall and moan and sink and leave. Which prompts the question:

Why is she still here?

I should have been out by now. On my way home, thinking about why my coping mechanism for any annoyance was kinky sex with a man twice my age, thinking about how this man was also probably someone I trusted most. I’d scold myself for kink-shaming myself and tell myself to be proud of me no matter what. I’d see Mom’s missed call and decide against calling her in my current state, and then I’d reach my bed and pass out. Instead, I was here, drawing circles on Adam’s body like a kindergartner who’d just consumed too much glue.

I knew something was wrong. I knew it from the moment she called, and I want to hold her and make her a cup of tea and play her favorite Nina Simone record, but I want to honor the boundaries we’ve set. The boundaries she’s set. I can’t break down her walls, take off her armor unless she wants me to. Lilith is proud of her independence and I will honor it.

I guess I’m here because Adam gets me. He doesn’t probe, doesn’t interfere, but shows up for me. I wonder why I implicitly trust him so much even though he has, demonstrably, the power to hurt me. I wonder why I can recognize the softness of his jaw when he reclines when I’ve felt the roughness of his hands. I wonder why I know each sliver of silver in his hair like a prayer when I’ve seen the darkness in his eyes as we fuck. I wonder why I’m—

Her eyes are moist. I can’t lie here in lies and pretend not to care. I kiss her forehead. “Do you want some tea? I’ve got those biscuits you like and we can play I Put a Spell on You and talk for a while?”

I consider this proposition. I truly do. A part of me wants to, badly.

I kiss his hands. “Thank you. I’ve booked a cab though. Got to catch up on work tomorrow.”

I tried.

He tried.

I see her through my window, smiling and talking to her cab driver before getting into her car. How can someone with so much hurt and pain be so kind to strangers? And just like that, she’s gone. She never stays.

I never stay because I am scared to fall in love with Adam Foster.

I trudge up the stairs, enter the house silently, stealthily, like a ghost, a thief. I leave the keys in the bowl in the foyer. We’d gotten the bowl as a wedding gift, along with a hundred other bowls of the exact same make. I open the fridge. She’s eaten dinner, thankfully. Her bedroom door is open, I feel strange to enter and shut the light. It no longer feels like I lived in here once, made love to her in here once, fought and made up with her in here once. She’s sound asleep. She’s stopped waiting. Or caring.

I go down to the guest room, my room, and sit on the edge of the bed. I’d asked Lili if she’s home, and she’s sent me a range of emojis that can best be described as an assortment of confections. I send her the song that makes me think of her, the song that gets me hot and bothered as I think of her, as I plug in my headphones and tap my fingers on the firm mattress.

I don’t know what seizes me, but I go to the top shelf of my cupboard and pull out my old camera, broken, undone, scarred. I examine its edges, running my fingers along them like a lover, a friend. I find the dent and the sharp metal, from when Christine threw it at me. I have forgotten the details, but I know that’s when things ended in some way. I notice the scar on my index finger. It’s tiny now, but it hurt then. How do we not forsake the parts of us that ache?

I take the camera, wrap it up, put it in its cardboard home, place it in the cupboard, and go to sleep.

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