This is How I Leave You
I knew I liked him when he pronounced my name right on the first try.
I asked him how he did it.
He shrugged. “I watched a lot of hockey as a kid. The Canadian players had those crazy Polish names. Full of consonants. They were like puzzles."
My last name is Swazikowska. Once, a sales lady called for a Miss Swastika. This happens often, despite the disparity in letter count. Normally I correct people; it’s not the kind of word you want to be associated with. But this woman was so enthusiastic for stoneware casserole dishes I just had to buy one, even though I didn't have an oven at my place and never cooked anyway. I gave her my credit card for the $29.99 and couldn't help but smile when she said, “Thank you, Miss Swastika. Have a blessed day."
I have spent enough time at his apartment to walk down the steep steps at a quick, even pace. I know where the carpet is unraveling on the ninth step and avoid it. The first time, rushing out for work, I tripped at step nine and caught myself before I would have knocked my teeth out on the banister. I obsessed about the near catastrophe all day. Whenever I caught a glimpse of my reflection, I imagined how I’d look toothless. Another time during a bad storm, this massive branch snapped off an oak and nearly crushed my car. Had I not swerved, it would have flattened my head like sticky tack under a thumb. All day I was in a haze, imagining how I’d look headless. I thought probably okay given the rest of me.
The point is I don’t need to grip the railing anymore, but I still do.
I met Greg at a wake for a man we barely knew. Dan had killed himself. The note was brief. It read: I’m sick of the floor squeaking in the same spot no matter how lightly I walk.
The wake was winding down. A few mourners milled around the dead man’s house, picking up his possessions—which didn’t amount to much—and telling stories. Carl and Sarah laughed uncontrollably at everything. Bobby had smoked them up in the bathroom and the whole place reeked of pot. They were giggling and spitting birthday cake everywhere. It would have been Dan’s twenty-ninth, Bobby told me. He couldn’t cancel the cake order. A lithe man with a crooked nose stood in the corner and stared at my legs. The dress was short, the only one I had in black.
“Have a cigarette with me,” the man said. “It’s my last one.”
I said sure. I don’t smoke, but I was compelled to follow him. His poor posture pointed to one of two things: he was uncomfortable with his height or he didn’t know how handsome he was. In either case, my bra matched my underwear and I was feeling very confident.
We walked out into the small yard, which was bordered by a black chain-link fence. In the corner of the yard, petunias wilted in a raised garden bed. It was only September but we’d had a dry summer.
He asked how I knew Dan. I told him I slept with his brother Bobby years before. He said he bought pot off of Dan a few times.
I asked what we were doing there. He didn’t know either.
“Your suit isn’t black,” I said. It was blue.
“I know. It’s new. Is it fucked up that I’m kind of glad for the chance to wear it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s a nice suit.”
He leaned against the fence and lit the cigarette.
“Are you sad?” he asked, passing it to me.
I told him not particularly. That sounded cold so I asked if he was sad.
“How so?” I passed the cigarette back.
“He was our age. And the note. Why leave anything?” he said.
I told him I respected a man who knew when enough was enough, who knew when to quit.
His eyes—wide set and hazel—pulsed out of his head. He looked delighted.
“You know, you didn’t smoke any of this. You just held it like you were posing for an art class.”
He stubbed out the cigarette and took my hand. I followed him through the gate and down the alleyway that led to the street and got into his car. He leaned across me and buckled my seatbelt as if I were helpless. Really it was an excuse to graze my legs. He didn’t ask to kiss me. He didn’t ask to say goodbye to Bobby and the others. He just turned the ignition and leaned in. It would be days before I went back to Dan’s to get my car.
I've known him for a month. We spend a lot of time together, probably too much. Greg is a carpenter with very few clients. I work as a hotel receptionist three days a week. No one wants to stay in the hotel because it’s overpriced and there is a much cleaner bed and breakfast down the street.
Tonight we want a change of scenery, so I book us the nicest suite in the hotel. I type fake names into the system, nothing funny because I don’t want to arouse suspicion, even though my boss is having an affair with his wife’s water aerobics instructor and couldn’t care less.
We are married though. We are Mr. and Mrs. Davenport. We're from Upstate New York. We're from 1954. I don't tell him about it even though it's clearly a joke. He wouldn't find it funny.
I grab the key and wink at Greg. “Right this way, Sir.” We don’t have bellhops. There isn’t a public elevator because the hotel was built in the fifties–Davenport years–before there were disability laws. We make do. We make out in the utility elevator.
On the expensive cloud-like bed, in front of the expensive muted TV, he regales me with a history of every fight he’s been in. This surprises me; I mistook him for a pacifist. Everything about him is still mysterious. Still terrifying. There were brawls with his brothers, another over a girl in high school, and several blackout incidents in his early twenties, wherein he’d awaken to find blood on his pillow, a busted lip, or a broken nose. His nose has been broken six times.
“Did you ever win?” I ask.
He buries his head in my chest and groans.
“Did you ever even try?”
I marveled at his apartment when I first saw it. It was sparse, but inviting. A few framed prints hung on the walls. The wood floors shone. When he opened the door, the bed was right there, in the center of what should have been the living room, three feet from a fireplace. I knew he'd be a good lay because the bed was so prominent. So central. I wanted to read the paper there, even though I never read the paper. I wanted to eat greasy Chinese there. I wanted to make love all day, everyday there.
My eye caught the only other piece of furniture – a plum chaise.
“That’s a beautiful chair,” I said.
“Mary picked it out.”
“Mary, my fiancée,” he said, as if answering a knock-knock joke. Unhooking my bra, he said, “It’s not what you think.” He laid me down in the chaise and stripped off the rest. The velvet fabric was warm, as if someone had been there. It’s funny remembering that night now. I thought maybe he and this Mary woman had an arrangement. Maybe she liked sharing him with other women. He entered me like a hand-cut key. I stared at the door and waited for Mary to walk in, to see the blood rising in my face. She never did.
It’s November. We’re walking the eight blocks to pick up Chinese. We get the same thing every time: spare ribs, hot and sour soup, and shrimp Lo Mein. It’s getting colder. The sun sets by six now. On our walk we pass a woman selling roses. She says, “Pretty flower for a pretty lady?” and winks at me. Then we pass a Hassidic kid, who asks if Greg will take part in a blessing. He says the same thing to the woman and the kid. "Not interested."
He puts his arm around me. It’s so long it rests near my navel. We brace ourselves against the wind. I love walking with him like this.
“We’re straight out of Freewheelin’,” I say, smiling. Greg’s hair has a wave to it, and he wears a brown coat like Dylan’s on the album cover. He even has the stooped gait down pat.
“Sure,” he says. “If your hair was longer.”
Here’s what I know about Mary. She skipped town one day while Greg was at work and took only one suitcase. They were engaged for a year. He has no idea where she is. There isn’t a ring because she didn’t care for the symbolism. She is dark-haired and beautiful. She is tall. I deduced tall by the height of the hanging bookshelves. The lip of the bathtub is also astoundingly high. It's like jumping a hurdle every time. Mary is a giantess. I am a dwarf. Greg is also tall, a foot taller than me. We can’t comfortably bathe together because the water pounds on my chest every time he moves his head. His neck is often sore from bending down to kiss me. I appreciate this sacrifice and thank him when he is asleep, turned towards the wall.
I could have guessed she was beautiful too, but he told me that part.
I’m having dinner with Annie. Annie repeats herself about everything like a kid on a long car trip. She says she knew I’d like it here five times before the waiter comes over to ask about drinks. I do like it here. It’s the kind of place with complimentary warm bread, where the waiters wear bow ties. There's even a bathroom attendant who hands you paper towels and calls you ma'am or miss, depending. Annie and I are drinking Cabernet, even though it makes us sick. Something about the tannins. We don’t care. We like the taste and how it feels before we’re sick. Annie is on me about Greg again.
“What are you trying to accomplish here?” she says.
“Maybe it’s an experiment,” I say.
“What are you banking on then?”
I try to come up with an answer that doesn’t sound pathetic. I say, “Maybe he’ll love me eventually,” failing miserably. I bite my nails – a sign that I’ve had it with the conversation. Annie knows this but pushes on anyway.
“And how certain are you about that?”
I tear a piece of bread in half and stuff my face. She hates when I speak with my mouth full, so I do. “You asked for hypothesis, not probability.”
I’m lousy at math and science, but I know the difference. Annie changes the subject to gossip about old classmates. I leave the restaurant wondering why I still see her. The deeper she descends into her graduate studies, the more judgmental she becomes. I’m woozy from the possible allergic reaction and decide to leave my car in the lot and walk home. It begins to snow. I haven’t been home in days.
I'm waiting for him to let me in, bracing myself for the buzzer, which still scares the shit out of me. It stirs an emptiness unlike anything I’ve felt before, like my organs have grown teeth and are gnawing at the shell of my body. The feeling persists up the stairs, down the hall, until he opens the door and pulls me in.
He cooks my favorite breakfast without knowing it’s my favorite and I’m sure I love him. He calls it egg in a nest like most people, but I call it egg on toast. He likes how simple I am. I yawn in the cooing way I do, which he likes too.
“You make me respect myself more,” he says. “Notice how clean the house always is?”
I nod. It is always clean. But there's more to it than that. It's clean because she left it that way. He has preserved everything. Her impractical clothes and shoes—floor length gowns, silk blouses, stilettos—shrouded in plastic, hang in the closet next to his blue suit, his wedding-turned-funeral suit. I’m sure if I snooped through their dresser I’d find negligees and nylons, probably a vibrator.
The moment my fork hits the empty plate he scoops it up, washes and dries it, and places it back in the cabinet where it belongs. He acts like this is normal. He whistles.
It reminds me of Christmas, the way my dad circled the room with the trash bin and hastily pitched the newspaper, the headlines ranging from totally innocuous to downright gruesome. Our parents never used the funnies; it was the only part of the Times they read. One year in his eagerness, dad threw away a silver watch he’d bought my mom and screamed at her for losing it. A month’s salary down the tubes. Goddamn it, Jean. She found it later, shining beneath crushed Coke cans, and held it up to me as I sat at the kitchen counter watching Rudolph. I never saw her wear the watch. My guess is she pawned it, because the week after Christmas she packed exotic lunches for my sister and me: passion fruit and slices of papaya, braised lamb shanks, quinoa salad, and chocolate biscuits imported from England. Our classmates tried to trade us fruit roll-ups and pecan rolls, but we refused.
I keep finding Mary’s stray hairs in everything, especially in books he’s leant me. Her books. Their books. Nothing seems to be his. I don’t know which is more rebellious, throwing the long hairs on the floor or in the trash, so I do a combination of both. They always make me lose my place.
After a dinner of round steak and gorgonzola pasta, we drink Red Stripes and lounge in bed. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is playing on the record player.
“This record still makes me sad,” he sighs.
“Then why put it on?” I ask. It’s a pointless question. It’s not about his untimely death. He presses his face into my chest so I can't see it. I don’t need to. He’s thinking about her. He recedes by bearing down like this. He grows quiet, and he’s never quiet. He even talks in his sleep, incoherent mumblings of course, but regardless, they comfort me. I can’t stand his silences. Sometimes I think when he collapses on me like this, he’s pretending I’m her. Maybe our breasts have a similar shape.
I cry inaudibly thinking about this, but my body quivers and he catches me, tears running down my neck.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I’ll change it.”
I sit up and wipe my face in my shirt and wonder how he can be so obtuse. “How about a fire?” I say.
“It’s not that cold,” he says, removing another record from the shelf.
“Cold enough," I say and grab the big canvas bag hanging from the hearth. "I’ll get wood from the park.” He doesn’t offer to come but says be careful. Watch out for beasts. He means drunks. I stand on my tiptoes and kiss his neck.
I find a flashlight in the den and pull on my coat. Liz Phair’s Whip Smart starts to play. She’s saying, You’ve gotta have fear in your heart. He's already dozing off. I leave him like this – his square fingers tangled in the sheet, body hardened and curled like the shell of a snail.
The streetlights are out leading to the park. It's quiet. I mistake the wind for a woman’s whistle and turn to see what she wants. My ears ring. I train the flashlight on the beginning of the trail. There’s a point where the trail bends, where the canopy is at it’s thickest. There was a tee-pee here last week. I watched the Charter School kids build it, gingerly stacking limbs around the tree. They took turns sitting in twos inside of it, panting, proud. Now the splintered remnants of their efforts lie in a pile. There's an apple there too. Where the stem should be is a hole, filled with pot ash. Kids these days, so wasteful, I say to no one. I thought the point was to eat the apple afterwards. I can’t believe I’ve just said ‘kids these days.’
I bend to gather the limbs. Clearly the little punks attempted a fire. They thought all they had to do was light empty cigarette packs and toss them in. An overwhelming sense of spite grows. The tee-pee was noble. This is a mess.
He was right. It isn't that cold. Even so, I want a fire right here. I can't imagine going back to his place. I'm too comfortable. The wind is picking up, so there’s a good chance it won’t catch, but I sit on my heels, hold the flashlight between my teeth, and set about building a log cabin, the way my mom taught me. “Rachel,” she said, stacking logs in the pit out in our yard, “This is how we build a house.” Lighting the newspaper, she said, “This is how we burn it down.” I lay dreamily in her lap for hours, watching the flames rise and fall. Later she poured water over the embers. “And this is how we leave it."
I spot a small cluster of stars through the trees. The city makes me forget stars. When I go back home, to a town where there are only two stoplights, where the library is in the basement of the police station, I feel infinitely small. All those blinking lights, holding themselves together, visible.
Taylor Grieshober is a writer from Pittsburgh. Once a waitress to the stars, she now works as an editorial assistant. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Weave, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. She writes film reviews for The New Yinzer and co-directs The New Yinzer Presents, a monthly reading series.