Especially Far From Me

by Abbey Baker
The pool is so still, so undisturbed; there are not even ripples on the surface from the wind. I stand by it with a beer in one hand, the other hand fingering the change in my pocket; I try to seem at ease. Across the pool a table of people, sun-kissed and laughing, share an ashtray. Their cigarette smoke unravels against the electric sky. I don’t know where your sister is now – on the balcony maybe? Changing the music on the stereo from Paul Simon to something with a loud pulsing beat, which I hear before I see her. You, beside me in a lawn chair, are not relaxed. You shift and itch; your feet squeak against the plastic strips of the chair. Your sister has planned this party in our honor, on our last night in California, as a kind of send-off. You’ve stayed on this side of the pool, though, and I’ve wandered around landing in awkward conversations, watching you from a distance as if you might disappear. The palm trees spike through the sky and seem to touch the moon. The beer bottle sweats in my hand. These are the things I notice just before I notice your sister appear at the edge of the pool in a long purple dress, touch the surface with her toes, then dive in, slicing the water silently without making even the smallest splash.

“Haley,” you say, to no one, or maybe to me, but you do not say anything after it. It’s more like the word just forms then is released, with no purpose. I nod – yes, it is Haley. Haley dived into the water in her clothes and now is stepping out, the edges of her dress swirling around her legs at the water’s surface. She is laughing, her head thrown back, her wet hair clinging to her face. She wrings out the ends of her dress, accepts a glass of wine, sips it, while beads of water drip down her arms.

I never told you, but at our wedding I was unimpressed with Haley. You loved her dreadlocks and her teary toast at the reception, but I found her too much. She linked arms with you and paraded you around, practically ignoring me, as if the day were for the two of you to enjoy together. I sat at our table while she swung you around on the dance floor, the crowd cheering and laughing. Later, I saw her kissing a groomsman, even though she had a boyfriend at home and I realized she lived like a child: only for herself.

At the airport, the dreadlocks were gone. Her skin and hair sparkled, and confidence dripped from her smile like juice from a fruit. She seemed the perfect sum of her years spent in Hollywood. I clenched your hand, probably too hard, and wondered if coming had been a mistake. She made me feel like shielding my eyes and I wondered how she was supposed to help you feel better.

“Are you comfortable?” you asked me that night, coming out of the bathroom and standing in the square of light offered by the open door.

“Yes,” I said. “She does not skimp on the bedding.” My eyes were heavy with jet lag. “Are you?”
You shrugged. Of course you weren’t comfortable – when was the last time you’d been comfortable? You had not been comfortable at work, which is why you quit, claiming to be unable to process the simplest task, unable to find meaning in anything. You couldn’t have been comfortable in our apartment in Boston, holed up in our room in the dark, wishing you could escape whatever sadness reigned inside of you. Certainly you weren’t comfortable at the hospital, those papery blankets against your skin, doctors peering at you from behind glasses. Were you comfortable in my arms? You squirmed too much, but you seemed to sleep soundly beside me; I never know if I am any help to you.

You wore a nightgown, light pink flowers dotting white cotton, like a little girl’s. I told you that you looked sweet, but you did not seem to hear.

“Ben,” you said, lying down beside me, our feet touching slightly under the covers. “I feel like I don’t even know her.”

“Hmm?” I said.

“Haley. She looks completely different. I can’t even make her eye contact when I try to.” You didn’t sound sad, exactly, just puzzled.

“I think she’s caught up in the glamour out here,” I said, and put a hand on your hair.
You turned to me. You looked so pale in that nightgown, those down comforters.

“We should go to the beach tomorrow,” I said. “Some sun would do us both good.”

***

“Venice Beach!” Haley said in the morning. “It’s the best, Anna. You guys will love it.”
Her golden hair was pinched at the top of her head and fell onto her back. What was the movie she’d been in? You’d told me once, but I couldn’t remember now as I studied her from the stool in the breakfast nook.

“Sounds perfect,” you said. You looked tired, your voice gravelly, and I wondered if you’d slept at all.

“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked once we’d gone back to our room.
You stood in front of the mirror and studied yourself for far too long – I was not sure what you were looking for; you’d taken to doing this often and I thought I should talk to your doctor about it. I hated talking about you that way, reporting your recent habits to doctors, whispering about you while you sat in the waiting room, but they assured me that it would be best for you. I’d had conversations I’d never mentioned to you about your eating habits, your sleeping patterns.

“Of course!” you said. You sounded forced, even though you used to love the beach. We’d spent our honeymoon in Hawaii, your feet buried in the sand for a week, your face rosy and freckled. I thought of that week now as I watched you in front of the mirror. Was it really only two years ago? It felt like a different life altogether. You in that bright yellow sundress, dancing in the middle of a dim bar, your arms raised up over your head. You were your most beautiful that week and I’ve often thought I should have told you that more. You were so interested in the local people, much more so than you were interested in the tourist attractions I kept dragging you to, and you said it made you want to see the world.

“I want to write for National Geographic,” you had said. You looked young and full of want; I thought I could feel your heart pumping right through your veins as you lay down over me. But it must have been there somewhere – the sadness, the darkness. It must have been there, concealing itself, sleeping, tangled in shrouds of your sun-drenched dreaminess.

“Good,” I said now, standing up off that massive guest bed. “I think it’ll be good.”
I kissed you on the head and you finally turned away from your mirror image and smiled at something just past me. You’d become so good at looking through things.

***

Haley walked ahead of us on the long strip of boardwalk at Venice Beach. She twirled in her skirt, bounced from vendor to vendor, dropped change into street performers’ buckets. “Isn’t this the place to be?” She called to us, turning backwards, but not slowing down.

I smiled and nodded. You hitched a finger into my belt loop. Your wide-brimmed hat kept you hidden from the sun and cast a huge round shadow over the boards at our feet. Your finger pulled my hip closer to yours and slowed me down a little. I put an arm around your back because I recognized these motions – you became anxious and overwhelmed, and you made sure I was there.

“You know what we should do?” Haley called. “We should go down to the beach and look for my friend Steve. He plays the drums.”

I smiled again. I was up for anything.

She found Steve in a circle of people with drums in their laps, pounding away, sand splashing up around them. You and I stood away from the group, your finger still tucked through my belt loop. You felt weak against me, small, like your finger on my waist was holding you up and I asked you if you thought we should go back and take a nap. You shook your head, pushed out a smile. I looked out past the sand at the ocean, the sky that was pink seeping into blue, the still water, the vastness of it. Maybe this is what scared you, this vast world, your smallness against its huge beauty.

“Oh,” you said. “She’s buying pot.”

Haley, who had handed cash to Steve, was smelling a plastic bag. She smiled, hugged him tight around his neck and skipped back over to us. She didn’t say anything, just lifted her sunglasses up with her eyebrows and dangled the bag out. Then she plopped down in the sand. I sat down beside her and your finger slipped out of my belt loop.

“You don’t want to sit?” I asked, shielding my eyes with my hand.

“I’m going to walk to the water,” you said. “I’ll be back.”

I had not expected to be left alone with Haley, and I realized it was the first time since we’d arrived that we’d been next to each other – she was always ahead or to the side or somewhere in the distance. I bent my knees and brushed sand off my feet. I was feeling very self-conscious.

“I’m sorry I didn’t make it to Boston when everything happened,” she said. She pinched a clump of pot into a tiny pipe, lit it and smoked it quickly. “Don’t worry,” she laughed. “It’s practically legal here.”

“That’s okay.”

“I was really worried about her, but I had just gotten my first break. Things were a little crazy here.”

I nodded. You had asked about her when you first woke up in the hospital that morning. Groggy, your eyes half-open, you had asked whether she was there, with a desperation that made me want to lie and say yes. Did she not understand how much you cared about her? That you needed her there?

“You love her a lot, don’t you?” Haley said. Her voice was already a bit loose from the marijuana.

“I do,” I said.

“You must be worried constantly.” I was not expecting this either. I grazed my fingers over the sand. “Doesn’t it get to you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But she’s getting better. Slowly, she’s getting better.”

“Really?” she said.

“Yeah, really.” Her eyes and lips were big and called attention to themselves, while yours were small, delicate, easy to dismiss unless they were looked at carefully. “You don’t think she’s getting better?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. Her eyes moved over me and fixed on the waves licking the sand. “I want to believe she’ll get better, but sometimes these kinds of things, these conditions, there’s just no recovering from. It’ll always be there. She still seems pretty far away to me.”

But how could you not seem far away to Haley? She seemed to force a distance between you two, like even if you did get better, she would not be interested.

“You don’t seem to care either way,” I said, so quietly, almost involuntarily, like the salty air had pulled it out of me.

She didn’t answer because now you were approaching us, your hands holding onto the brim of your hat, a small smile across your face.

“Anna Banana,” Haley said. “Come and lay on the sand. Relax.”

You sat next to me, but didn’t lie down.

“What is it like, living here?” you asked.

“It’s like this,” said Haley. “Sunny, barefoot, the breeze in your hair. It’s relaxation times a million.”

“It can’t be like that all the time,” you said.

She laughed. “Oh, but it can.”

When we got back from the beach Haley went to the store to buy food for dinner. You sat on the edge of the bathtub and shook the sand out of your shoes into the trashcan. I stood in the doorway and watched you, your bare legs stretched out onto the tile floor. You were so focused on the last pebble in your shoe; you shook it and then jammed your hand into it, producing a tiny bead. Your body still looked pale, your face refusing to flush under that big hat, but you were milky and long in this bathroom light and I found myself desiring you, desiring my wife, as if that were such a crazy thing to feel.

“Anna, Anna,” I said softly, leaning against the doorway. I startled you and you looked up and put your hand over your heart, smiling. “We’re on vacation, you know,” I said. “You look beautiful.”

You were being shy, playing with the straps of your shoe. I went to you and took your hand, pulling you onto your feet, and you laughed and kissed me on the cheek.

“Come on,” I said, into your ear, “doesn’t this weather remind you of Hawaii?”

“Ben,” you said as I pulled you into me and kissed you hard on your mouth like I hadn’t done for months. You parted your lips slightly and pushed your tongue against mine. I took your hand and led you out of the bathroom and onto the bed. I laid you down, the California light coming in through the white curtains so much more brightly than I was used to, and I propped myself on top of you.

I ran a hand over your hair. Things had gotten to be too much in Boston. I worried about you constantly, all day at work, while I placed orders and interviewed potential employees and checked the inventory and led staff meetings. It made me so tired that when I got home at night I ate and tried to get you to eat and then fell onto the bed like a puppet whose strings had been snipped. I felt like I hadn’t kissed you like I was trying to kiss you now for years, for a lifetime. I slipped my hand under your back and brought my mouth down onto your neck. I breathed against the slope from your neck to your shoulder, but then you twisted away from me. You tried to be kind, sliding onto the other pillow, smiling up at me and putting a hand to my arm. I sat back on my knees, depleted.

“But we’re in California,” I said, without looking at you.

“It’s not you, Ben,” you said. “I’m sorry.”

Then you turned away from me and fell asleep, just like that, and I was left with the sun on the curtains and your hand placed thoughtlessly on my thigh.

***

Haley cooked like we never cooked. She paid detailed attention to health and flavor and even the color of foods against each other. She made a big bowl of salad with yellow and green wax beans, tiny tomatoes, radishes cut into wisps. She made grilled salmon, roasted potatoes, caramelized apples, fluffy brown rice covered in herbs. I hadn’t even realized how hungry I was until I smelled her cooking, and by the time she laid it all out on the table for us, I was ravenous. I even managed, while I ate, to forget about what had happened in the bedroom two hours ago. Or maybe it was what had happened that made the food taste so good; a need was filled, a craving satisfied.

“I didn’t know you could cook like this,” you said.

Haley smiled and placed a forkful of rice in her mouth. When she’d swallowed it she said, “I’ve picked it up along the way.”

“We usually have pasta; I can make a mean macaroni and cheese,” I said. I didn’t look at her; I was still angry and embarrassed about what had been said at the beach and I assumed she was, too.

“You should branch out,” she said. “Cooking is not as hard as you’d think.”

I scraped the last potatoes off my plate and my fork clinked against it. I wiped my mouth and noticed you were eating. A good sign. Maybe all this time it wasn’t that the medicine messed with your appetite, but that I simply was not making the right kind of food. Maybe your body was craving these colorful California vegetables. You picked up a yellow wax bean with your fingers and crunched it in half.

“Good, huh?” I said, locking my eyes with yours. There you were; every now and then you appeared like you used to look. It was never when I expected it, but there you were, your body relaxed against the back of your chair, your mouth full, your eyes glossy and alive. This was who we were supposed to be, this couple who sits around the table as dinner guests, complimenting the host, our eyes meeting over big plates of food. This is what I thought we’d be when I proposed to you two and a half years ago.

“Who wants dessert?” Haley asked, bringing her plate to the sink.

You did, and Haley brought us bowls of sorbet piled with strawberries and kiwi slices. You ate a few bites of yours and I watched your spoon scooping strawberries up into your mouth. You didn’t seem to notice my eyes darting up to you, or maybe you did and you were simply used to being studied, your attention focused on eating the frozen sweetness in front of you. I saw your eating as hope, despite everything, despite your pale skin, the strawberries looked like more than just strawberries on your lips.

We were ordered to sit on the couch and relax while Haley cleared the table and washed our dishes. I held your feet in my lap, rubbing the tops of them and half-watching a game show on the TV that was too big for the room. The host looked like the last therapist you’d seen – same thick glasses, same bump in the middle of his nose. You found all the therapists condescending, coaxing, and said they made you feel like you were crazy, especially this last one. He had been concerned with your choices, your behavior, the control you had over your state of mind. “You can choose to overcome this,” he’d said, and you’d walked out of the room without saying a thing to him or to me. We talked about him later – what a jerk, we’d said, what a know-nothing, do they give psychology degrees to anyone who wants one? I looked at you at the end of the couch. You were half-watching the show, too, and I wondered if you were thinking the same thing. I thought how great it would be if you were, so great that I couldn’t resist asking, even though I knew you hated talking about the therapists and the doctors and the medicine, “Is it just me or does he look like Dr. Barnes?”

You shrugged.

“You don’t see it?” I kept going, even though I should have let it be. “Look at that crazy nose!” If you could eat like that, maybe I could get you to laugh, too. Maybe we could see the same thing, like we used to, and you could really be getting better out here in the California sun.

“I guess,” you said.

Now I was leaning over your legs, pointing to the television, desperate for you to see the resemblance. “Come on, Anna!” I said. “Those glasses? The way he’s talking to that contestant with his arms folded, leaning back like that?” Recognize something, I was begging you.

“I feel like I’m not fully awake,” you said, turning to me. Your face, so full of life at dinner, was drained now. “I think I may go back to bed for the night.”

“Anna!” Haley was at the sink washing out our cereal dishes from the morning. “You’re on vacation.”

You tried to smile. I moved closer to you on the couch, my hand on your leg and felt a familiar knot of worry tie itself up inside me. I squeezed your calf gently as images slammed into me: you in the hospital bed, your skin transparent, smiling a drugged half-smile as I talked to you. I saw you in the wheelchair we had to roll you outside in – you were so embarrassed – and the collapsing of your body onto our couch when we came home. The rainbow of pills they’d put you on, the nights I’d woken up to find you pacing the living room.

“Maybe we should go home,” I said softly, thinking of all the things in Haley’s apartment that were considered dangerous: detergent, kitchen knives, sleeping pills, windows that opened easily on the ninth floor. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

“I just need to sleep,” you said. “I’m okay.” I don’t know if I believed you or if I just wanted to believe you so badly that I pretended to.

***

“Come on out,” Haley called from the balcony after I had put you to bed.

“I’m okay,” I said, sitting on the couch. I did not plan to be next to her again, but
then she was in the doorway, her head craning inside. “Come on,” she said, smiling. “You have to see the view out here.” I did not want to be rude to your sister, our host, who had just cooked us dinner, so out I went.

She was right about the view; palm trees towered above the city, and the sky was like melted marshmallows. She lifted her legs onto the balcony railing. Long, golden, smooth: they were all these things, but I had no opinion of them at this moment.

“You’re not mad about what I said at the beach,” I said.

“You mean when you accused me of not caring about my sister?” she said. She lit a cigarette and leaned her head back, then smiled as she exhaled. “Nah.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “You just seem removed. I know you used to be close to her.”

“I am close to her,” she said. “But I’ve realized that you do what you can for your family and then you just have to do you.”

I laughed. “Do you? That sounds so Hollywood.”

“Okay,” she said. “My father has a bad heart. He could have a heart attack any time. And of course I want him to live longer, but what can I do? I can’t reach in there and force his heart to snap out of it.”

The sun was sinking and the moon was already up; I loved when this happened. When night and day overlapped, the moon and the sun playing tug-of-war against each other.

I sighed. “But it’s not like having a bad heart. You can’t control your father’s heart. There’s a certain responsibility with the kind of condition Anna has. I mean, the problem is, she is unhappy. You can influence someone’s happiness, you know? I know, her depression is chemical. The brain is an organ, too, the doctors say. But I married her so we could make each other happy, and I can’t do that right now, which is,” I picked at a wood chip on the floor with my shoe, “frustrating.” I didn’t know if it had come out right.

I felt her looking at me and I tried not to turn until her stare burned into the side of my face. Over the balcony railing, L.A. darkened and speckled with lights. When I finally did look, her face was not what it had been at the beach. The edge was gone; the creases of judgment had disappeared. Her eyes were the color of twilight and they surprised me in their openness. I stood up.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just get antsy. Anyway, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about our –“

“No, no.” She took her legs off the railing and crossed one on top of the other. “Unless you don’t want to talk.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk, it was just that I felt I did not have the words for what you and I had gone through, what we’d become, what I thought of it all.

“What were you thinking at dinner tonight?” she asked.

I laughed. “I was thinking how pathetic my cooking is.”

“What else?”

“I was thinking I must be doing something wrong. She never eats with me. I was feeling like an idiot.”

“And?” Her finger tapped against the cigarette. “You were thinking something else, too.”
I leaned out over the railing. We were so high up. “I was thinking, if she’s eating like normal, maybe she’s getting back to normal.”

A siren cried below us.

“I thought so,” Haley said. “And not to be a total downer, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea to think like that, to get your hopes up just because she eats a salad. She might never be the Anna you knew.”

“You’re doing it again!” I said. “How can you talk about her that way? I was ready to believe you had a heart.”
Silence skirted between us like the wind. I’d said too much. She shook her head and, for once, she looked a little like you. Her face was flushed; the wind tossed her hair around.

“Look–” I said.

“No,” she said. There was a time early in our relationship when I accused you of flirting with another man (in a moment of hot, stupid jealousy), and it started the first fight we’d ever had. Do you remember? You’d used the same voice then as she did now, and the same stubborn control of your emotions. Here was your sameness – it came out, just like everything that usually tries to hide does, when your feelings were hurt. Maybe it was that she reminded me so much of you that I felt the immediate need for forgiveness, for connection.

“I really am sorry,” I said. I almost put a hand on her.

“There’s just such a fine line,” she said, “between being selfish and surviving.”

The way she said it, the flicker of you in her eyes, the fact that I was out here in California, up on this balcony, suspended in air, I felt drenched in understanding. To save you was impossible. A thud of sadness hit me just below the ribs.

“I guess,” I said. “But I’m her husband. I can’t just give up on her.”

“I know,” she said. “I don’t mean that you should give up.”

We both nodded, because we understood each other, but there were things we couldn’t articulate, especially not with you just inside the house. So we kept nodding, our heads bobbing out toward the land of movie stars and the sky of real stars. I could have nodded forever, could have stayed put in this moment of understanding with her all night.

I woke up to the sound of eggs searing against a frying pan; you were still asleep next to me. Haley was in the kitchen in her bathrobe and when she saw me, she smiled and waved her spatula. We didn’t talk about last night’s balcony conversation, but the understanding was still there in her eyes. She brought me a plate of eggs and toast, then sat down and opened the paper. I ate, her food again tasting rich and real, and listened to her sigh and chuckle as she read. I wish that I hadn’t been enjoying myself so much; I wish that I wasn’t hoping you might sleep for another couple of hours.

The next two days were calm and warm and you were quiet, slept well, ate Haley’s food. Our eyes did not meet again like they had over dinner; I did not try to make you laugh at the game show host. You were okay, and I did not try to make you be more. On Friday Haley took us to the wax museum on Sunset Boulevard. You wandered around dreamily, and Haley led me to all her favorites.

“How did they do his eyebrows so perfectly?!” she laughed, pointing to Jack Nicholson in wax, and I stood behind him and did my best impression. I felt silly and immature, crouched behind a wax figure, but it was the hardest I’d laughed in months. She dragged me to see the Nicole Kidman, whose wax leg dangled out of her dress.
“Even in wax, they’re the best legs in the world,” she said. She stood next to the statue and pulled her own skirt to the side, stretching her leg out in imitation. Our easy laughter lost its rhythm as I watched her flex her long leg, so golden from the sun, and as shapely as Nicole Kidman’s in wax. She leaned her neck back and smiled at me, bashful, like she was looking for my approval. I smiled back and, as if she’d asked me a silent question, I nodded.
“Oh, Haley,” you said, coming up behind me, slipping your fingers through mine.

***

You were tired early on those nights, and once you were in bed, Haley and I would bring cigarettes (I hadn’t smoked in years) and sometimes a bottle of wine onto the balcony and spend hours talking, laughing, watching the sun sink over Los Angeles. She told me about her ex-boyfriend, the movie director, who was mildly famous and had felt surreal to date because he would bring her to parties with people she knew from television. She asked about my job and I tried to be funny about managing the store, the monotony of it, the numbness, the fact that someone should have warned me when I was majoring in business that I would end up there. She would laugh hard at me, her body tensing up, her face flushing, and I would take a drag of my cigarette and feel like a real Hollywood man, a real funny guy, someone who actually belonged out here.

“So, what was the movie you did, anyway?” I asked her the second night we were out there.

“Oh, God,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t like to talk about it. It’s embarrassing.”

“Come on!” I said. “It pays for you to live out here, if nothing else. It keeps you in La-la-land, sitting on a balcony.
Nothing to be ashamed of there.”

“I’ll whisper it,” she said and motioned me closer. I swallowed hard because her eyes were focusing so directly on mine and I had not planned on getting any closer to her face. I want you to know I did not touch her; I did not ever pull her to me or put my lips on hers or scoop her hair into my hand, even if I wanted to. But I did lean into her.

“I’ll tell you later,” she whispered slowly, her mouth close to my ear, her breath warm and shivery, and then she pushed me away and erupted in laughter.

Now she sits down in a lawn chair, her hair dripping onto the cement. She looks up at the group of people standing around her and laughs at something, then, as she tips her wine glass up to her mouth, she looks at me. Do you see her? I wonder. Can you see the way she smiles at me when she brings the wine glass down, her teeth still touching its rim? I try to be casual, saying, “She’s crazy, huh?” You do not answer.

“What’s up?” I say, sitting at the edge of your lawn chair. Your eyes look especially far from me. I feel a moment of guilt, like maybe you’ve felt my attention shifting toward Haley this week, and I put my hand on your knee. “You okay?”

“Hmmm?” Behind your eyes there could be a storm going on. I guess there was, too, a storm of chemicals, of grief that belongs to nothing.

“Anna,” I say. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” you say, rubbing your face with your long fingers. “I feel overwhelmed out here.”

“Okay,” I say. “Okay. We can go in.”

I bring you in the apartment building and up to the ninth floor to Haley’s apartment. I put you in that soft little nightgown and you sit on the edge of the bed.

“We leave tomorrow,” you say. My stomach lurches a little. I have the feeling things will be worse when we get back to Boston. This trip has not cured you, though it has quieted you for a few days, and helped you to eat. The doctors will not be impressed with your progress. How will you avoid that imminent treatment center?

“Don’t worry about it right now,” I say. “Here, lay down.”

You do, and you seem heavy with exhaustion, but tonight you make a request you have not made all week. As you curl onto your side and bring the comforter up to your face, you say, “Don’t leave, Ben, okay? Stay up here with me. I hate to sleep alone.”

I don’t answer; I just rub your back lightly as you close your eyes against the pillow. Why are you asking me to stay in the room? I want to help you, but once you are asleep, what more can I do? Twist in the bed, listening to the music float down from the balcony, my head sweating, unable to sleep? I feel the weight of everything I’ve done for you in the past two years. It gathers in my chest and in my stomach and I am almost angry. I have never resented you for being depressed. I have always felt like your husband, like someone here to take care of you, and taking care of you has never made me bitter. Tonight, though, I think about what Haley said on the balcony about selfishness and survival. I want to be outside.

I rub your back for a long time, and I do consider staying with you. But I can hear Haley laughing out at the pool. I picture her diving into the water, so free. I pull the comforter up to your shoulders, and walk quietly out the door.

***

“Ben!” she shouts when I walked back out to the pool. She is in the center of a group of people, all of them focused on her. She slides out of their circle and comes over to me, hands me a new beer. She has dripped almost dry, but her dress creases and clings to her. “What time are you guys leaving tomorrow?”

“Eleven.” I smile. “Bright and early.”

We sit at the edge of the pool and put our feet in. Our legs look foggy and surreal under the water, like in a dream.

“It’s weird,” she says. “It feels like you just got here.”

“I know,” I say, and I realize how badly I do not want to leave.

“Ben, what happened that day?” She stares into the water. “I know I wasn’t there, and maybe it’s stupid to ask now, but I’ve wondered ever since. When did you find her? What was it like?”

I picture you that afternoon, lying on our bed when I came home from work, in what I thought was the oddest position. Your head was buried in the pillow, your body curled up. I think of the way you turned, the way you said in a creaky voice, “I did something,” the orange prescription bottle on the nightstand by your bed, empty and translucent in the afternoon sun. I knew right then that you had gone somewhere far away from me, that it was now my job to keep you well enough that you would not die.

“I want to know,” Haley says again, and I think about describing it all, about emptying it out onto her.

“First, you tell me,” I say, “what movie you were in. Once and for all.”

Her legs move around in the water. “I wasn’t in a movie. I just couldn’t do it.”

Of course. There was no movie, just a lie. Just a decision to separate herself.

“I waitress to pay my rent, Ben. Surprise.”

“Let’s go into the pool,” I say.

“But I really want to know about what happened to Anna that day.”

“No.” I stare at her hard, into those dark blue eyes. She decided not to see you that way, not to be there that day, not to have the images that I have. Why should she want them now? “You don’t want to know,” I say.

I slip off the edge and into the pool, my khaki shorts and my tee-shirt heavy and hanging off my body. I swim to the other end and then back. I reach up and take Haley’s hand and she slides in with me. She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind and maybe I have. Our legs dangle under the water together and I can feel them touching each other. My arms make wide circles in the water, keeping me up. On the ninth floor, you sleep. Or maybe you are awake and looking out the window at me, watching me swim with Haley, splashing moonlit water, instead of sitting with you in that dark room. Maybe you know, too, as you watch the water splash around us, that there are things I will have to keep for myself.

~~~~~~


 

EspFarfromme_Baker_photo_lg1-300x300Abbey Baker lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she teaches writing to high school and college students. She received her MFA from Lesley University in 2008, and has had fiction published in Eleven Eleven Journal and So to Speak Journal. She is honored to be included in an issue of Mason’s Road, one of the more thoughtful and engaging online journals she has come across.

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