Meredith Luby

Of Course I Am Unhappy

Sometimes, even after I’ve locked the front door I have the feeling that it’s open and all my neighbors see me walking around in a t-shirt and underwear. And when I hear their feet above me I try to match my steps to theirs, timing it so we switch on our bathrooms lights or open the fridge simultaneously. I take comfort in the shared gesture, imagine that our skin is dry in the same places, that the nicks around our nails are somehow identical. But I cannot make our steps line up. Theirs are separate and clunky. My legs are shorter, our feet are different. There are pauses I can’t identify.

It might be a contingent fact that I used to match my hands to yours. Sometimes with a pane of glass or the grain of a wooden door in between. Your palms were large and flat. Sprawling like a southern neighborhood, and able to close almost my whole hand within them.

I’d like to write this like a letter with a heading and a sign off. But I’ve forgotten too many of the names. And anyway I don’t have envelopes or stamps, though my tongue often tastes like glue. You kept your nails short because you claimed to be learning to play the cello. But I never saw you practice. I never even found stray bow hairs on sweaters or furniture. Were you just neat? Did you like to keep things in order? The sink full of dishes said otherwise. If you hold two things up and they are mirror images of one another, are they the same? When we lived together, the apartment existed in a split screen, curved away from the center like a turning kaleidoscope. When I walked towards the middle I had to bend my back to fit.

Imagining a thing does not make it so. It is skin on the back of your neck or the corners of my ankles. An outline, a single organ comprised of smaller versions of itself. When my fingers button or unbutton a shirt they are still the same softly calloused parts of me. The buttons are plastic or wooden or metal, it doesn’t matter, my fingers move the same way. And when I finally found the hairs from your cello bow, a bow that I still have never seen, I threaded them above my knuckles and pulled and suddenly my hands no longer looked like the ones that lined up with yours. They didn’t look like they could be enclosed by anything.

Do you still have the navy blue hat I knitted? You folded the brim so that it didn’t cover your ears. But isn’t that the point of a knitted hat, to cover your ears? But you said no, heat escapes through the top of your head, ears are secondary, ears don’t matter. Ears are the most awkward part of any face, you said. Look at anyone’s face. I mean really look and you’ll begin to notice just how alien ears are. But that is true of every body part in turn, take eyebrows, or noses, for example, I argued. If something is so alien, all the more reason to cover it with a hat.

Navy blue looked good on you, dark hair peeking out from underneath. Even my mother agreed. I picked a not too complex stitch because I know you don’t like things too fussy. This was something we had in common, a dislike of the fussy. But I liked to lie on the floor with my hands behind my head and my hair spread out around me and you did not. Stepping over me with bare feet you’d flop yourself on the bed and sigh. This is when I started to feel like each of my limbs was connected to the other by spider-web-thin strings. This is when I noticed that just because you can imagine someone next to you on the floor doesn’t mean they actually lie there with you.

Where did all of this thread come from? I’m finding it inside of my pillow-cases and in my tooth paste. It is curled artfully around my soap dish. I thought I threw it out. I can feel it stuck in my teeth like pieces of apple skin. Only my mouth dampens it until I can free it with my tongue. I thread it under my fingernails. I wrap in into neat little balls and line the corners of my bedroom with them.

If I flip back, I could tell you that my fingers were more slender. That your hair was darker than mine, that sometimes I wore your socks by mistake. You liked to hold my feet by the heels when we stretched across the couch. You often washed pants forgetting about the pack of rolling papers or a tube of lip balm in the pocket. I once burnt my feet by spilling hot water from the tea kettle while try to reach the box of tea in the cabinet. Remember? We didn’t go to the hospital. I don’t remember why, but my feet still don’t bend quite right. We stayed up all night changing the bandages every couple of hours and squeezing the last of the Neosporin from the tube. It didn’t occur to either of us to find a twenty-four hour pharmacy and buy more.

The sound of coffee dripping. My hair was in a knot that you tied at the back of my head. I brought my fingers to your lips when you put down the cup. You wanted to ask what I was doing, I could tell, but because my fingers were there you couldn’t speak. You tried to move my hand but I locked my wrist. On the list of things I am deft at, locking my wrists would appear halfway up. I attempted to use my other hand to bring your eyelids down like a corpse. I was less deft at this. It ended with me wringing coffee from my bra and your t-shirt. But this anecdote is secondary. Secondary to the larger picture of the small hills formed when you laid on your stomach and pressed your shoulder blades together. It’s strange that skin holds its shape better then cotton. That creases I folded in my forearm and behind your ear disappeared.

There was no big shift, no schism in terms of air freshener preference or salad greens. We both liked arugula. Instead it was slow, like trying to be sexy about unzipping a dress but ultimately collapsing in laughter because the gesture is too planned, too constructed, too much exactly as you imagined it would be. You sitting on the bed with your back straight and ankles crossed, me still wearing high heels despite the impracticality. It all feels made of cardboard.

Before that though, we froze flowers I had pressed into a dictionary in ice cubes.

We did stupid stuff like holding hands with one finger and wearing each other’s clothes. In the end I bought the last cups of coffee. Filled with flavored creamer and sweating through the styrofoam, we balanced the lidless cups for three blocks before I gave up and tossed the rest of mine into the grass. I kept thinking there was something I’d missed, kept chewing the edge of the cup while trying to think of clever things to say.

Don’t go is a phrase that is often heard when one really means please leave. Or do I have it backwards? The possible outcomes are endless if you are looking from the perspective of string theory, which, even explained in simple words is hard to comprehend unless you have a well above average I.Q. And who even takes I.Q. tests anymore? But if the theory could be proven it would lead the way to providing an answer for everything. It has to do with stars but also with everything else. The word astro is from the Greek for star. It has been used to form disaster, meaning ill-starred. And asterisk, meaning little star.

Here are the things I didn’t tell you. The bed smells like beeswax and dust and honey and old paper. I used to be prone to chewing the ends of my hair. I kept the faded blue sheets. You left behind pairs of socks. I bought oatmeal soap to replace the drugstore brand. I still find myself piling the words I wanted to say like pebbles under my tongue, holding them in my mouth and grinding them against my teeth. There is a difference between tracing the outline of your own face with a forefinger and bringing the blade of the same finger to someone else’s.

You once told me that you wished bones were a thing I could braid like I braided my sister’s hair. It was late and neither of us could sleep. You said this, but when I brought it up days later you claimed not to remember. You looked to the left as you denied it. Why tell such a lie? I want to be able to say that in the end that is why one of us would have to leave. But I am tired of saying that.

I took the wrong cup at the café this morning and was five blocks away before I realized. For this, I blame you. For this, and for other things. But we’ll get to that. It is supposed to rain today but for now the sky hangs low and bright like it did the day we met. Or am I remembering someone else?

I know it was you who left and not me, but since that day this place has been different. I swear I awoke the next morning to the sound of waves crashing against the building. By the time I made it out of bed the streets had become sand and they’ve been that way ever since. I still haven’t managed to find water. I only heard waves that first night by myself. People have come and gone. I lock the door behind them when we slip out of each other’s lives just like I locked the door behind you. It is as if I was the one to go somewhere new. So little has remained the same. Is it like that where you are? Except the sky is always white? Where I have sand do you have snow, or something like snow but that doesn’t make your hands cold?

Do you remember my many pairs of shoes? I no longer wear any of them. It is easiest to walk barefoot through sand even when it is hot enough to burn the soles of your feet. Mine are already calloused and hardened at the arches so it doesn’t bother me.

It drifts against the buildings, forming something like dunes. Some are tall enough that I run my fingers against them as I walk to buy tomatoes for my sandwiches. I no longer think of you when I slice them, serrated knife poised against the red skin, and watch them spill open. So uncontained, so many tiny seeds.

I heard the ocean again last night. It was too dark for me to see from the window. I could smell the salt even through the glass. And almost feel it on my face and hands. Were you here I know you’d say that isn’t possible. Were you here, I would have never gone to the window in the first place.

I mailed several letters, and not one of them was addressed to you. Not that I have an address to send you one. These were for my mother, mostly. And for distant cousins. I’m sure you think it silly of me to write her since she lives not too far. But since the sand came I always get lost on the walk. The street signs are water-warped and draped with wet leaves. Even when it hasn’t rained. It must be that the tide only rises at night, and only so briefly.

No one here drives cars anymore. A few people ride bikes. I am not adept enough to manage one in these conditions. I let my feet sink and walk slowly wherever it is I am going. I bought reading glasses recently and you know what the man who sold them to me said? He said, “Darling, don’t ever wear these. Just keep them in the case and when you want to read go buy a cup of coffee instead.” Darling! Can you believe he called me that? I wear them all the time now to spite him. I think they are making my vision worse. He was barefoot too, this man. I thanked him and left, angry with myself for not being able to find a witty comeback. You usually had one, didn’t you? At least, when we met, I remember there being one. Only now I’m thinking that is something I saw on tv or in a dream.

When stopping for coffee on my way home, I saw the girl I was once convinced you were sleeping with. Were you? She was with a man I didn’t recognize. She wore a striped dress and flat shoes. I watched them sit across from each other and sip cappuccinos. I watched them leave. He brought her hand to his lips when they rose from the table. She smiled and looked at her feet. Like she knew she was being watched. That must be how she is in bed too, aware of how her hair falls in the middle of her shoulder blades, of how she bites her bottom lip. She must know she looks wonderful without actually being aware. Each part a performance, each motion for someone else’s benefit. I worry I sometimes live my life this way too. Even when I am in my house surrounded only by the objects I chose. They watched our lives unfurl while we were distracted by sitcoms and pop music. And now that the carpet of grass has run out where do I go?

I’ve always felt there was dirt in your blood. A thin silt just beneath the skin. It must have been uncomfortable, but if that was the case you never said. And now I am surrounded by the stuff. I shake it out of my pillows cases, out of my jeans and underwear, rinse it from my scalp. I can’t live like this. But I do.

I know there are a great many climates where the people live and walk in sand year round. But this place is not one of those. It is ill equipped. They tried a snowplow at first but all it did was spit out more sand. In other sand-filled towns they know what to do. They have committees, probably. The right kind of clothes, that sort of thing. Do you see what I am saying? That even if I moved somewhere like this it would not be the same. And of course there is the lack of an ocean beyond the sound of it.

I decided I wanted to find it. The ocean, I mean. I’m gathering the equipment. Packing a backpack. Buying non-perishable food.

I came upon my mother’s house my accident on my way to buy groceries. The porch was damp with green leaves. I peeled one off and the paint came with it. She stepped outside, a glass of ice tea in hand, and said, “Your sister has been here for hours already, where were you?” I saw my sister’s silhouette on the couch. Long hair and pregnant belly. Once inside I got my own glass of tea.

“I’m going to leave,” I told them. “To find the ocean.”

“Which one?” my sister asked. “They’re both pretty far, but I think the Atlantic must be a little closer.”

“No, no,” I said, “The one that rises at night.” I didn’t tell them my theory about seismic shifts and fault lines. About how the states were all switched around now.

“Do you know what she’s talking about?” my mother said. My sister looked blank.

“Well, you’ve at least noticed the sand?”

“Oh yes,” they both nodded. “Yes, we’ve grown quite used to it.” I ran my fingers through my sister’s hair but she wouldn’t let me put my hand on her stomach. I didn’t really want to feel it kick. Just wanted to see if it would. This isn’t her first baby, as I’m sure you remember. But maybe she doesn’t count that one since it didn’t make it to term. Remember how she would only eat cherry pie? Things are different now. She’s got my mom eating healthy too. Me, I don’t live there, so I can eat what I want.

I left her house with a shovel. One more thing to check off of my list. I’m considering buying a wetsuit, but maybe a one piece bathing suit would be sufficient. If you had dirt in your blood maybe I have rainwater in mine. Have you broken your promise yet? With someone else? My mother asked about you. My sister looked out the window. I told them the truth, what little there was to tell. I said that when I’d told you I loved you, you said you’d promised yourself you wouldn’t say that to anyone for a while. After that last ex, the one who burned your notebooks and tennis shoes. I told them that you often said you loved things about me. My phrasing or how I looked sleeping. Things like that, remember? Things, I told them, that fit together and that for a time I could convince myself were good enough, close enough, to the real thing. But who makes that kind of promise? We are all more than the sum of our parts and I didn’t want to be a bunch of pieces anymore.

But maybe I also wasn’t ready for you to leave. They both think it is for the best.

My days go something like this: I do not wake early and do not wash my hair until after two cups of coffee. I slice and salt tomatoes for later. I open all the windows in my apartment. Something takes me outside. A need for celery, half and half, or cereal. Once, I wanted new gloves though it has remained mostly temperate. And when I am outside, the sand narrows around me. Often I fill my pockets on purpose. I don’t like feeling it in my mouth but it ends up there anyway. At night when I am brushing my teeth I see it dirtying my foamy white spit in the sink. This sand, it seems, is inescapable. Luckily I do not want to escape it. I just want its salty source.

You’d think I’d tire of so many of these things. You’d think the walk would get old or that the novelty of being alone again would wear on a person. For me it seems to fit just fine, so long as I don’t think too deeply at night. The air is different in places by the sea. Everyone who has been in an ocean knows what I mean. When I open the windows it is for that, to make sure it hasn’t changed back to the stale air you and I once shared. 

A couple of days before you left for the last time, we ate at the vegan restaurant. You got so angry at me for sucking the sauce off of the seitan. I watched your mouth move but didn’t listen. Instead I made up my own words. And when I grew bored of that I stared past the top of your left ear and watched a little boy in glasses twist soba noodles onto a fork. He never managed to get them to his mouth. I was surprised when you opened the car door and kissed me on the lips. And I realize now that I wasn’t actually surprised about the door or the kiss, but rather, that it was the first night I didn’t taste basil when our mouths touched. I do not think this was a sign. In my experience omens announce themselves with much more fury. It’s just that now basil always tastes spoiled for me. Or mildly disappointing, like biting into an underripe pear. There is a fizzy aftertaste. It is with me all day.

I don’t believe in the healing power of seawater like you did, like many people do. But it is undeniable that existing on a shore is different than anywhere else. Can I ask, what do you look like now? Still the same? It has not been so many weeks that much could be different, has it?

A week after I saw my mother my sister brought me a plate of muffins. I am sure she didn’t bake them. From the kitchen window I saw her on the sidewalk with them balanced on her stomach. I let her ring the buzzer twice before going down to open the door. Since you left I have accumulated many things. And not just for my trip. My sister complained as she stepped around an open suitcase after handing me the tray. They were banana walnut.

“Why do you have all this?” she asked, one hand on her belly, one grazing a blond-wood bookshelf.

“Protection.” I said. “That, and I like things.” She tucked my hair behind my ear. A thing our mother still does to both of us. Where we close then? Where we ever? Always, in a physical sense. Sometimes I wake up forgetting she is not in a twin bed perpendicular to mine, dark hair blocking her eyes and mouth while she breathes heavily. We both slept on our sides as children. Who knows how she sleeps now?

I cannot remember how many months she’s been pregnant. When she sat on my couch I saw her threaded veins peeking from under her t-shirt. I wanted to press my ear to her stomach. Wanted to pull out a stethoscope. Or knock to see if it was hollow. Instead I handed her a glass of water.

“Where’s the ice?” she asked.

“I don’t have any,” I said. We sat next to each other and avoided one another’s faces. “What do you think happened to them?” I asked.

“To the ice?”

“The states between this one and the coast. What do you think happened to them?” She put down her water.

“What are you talking about? Nothing happened.” She drew stripes in the condensation. “Listen, I hope you don’t say this stuff to mom, okay? It upsets her.”

“I don’t.” We both looked quickly away. “Why are you here?”

“To see my sister,” she said. Then she downed her glass of water, took a muffin from the plate and left. Of course I watched her out the window. Of course I thought about how she never liked you, of how you weren’t surprised when she turned up pregnant again after all those months of not hearing from her.

Maybe what made me notice was that all of your sweaters were too broad in the back. Or maybe it was because I kept finding gum wrappers in my pocket but couldn’t remember putting a stick in my mouth.

I set out in the morning when sand was already warm and I could still feel dampness in the air. My brow dripped with sweat by the time the sun was higher than the houses. I packed my sister’s old metal frame camping backpack. I wonder if anyone saw me from their window. If they were up early boiling water for tea and wondered what a small woman was doing with such a large thing on her back and no shoes. The last street before I left the town smelled like jasmine green tea. I scraped wet leaves from the siding with my fingernails.

It is good that this place became covered when it did. I understand why you left. And I no longer think it had very much to do with me. Stay in one place too long, even a place you like, but especially one you don’t, and everything gets reduced to its smallest, most potent form. And who wants to deal with that? I’ve never lived in a place I loved. Like you, I am comfortable neither as a foreigner or a regular. I want to exist unseen, even by those that I can’t see. Then I could choose who was safe enough to be seen. The options, city, town, countryside, are too limited. I want a thing that doesn’t exist yet. Maybe if we could have found a place like that. Maybe if the sand had engulfed the buildings too.

Once there were no more houses the sand started to cool. My back was sore and bruised from the metal frame. East is the direction I aimed for. But I don’t know if I got it right. I’m not good at reading shadows and I don’t wear a watch. I saw a seagull eating the remains of something small and dead. Picking the bones clean. One seagull, and then many as I continued forward.

I heard it before I saw it. The beach was littered with newspapers and driftwood and dirty plastic bottles. I dropped my pack by a dune and walked parallel to the water for a while.

When I got here I did not take off my clothes as I’d planned. I never bought a wet suit. I rolled my jeans to my knees. There was the ripe smell of kelp and scales. The water was cold on my feet. Colder than I would have thought for this time of year. The wet air dampened my face and filled my lungs and mouth with the taste of salt. I wanted to hold my breath but couldn’t. This beach sand felt no different than the sand surrounding my neighborhood.

The water was not clear. I watched it turn little pebbles over and bring them to the surface. They wrapped around my ankles before being buried again. I thought there would be boats. I thought that upon arriving here I’d understand why everyone I know likes to hide, likes to ignore the obvious. But my mother and sister were still sleeping in her house. I doubt they’d discover my absence before the baby came, its little mouth opening like a fish that finds itself stuck in the sand, wondering which wrong turn it took to end up in such a dry place.

Meredith Luby lives and works in North Carolina. She holds a MFA in fiction from Brown University. Her work can be found in, or is forthcoming from, The Collagist, Fields Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Redivider, Alice Blue Review and Glimmer Train Stories among others.