by Olivia Lowenberg
Fear stems from the unknown, from hands tracing each other in the night. There was only one person that ringtone belonged to, and only one reason he would call. Ethan painted the picture for me in broad strokes. Kelly had finally worked things out with Bill (her first husband) to get their daughter, Grace, but then Bill abruptly changed his mind and turned violent. Now Kelly was in the hospital.
Ethan told me this with the kinship and heartache that were the unfortunate hallmarks of our friendship as adults: we were both second husbands. I told him I’d meet him at Graniteville Hospital as soon as possible. Whatever you need, I said, I’ll do it. Ethan told me one final point before he hung up: his mother, Debby, would also be there. Debby never knew the real reason I became friends with her son ten years ago. Bisexual was not a word in her vocabulary. I told him thanks for the heads up and said goodbye. And then I cried quietly so Iris wouldn’t wake up.
My life in the dark: Iris’s phone vibrating with texts as she slept; the kitchen faucet dripping; Leo’s car re-entering his garage. No doubt he would be around while I was away, pulling Iris into the undertow. The man she married before me. When Iris had told me after our wedding that she was fine living across the street from her first husband, I told myself I was fine, too. That I was only afraid of what I couldn’t name. If she left me, I would find another guiding light.
I explained the story about Kelly to Iris in the morning. She gazed at me and only interjected with a few questions: why, when, and for how long. I told her: Ethan’s wife, today, and maybe for a week. Iris cupped her coffee mug and nodded.
“Well, I hope you have a good visit with him, and with Kelly. Tell them hi from me.” Iris kissed me on the cheek and went to take a shower.
Iris showered and left for work. I stood in our tiny bedroom, wondering what to wear, how to take the points that formed me off the map. I put on a long-sleeve shirt that hid my tattoos. I removed my five earrings. I traveled back to the person Ethan once saw before something bloomed in me. I drove to Watertown Airport and took the five hour flight to Graniteville. Ethan had told me to take a taxi to the hospital and that he’d meet me in the lobby.
I hadn’t seen Ethan since his wedding. I noticed that he also wore a long-sleeved shirt and no earrings. He had put on a new skin and wore it like a shield. I knew he didn’t have a good relationship with his parents, especially his mother, and that this whole situation was probably forcing them into closer company than he wished. Tinny announcements looped over the loudspeakers. The lobby felt too bright and warm, and Ethan felt too close, like he was looking right through me. I remembered prom. I saw myself dancing with a faceless girl, standing so tight that her dress spilled between my thighs. Ethan had stood on the edge of the dance floor, waiting for the song to end.
Ethan took me up to the room they’d put Kelly in. In the elevator, he elaborated on the basic sketch he’d given me over the phone. Grace was safe and living with his parents for now. Debby, it seemed, had taken over on managing Kelly’s care.
Kelly was asleep when we entered the room. She had deep blue-and-purple bruises in the shape of fingers on her neck and arms. Debby sat in a chair by her bed, keeping vigil, head bowed either in deep thought, prayer, or both. I was amazed that Debby’s appearance hadn’t changed at all in the years since I’d first met her, first shaken her hand and lied. She wore a magenta blazer, black pants, and black shoes. A wasp brooch was pinned to her purse. She looked up when Ethan and I walked in.
“Oh, Henry.” Same slow, meandering voice: drawing out the vowels, clipping the consonants. She pulled me into a hug. “It’s been such a long time.”
She clicked her tongue. “You haven’t changed, honey. Well, come on in and sit. Ethan, why don’t you come over there” – she gestured to the chair on the other side of Kelly’s bed – “and Henry, you can sit right here next to me.” She pulled up a stool. “Kelly probably won’t wake up until the morning. They gave her some powerful stuff, you know, to help with the pain and the…” she trailed off. “And Henry, honey, if you get sleepy, Ethan’s fixed up a room for you at the house. It’s just a –”
“Twenty minute drive,” Ethan and I said together.
My stomach clenched. I was there again, pressed against a wall in his bathroom, eyes squeezed shut to keep from speaking his name. One hand on the faucet. Water running to drown out the noise, the passage away from innocence. All of this expanding, expanding, expanding, and then breaking into tangled wires, shuddering peace.
I saw how much he cared for Kelly; I had seen it at their wedding, too. He spent the entire night whispering to her, touching her where she didn’t hurt: jawline, knuckles. Kelly was never merely a concession to Debby, to his inability to be all sides of himself. Kelly was the face on the other side of the door. I went outside to call Iris and give her an update. Debby came into the hallway with me and shut the door behind her.
“You and Ethan can go,” Debby said firmly. “Kelly needs her rest.”
Debby told me that, before I’d arrived, Kelly had woken up with a monster on her tongue, her body round with fear. Those were not the words Debby used, but I could picture it, and wished – not for the first time – that I could respond to her without hiding. I wished I could roll up my sleeves and show her my tattoos, which matched Ethan’s in every way except for one. I had a star on my left shoulder, and he had a moon on his. This was the other side of goodbye: Ethan and I had never been each other’s experiment; we were parts of a whole, and Kelly and Iris filled in the rest.
Ethan kissed Kelly goodbye and left with me. Our lives in the dark: the whooshing sound of passing cars leaving the parking garage; his key sliding into the ignition; my phone beeping with texts from Iris.
“I fucking hate it,” Ethan said as we buckled our seatbelts. “She’s so controlling. Glad you’re here, by the way,” he said with a hollow laugh. “Need you. Mom and Dad moved into an apartment downtown and let me keep the old house, so Dad and Grace won’t be around, at least for now.”
“That was generous, letting you live there.”
“I mean, it’s a dump, but yeah. They paid off the mortgage like five years ago, not too hard since it’s a – well, you remember.”
I did remember. I remembered the broken-down front porch where he’d asked me to prom, the cracked lawn chair where I’d said yes, his tiny bedroom where we lost our virginity. “Good times,” I said, and Ethan smiled.
“You like this song?” he said, pointing to the radio. He adjusted the volume button.
Low, thrumming guitar: a Stones song that brought me back to the moment I met Iris. How it was like a dream that she was bisexual, too; the men and women she’d passed through on her journey to me. Ethan and I stayed quiet while the song played on. We rounded the final curve and pulled into his driveway. Some things had changed about the house. The lawn chair was gone, and the porch looked like it had been fixed. We unbuckled our seatbelts.
“Welcome home,” Ethan said. “You can stay in my old bedroom. I’ll be down the hall. And I guess… yeah, I guess that’s everything. You don’t have to stay forever or whatever, just be around a little bit while things… things get figured out with Kelly.”
“Like I said, whatever you need, I’ll do it,” I told him. Ethan smiled.
He helped me carry my suitcase up those narrow stairs where we’d once stumbled over each other in the shadows. He left my suitcase in front of the bedroom door, hugged me again – once, quickly – and vanished down the hallway. Ethan’s room had changed, too. The posters were gone, and someone had painted the walls beige. I opened my suitcase, put on some sweatpants, and climbed into his bed. The sheets were warm.
Morning rippled in through the windows faster than I would have liked. I knew that this was an ending, I just wished I didn’t have to see it. I heard water running and an electric razor buzzing in the bathroom. Then Ethan’s footsteps in the hallway. I waited until I heard his door close to take a shower. Rust rings from his empty shaving bottles circled the tub and looked up at me like eyes.
Ethan had already finished his coffee by the time I entered the kitchen. A briefcase stood by the door and he checked the news on his phone. He smiled when he saw me. “Hey, hope you slept okay.”
“I should probably leave today,” I said. “Unless you need more from me.”
“No, that’s fine. I can drive you to the airport.”
“That’d be really nice.”
I put the coffee on for myself. Kelly and Ethan’s wedding photo was above the coffee machine. They held hands under a pink, blue, and purple arch. Thread linked to thread and body linked to body.
Ethan smiled. “That was a good day.”
“It was.” One of the first dates I’d taken Iris on, actually; when I’d told her we were going to a wedding, she’d laughed. She had broken up with Norah and was still living in Leo’s house then. Half in his life, half in mine.
Ethan and I drove to the airport in silence. Goodbyes clawed through me, none of them the right one; the words all spiraled back to center. Ethan looked over at me.
“Thank you again for coming,” he said. “I’ll text you if there are any updates about Kelly. I’m just relieved she made it through the night.”
We arrived at the airport. He got my bag out of the trunk of his car and handed it to me. “Take care,” he said, and hugged me goodbye.
I watched him leave and went to check-in. Boarding announcements looped over the loudspeakers – all regional, of course; Graniteville Airport wasn’t big enough to handle flights over the ocean. The escalator pulled me down the tunnel to the plane. Ethan’s face lingered in my memory: his smile, the matching infinity-symbol tattoos behind each ear. I debated about whether or not to tell Iris I was coming back. It felt easier to just appear, to be present, to curl tighter around her body than I wrapped around my own. Whispering into the void: I existed, I was there.
About the Author
Olivia Lowenberg has been published in Argot Magazine, Cat on a Leash Review, and elsewhere. She was also selected for inclusion in The Slag Review's "Best of 2019" print anthology, forthcoming at the end of the year.