Valerie died just when we were getting intimate.
Not sexually intimate. That happened on our first date when she insisted we needed to finish our bottle of Syrah at the Italian restaurant and we both got drunk but I drove home anyway and took the highway and hydroplaned at eighty miles per hour and thought for sure we would both die and prayed we wouldn’t take anyone innocent with us. We made it back to her place, where I told her I had had enough adventure for one night, and she disagreed and we went upstairs, took tequila shots and wound up screwing in the bathroom, where she bobbed on top of me and I sat as still as I could until the toilet lid gave way and fell apart. We carried on, my back to the bathmat, ass chafing on the tile floor.
Emotionally intimate. Like when we came upon Air Bud on Netflix and she wanted to watch it, un-ironically, because it was one of those movies she had wanted to see when it came out in the theater as a kid, but no one had ever taken her. Like when she told me her uncle used to take her to the movies every weekend when she was eight. Take her to the least popular movie he could think of and sit in the back of the theater and as soon as it get dark, hug her close to him. Like when she shared about the day her friend wore white pants to school and got her period for the first time and how Valerie didn’t understand why she was so upset. Valerie was jealous. The next day, in art class, she splashed red-brown paint over her own crotch because she wanted to have her period, too, and her friend thought she was making fun of her and got upset all over again, and after Valerie explained why she had actually done it, the friend thought she was weird and wasn’t her friend any more.
Valerie told me she still half-believed in Santa Claus and would wake up in the wee hours, December twenty-fifth, to go looking for him. I wasn’t sure if she were serious on that one until we spent Christmas Eve together and she did get out of bed at two in the morning and when I went out looking for her, she was creeping around the living room, clutching my biggest kitchen knife.
And then she got struck by lightning. Not at Christmas time, of course, but standing out on my fire escape in the rain in July. She always liked rain. She leaned backward over the railing. Far enough that I was worried and hollered that she was going to break her neck but it was pouring and who knows if she heard me. Next thing, lightning strikes.
We had dated for four years, two months. My only post-college, remotely meaningful relationship. And though I hadn’t bought a ring or asked for her father’s blessing or started brainstorming ideas for where I might propose to her, I started to look at a life together as not so much a possibility as an inevitability.
Then she was gone.
I didn’t date for a while. Bought a stock of frozen burritos and ordered pizza a lot and drank cheap vodka mixed with Hawaiian Punch by the big plastic jug. I guess you could say I let myself go for a year there. I watched the entire series of Star Trek, then The Next Generation, then Deep Space Nine, then Voyager on Netflix. Fucking Voyager. And there were times when I could barely keep eyes open—one or two at night, nauseated and exhausted and flatulent and truly considering the merits of ordering a catheter so I wouldn’t need to take so many bathroom breaks. And in those moments, I could swear Valerie sat next to me. I smelled her. That citrus-y smell of the shampoo she washed her hair with. I felt her ice cold feet against my side, snaking up under my armpit just like she would to warm them up when she was alive. A few times, in those last blinks before I drifted off, I could have sworn I saw here there, too. Once, she kissed me good night.
That was the last straw. I cleaned up my act. Started shaving again. Bought frozen chicken thighs to cook with, and fresh vegetables. Worked later hours at the office and then went to the gym, all to keep me from the temptations of my apartment. To become a real person again.
I opened an online dating profile, and went on a series of truly awful dates before I met Clarice. For our first date, I asked her if we could go out for Italian. She suggested coffee instead.
We wound up at a café in her neighborhood, lined with neon bean bag chairs. The servers handed out metal trays with every order, with legs that folded out so you could set them down in front of you while you sat in a bean bag chair.
Clarice ordered a peach bubble tea, filled with dark little yogurt balls at the bottom that she seemed to take great joy in sucking down. Her hair was wet and she wore navy sweat pants and an ill-fitting black and white windbreaker. She explained she had just gotten back from the gym.
I wore skinny jeans and a black button-up. My first date uniform, paired with stubble, expertly trimmed to hint at the beard I was capable of growing, so I’d look simultaneously polished and rugged. I wore a dab of gel in my hair—just enough to hold everything roughly in its place but not enough that it would be obvious I wore any at all.
I knew this wasn’t going to work. As she guided me to her favorite spot, her favorite Ecto-Cooler colored chair, and expertly set up her tray with a flick of the wrist while I struggled and stumbled and spilt half of my coffee on my sleeve trying to get my tray in place. I started scheming exit strategies. It’s rude to leave too soon, but also rude to lead someone on when you’re so obviously a terrible fit.
But once we were situated—once I had tasted the coffee and it was very good, and once I had nestled into a comfortable position in the chair, and once I recognized “Girlfriend in a Coma” playing softly through the coffee shop speakers, I started to recognize this place wasn’t so bad.
And then she started talking. “I’m a school counselor. They’ve got me bouncing between schools now, but it’s all early high school kids. At risk ones. The kind who needs someone to listen to them, you know? People think they’re bad kids because they act out, but acting out is the only way they know to get a reaction out of anyone.”
It was beautiful. She was beautiful. Beautiful because she actually believed all of this, and was consciously living this life that I could only talk about after a couple whiskeys when I was ready to critique the system and challenge everyone around me to be more civically minded. She was that best version of myself that I had to get drunk to remember I ever wanted these days.
Clarice was everything Valerie wasn’t. She paid her taxes on time. She went to yoga once a week, cooking class another night, pottery when she had the time. She was pretty in a girl-next-door sort of way, all freckle-faced with bushy long hair that curled in front of her ears and fell over her face when she was sleeping. She had had her first sexual experience her last year of college, with the boy she had been dating for two years, whom she trusted completely. She told me he went on to graduate school in Oregon and she had been willing to follow him, only he didn’t invite her.
When it came to physical matters, things didn’t move quickly with Clarice. At the end of our first date, she hugged me outside the restaurant. The second, she kissed my cheek on her stoop (her parents’ stoop—she had moved back in, the only practical thing to do while she paid back her student loans). After the third date, we were back to hugging.
When my car broke down, Clarice drove me to dinner and a movie for our fourth date, and dropped me off at my apartment building. She walked me to the front door and though she resisted my invitation to come upstairs, she did take my hands in hers and give them a squeeze. Then she leaned in. Eyes closed, up on tiptoes. We kissed.
It was just as our tongues connected—just a touch—when the light burst. A single bulb above the doorway shattered, my jacket and hair covered in sparkling shards of it.
“Are you OK?” Clarice had opened her eyes wide, pure green and lovely. The same look I imagined her giving children in need of her help at the school—concerned and empathetic and eager to help.
I thought I might parley that look into getting her upstairs, but just as quickly thought better of it. That fate had intervened and slowed me down. Broken up the kiss before she second-guessed if she were moving too far too quickly. “I’m OK. Surprised is all.”
I unbuttoned coat and spread it wide over my shoulders to shake loose most of fragments of glass and filament. I leaned over and shook my head like a dog. She laughed at that.
And I invited her to come back to my place. That Tuesday (no, I have yoga), Wednesday (cooking class), Thursday (I suppose I can skip pottery this week). Thursday. Yes. Thursday.
That next date, Clarice wore a wool sweater and faded, high-waisted mom jeans. I tried to kiss her when she walked in the door she dodged my face and hugged me close.
We settled at the kitchen table. The table I had cleared off of junk mail and magazines the night before and wiped down. I placed a single, long white candle at the center that I hadn’t used since Valerie and put down two of the wicker place mats that Valerie had brought into our home, but I couldn’t recall the two of us ever using.
And I served dinner. Spaghetti tossed in a mix of marinara from the jar, a can of stewed tomatoes and diced green peppers, a chicken breast in the center of it all, about as fancy as I got.
“This smells delicious,” Clarice said. “I’ll have to get your recipe.”
It’s possible she was poking fun at me, but I got the impression that she meant it more sincerely, or at least as a reassurance that she recognized my effort.
When Clarice sat down, she almost fell from her chair. It slipped right at from under her as she lowered herself, and she just barely caught the edge of the table and got her butt to the edge of the seat. She turned beet red, though I was quite certain she had nothing to be embarrassed about. I imagined I must have spilled something in that spot, made the floor slick, set up the chair to slide.
But things were fine after that. Comfortable. We had made it past several tiers of small talk and discomfort to arrive this juncture at which we could talk the way I always imagined grownups might.
She twirled a bundle spaghetti around her fork, then pointed it at me, a strand hanging loose, all but waving in the air. “What’s the longest relationship you’ve ever had?”
I took a sip of wine. A dry, bitter merlot that I’d shelled out twenty bucks for and liked less than the five-dollar bottles I was used to. I recognized the question that Clarice was asking. A feeling-out question. The kind of question you asked when you were trying to determine if someone was relationship material. No previous relationships? At this age? Unreliable. Flaky. Fickle. A player. Too long of a relationship—two-presidential-terms-long—and you’ve got to assume you’re working with damaged goods. Call your ex a bitch and you’re a misogynist or, at the least, still bitter about how it ended. Talk for too long and you give the impression you’re still hung up on that one that got away and not emotionally available for the one in front of you.
Of course, there’s weight on the person asking these questions, too. Ask too soon and you’re clingy—too eager to commit. Ask too late and you’re digging for skeletons. And then there’s the follow up. Do you volunteer your own relationship background or wait for the other party to ask first? How long do you need to wait to be sure they’re done and you’re not coming across as too eager to tell your own story? Like that’s the only reason you asked the question in the first place.
Valerie had dissected all of this for me one night on the couch, on Animal Kingdom Night—the recurring night when we prepared a platter of different meats, watched the show, and took a shot anytime we ate the flesh of animal as it appeared on screen. She explained it all as justification for why she never asked questions like that and why she would never be involved with anyone who did. She claimed those questions made love a game.
But Clarice wasn’t playing a game. She was dipping a toe in the lake to gauge its temperature before she dove beneath the surface. The kind of thing Valerie never did.
“Four years,” I said to Clarice.
“That’s a long time.” Everyone’s scale was different. Six months, an eternity. A decade, a cup of coffee.
“We started dating in college and it spilled over,” I said. “I’m not sure how long we were ever meant to go and how much was inertia.”
The wax from the top of the candle melted. I tried to remember if this has happened before, so visibly, so early on. A drop rolled all the way down the length of the candle, to brass holder. It would make a mess.
“She ended it then—” Clarice extended the n. Not only the question on the surface level, but a whole hatful. She wanted a name and she wanted a story.
“Valerie passed away,” I said. I recounted the balcony, the lightning.
The candle was positively sweating, two drops descending on the right side, another on the left at the same time.
Clarice watched and listened. I was careful not to say too much. But she didn’t seem. It occurred to me for the first time that talking about this specific ex-girlfriend story might not make a woman jealous. She might feel sympathy.
“I’m sorry.” She crumpled her napkin and dabbed at her eyes, then blew her nose. “I don’t have any right to cry. This is your tragedy. I’m so sorry.”
I reached a hand across the table, pushed her plate to the side, and for lack anything easier within reach or the risk of getting too intimate—we were certainly not at face-touching yet—I took hold of her elbow. I’m surprised at how soft her sweater is over it. “I’m not crying, right? It’s OK. It’s a sad thing that happened, but I’m past it.”
Clarice nodded quickly.
Valerie used to tell me that men fetishized sadness. They wanted to hold women when they cried. They wanted to rub their thumbs over cutter scars. Every man secretly wanted to give his girlfriend a black eye just so he could kiss it afterward and cuddle her close and tell her she was all right. I told her she was wrong, even as I doubted myself. I told her I didn’t want for her to be sad and she told me I was full of shit.
Looking at Clarice then, cheeks wet with tears looking so goddamned guileless, I knew Valerie was right—to the extent she was right about anything. Never the extreme. Always the principle.
Valerie said there was nothing a man wanted more than to make a woman who had been crying laugh.
And I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel that spark of electricity when Clarice put her hand down into mine, looked at me and smiled.
A drop of burning wax ran over the brim of the candleholder and tumbled all the way down onto my skin. I winced and pulled back and bit my lip to keep from cursing.
Clarice laughed, before she realized she shouldn’t, and then laughed even harder. I laughed too, and dashed to the sink. As the cold water poured down and as the pain faded and as I observed how pink my flesh turned, I could have sworn I heard a third, less kind laugh behind me.
The first time Clarice and I made love, I would have pegged the bed for our location.
Three months into dating, Clarice and I had a talk about sex. She asked me point blank if I were getting impatient. She was steady with the questions. I learned to appreciate that. I told her I was ready, but I wasn’t impatient. And that I would wait for her to be ready. She liked that enough to give me a hand job while we watched the pottery scene of Ghost on cable.
Back on that sofa, four months into dating, on a Saturday afternoon that had started with me reading People and her working on the New York Times crossword puzzle, we wound up making out and then she unbuttoned her blouse. She revealed herself to be thin, but not ripped. None of Valerie’s well-defined abdominal muscle that made me self-conscious about my gut and got me doing crunches every morning. She had a mole just beneath the left cup of her bra, but otherwise, her skin was perfectly white.
I’d felt her body before, but never seen it like this. I’d heard her voice before, but never heard it say things like this. Like, “Why don’t you take off your shirt?” Like, “Help me with my jeans.” Like, “I’m ready.”
Strange things started to happen. Her teacup tumbled from the coffee table to the floor. My wine glass shattered. One of the kitchen cupboard doors slammed shut.
Strange things—like Clarice not noticing any of this, or playing dumb to it if she did. Like Clarice guiding my middle finger into circles over her clitoris.
The television turned on then grew louder. Louder than I’d ever hear it before and I thought for certain the downstairs neighbors would start pounding on their ceiling with their broom or the upstairs neighbors would start stomping from above.
Clarice guided me, guided me, guided me.
I heard a scratching at the door—not a knocking, but primitive, animalistic scratch.
Then I felt the scratching on my back. Hard enough to hurt. Nails on both sides. Hard enough they might draw blood. I registered Clarice’s hands at my side. That these weren’t her nails.
I opened my eyes and saw not Clarice, but Valerie. Eyebrows scrunched, mouth in an O-shape, everything about her contorted in sex.
I blinked and it was Clarice beneath me again.
I closed my eyes, and remembered what Valerie had looked like. Her black hair, black eye shadow, the indentations her leather cuff bracelet left over her wrist, and how I’d stare at it sometimes when we were naked, knowing that I was the only one who had access to theses pieces of her.
The scratching stopped. On my back and on my door. The television quieted.
I pulled out and came all over.
Years passed. Clarice moved in. Then we moved out together. Out of the city. Into an un-insulated house with a scraggly yard that was as much dirt as it was grass, and a blood red picket fence. We had our first child and named Valentine after Clarice’s late grandfather, the Purple Heart.
She started calling our son Val. I never could.
I thought back to that apartment sometimes. To the years of my life I spent there.
It was better at the house. A place where we could make all our own memories together. We strung up a great big American flag for Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Labor Day, the Fourth of July. We carved jack-o-lanterns and left them lit on the front stoop so trick-or-treaters would know they were welcome. We bought a tree each December.
There was one Christmas morning, when Valentine had begun to walk on two feet, when he wobbled to the lowest branch of the tree and he reached for shiny green bulb. He got close enough that might have seen his own reflection on the surface, maybe wider, plumper; maybe narrowed to point. In either case, distinctly him and yet at the same time unrecognizable. A paradox. Enough to freeze him for a moment, arm outstretched, head cocked forward.
Clarice caught him. She was always there to catch him. Picked him up by his sides and hugged him close to her.
A second later, the bulb shattered. Not so much an explosion as it was as though someone had grabbed hold and crushed it in her hand. As if someone were very jealous and reminding us never to let down our guard too far. Never to get too comfortable. Never to forget.
Or perhaps it was a kindness. I told myself that. To give Valentine what he wanted. A small, spectacular show. All the thrill of destruction. None of the burden of a bloody palm or a mess that he would ever be responsible for tidying.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. He has two full-length short story collections on the way: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle. He has also published three chapbooks: Autopsy and Everything After with Burrow Press, Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books, and The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.