When Moline parts her hair to the side, Jack knows she wants to look good. Without the part, her hair falls symmetrically right, and left, and brown in a very gray way. In his memory, she used to be blonde like Westside afternoons. He seems to remember her hair loose on a sunny day, reflecting back into his eyes as he pushed her on a swing, the chain suspending it leaving his hands smelling like dirty metal and rubbed skin. It had been summer then, and she had laughed with her eyes and mouth. Now she laughs only with her voice.
In just jeans and her one, black bra, Moline bends to fit into the half mirror with the broken frame. The frame is a burnt cherry color that reminds her of her childhood spent away from the city. She loves that mirror, though she knows her hair has never been more than brown or straight, not straight in a way that could please anyone, but straight in a way that does not mean flat or smooth, but rather, crinkled, dead. She parts her hair to the side. Her pants hang down. When Moline was a teenager, her mother promised to buy her all new clothes if she put on weight, to which Moline considered that if she did gain weight her existing clothes might actually fit. It would have satisfied only her mother, a woman who could never manage to dip four sizes, who spent her life discontent on a couch, hiding in men’s clothing. Mothers are often jealous of daughters, or at least this is how Moline sees it.
“Are you busy?” she asks, pushing her nose to the side in the mirror. Her skin peels. It’s dry. It’s winter. Moline will never have perfect skin like Jack. Also, she’s sure his breasts are larger; that’s not to say he has breasts, but her hand cups his and her own in the same way.
Setting his book aside—not that he was reading—Jack places the pen he wasn’t using between his lips. Green and black, he clicks it against his tongue. Average in height, he fits on their twenty-year-old sofa as if it has been custom made, the plaid upholstery nearly matching his navy cords and beige t-shirt. He thinks. But really, he watches Moline as she pulls on her cream sweater, as she adjusts the straps of her bra underneath, as she pulls the sweater down over the line of pink panties that slips above the waist of her jeans. He likes her breasts.
“What are we doing?” Moline steps away from the half wall with the half mirror.
They’re soft. Probably the softest things he’s ever touched.
Across the room, Moline sits, pulling her socks on, left then right.
Watching, Jack clicks the pen against his teeth, against his tongue. He notices the difference. Against his teeth, it cracks. Against his tongue, it bounces. As if it matters. Does it?
In their third-story attic-apartment, Moline sits at one end, Jack at the other. It’s a living room now, a kitchen too, maybe. And between them everything: the coffee table, the television, the book shelf twice filled, the floor lamp she dragged home from a yard sale insisting it was safe so long as they never left it on or plugged in, the hamper he just that morning filled, the cupboards and the counter tops, the range, the garbage can, the fridge, the broom and the bags wedged beside the fridge. Count the things between them.
With one leg on the coffee table, a pen in his mouth, Jack watches.
Usually, Moline wears a top under this particular sweater. Usually, Moline wears it to work, wears it to answer phones at her uncle’s construction firm, wears it to take six bathroom breaks, one lunch, and three smoke, but she doesn’t inhale, just sucks in the softest possible way, letting the smoke linger over and under her tongue. It’s enough to warrant three breaks. She does not smoke in their apartment. She’s a work smoker. And the pack, it stays there too, the lighter, the birth control, the scratch lottos, the zebra gum.
“Hey,” she says, wrapping her long arms around her knees.
Jack pulls his bottom lip down with the pen. “Hey,” he whispers in a smile.
You can’t ignore someone in a one bedroom upper. But Jack doesn’t, does he?
Her mouth, straight, does not whisper, does not smile. “What are we doing?”
Outside their door, snow-melt drips onto the wooden stairs. They’re not original, built by the landlord to provide another line, back upper with private entrance. So private. No one drops in. No one sees Jack and Moline in their wood paneled apartment with the orange carpet, the kitchen/living room, the bathroom without lock or mirror, the bedroom lonely for a bed frame. Count the things missing.
She slides a finger into her sock and feels her hairless calf.
Jack lets the pen hang limply between his thumb and forefinger.
This is the first time she’s shaved since snow replaced grass. In silence, she wonders when he’ll find out.
A week ago, they fought for the first time. He seems to remember her having blonde hair. It was something about money, it generally is. But really, it was something about knowledge and bodies, eggs. Not hers, but his. Sizzling, the eggs left the apartment in a cloud of sulfur and onions. Smoldering, she saw the skillet left to crust in the sink. Moline didn’t want to be his mom, didn’t want to clean his messes, didn’t want to tell him to clean his messes. Yet this was what it came to a week ago. Jack didn’t yell. He never did. He didn’t hit her, though Moline wanted him to, wanted the reality of his fist against her chin. Instead, he scoured the skillet, his eggs cooling to rubber, and she escaped to the shower, because it’s harder to cry there.
Pulling her finger from her sock, she replies, “I guess.”
Jack loves her breasts. Loves her thighs. Loves her hips. Loves her ears. Loves the way they stick out. Loves the fine hairs on her belly. Loves her teeth stained with coffee. Loves the wave of her back when she lies on her stomach, her head propped in her hand, her eyes on his profile while he pretends to sleep, yet runs his hand over this wave. She’s so beautiful.
Smiling, Jack bites his lip. “Tonight? I don’t know.”
In the fall, Jack and Moline ate an entire pumpkin pie. He watched as she ate half. She watched as he ate. The empty pie tin sat on their counter for seventeen days, the last time she was happy. Jack never stopped being happy. Not even when he found The Essential Hemingway in her purse. He assumed she was trying to connect. Really, she’s always read Hemingway. Read him with an understanding far beyond Jack’s.
Jack can only read when she’s in the shower or at work. He’s an academic, he sorts auto parts. The Sun Also Rises. But he wonders what else. Though he reads hard and often, he never finishes, leaving the story to last into forever. That’s his problem; endings are dark to him, even with closure. Really, he’s gay, but no, that would be too convenient. Really, he’s an academic, a romantic, a fly on the wall. “We could make some food. Stay in. Watch a movie.”
“We could.” She puts her hands behind her, fingers spread against the orange carpet like sifting sand. “We could.” She pushes her hands further behind her until she is no longer sitting, but lying, feet nearer Jack, head nearer the door, nearer the fridge, broom, bags. Reaching her left arm as far as her extended shoulder will allow, she pokes at the gray puddle left from her boots when she returned from work through the slush and crusty snow. She’s long. Longer than she’d like.
From their plaid sofa, Jack stares down his slouching chest, down his legs, over the wicker coffee table, blue-gray, over the orange carpet, past the television, and over her feet, down her legs, over her knees, between her thighs, across her stomach, chest, throat, to the underside of her chin, so transparent he can see the blue of her veins. He has never seen this blue before, he is certain, though is not sure what it means.
Moline does not look at Jack. She can feel the rough inside of her jeans against the smooth outside of her legs, and she wonders when he’ll find out.
Jack places the pen on his book on the coffee table. Pulling himself up from the sofa, one shoulder then the other, he moves towards Moline, who lays across the apartment near the half wall halved by the third-story roof.
They met six years earlier. He didn’t stumble into her uncle’s construction company looking for a job; she wasn’t working there then. He didn’t interrupt her in a coffee shop as she read Joyce, though she did read Joyce, once. He didn’t accidentally toss a Frisbee over her and her friends as they laughed open and wide in the park. Where were her friends? He didn’t do anything. At half past eight, six years ago, she pulled into his car, backed up, parked—it wasn’t his car, it was his best friend’s—and waited on the hood for them to return, knowing the mall closed in thirty minutes. Maybe that’s all it took, that smile he gave her six years ago, forgiving the damage as though it were his to forgive. But it doesn’t matter. They’ve been dating for three years. They moved in seven months ago. A one-year lease. Time went unmeasured.
Jack lowers himself to the floor beside the coffee table, his knees working as feet, moving across the orange carpet, and dragging his shins behind.
Since moving in, they have spent almost every night on the lonely, queen-sized mattress. Almost. They met six years ago, after high school. It doesn’t matter. They have seen thirty-two movies together in theaters. It’s her favorite thing. He has cooked for them nearly every night over the seven months, and no one drops in.
His muscled arms softly plant in the orange carpet as if he were trying to sneak up on her. Moline’s eyes watch not him, but her finger as it pokes the gray puddle. He passes the television, the cupboards, the half wall, and steps a knee sideways over her long body, his face hanging above hers. Can you see it? How his hair bristles forward, how his t-shirt hangs like a tent, how his eyes leap into hers?
She glances halfway to his eyes then away.
He wishes there was music on, as there had been the first time they made love. She rubs the cold, dirty water between her fingers, pulls her lips between her teeth, her dark hair spread over the orange carpet, over her ears, her shoulders. Jack smiles, his lips tight, as are his darkly freckled cheeks. He’s so beautiful.
Moline has shaved her legs. They haven’t made love in twenty-three days, nearly a month. These are the facts, and she wonders when he’ll find out.
Jack lowers his lips to her collar bone, pressing. Runs his hand—so much bigger than hers—up her side, over her sweater, no, under her sweater, over her ribs to her left breast. He loves her breasts.
Thrusting her hand from the puddle, she shoves him away, shoves his arm from under her sweater, sits in half, her face so near his. Tells him. “I’m not happy. I don’t love you.”
But she can’t. She says nothing, really. She doesn’t even move.
Marry me, he said once.
She doesn’t speak. Doesn’t let him find out. Doesn’t react as he slips his fingers under her waistband. Doesn’t tell him.
Jack loves her.
Doesn’t speak. Doesn’t love.
They’re so beautiful.