By Alisha Mughal
He said the dog’s name was Tara but she didn’t come to me when I called her. She just remained sat in her trembling spray of sunlight filtering down through the canopy of various leaves swaying lazily in the afternoon breeze, considering me warily. At least until I offered her the cube of watermelon, at which point she got up reluctantly, as if it were all a great and terrible ordeal, and lumbered up to my socked feet — invisible socks. The kind available in the colour of your skin, made to not show when worn under something like casual sneakers — athleisure, he’d called it — or flats.
He’d brought out a bowl of cubed watermelon for me that he’d said his mother had left for him before she and the rest of his family left for the cottage last night. He’d brought it out and placed it on the whorls of the metal patio coffee table made to resemble a woven basket, and then went back inside, down to the basement, to get us a can of beer each. Something sweet for me, because I had told him in a text that I liked sweet stuff. He called me a novice drinker then. I wanted to tell him I just didn’t like to drink. But I didn’t tell him that.
I held the watermelon at Tara’s mouth. Her nose, skeptical — maybe it was all too good to be true — worked furiously at sniffing it, coming in close to it and then backing away, until she finally made a decision and quickly snatched it from my fingers and scarfed it down. She didn’t move away from my feet then, didn’t go back to her warm bed of light. I had become too valuable in her eyes, could at any moment now offer more, and so she plopped her little dachs-hund’s body down near me and kept her eyes wide, her gaze fixed on my hands that portended bounty. In other words, I had won her over.
He hadn’t gone with his family to the cottage. I asked him why as we sat in the shade and the dappled sunlight that made it past the leaves, on the hard, uncomfortable outdoor seats in the coolness of the patio, knowing in advance why.
“Because we’d made plans,” he’d said. Isn’t it obvious, his tone asked.
And I scoffed. He didn’t have to see me, I said jokingly, pretending at something — lev-ity maybe, like this really wasn’t serious at all and I was okay with that. Because I had to be, be-cause he wasn’t looking for anything serious, he’d told me in a text. He laughed and kissed me then, but he came in too suddenly. It happened too fast and I didn’t kiss him back before he pulled his lips away, and so he thought he’d offended me in some way. And then I, not knowing what to do, pretending at levity, brought up the beer he said it would be nice to have on his mother’s patio on a day as nice as this when he picked me up. And then he brought me the bowl of watermelon.
He did that a lot — refer to this house and everything about it as his mother’s, even though he spent all his holidays here. It was where he had always come back to. At the end of every semester, for Thanksgiving and Easter. Even though he still had his bedroom here, said it remained as it was before he had left for university. Even though it would be where he remained until he figured out if he wanted to get a job or go to grad school. Even so, it was his mother’s house. She paid for everything. And he was a lodger. Here today, would be gone tomorrow, so he really couldn’t get into anything serious.
I’d said, climbing the stairs from the city street below up to the house, that the air here, on the patio, was nice. Nice compared to the sultry and smoggy and sizzling midsummer air of the busy city. He’d laughed, maybe because he didn’t understand what I meant. I thought maybe it was because of all the leaves, purifying the air and screening the light, making the patio cool and calm as the cloistered grounds of a monastery’s garden. But I didn’t say that to him. I just sat down. And then asked him why he hadn't gone to the cottage with his family.
He emerged from the dark house with its drawn curtains and blinds with two cans — a tall silver one with red and blue squared block capital letters and a shorter, orange and pink and silver one with a picture of some citrus fruit. He handed me the shorter one.
“I think you’ll like this,” he said. “It’s beer infused with some kind of juice.” He sat down next to me and cracked open his can. I did the same and he watched me as I took a tentative sip. I didn’t want to tell him that I’d tried what he’d given me once before and didn’t like it. I didn't want to hurt his feelings. So I pretended to like it, and he smiled.
Claire had said that it was about time that I got intimate with a guy. “I mean, you don’t want to be a forty-year-old virgin, do you?” she’d asked in a horrified hushed tone as she searched the aisle at Walmart for the chocolate-flavoured laxatives she’d got once and really en-joyed — they were really effective, she’d said. I reminded her that I was only twenty-one and that I still had a lot of time before I was forty. “You know what I mean,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s about time,” she whispered. “It’d be a great way to mark the end of undergrad, and it’ll also be good for you. It’ll make you calmer.”
I thought about the time she’d called me up one night in the ninth grade and I’d blushed as she told me about how she’d just had sex with Wesley Price from science class and about how totally not-calm she’d been then or thereafter. I thought about reminding her of that, as a joke.
But she’d found her laxatives and had moved on to another aisle. When I found her again she was looking at the rows and rows of aerosol cans of shaving cream, with lids coloured pink and red and baby blue.
She looked at my bare legs as I walked up to her, ran her hand over my thigh when I stopped next to her in front of the cans boasting delicious fruity scents and beguiling flowery scents. “You’re meeting him Saturday, right? Don’t shave until right before you see him. That way you won’t be prickly.”
He brushed my thigh with his hand as he reached for his can on the coffee table. I pre-tended not to notice and kept on talking about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Gogol and how a professor I’d once had said that Gogol was always good for a laugh. I told him he should read The Idiot because it was my favourite book.
“Sure,” he said and then he took a sip and I knew that he wouldn’t read it. I knew, be-cause I remembered him saying in a text that he didn’t much like to read. “You should write your own novel,” he said after a while. And I remembered the time I told him in a text that I didn’t know what to do with my life, that I liked to write, and he’d replied telling me that I was a very good writer.
I laughed and mumbled something about how I would never have the discipline to do such a thing. And then I thought about shutting up. But I felt too nervous to allow for long stretches of silence. If I shut up then there wouldn’t be any talk, because he didn’t say much now. It was a sort of unnavigable conundrum: I was saying too much and he was not saying enough. I felt as though I was being annoying. Being too much and annoying him. Texting, the lulls in conversation weren’t as uncomfortable, could be filled easily with thoughts and delibera-tions of what to say next and how. Now, sat across from me, he just watched me and I found it difficult to think. But I soon felt that I didn’t mind his looking at me.
His eyes had this way of making me feel as though it was nice for him to look at me, even though he didn’t say it outright. They narrowed and the blue seemed to deepen and churn like an overflowing, gushing river. A river right after the springtime thaw. His eyes had done that the first time he looked at me, really looked at me, when we’d met at the party at Claire’s three weeks ago, the weekend her parents were in Cuba. It was a look I found I sorely missed over the course of the next three weeks we’d spent texting. Just talking, getting close, I’d thought. He’d texted me one day that he liked talking to me and getting to know me. And I liked talking to him. He was funny, he made me laugh.
But now he was very quiet. And now, sat so near to him, after all this time and in all this light, I felt nervous, even though I liked being looked at by him. I brought my own can to my lips and took a great big gulp, watching him watch me over the edge of the can.
“Your older sister,” he said finally, and it felt as though my stomach were falling right through me. “She’s the more rebellious of the two of you?” And I regretted ever asking him to pick me up from our house. He’d seen her and thought she was prettier and cooler. “She has all those tattoos,” he said.
I just nodded and continued to drink until I emptied my can. And then I asked him if we should go inside. Pretending it had suddenly gotten too warm for me on the patio. It hadn’t re-ally. I just felt as though I was boring him now — as though we’d already talked enough and it wasn’t now the time for that.
“Sure thing,” he said. And I followed him into the shadowy house like the gaping mouth of some sleeping animal. Tara ambled in after us.
“Do you want to see my room,” he asked. And I said yes. He led me up the stairs to a dark hallway of three shut doors and one that opened into a room aglow with the afternoon light and shimmering dust dancing slowly and hazily in the air as if in a dream. The wide window had its curtains parted and it was warm in the room. Tara went to a well-lit spot on the carpeted floor near a door I assumed opened into his closet and lay down, falling asleep instantly.
“They’re in a box here somewhere,” he said when I asked him where he kept all his books. “I just leave them in there, ‘cause I’m always on the move,” he explained. And then, be-fore I could say something that came into my mind about something John Waters had once said about visiting people who don’t have any books at their place, he started to kiss me. His hands went into my shirt and their grasping grew more urgent as he led me nearer to his bed.
“Would it be okay if I took my shirt off,” he asked me. And I said it would, asking in turn if I should take mine off. “Yes,” he said. We lay down.
He at length pulled away from me and asked me if I wanted him to give me head and I told him that he didn’t have to do that. And then I asked him, my face turning red and hot, embarrassed, my voice a quivering and barely audible gasp, if he wanted to have sex. “No, I don’t do that with people I hardly know,” he said.
And I opened my mouth wide and said, “Oh, okay,” enunciating, it seemed, every letter of the two words in an effort to mask the disappointment I feared would show on my face, that I felt as a thousand cymbals crashing in my head. I had thought that we had gotten to know each other very well as we’d texted. I had thought that we had gotten very close.
He told me as we were getting dressed, as I faced away from him, looking out the win-dow of his bedroom in his mother’s house that overlooked the cool patio below, putting my shirt back on, that he was leaving in a week for China. Going there for a month with some friends and that he was extremely excited about it. “You have a very nice body,” he then said as I turned to face him again. I told him that it was because I ran, pretending at levity, wishing he’d tell me he thought I was pretty, that he liked me.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a smile, tilting his head back like he was remembering — re-membering all the times I’d texted him that I was going for a run or that I’d just got back from one, maybe remembering the joke he’d once made that I was always on the run. From some-thing. “I’ll drive you home,” he offered. But I refused, mumbling something about not wanting him to drive after he’d had a beer, not listening to whatever half-hearted protestations he made as he yawned. He walked me out. Tara didn’t move from her bed of light in his room. Tara didn’t walk me out.
I thought about all the nice things we’d said to each other over the weeks we’d texted as I walked home sweating through my shirt in the heat of the late afternoon. I’d told him about my fears, my ambitions, my likes, and my dislikes. We’d had some kind of an exchange at least once every day of the past three weeks, whether about how each our day went or about what we be-lieved in.
And so I texted him when I got home, telling him that I’d had a very nice time with him. His reply didn’t come until the next day, apologizing, saying that he was very busy preparing for his trip, and that he’d had a nice time, too. I replied, saying that we should get together some time after he got back, but he didn’t respond to that. I waited for something until the day came when he’d said his flight was, thinking that maybe he’d say something as he waited to board. I was thinking that maybe he’d make some kind of a promise. But the day ended and he didn’t say anything.
And then I wondered what I could do to erase such a vivid person from my mind — a person interacted with for almost a month, a person suddenly disappeared. I wondered what to do when faced with such a void.
But I couldn’t think of anything, so I deleted him from my phone and then regretted the loss of all his words.