The summer before graduation, I worked with Emily. She kept the counter at the computer repair on campus, while I fixed laptops beneath the backroom’s glaring lights. Computer nonsense suffused with the sharp lighting. Emily called the place “C.F.” She worked the new acronym into a conversation one morning, but I ignored it. I don’t remember what she said, but it doesn’t matter. A few days later, she said it again.
She said, “Got another one for you, Aaron.” She put a disconnected screen on the table between us. “Check him into the C.F.,” she said, “and I’ll sign the papers.”
When I asked, she explained it; she said, “Sorry. I didn’t even realize I was saying it. Computer Florida, where old computers go to die.” She croaked, rolled her eyes back into her head, holding one hand at her throat, the other on my elbow as she went weak at the knees. She said, “I’m dying,” but the words barely made it out.
Everyday, she’d drag the stool to the ledge, sit there, and wait for someone to come in, but they hardly did. I’d lean through the door, say something about the Baby Boom coming, and how she shouldn’t worry.
She called them “victims,” the people who finally did come in.
Or she’d press her fist beneath her chin and talk through the window into the backroom. Maybe I’d take long walks around the store looking for something for the headaches. No victims but me, so we had a lot of time to talk.
I remember, she said it was strange to be back on a campus; she’d graduated the summer before. She said it was like moving backwards.
“It’s still behind you, though,” I said, leaning over a good one, eyeing something I couldn’t quite place from an old typewriter —we did that, too.
“I’ll be gone at the end of August. Three months here. It’s like a lobby.”
“Then, where to?
She pulled her fingers through her hair, catching near the end. “Home.”
I never asked how she felt about that, another return, another backwards step, because, then, August seemed so far away.
But, August came, so I said, “I’ll help you pack your things away.”
“Really?” she said, leaning against the backroom’s doorframe. She offered me a drink from her glass.
I shook my head. “Thanks.”
She swallowed. “That would be great.”
The weekend before she left, I carried my bike down the apartment stairs earlier than needed and pedaled slowly, riding out the hills, leaning down over the handles. I stopped to buy coffee, one for me and one for her, and brought them the rest of the short way to her apartment. I pushed my bike along beside with the other hand.
She waited on the porch for me, her chin in both her palms, her elbows on her knees. She wore a long skirt that went down to her ankles.
I pulled the other paper cup from behind my back. “No cream,” I said, “for you.”
Her eyes widened, and she took it, bringing it right to her lips. “You have no idea how much I need this. Thank you.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Mm, all right. So, which room do you want?” She pulled back the door and let me inside. “You want the kitchen, the bedroom, or. Or the living room?”
“How about this one?”
“The living room, then.”
She didn’t have much. Maybe she never planned to stay. She had it all in boxes and organized by room. All the walls were bare and dotted by bent nails painted over.
I took her framed photos from the pile she had warily stacked in the corner, wrapped them in newspaper, and taped the cardboard boxes. I carried them all out onto her porch.
While I stretched long ribbons of tape from one end to the other, she came through the room a few times and smiled as she passed, but, mostly, we packed in ceremonial silence. By noon, the three rooms were empty except for the couch the landlord left and a suitcase of clothes for her last week. She let me see her bedroom, how it looked empty, how the closet wasn’t so small when filled with nothing, or how the electric burnt a dark patch beneath the carpet some summers ago —landlord said he fixed it, just not the rug.
Leaning against the counter in the kitchen, I rinsed the coffee out and filled my paper cup with water.
Rubbing her hands along the sides of her legs, Emily came in. “That’s the last of it. A shame you didn’t see it when it was full,” she said.
She went out onto the porch, and I followed.
We sat on the lowest stair and waited. She tossed her phone back and forth in her hands.
“They said they would be here by eleven,” she said. She called the movers, but the van pulled up as she was calling.
I opened my hands in front of us. “Always the way,” I said, “when you think there is no hope left.”
The man they sent slid from the driver’s side, pulled down his collar, and strode over. “Howdy.” His vest said, ‘Jonah.’
“Hi,” Emily said. She stood to meet him on the sidewalk and shake his hand.
I went over with her.
We helped Jonah put her things in the large van, all her things barely taking a third of it, and she tipped him. He drove off, and we watched him disappear around the corner.
“There I go,” she said.
I said, “We better get to work.”
“He was nice.” She locked the door behind us.
She had sent her bike ahead in the van, so we walked along the train tracks to the shop. At the bridge, just outside town, we slowed down, looked out over the river. On its banks, blankets were strewn across the shrubs, broken glass shimmered, and the green water lapped at the two concrete shores. She balanced on the tracks, her arms out to her sides. We saw the shop through the trees and crossed.
“The C. F.,” I said.
“Compu-Fuck,” she said.
“Do you really think it’s that bad?”
“No. If you like work though, how will the really great things look in comparison?”
She said, “Not as good as they would when you’d hate to be anywhere else.” She held one handle of my bike as we led it down the embankment.
Frank sat outside the shop on a crate with his folded hands on his stomach. Running a finger over his sideburns, he nodded when he saw us coming. “I’m out of here if you two are here.” He put out his cigarette on the curb.
“We’re here,” Emily said.
Frank winked as he passed.
That afternoon, Emily found the electronica station on the old radio and fought to keep it in tune. She angled the antenna towards the window. “Did you know about this station?” she said.
“You’ve been keeping secrets,” she said, “and a good one. For shame.”
When each song ended, she kept their beats on the counter and hummed the computerized drones until the next song picked up. They came from some other college station at the end of its range, the air running thin.
“Do you like this stuff?” she said. She opened the window, put the antennae outside.
“Yeah, it’s not bad.”
She said, “I like it when it just breaks down like the computer is completely fried, and the guy working it passes out on the keyboard.”
“That happens all the time, though. What is it? A.” I dropped a fistful of screws into their tray.
She said, “I don’t know, but it’s realistic. None of those pretenses about. Everlasting. I don’t know. Art.”
“Yes, machines.” She touched the tip of her nose. “You win.”
No one came in for the rest of the day.
We sat on the counter, matched claps and snaps together to make 4/4 time over 3/4 time. We kicked 6/8 against the wood-panel wall. It didn’t go on for long.
I can’t remember anyone coming in all week. Frank barely showed up. We saw him come to the storefront one afternoon, but he turned around before coming inside, and we didn’t see him until the next day.
Friday, the night before she left, I walked her home after work because we were closing together, Fridays we stayed open later, and it was dark. I thought it’d be nice to see her off, too. I knew she didn’t know many people here.
While the river moved below us, we crossed the bridge without stopping; men’s voices came from the banks. I pushed my bike along beside us.
She didn’t balance across the railroad ties or tap time signatures against the change in her pocket or whistle like she sometimes did when it was quiet. Waiting for me to tie my shoe, she smiled as she leaned against the railing near the park. She ran across the street without me. “Come on.”
I grabbed my bike and pedaled until I passed her. I waited on her porch like I had been there all day.
“Do you want to come inside?” she said, walking slowly up the steps. She pulled her keys from her pocket. She shrugged and pulled at the neck of her sweater. “I mean, there’s nothing inside. You know that, but there’s that couch and warm drinks. I don’t know. It’s getting cold and you’ve got a long bike ride.”
“No, sure. I’ll come in. Just for a little.”
She unlocked the three bolts on her door, reached her hand inside to turn on the lights before we went through. She tossed her keys onto the floor. “That’s where the hall table used to be,” she said. “Throw your coat anywhere. Or I could show you where the coat rack used to be. You want a drink?”
“Sure.” I went through the first room and lay my coat across the worn arm of the couch on the way.
“Hey, help me push this by the window.”
We pushed the couch up nearly to the patio glass doors.
“All right.” She put a hand through her hair, pointed into the air. “Right, those drinks.” She clapped and went into the kitchen. She took down three bottles from the cabinet over the sink. “Warm cranberry juice, warm vodka, and warm cola.”
“Just the cola.” I stood in the doorway.
She rinsed out the two paper cups from the weekend before, shook them dry. “You sure?” She made the bottle of vodka dance.
I laughed. “Thanks. I’m sure.”
“Come on, Aaron. I can’t drink alone.”
“Really, I’m all right.”
She made a face.
“Fine. Hit me.” I made two fists, showed her I was ready.
“Jesus, Aaron. Don’t break anything.” She said, “Not that there’s anything to break, but.” She took a sip. “Wow, this is really warm. Like actually hot, more like it. We’ll just have to pretend it’s not,” she said. She poured the vodka into the cranberry juice. “There you go,” she said. “You’ll be sorry you’re drinking, now.” She laughed and took a longer drink.
We sat down at the patio window and let the overstuffed couch hold us. She slid open the door, pulled the screen over, and took off her shoes. We looked out into her backyard for a while, saw the lights across the alley come on, and a woman come out into the night. The city sounded far away but echoed around the empty apartment.
I took a drink and slipped off my shoes. “Oh, wow’s right.”
She had painted her toenails green. “What?”
“Nothing.” I squinted, took another drink.
“Oh, it’s not that bad.”
“I’m kidding. It’s fine.”
She drank, winced, and swallowed loudly.
“I saw that.”
“You saw nothing.”
“Sure.” I set the cup on my knee, held it loosely. “So, what are you going to do?” I said.
“I don’t know.” She pulled one leg beneath her. She took a long drink from her cup. “God, this is such a bad idea.” She looked down into the drink.
“Something like that.” She took another drink though. “I’m going to farm the land, raise a few sheep, ride them into town. No. Maybe, I’m going to sell all my possessions and live in a cave, write a book, fade into stardom.”
“From the cave?”
“That’s the plan?”
“Well, I’m becoming a mash-up artist.” She laughed, again. “You know, taking other people’s songs and pulling them apart and playing other songs with them.” She set her drink on the floor.
“No, I know.”
She pulled both legs onto her cushion, folded them beneath her as she turned to face me. She moved her hands between us, showing me all the things being pushed together. “All the good things piled up on each other. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of promise in a career like that, right?”
“Is that still going on?”
“What do you mean? Of course.” She pulled her one leg from beneath her.
“God, I actually wanted to do that once. I even made a song, if that’s what you’d call it.” She put a palm of her hand against her forehead.
“How’d it go?”
“Oh, you don’t want to know.”
“Fine,” she said, making the one free leg nervous in its place. “I reversed Close to You by The Carpenters and liked it so much I didn’t change anything else.” She turned to throw her bare feet up over the couch arm. “It was just like a Bj örk song, and I had all these plans of adding a saxophone, maybe some finger snaps or claps.”
“Do you still have it?”
“No, my computer crashed. Besides, it’s in a van with Jonah probably. He’s pulled over by now, slept on my mattress. And it wasn’t really worth the trouble anyway, just fucking-up good songs really.”
I raised my drink. “Well, to fucking-up, then.” I drained it to the white.
She leaned over, picked up her cup. “I’ll drink to that.” She took some, passed me the empty cup. “Sorry,” she said.
“What’s this? What’re you sorry for?”
“Drinking. Swearing. We’ll be smoking soon. Take the cup away.”
“Fine, fine. One thing at a time,” I said. “Do you play the saxophone?”
“Nope.” She popped her lips, and then she did it again. “No.” She leaned forward, looked down at her bare feet. With painted nails, she slapped her feet against the floor.
“Well, maybe it’s just as good you never finished.”
The light across the alley went out.
She said, “I think it’s better not to know. Before you get there. And into it. You leave for reasons, and you arrive without them.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll allow for that.”
“Judicial of you,” she said, nodding. “Because if you have all these expectations or whatever you want to call them. Obligations. You’ll only be disappointed. That’s always how it is. If you go into something thinking too much about what it’ll be like, it’ll be completely wrong. Nothing’ll be right.” She waited, both feet going down at the same time as though they were the punctuations, the paired quotations at the end of her speech. “You know?”
I thought a moment, weighed each word I heard, but didn’t say. “My dad used to tell me something like that. He said, ‘The only way to get a girl is to not want one.’”
“He said that?”
“How’d that work out?”
“My mom divorced him, and he didn’t say much else about —about anything. But I actually think he was right, in some way —as wrong as that might sound.
“It doesn’t sound wrong.”
“I mean, not about women, but about some other things. The best of them.” I said, “The best of them, you’d never see them coming.”
“That’s called a surprise.”
Shrugging, I said, “Or a disappointment.”
“You’re blushing. Look at you go.” She took her cup from the floor and went into the kitchen.
I lifted the cup, but it was empty; I put it down quickly. I heard her pouring more.
She came back and sat beside me.
“Switching to cola,” she said. “You want some more?”
I waved it away. “Once, I knew this kid at school, the first school I went to. It was this small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere. This kid —Chris, I think —who wore army boots and pushed those silver spikes through his jean jacket. You know the ones?”
“Sure.” She leaned over her drink in her lap.
“Hell of a guy though.”
“Well, he worked security, listened to metal. Some punk. Actually, this one time, I was playing Bj örk in the dorms, and he asked me about it, said he really liked it, which was funny. He said one of his old girlfriends listened to it a lot, but he never told her he liked it. I told him he must be growing up. He laughed but left pretty quickly.”
“What?” I brushed off the cushions between us.
“He’s trying to figure this all out.” She spread her hands out around her. She capitalized the whole thing with the way she said it. “The Big Mess.”
“Yeah, I guess so, because he started dating a girl I knew. Like I said, he was a really nice guy. The thing was, he never let her meet his parents. He always said they lived in a trailer, were alcoholics, smoked too much, but, somehow, the girl got a hold of his yearbook from his junior year and flicked through it, looking and looking, hardly recognizing him the first go around. The guy was on every sports team, the glee club, and marching band. Everything. And his picture. He smiled and smiled, combed his hair to one side. His parents donated the money to build the gymnasium.”
She shrugged. “It happens.”
“What, did you reinvent yourself, too?” I said. “You’ve got not reaction to this. You did, didn’t you? You’re blushing.”
“No, no.” She crossed her legs. “Could have though.”
I looked out into the alley. “Do you need more?”
I stood and went into the kitchen. “Fake your death, run away and live in the woods, let your hair grow out, forget how to talk.”
“I’d shave it all off. Less trouble,” she said. “Ask me what I had in this room.”
I filled my drink and went back in. “So, casually, I ask, ‘What did you have in this room?’”
“She’s shocked at the brusque questioning but withholds her shock, showing it only with a hand at the base of her throat.” With one small hand, she touched her neck. “This was the living room, Aaron. Or should I call you —dun-dun”—she played the chords in the air —“Chris?”
“Okay. I used to have bookcases over there, right behind you.”
She pointed, and I followed.
“They were gone by the time you came around. I donated them to Saint Vincent’s. And they were full of books. Like look-how-smart-I-am books. Easy-readers, mostly.” She laughed a small laugh. “You packed them up. I read less this summer than I would have liked. Big plans, Aaron, big plans. And there was a coffee table behind us, and, at the end, there was a small television. It barely fit. I’ve had the same one since high school. I matured in taste, sure, but mostly denied that I hadn’t because I was only pretending not to still watch all those shows. And I framed my diploma —or someone did —and I had it hanging on the wall because I knew no one would see it except me and, then, I didn’t feel so bad. I used to have a book out on the coffee table too, but that wasn’t for me.” She just about finished the cola, saving only the last bit. “I wish I left it out for you, but I had it packed up on the first night.”
“What was the book?”
“Oh. It was good.” She smiled and leaned back into the couch, pushing with her feet against the wall. “It was called The History of Plunder. It was about this big.” She showed me how large it really was. “This professor chronologically arranged famous thefts, which sounds really great —right —but it was terrible. A lot of just stuff, uninteresting stuff.” She raised her empty cup, but stopped by her shoulder and hit me on the leg with her empty hand. “Oh, the best part. The dedication page was so bad. All it said was ‘To Helen, who stole my heart’ in this tiny, italicized print. I mean, come on, we can’t talk about love that way anymore. And it’s just so sad. It’s no longer about getting or taking or even receiving. It’s all about keeping. Love, I mean. Love is about hanging on for dear life.” She lifted the edge of the cup to her lips with finality, but she blushed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s kind of nice.” I shrugged.
She talked into the cup. “Yeah, I know. I’m just talking.”
“No. Don’t say that. You’re right.” I turned on the couch toward her. “People are concerned with the way it looks, the way it feels, but no one thinks about how it really is. Not anymore. Or maybe they never did. And that’s all it is. An idea. We’re supposed to find evidence for this idea we have, but we’re just looking for something that’s never been proven to exist.” I said, “How does that work out for you if your whole quest is. Your dream date is just a mirror, and you’re watching someone who’s really just a part of you? That and someone’s been putting sex on par with torture, and love with sex.” I balanced one word in my hand with another in the opposite.
She pulled forward, putting the cup at our feet. “This mirror image, though.” She put up one hand. “Sometimes that happens.”
“Okay, okay.” She said, “Is there a master plan?”
She said, “You think it’s all random. Everything?”
I said, “I think it’s predictable but never certain. And I think some things should happen, but don’t always.”
“So”—she pointed —“bad things to every one.”
“Sure, bad things to every one.” I nodded.
She pinched her chin, closed her eyes. “What were we talking about?”
“I think you were getting into soul mates,” I said.
She opened her eyes. “Right,” she said. “So, there are these people that exist in two places. First, they exist in your mind”—she counted on her fingers —“or your soul. Or whatever.” She put out an overturned palm, the sole number finger disappearing, the soul going out. “And then in reality. I used to think soul mates were people who could admit it to the other, like ‘Hey, guess what?’” She said, her hands dropping, “But that’s arbitrary.”
“I don’t know if I believe in that. I mean, there are people that should be together, sure, but.”
“I like to believe it.”
“The pragmatic romantic,” I said. “She’s never heartbroken, unless it’s for the best.” I shook my head.
“At least, there are no expectations,” she said.
“No expectations,” I said.
“It’s a take or leave it kind of thing.”
“And good thing,” I said. “Sounds like it, anyway.”
She turned in her seat, looked to me. “Do you want to go out on the porch?”
I followed her through the screen door.
The night had turned cold, and we leaned out over the banister.
In the alley, two boys laughed. They ran inside through a cellar door, slamming it shut behind them.
She put her chin in her hands, bent low to the railing. “Sometimes, there are fights down there, and they wake me up.” The wind picked up, and she crossed her arms.
“Do you have any jackets left?” I said.
“Just this sweater.” She pulled the neck up over her mouth.
“I don’t have anything to offer,” I said.
“It’s okay. Maybe we should just go inside.” She pulled open the screen door and let me through. She closed the door behind us.
“You want more vodka?” she said.
“No,” I said, “thank you.”
“Lightweight. One sip and you’re under the table.”
I sat down on the floor by the couch.
She sat against the far wall.
I put my arms behind my head and lay back into them. A crease in the ceiling molding ran through the middle.
Emily lay back onto her side, catching her cheek in her hands.
We were quiet for a long time, and I thought she fell asleep, but she got up and sat down on the couch right above me.
I leaned up on my elbows. “I thought you were asleep.”
The room was dark, but the alley let some light in.
She pulled her sweater down around her hands. “I don’t want to forget about all the reasons I’m leaving. I don’t want a reason now.” She leaned back into the couch. “Okay?” She pulled her feet onto the cushions and shut her eyes.
“Okay.” Eventually, I lay back and fell asleep, having a dream I’m sure I’ll never remember.
At six o’clock, she woke me up with a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry, I’ve got to go. It’s morning already.” She leaned over me, and her hair fell from behind her ear. “All right?” She had changed her clothes.
“All right.” I got up and put on my shoes.
In the kitchen, she wrapped her hair up into a handkerchief. “How did you sleep?” She offered me the last of the juice.
“Thanks.” I waved it away, and she dumped it down the drain, along with the vodka and cola. “I’m a little stiff.”
“Will you wait with me?”
I walked her outside, and we waited for the cab to come at the curb. She sat on her suitcase and held her backpack in her lap. We heard a car coming down the block and stood.
“Thank you, Aaron, for your help,” she said. She put her arms around me, and I put my hands at the bottom of her back. “I mean it. I’m going to miss you.”
The taxi came around the corner, stopped nearby, and the driver let the engine run. The window came down; a man leaned out and called over. “Emily?” He checked his clipboard. “Renault? You Emily Renault?”
She waved to him then turned back. She said, “I’m sorry I didn’t know you earlier.” She picked up her suitcase, slung one strap of her backpack over her shoulder, and crossed the street. She got into the backseat, pulled the seatbelt across her chest, and closed the door. She smiled as the car pulled away, and I raised my hand. She waved back.
When I couldn’t see the taxi anymore, I left my bike in the bushes and walked along the tracks. I stopped over the river, my arms tired of holding me up all night then holding me there, my head in their hands. I pushed a stone from between the ties and let it fall over the edge. I listened for the splash. I made it to the shop, opened it a few minutes late, and searched the small office for a plain sheet of paper. I took one to the counter and tried to write her a letter while hunched over where she would have sat. On my break, I closed the store and walked back to the bridge. I looked out over the edge, heard the same men’s voices from the night before below me, and listened for the tide at the concrete sides. I pulled the letter from inside my pocket, unfolded it, and read it. I decided to never send it and I never did. I walked back to work.
A few days later, carrying the phone at the end of its line to the corner of the backroom, I tried to call her, but she never answered, and I never called again.
I met someone that fall and hardly thought of Emily, but I think I saw her today, this morning on the train; it’s been years, but I recognized her. She hasn’t changed. She was with a man, and he held her hand in his. He held it so tightly his knuckles were white.
The train moved over those same tracks we walked together.
Emily had her head back against the rest and her eyes closed.
I had to tell someone. I hope you understand why.