The Lovers are a Mirror
D and I check into The Inn of the Dove, a haven of softly-lit sex along Route 132, behind a middle-aged couple giggling as they procure a travel-size tube of lube and handcuffs from the registration attendant. It feels so illicit, so naughty, that it doesn’t occur to me that once we are lying on the heart-shaped bed, staring up at the mirrored ceiling, imagining the sticky grunting in all the other themed rooms - Black and Gold, Asian, Honeymoon, Jungle - sex will be the last thing on our minds. We’re kids playing grownups, two stupid college coeds who just found their rhythm. Dutifully, we fuck for a couple of slow hours, lying face up and catching glances of our pale, strange bodies twisting together at awkward angles. I don’t think to take any photographs. I will never look as good naked as I do on that bed. Neither of us come. We order Chinese.
The Hanged Man
B and I lay in bed on a sexless night, his breathing labored and shallow. I speak into the dark of the room and hope it reaches him. “Do you still find me attractive?” I ask because I don’t know, because I feel bloated from the Depo-Provera my gynecologist has been injecting into my arm, because when I got highlights he said I looked like a mall rat, because my favorite leopard print sweater hasn’t made an appearance since he said it reminded him of a sad, old divorced woman. “I don’t want to answer that,” he breathes, “because I don’t want to hurt you.” I swallow hard against the dark and let my eyes adjust to the distorted headlights that stretch across the ceiling. I can practically feel the other side of the bed grow lighter - as though he lifts up and floats away, the final movement of a careful, quiet separation he’s been orchestrating for months. It is not an answer. But it’s enough.
“Maybe the movies,” I offer. We are laying on the couch, my head resting on O’s chest, his eyes closed. No, he mumbles. It’s Sunday. I know that in three or four hours, he will get into his red truck and drive an hour back to his home, and for the next five days, I will barely register in his mind. Not until next Saturday, when work is done and he’s ready to hibernate with me again. “How about a coffee shop? We could catch up on reading.” I want to drag him into the world with me, create the illusion that this is my boyfriend and here we are having a delicious weekend. I want to pop the bubble, burst the belief that he can come here and fuck me and kiss me and bury his face between my legs for a day and a half and then forget I exist for an entire week. He runs his rough hand up my shirt, hard on soft, warm on cool. I shiver against him and think about all the things I’ll never say. I swallow the words because that’s not what we share. I arch my back, bury my face in his neck, the warm fur of his beard brushing against my skin. Can’t we just stay here? He sighs and wraps his arms around me tighter, and the feeling sends a message to my brain that deafens everything else - HE WANTS YOU. HE ACTUALLY WANTS YOU. This is still so hard for me to believe, it keeps me quiet for another house-bound weekend. “Of course we can,” I mumble. “Absolutely.”
My legs ache from dancing all night. My phone buzzes. “Where are you?” M looked for me too late after the final dance at the wedding - the family friend, the guy I’ve seen at random parties, the guy I always thought cute but rather square. We meet in the hotel restaurant, the other guests already gone to bed. “You’re like nobody,” he says as I prattle on about my MFA, the meaning of my tattoos, my thoughts on feminism. “I’m just getting over someone,” he says, and I can suddenly recall her at a picnic months ago, the average height and weight, the blonde flat-ironed hair cascading down her back, the sensible blouse and slacks. An hour later, in his room, I pull my dress up over my head and his eyes go cartoon-wide - the ink on my arms, the volume of my breasts inside my black bra, the short wavy hair getting caught in my eyelashes. The next morning, at the mandatory brunch we’re all too hungover to enjoy, he doesn’t meet my eyes, doesn’t return my playful texts, doesn’t say goodbye before leaving. He got a word wrong. To him, I’m not like nobody. I am nobody.
A and I lie in bed - I am the little spoon - facing the window, letting the light of a weekend morning slice its way through the dusty mini-blinds, and in this moment, I feel something between peace and panic. I settle my warm, cushy ass closer to the skint, bony curve of his hips, and try to forget about the extra flesh on my upper arms, the roll of my soft belly, the cherubic nature of my grin. We whisper, so as not to disturb the curtains, the dust bunnies, the socks and underwear discarded on the floor. “We can live at your house. We can AirBNB mine. We can vacation in Brigantine. We can paint that one wall navy blue.” I am helping build these possibilities, these we moments. I am nodding and smiling and swallowing so I don’t feel the hollow where my desire for him should be. I snuggle up against his good job, his nice family, his sweet demeanor, and fix my eyes on the stain on the curtain farthest to the left. He is going a hundred miles an hour, full speed ahead, and I am just trying to find the goddamn seatbelt.
There is a limit to how deeply I can go into myself without flinching. But the candles are lit, filling my room with the warm smell of coconut and lavender. I am listening to the album I don’t admit I like to anyone else, the cheap indulgence that plays on repeat without apology. I am rolling around on perfectly clean sheets, the self-pleasure of no agenda, of a long, empty evening with nowhere to be. The song I usually skip comes on, but I’m far too occupied to do anything about it. I ride this feeling, this delicious emptiness, to its crescendo. The sound catches in my throat - I’m used to holding back, to making myself small and quiet. But before I can breathe through it and let something out, it’s over, and the moan I didn’t release turns into a lump, and the hole in the center of me feels unfillable, even by my own hands, and the really good song towards the end of the album is on, the one about love prevailing no matter what, and the afterglow I chased all night lights the room better than the moon, because it’s the kind of light that can only happen when you look inside yourself and find so much nothing it feels like everything all over again.