Adam Desnoyers’s work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Fence, The Idaho Review, LIT, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He lives in Kansas.
The World Never Tells You It’s the Last Time You’re Going to See Someone
In time you would forget her brown hair which made letters across her pillow depending on how her head had turned in the night, you would forget her brown hair mostly because sometimes it was not brown it was black or red or some weird, radioactive pink like Russian prostitute hair and that was maybe loveliest of all. In time you would not think of her when you saw red knapsacks. In time you would see the backs of women walking away and not wonder is it her? Is it her? In time you would not find it so weird, all the non sequitur Eskimo brothers you acquired the moment you got together with her–him, that guy–really? How cool is it really to be that good at bowling? And him? His art sucks, he only draws turtles. And him? Well, you always liked that band. The Eskimo sisters you would not get used to but you could work on it. In time your dog would stop running to your door when you came home, hoping she was with you. In time it would all make sense, you’d be grateful really, that it ended, how it ended, how you were free from all the chaos. But not yet.
When you saw him you decided something. You decided if you pretended to not care long enough you would eventually not care for real that he had stopped talking to you. You would forget him entirely and you would not think about him laying around with that woman who claimed to be from L.A. but was really from Topeka, KS, the one with the consistently irresponsible eyeliner who’d once sent him a boob picture that filled the screen of his phone which had laid dormant on his coffee table while you were trying to watch that revenge movie with him he found so cathartic and meaningful. You knew you would see him tonight before you saw him. You knew she would be laughing unnecessarily and falling into him more unnecessarily. You wondered if he also had told her, like he’d told you, about that time in Iowa with his mother and his brother and the three-legged dog and the house fire that made you feel sorry for him until tonight. Now you wished upon him further tragedy. When you left that bar you realized you had two choices. You could go home. You could not go home. You secretly liked walking alone this time of year before the winter started really hitting people in the face. You liked the sky at night. You liked getting to wear scarves. You liked walking down the blocks of downtown with the trees bare as fish bones and the skirts of colored Christmas lights winding around them in lazy orbits. You thought about if you were supposed to still be in Kansas. You wondered who else in the world was looking at the sky at that moment and would you ever meet them? The moon was just light and bone smashed together into one thing. Nothing died, everything just put on different skin someday. You were free and everything was fine.
Some history: you probably walked by her without knowing who she’d end up being, this went on a year, two, your existences dormant to one another; then the world went to the trouble of putting you both in the same places enough times that you met or were introduced and you spoke and you got to know one another some, more, a lot; and then one day she started giving you that look like she was writing on you with her eyes the way she’d eventually write on you with her hands, that look like she’d decided, as if there was a contract, already signed—your end was ironclad, binding; her end a temporary whimsy, voided at her discretion, disregarding all concerns you might bring to the table such as her husband or imminent relocation to Omaha or witnessing her kissing that bass player of primarily local fame in front of the parking garage—decided how it, yeah that, you know, was going to happen between the two of you, and she was just giving you polite notice of its impending occurrence, because she was nothing if not polite. When it occurred, it kept occurring for some time. Then she cancelled, then again, as she informed you of being busy sick tired forgetful, the reasons just artifice around the primary message of no. When the number of days since the last occurrence grew with a ferocious enough velocity you realized you’d become past tense in her chronology, and a great zero opened up inside you so uncomfortable you vowed to change everything in your life from there on out; or possibly change nothing at all. Today: you saw her, walking by, and you turned your head away on purpose because you didn’t want to find out if she’d looked at you or not.
Maybe this time he won’t stare through the wall after like you’re not even there. Maybe this time he won’t keep talking about his ex-girlfriend whose legs don’t touch. Maybe this time he won’t unapologetically check out every ass that goes by while at dinner with you. Maybe this time he won’t interrupt your story in the car to scream death threats at another driver he will never meet who did something only mildly offensive. Maybe this time he won’t sleep with the girl with purple hair. Maybe this time he won’t be late. Maybe this time he will mean it when he finally says it. Maybe this time you will observe yourself saying to him what you promised yourself you’d say to him before anything went down ever again. Maybe.
That girl. Legs for weeks, your best friend observed. Stay away from her, your other best friend observed. Letting her stay over the first night made you more enemies than anything you’d ever done in your life. Light woke you up every morning to the church of her. Sometimes what you did together was so good you felt like you must not have been doing it right all these years. You hadn’t told your mother about one in a really, really long time. Her exes–their minions had spotted you with her around town and had narc’ed on you—stared murderously with fat, white eyeballs from vehicles or in venues. You knew she’d go. And when she did go you wondered if she’d ever even liked you or had you been just a kind of hideaway for her? She said your eyes were bluest when you cried. “Great,” you said. You know she will come back. When she does one of two things is going to happen. You will be the first one that tells her no. Or you will be just like everyone else she knows.
Sometimes you have to get to know the alleged stripper with green hair better, the one who climbs up on the stool to lean over the bar further than anyone else just to order a water, which she then tips twenty dollars on. Twenty dollars. That’s more money than you bring to drink with most nights. The only thing you know about strippers is that every detail about them is usually a cliché: there’s always a clueless, minister father and an evil brother and a nice ex who meant well and tried to marry her and a bad ex who didn’t mean well at all and car accidents and at least two things you’d rather not have known and a kid or two and good intentions and half-a-pack-day among other habits. Except for the twenty-dollars-for-a-water-tip detail. So maybe that’s a start.
You could tell where she was by where her bike was chained up. Her bike was yellow and its frame was made from such thin metal it looked it would break under the weight of any person other than her. You used to see that yellow bike everywhere before you were together. If you saw it out front of certain places you knew she was working. If you saw it in front of other places you knew she was just hanging out there. When you saw her bike sometimes you went in and got a drink; sometimes you just walked by. One time one of her placeholder boyfriends had chained his bike against hers aggressively; you saw it as you walked by someplace she worked one night, knew he was hanging out with her while she closed, knew he was a goner, almost felt bad for him except not at all. During the rise and fall of you and her you gave her your key a couple times; when you came home and saw that yellow bike in your hall you wanted everything to stay just like that. Eventually your hallway was always empty. By then you went out of your way not to see that bike, turning your head as you walked by bike racks, avoiding certain alleys, avoiding all her favorite places to chain it up. Then you heard somebody stole that bike and you never saw it again.
Everyone thought she was so pretty and so skinny, straight-line-skinny like a JV boys basketball player, but you thought her big eyes had the warmth of a shark’s, especially all the times you had drinks with her and she smiled vacantly at you from across the booth even though she was already sleeping with your boyfriend. Well, he wasn’t your boyfriend anymore. But it was like Right after, most would be more polite, there’s a sort of DMZ most people avoid for a week, two. She’d understand as you told her about being sad about him; a few hours later, unbeknownst to you, they were doing the things that made them a thing. You wondered if she actually liked him, or did you secretly threaten her somehow and being with him made her forget that temporarily? Or was she just bored? Or was she just curious if she could? When she ditched him and he came back to you, he was brimming with flattery about your superiority to her in some comparison & contrast you never asked for and he recited some self-discovery monologue you tuned out on. Maybe she just wanted to see him naked. Maybe she just wanted him to see her naked. Yeah, the last one. So many people to get to know before you died. These were not two of them.
Once upon a time on your first day of high school you saw a girl in homeroom so beautiful it ruined something in you and for the next four years all you cared about was getting close to her because you knew if you didn’t you’d be sad the rest of your life and know exactly goddamn why. It did in fact take all four years to get close to her and you only had a few weeks with her before you both went to college. Before you left, drunk with an 18-year-old’s sentimentality, you told her that if she was ever in trouble you’d come get her. Five years later she called from the city. All different parts of her life had failed all at once. “You remember when you said you’d come get me?” she said. “Well, I need you to come get me.” You were broke; you had a girlfriend you didn’t love but were afraid of and that’s what kept you together; your life was small and safe. You had missed her terribly those five years and this was what you had been waiting for. But then you heard yourself say you couldn’t and she said okay and then hung up and had that really just happened? Why hadn’t you said yes? Yes. Yes. Yes. That moment was not practice for your actual life, the actual life which was coming later. That moment was your actual life. Shattering. And would you be sad for the rest of that actual life? Well, you didn’t know that yet, did you?
There was a storm when you were a kid where the snow was higher than your head because it was an insane fluke storm and because you were extra short at the time and ever since every storm had vaguely disappointed you because the snow would never be higher than your head again. The red pepper you got for her was still in the fridge and you left it there no matter how moldy it got. The real reason everybody loved a snow day was because it was the universe officially telling you to wait until tomorrow to figure it out.
The first time was the night you asked her to go play pool with you. That night you tried not to look at her engagement ring, which was so big people were always asking her if it was real. You took her to the bar to play pool and to get yourself drunk enough to go through with kissing her on her front porch after the bar closed and you walked her home, all of that something you had thought about doing for a long time. When you kissed her she looked surprised and then not surprised. After a while she said you should go inside with her. She lived with three other women and they were asleep inside in their rooms, one of them snoring loudly, a sound that stopped for a second as you walked past her closed door—you heard her snoring even more loudly when snuck back out later that night. Her wedding was on New Year’s Eve and way down in Texas, where you’d never been and where she would live for good after, and you knew that was the day the world would quietly end and you wondered why no one seemed at all concerned. You saw her one last time before she left and you both skipped the bar part and went straight to the inside part. You went for a walk with her after, late that night, nobody talking, not a single car passing once and ruining the dark with its headlights. It was the only time you got to hold her hand.
Summer was when your significant other always dumped you because it was summer. Summer was something you were undecided on; you suspected the significant other sensed this and wanted to mingle with people who loved summer. Summer was when you only saw skinny-ness, tan-ness, boobed-ness, muscle-ness, blonde-ness, youth-ness, annoying-ness; however, you only felt squishy-ness, sweaty-ness, pale-ness, or, worse, fuchsia-ness, and, lastly, next-summer-I-will-look-like-that-ness. You tried. You got sunburned, hurt your ankle jogging, got a black eye from the Frisbee. When you went skinny-dipping with your friends at the pee-warm pool on Tennessee Street everybody knew about, the three hundred pound tranny materialized out of the night and kept floating towards you, going What’s your name? What’s your name? The night you were rejected by your primary crush and then also rejected by your second-choice, you drove home making dog-sighs listening to that nightmare Cat Power cover of the Velvet Underground song which was easily responsible for a thousand suicides annually and your headlights panned over a girl in a skirt so short she needed to push it back down with every step and a tank-topped gentleman with those diagonal muscles on the backs of his shoulders as they walked together away from downtown, leaning on one another heavily and easily with the knowledge of inevitable and awesome bad sex. Because you were pretty sure one of them was your ex-significant other, a series of right turns brought you back to the bar, and you walked in like you forgot something, feeling whole again beneath the flattering bar half-light.
You first saw her interviewing people for the college radio station with a horrifyingly professional-looking microphone. When she asked them questions you saw her smile in a way that, were that smile ever directed toward you, would make you want to tell her everything happy or sad or secret that ever happened to you. She had her own radio show. You didn’t know how you’d see her again and then when you walked by the bar you saw her in the front window under the beer neon. She was in a black dress reading a book with a pint by her elbow. She was waiting for someone. When you started talking to her she looked up from her book and said The lighting sucks. She knew every Kinks song, could launch into music theory smart talk about them you never understood. Later she said the pickup line for every DJ at the radio station was Want to come over and listen to records? You said you didn’t have a record player but that she should come over. Eventually she had to move away for the bigger brighter. Months after she was gone you’d still hear her voice on the car radio as you were driving, recordings of her reading PSA’s that they ran on the station every hour, her voice haunting the town after her body had moved elsewhere. You’d forget it was a recording and think for a second she was still there. You’d pull over and sit in the car for a minute and try to remember where you’d been driving to.
Yeah she was beautiful really and a terrible driver and a genius and goddamn weird and amazingly perceptive to everything except the obvious such as the barrel in the road in front of the car no please don’t hit it no no oh no pull over. She had totaled three cars and you didn’t want to know how many dudes. She invented lines that always sounded like old sayings but were really just little doodles from her mind, such as, “Never trust a white guy from L.A.” Her father had a commercial pilot’s license and an anger management problem. That Fourth with her and the kissing and her driving you around in her father’s convertible without incident and the kissing and how the fireworks bloomed in the sky like time lapsed flower montages or did somebody describe it like that already? Down down downhill from that night. So much time shared and places gone and now that one is like a monument with a missing head in the very center of your life. To this day when you get on planes you fear her father emerging from the cockpit, seeing you, shaking his head or smiling, you’re not sure which is worse.
There was a line in a movie once about how having sex with somebody was the only way to get their complete attention but lately you doubt even that. You like the way his collarbones stick out so far his skin could split across them; you pretend you are the only one who knows this about him. Your friend’s ass crashes cars but then they get to know her. Lately when you hear sirens you secretly feel like you’re missing out on something. No one knows how kind or dirty you are capable of being. Someday he will admit you were right. Your friend finds it exhausting to talk so much about herself. He said it was going to be good. Your friend doesn’t understand what it feels like to be discarded and that’s why you’re not actually friends. You will never admit he was right. Sometimes you count how many really, really got to you. You always come up with the same number. The world never tells you it’s the last time you’re going to see someone.
The friend who would eventually shoot himself in Pierre, South Dakota once told you the story of how at the end of a long motorcycle ride he needed to piss badly and stopped in the cemetery when the cop pulled up and questioned him and how he lied because he thought it would be bad form to admit pissing in the cemetery and you forgot what lie he told but at the end of it the cop sensed his overall harmlessness and said “Just had to make sure you weren’t vandalizing graves–you should have just told me you stopped to take a piss or something.” That story was never as meaningful as you felt like it should be. You wonder what he’d be doing now and other blah blah blah existential hand jobs. Sometimes it felt like life had driven away and left you standing on the porch, waving at nothing. Other times you’d meet the right, wrong person and the days flared and blinked out half-assedly like generic matches. You told yourself eventually one of these sweethearts would make everything that happened before seem worth it.
Before she was the fiancée, the girl was to go to a music festival for five days. She was going by herself for she was known for doing ballsy, semi-crazy things like that. You wrote her a series of letters you snuck into her packed things she wouldn’t discover until she’d been there a few days and hopefully missed you. One letter said “If you don’t sleep with some asshole from Colorado with a beard I will grow you a beard.” She left for the music festival. With no phone service there she had no way to reach you. You watched weather radar pictures over the next 48 hours, the red of storms crossing over where she was, and tried not to worry; you also imagined Colorado assholes with beards trying to woo her. You wondered if she had found the letters. You went home from work on the third day of her being away, knowing there’d be another three days until she was back, feeling like your insides had been siphoned out of you. You had never been less excited to come home to your apartment. Then you saw muddy sandals inside the door. Strange, you thought. Then you saw her purse on your kitchen table. You couldn’t believe she’d forgotten to bring that. Then you saw her asleep in your bed. She’d come home three days early. You never shaved again.