LIFE IN TERMS
The first is blonde and I am sixteen. We see a scary movie I don’t remember the title of. I am not old enough, so we buy tickets to March of the Penguins and sneak in to the scary one. I am embarrassed by this, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He may even find it funny.
I hope he finds it funny.
I spend the entire movie pretending to play with my hair but actually shielding my eyes from the screen. I was afraid to tell him horror movies are not my thing. So much not my thing. Even with lights on, hand held, tiny screen. I can’t handle the suspense. I can’t separate myself from the action. I am that helpless girl, that naïve couple, that poor man in the shower.
And so, I preoccupy myself with the brail of chewed gum beneath my seat and chew each popcorn kernel twenty three times before swallowing. The sounds are okay. I can handle the sounds detached from the visual. My ears are braver than the rest of me.
He enjoys the movie, even laughs during the climactic scenes of gore. It is childish, but in a good way. I wonder if he will try to kiss me, but he doesn’t.
We go for ice cream afterwards. I prefer this part. He has a coupon for a free cone and tells me that mine is the one he pays in full for.
We sit in small black chairs; the walls are painted murals and the chair’s feet scrape against a fun tile floor. He makes me laugh, which I appreciate. He makes me laugh a lot but the next week, he kisses someone else and makes me cry.
The second one is Puerto Rican and I am still sixteen. He skateboards, and I think that is cool.
I go to the high school homecoming dance even though I hate dancing. I do it to see him, and he sees me. The dance is held in a gym, everything is casual. We walk around the track outside of the music and he confesses he hates dancing too, though I’m pretty sure he’s only saying it to lay out common ground.
My friends see us walking circles and somebody gets my brother’s attention. I can see him peering through the window into the darkening space we are in. He does not look happy. He is one year above me, has known high school without me. He does not love that we share friends.
He sees who I am with and he comes outside, feeling purposeful. They are friends, he makes things uncomfortable. I lose the battle and that is that.
The third one kisses me in a closet. I like it. His hair is down to his shoulders like mine and he braids them together until what grows from my head grows from his.
He is into Buddhism but doesn’t really know what that means. He is a vegetarian and I become one as well. We are seventeen.
He takes me to vegetarian dinners. I begin to like green things and I eat macaroni and cheese at home when my family has burgers. I eat pounds of carrots.
I take him home and my parents tell me they are impressed. My dad makes a joke about our matching hairstyles and my mom calls him adorable. They both think my meat-eating days are not over. I prove them wrong.
My brother is neither hot nor cold to him.
There is a blizzard in January and school is canceled. He walks to my house in an insufficient amount of clothing and I warm him with the space heater in my bedroom. I am not allowed to close my door but he kisses me anyway and to my surprise, an alarm does not go off. We eat tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches with homemade pesto from the freezer. He decides it is time we venture into the snow.
I give him my brother’s snow boots and we walk around the deserted neighborhood. Stores are closed, sidewalks are mountains. We climb.
He pushes me over first and then we are both down in piles of white. He presses his face to mine for warmth and fun. His tongue is a furnace.
We get too cold too quick and have to return to my house to dry. We shower, separately, and dip celery into hummus while we listen to whatever records we find in the basement.
He brought a few beers, and this is new to me. We chill them in the snow in my backyard and after two cans I feel like I know what being drunk really is. He is an experience that I have.
One month later, he eats a steak and I am okay with it. He cuts his hair, and I lose interest.
The fourth one is six feet tall; we meet in class, international relations. Fresh to college. We play an awkward name game in class, and we are introduced in a public manner. I feel something immediately, and we are pulled to each other. We are in a small school, and before I even understand myself, new friends are asking if I am interested.
I laugh uncomfortably and say, “Oh, I don’t know.” But I do and so do they and so does he.
We are assigned tedious weekly current events, and when he passes me in a hallway he asks if I want any help on the assignment. I don’t need it by any means, but I tell him I would love it. He comes over and we spend an hour on cnn.com without accomplishing anything. I discover he is hilarious.
“I don’t think anything happened in the world this week,” he says.
I giggle harder than I mean to. The buzz that goes from him to me is distracting to us both. I don’t know what to call it, but I settle for a crush.
“Well then,” I say. “We can present on the new cookies in the dining hall this week. I would say they were pretty internationally related.”
I don’t know if he laughs to make me happy or because he finds me funny, but I like it when he does. His hair is red, which somehow adds to the excitement.
We finally get the assignment done, and he spends the rest of the night looking through my music collection and pretending to judge me by it. I don’t even know what he’s saying half the time, I am just expanded by his presence. I have never felt this way, and I don’t sleep thinking about it.
The next two days I am afraid to contact him and he doesn’t contact me. I wait for class and we sit at a long oval table, across from each other. I am a child trying not to look at him and we catch each other a few times. He blushes easily against his pale cheeks, and the sight alone makes me do the same.
He is one of five lucky students called on to present his current event. He is a terrible public speaker. His hands shake the printed article in his hand, and I lose count of his um’s. He mumbles through something about the Middle East and breathes heavily when he sits back down. I don’t look at him in fear of inflating his embarrassment.
I am surprised when he catches me after class.
“Same time, same place?” he says.
I nod and hurry away.
He comes as planned and we plant ourselves on my tiny bed, backs against the wall. My feet don’t come close to the floor, he is a tower on my side. I am so strongly compelled to touch him.
He opens an article about oil and the president and we both pretend to read it for whole minutes. He is red, and his fingers won’t stop moving. I’m afraid for anything. The anticipation is thick.
I turn my body slowly, inch by inch. He follows. We play a middle school game, we don’t use words. I breathe silently. He waits for my lead, which drives me crazy. We are closer and closer. I lift my head, our noses touch, and I push my lips to his.
He uses too much tongue, and I don’t care. I am so happy to be in contact. He is careful not to push me. We do not part for some time. My roommate returns from the library and he goes home. Current events are insignificant.
He starts coming over more often. Each time we don’t get far into work or conversation. It is not a sexual thing, but we cannot help but be sexual.
We are alone in my room. Clothes come off, and breath picks up. For the first time, I am faced with sex. His skin is comfort, I want to run through it. I let him in. A dorm room bed; a persistent squeak that makes us both laugh.
“Are you okay?” he says over and over.
I smile when I can and say, “Yes.”
We do this again. We can’t seem to stop, even though I don’t enjoy it yet. I enjoy him, however, and that is enough for me. We take my minivan out to quiet roads and undress each other in the backseat. We drive to the parking garage downtown, wind our way to the top and park overlooking the city. He sits on the hood against the windshield and I peer over the edge of the structure, and imagine sailing to the tiny strip of sidewalk below.
“Come here,” he says, and I am comforted because I want to rest my hand on his chest. He uses his funny voice and kisses the corners of my face like a compass: north, south, east, west. We move to the concrete in need of a solid surface, and leave the garage with memorable bruises.
Weeks pass this way.
We are in his room, it is starting. I am sitting on his lap in a desk chair: clothes on, hands moving. He stops.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say back.
I move in to touch his lips and he pulls away. I wait while he tries to say something.
“You ever notice how we never just hang out?” he says.
I don’t want to answer. I can’t help it that I’m slightly hurt.
“We’re hanging out right now,” I say, though I know it is not the right thing to say.
“You know what I mean,” he says. I know what he means. “Just talking or whatever.”
He’s right but I defend things. He reminds me we never had the time to be friends first. I reach for his hand and he lets me hold it.
We agree to take some time. “To get closer,” he says. He makes a joke about abstinence, I try to laugh like we’re on the same page.
We get dinner together, try to build things up. Friendliness.
It’s a bit awkward and he doesn’t do awkward very well. Without touch, we don’t communicate the same. Two weeks go by and we still struggle; I worry I have lost. There is still something about him I need to be a part of.
We are at a party; our social group is often one in the same. I am wearing the same shirt I wore in class that first day. When people started to wonder. He is wearing one of the five shirts he owns that circle in a night-out rotation.
I watch him drink and am careful not to beat him. No mistakes is important to me. I don’t approach him for a while. I let other boys flirt with me because they’ve heard we are not entirely on and I am not flattered, just watching him. Girls drunk-slap his biceps and tell him they love his ginger hair. I have seen it before.
He doesn’t talk much all night, and is calmer than his friends. He sees me, and he leaves the space there. Not quite time. When half the crowd has gone, I come to him.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” he says. And all of a sudden it is easier. I can tell it is not just the alcohol.
We chat, it is comfortable. I only want to lean into his t-shirt, subtract the distance between our feet. He walks me home and we whisper in my bed for an hour while my roommate sleeps unknowingly. He is so goofy in these baby beds, and we start with the fingers. Playful hands touch each other and then our arms and legs and we are kissing. Neither of us know what this means but we keep kissing, and that is all we do. It is slower than before, and we are pouring out.
When it is over, early sunlight peeks in through the edges of the window shade, and we smile. Something is different and though I am afraid sleep will make it go away, it does not. I wake up and he is still there, still close.
I fall in love with this one. He falls in love with me. It stays like this for quite some time.
A year passes: we are sophomores and we think that makes us old. Academic interests are focused, school is less novel. Our best friends start dating, and we do not approve. They shout and split us into sides that we hate to take.
When they break up after two months of imbalance, he goes on a spring break cruise to some Caribbean islands to cheer his half up, while I answer phones at my father’s law firm and text happy thoughts to my half underneath a wooden desk. We are supposed to mend them.
He makes out with a girl from Alabama on the cruise and tells me.
“I don’t know why I did it,” he says. “I had to tell you, I am so sorry.”
I ask him what she looks like so I can picture it.
“Don’t do this,” he says.
I tell him he did this. I am wearing sweatpants and wish I wasn’t.
I am flattened. I make him leave. I do not forgive him, and it takes all that I have.
The fifth one I meet abroad in Barcelona. He is dark, energetic and older than me. We are awful together.
I miss most of my classes, drink to messiness and sleep in his loft. He screams at me and I return the noise. We are loud, filled with broken English and inconsistency. He is too attractive and I wear too little clothing and I think about the first four frequently.
I return home filled with secondhand smoke and I am trampled.
I am alone for two years.
I think I’m going to marry the sixth one. We fall in love fast. We are in a movie. He is clean and handsome and my parents are sweet on him. We are in New York City.
He works in finance, and I stop asking what that means. I am still looking for myself, and I don’t pay rent in his apartment.
I have come to the city after spending too much time at home post-graduation. It is impulsive, and I love this. Friends from several bits of my life are scattered around the boroughs, and I float on couches, take in favors.
I have met him at a bar like the rest of the city. I love that the first time I saw him he was wearing a tie. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him a suit does wonders for any man, but he takes me home anyway.
Weeks later, it becomes apparent I have no place to be.
“Do you live here?” he asks me. We are eating breakfast before he goes to work and I don’t go anywhere. The park, maybe.
I turn the spoon in my yogurt and lick the back before the front.
“Yes,” I say.
And he says, “Okay.”
I thank him without words.
I invest in used cookbooks and spend hours between cover letters experimenting in his kitchen. I learn that I love capers, bluefish and quinoa. I am still a vegetarian but he is not, so I indulge in cooking meats for him. I enjoy this, too. He certainly does.
He is a few years ahead of me, but still enthused about the things I am.
He comes home from work. I am so familiar with the rhythm in which he unlocks the bolt, lower lock, turns the knob. A slower beat means he is tired, or distracted on the phone, but he always makes sure to finish a call before greeting me.
I try to greet him but he always greets me first.
“Hey, babe,” he says. “Miss me?”
I do tonight and I tell him so.
“Eat this with me,” I say. I do not eat dinner alone, lunch is enough.
We sit down with clay colored plates and pastel cloth napkins. I was ambitious with risotto and it pays off.
“Tonight is for wine,” he says, and so it goes.
We share a bottle of red, which I am growing accustomed to. We spin around to no music and forget things. I pull novels off a shelf and we read passages to each other out of context. Together the string of paragraphs starts to make sense and I am telling a real story.
“Tomorrow I will find the ending,” I say.
He agrees and takes me to bed. We make dizzy love for as long as we can. The covers are sloppy, and he is tangled in them but too tired to remove himself. I kiss him and he says he loves me three times before I say it back. We sleep heavy on the mattress.
I finally get a job as a teacher’s aide in a private preschool. The kids brighten me. The order in which they put words is wonderful; I am an ambiguous adult in their lives. One day at work tells me I am doing something real.
I cut carrot sticks, peel glue off of fingers, make penguins out of construction paper. I blow noses, wash hands, break up a fight of tiny hands and tiny light up sneakers. I read: I do so much reading. I push three swings simultaneously and learn how to sing ‘good morning’ in five languages. I recite each one over dinner.
He is excited by my excitement.
I buy patterned scissors, jumbo packs of colored pencils, the makings for paper mache. I bring home photos of my kids and show him just how small the zippers on their sweatshirts are. Just how much they love to sit next to me at snack and even more so at lunch. He puts them on the refrigerator behind matching silver magnets. I still have plenty of time to cook.
When I get my first paycheck, I stare at it for three days before bringing it to the bank. The line is long and filled with busy looking people. I stare at my watch once or twice to fit in. I feel underdressed which I was not expecting.
“I can help you over here,” someone finally says. I practically run to the counter.
“Hi, how are you?” she says, but she does not care for the answer so I don’t give it to her.
“I’d like to make a deposit, please,” I say. I haven’t spoken these words in almost a year.
I hand the teller a pre-filled form and the signed check. My signature is ugly.
“Wait,” I say. I make a last minute scratch mark on the form and decide to cash half the check. I bring the money home and leave it on the kitchen table for him. I want him to have it more than anything.
He is confused when he sees the bills sitting there too casually.
“What is this?” he says.
“Money,” I say. “For you.”
He picks up the cash and counts it by habit. Sometimes I imagine this is what he does all day in a cubicle.
“I know it’s not much, but it’s a start,” I say. “I am a contributing citizen,” I say. I think I’m being funny.
He doesn’t laugh, and places the pile back in my hand.
“Please keep it,” he says. “This is your money.”
I tell him no way. I tell him he has done too much for me as it is, and he says that he wants to do all of this. That it gives him pleasure.
“And giving back to you gives me pleasure,” I say. “I can’t mooch forever.”
But he refuses to take it and things grow hostile very quickly. He tells me he can support me and I start talking about resentment and expectation. I think I mention gender equality just to prove I went to college. Then I cry.
In an angered burst of energy he runs to a kitchen cupboard.
He is down on a knee and I realize he is proposing. I realize I have somehow ruined an elaborate romantic plan.
The ring has been hiding among tea bags. A place he knew I would visit at some point before, during or after dinner. It holds one stone, but it is the size of a plump blueberry. I look down at it, then down at his face, then back to the blueberry. It is too large; I am still crying.
It’s not right. I love him deeply, but I can’t be this forever.
I close his fingers around the ring and kiss each knuckle. I gather my things from each layer of the apartment and fold into him hard, afraid that I will not see him again. I leave my teaching supplies, and find it strange that otherwise my belongings fit into the same bag as when I arrived.
I close the door and wait painfully in the hallway out of the peephole’s range. Minutes pass and he finally approaches the door to double lock it from the inside. It is time to go.
I don’t stop crying and will not for days. I make a phone call and revert back to generous couches.
I spend days in a simple state of hope: that I made the right decision, that he will be okay, that I will be okay.
I continue to go to work because I have to, and the preschoolers are miniature ego boosts. They depend on me for funny things and I am responsible for that. I zip up their coats, and their runny noses make my chest beam.
A week after I leave him it is Shapes Day at school. Circles and trapezoids are everywhere, though I am the only one making trapezoids because even the name is too much for a three-year-old to handle.
I am at a worktable with two beautiful little girls and they have decided it is time for hearts. One of them is significantly better at it than the other, and this causes toddler tension. The less artistic of the two steals a heart from her classmate and when they struggle over the construction paper, the tip at the bottom of the heart rips off.
Tears ensue and I am left to console the original heart cutter-outer. In seconds she is a ball of snot and her world has ended. I tell her to use her words like we practice at school and she takes in dramatic breaths to prepare herself.
“She,” she stammers. “She—She broke my heart.”
At first I want to laugh at the beauty of it, and then I am moved.
She has no idea what she is saying and I hold her for this, and for me.
Eva Jablow is a recent graduate of Connecticut College where she studied Creative Writing and Human Development. She lives in Brooklyn, where she answers phones for a non-profit half the time, and writes the other half. This is her first publication and she is probably still crying about it.