He makes dinner while I sit at the two-top and watch. He lives in a house with three other people and a dog, a compost pile and various recycling bins. They hang their clothes on a line to dry, eat a lot of quinoa.
It’s the kind of place I like to visit: too many lights burning and slumped furniture, a shared dog. He puts the tortillas right on the burners.
Two? he asks.
One, I say. I ate a late lunch.
You never let me feed you, he says.
He’s wearing tight clothes that make him look like a little boy. Or maybe it’s the haircut, his long hair in a plastic bag in his room. He keeps asking me to go in there and touch it, to feel how disgusting hair is when it isn’t attached to somebody’s head.
He sets our plates on the table and sits across from me. I eat alone so much I feel like we should pray. Have you ever loved someone as much as they’ve loved you? I ask, a precedent for this line of questioning already established.
Not even close, he says.
The French found my talk of percentages ridiculous—what does it mean, they asked, to love someone 30%? What’s this 70/30 split? 60/40?
60/40, we agree, would be a dream.
I don’t mind when he brings up the years he spent in Paris, he does it so infrequently. He left a job there, a girlfriend. A job and a girlfriend he has been good enough to try and forget.
The girls have all loved him more. The boys have loved me more. Perhaps if two people who have always loved less got together? I don’t suggest this. I take a bite of my taco: vegetarian, spicy. It makes him happy when I eat. He feeds the shared dog bits of potato while I watch. I don’t like his haircut. He isn’t big enough to make me feel small.
I think we’re proud of something there’s nothing to be proud of, I say, uncrossing my legs.
I’m not proud of anything, he says.
Think about it—we form relationships with people we don’t love so they can’t hurt us, where we’re guaranteed to win. Though really we’re losing.
I don’t go into relationships trying to win, he says.
I remember the time I told him I felt awkward around him. He was in my apartment, where there were no people coming and going, no shared dog, no quinoa. Do you think it makes things more or less awkward when people say they feel awkward? he asked, before answering his own question. I knew it could never work after that.
I look out the window. One of his roommates is out there drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes but soon he’ll come inside and make the atmosphere festive again, ask me questions about myself, look at my legs. I take our dishes to the sink and soap them up—the hot water too hot, the lack of paper towels bothersome—and then I wash the rest of the dishes. When there’s nothing left to clean, I grab the dog’s leash from the bowl and watch him jump.
Mary Miller is the author of a story collection, Big World. Her fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Mississippi Review, Oxford American, New Stories from the South 2008, and others. She lives in Austin, where she is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas, and serves as Co-Fiction Editor of Bat City Review.