I have an empty perfume bottle that I took from my first girlfriend a long time ago. We were together for three years. I have very sweet memories of her. She was the first woman I spent the night with, went on trips with, and bought real gifts for. Even though it’s empty, I can still smell the way she smelled. Her neck and arms and chest.
I’ve thought of buying a new bottle of it, either for myself to hide away somewhere or for you to wear, but maybe that’s too strange. It’s like if you made me wear an old boyfriend’s jacket or made your ex-husband’s favorite drink for me. We want to brand our own identity, make our own automatic sensory responses.
But I did it anyway. I bought you my first girlfriend’s perfume and pretended I hadn’t inhaled it off of someone else’s belly before.
You put some on and came close to me. You danced against me in a slow, seductive sway. It really was like an old romantic memory brought back to life. I should have said something or stopped you, but it felt too good. I didn’t care if it was wrong. When I closed my eyes, my nose smelled a ghost becoming more real, even if my mind could only picture an empty dress.
Did we really worry about other people breaking us up? I thought about this and I knew it would always be possible. Even when I thought about my best characteristic, I knew that someone out there would always be better. I might have good hair, but there is someone who has better hair. There are men with smoother singing voices, whiter teeth, more aptitude with tools and fixing things, and a deeper knowledge of those movies from the fifties that you love.
Did you worry about all the women with bigger tits, more tanned skin, an enthusiasm for basketball, and a sweeter morning disposition?
There are men with bigger cocks out there. I’ve seen them on my computer screen.
Maybe I’m not funny enough. You’d find someone funnier than I am.
You knew I had developed a thing for Asian girls. Did that worry you? Were you afraid you weren’t Asian enough? Do you even have any Asians in your family?
When I thought about these things, I just wanted to close my eyes and hold you for several minutes, preferably lying down. Then I wanted to feel my spirit float to the ceiling as I started over with my thoughts.
I wanted to become a room full of air for you to breathe in.
Then we got the tweezers and fixed each other’s eyebrows. Then you’d plucked the hairs out of my nose.
Sometimes when we were out somewhere, you’d catch me looking at other women. I’d watch them walk by and my head would follow them for a few seconds, like a camera. Then I’d look back at you and you’d shake your head with a disapproving grimace. “What?” I’d say.
“I can always tell when you’re checking someone out because your leg starts to shake and you do this funny thing with your tongue,” you told me.
“You make me sound like some kind of dog,” I said.
Sometimes when men walked by, I watched them as well, for the same reason. Sometimes I liked the way they dressed or I wondered what they looked like naked. You didn’t say anything when I looked at men. They weren’t perceived as a threat to us.
I watched couples too. There were beautiful ones and there were mismatched ones. Ugly guys and cute girls. Dumpy-looking women and handsome men. I tried to figure out the tricky math between everyone, how we all equaled the same things.
There was a box of beignet mix from Café du Monde in my cupboard that had been there for over a year. We bought it while we were in New Orleans the year before but we never got around to making them. The box was gold and brown and had a classic illustration of the famous café on it. The instructions were in French and English and said that the beignets were best with their “delicious Creole coffee with chicory.” It was far beyond the expiration date. I took it out and put it on a shelf above the sink because I didn’t want to throw it out. I pretended it was like a decoration.
Vince was talking to his new friend Roberto on the cordless phone in his room. You and I were outside his door, trying to figure out what they were talking about. We caught little bits of Vince’s side of the conversation. “You should have paintball at your next birthday party . . . Yeah, I don’t really like birthday parties anymore either . . . I shot a BB gun before . . . Have you ever had Hawaiian pizza before? . . . I always pick the Canadian bacon off . . . I can’t stand that crap…
We looked at each other, a little shocked at his harsh criticism of Canadian bacon. Then his voice got quieter and I thought I heard him say, “Fuck that guy” or maybe “Fuckin’ A” or maybe “Fuckin’ Dave,” and then he said, “Shit,” and laughed. Your eyes got big and you frantically motioned me to the kitchen.
“Did he say the words fuckin’ gay?” you asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “But he definitely used the F-word.”
Your mouth was still shocked open. We hardly ever swore around the kids, but I knew there was a lot of that at school. Even when we walked by the Catholic school down the street, we would hear fourth graders spouting gangsta rap lyrics. Plus, we had watched a stand-up comedy show on HBO recently.
“Should we talk to him about this?” you asked.
“Maybe,” I said reluctantly. “I don’t think he talks like that all the time though. It sounds like he’s just trying it out.”
“Maybe we need to meet this Roberto and make sure he’s not a bad influence.”
We heard Vince laugh again. It sounded a little fake.
“Do you think Maxine talks like that?” you asked.
“I heard her say bitch before,” I answered.
You shrugged your shoulders, like that wasn’t a big deal.
We were house-sitting for a friend of a friend. We didn’t know this man personally. We were told that he was an artist of some kind and he was in another city preparing an art show for the next month. He had a garden we were supposed to tend and a bird to feed.
We even stayed there a few nights, because it was in a nicer neighborhood than ours. After about a week, we became curious and started snooping through his stuff.
From the clothes in his closet, we figured out that he was a small man. But there was one drawer in his dresser where we found several pairs of extra large boxer shorts and T-shirts.
In his medicine cabinet, we found the usual pills and Band-Aids but also bottles of medicine with strange names and long, complicated instructions. You sampled some of them.
We found the key to the basement and walked down the creaky steps. We discovered a makeshift stage with cameras and lights surrounding it. Over to the side was a tall black filing cabinet that we rifled through. In it, we found a series of photos that featured a statuesque lady in her fifties. She looked glamorous but very serious and powerfully broad-shouldered. For some reason, my first thought was that maybe she was a famous opera singer. As we looked through these photos, we found several where she was standing next to the man we were house-sitting for. We could see, even though she was nearly twice his size and probably ten years older, that they were lovers. They held hands, leaned against each other, and even smiled, mid laugh, as the shutter froze them for eternity.
The more we looked, though, the less they smiled. She began to look older and weaker but the man looked the same in every picture. Then there were photos of the woman holding the man’s cat, photos of her with other people we didn’t recognize, photos of her wearing masks and wigs, and photos of her naked and crouched. We finally realized that these cameras, this room, captured a woman gradually dying.
We put everything back the way we found it. We went upstairs and locked the door. Everything had the smell and feeling of death from then on. You considered every object a bit longer, as if it could somehow infect you. I didn’t even want to sleep in the bedroom.
For some reason, we forgot about the love we saw in the photos. The only thing that stuck with us was how easily life faded away in front of us.
In the middle of the night, you were slowly running your fingers down my stomach and woke me up. You couldn’t fall asleep and asked me for help. “Take an Ambien,” I said. Most of the time, I didn’t like it when you took pills, but I was too tired to argue about it sometimes.
“I can’t,” you said. “I’m on a diet, and it’ll make me eat.”
“You don’t need to diet. Don’t be crazy,” I said.
You kept touching me. I was getting hard, but I was too tired. Plus, I had masturbated earlier that night.
“But look at my stomach. I look pregnant,” you said. You stuck your belly out as far as it would go.
“I’m more pregnant than you,” I said, cupping my belly with both hands and rubbing it like a crystal ball.
Then you started talking about something that was going to take a long time to talk about. I can’t even remember what it was, but I was trying to avoid it like a dodgeball.
I turned away from you, hoping that you would get the hint. “I gotta sleep,” I said. “One of us has to be awake for the kids in the morning.”
You got quietly sullen for a while. I could always tell your sullen quiet from your normal quiet—your sullen quiet had a buzz to it, like a television showing a tornado tearing houses apart, but with the volume turned down. Then I heard your voice start whispering. It was like that for a while, soft and unthreatening, like you were just talking to yourself. But then you swerved into a field of questions. I didn’t understand what they were—I was half asleep already—but I could hear how you whispered them, like a subliminal spy digging for subconscious thoughts. You tried to make the inflection of the question marks sound sweet, undetectable. Your hands stayed away from me. I simply slurred, over and over, “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.” I figured that could be the answer to any of your questions.
Kevin Sampsell is the author of the memoir, A Common Pornography: A Memoir (2010 Harper Perennial), and the short story collection, Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus) and the editor of the anthology, Portland Noir (Akashic Noir). Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress, Future Tense Books, which he started in 1990. He has worked at Powell’s Books as an events coordinator and the head of the small press section for fifteen years. His essays have appeared recently in Salon, The Faster Times, Jewcy, and The Good Men Project. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s, Nerve, Hobart, and in several anthologies. His novel, This is Between Us, publishes today! He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son.
*Don’t miss Kevin Sampsell read from This is Between Us at Powell’s Books on 11/15 at 7:30pm!