Peter wakes up first and texts me, hi baby, hi boo, hi honey pie. His residency shifts at the hospital are long: twelve to fourteen hours if he’s lucky. I text him periodically throughout the day even though he usually can’t respond. (I’m in the dumbest meeting with marketing, I’ll say, or, I just read a fascinating manuscript about women who helped break the Watergate story.) Some nights we video chat and I love looking at his face on my little screen, slightly distorted but also revealing; how his facial hair is growing in or how slowly he's nursing the glass of whiskey behind him on the window sill.
If Peter isn't working I’ll drive down to Philly for the weekend and we’ll have some meals and sex and cozy up on the couch and share stories from the week. We have this joke that I’m watching a TV show Peter’s producing: This week on Stories from the Emergency Room. He tells me about the teenager who accidentally shot himself in the foot, the bullet square in the middle of his toes. And the elderly woman who’s a frequent flyer of the ER, who thinks up reasons to call EMS daily because she’s lonely.
Somewhere in those thirty-six hours Peter and I have sex again and I drive back to New York in a giddy haze. For the first leg of the trip I fantasize about moving to Philly. I could have a closet the size of my current bedroom and Peter and I would have a relationship that wasn’t defined by coming and going, but regular quotidian things; who would get the Drano from the supermarket? Should we have roast chicken or tortellini for dinner? But by the time I get back to Brooklyn, I feel more alert and oriented. Peter works constantly and there aren’t any publishing jobs nearby.
We started dating a year ago, when Peter was in his last year of med school in New York and I was an editor at a lifestyle blog. The job felt futile at best, offensive and amoral at worst. Trump had been in office for nearly a year and I was still editing articles about four hundred dollar clogs and charcoal teeth whiteners. I was suffocated by my own complacency and had to quit.
Now I’m an editorial assistant at Putnam & Grand and Peter’s at a hospital in Philly. It’s been manageable, but the distance is always in the foreground, like a piece of art that’s defined by negative space. Sometimes I tell Peter that I wish our brains had USB ports and I could just plug mine into his and he could upload details about my life that I’m too tired to tell him. But I don’t want to upload it! he says. He wants the retelling.
I’m on the couch with a manuscript open in lap and my computer resting on my knees. Peter and I are video chatting – though we’re not really talking – he’s drinking a can of beer and making pasta. My roommate Lily walks in just as I’m tilting the screen to give Peter a little kiss.
Lily and I met on Craigslist and she stays at her boyfriend’s place ninety percent of the time, but she pops up every so often with lots of groceries and wonderful little additions to the apartment. Last Tuesday she brought home a stainless steel bar of soap that removes garlic from your fingertips, and a rubber colander that connects directly to the edge of the sink.
“Ooh, what’d you get?” I ask her. She gingerly places the packages onto the dining room table.
“Honestly, I can’t even remember. I was bored this weekend and went down an Amazon rabbit hole. It's probably stuff for the bathroom.”
She catches Peter’s face on my monitor and smiles.
“L-O-L," she says, "what are you guys doing? Just pretending you’re in a regular relationship? That’s cute.”
The night passes this way. I set my laptop on the coffee table and look up at Peter periodically; first he’s hunched over the kitchen counter reading the news, then changing into sweatpants, and later clipping his toenails on the edge of his bed. The walls of his apartment are extremely thin and each night at 11:30 we can both hear his neighbor watching Seinfeld reruns. Tonight, when we hear the familiar twang of the opening credits, it signals bedtime.
“11:30 already!” I say.
“I should already be asleep,” Peter tells me. “Goodnight, my love.”
Sometimes New Jersey is an endless stretch of traffic; just highway and gas stations, but on good days I listen to the radio station that only plays ’90s hits and I soar down the turnpike, crossing the Ben Franklin bridge in under two hours.
I’ve just passed the halfway mark when “Always Be My Baby” comes on the radio and it’s like I’m shuttled into the sixth grade, dancing in front of my full length mirror, applying body glitter to my eyelids and around my belly button. In the video, Mariah Carey rocks sensually on a tire swing, a black pond gleaming beneath her. My best friend Heather and I watch and make a list of boys in our grade we would consider kissing.
That year, Heather and I were in honors social studies with Mrs. Jaffe. We liked her a lot; she was young and pretty with thick, inky black hair and a set of bangles that chimed when she moved her hands across the chalkboard. Over Christmas, Mrs. Jaffe and her husband went to Hawaii.
When we came back to school after New Years’, there was a sub in Mrs. Jaffe’s classroom. He had a Scottish accent but an eighth grader said he was from Connecticut and trying to sound sophisticated. He stayed for the first three weeks of January and no matter what time of day we had social studies, there was a half-eaten tuna fish sandwich on his desk.
When Mrs. Jaffe came back to school, just after Martin Luther King Day, her hair —still thick and voluminous—had gone completely gray. Mr. Jaffe, we learned, had died in a scuba diving accident in Kauai.
My hips are still shifting around to Mariah when a man in a silver Corolla flashes his brights at me. I glance at the dashboard; the check engine light has been flickering on and off for the last six months, but everything else looks fine. Maybe one of my brake lights is out and he’s trying to alert me.
He does it again and then switches lanes so we’re parallel and aligned. He is middle-aged in a pale blue Polo shirt with tufts of gray hair and ruddied cheeks. I look at him quizzically. He motions at me to roll my windows down.
He starts mouthing something that I cannot understand and then gestures for me to pull over onto the shoulder. It’s midday and there are plenty of other cars around and probably a rest stop a quarter of a mile away, but something hot and knotted blooms in my stomach.
He’s trying to communicate with me and I see something frenzied in his eyes, so I speed up and cross two lanes to exit.
I pull into a Dunkin’ Donuts lot and turn the volume all the way down so I can concentrate and get my bearings. Across the highway is an old sign for Blockbuster Video—a blue and yellow VHS tape hanging sideways like a broken traffic light. The lot behind it is empty, all gravel and cement, a few patches of grass.
I turn the engine off and take a deep breath. Then the Corolla pulls up beside me. He’s about to get out of his car and I lock my doors and lower the window on the passenger side.
“What the fuck. Seriously, what do you want?”
Up close his skin is pocked with acne scars and his eyes are wet behind wire-rimmed frames. I stare at a miniature purple tree that dangles from his rearview mirror and keep my hands braced on the wheel. My jaw, my stomach, each part of my body is clenched, bracing itself.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says. “But I really, really need someone to talk to.”
“Oh,” I say, and I feel my insides start to slacken. It seems implausible that this is all he wanted – that this is why he followed me off the turnpike? “I’m sorry," I tell him, "but I just can’t do that.”
“Okay,” he says. “I understand.” He just nods and gets back in his car.
I watch his back bumper as he drives away. It’s covered with stickers; he boasts that his child is on the honor roll at Freehold Middle School, another is drawing of green peas, and beneath it, the text: Visualize Whirled Peas.
When I walk into Dunkin’ Donuts my legs feel strange and unsteady, like I’ve swerved abruptly to avoid a crush. I order three Munchkins from a teenager behind the counter.
“They’re five for two dollars,” she says, and fiddles with the hair tie around her wrist.
“That’s alright, I’ll just have three.”
She stares at me. “But they’re five for two dollars.”
“It’s really okay, I’d just like three.”
“Are you sure? That doesn’t really make sense because if you do the math it’s like…”
“Please. Can I please just have three? Please.”
When I start to cry she takes a piece of wax paper from a cardboard sleeve, and removes three donut holes from their container on the shelf.
I arrive in Philly an hour later and text Peter to come downstairs and help me find somewhere to park. He bounces down the steps of his row house, wearing running shoes and an old Curious George tee-shirt that belonged to his father in the 80s. I climb into the passenger seat and he eases into the car, swiftly adjusting the mirrors and then searching the neighborhood for a spot.
“How was your drive, boo?” Peter is in a good mood ninety percent of the time, even if he’s worked a twenty-four shift and then has to cook dinner for his widowed mother, who lives nearby in Swarthmore. I find this quality equal parts irritating and deeply calming.
“It was fine,” I say, and I fidget with the radio.
“So, I’m thinking since we have your car we should drive down to the Italian market and pick up some food for dinner? I’ll just hop out for a sec and grab some stuff. Also, Michael and Becca wanted to come say hi later…I told them we might just need a quiet night in but maybe I’d call them after we ate?”
“Yeah, sure, that’s fine.” We loop around South Street—pass by vintage clothing stores and smoke shops, neon signs advertising vaporizers and their paraphernalia. I want to try to explain what happened, but it feels so anticlimactic that I don’t know how to tell it. This is a thing that comes up often in our long distance relationship; we’re constantly narrating our lives to each other and I wonder how much we’re losing when we try to distill our days down to anecdotes, how much is just an approximation of intimacy.
Later, after dinner, when we’re sitting on his L-shaped couch, drinking a twelve dollar bottle of wine, when I do actually tell him the story, he exhales loudly, and puts an arm around me.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. He sighs again and puts his glass down on a coaster—which is a picture of him and his brothers that his mother made them for Christmas. (When I told this to my own brother, he said, I never understand things like that. Why would I want to put a glass of water on a picture of my face? Or yours, no offense). “But, so, he didn’t actually touch you or anything, right?” Peter asks.
I stiffen and shake my head and Peter knows he has asked the wrong question. “I mean, that’s not the point, but just wondering.”
We're silent and then Peter says, "Why do you think he did it?"
“I really have no idea. Maybe he was just lonely."
"But it makes no sense,” Peter says, and then he considers various stories; maybe his wife left him, maybe one of his children was in trouble. “It’s just very bizarre that he would go so far out of his way, like follow you to the Dunkin Donuts, and then just leave.”
“I wonder if he had some awful fantasy that he just couldn’t follow through on. Isn’t there a Mary Gaitskill story about that?”
"Jesus, can you stop. Can we just talk about something else?” I ask. “Or can we watch something? I didn’t want to actually talk about it, I just wanted to tell you. USB port.”
“Right, sure. What should we watch?”
We spend the next forty-five minutes scrolling through Netflix, then Hulu, then HBO Go. I’m replaying this afternoon’s scene in my head; these ambiguous stories have a tendency to get so slippery in my mind. I want to write it all down so it crystallizes, so I can’t forget. I open up a note on my cell phone: silver car, blue shirt, stupid bumper stickers.
I look over and Peter has fallen asleep, the sleek little remote poised in his palm. Seinfeld is on next door, and George’s parents are screaming at each other, their voices shrill and grating. I think about Mrs. Jaffe -- the way her body, so explicitly, so openly, manifested her psychic pain. How maybe life would be easier if we all wore our afflictions as she had.
Behind us, the dishwasher is running, and if I close my eyes it sounds like a gurgling brook, water lapping at a shore.