Emma Ben Ayoun



Months later, I will struggle to remember what books were on the shelves by our bed, what color the couches were, the pattern on the heavy curtains at the bay window, but the kitchen will stay with me, easy and intact. Full of clean empty white light in the morning and dark by four thirty in the afternoon all year round. The panes of the farmhouse door always speckled with mist.

On weekdays I would get up so quietly and leave you sighing in your sleep, and put on your too-big slippers and shuffle across the icy tiles to make coffee on the stove. Patrick, whose room was upstairs, always got up then too, and the first few weeks I lived in that house we tried, bleary and halting, to make conversation but soon we settled into a silent, balletic rhythm like people in love. Patrick in his dark blue robe and me in my flannel nightshirt: me lighting a match, Patrick soft-boiling an egg, my toast in the toaster, his teabag waiting for the electric kettle to click, turning and reaching on cue, bringing our plates into the living room and then our mugs and only once we were both sitting Patrick would say Hello, Nina in his tentative voice, the shy voice of a man with a big body and a face like a boy's. I would make him laugh. We have not stayed in touch.

There are only a few mornings I remember you waking up first, getting dressed quiet with the shades still down. Stiff with cold under the blanket I would watch you, overcome, grateful even: your body like two parallel beams or rays of light extending up, up and then you, strung taut between them—billowing— 

We couldn't fight in the kitchen because the walls were thin and Sophie's room was right above it. We fought because you are the kind of person who says things just to say them and I am the kind of person who disagrees just to disagree, but sometimes when we'd done that too many times in a row we'd switch roles, even.

But you kissed me the way a leaf extends from a firm stalk: thickly, weightlessly, asking nothing at all.


At dinner, everyone tries a little of everyone else's dish and smiles and is satisfied with their own choice. Your mother has no daughters and no idea how to talk to me. She has fat hard cuticles and the glossy, flirty hair of a much younger woman. I am dressed like a second violinist in an orchestra, pale pink nails, black velvet to my knees, a mother-of-pearl comb in my hair.

As we come out of the restaurant there is an old man, thin, sitting against the buttery painted brick with his knees up and his head down and a paper cup extended and I can feel the tears starting and will myself to wait at least until your parents have turned down Broad Street towards their car. Muriel, my older sister, is rational and unfeeling about these things. The world is like this, she always says, and moves on. Our baby sister is halfway through her degree in social work in North Carolina. She does not think the world needs to be like this. I have always been this way, this half way: papery, anxious, kind of a liar, feeling just enough to cry and not enough to care.

Muriel is married to Michael, an optician, who has a wide neck and hard stubble and is never shy about staring at my legs and whenever I laugh, even a little, looks at me right away without meaning to.

In the back office of his shop there is a trade catalogue, covered partly with a box of tissues so only a perfect cranberry-tinted open mouth is visible and suddenly all I can think about is my sister's kind husband mutely masturbating in this tiny room feet away from the neat cases of designer sunglasses while the mild, anxious middle-aged Tunisian man who works for him part-time explains the difference between plastic and titanium frames to a family of Russian tourists in thin t-shirts.


I loved you the best when you surprised me, when I was reminded of how little I knew about you. Some nights you showed up in my dream as a guilty pang of heat, as a secret lover, and in the morning I liked you more.


The next spring I go on three dates with Leo, a pale Jewish boy with long eyelashes who, although he does not know it, is visiting me from a nearby alternate universe, a universe in which he is the kind of person who would make me happy in a complete and final way, the kind of happy that sends you off into the world like a mother.

He is a little doughy and works in a bookstore and goes to an analyst three times a week and has dark messy hair and a smudgy beard and is overall exactly the kind of young man my limited fourteen-year-old imagination would have swiftly tucked away for twenty-five-year-old me, the twenty-five-year-old me who would have a job at an art magazine and a long blue trench coat and a thorough understanding of Marxist feminism, or something.

He drives a dirty cornflower-blue Subaru with paperbacks and Bruce Springsteen CDs in the passenger seat and old cans of seltzer in the cup holders and a faint, not unpleasant smell of sweat and produce, probably from the weekends he spends working at his friend's organic farm upstate, and when he puts two fingers inside me he looks straight through me, nostrils flared, lips parted, like he's playing something difficult on the guitar.

I know that I will forget Leo quickly, except that he gives me the best compliment I will ever receive. In bed in the first morning as he pulls me to him with the confidence that explains why I will sleep with him two more times before I put an end to the whole thing he says unprompted, Your body is easy, and for a second I bristle as if I am being moralized at, told I am a slut or something, but then he continues—you move it easily, it's just easy, it just is—

And then he puts his scared gentle too-strong hands on my hips and stares and says Oh, Nina, with the kind of tenderness that registers somewhere between fear and accusation and there I am again, gone.


I wonder if I too will end up with a squinting husband in a linen shirt (was that you?).


My mother, so pretty when she holds some of her hair back from her face and wipes at her eyes with a thin round piece of cotton—

After I leave you I fly home and on a rustling August evening she and I go together to see a dance performance in a big cathedral downtown. The dancers are in sleeveless black leotards, in groups of three, accompanied by a pianist with bushy hair and veiny hands. When there are twenty or fifty or a hundred dancers in motion at once, they form one sweeping body, up and down, leaning and stooping together; a dancer alone pushes and pulls at the air around her; but when three bodies move together they become their differences, the arms never quite stretched the same, the tiny delays, the shifting glances. There is always the one who is not quite as good. When they leap there is always the one who lands first.


(My fantasies—not the ones I get off to; the ones that come to me, unwilled, instead while I head home from the bus stop, in line at the supermarket, the ones that walk with me, wait with me, simmer somewhere, fade fast—are always about one of two things: either: you or someone like you comes back, so I can tell you, again, to go, or: the skin on my entire body hardens, dries, scabs, so that it can all be picked at and scratched off and peeled away, layer after layer until nothing. I am aware of, and embarrassed about, the retrograde gender politics of these fantasies.)

With you, I did it, the thing I was most afraid of: I fell in love with a little life, opened the mail slot of a year or two and slid right in.


On my grey afternoon walks I would call Catherine, partly to hear her voice, partly to have something I could only do when you were not around, because you knew. I still think, so often, about the space between her floating earring and the curve of her jaw. Her faint scent of basil and pear. The wetness always pooled in the cracked center of her lower lip.

In those last few months she sent me dozens of pictures of her hands that said everything we could not. Her right hand, always, spread flat on a page from one of her art history books, men and gods in red and gold half-visible in the space between her girlish fingers, tapered at the ends, a heavy opal ring on her thumb.

We make plans, the next fall, to meet in Glasgow. The air there wraps damply on the heavy stone. Moss and ivy and ripe raindrops resting in a row on the wrought iron. I wear my men's wool coat, which is either navy blue or black, and a cream-colored outfit I know she's never seen me in. On the way to her I pass three men standing in a big, empty fountain, painting the inside white, pushing and pulling the rollers in smooth motions, not quite at once.

I am late, but she is later, stepping lightly off the bus forty minutes after the time we set. She likes the bus, she says, because there is always a before-you, always someone else, always a coming and going not your own. We walk shy through downtown in long silent stretches, her powdery coat and messy pile of hair lit up from the side, neon signs glowing sharp in the pale dusk.

She is the same as always in a way that of course makes me wonder if I am also the same as always in spite of my desperation not to be: an inch too close on the bench, a lingering at the corner, her eyelash on my cheek and soon we are back breathless in my room at the university with the energy-saving bulb in the desk lamp tilted as far away as I can manage, the gummy dirt in little hills outside the picture window—her soft body full of shadows, mine crumpled and still. Her right hand across my stomach, secret and silent. In the morning I kiss the sweat off her neck and think about calling you.


And once I have stopped missing you I will miss our half of the refrigerator: olives in a tall thin jar, a half-dozen eggs, lemon curd, oldish mushrooms. A slice of lime-courgette cake on a cardboard tray, a round tin of stuffed peppers and onions from your mother.

Black tea and cubes of chicken stock in the cupboard. On the counter, clementines and cardamom coffee in a light green box. Two plums in a porcelain bowl bursting before the rot.

A blue-and-white checkered dishtowel, draped unevenly over the railing, waiting to fall for weeks.






Here are the last few lines of "Esse," by Czeslaw Milosz: "She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees."