There’s an entry point, isn’t there? Always? Something to draw you in to a person. For Benicio, for everyone, really, it’s the jacket, the ludicrous gold scorpion like a stamp across the expanse of his back. She understands that, in a way. The quietness of the man contrasted with the loudness of that brilliant white; it’s enigmatic, or mysterious, something out of a movie.
For Irene, though, it’s the toothpick. She wonders if he used to smoke, if he still smokes, the way he worries each one between his teeth and fingers until it splinters into his mouth and he has to pull another from his pocket. He always has another. That’s the other thing.
She keeps the picture of Standard on her mirror as a reminder, but when their new neighbor rolls that toothpick across the edge of his canines, and he smiles slow, the sweetness of it suffusing him with an unexpected sort of softness—she forgets entirely. She’s seventeen, in a borrowed dress at a party she really shouldn’t be at. The girl with all the witty retorts who didn’t have to remind herself, every minute, that she was alive, conscious. She smiles back.
Irene, he says, that first night that they drive around the city. Irene.
I’m married, she thinks (how absurd) and says: You really love this, don’t you? Driving?
She’s become used to silences that are impossible to fill, with Standard gone, but here it doesn’t feel awkward, the way it is when she runs out of ways to entertain Benicio or Standard’s old friends. There, the silences slide uncomfortably into minutes, hours, slip into the background noise of the television. There, no shared understanding fits into the void. Here, he slides into another lane like water in a sluice; he looks at her sideways and tightens his fist on the gearshift, and she knows what he means. We’re the same.
Or maybe not. Maybe he sees her for what she has become, that lonely little girl grown old too fast, and in that he sees an opportunity. It’s just that when he smiles, when his eyes flick over to her and hold steady, she sees him for what he is, too, or at least she thinks she does. The steady internal incantation, the eternal reminders of existence: this is breathing. This is air. This is water.
Driving with him is swimming in light, the dissolution of time, the feeling of being in a bubble, encased in his smiles and glances and the soft supple twist of his leather gloves. She wants it to last forever, but like most things Irene wants—well.
So, she says, when they return to the building. It’s late.
He nods; the toothpick darts out slightly and there’s the hint of his tongue. She wonders what it feels like. In general. Nowhere in particular. Standard is waiting for her, his picture, the mirror, Benicio.
Thank you, she adds, because she can’t shake the feeling that it’s a first date, that she’s waiting for him to lean over a porch railing in another life and close the space between them and she’s stretching out the moment, reveling in the tight excitement of it. But instead, he brushes a hand along her back and takes the five extra steps to his apartment. Minutes pass before Irene realizes she hasn’t yet moved, and still more go by before she goes inside and sits on the couch, watching Carl Sagan until she falls asleep.
They drive every night after Benicio goes to sleep, and say maybe six words apiece. But she hears a thousand more in the gaps; she’s certain that every gearshift, every turn, is a kind of code, meant only for her. She hears this: he is a drifter. He is alone. Driving is easier than breathing, most days, but you can’t have the former without the latter. So he keeps on going. Living, that is. If he dreams, he dreams of the endless shifting pinpricks of car lights on darkened streets.
I’m crazy, she thinks sometimes, but then he smiles. She forgets to think about her life, and instead lives it, Los Angeles morphing into a dreamscape where anything might be possible. And at the end of the night, the faintest of touches, the reminder. Benicio. Standard. This is my life.
She holds his hand in the car once, grease sunken into the calluses on his fingertips, weaving her fingers between his. It shouldn’t be this difficult (or is it easy?), just palm against palm, but everything around the car streaks into blurs of light, and it’s only this, the fixed point of the turning world. I was right; Irene feels a small surge of victory spiking through her as he yields another smile: we are the same.
Irene, he repeats beneath the hum of the engine, Irene, Irene, and she has this crazy idea that this, now, is how he reminds himself to stay alive. But they’ve only known each other two weeks. And yet—
The Future Dictionary of America tells us in pretentious English that a word of the future will be “and-yet,” conj. An eighth-note, followed by a quarter-note, followed by a whole note of silence. A full sentence on its own. I thought it was impossible, and-yet says. But it also says: don’t get so comfortable. No matter how much you have to eat today, you might be hungry tomorrow.
She read it that first night that Standard was in prison, underneath the dull fluorescence of the laundry room, Benicio’s soccer jersey spinning in time to the creaking of the pipes. Irene’s never taken a music lesson in her life, but she has an instinctive grasp of rhythm. She feels the and-yet in her life, tapping on as insistently as her breath. So she’s not surprised when the public defender lets her know that Standard will be home in a week’s time. The only thing left is dull disappointment.
When she tells him that night, in the long beat of the red light, there is a flash of something new across his face. She might call it a sinister darkening if she said things like that. She understands it. Maybe.
But he keeps on driving, steady as ever, back to their building, and she lets herself forget it. She wants to take his hand, but the bubble is gone. Standard is in this life, too, and here she is unsure, here she is faithful. They pull into the parking space and he stops the car. There’s a moment’s silence.
I dropped my phone, she says. I think it slid to the back.
I’ll help you look. The toothpick rolls dangerously across the surface of his tongue and splinters, spit out as he opens the rear door and leans in. She opens the opposite door to check the other side, fingers scrabbling at the floor, wishing she had held his hand. And yet.
Got it, he says, holding up the phone, still leaning into the car towards her. He’s close enough that she can feel his breath settling lightly on her face. No, he doesn’t smoke. Not even a little.
Irene kisses him, because why not, because Standard’s not coming home for another week, because he smiles at her and she wants it. It as in sex, perhaps, or just to be held, but when he kisses her back with so much force she nearly falls back out of the car, she knows which one to take.
Into the backseat, then, like high school kids on prom night. She never went to prom; Benicio was sobbing in his cot by then, but this might have been what it was like: the achingly slow drag of his fingers across her jaw, the fluttering pulse in his neck, their mouths slipping together none too gently.
At the ordinary junctures, others (Standard) would whisper, You’re beautiful, mi mujer. Gatito, you are mine. Standard would slide her hands past the hem of his pants and the night would proceed in the expected fashion.
Here: I’m yours, he breathes, and Irene finds she likes that he is even more pliable than her. So she reaches for his hands, skimming the light hair dusting his knuckles, and pulls them towards her, down, lips already parted in anticipation, and he pushes.
Oh, she stutters, voice catching behind her teeth, Oh.
He smiles again, almost a smirk this time, and leans in, running his mouth down her neck as his finger continues to move, and she arches—actually arches her back, opens her mouth, wondering why she hadn’t done this sooner, why not, when they fit so well together, her hands now splayed across his back, and his mouth in the dip of her collarbone, and then he adds another finger, and she forgets the rest of the reasons for doing this and lets go.
When he moves his hand away she can’t help the noise that escapes her. Kitten noises, Standard called them, but she can’t think of Standard now, not when someone decidedly not her husband has moved his mouth up back from the base of her neck to meet her own. So she tugs the hem of his shirt upwards and runs flat palms over the taut muscles of his stomach; unbuttons the grease-stained jeans and slides them down.
Irene, he says, watching her struggle with her own jeans in that enclosed space. And again, when she eases herself onto him with an involuntary gasp, and begins to move again, Irene. He never closes his eyes and he never makes a sound besides her name. Which is perfect, the way it should be, the way a life ought to go, no sounds wasted as he thrusts up, hipbones jutting through all that muscle to meet hers, and they move in tandem now, him repeating her name and her with those absolutely ridiculous noises she can’t stop. Irene. Irene. Irene.
And when she comes she keeps her eyes open too, because she thinks she might know what will happen, and of course, she’s right: he smiles as she shudders against him, smiles in the way that means he knows this is it, the end of the line, the edge of the bubble, the last word of whatever terrible metaphor she can next conjure up.
They will clean up quietly and part ways without a word, and tomorrow he will take Benicio for ice cream and they will hold hands beneath the table, but there will be no more kissing, and certainly no more of this. She will learn to love Standard again, for all his flaws, for his struggle to be a better man for Benicio (and her, possibly). And he, putting another toothpick between his teeth and buttoning up his shirt, will go back to being her friend. Her neighbor.
And Irene will remind herself, every time she sees him: this is air. This is real. This is water. She will learn to live that way. It’s not so hard.
In the end, there is only a voicemail to remind her that he was ever there. The most she’s ever heard him talk.
I just wanted you to know, he says, the wanting so evident in his voice that he doesn’t even need to say it. I just wanted you to know. Getting to be around you and Benicio. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
It’s so sweet she can almost forget the crushed skull he left in the elevator.
Now it’s just Irene and Benicio, the way it was for a long time, but now Standard’s not just in prison; he’s dead, and now there is no neighbor with a slow smile and a toothpick and an easy camaraderie with her son. Once upon a time, it would have suffocated her.
It is morning, and today, she is teaching Benicio how to make pancakes, and the world is still turning. As he giggles at the sizzling batter and hops around the kitchen, his spatula in hand, she thinks this might be her new mantra: Life should have ended. And yet. And yet. And yet. The sun is shining, and she is on her own at last.