Counting the Lovelies by Emma Bolden

We worked at the same college, he and I, and though I tried very hard, we never loved each other. We spent the last weekend of summer in that bar with the blue lights and the well drinks. There was always a sad rock song. It was never definable as anything but sad. I wore my blue dress. He wore a linen shirt and linen slacks and we both looked ridiculous. We sat on the back porch in chairs with iron grating that decorated the bottoms of our thighs, no matter what we wore. I bought the Marlboro Lights. He bought the gin and tonics. They came in plastic cups with chipped ice and too much gin and made everything feel somewhere between perfect and humiliating. I kept touching the lime then licking the bitter off of my fingers then touching the lime again. According to the plan, he was saying, our children could be sons or daughters, whichever they pleased, as long as they went to boarding school. We had known each other for three weeks. I felt myself frowning. “But what’s the point, then,” I said. Already, he hated it when I’d pout.

“What are you doing,” he said, and nodded a little bit. That meant he meant me touching the lime, and because he had noticed it, I stopped.

“How about no boarding school but yes summer camp. All summer. On a boat.” He didn’t say deal, so I started to fold my straw wrapper into halves and then quarters, which I also already knew he hated. We smoked and we sat and the night was a string of Christmas lights pulsing at a rhythm that always almost matched the rhythm of the music. The music got louder as the night got louder and lost all of its edges, lost all of its perfect circles of light. Then we were laughing and we were walking and suddenly I felt very sure about the fact that there were stars above us. I looked up and yes, I was right. They were there. I laughed and the stars were there and we were walking and walking. Each glimpse of sky tasted like the space under my fingernails, which tasted like the lime. He was wearing a gold chain and I hated it while we walked past the stadium, past the huddled semi-circles of apartments, past parking lots that bossed cars around with their white and blue lines. We’d been walking a very long time so I said to him, “we’ve been walking a very long time?” I made it a question so he answered, “almost there. Almost.” He said it five more times – Almost, almost. Almost. Almost almost – and there were streets and sandwich shops and cars with the oldies station leaking out of closed windows. It was thirteen months before the first morning I woke up and blinked and said oh out loud to my feet, because they didn’t walk. They didn’t do anything. No matter what I tried or how hard.

When we stopped walking, we were in his apartment. I was sitting on his couch and I took off my shoes and saw, with surprise, that both heels were bleeding. I hadn’t felt pain. I hadn’t felt anything. He was telling a story because he always told stories. And this story started the way that all of his stories started, with an approximation of the characters’ weights and heights, sometimes down to the half pound. It would end the same way that all of his stories ended, after he had used the word “lovely” between ten and twenty times. I’d begun to count them, each and every lovely, like sentinels waving me past until I reached the one lovely beyond which there would be no more lovelies, because I could not handle any more of them. Then I would go home and sit on my couch and shake my head at the walls and the cats for a while.

He was serious about his story, that night. In one sentence he leapt dexterously from three lovelies to six. I moved my fingers just a little bit as he went – four, five, six. I felt my bottom lip push itself out, my right eyebrow arch itself. I thought to myself, lovely lovely lovely, then worried that he’d somehow heard. He hadn’t. The woman in his story was teaching him to tango and it wasn’t a joke or a metaphor, so I decided to look at my feet. I almost expected them to look back. I almost expected them to help me decide if I hated him and his lovelies or not. I almost expected the big toe to move without my moving it, to nod to me, several times and deeply, as if to say, Oh no, honey. Oh no.

He wasn’t talking to me. He was telling me. He was telling me about a resort in Scotland, about its immaculately fertilized grounds, which stretched so long and bright a green that Crayola should have questioned why they were even trying, with that kind of color in the world. There was a greenhouse full of orchids showing off their bad posture, as slumped and sullen as any teenage girl who thinks she is too tall. There were arrays of china and crystal dizzying in their multiplicities. There was a manual for the wait-staff, so they’d know where every possible piece went at every possible meal, and how it was possible to move them into those places without breaking them. Everyone wore spats and cumberbunds and diamond shoe clips that they actually owned. This was because everyone was rich and beautiful, or else they were so rich that they seemed beautiful, which was the reason why he pretended to be a sommelier. Then, he said, he was more like the patrons than the rest of the wait-staff. “All I lacked was a piece of paper,” he said. “I certainly know enough about wines to do the job brilliantly, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. I was thinking about the night and its sky and whether it meant to make a pattern out of its stars. He was talking about the woman who taught him how to tango, unjokingly, unmetaphorically. She wore a fox stole and his herringbone jacket and she smoked cigarettes from both of their packs of Dunhills. It was one of their rituals that had already become one of our rituals.

“A post-prandial smoke,” he said, and my right eyebrow arched itself, “is a truly lovely thing.”

I made an um-hm noise. This was not a conversation and so there was no reason to agree. I looked down at my feet and felt the way I felt sometimes when I looked at them, as though they were strange and alien things, like not-quite hands, and every time I thought that, I wondered if it was a strange thing to think. Because I’d finally thought it in front of someone, I thought this could be my first and last chance. I thought I’d better ask, now or never.

“Do you ever think of how feet are a very strange thing?”

He paused and made a noise in his throat and then said “anyway” a little too loudly and urgently, the way people do when a child interrupts them, when it’s someone else’s child who they can’t discipline. There was a woman wearing a gray gown in his story. The gown was silk and it was raining and she was famous, I guessed, because he used her first and last name and paused every time he said it. I didn’t recognize either the first or last name, so he made the noise in his throat and spoke too loudly and urgently again. I remained a disappointment. My feet felt strangely numb, like they weren’t my feet, like they were instead the kind of feet I found under all of my doll’s socks, with nothing but a few stitches to show where each immobile toe ended and another began. I wondered, what shade of gray silk? Clouds building a summer storm in the Alabama sky gray? Gray motor oil on the gray driveway gray? It was like my feet weren’t feet after all. Like they were, instead, age-spotted banana peels. Long and wet leaves, nibbled in places down to the netting. An unhung hammock, slack and useless. The woman wasn’t in his story any more so I didn’t have to worry about the color of her gown. Now there was a man named Patrick, who was approximately six feet tall and weighed approximately two hundred and twenty three pounds.

“Patrick was lovely, but he was always going on about something.” I nodded and wondered what something was. I wondered if something was worth always going on about. If it was a banana peel. A long, wet leaf. A slack hammock.

I tilted my head to the degree of casual curiosity. It looked enough like I was listening for him to keep talking, which made me feel safe enough to tap my feet against the carpet. And though I knew I was the one tapping the feet and that the tapped feet belonged to me, I didn’t feel anything. A blank space where there should have been words, like “carpet,” “fabric,” and “floor.” It felt strange so I kept tapping. I kept tapping and feeling strange and curious. I didn’t know, at that point, that I should have been afraid. I should have wondered how long I had until I could no longer convince myself that the foot and the leg it was attached to were really mine, until I couldn’t make them work at all, I couldn’t make them walk at all. I was twenty-seven and I spent a lot of time thinking about that. I spent a lot of time moving between the walls and under the ceilings of my apartment. I’d think of the word old and consider it. I’d think it five more times. Old, old. Old. Old old. I would make a list: no husband child permanent job house prospects. Sometimes I’d move my fingers a little bit, like counting. I had not yet thought, my body is the trap from which I will not escape because the only way out is by death. I had not yet thought, well, that was very dramatic. I had not yet been watching the clock when it ticked over to 3:00 in the morning, exactly. I had not yet looked into those two red zeros while I made plans and then realized I was only trying to make plans. When would the next episode come and what would I do when and if it did, when and if I stopped walking completely, where would I go and who would take care of me. I didn’t have plans. I had questions. There are no such things as answers.

“We’d had this terrific soup with a prawn curled in the bottom and a saffron broth,” he was saying. Broths were always very important and very exotic, in his stories. Broths and sauces. “I’d picked a really lovely Beaujolais to go with it. It was an unorthodox choice, but really, really lovely.” And then I was reaching for my shoes. It was as if my body decided for me: that was the lovely beyond which there would be no more lovelies.

I told him it was late and he agreed, it was late, so we kissed for a few minutes, until I felt both satisfied and desperate. Then I was walking to the guest parking spots necklaced around the apartments’ swimming pool, which looked as beautiful and eerie as every swimming pool does at night. And because the first episode had not yet happened, I wasn’t wondering when the next would come. I wasn’t wondering when my legs would buckle and burn. I didn’t pause to ask myself, how many steps do I have left this time? There was the night and its envelopes of stillness, and I slipped into and out of them, towards and away from the sounds of strangers laughing and sputtering and trying to sing along to their radios.

On the drive home, there were houses with lit windows and I looked inside of them, where people were learning to live with each other. They were learning to talk and dance and cook. They were moving into and out of the windows, which framed them as silhouettes, laughing with their heads tossed back, leaning in to speak softly into their telephones. And when I think of that night I think of the woman I was in that blue dress, and with the long hair that smelled like smoke and stiff hairspray, who moved everywhere, everywhere, on top of those legs. I think of the stadium and its open bowl of lights, and I think of myself small beside it, my feet even smaller. I tell myself to keep walking. I tell myself to walk, as long and as far as I can.

Emma Bolden is the author of Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) and medi(t)ations, forthcoming from Noctuary Press. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, Harpur Palate, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Verse, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, and Copper Nickel.