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Joe and I drove to North Carolina on one of those comically hot August days that trick you into thinking the summer may never leave the South. When we pulled up outside the apartment he would be living in — and that I would not be living in — we didn’t walk from the car to the house so much as push through heavy curtains of humid air and mosquitoes that had gestated in discarded washers and dryers on the front porch. His place was two flights up a creaky staircase. He carried the heavy stuff — TV, ancient computer monitor, crates of books. I brought in his clothes and dishes. I narrated the placement of every box so that he wouldn’t be left pawing desperately around for some important thing after I went back to Atlanta. I missed him already.
By then we’d fallen asleep together in six dorm rooms, two apartments (both mine), one hotel room, a handful of suburban basements, and sitting upright in the back of a few moving vehicles, slack necks straining against buckled seat belts. These are the kinds of painfully ordinary relationship details I found myself keeping track of that summer, six years after we met and began dating in high school in Tennessee, five years after I graduated and left for school in Georgia while he went to college in our hometown, one year after I finished my degree and took a job in Atlanta, and four months after he decided to append his B.A. with graduate school in North Carolina.
All of this cataloging was partly a way for me to process and savor the relatively scant amount of time we’d been able to spend together in our almost-entirely-long-distance relationship. I was also just keeping score, plain and simple, though I wasn’t entirely sure for what game. Or maybe it was more of a loyalty card — get enough punches, get a free cone or a six-inch sub or some new, better life you’re only half-sure you want.
I was gripped not so much with the desire to be married as the unshakable feeling that most couples would have been married by now. It wasn’t odd, in our pocket of the South, to marry young, gliding seamlessly from college graduation to wedding ceremonies. We had friends who’d met their sweethearts long after Joe and I started dating, whose relationships had moved at what seemed to me like the typical adult pace, who were already engaged or married or nearly divorced. But even just going to other peoples’ weddings felt like playing grown-up, as if my silk summer dress and his stifling suit had been pulled out of some indulgent grandmother’s barrel of dress-up clothes. If the conversation ever turned to the possibility of Joe and I getting married, we bleated out half-flattered, half-frantic excuses, mostly about just trying to live in the same city first.
When Joe was accepted into an MFA poetry program in North Carolina with full funding, and my job in Atlanta remained something I didn’t feel I could part with, the party line became, “Well, what’s two more years?” The question was rhetorical, but I was scared that I didn’t know the answer.
The apartment on Carr Street was somewhat befitting of Joe’s new station in life: there was a certain poetic squalor to the place. The previous tenant, an undergrad art major, had left a few bits of rickety furniture, a half-melted space heater that roared when plugged in and, tucked into the hall closet, a hobby telescope of considerable size. He’d also left a distinct odor — an unkept, bodily smell with notes of hot, soured alcohol. There was a kind of furry glaze on every surface, like unbrushed teeth. The hardwood floors were somehow both sticky and sooty. A single window A/C unit feebly battled the heat.
In the backyard, a once-white Cadillac sank among the kudzu; next to it, three porcelain toilets had been lined up. The landlord lived downstairs. He came up to say hello, trailing a beagle on a leash. “This is Elvis,” he said. “He ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”
In the bathroom, I marveled for a moment at the medicine cabinet with its delicate, scalloped-edge mirror, then opened it and discovered what appeared to be several growth cycles’ worth of beard shavings tossed into the cabinet like confetti. The kitchen sink was also a mystery. One of its two stainless steel bowls was splattered with some kind of calcified fibrous mess, which at first I thought might be bits of dried food and which I suppose was actually bits of dried food, in a way, but not like food dumped from a takeout container in a frantic fridge-cleaning spree. It was vomit. Human, I guessed, but felt I couldn’t be sure.
That morning, which now seemed like many mornings ago, Joe’s mother had sent him off from home in Tennessee with a plastic bag of cleaning supplies, more as a motherly token than in expectation of any real mess. She would have cried to see what the Clorox wipes and SoftScrub were up against now. I almost did. I almost cried at the restaurant down the street where we escaped for a silent, untasting dinner. I almost cried when we realized, in the way that you realize things that are actually abundantly obvious, that Joe did not have any sort of bed; I almost cried at the Target where we purchased an air mattress that cost more than any piece of furniture either of us had ever bought before. I almost cried at the dollar store, where we spent thirty bucks on sponges and flimsy mops and neon-orange liquids in thin spray bottles of off-brand chemicals.
At the checkout, watching Joe pull out his wallet and pass his credit card over the counter, my breath caught in my throat like it would when I was a kid any time I watched my mother or father pay for anything at any price at any store. At some point later in childhood, perhaps in college, I had decided that the reaction stemmed from some kind of guilt or fear that came from not understanding money and how much or how little my family had. But I now realized that what I was feeling was the embarrassed confusion of having cracked open a door and seeing adults do, without discussion or complaint or hesitation, what adults had to do.
I did cry, finally, after Joe and I returned to the apartment, after we sprayed and doused and scoured in silence for several hours. It was sometime after midnight. Joe was on his second or third scrub-down of the living room floor. I stood in the bathroom, staring at the smudgy mirror, not entirely seeing myself. The little yellow light bulb on the ceiling buzzed and flickered and more scores racked themselves up in my mind: What we would spend on gas, on car maintenance, on snacks for the road, on dinners out when we visited, on toothbrushes one or the other of us would inevitably forget at our own places, on the speeding tickets we’d almost certainly incur over the course of the next two years spent driving to see each other, grinding our tires down on I-85. All the good days we’d miss sharing, and all the bad days, all the little joys and horrors. What would happen if I quit my job, what would happen if I lost my job, what would happen if I had to move into this place, what would have to happen for me to want to move into this place? And how could I leave him here? Didn’t I love him too much? Did we not love each other enough?
All it took was Joe stepping into the bathroom, summoned from his scrubbing by the sound of me weeping over the hair-flocked sink, for me to realize that of course love was not the problem, that my brain was probably just oxygen-starved from the half hour I’d spent inverted over the mildew-encrusted tub basin, and that it was almost certainly time for bed.
He pulled me out into the living room, where the hardwoods sported a hard-won dull sheen. His boxes and bags all pushed in quarantine against one wall, we ripped into the cardboard packaging of the air mattress and unrolled it across the floor. Joe pawed around in the mess for the instructions as I untangled the air pump, plugged it into the mattress and the outlet, flipped the switch and braced myself some great surge of triumphant, animating energy, Frankenstein’s monster-style.
Instead, there was silence.
“Oh,” Joe said, looking up from the instructions, his gray eyes bleary. “The pump has to charge for eight hours.”
I did not cry then. I did not even almost cry. (Or laugh.) I was now beyond all that, beyond sadness, beyond exhaustion. I was also possibly a little high from all the bleach. There was nothing to do but what we did, which was stretch out on the sheet of airless plastic anyway. I lapsed not so much into slumber but a peacefully fungible state of consciousness for several hours, Joe stirring restlessly but silently at my side. Around the time the first gray-green light of morning appeared in the room’s single window, in some vaguely hopeful delirium I thought to flip the power switch on the pump, though it had hardly been eight hours. To my surprise the motor began to whir. I shook Joe awake and we slumped off to the side for the impossibly long however many minutes it took for the mattress to inflate, its bulky blue mass rising up from the still-filthy floor. When it was full, we climbed back on together and fell asleep.