I Did It
by Kate Axelrod
I’m on the crosstown bus, on my way to work at the Japanese restaurant on Amsterdam. Peter and his brother are coming for dinner and I can’t decide if it’s a generous gesture or just a way to get free food. We hit traffic going through the park, stall beneath a brick overpass. The trees are lush and budding all around us. My fifth-grade science teacher told us there are a hundred and seventy-two species of trees in Central Park, and I don’t think I can name a single one; so much beauty that I don’t know how to classify. Behind me a man is warning his son about the dangers of walking through the park at night, how he should never do it alone, not even as a grownup. I picture myself getting mugged — a man pressing me up against the broad trunk of a tree — demanding that I give him my relationship or my job. I have an instant to decide and I know I’m indispensable to neither.
At Central Park West a woman gets on the bus and smiles as she eases against the cobalt seat beside me. She’s holding an oversized tote bag on her lap and a black speckled violin case rests between her feet. Her hair is a fragile halo above her head, white and coiffed.
Six months earlier Peter and I are in bed and we’re doing this thing where we talk about the night we met, as though it were years ago, and we’re reminiscing about our younger selves, so romantic and reckless. But it’s only been a few weeks and I know it’s my way of forcing intimacy. Carving out some distance for us to say, Look at this thing we’ve birthed and tended to, look how it’s growing! We’re lying in bed, and I’m on my back, holding my breasts together because I can’t quite accept the way they have begun to slide, left and right, facing away from each other like some ornery couple in bed.
“Tell me what happened when you first saw me,” I say, like a little kid asking to hear the story of her birth. We’re wrapped in a blanket the fabric of long underwear, textured and graying. I turn to face him. Peter can’t grow a beard but there are a few hairs sprouting near his jaw and there is something grotesque about them standing there, so sharp and erect.
“You were wearing that dress with the lilies (I’m moved that he can identify what kind of flowers!) and you walked in late, past midnight, and some guy by the door started talking to you, some loser with an upturned mustache.”
There is a silken eye mask on Peter’s nightstand, it’s sandwiched in between a pile of books, the elastic band hanging out like a bookmark. I know it belongs to his ex-girlfriend and each time I go to his apartment I’m hoping it’ll be gone. I reach out to touch it, but then I stop and try to be present. This is a thing I’m working on.
“Keep talking,” I say. “Keep telling me.”
“You were coming from the restaurant, I guess? You were in a bad mood.”
“I was not! I was just tired, I’d been on my feet for like twelve hours.”
“Whatever, this dude and his mustache, he was mansplaining all over you, I could just tell you had all these interesting things to say but he wasn’t letting you get a word in and so I came over and…”
“Oh and you rescued me,” I say, feigning awe and appreciation. “Thank you. Otherwise I would’ve had to like, extricate myself from a conversation like a big girl.” Sometimes I hear myself trying to channel a person I want to be. I want to be indignant that he thinks I need rescuing, but I’m not. I do want to be saved, I think. I know it’s fucked, but I do.
“Hey!” he says. There’s a playful lilt in his voice. “It was nice, I was trying to be nice.” He kisses me, but it’s too early in the morning for tongue and I keep my mouth mostly closed.
“I know how you meant it.”
He lowers his head and bites down onto my nipple then takes it in his mouth. When he does this, I can’t help but think of him as a baby, latching onto his mother’s breast.
“So you swept me up,” I say, “but then you were still talking to that girl Gemma the whole night. You were flirting with her. Why’d you ask me to come home with you instead?” This is where he’s supposed to say something sweet and trite like, Because there was just something about you. I wanted to know you.
“You really wanna know?” he asks.
There is a trio of succulents on his windowsill, they are small and prickly and I drag the pad of my finger along their spines.
“I really do.”
“I’ve hooked up with Gemma before and she never puts out and I just felt like, I dunno, you’d be more likely.”
There is this thing that happens in my body — like releasing the pedal on a trash can and the lid snaps shut — when I’m faced, head on, with the reality of a person. When I realize they’re actually in direct opposition to the fantasy I’ve been nurturing in my head.
“I honestly don’t know if you’re just trying to be an asshole right now.”
“I’m not!” He gives me this big goofy grin. I’ve just noticed that he has a poppy seed wedged between two of his teeth, but I don’t tell him. “I mean, I’m just being honest. I’m so glad that this ended up being a real thing, but that’s like, the genesis of it.”
I sit up and twist the plastic rod of the blinds to let some light in. I know he’s gonna complain that it’s too early for all that sun, but it’s not. It’s probably close to eleven. Grow the fuck up, I’ll say. But he doesn’t.
Instead he says “Look, I’m trying this thing called radical honesty. I just don’t want to fake anything with you.”
“That’s awesome,” I say. “You’re like, really evolved.”
I imagine introducing him to my parents. My mother, in her pale tapered jeans and the sweater she got at Talbots with a forty percent off coupon, who offered to buy me a subscription to eHarmony for my birthday last year. Her curly hair is laced with gray and each time she sees me she asks if I think she should color it. I tell her gray hair is cool, to embrace the golden years or what not. But on this particular night she’ll be so thrilled (almost giddy) to meet the guy I’m dating. She’ll ask how we met and I’ll watch her cheeks pale when I say He just had a feeling I was easy.
But somehow months have passed and I’m still working shitty shifts at the restaurant and barely focusing on photography, still doing this mostly on, sometimes off, thing with Peter. I keep telling my friends that we’re about to break up and sometimes I even lie and say I’ve tried but he begs me to stay.
The bus is packed and Ninety-sixth Street becomes congested as we approach Broadway. A group of teenagers is huddled outside the McDonalds on the corner, their backpacks heavy and bulging like armor. The older lady beside me exhales and I can feel her ribcage expanding into mine. I watch as she takes out a notebook the size of my palm and stares at its blank pages. She writes in tiny, meticulous script: I did it!
I relish the ten minutes before my shift actually starts; fill up the glass containers with artisan soy sauce, scoop out teaspoons of wasabi from their big plastic tubs and deposit them onto white square plates, squeeze out discs of carrot ginger compote. It’s all so methodical and I find solace in its repetition, like I’m an orderly person who has her shit together.
It’s a Tuesday night and pretty slow. I’m in the back, molding piles of rice onto porcelain dishes when I see Peter and his brother walk in. Jeremy is the slightly taller, lankier version of him, with a beard that looks as though it’s meticulously trimmed. We make eye contact and Jeremy gives me a wave and then opens his eyes wide like he’s just caught me doing something scandalous.
“Hey boys,” I say. I hand them two laminated menus and tell them they can take their pick of tables.
“Hey lady.” Jeremy gives me a kiss on the check. Peter rubs his palm against my waist.
They sit down next to the aquarium and Peter puffs up his cheeks at the blowfish passing by. I give them tea and water and then bring out appetizers, including dishes they haven’t ordered, pork and prawn dumplings, shrimp rolls and some tempura vegetables. When I go back to check on them a few minutes later they’re shredding edamame with their teeth—this little bit they do where they’re pretending to be cavemen eating vegetables.
“So how’s it going?” Jeremy asks. “How are the apps?”
For the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been talking about applying to MFA programs in photography. I’m both embarrassed and flattered that Jeremy knows this. That Peter talks about me when I’m not there feels novel. Sometimes I imagine he’s a baby who hasn’t quite grasped the concept of object permanence, like once I walk out of the room I assume he forgets I exist.
“They are slowly going,” I say. “What about you? How’s your research?”
“Oh you know, just chugging away. I’ll probably be done with my dissertation in about fifteen thousand years.”
“You fools and your graduate degrees,” Peter says. He works at a startup — one of those companies like TOMS but instead of shoes, when you buy a backpack, some kid in Africa gets one too. I’m always suspicious of these kinds of projects, like it’s just plain old capitalism dressed up as something kinder. But maybe that’s uncharitable. The simple fact is that Peter is helping people and I’m not. And this is something I love about him. He isn’t so cynical or jaded that he’s incapacitated, or so introspective that he’s weighed down by a million existential crises. He wants to do something and he just does it.
Peter stays for the rest of my shift, sitting at the bar and drinking sake, reading the Times on his phone. When it’s slow he grabs my wrist and I lean in toward him for a kiss. These moments of tenderness are infrequent and fleeting, but they’re there. And until they aren’t, I don’t know how I’ll leave.
In the cab on the way home, I sit upfront because I’m worried I’ll get car sick. We barrel down the West Side Highway and the Hudson is black and gleaming beside us. I cannot stop thinking of the woman on the bus and the subtle swell of pride in her face when she closed the notebook and gingerly put it back into her bag. Maybe all her quiet dedication to the string section paid off and she’d just been offered a solo in the orchestra. Or after decades of pent-up aggression, she’d told her sister to lay off, because at seventy-nine and eighty-three, could she finally stop infantilizing her? Perhaps after forty-seven years of a totally benign, loveless marriage, she’d decided to leave her husband who insisted on reading the paper before her, each morning, over a cup of lukewarm tea. The possibilities were endless, really.
Kate Axelrod‘s first novel, The Law of Loving Others, was published by Penguin in January, 2015. She is a social worker in Brooklyn.