The End Of Something
by Amy Bernhard
It’s seven o’clock in Iowa and I’m hot. Sweat pours down my neck, welding my tank top to my skin. I’m a few blocks into my run and already I want to die, arms churning through air thick as pudding, breathing the quick ugly breaths of a dog or a teenage boy getting a hand job. I am alone out here. Everyone else is locked inside with their air conditioners, chugging away in windows, dripping water onto the dead grass below. It’s still in the mid-90s and has been for close to two weeks now, clouds all burned out in a smoke-white sky.
It’s hotter inside my apartment though, that’s for sure. I just bolted out, leaving my fiancé with our steaming oven. He’s moving out next month, to a city four hours away from me. It came down to this: I wanted to stay and he wanted to go, so in a few weeks he’s going. His boxes are piled up in our hallway; tonight I used a few to build a makeshift table in our bedroom, the only spot in our apartment with air conditioning. On the flimsy cardboard surface I laid out plates and silverware and then fell back in bed and closed my eyes—when I opened them again my fiancé was standing over me, back from the elementary school where he spends all day cleaning up after kids, their messes. In his hands he held the pan of stuffed peppers he’d made for us before work this morning, which I had apparently burned in the oven while I was napping, green skins withered and shriveled up like shower balls. In the hallway the smoke detectors whined and whined, muffled by the air conditioner. Above, my fiancé looked down at me with a face full of anger and worry. He shook the pan at me, gently, and said, “I can’t stand this anymore.”
I said, “Stand what? Stand me?”
And he said, quietly, “Yes.”
In my rage I forgot to put on a sports bra. Now my boobs are flopping inside my tank top and sticking themselves to my sweaty chest. My feet slap the pavement, plodding along in their hot pink Nikes. I hate these shoes; soft and garishly bright, I feel too young in them but they were on sale at Shoe Carnival. I’m also wearing thin Forever 21 leggings with a sizeable rip in the crotch, all my parts jiggling around like loose change in a pocket, but I don’t even care. My hair is a bird’s nest on top of my head and I’m probably having a nervous breakdown. I’ve got that sweaty, crazed look.
A car pulls up alongside me and I speed up my feet, wanting to look impressive. This is why I prefer to run indoors, on the treadmill. There’s less pressure, arms and legs swinging in that same absurd metered rhythm, all of us going nowhere together. But I can’t be around people now, not tonight. I keep my eyes pointed straight ahead but the car hangs beside me, so I look over. It’s a man. He grins at me.
I can’t believe this—and in Iowa, of all places. “Can I help you?” I spit. He says nothing, just grins and cruises slowly next to me. He’s thin and wears a blue baseball cap pulled low over his brow, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. I give him the finger, slow and purposeful. He picked the wrong night to mess with me, I think, and feel pleased with myself when he drives off. Cowards, these leaving men. I’ve had enough of them. I watch his car rounding the corner and think about turning and heading home, but no, no—I was here first, I’m staying. I press on, sweat pouring from every crack in my skin. My tongue is a dry slab of beef jerky in my mouth.
I look over and there he is again, grinning at me. My stomach twists. His passenger-side window is down and his head is sticking out, within reach. The road is quiet, there are a few houses over here but all of them are closed up, blinds drawn, garage doors down. Even the elementary school across the street is empty, the kickball field a sea of toast-brown grass, swings eerily still in the hot air. I’m alone out here. With him. I speed up and so does he, next to me. Our bodies are only a few feet apart.
I try to keep my pace steady, one foot in front of the other. It’s my shoes, I think, he saw my pink shoes and followed me. Behind his sunglasses he grins and grins. Breathe, I tell myself, breathe. I pat my thighs and remember that my cell phone is at home, with my fiancé and the boxes and the stupid burned peppers. My throat tightens. I can see the creep out of the corner of my eye, driving with one hand, face staring into mine, leering away.
“I see you!” I yell at him. “I see your face!” He doesn’t care. He’s scooted over in his seat, closer to me. I move to the edge of the sidewalk, my feet in the dead grass, legs shaking. Silver car, a Chevy, no license plates, leather seats. Blue baseball hat and sunglasses, Aviators I think. I can’t look. Don’t look don’t look don’t look.
Behind me I hear what sounds like a disappointed sigh. I turn around; it’s a Prius. My fiancé rolls down the window. I stop running, my arms and legs deflating as I crumple in half, sucking in air. “Get in,” he says, and it’s all I need to hear.
I see The Creeper again the next morning. I wait until my fiancé leaves for work to lace up my Nikes and head out the door. I take the same path as last night because I am trying not to be afraid, trying to stand my ground. I run back across the same sidewalks, the same quiet pastel neighborhoods to see if things have changed in the last sixteen hours the way they seem to be changing all the time now, without my permission. They haven’t. There’s a woman walking her dog and a pair of construction workers in neon vests digging themselves a hole. There’s a father standing on his porch with his daughter. He adjusts the straps on her backpack and smiles at me with a gentleness that makes my skin hurt. I look away.
When he pulls up in his car—same silver Chevy, same blue baseball hat and sunglasses—I feel nervous but relieved, a little bit, to see him. We are both still here, doing what we do. He grins at me out the window, looking less SVU and more Cheshire Cat today, his cheeks stretched wide and wrinkly. Let him look, what do I care. I jog and he drifts beside me in his car, my heart pumping away with some mix of fear and glee. In my right pocket I feel for my cell phone, its square bulk against my sweaty thigh. I hold it up for him to see and his smile pulls even wider; we’re on the same page now, a boundary established. We keep on this way for a few more blocks, me jogging and sweating, him watching and grinning until Muscatine Avenue rushes up ahead and he starts to accelerate. I watch his car turn left into traffic, leaving me behind.
I come back the next day, and the next, and the next. The Creeper is always here, right on time, and even though I know I should turn around and go home there’s some part of me that likes the attention. Down the street I spot his car idling at the curb, waiting. I wonder what he does all day, if he has a job to go to, a wife. One day she’s blonde in my mind, setting the table for dinner, and the next all her roots are showing and she’s downtown at Mercy Hospital, holding her son’s hand and trying not to fall asleep while his insides rot with cancer. Or maybe The Creeper lives alone, in an apartment like me. Before my fiancé decided to move out I sometimes imagined what loneliness looked like—a dark room, I thought, TV dinners, the familiar clichés—but when I see myself in The Creeper’s sunglasses, it doesn’t look at all the way I expected it to. Sometimes I yell things at him, like “Who are you?” or “Why are you doing this to me?” and even though he won’t answer I know he hears me, and that’s enough.
One morning I’m jogging with two friends when I see his car. It’s parked near the curb like usual, but as we get closer he rolls up his window. He drives past us without slowing down, eyes ahead, mouth unsmiling. I wait for him to circle the block but he stays straight toward Muscatine instead, his silver Chevy retreating into traffic. Next to me my friends are talking, their breath coming in short, sharp pants, but I’m not listening. I’m scanning the road, searching for The Creeper’s car. I wonder if he’s mad at me and for a minute I feel in control and special. The next morning I jog for five extra minutes, an apology.
But soon the gnats come, thick, dark clouds that laze about in the swampy air and trap everyone inside their homes. I don’t see The Creeper. I spend the next few weeks holed up with my fiancé in our bedroom, sitting with our faces angled toward the air conditioner, eating all our meals off of cardboard boxes and stewing in crabby silence. Some nights, when the heat and quiet and boxes get to be too much, we walk downtown to the frozen yogurt place, dead gnats sticking to our sweaty necks, crushing themselves between our sandaled toes. It’s the second plague of locusts, we joke, or at the very least, the end of something. At night we strip off our clothes and our skin reeks of Bug Soother, a vanilla-scented mist that keeps the gnats away. In bed we lie side by side, not touching, and blame it on the smell, that putrid sweetness of cake frosting.
July ends and I help my fiancé carry out his boxes. Up and down the creaking stairs we go without a word between us. On our last night together we lie side by side on the floor in our empty bedroom, picking gnats out of each other’s damp skin and wondering in silence. “Did you ever see that guy again?” my fiancé asks the ceiling. “What guy?” I say, and he says, “In the car.”
I stare up at the ceiling and feel my fiancé beside me, the sad weight of his body next to mine. In the morning he will leave, and for so many weeks after I will keep my gaze aimed out the window, at College Street below. I’ll watch as cars and people pass by, trailing them with my eyes and waiting for that split second when they turn their heads—that terrible thrill!—and almost see me, too.
On the floor, my fiancé turns his head to look at me. I don’t know what to tell him. Maybe it’s just too embarrassing to explain, all the weird ways loneliness disguises itself.
I say, “I don’t know who you mean.”
Amy Bernhard‘s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Catapult, Vice, Ninth Letter, and the Iowa Review, among others. Currently she lives in Dallas, Texas, where she is a professor of creative writing at The University of Texas–Arlington.