A striped sweater of forgotten origin, some miscellaneous Tupperware, a bottle of shampoo and a pair of black converse sneakers. The last of these items were the only in the sad sundry that she had actually noticed was missing. She had waited until she was on the subway to peek in the bag; she had had too much pride to ask him directly about the sneakers and so was relieved to find that they were there. The Tupperware, however, felt like an insult, to say nothing of the shampoo, which was a drug store brand she had bought in a mild rage after discovering that his boyfriend Bret had used the last of her orange wax shampoo, the kind that came in the glass bottle and cost $30 at Sephora.
When she had seen Max coming towards her from a half a block away or so earlier that day, she’d had the sad thought that she might never speak to him again after this. He was walking in a strident, resolute manner but his eyes were flickering from the sidewalk to the lampposts to the street looking anywhere he could to avoid eye contact with her until it was inevitable. She’d tried not to look at him but found that she couldn’t help herself.
What was the point was of trying to salvage any sense of dignity at this moment? This situation was, by its nature, undignified. He’d had the black bag hanging from his shoulder, the last of her possessions that had been left behind in haste. After this, she would be fully extricated from the apartment and there would be no excuse for chatty e-mails like the one Max had sent her that morning, no reason to meet on a street corner in her old neighborhood, next to the café where she used to eat Greek omelets and read when she couldn’t sleep in on Saturday mornings. They had, she’d noticed, just opened up their tall windows and put tables and chairs on the sidewalk. The weather had finally gotten better.
“Hello,” he’d said, cocking his head to the side. His smile had not had the solemnity of one offered at an armistice but rather a glib sort of tilt to it, like he was being made to be doing something silly and they were both in on the joke.
“Hello,” said Leigh, not managing to maintain eye contact as she’d wished. She’d never been able to master the steely gaze she so wanted to have in moments like this.
He’d held his shoulders back even as he’d leaned in to deposit a kiss on her cheek. It was perhaps this insistence of his to behave like nothing was really wrong that made her so angry. He’d handed her the bag and she’d accepted it; the gesture had a feeling of finality.
“Thanks,” she’d said and for a moment they both stood there. The sun was just going down and the air was a very pleasant temperature. People were lingering on the street around them: idling in the open doorways of buildings, leaning on walls smoking or drinking from water bottles, walking their dogs at a dilatory pace while allowing them to root around every nook and cranny of the sidewalk with their noses. How shattering this collective contentment had felt to Leigh as she said goodbye to her dear friend who wouldn’t even admit that they were saying goodbye. Nor, she had realized upon many nights of sleepless reflection, did he necessarily consider her a friend. She’d been his tenant and an amusing urban neophyte and now he’d found someone with far more interesting problems to fix. She knew she was being brutal to herself by thinking this way and not a little self-indulgent besides but she had to do something to separate herself from this insane ménage à trois of herself, Max, and Max’s parasite who had begun to suck the life out of her by proxy. She had been forced to put her foot down. Or what? But outside of the gratifying certainty that she was making the right decision, she felt confused about how the fibers of their friendship could have come apart so easily. Being right didn’t make it any less painful.
“Stay with me while I have a cigarette,” he’d said. She’d nodded and stood silently at the bottom of a nearby stoop as he sat down. He’d extracted a flattened pack of Parliament Lights from his pocket and deftly slid one into his mouth in one smooth movement. Like any casual smoker, the amount of distress in his life could be gauged by how much and at what time of day he smoked. In better times it wasn’t even daily but by the time she left he had begun to have one in the morning with his coffee, the mere act of spending the night next to Bret’s restless body, agitated and fermenting in its own chemicals, was enough to make him need some kind of sedative before facing the world. Or so Leigh imagined. The boyfriend who had come to live with them had changed the tenor of the apartment. Before, it had been homey and always clean. It had had certain decrepitude like most apartments in New York, but before, somehow this had added to its charm. Since the arrival of Bret, even the water damage on the ceiling and warped wood of the window sill seemed more obvious and glaring; these flaws could no longer be made to seem quaint. Max’s bedroom in particular had taken on a foreboding quality. Bret slept rarely, Leigh knew, but she imagined that when he did the frightening phantasms of his mind were released into the air and lingered there afterwards like his stale cigarette smoke.
‘God,’ Max had said, blinking in the fading sunlight ‘this is all such a mess. I just want things to go back to the way they were.” He’d shaken his head in an almost conspiratorial fashion as though they were up against some common external force. He and Leigh had stared at each other for a moment. No, she’d thought, looking at him with what she hoped was a subtle silent reproach; I am done with this game. For months they had been having clandestine talks in the bathroom that all began this same way, Max sitting on sink smoking and hissing his myriad complaints about his new live-in lover in a raspy whisper.
It was strange, she thought, they hadn’t really spent much time together outside of the apartment they had shared. Again, she wondered, had they really been friends? She had been lured into a false intimacy with Max; if familiarity bred contempt, it bred kinship too, common-law brotherhood.
It wasn’t that Leigh disagreed with Max. She also wished that things could go back to the way they had been. They had made a nice home in their cozy two bedroom on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 30th street. They had almost never fought since Leigh had moved into the apartment—which would have been nearly three years to the day before this conversation. They grew into each other in the way that couples in arranged marriages must do, strangeness growing into familiarity, familiarity growing into a kind of affection.
They would regularly stay up late into the night, combing through the details of their lives, telling anecdotes with the relish inspired by having a new audience. Max would tell Leigh about New York in the 80’s and about his glamorous life working in fashion and photography, a kind of life that Leigh supposed she had always craved but so much more so since she’d moved to the city and could see it all at such close range. He had asked her very thoughtful questions about her childhood. When her Aunt Mary had come to town he’d taken them both out to dinner at an Italian restaurant in the East village, the kind of place that lets people from out of town feel like they’ve been let in on a secret. He had completely charmed her, unsurprisingly.
Indeed, Leigh had thought, staring at the worn pointed toes of her flat shoes, if she could have anything in this moment it would be to return to the domestic happiness that she and Max had known, for the Bret problem not to just go away but for it to never have existed. For him to have never shown up at their door, grimy and solicitous only to decide later with a strange jealousy of unknown origin that Leigh was an undeserving resident in the home for which he paid no rent and, more importantly, a threat to his relationship with Max.
Leigh had trusted Max to deal with this Bret debacle. For obvious reasons her faith had waned but there was still some faint echo of it, quickly fading like a siren speeding away from you. Looking at Max then, she knew this last chance was sliding away even as they spoke. They would not soon be spending many late nights dissecting all that had gone wrong between Max and Bret as Leigh had once hoped; she would have to leave them together and never look back.
She’d looked at Max in the dissolving light. His shaggy dark blonde hair needed a trim and his blue eyes looked tired and little red, but still he was handsome. Leigh had felt, even in the moment, nostalgic. She’d realized suddenly that looking at Max had actually always made her feel that way. Max did not look forty-two anymore than he acted forty-two. For the first time it struck Leigh how sad this fact was. She could see it in his eyes then, that there was something in them that said there had once been a chance to go down a happier road. And like so many things, it had slipped away.
Intermittent rain drops had made their way through the tree branches onto the sidewalk but it was still mostly sunny; the light was coming through the clouds at odd angles and threw dappled shadows onto the scaffolding further down the block.
“It’s not for me to understand why you love Bret,” she’d said. She had rehearsed this part beforehand, wanting to say exactly the right thing, but as the words came out they sounded stale and warmed over from having repeated them to herself. “But I can see that you do, and I cannot have him in my life.”