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Early morning sunlight filtered through the dusty blinds, resting upon her eyelids until she begrudgingly pried them open. She had been dreaming – a rare occurance – and the hazy images began to retreat as she ventured into awareness. She gradually began to untangle herself from the sheets that had twisted around her body as she slept. Once freed, she allowed herself a final moment of leisure as she sprawled on the sagging mattress. The gentle breeze from the ceiling fan cooled her skin, still moist with sweat from the night before. Lazily she watched the dust particles dancing on the air.
He was gone, using only the moon’s light to find his way as he tiptoed out of the bedroom. They had met by chance over asparagus in the produce section of the grocer’s. She was searching for the tender, young variety while he preferred more mature stalks. It was a difference that would come to define their relationship. At first, she noticed his t-shirt: a well-worn item from a band she followed in high school. She also noticed his shoes. She always noticed shoes. While talking, she realized that they shared several commonalities. Their first date was at the playground.
His eyes were sparkling and kind. The dark curls of his hair haphazardly tumbled into his face when his speaking became animated. He was quick to smile and his laugh was contagious. His jeans hung just low enough to reveal that he wore boxers, the cuffs worn and frayed from being stepped upon. They sat on a bench drinking lemonade while the sounds of children playing nearby provided background noise. Conversation came easily, and they discussed everything from politics to pizza. They were exceedingly well matched, and he held her attention. They talked until the last child had gone home.
Their connection was intense. She couldn’t quite say it was love. Not yet anyway. It didn’t take long before they found themselves removing clothes, limbs intertwined, lips and tongues exploring each other’s sweaty bodies. She had been with many men, but sex with him was unlike any she had previously experienced. He was attentive, passionate and took the time to learn her body. He loved how she responded when he touched her in a certain way. She reciprocated, finding the little things that excited him, and she loved the power that she felt when his whole body trembled with pleasure.
In the bedroom, she watched a spider weaving an intricate web in the corner, and she wondered if she would ever be able to create such a masterpiece. She had gone to art school, despite her parents’ fervent protests, and had the hefty student loans to prove it. Yet more and more, she was convinced that she had made a mistake. Plenty of people had admired her work, but she was never satisfied. If art was to be an expression of her self, then each piece was a dreadful failure. There was so much more to who she really was.
She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, letting them dangle for a moment while she stretched. Her back arched and she pretended for an instant that she was a dancer, graceful and lithe. Her bare feet found the creaky wood floors and she stood up slowly. She walked toward the window and leaned outside to test the temperature. She was proud of her body and didn’t care who happened to see her naked breasts. She pulled on a t-shirt and a pair of his boxers, which had been lying in a pile of clothes on the floor.
She made her way to the kitchen and prepared an egg, over easy. She was lost in thought when her whole wheat bread sprung from the toaster, jarring her back into reality. She spread butter and raspberry jam from a farmer’s market they had stopped at on their way back to the city. After arranging her breakfast on a chipped china plate, she sat at the kitchen table to eat. She chewed slowly, savoring each bite. The egg needed salt and a skosh of pepper. Once properly seasoned, she resumed her meal and glanced only occasionally at the front door.
She washed the dishes by hand and placed them carefully into the drying rack. With that complete, she decided to take a bath. She made her way to the antiseptic bathroom and turned the faucet. As steaming water filled the tub, she added some scented oil. She climbed in slowly, allowing her body to adjust to the heat before submerging completely. With a sigh, she laid back and let the water envelop her. She didn’t understand what had happened, and couldn’t burden her mind to figure it out. All she knew was that everything seemed fine until suddenly it wasn’t.
They had spent the day before in a rented car, trading the pace and claustrophobia of city life for upstate’s relative serenity. They drove with the windows wide and the music cranked up. Their singing was loud and off-key. Each of them let one arm ride the wind as they pressed forward with no particular destination in mind. After a while, the sun had reddened their arms, and they joked that they should fold into one another and become one in order to even things out. They stopped at the edge of a tree-lined field to enjoy their picnic lunch.
They laid the quilt his mother had made in a flat, grassy area. He was slightly embarrassed that he still had his childhood quilt, but she found it endearing. The air was warm, and the sun hung in the sky without the company of clouds. She shined, and he sat in awe of her unassuming beauty. They unpacked their food and began to eat, lighthearted and carefree. He wondered if the timing was right to declare his love. He hesitated, and the moment was gone. When they were finished eating, they weren’t ready to leave, so they decided to explore.
They kissed and talked and laughed, running through the tall grass like children and stripping off their clothing to splash in a small stream. He kissed her breasts and fingered her cunt, spreading her legs so his tongue could slide inside her. Her back arched involuntarily, and a soft moan escaped. They were interrupted by a hunting dog before she could cum, and they scrambled to pull their clothes on before his owner descended upon them. Back in the car, she gave him a blow-job as he drove. Once they arrived home, they resolved to finish what they had started.
Lying spent in the bed, he wrapped his arms around her, kissed her forehead, and stroked her hair. She told him how much the day had meant to her and how she wished that life could always be so simple. At first her comment seemed innocuous, but she soon noticed the change in his demeanor. When she asked him what was wrong, he wouldn’t tell her. He was thinking about the ring tucked inside his messenger bag. It had only been three months, but he loved her. He was ready for forever, but he wasn’t sure she felt the same.
He woke early after not sleeping well. She looked peaceful, snoring lightly, and he didn’t want to wake her. He found his clothes and tiptoed from the room, making sure to avoid the creakiest floorboards. He considered leaving a note, but decided against it. He needed to clear his mind, and wasn’t sure that anything he could say would make sense to her right now. He took his jacket, but left his bag so that she would know he was coming back. He closed the front door, locked it, and set off on a long, meandering walk across the city.
Outside, the air was balmy and the skies overcast – a glaring contrast to the previous day’s weather. The sun had not yet begun its ascent. He walked purposefully, but with no particular destination. His pace slowed as he neared the boulangerie on the corner and he lingered to breathe in the aroma of freshly baked bread. The early morning solitude felt strange. He was accustomed to falling in lockstep with the waves of commuters that descended upon the city each morning. It was well before those masses would wipe sleep from their eyes and set their daily routines in motion.
He turned from her busy thoroughfare onto a tree-lined side street. Stately brownstones stood at attention behind imposing wrought-iron gates. He imagined families quietly sleeping inside. In a few hours, they would wake up and enjoy pancake breakfasts and syrupy kisses. The children would run off to play while their parents would converse over coffee. This was the life to which he aspired. He dreamed about attaining these things with her. But she was fickle like a cat only letting people get close on her own terms, and he had trouble reading her vacillating moods. He contemplated his next move.
He walked east until the river was visible. He slowed and ambled along the embankment, watching the cargo carriers unhurriedly aligning themselves with the docks so that they could deliver their wares. The early morning joggers whizzed past without so much as a nod of the head in acknowledgment. Most of the benches along the path were occupied by homeless folks. Their entire lives were portable, packed into tattered suitcases which their arms wrapped tightly around. He found the first empty bench and sat to think about the future of their relationship. He tried to be fair in his assessment.
Over time he had come to resent her carefree lifestyle. And she resented the pressure to “grow up”. The thought of spending her days confined to a cubicle at some ‘sensible adult job’ made her chest constrict. She needed freedom and flexibility. Her life required a certain amount of transience so that she didn’t become stifled. Her spending money came from walking dogs, painting houses, and babysitting children. Every now and again one of her paintings would sell, bringing in a reasonable commission. She was never terribly concerned with her finances because there was always the money from the settlement.
Her father had died when she was in college, and she still hadn’t completely recovered. There was something about seeing his body, bloodied and broken, that had fundamentally changed her. He worked construction and had fallen from the roof of a three-story house onto the brick patio below. He never had a chance. She vividly remembered the day that the accident happened. She was feverishly working on a painting inspired by a dream. That piece now sat in her closet, unfinished. When her mother called with the news, she dropped the phone and ran to the hospital shoeless and crying.
Her father had been her hero – her protector, confidante, and biggest fan. He secretly supported her decision to attend art school, though he knew his wife would never approve. She barely recognized him when she entered the hospital room. His head was heavily bandaged and his eyes swollen shut. His body was a mess of wires, each leading to a different machine. She was stunned and speechless. Tentatively, she reached for his hand. Her mother and younger brother enveloped her in a tight hug. After a few minutes they ushered her away to talk about advance directives and life support.
Half the money from his life insurance and wrongful death suit went to his wife. The remainder was divided between the three children. It was more money than she could have ever imagined, but it came at such a high cost that she couldn’t bear to touch it. It would have made sense to pay off her loans, or buy an apartment so she would no longer be burdened with insufferable landlords and rent. But she didn’t do any of that. Instead the money sat in a bank accruing interest and serving as a constant reminder of her father’s absence.
It wasn’t until months after his funeral that she realized she had been relying on physical proximity and emotional distance to cope with his death. Witnessing the loss her mother had endured had caused her to guard her heart a little more carefully. Her body was another story. Her bedroom became a revolving door as a variety of men paraded through. She willingly embodied whatever roles they needed her to fulfill – mysterious artist, virginal ingenue, tease, whore. Meaningless sex took her mind off of heavier topics. She rarely remembered their names the next morning, and she never called them back.
Things began to change once she met him. She genuinely enjoyed his presence, and felt that he brought out the best in her. He read her Neruda, Bukowski and Nikki Giovanni. They cooked together and enjoyed sampling new cuisines. He critiqued her work and encouraged her to stretch her boundaries as an artist. They spent Sundays playing board games and feeding the ducks in the park. They kept separate apartments, but he rarely went home. She was starting to feel safe with him, and her desire to be near him was beginning to overshadow her fear of getting too close.
He allowed their relationship to develop slowly, but she suspected that his feelings for her ran deep. She preferred not to think about that. She didn’t want to break his heart, but she wasn’t ready to completely relinquish hers either. It was a precarious tightrope walk, and she found herself swaying from moment to moment. Whenever stress built up, she began to withdraw. He learned to give her space but never completely disappear, and she always came back around. But this was not a dance he wanted to do forever, and he grew tired of everything being done her way.
Still, the problems in their relationship seemed minimal. Their fights bared more resemblance to heated debates than vicious, intentionally hurtful brawls. Yet his discontent at their lack of growth as a couple was simmering below the surface. He understood her hesitations, and tried to remain supportive. But he also wanted his feelings taken into consideration. She was so inwardly focused that she couldn’t always see the bigger picture. She was clinging to her youth while he was happy to embrace what was yet to come. He didn’t know how, or if, they would be able to resolve these fundamental differences.
He wondered how she would react when he returned to the apartment. He knew she would be upset, and he also anticipated her confusion. He shouldn’t expect her to reciprocate feelings he hadn’t yet admitted, but he did. Their drive upstate was to be a test of their bond, devoid of the context of everyday life. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day, and his hope that they had made an important breakthrough skyrocketed. But while he saw a future ripe with the potential to become a legendary love story, he believed she saw him as just another tryst.
An eternity later, after the bathwater had become cold and her fingers pruney, he still wasn’t home. She was listless and concerned. She was used to doing the leaving in relationships, and wasn’t enjoying the reversal of roles. She tried to paint, but the images in her mind weren’t translating to the canvas. She considered doing their laundry, but couldn’t muster the energy. Finally she decided upon thumbing through the newspaper. The articles on crimes and politics exposed the same old stories of corruption and greed. Her faith in institutions had worn thin. She ultimately settled upon reading the comics.
She sat crosslegged in bed, the Sunday crossword puzzle spread out before her. She had already completed the easiest clues and was trying to find a 5 letter word meaning ‘listless discontent’. Her concern about where he had gone and when he’d be back distracted her from her task. When the key clicked in the lock, she leapt from the bed, standing arms akimbo to block his access into the bedroom. When she questioned his whereabouts, he shrugged and tried to pass her. She moved again to block him. He surrendered, flopped onto the couch and reached for the clicker.
She was angry and wanted to pick a fight, but she knew that he wouldn’t engage. Instead, she gathered her breath and sat down beside him. She needed to choose her words carefully, but couldn’t figure out how to begin. She turned the television off, shifted her body to face him, and simply asked “what happened?”. He still wasn’t certain he could put his thoughts into words, but his response was melancholy and honest. “I don’t know.” Her next question “can we fix it?” was met with the same reply. After a long, uncomfortable silence, he reached for her hand.
They ordered Indian food for dinner and laid a blanket on the living room floor. The complex flavors of the curries mirrored their relationship. Spicy yet sweet. Delicate but powerful. They had decided to try. The path ahead would be challenging, now that pretenses had been pushed aside. She knew it was more than sex. He confessed his love. The timing was wrong for a proposal, but he wanted to know whether he could hang his hopes on the future. She needed to know that their relationship wouldn’t fall into the doldrums of everyday life. Neither could make any promises.
One year later, he strolled hand in hand with another woman who proudly wore his ring. Her belly was just beginning to push outward with evidence of the young life within. They were thumbing through used baby clothes at the Sunday market when he saw her, radiant but alone. After exchanging pleasantries, the conversation lulled. Their eyes connected, and she smiled nostalgically as she turned to leave. His gaze lingered on her as she moved toward the farmer’s booth, chose her baby asparagus, and placed it into her bag. That night he thought of her while he fucked his wife.
The Tip Jar