THE NOTE she left me on the kitchen counter read, “I feel so much better since I cut you away from my heart.”
No idea how she got into the house. She didn’t take her key, after all, the night she left. But that was part of her charm, back when we were together: I never knew how she did anything. How she woke up exactly when she planned to, without needing an alarm. How she seemed to understand things written in languages she didn’t speak—signs in the background of foreign films, Japanese noodle packets—purely through some kind of deductive power. How she kept her job as a waitress, despite giving her customers and even her boss the same dirty look she gave me every single day that I knew her. It’s that look I see when I think of her now, disdainful rage that she turned on everybody, all the time. As if every stranger she passed on the street had just doused her in coffee.
The first time we met, I did spill coffee on her. She was topping up my cup at the café where she worked; I was looking past her, thinking of nothing. When something pulled me back and she slid into focus in front of me, her flared nostrils and narrowed eyes said, “Today just mugged me for small change, and your stupid face is one final kick in the teeth.” I snatched my mug back with a mumbled apology, and coffee blossomed across the crotch of her jeans. She didn’t scream. She didn’t say anything. She just stared at me, no longer angry—but surprised. Maybe no one had ever fulfilled her low expectations so completely. I gulped down my coffee in a hot haze of shame. When it came time to leave a tip, I emptied my wallet; I shook it upside down until the last penny tinkled out onto the little heap of bills. A different server had taken over while she scrubbed at the stain with a fistful of paper towels, but I could see her black eyes following me from behind the dessert counter.
Most people would probably avoid the place after that, but I couldn’t stay away. It was her anger that had startled me, but it was her surprise I craved. I wanted to shock her, shake her, stand out like a house on fire in what I thought must be the beige suburban cul-de-sac of her life. The first time I went back to the café, I was immediately rewarded by the face she made when she recognized me through the sweating glass of the door.
It didn’t last, of course. I couldn’t keep surprising her, not every day. First I surprised her by asking her out. That worked pretty well. The date was about as bad as you would expect—silence and the sound of silverware—but I surprised her by inviting her back to my place anyway. I surprised her in bed with the violence with which I pulled the clothes off her, sucked the air off her neck like cocaine, pressed my face to every part of her, bit her hair, licked the souls of her feet, wept afterward with my cheek against her ass. I surprised her by asking her to move in with me only a week later. But she wasn’t surprised, in the months that followed, when I bound her knees in my arms like a child and begged for more of her time, when I tried to get her to cut down on cigarettes, when I demanded to know how she knew that that Japanese noodle packet was vegetable flavor and not beef.
It was easier for her to keep me interested. All she had to do was hate me and make it clear that she did. She woke me up each morning with a disgusted shove, half dressed already with a toothbrush dangling between her teeth; she’d been awake since 7:59, three snooze buttons ago. If I was even one minute late picking her up from work in my car, she never waited. Even though she knew I would come, that I came every day, eventually. She refused to meet my friends and family and never introduced me to anyone she knew. Maybe she didn’t know anyone. For me she had no beginning and no past and, by extension, no future.
The night I broke up with her and threw her out of my house, she’d walked home from the café instead of waiting for me, so she got back hours after I did. I was already in bed, listening to her move around the kitchen, the clatter of plates and the dull scuff of her shoes. When she finally came upstairs, she shrugged off her clothes into a neat heap on the carpet without turning on the light and climbed under the covers slowly and carefully, as if stepping into a hot bath. I loved her so much I could die.
“I want you to leave,” I said. Her head whipped around. She stared at me, and even in the dark I could see that her eyes were round with
Surprise. I guess I’ve always had an ugly heart.
Margaret Besser is a writer and translator of fiction, graphic novels and poetry. Her work has been featured in Words Without Borders and various local publications and exhibitions.