Existential Love Story – Jennifer Edelson

The cedar sauna is pitch black inside, like an ink stain that never dries despite the heat.  To navigate, I keep one hand on planks of blistering grooved wood, until I find a flat surface directly in front of me.  Evan plops down and pulls me up against his body and the jolt loosens a little air bubble from between my lips.

“Do you love me?” He asks.

I want to say I think so, but don’t answer.

He kisses my neck, and my mind wanders from song lyric to song lyric, following a chain of associations.  I sing, “Love, love will tear us apart again . . .” until Evan kisses me quiet.  His hands explore fleshy planes of fat and skin.  And though I feel him tangibly, in the hot dark sauna, I can’t help wondering if he’s a figment of my imagination.

My pounding heart fills the boxy room.  The space feels like it’s expanding, but my skin still puckers in anticipation.  Evan’s touch is electrifying, and as he lays me back against the hot bench and rests his weight on top of me, my body arches up to meet him.

Evan says my heart is like a motel vacancy sign, sometimes the lights are on, sometimes nothing.  That I should care more about who or what occupies each room.  It’s soul crushing to think he questions my commitment.  He’s more a part of me than anyone.

“What are you thinking about?” He asks.

“You’re not just some transient lodger,” I whisper.

“You sure?”

“Yes.  Plus, the ‘motel’ is in ruins.  Maybe now it’ll shut down permanently.”

I want Evan to know he’s the only person who makes sense of life in a way I understand.  That we may not agree on things like God or children, but that he exists in a way I respect, and that because of it, I admire him.  But it’s really late and knowing I may never be able to tell him makes me want to run as far away as possible.

Evan kisses me again.  His kisses travel down my neck along with his hand, which scrunches up my tee shirt above my stomach.  I really need him to know how I feel, so though I only mean to take off my shirt, somehow, he manages to get me naked beneath him.  He takes off his own clothes, then takes my hand and shows me his soft spots until all sorts of agreeable emotions come flooding out of me.

In the dark Evan’s body makes no sense.  Muscle and bone push against tight skin like well-placed padding, defining long limbs and slender torso.  Under my fingers they’re like guideposts staking out boundaries between voyage-worthy destinations.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “I know you’re not into it tonight.  I just want to touch you.”

“You think I’m empty?” I whisper.

“No, Baby.  I think you’re amazing.”

Evan closes my eyes with his fingertips and traces a pattern across my upper chest with his index finger, back and forth between the hollows above my collarbone.  He recites travel facts from National Geographic as he walks his fingers over my stomach, and it’s so sexy.

For a moment, we are one.  The ghost in Evan is the ghost in me, if ghost is what it is.  Evan knows my ghosts better than anyone.

We move against each other, but my mind goes into hyperdrive.  Instead of focusing on Evan’s touch, I think about my dinner earlier, about the life my Cod probably lived — swimming thousands of miles, chasing Russian submarines.  It’s upsetting knowing I snuffed out those memories.  Just like that, I destroyed another unique irreplaceable thing.

I think about the difference between me and Jupiter.  How she’s composed of the same electrical impulses that travel through my body; how I’m made up of the same iron, and oxygen, and energy.  It makes me sad.  Four billion years of inertia would drive me crazy.

I think about snowmen.  How futile it must feel to sit paralyzed while your body melts away, and just when you’ve started living.  I think about petrified trees and the millions of years’ worth of experiences they’ll never share with me.  I think about how small I am, about how little space must care that I’m out here.  I obsess about relativity and it screws with my head, because knowing I’m so inconsequential, sometimes makes it hard to endure.

I think about ghosts, and aliens, and ESP.  How thousands of people can’t all be liars, how my inner skeptic excels at canceling out belief.  I think about Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer.  Did they believe in anything?

I think about how every day, someone dies in a car accident, or drowns in the shallow end of their pool, or chokes on a carrot.  How it’s all completely random.  I worry about people dying from yellow fever and food born germs.  I worry about environmental diseases.  I think about earthquakes destroying California and a thirty-mile wide asteroid hitting earth while I sleep.  I wonder if a title wave can make it all the way from the beach to the city.  Then I realize I really should quit thinking.  I’m more likely to worry myself to death, which would be its own catastrophe.

“Maybe we should stop,” Evan says softly, interrupting my ruminating.  “I can tell you’re somewhere else.”

“I’m trying,” I whisper.  “I’m just anxious tonight.”

“Try for you,” he says sort of thoughtfully, “I’ll be here no matter what as long as you’re honest with me.”  He props himself up and rests rigidly on his elbows, feeling around my body for a box of cigarettes.  “Open your heart, Babe,” he says as he sits up, “whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find it eventually.”

“What if I die in a car crash before I do?”

“That’s what you’re thinking about?”

Evan lights a cigarette.  Orange flecking glows in the pitch room, leaving a stubborn imprint.  We sit and stare at it in silence for a minute, until his hand searches for me on the wooden ledge, finding a space for his thumb right between two of my ribs.

“What if?” He asks.  “You’re looking for absolutes that don’t exist.  Statistically speaking, 94% unlikely may be the best you ever get.  And I’d take those odds, honestly.”

“Statistics are meaningless when it comes to humans.  That four percent still represents flesh and blood people.  And given all the horrible things out there, there’s a whole lot of numerically improbable slots to fill.”

“That’s partly what makes life exciting, don’t you think?’

“No, it’s too uncertain.  What if there really is a right path and I never find it?  I need a guidebook,” I tell him.

Evan laughs.  “Guess you’re out of luck, Babe.  But it’s not okay to wait and do nothing until you figure it out.  You have to play to win.  Meaning is a romantic notion, but it’s also pretty academic when it’s still just a word.”

“I’m going to screw up, Evan.”

“If you didn’t screw up, I’d worry about you.”

I hesitate, because I know I shouldn’t say it.  “Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can love someone.”

Do you love me?”

Wiping little beads of sweat off my chin, I say, “I love the way saltwater feels when it’s tacky and foul after it dries on my skin.  And the way sunburned skin feels snug, like it’s holding everything inside me together.  I love peeing when I’ve waited for an eternity.  I love the smell of hot tar on a hot day.  And the way the airport smells all the time, but especially airplane exhaust in winter.  I love the way orange and blue look together.  I love the words ‘discipline’ and ‘debris.’  And I really love Taco Bell tacos.  But I honestly don’t know what it feels like to love a human.”

“This.”  He grasps my arm gently.  “This is what it feels like.”

I frown again, then sigh.  It’s Evan all the way for the win.

“What’s really in that head of yours, sandwiched between all your fear and uncertainty?  What’s so important you can’t just lie back and stop thinking?”

The stubby end of my own cigarette burns all the way down to the filter.  I take another one out of its box and then scoot away from him, because I don’t want to be close enough to feel it when I hurt his feelings.

“I don’t think I know how to love you, Evan.”

I flick my lighter to see his face better.  Tainted by an orange glow, it looks strange and distant — like he sees through me and doesn’t exactly like what’s behind the veil.

“Do you regret anything?” He asks.

“I regret lots of things,” I say softly.

“Marrying me?”

“No.”  I shrug.  “I don’t think so.”

“You won’t at all, one day,” he whispers.

“How do you know?”

“Because I do.  One day we’ll be an epic story.  I’ll be that enigmatic boy who played the guitar and won your heart over a pool table.  Tonight, right here, will be the first time you looked outside yourself and saw it all clearly.  The thing is, Babe, everyone has to lose it a little to move forward.  Someday, I promise you, you’ll understand there isn’t a thing in this world you’d rather do then live in it with me.”

In the dark, as he grasps my hand and uses it to stroke his cheek, I already know in this amorphous way that though the road ahead is my own, I really don’t mind sharing.  We may be opposites.  But we can love each other differently.  I just have to find a way to show him I want it to work.

I flick my lighter again and hold it up, meeting his eyes.

If I remember anything about tonight, it will be this moment.  The way Evan looks in the glow of my flame.  I will remember he looks happy.  I will remember that I love his smell — a mix of cigarettes, leather, sweat, and wood — and what it does to me.  We exchange gazes void of awkward pauses or paralyzing insecurity.  It’s all there in his eyes.  Evan already knows I believe we’re an epic story.  He’s just waiting for me to voice the ending.

***

Jennifer Edelson is an artist, writer, former attorney, pizza fan, and hardcore Bollywood fanatic. She has a B.A. in Fine Arts – Sculpture, and a J.D. in Law, and both taught at and graduated from the University of Minnesota. Though a California native, she now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her family after surviving twenty plus years in the Minnesota Tundra. Other than writing, she loves exploring wild mysterious places, Albert Camus, chocolate, and people — if you’re human, odds are I’ll love you.