Irina lives alone now, which is ideal. Except last night, when she watched a psychological thriller, some dream-sequence cinema with melting wax heads and ants crawling from orifices and twisted whispering voices. She couldn’t tell you the plot. She couldn’t tell you what it all meant. But she couldn’t sleep after. The scary little movie scenes wormed into the backs of her eyelids. She regretted living so far from Jake then, but by morning, she doesn’t. It would have made her feel like a child, crying to him about a monster that didn’t even make sense.
The morning is heavy and sober. The air is cold even inside her apartment, and peeling off her blankets feels like ripping scabs off an unhealed wound. It’s fall now, the air will be wet and crisp and will slide its slimy fingers under sweater sleeves and exposed necklines. There’s stones in her stomach. Every movement of every toe and limb is exhausting and calculated, as if she were a dancer on her hundredth rehearsal of the same stupid dance.
It’s a two hour drive from Knoxville to Asheville, and Irina doesn’t know if she can make it. Asheville is not even the halfway point. Jake has to drive much longer, three-and-a-half hours, to get there from Atlanta, which is already incredibly nice of him. They’d agreed to meet weeks ago. She would be an asshole to cancel now. If it were anyone but Jake, she probably would.
Stepping outside hurts. The sun is still here, bright even through a grey sky. The trees are already rustling, the people are walking places. It just never stops!
When she was young, Irina couldn’t believe how easily the other kids jumped straight into pools, just like that, throwing off their clothes and leaping in without pausing to consider how cold and uncomfortable the water would be, and every day, they still do it, the kids now grown-up, still splashing in without hesitation. How could they possibly be going to work on a day like this?
She shivered walking to her car. She used to smile at passing pedestrians, but they seldom smiled back, and each rejection was so painful she stopped doing it altogether.
Irina loves the fall, she really does. She likes all the silly things you’re supposed to like, squeezing into cheap Halloween costumes, punting carefully constructed piles of red leaves, loitering in pumpkin patches and pointing at each ugly warped one with a clucked aw. Even warmed-up apple cider. Weird, right? It’s basically hot juice.
Jake is going to make fun of her when she orders something pumpkin spicey, and she’ll give the same defense as always: it’s the only flavor they’ve kept truly seasonal, the only one you can’t find any other time of year. You can buy strawberries in the frozen heart of January and candy canes in the summer and everything’s been stripped of festivity or rarity and nothing indicates a passage of time anymore -- except for pumpkin spice.
She listens to classical music for the two hour drive. It’s loud. Every trill of the piccolo and crash of cymbals and nervous pluck of violin makes her window shake. The drivers in Tennessee are insane, and only a little better once she’s in North Carolina. She’s fully frazzled by the time she pulls up to the grimiest cafe in Asheville.
Jake’s already here, leaning on the hood of his car, arms crossed, folding into himself like a rain-soaked pigeon under an awning. Irina gets out of her own car, and exhales for the first time all day.
“Hey.” She waves to him.
He says nothing. He opens his arms, full-wingspan. She collapses into them. The full weight of his head melts into her shoulder. Irina is dimly aware of the highway roaring dull behind them, the impatient cars inching into parking spots. All just silly little flies buzzing far far away.
“We should go in,” he mumbles into her neck.
The cafe is moldy in the corners, with chalkboard signs and bad art and a garland of fake leaves dangling around the pastry case. It’s cute if you don’t look too hard. A persistent scent of cinnamon clogs Irina’s nostrils.
“Do you guys have seasonal drinks?” she asks. “Something autumnal?”
“Autumnal.” The droopy-eyed teenage cashier repeats.
“Like, um.” Irina really doesn’t want to say the word out loud. “Something, um. With pumpkin spice?”
“Yeah. We have apple cider.”
“Okay. Can I get that? Is it warm?”
“No. I can put it in the microwave.”
“I’ll take one too,” says Jake. “And do put mine in the microwave.” He pays for both drinks, swatting away Irina’s hand when she extends her own credit card in protest.
They occupy a teeny table squeezed into a corner. It’s missing a leg and wobbles when they move their arms too much.
“I’m glad you had a change of heart,” Irina says. “Isn’t warm apple cider the absolute best?”
“I got this for you.” Jake slides his cup towards her and snatches the cold cider for himself.
“You never make people do anything extra but I know you want your cider warm. You’d never ask her to microwave it yourself.”
It’s sweet, it really is, but it reminds Irina exactly why she’d never live with Jake. Those teeny maternal moments, the implied I know what’s best for you -- I know you better than you know yourself, it’s well-intentioned and sometimes quite nice, but ultimately makes her resentful.
“How are you?” he asks.
“Tired. I didn’t sleep much.”
“I watched this movie.” She tells him about it. “It was scary.”
“Yeah. It’s grotesque.” He’s seen it. Jake’s seen every movie. You can tell by looking at him; he’s got the sloped back, the heavy eyes, the sloppy hair of someone thoroughly ruffled through and disenchanted by real life.
The table beside them seats an older woman, blonde with heavy glasses that magnify her eyes like a dragonfly. She seems like her main personality trait is being skinny past forty. A child rocks in the chair across from her, scattering muffin crumbs in a happy shower all over the floor.
Jake looks at the child, then immediately away. Kids scare him as much as they do Irina. It’s not that they’re not cute, they’re just unpredictable. There’s a lot of things that scare him, quietly. He’s death personified really, in the nicest way possible. There’s a heaviness to him, a full awareness of his own mortality, his every action somber, his every word grave. A walking funeral, a hearse you pass by in the street, a reminder of something you don’t want to remember. Most people can’t seem to bear to look at him for too long. Irina sometimes can’t look away.
The blonde lady looks. She sees them seeing her child make a mess, and offers a what can you do? smile. She leans in towards Irina, as if they were classmates whispering dirty secrets.
“You guys are a cute couple,” she says and winks, actually winks.
“Um.” Irina smiles. She looks at Jake. He makes his mouth tight, I know. They’ve avoided the conversation this long. This owl-eyed woman won’t be the catalyst for it.
The apple cider has gone lukewarm in her cup. Its cinnamon flecks stick between her teeth.
“How’s your cold apple cider?” she asks.
“Jake, you know what?”
“You’re the only person on this planet that doesn’t make me feel crazy.”
“Thank you. That means a lot. You’re the only one I feel lucid with.”
Lucid is a great word. She’d recently gone on a date with a girl who had it tattooed above the crease of her right elbow.
“Why ‘lucid?’” Irina asked, pointing.
“Like lucid dreaming, you know? When you’re in a dream and you know you’re in a dream and you can control what happens? I’ve been trying to get better at it. I can look down in my dream and if I don’t see my tattoo, I know I’m dreaming from that point on.”
“But how do you remember to look down in the first place?”
“You practice. I’ve been getting better at it.” She’d said this with so much authority, Irina didn’t press the matter further.
She was a pisces. Irina didn’t care for astrology too much anymore, but she still collected that data, the same way she’d ask where a girl was from or what her favorite color was. With gay women, it’s an expected conversation topic. She remembers from her days perusing magazine horoscopes that pisces are supposed to be emotional, dreamy, psychic. The emotional part was true— the girl had cried after they had sex. Irina hopes the psychic part wasn’t true though, else Ms. Pisces would’ve heard exactly what she thought about that.
She tells Jake about her. He laughs softly. He doesn’t mind hearing about her and other people. He usually thinks it’s funny, and usually he’s right. She seems to bring in all the stray cats and flea-bitten dogs into her bedroom, every hook up more an anecdote than anything steamy. There’s always a punchline.
She doesn’t like hearing about Jake being with other people. She can’t imagine most people getting him. They probably think he’s boring, or too serious. Scary, even. It breaks her heart imagining someone thinking that, even though it doesn’t bother Jake. The girls probably leave his apartment immediately after they’re done with him. He likes to drink tea after sex. Irina can imagine it, him alone in the kitchen, somebody else’s perfume still soaked into his skin, brooding over a pot of boiling water.
He’s not the best she’s ever had. He probably thinks the same of her. But his taste in tea is excellent, and he’s the last person on Earth with a DVD collection, with many of Irina’s favorite movies included. He talks the perfect amount when they watch them together, enough commentary to keep it interesting but not too much to miss the action.
Sometimes, they get a hotel in Asheville. But they won’t spend the night together this time. There’s stuff to attend to. Really, it’s already pretty late.
It’s cold when they step outside. Autumn bites their ears, their ankles. It’s a sad sky, grey like an old bruise, fading to night and nothing. Floodlights illuminate the parking lot, a stage set for a dramatic goodbye.
Irina looks at Jake’s face. Most times, she can’t believe he’s real. He’s looking at the pavement. It’s cracked like wounded skin, festering with ants fighting each other for stray muffin crumbs.
Irina forgot to turn on the thermostat. Her apartment will be cold by the time she drives back. Tomorrow morning will be terrible, at least that first moment when her bare feet slap the floor.
“You should come to Atlanta,” Jake says suddenly. His voice is meek, a child asking for a toy he knows he can’t have.
“Like to visit?”
“Yeah. Stay for a bit. Hang out.”
Irina briefly considers it, she really does. “I don’t know if I can. Work --”
“Yeah, work. It’s been really busy lately for me too.” The meekness is gone, swallowed like a bitter pill, already dissolved in his bloodstream. The mollusk has opened and closed immediately, buried in the sand at a million miles per hour.
“Let me know if there’s any other movie I should watch though. We can talk about them next time.”
“I will. See you next time.”