J. L. Arcand
I met him at the grocery store during a time when I was trying hard to be invisible. It was a Monday or Tuesday night, and I was standing in the cereal aisle, checking which brands were on sale, when I noticed him a few paces down, grabbing a box of Froot Loops off the shelf. He was wearing dark-wash jeans, worn leather boots, and a blue Henley. I could tell by the way the shirt hugged his shoulders and biceps that he exercised regularly—either out of vanity or self-care.
He glanced in my direction after putting the box of cereal in his basket. I looked away, running my hand through my hair, trying to act like I hadn’t seen him. Men noticed me. I did not want to be noticed. I wanted to be left alone. Clearly, he could not read my mind. He looked at me for a few Mississippis, glanced down at his list, then looked at me again, all as I stood there, thinking what grown man buys Froot Loops? I grabbed two boxes of bran flakes off the top shelf and placed them in the basket on my arm, suddenly aware of how long I’d been staring at the same three cereals. I thought this choice would deter him, make him lose interest. Nobody wants to think about a stranger’s fiber intake.
Instead, he took a step in my direction. “You like bran flakes, huh?” he said. I could have grabbed antifreeze and he would have asked me if I liked that.
I turned to look at him. He was smiling. I almost ran to the next aisle, but figured he’d follow me. With my luck, I was probably parked next to him. “I haven’t shit in three days,” I lied. I said this to him with a straight face.
He surprised me when he laughed, most likely thinking I was joking or flirting or something. But I wanted him to take me seriously. Instead, he found it endearing, watching me with a sudden warmth which made me look away again. “I don’t normally do this,” he said, taking another step toward me, “but you’re beautiful. And now that I know you’re funny, I think I have to ask for your number, or I’ll be kicking myself for a long time.”
Usually I would have rolled my eyes and said something snarky like, “That line must have worked on your girlfriend.” But instead I asked him, “Is that right?” half-smirking, pretending I was somebody else for a moment—an actor stepping into my own life.
The smile on his face grew into a grin as I sized him up. And maybe it was the harsh lighting of the store, or the crying baby in the next aisle, or maybe the old woman who passed us with her cart full of cat litter and canned goods, but something made me remember. I did not want to trust the way he looked at me.
I adjusted the bag on my shoulder and turned my attention to the price tags on the shelves, making sure I could still see him in the corner of my eye. He glanced down at his feet and rubbed the back of his head. I found his sudden bashfulness amusing.
“Am I getting rejected in aisle two by the girl with mermaid hair?”
The only reason I gave him my number was because my horoscope that morning said someone unexpected would come into my life soon and instead of rejecting this person, I should give them a chance. It helped that he was attractive.
He took me to the County Fair for our first date. I hated Ferris wheels and the smell of fried food, yet I didn’t object. I didn’t even complain once as we walked around, in between the crowds of sweaty, drunk people and loud children with multicolored sugar smeared all over their faces. I didn’t want him to think I was that kind of person—the kind that complains all the time even when life is good and you are on a date with a handsome man and the weather is nice and warm yet he stills asks you if you want to wear his sweatshirt, just in case you are cold or in any way uncomfortable.
I told him it was okay when he failed to win me one of those big, stuffed animals at the game tents because I already had enough winking, neon pink lobsters to sleep with. He laughed, already getting my sense of humor, and bumped into my arm playfully as we walked on. It was a small, innocent gesture, yet I was surprised by how genuine, how intimate it felt. He reached down to hold my hand soon after, and I let him take it.
All I really remember from our first date was this moment and the spotted miniature horse. The stunted horse was going to town on the grain in my hand when he told me what he did for a living.
“I’m a mailman,” he said, leaning on the fence of the horse’s pen. “I didn’t go to college, so if that’s a problem, let me know.” He was smiling when he said this. He was always smiling. God, he was the happiest person I’d ever met.
I have to admit, I was a little surprised when he said “mailman.” I was thinking more on the lines of personal trainer, racecar driver, maybe even undercover cop. I had never seen a mailman under the age of forty-five. I thought they didn’t exist. Mailmen were dads. They were jolly and friendly and got attacked by dogs. They were not tall, dark-haired men with blue eyes and a perfect set of teeth.
I’d just finished telling him I majored in communications and now worked in the PR department of an investment firm. He had looked impressed. If he felt inferior because of his lack of degree, or if he somehow felt intimidated by me because I wasn’t a loser, he did a good job at hiding it.
“No, it’s not a problem. It’s not a problem at all,” I said, glancing at my glistening palm, which the horse had licked clean.
It really wasn’t a problem. If anything, I thought it would be a nice change. All of the men I’d dated in the two years after college had at least one degree under their belts, and nothing had ever lasted longer than a few months—if that—mostly because they were pretentious idiots. There was the guy in medical school who had mother issues and could not spell to save his life. There was the business graduate who never ate vegetables and liked to pick his nose when he thought I wasn’t looking. And then there was the aspiring writer, an unemployed English major who declared he’d never love anyone as much as he loved Edgar Allan Poe.
When I had gone back to Poe lover’s apartment later on the night of our first date, he’d shown me his raven tattoo. Its watchful eyes were directly in the center of his chest, and its wings stretched all the way to his shoulders. It was so large and black in the dim light of his kitchen I thought if I reached out to touch it, my hand would go through him and enter some other dimension, some black hole, and if I left it there for too long, it would suck me in completely.
“If God is a woman,” he said out of the blue, pushing his chest out, the raven ready to attack, “then so is the Devil.” Then, he shoved his tongue into my mouth, like I wanted it. But I did not. I did not know what I wanted, but I did not want this.
When he was on top of me moments later with his hand over my mouth, and I could not breathe nor free my arms nor find the light, all I could think about was that bird so close to my heart and fear and the darkness and how wonderful it would be to fly away and disappear against the night sky, leaving my body behind forever.
I went on another date with the mailman. On our tenth date, he told me he loved me.
We had gone to a classical concert in the park earlier in the evening. He did not tell me he loved me as we walked arm-in-arm to the park, nor while we strolled to my apartment afterwards, the September sun low in the sky, making our shadows long on the pavement. But I knew he did, by the way he kissed me at my door, brushing my hair out of my face first—“mermaid hair” he called it still, for it was wavy and fell to my waist, and when I lay down he said it looked like my head was floating in some dark sea—so I invited him into my apartment, a single flame of hope igniting as his hands framed my face and our lips locked, classical music still thrumming in my ears.
It was the first time I had been intimate with someone since before it had happened. I was not terrified of taking off my clothes; I was terrified of what it would feel like when he touched me, of what my mind would do to the sensation of his skin next to mine, how my mind would distort it and make it ugly, painful, unbearable.
I trembled and could not look him in the eye. He asked if I was okay, told me we could stop, that it didn’t matter to him, that we didn’t have to rush anything.
Stop. How many times had I said this word that night? No—my first word, the word my mother said was the most powerful word in every language. But what good were words if nobody listened?
He told me he loved me after it was over. He did not say it like a reflex, or with sleepy eyes and alcohol breath, like I was used to. He said it softly, rolling each word together so that if I could reach out and catch them in my hand before they dissolved in the space between our mouths, I could bend them, and they would form a perfect circle—whole and smooth—and then if I held this circle above my head, it would reflect the cool, milky light of the moon which came in through my half-opened window. And I wanted to believe him. Because I knew he did love me. But something hot and bitter bubbled up from my stomach and pained my throat, making it hard to swallow.
“I see you,” he said after I brushed his declaration of love off as infatuation. “You may think that’s impossible, but I do.”
“Why should I believe you?” I asked. It was one o’clock in the morning. I stared up at the ceiling. He lay on his side, looking at me. I thought if I focused on the shadows, I would not cry.
“I’m only asking you to give me a chance.”
Shortly after we moved in together the following spring, he grew a mustache. I hated that I liked his mustache. For my whole life, I had been anti-mustache. They were creepy and reminiscent of the seventies and of too many drunk uncles at family reunions. So, I did not understand why I was not repulsed by his face when he grew one. In fact, I was even more attracted to him.
“Why does he look so good with one?” I asked my mother one night over the phone.
“Because he has no upper lip,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if this were common knowledge or a proven scientific fact.
His Tom Selleck mustache aside, I found him irresistible when he wore his uniform. I had always dreamt of dating a man in uniform. A U.S. Postal uniform was not the kind I had imagined. Yet when he came home in the evening from work and greeted me with his impossible excitement, as if he hadn’t seen me for weeks, I did not know what more I could ask for.
Well, I did know. I wanted to ask him to take the birdfeeder off our balcony.
He told me birds were his favorite animal soon after we moved into our second floor apartment and he decided a feeder was the first thing we needed to buy. He carried the new feeder around the balcony one afternoon, trying to find the perfect spot for it, and mentioned how when he was a boy and lived out in the country, their old, family cat only liked to kill birds. This caused two things to happen: their rodent problem worsened, and he became fascinated with the flying creatures. He used to bring all of the dead birds the cat left on their doorstep downstairs to the basement, where he would look at them through a magnifying glass and examine their beaks and twig-like legs and toes, and then pluck his favorite feather off of their tiny, stiff bodies—something to remember them by. His brother helped him discard of the birds after he completed his examinations, meaning they would stand side-by-side in the backyard and see how far they could throw the bird carcasses into the woods. Every so often, one of them would hit a tree.
“This was not cruel,” he said, putting the feeder down in the sun, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I’ve never killed anything. I’ve never even thought about it.” I didn’t think it was cruel. I just thought he was a weird kid.
He said he kept the bird feathers he collected in a shoebox under his bed for years, and believed if he collected enough of them, he would dream of flying every night. I didn’t ask him if it’d worked, or if he still had any of the feathers hidden in a box somewhere in our apartment. I just stood there, watching him from behind the screen door as he filled the feeders with seed. “I’m not cleaning up any bird shit,” I mumbled, shielding my eyes from the sun.
I could see the birds from our kitchen window. I watched them in the morning while I sipped my coffee, and at night while we did the dishes. My heart raced whenever they quarreled with each other, fighting for a spot on the feeder. Every movement was so quick and unpredictable. I wondered why he could not see how uncomfortable the birds made me. Maybe I was being irrational. Maybe I was going crazy.
Apart from the birdfeeder situation, life had a certain rhythm to it, a certain easiness I thought was never going to be possible for me again. I busied myself with frivolous things, like changing the curtains in our bedroom to match our bedding, color-coding our closets, and buying a huge set of essential oils just because. Living with him was effortless, mostly because he was so laidback and easy to please, and he had great hygiene. But when he left our apartment in the morning, kissing me before heading out the door, and whistling some old-fashioned tune as he walked down the driveway to his car, I did not know why I felt relieved.
I did not know why I was not happy.
We ate dinner in front of the TV; him, a bowl of Froot Loops; me, two scrambled eggs on toast. We sat next to each other on the couch, the remote on the cushion between us.
While we waited for Seinfeld to come back on, I watched his mustache twitch as he chewed each spoonful of cereal. I fixated on the mustache. I imagined taking a razor to it right then and there, and then all his little hairs would fall into his cereal bowl. What would he do? Would he flip out? Or would he just smile and laugh, like he always did? What would it take to make him hate me?
“Is something wrong?” he asked, reaching across the cushion, putting a hand on my thigh.
I lifted my eyes from the bowl on his lap to his face. “No. No, I’m fine.”
“Really?” There was a little bit of milk on his mustache now. “You seem a little distant. More than usual at least.” He chuckled.
I turned my attention to the TV. “I’m just…thinking.”
I looked at him as he chewed another spoonful of cereal in bliss. Then, I got up from the couch and walked to the kitchen. I put my plate in the sink, turned on the water, and watched the birds by the birdfeeder, hopping and dancing about. The sun hovered above the tall pines and oaks, where larger birds perched themselves: woodpeckers, crows, hawks. I could not see them, but they were there. Steam from the hot water rose in front of me. I felt his eyes on my back. His caring, sincere, blue eyes. What was I doing?
Suddenly, a dark object appeared through the steam. It came at me in a blur, like a bullet, and hit the window with a loud thud, its wings still and outstretched before it peeled off the glass, leaving a thick smudge. I screamed and fell to the floor, weeping.
“It’s just a bird—a bird just flew into the window,” he said, racing toward me. He knelt down and moved the hair out of my face, then wiped the moisture from my cheeks with his thumb. “You’ll be okay. You’ll be—”
“You don’t know that!” I yelled, pushing him away. I stood up, wiped my nose on my arm, and stumbled over to the balcony door. All the birds on the feeder flew away when I yanked the screen open. Then, I grabbed the feeder, lifted it above my head, and threw it over the railing. And as it was in the air, I thought about everything he loved: birds, Froot Loops, mail, me. “Hate me, hate me,” I whispered to myself, watching the birds fly down from the trees and peck at the fallen seed on the yard, fighting and chirping, mocking me with their joy.
He came into our bedroom later that night and sat on the edge of the bed by my feet. I had been avoiding him, imagining the end, picturing him crying by himself while reruns of sitcoms flashed on the TV screen, a hand in an old shoebox full of feathers resting on the cushion beside him, where I should have been.
He didn’t say anything when he came in. He didn’t touch me. He didn’t even look at me. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, him staring at the wall, me under the blankets, teary-eyed. I was so sure I had hurt him. How much, I didn’t know. I could not measure pain in degrees anymore.
Eventually, he sighed and turned to look at me, his head slightly tilted. I held my breath. He gave me a small smile.
“You don’t have to be invisible if you don’t want to be,” he said softly, in a low whisper, as if he did not want anyone or anything to overhear, to taint this moment of intimacy between us simply by witnessing it. “Because you’re not. You are not what he did to you.”
Outside, a car passed. A tree limb tapped against a nearby window. The floorboards settled and creaked.
I wanted to tell him I loved him, like I did on the night we lay in the grass on our sixth-month anniversary when the moon was completely dark and I could not tell where the tree line ended and the sky began—the night I told him what had happened, and he nodded and simply said “I know.” I wanted to tell him the story of when I was six years old and in the hospital and how I was feeling better one morning so I ate a bowl of Froot Loops for breakfast, but I threw up afterwards. I wanted to tell him whenever he ate Froot Loops that was all I could think about—the rainbow on the hospital floor, the most beautiful thing to ever come out of my mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I told him instead, my voice ugly. “I’m so sorry.”
I loved him the most in the first hours of the morning when I awoke and could not fall back asleep. I watched his chest rise and fall under the covers, and ran my fingers through the very ends of his hair, just enough to feel its softness. He smiled in his sleep. I had a feeling he would die with a smile on his face.
I always wondered what he dreamt about. What did he see? Who did he talk to? Was he flying? And if he was, where was he going? I hoped he was happy in his dreams, happier than he was in real life. Mostly though, I hoped he dreamt about me.
In his dreams, I hoped he knew me—the girl that was somewhere inside of me, beneath the darkness. I hoped he saw how happy he made this girl, how much she loved him and wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. This girl was deserving of a man like him. They deserved each other. They made each other happy.
There was a Mr. Potato Head toy on his nightstand that watched him as he slept. He was funny like that. As we lay there together, I often thought of him as my Mr. Potato Head. He had all the right pieces, and none were missing. So did I, but I had a shoe for an eye, a mouth for an ear, an arm for a nose. He was everything I ever wanted, but no matter how hard I tried, my pieces would never fit where they were supposed to again. I could not be fixed.
Why did he love me? Why did he forgive me? What did he ever see in me in the first place? I wanted to wake him up in the earliest hours of the morning when the world was at its darkest and ask him these things. But I never did. I knew I would never deserve him, not tomorrow, not next year, not decades from now when I would have nothing left to lose.
But, maybe that wasn’t what love was.
Maybe the only thing that mattered was that moment during the night when he would exhale and roll closer to me, wrapping his arms around my entire body, and would pull me into his chest, where I was not afraid of anything—not the darkness nor the raven. I would fall asleep in his arms and meet him in my dreams, and I would be so happy to see him. I would be so happy, I swear I was smiling in my sleep.
J. L. Arcand is currently studying creative writing and business at the University of Maine at Farmington, and will graduate in the fall of 2018. She lives in southern New Hampshire.