Today is Valentine's Day, America's sacred day of sad wine memes. This essay isn't really about that, or consumerism, or 13 Crazy Ways to Knock Her Socks Off. I guess it's about women and being alive and lying naked with a human you love or only maybe love. Obligations are a bummer. Conventions are a bummer. But she, standing there, looking at you, whatever day it is, is not always a bummer. Let's eat some fucking chocolate.
She is standing at the jukebox in a dark bar. She sees you at the opposite end. It is crowded and her face is obscured by shoulders and tap handles but you can see her, too. A look that vaguely implies something filthy. Wild ideas. Collaborations. Plans for each other and the universe. A fast-forward to a sweaty moment in the backseat of your car. A look that is itself a rocket ship; with her you are above the clouds with the top down, picking meteors out of your teeth. She is beyond logic, chemistry, beyond your capacity to feel things, and this is terrifying. Because to be with her is to reconsider your own understanding of a species. How one person can permeate the being of another.
She plays nine dollars' worth of songs that are for everyone, for her, for this half-drunk moment, but they are for you, really. Songs that are so perfect they twist through your flesh like a sniper bullet. You sit and shake your head and idly pick at a damp coaster.
You sleep most weekends at her place one summer. You listen to Gladys Knight and have sex and watch The Larry Sanders Show. Her air conditioner sucks every trace of moisture from her bedroom. The front of it has fake wooden panels, like the sides of an old station wagon. Artifice, failing technology, wood as a signifier of low-level prosperity: America, baby. You wake up in the middle of the night and hold your eyelids open until you start to tear and then you go back to sleep.
Sometimes you don't turn on the air conditioner and everything feels sticky, every surface, like you are covered in dried soda. Sometimes you lie with her on the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor, touching each other's hands, rolling, looking for new cold, listening to the rumble of the dishwasher, to the metal pull-chain on the ceiling fan clanging against the light bulb, to her working through her problems out loud. To you both pretending you have answers. Years before that she lived in Hong Kong with a boyfriend. They tried heroin and rode around on an old green motorcycle and one time he had another guy jerk him off while she watched. He was a stand-up comedian who never quite made it. She likes you because you are none of these things.
Before bed she sprinkles baby powder on her chest and behind her knees. In the morning it is in messy, clumped streaks from where the sweat was. Here is proof, evidence. A human alive; a body in operation.
You want to inhale her, her skin, her elbows, her shoulders, and every wrinkle of her brain, every movement, every noise, the face she makes when she calculates a tip. How sometimes she laughs so hard you can hear her from downstairs. How she laughs even harder and doesn't make a sound at all. How she paces and looks at the lines on her palms when she is talking to her mother on the phone. How she doesn't pace when she is talking to her father, because she never talks to her father. Her father is no good, and she came from that no-good, but now she is this woman, she is bulletproof, she is King Kong swinging from the skyscraper antenna, she is eating traffic and exams and brunch shifts like grapes.
You are in bed next to each other in the morning, on your backs, not wanting to move, wondering how much time you have left, doing the math together. Feeling the narcotic monotony of domesticity. The neighbors upstairs, heavy high heels clicking on hardwood floors, half-naked people almost-arguing and slamming doors. Green WiFi lights spazzing across the room. Spotify ads for fertility clinics interrupting Hall and Oates songs. "Is this the one for excessive bleeding or men developing breasts?"
She's in the bathroom brushing her teeth now. You are in bed waking up. You think about saying something to her but you don't. You can just watch her, exist with her; you are OK with that. Being in her orbit. She holds her hair back and spits into the sink and licks the toothpaste foam off her lips. She looks at you in the mirror. She doesn't say anything but she is looking at you at an amplitude that is making your organs rattle against each other.
She is delicate and she is powerful. She is the beach city and the typhoon. To love is to have the launch codes to each other's nuclear weapons. To be naked and in danger, stuttering and trying to be cool but sometimes not being cool, dependent and in awe, showing each other your weirdness. Not so the weirdness can be inspected but so you can hang it on your walls. You help each other levitate. You understand now that we are all this way, struggling to be strong and knowing we are scared. And you understand that she will always be stronger than you, that she is immune to this paradox.
She dries her hands on her bathrobe because she can't find a towel. She starts to hum a song, she gets on her tiptoes and looks at her thighs; she thinks you don't see this but you do, you're still watching her. She turns off the faucet. You roll over and close your eyes but in your brain she is still right. fucking. there.
She gets back from her aunt's in Katonah or Mount Kisco or wherever. She tells you about the girls she saw on the Metro North, girls with giant sunglasses that reflect every microscopic movement around them with perfect accuracy. Tan even in between their toes and beneath the overhang of their long, glossy fingernails and cuticles that look like plastic. Girls fidgeting with their iPhones and chewing gum and talking about nothing with other girls who are also chewing gum. Girls who speak in a dialect of "yeahs" said with slightly varied inflection. Paragraphs of communication that contain only the word Yeah. Yeah? Yeahhhh. yeah. Yeah-uh. YEAH. Nothing has ever seemed as imperative, as urgent, as two of these girls showing each other text messages, what he said, what she said, what happened last night . "Like I love him obviously but he's so stupid what does this even mean?" You are washing a dish in the sink while she relays this to you. She comes up behind you and kisses the back of your neck. She says lots of words that are not yeah.
It's later the same day. You are with her on a corner downtown. She is standing barefoot, holding her high heels, taking no prisoners. And then she is sending terse emails to her boss in the cab on the way to the restaurant, giving the middle finger to her phone, putting her phone in her bag and her hand on your thigh, looking at you now like her boss never existed, only you and her, right here. It is after the restaurant. You are standing and sweating on a subway platform with her, wondering if you are getting on the right train, not giving a fuck if you are getting on the right train, smiling at the sleeping man on this not-right train with a newspaper and a half-eaten apple still in his hand.
When you get home her collarbones shine in the light of an infomercial about exfoliants or food processers. She is falling asleep against your shoulder; she is mumbling something semi-consciously about giraffes or the end of the world. In the morning she is sitting on the radiator with her feet on the window sill, smoking cigarettes as the sun comes up, sky the color of Trix Yogurt. Watching the people across the street washing their clothes in the sink and drying them on the fire escape, windows glowing all over like fireflies.
She is an absolute conqueror in this world without you, but sometimes it seems like she likes having you here.
You are leaving her place now. You are standing in the fog on a train platform at six in the morning, in a half-conscious mass of people going to work, faces down, grunting and hiking bag straps onto their shoulders. You feel the deep dull ache of the unknown and then the pulsing high of confronting that unknown, you and her, what it is, what it will be. You are listening to the Ronettes as loud as they will go, young girls singing about the guy who left them but then he came back, how ephemeral all this is anyway.
You stare down at the tracks, at the Burger King cups and Skittles wrappers and discarded MetroCards. You think about how these are remnants of other people's lives, things that were at a moment essential to their existence. That someone had to make a train to meet a girl and dug in a pocket for a dollar to cram into a slot on a robot machine. Then that someone watched the crumpled corners disappear and prayed that the dollar wasn't rejected, and in this instant his brain played a montage of every other dollar he had ever inserted into a robot machine, soda machines and cigarette machines and arcades, and whether those were more crumpled but were accepted anyway, what his chances were now, because he loved this girl and maybe she loved him, and he was trying to find out.
You think about how we are alone in infinity, ricocheting between stimuli and hope and orgasms. We wander. We stare out train windows, at bedroom ceilings, examining the nail pops in the sheetrock, eating reheated egg rolls, trying to understand it. You are standing there like he was standing there, you don't know where you are going, you don't care, you drift. She is somewhere and you are here and in the meantime you wait.
Follow John Saward on Twitter.