An atom to atom, oh can you feel it on me love? A pattern to pattern, oh can you see it on me love? Atom to atom, oh what’s the matter with me love?

An Atom to Atom
by Abbi Dion

You can't choose what stays and what fades away. 
And I do anything to make you stay.
— Florence Welch

When I see him I see his big sad eyes, and olive skin -- and his brown hair, the sadness seems even to be in that. I see his shoulders, present. I see his hands. Like an artist's or a worker's hands, they are developed, formed. I see the way he sees me the first time we speak. He tilts his head, almost imperceptibly, but still -- he does it. He says, "On your application you wrote that you were in Italy last year -- you can help us solve a wine label mystery." I nod, a little too agreeably. I'm supposed to be starting my senior year in college, but instead I'm applying for a job at a wine shop in northeast Minneapolis. He's older, thirty-two, and the assistant manager. He's in charge, and he wears it well. Sally, the manager, is really in charge, or Jim, the owner, but they're travelling or in the office, so I -- and everyone else who works there -- listen to him.

There's no reason not to cut right to the chase. There was an affair. But the affair didn't start immediately. At least a year went by where nothing happened. There were whole months when I forgot about him, saw him only as a figure of authority, someone who could deny my vacation request or throw me a towel to clean off a shelf. There were days we didn't speak. Because he hadn't given me the Fourth of July off, because he'd criticized my handling of an order, and because, I learned, he had a fiancé in Wisconsin. During those twelve months, the initial attraction waned to the point that you couldn't convince me I'd ever felt anything at all. I would walk home from the store and think about a million things, but none of them involved him. I would enter my apartment, get ready to go out, apply lipstick with some vague notion of love or sex, and I didn't think of him. I would meet girlfriends at a show, dance in the crowd, drive home and crawl into bed. And I didn't think of him.

But then one night I did. 

It was the summer, and we'd just had a sale. A big sale. An event that lasted two weeks. To celebrate our efforts, we had a big party at a dive bar across the street. Everyone was happy, drinking, smoking pot outside on the sidewalk, snorting lines in the bathroom. At first it was just the employees, but later, fashionably later, he came. When he walked up to the door, I saw him, before he'd even entered the space. I was on the phone with my boyfriend in the entryway. My boyfriend and I were arguing. I don't remember what we were going back and forth about, but I remember where I was sitting. I was sitting in a wire city-newspaper holder. When he saw me, he mouthed: who are you talking to? I told him: Buck. He took the phone and told Buck to come over -- he'd buy him a beer, then he gave the phone back to me. My heart was racing. I placed my free hand on my chest. Buck was angry. I did not care. I don't even remember hanging up.

Back in the party, the man I'd loved at first sight, then forgotten, was sitting at the bar, talking to a guy who worked in shipping. I felt it all over again. The feeling of wanting. No, more than wanting. Needing. And as if he felt it to, he walked over and said: I'm taking you to another party. We got in a cab and went across town to the Warehouse District. To the Jeune Lune Theatre. Inside it was as if we'd gone across the ocean, to a club in Italy. Strobe lights, thumping music, naked dancers covered in glitter. He pulled me to the dance floor, held me and we moved with everyone, with the pounding music, with the rhythm of relinquishing control. We'd gone to this party with Jake, one of the supervisors at the wine shop. Jake stood to the side, but once, accidentally, we met eyes. His face showed shock. And disappointment. It didn't feel good. So I pretended I was over-analyzing. While we waited for a taxi, Jake asked him: Where's your lady? He said: Visiting her mom in Madison. He wrapped my jean jacket around his waist and tied the arms. Jake looked at me. I shrugged a smile and gave the cab driver the address to my apartment.

In bed that night we opened the window to a deep navy sky with a circle white moon and the curtains blew over us in billows. We laughed in each other's arms and legs and stayed up until dawn. We talked about the first time we met. About a shared need for something more. We talked about little things like "the time you dyed your hair red," he said, "I knew you didn't like it, but I loved it." When he took off my clothes he said: Buck is lucky. But that's all either of us said about significant others. I must have thought if I didn't mention his fiancé, it wasn't really cheating. And in the morning, with no sleep, I walked him to the door and said goodbye.

That might have been all it was. Indeed, I thought it might be, and prepared myself for the subsequent disappointment and rejection, but that's not what happened. It wasn't just that night. He'd call after he left work, he'd find out where I was going, and he'd call me there. We'd talk late into the night. He told me about flipping pizzas in a national park, about his brother, about a movie he saw that he thought I'd like. One day, I picked up the phone, and hearing Buck's voice, nearly broke down. "What's the matter with you?" he said. I couldn't tell him: I was hoping it was someone else. I remember one afternoon it was very hot. I was driving to my older sister's apartment. I was parked on Hennepin, near the bridge, and I looked up to find the object of my affection in the rearview mirror. He was on his bike, weaving through traffic. He flew by my car, unaware it was me, unaware of anything. I punched the gas pedal when the light turned green and followed him for blocks until I got trapped at another light. Watching him disappear, I felt a deep and physical pain. It felt like being stabbed from the inside-out. That night he called and I told him what happened, how I saw him. How I felt when he disappeared. He said: I love you.

Then. One day it happened. He said: I need to talk to you. He took me to the basement. He touched me. "You know how I feel about you," he said. He told me "You know this is hard for me, but I don't want you to hear it from anyone else." And he said what I felt I already knew. He was leaving. Moving. To another city, another state, to be with his fiancé, to have his life and leave the world that existed here. I didn't know why, but I said: I'm happy for you. He frowned. Then a coworker came down the stairs and I pretended I was looking for a case of champagne.

On his last day in Minnesota, he was in the wine shop. He worked up until the end, I think, because he didn't want to be alone. I don't think he ever wanted to be alone. Many customers came in to say goodbye and some coworkers shed tears. I worked through my shift like a zombie, but like an astute zombie. Perfect service, perfect smile, perfect banter with people about what to pair with Sauternes, about ruby and tawny ports, about white burgundies being your best bang for the buck. I was talking to a man about sopressata and genoa salami when he came to me: I'm leaving now, he said. I know, I said. He said, "You know I have to go to dinner with Sally and Jim, but I'll call you as soon as it's over." "OK," I said, afraid of feeling anything. Coworkers were staring. The people who knew, who'd lost respect for me, were waiting for me to say something stupid, or to cry. "Good luck," I said, "I wish you didn't have to go." He touched my hand. The customer flinched. I didn't feel embarrassed. "No," I said. "It's good," I said. "It's for the best." Then he gave me a sad smile and left. But moments later he came back. "Please answer when I call," he said. I apologized to the customer and went back to our conversation about salami without missing a beat.

He called, as he said he would. I was home, at my new apartment, drinking away the fear and sad feelings with two of my best friends -- friends who agreed the only way to solve this was to drink it all down. He called and said "I left, I just left, I told them I had to go and I left. My train isn't until 10, can you meet me in St. Paul, near the Amtrak station?" I told him yes, but I'd have two friends in tow. "They'll entertain each other," he said. And they did. They drank shots and played darts and the two of us sat on bar stools and held hands. The clock was ticking loudly, though, and I knew very soon he would go. I wanted to believe for a moment that he would call when he got to his new job and new city and new life with a wife and a house and wallpaper and end-tables and things. I wanted to believe that what happened between us was special. And real. He took me outside with him when it was finally time, and we made out on the hood of someone's car in the parking lot. Then he looked at me. Then he dashed across the street. Then he was gone.

For a long time after all of that, I had a feeling in my chest. A feeling like the one I had that day in traffic, like something that hurts in such a tangible and intangible way, you can't determine how to make it disappear. Mixed with all of that was the fear of never finishing my degree, never getting my family back on my good side, never living up to some kind of imagined potential, and also, there was the fear that things would never again be simple.

Then one day I was circling an off ramp on 35W South. While I was leaning into the curve a feeling came over me. A feeling like: I will be OK. I merged on to 694, signaling, and looking. And without trying to further define or understand or justify the feeling in any capacity, I let the feeling overtake me.

The End.

No comments: