Story: "You Don't Know What You Don't Know"

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

by Abbi Dion

29, Somewhere in Wisconsin, 2008

Thank God for women. Thank the Goddess. Thank the gods and the demigods and the powers that be. Thank them all.

Lena was twenty-five when they met. Old. Old-ish. Old enough. Older than she'd been when she made some of those first few bad decisions with relationships. Yes, she already knew the cost of mistakes. But maybe that was it. The cost of those mistakes hadn't been too high at all. What had she lost? A friendship that didn't flourish, a restaurant on Main Street she could no longer patronize anonymously, a difficult prayer to the God who told her "thou shalt not"? There had been a cost, no doubt. But was the cost higher than the payoff? No. Not even close.

It hadn't always been like this. Somehow at 21, then 22, then 23, -4, -5 she had stumbled into a time of life where you just had to show up. For so much of her life she felt unremarkable. Cute and offbeat and smart enough -- but not captivating. Suddenly it seemed she had to do so little to get so much reward. What had shifted? Was it a Darwin principle, had she arrived at primetime breeding age? Here she was being courted by an older, successful (married) man. Now desired by a coworker, a roommate's boyfriend, a stranger on the street. Now seen by a brooding TA as someone unique and smart and truly -- what? Truly captivating.

The feeling was intoxicating.

It was better than wine.

And unlike wine, it went on and on and on. For days.


"This," he said, "is a very big deal."

Lena pulled her boots on. She sat on the edge of his bed and clasped the buckle just below her knee.


"Your work."

He set the pages down next to her.

"Lena," he said.

"Bill," she said.

She'd met him a month after moving to Philadelphia from the Midwest. She was starting to wonder if graduate school and the east coast were a mistake upon a mistake – and he arrived from out of nowhere to say: pump the brakes.

He'd given a guest lecture in her theory class. And when it was over, he walked past her and complimented her choice of reading material. (All you had to do was know how to read.) The class went to happy hour; they met at a bar called Chaucer's (Chaucer's!) They ordered drinks at the same time and she paid for his. He fumbled for words. (So innocent, she thought.) He was ten years older. 35. (Ancient!) He said he noticed her boots while he was lecturing—they were so tall (All you had to do was wear tall shoes.)

He emailed her that night. "I found your email. Let me pay you back."

"Nej," she wrote. "Minnesotans (i.e., Norwegians) do things out of simple kindness. Nothing ulterior."

"Can I take you to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the PMA?" 

When she got to the museum, he was already there. She liked the way he looked at her as she climbed up the Rocky steps. 

"You're here," he said, and his eyes widened in a way that made Lena feel deeply, and truly, seen.

Now, a week later, they were in his apartment, a block from Independence Hall. It was fall, her favorite time of year. Car wheels and bike tires spun over fallen leaves and cobblestones. The bricks of colonial house fronts glowed rose-gold against the black iron hitching posts.

She looked at him. The warm features of his face. Handsome but not plastic. His black and grey hair. A few inches of dark waves.

Her eyes stop on a dress hanging on the bathroom door.

He takes her hands. 

"We're broken up. She's gone until my stuff is out. I got my own place."

"You did?" Lena recovers herself.

"She wants to get back together. I told her I was sorry, but I'm in love with someone else."

She smiles. 

"When you meet a once-in-a-lifetime person, you don't let it pass by." 

And then he's upon her.

            The apartment he moves into becomes the apartment she moves into. Spruce and 12th. The Gayborhood. She packs up her stuff and barely tells her new roommates goodbye. That apartment, 108 Mole Street, a memory that will feel like it never really happened. The furniture he buys from a secondhand store are pieces, he says, he picked because he thought she'd like them. Bill isn't rich. He's a professor at a community college in Philadelphia. She knows his mom sends him checks to help cover expenses, and while she doesn't love this, she finds a way to cast it into a bin called: disregard. Nearly forty seems old to be getting money from your parents, but it's not his fault the world doesn't compensate teachers. He sends her his favorite poems. He texts her to say he can't stop thinking about her. He takes her to readings and makes shrewd remarks about the world, the literary world in particular. She's having trouble keeping up with the reading in her graduate program and he asks to read her essays.

            "You changed this part about Stevens and ‘The Snowman.'"

            "Just a little," he says, not looking up from the cafe's copy of The New York Times.

            "But I don't understand what you're saying here -- what if Dan asks what I mean by this?"

            "He won't ask. He doesn't read the papers."

            "But I still want to know what it means. For my own good."

            He pulls her in close. "Let's go to the gay bar and get martinis."

They go away on trips. He pays. They go to dinner at restaurants he wants to show her. He tells her how he grew up in New Jersey, how alone he was during his childhood, how he had a stutter, how he fought with his father because he cared about science and his father cared about construction. They go to museums. He tells her arcane facts about paintings and artists. They go on double-dates with people from the writing community. One night, when Bill is in the bathroom, a writer named Steve says, "So you picked Bill?" Lena is caught off guard. She looks at Steve, then at his husband, Adrian, who is checking his phone. Lena thought everyone liked Bill. Admired him, actually. Didn't everyone think he was brilliant, and charming?

        Steve says, "I just think you should know, he has a bit of a reputation."

        "For what?"

        "For liking young women," Adrian says, not taking his eyes off his phone.

        "Then this must be true love. I'm not that young."

        Steve smiles and lifts his bottle in a cheer.

        "You're funny, Lena."

        That night, talking in bed, Bill says: "I've made a lot of mistakes. Done a lot things I'm ashamed of. For a few years there I was just kind of spiraling. I think you saved my life."

        "I don't want to be with someone who hasn't made mistakes," you whisper, stroking the stubble along his jawline.

        "I don't think I've adequately conveyed how in love with you I am. I've been waiting my whole life to meet you."

        You feel everything any man has ever said pale in comparison.

        He comes home with you for winter break. He ingratiates himself to your parents, your sisters, your friends from home. He gives you a first edition of an author you love. You meet up with friends from your old job at a dive bar in Northeast. You go to a Christmas party. At every function, he holds court and tells anyone who will listen what an incredible story-writer you are, how you've challenged his views on prose. The last night in town, at the local bar near your parents' house, you tell him you might not want to live in Philadelphia forever. You might want to move back to Minnesota. "Of course we'll live here," he says. "You'll laugh," you say, "but my parents were asking if I had become an atheist since picking up Heidegger, if--one day--I'll even get married in a church." He pulls you in and says, "Of course I'm going to marry you in a church." The neon beer signs twinkle outside the frost-etched windows. 


The first time he lies to you, it comes as a surprise, the kind of surprise that takes your breath away. You find a receipt and glance at it. You save receipts and tape them in your journal, with little annotations of the occasion and its significance. "On this day we went to a Belgian restaurant and drank ourselves silly with glee!" "This bottle of red from the state store was consumed with Chris and Frank while talking about Fitzgerald and Lake Superior salmon. LOL." "Wawa run at 2 AM." The receipt you find on the bookcase shelf is for the Belgian hovel, and shows six beers and fries--but the date is wrong. You were in class that day. The time says one in the afternoon. You couldn't have been there. The restaurant's computer must have been off when it spat out this receipt. It should have said one in the morning. That was possible. But no. That wouldn't be possible, either. You didn't go out. You were up late that night, trying to finish a novel so you could write a barely comprehensible post on it for class. Then it hits you: He must have taken someone else's receipt, by mistake. 

            You are driving with him to New York when you ask, casually, about the receipt. You don't plan to ask about it, you just do--right after you zip past the exit where he tells you he once lived. When he was a student at Princeton. Cranbury, New Jersey. Exit 8A. 

            "I'll drive you past where I lived and take you to my favorite diner. We'll stop on the way back for lunch."

            It was the "lunch" offer that prompted (permitted?) your innocent (how much did you already suspect?) inquiry.

            When you get to the end, you tie it off with "Did you really have six beers during the middle of the day?" You laugh, and watch as his smiling face starts to fold and melt into something else.

            "Are you serious right now?" he asks.

            Later, after you've gone to a bar, a reading, an afterparty, a silent walk to the hotel, all of which makes you feel scared and ashamed, you write in your journal, "Had the best time tonight!! Went to St. Mark's (amazing). Went to someone's apartment in Greenpoint or Bushwick or maybe it was ??? Had a lot of wine. Frank asked Bill to read in June!" 

            On the drive back to Philadelphia you stop in Princeton. He shows you around. ("This was the coffee shop where I worked during undergrad" and "This was where I defended" and "This was where I got the phone call my grandmother, my closest family member, my biggest supporter, had died.") You don't discuss the receipt. You wish you'd never brought it up.


You meet his family. 

They own a huge house in Williamstown. There's a magnolia tree in the front yard, and it's blooming. White-purple lanterns exploding, lighting the evening sky. "Don't you love it?" his mother asks. Bill got me the sapling years ago when he was lecturing in North Carolina. His parents are nice to you. But the warmth feels cautious. You get the feeling they don't expect you to stick around for long. His sister, Lynn, is like Bill--she's smart and busy--but different in a way you can't quite name. During a weekend trip to New York, to visit your best friend from home, the one who went to NYU and stayed, you send Lynn a text to let her know you're around. She takes you for martinis near her office in Union Square and says how happy she is that Bill found you. "We kind of love you," she says. "Bill is not an easy person." She works for the UN. She's married to Ryan, a nice man who seems to truly respect her. You notice this. You mention to Bill how much you like Ryan. Bill rolls his eyes. "The man is an idiot. A nice idiot, but an idiot nonetheless." When everyone is in Jersey, the group takes walks together, watches movies together, plays cards, drinks bottles of Lager. It makes you think that whatever the hesitations you feel, you are destined to be part of this family.

On Sunday, everyone's returning to their apartments, but Bill says he's staying in Jersey--he needs to work on his chapbook. You drag your feet on heading back to the apartment, waiting for Bill to ask you to stay, too. (Shouldn't he?) He doesn't and you have enough pride to say, at 9 PM, you better get home. 

Your best friend calls as you're driving through Camden.

"How's Bill?"

"Everything's really good," you say. "But--"

"But what?"

She says it like she's been waiting.

"Nothing. Just. I'm jealous. I've always been jealous. Probably from being such an idiot with men, boys, when I was younger."

"I don't think you're jealous." 

You decided you wouldn't call and you don't. But that doesn't mean you don't hold the phone in your hand all night and check it over, and over, and over. 


Time goes by. One night you're going to a party at the house of a poet who is out of town. You and Bill arrive late, with a box of wine and a pack of cigarettes. You've fought. (Why? Because you asked him who he was texting. You don't mention you've been checking his phone. You don't mention it because he turns to you as you're paying for the wine and says, "And I know you've been checking my phone so don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking to. Yeah. You didn't think I would notice?") At the party, people say hello but don't seem exactly happy to see you. (Do they hate you, or him? Both? You're no one. They might hate you inasmuch as you have nothing to offer them, no cultural capital, no contacts, no vectors. Nada. But him… you are increasingly aware he is not universally beloved.) Everyone sits in the living room and the man who is house-sitting for the poet sings a spiritual, acapella. You tear up.

When you go to the kitchen to refill your glass, you notice Bill is outside smoking. He's looking at the moon. He looks contemplative and sad and you're filled with an affection for him that feels loving and familiar--as welcome as rain in the desert; it occurs to you how distant that feeling has become. You wobble towards the patio doors and stop short before sliding them open. He isn't alone. There is a very young woman out there. A girl. She's smiling coyly and he is saying something you can't hear. But you can imagine. She laughs, and he smiles. You wobble back to the kitchen counter and fill your red cup to the top. And that's the last clear thing you remember that night.

The next day you wake up with an ocean-size headache. 

            Bill is getting out of the shower, pulling on a T-shirt. 

            He has shaved.

            "What happened last night," you say. You're still in your jeans and bra.

            Bill smiles a tight smile. "I have to go. We'll talk later."

            OK, you say, trying to get up to kiss him goodbye.

            He waves and is out the door.

            You feel a deeper emptiness than you, or anyone, can quantify.

           Sometimes you fight and he leaves and you wait in a blue chair by the door for him to come home. Sometimes you call him over and over until he turns off his phone. Sometimes you ask him why you're paying the rent when you make less than he does and he explains he has to pay back a gambling debt from when he played online poker to finance his doctorate. Sometimes he ushers you across the street to avoid someone. ("Who?" "My office-mate. She's completely mad. Trust me, you don't want to have that conversation." You look back and see a group of girls, none of whom are above twenty years old.) Sometimes he grabs your arm. Sometimes he tells you how you embarrassed him at the party, the reading, the event. Sometimes he looks you in the eye, on those occasions when you won't back down, and he tells you how miserable, how pathetic, how insecure you are. Sometimes he pushes you. And sometimes he shows up at work and tells you how beautiful you are. 

            You spend months upon months like this.


Your graduate education ends and you're not sure what happened. 

Your manuscript reader calls you to tell you that you got an award.

            It's unexpected and, in your mind, undeserved. How could anything good happen to you? You've been writing stream-of-consciousness cries of the heart. The dialogue of the mind with itself. You v. the abyss. A chronicle of madness foretold. Life. You titled it, Quotidiana. One damn thing after another.

            At the reception, Bill is at your side, beaming. You feel a peace you haven't felt in… ever? It feels as foreign and far away as... As far away as health. He holds your hand and brushes your hair back from your face. 

He loves you. You're certain. 

Maybe you've come through the worst of it. Maybe you are back on track. Whatever happened, happened, and what relationship is perfect? 

He clinks glasses with Dan, the professor for whom he edited your essay. 

A week ago you had to step outside the student affairs office where you work as an admin (no teaching jobs) so you could talk to Bill in private. He was yelling so loud you were sure your coworkers could hear. You held the hot phone against your face and walked across campus. The sky is gray as stone and you're thin as a rail. You've been trying to leave him. But you know you need to do it carefully, methodically, safely. You've suggested, not a break-up exactly, but a break. You're in a rare window where you can see how he's not responsible for every last thing about your life that sucks, but he is responsible for a hefty portion. You're telling him you can't help but wonder if he's been cheating on you. You tell him how detrimental it is to you, waiting for him to come home; that if you had your own place you wouldn't even know or have to care. You know a healthy relationship shouldn't mean caring less, which is what you feel you need to do to make it work. He screams that you shouldn't care—that there is nothing to care about, that "your trust issues are the problem, not me!" You don't tell him that you spent last weekend walking up and down Christian and Catharine, calling "Apartment Available" numbers. You say, "I think a break would be good. For both of us."

"Are you fucking serious," he says. "You know what? Fuck you! I'm going to tell Dan I wrote your fucking essays. I'm going to tell him you didn't know what the fuck you were talking about."  

            You feel a sensation you've never experienced. "It was one essay."

            "It was more than that," he laughs, coldly. "Remember the post I wrote for that feminist theory class? I bet Joan would not think quite so highly of you."

            You are standing under the porticos of the library, a place you stopped going after the first month of graduate school. You'd gone there every day the weeks before classes began. Then you met Bill. And slowly but decisively every other thing fell away. The people you'd just begun to get to know in your classes. The conference invitations and workshops. The rare book room. The applications you submitted for adjunct positions. The reading, writing, and phone calls home. All so you could be with Bill. First, so you could dance in the apartment and flop around together; later, so you could scour his internet history, guess his passwords, and stare out the window. It was all a haze, the past few years, but with a sharp, high pitch. Here you are going to Brigantine and body surfing, then fighting all the way down the turnpike to his parents' house, refusing to leave the jeep until he throws an empty coffee mug at you, just missing your face, and you shakily open the door. Here you are begging him for the truth on a park bench in Center City, stomping away, but lingering nearby and following him until you lose him on Walnut Street. Here you are running with him along Kelly Drive, noticing every time he looks at a young woman. Here you are sitting next to him on the couch as he underlines words and makes notes in the margins.

            "Bill," you say. "Please don't tell Dan."

            A man walks by, notices you and waves. He's the Director of Campus Housing.

            You wave back.

            He seems normal.

            What must it be like to date a normal man?

            A normal man would never date you.

            Not now.

            Maybe not before.

            Bill has told you this. And you know it's meant to be awful, it's meant to hurt you, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.


            "Lena," he says. And he says it with an insolent sarcasm that doesn't match your dread. 

            You cannot let him threaten your graduate degree, possibly your job at the university, possibly your future prospects. You tell him you'll leave work early -- you'll say you have a doctor's appointment -- and when you get home, you'll work it all out.

            "Whatever," he says, and hangs up.

            Now he stands across from Dan and clinks the professor's glass and you feel relief. Isn't relief what you need? You haven't slept right in two years. Three? You haven't stopped thinking about what he's doing, who he's seeing, what he's thinking. You want evidence to prove that he is a liar and a scoundrel, or even to prove that you're crazy. Maybe it is your problem after all? You drink more than you'd like, which you did before, but now you feel you've crossed the invisible line into the area of: problem. He's told you as much, and while his drinking is hardly un-concerning, you know he has a point. You've started smoking again, too. You have a reputation with other people from your program, as a somewhat unserious academic who parties too much--and as prickish and righteous as they may be, aren't they right, too? 

            Bill stands beside you, an enormous beaming smile on his face. He puts his arm around you, and asks what he can get you to drink.

            "I feel like I shouldn't drink," you say.

            He laughs. "Come on. Don't be ridiculous." He holds your face and kisses you. "You're going to be a great writer," he says. "I'm so proud of you."


Later, fights later, nights later, periods of insomnia and monomania later, you stare at the ceiling and listen to him snore. You are seeing a therapist for the first time in your life. Twenty-nine and you feel totally, completely lost. Finished. Done. Scared. Panicked. Empty. A void. Yet filled with something you can only describe as: confused bile. At three A.M. you get out of bed. 

You walk through the living room into the small, fluorescent-lit kitchen. You scroll through your phone, expecting nothing but the hollow fear that comes with a late night scroll, but you notice you have an email from a girl you've recently gotten to know. You were in the program together and didn't talk much, but you ran into her and her dog Djuna at a dog park (you got a dog) and have grown familiar with each other. Your therapist referred to her as a lifeline. Her email is long but to the point: "If you are wavering, or second-guessing yourself, don't. You should break up with him. I know there are some good times and good qualities to him, but he will only, ultimately, cause you harm and pain, no matter if you date for another month or year or the rest of your life. I support you no matter what. Love, Michelle."  You look out the window into the dark, watery alley. There is a pigeon nest in between bricks and cement blocks. The pigeons are soot gray with iridescent, purple feathers and emerald green on the tips of their wings.  


You flinch, then recognize the sound.

His phone.

From where you sit in the kitchen, you can see it glowing in the dark, laying on the tall bookcase, set on a shelf midway up.

You tiptoe through the living room and back to the bedroom where you find him asleep, snoring away.

Your heart is beating out of your chest.

You open the phone and see: "New Message from L."

You press a button and read the words.

"Saw u at McGlinchy's tonight but she was there so..."

Your heart is beating so hard you feel sick. 

The phone buzzes and blinks again and you nearly drop it. 

"New Message from--"

"Who is it?" he says.

You can't talk. You hold the phone out and he walks from the bedroom doorway across the parquet floor to you. He grabs the phone and you wait for him to yell, to raise his arm, maybe. You harden yourself. But he smirks.

"This? This is a girl from my Comp class. She's a kid with a crush."

"Why is she a contact in your phone?" you choke out, surprised at your courage, or foolishness--you know the reaction that comes following your impertinence.

"Lena," he whispers. "Come to bed." He slips his arm over your shoulders, as soft and warm as he was the first night you spent with him.

You walk with him to the bedroom, your stomach tight and heart beating short and fast. You let him kiss you in the dark for a while before you twist over and pretend to sleep. 

"Are you going to leave me?" he says.

"I'm not going to survive," you say.

And as you say it you realize you mean it.



"I'm staying in Jersey tonight."

His text shows up as you leave work the next day.

It's 4:30. The sky is already dark. It's going to rain.

Early winter in Philly. Streetlamps are wound with lights. A crisp wind hits you as you wait at the bus stop. A couple rushes by. The man's coat wrapped around his woman. When the bus hisses to a stop you wait your turn to ascend the bus stairs.

"I got you," a man says, brushing past you, paying his and your fare.

You've seen him before and know that he is homeless.

"Thank you," you say, tears coming to your eyes.


Bill calls at eleven. 

"Where are you?"

"Sitting in the living room."

"Good," he says. "I want you to look at the wall."

You look at the wall.

"OK," you say. "I'm looking."

"Do you see the words?"

You look closer, then see two words written in pencil, the size of 12-point font.

"Bobby Sands."

"Do you know who that is?"

When you were first dating you would have been afraid to admit you didn't know something. At the beginning you wanted so badly for him to think you were smart. Pretty or cute, fine, but smart, smart was very important. But all artifice is gone now.

"No. I don't." 

"Look him up."

"Just tell me who it is."

"He is fucking amazing."

"I'm sure he is."


You breathe.

You sit in silence for about two minutes.

"I'm really, really not doing well. I'm tired of being alive," he says.

"I can relate."

"I tried to hang myself this morning."

You're worried but this isn't the first time you've heard this.

"Don't do that. Please don't." 

He's crying.

Between sobs he says, "If you move to Minnesota I will follow you. I will set up a tent in your parents' backyard. I will--"

You put him on speaker and google Bobby Sands.

"Bobby Sands didn't kill himself over a break-up."

"Wrong! He died from a broken heart."

You keep reading the article from The Irish Times.

"If you leave me, Lena…"

"We aren't happy. Our relationship--"

"I'll kill myself. I will kill myself."

"Bill, I will always love you. I have to go."

"Don't hang up!"

You spend the next two hours on the phone. Bill announces he's finished a bottle of vodka. When you get off the phone (he hangs up on you) you fall asleep easily. In the morning you call your boss to tell her you'll be late, and why. She sends over Gina, one of the student workers from your office, and Tera from Facilities with a moving truck. You've packed your things in black trash bags and the three of you move them into Michelle's garage in Fishtown. Your best friend from high school pays for you to stay at the DoubleTree across from City Hall. She takes the Acela to town. On the last day of November, she moves you into your own place on Girard and Corinthian. She takes you out to dinner in West Philly. Before jetting back, she promises you that you'll survive.

Bill's number shows up on your phone, neighbors tell you they saw him outside your apartment, coworkers say they saw him in the lobby. He sends you flowers, writes poetic but inscrutable emails, or threatens to kill the dog, depending on the day. His sister calls you and leaves a long message. The cousin whose wedding you attended in Atlantic City sends you a text. Bill writes you an email saying he's started therapy and he'll do whatever it takes. He asks if you want to watch the Superbowl together at St. Stephen's. He calls your parents, your sisters, your friends. He tells you you're abusive. He demands you let him see the dog (that you financed and cared for). And he asks for money for rent. When you go out with a guy you don't have feelings for, but need to do something other than sleep on your living room floor and watch basic cable -- he texts you that he knows where the guy works, and he's going to "shoot him in the fucking head." You end up dating that man for several months, but your drinking confuses and disturbs him and one Saturday morning he tells you: I want you to be healthy and happy -- and I want to be with you, but, I think you may need to stop drinking.

You check social media and see a few posts from people talking about Bill's new poetry book, students praising his teaching and humor, a selfie he took at Tattooed Mom's.

You write a poem about his ex-girlfriend and publish it online. One day she sends you an email. She replies, "No, I don't think about him, or feel bad for him. I would have warned you, but what would you have heard? A girl flushed with the affection of someone like Bill isn't going to listen to the jilted ex. The only detail that gives me pause is when we visited my grandmother -- on her literal deathbed -- and she swore our union made her passing feel OK. Oops. Next time you're in Brooklyn, hit me up and we'll drink Rosé."

The next year you get a promotion. And the year after that you quit drinking.


Lena doesn't tell all the stories about Bill. She could. She remembers them. She could have told the ones she told in more detail. She could have told uglier ones. But somehow these are the ones she shared. 

In one of her journals a piece of notebook paper is tucked in the back pages. There is a post-it note with it. "Found this in a jacket of Bill's. Wasn't going to send it to you but ran into a friend of yours when I was in Philadelphia and they thought I should. I hope it doesn't upset you. Our family cares about you very much. I know Bill is, well, Bill. If you want to talk, I'd love to. Call me anytime. Hope you're well. Love, Lynn."

Lynn sent this a month after they broke up. Lena never called. It was a list that Lena had written. She'd written it when she and Bill first met. They were sitting in the cafe at the IKEA on Columbus. You could set up shop at a table by the windows and look out at the Delaware River, the enormous ships permanently docked -- and you could pretend you were somewhere else. 

Bill had driven her there in his jeep. "We need to get you a desk where you can write," he said. "I like to write on the floor," she said. 

"That's honestly the best thing I've ever heard," he said. "But we can't go there." 


He smiled. "You're right. You know what, let's go there."

She'd met Bill at a time when she was lonely and a little afraid of that loneliness. She wasn't thriving the way she thought she would. She thought she'd leave Minnesota and her service industry job and her friends – and the married man who she couldn't seem to get over -- and she'd go to grad school and write a novel and… be amazing.

She sat at the table and was telling this to Bill and he told her to make a list of what she wanted to accomplish in the next five years. He said that's how he ended up back at Princeton, and then with his first book, and then teaching at the Community College and sitting there, with her. 

The List:

"One, publish a story with a major magazine. Two, become friends with the girl from my Early American class (Michelle?). Three, move... somewhere else?? Four, lighten up on the drinking tip. Five, be totally and completely in love."


You remember writing the list at the cafe table. The sun was hanging low in the sky. You were in the metal chair with your legs tucked under you. There was a stillness and comfort in the activity of strangers moving through the store. You were twenty-five. The birds that circled the parking lot flew back to the water and onto the surface of the swaying ships, flapping their wings as they came to a coasting stop. The cornflower blue Ben Franklin bridge swung itself between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The boats dotting the pier are meant to be reminiscent of early days in American history, when Philadelphia was a port town and the future was an idea, promising and limitless. Your mind is restless and you look at the steamships wondering if they are signaling you to keep moving. What was happening? You were where you longed to be, after flailing and coasting, you'd finally landed. A man who you believed was infatuated with you--in all the right ways, and for all the right reasons--sat across from you, and you couldn't stop staring at each other. Why were you yearning for escape? You shared your fears with Bill--that you'd always feel like a wanderer, that you wanted to feel settled yet free, but you always seemed to feel unmoored yet chained--and he nodded, "I remember thinking those things when I was your age." Then he ripped a piece of paper out of his notebook and slid it across the table towards you. 

5990 Words


42, Somewhere in Indiana, 2021

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