You Two or Us

Sarah Norek


I might still be seeing someone, he says.

They've met on a Monday when others are working but their schedules oblige: he does things from home and she's between thoughts.

You mean careers? he's asked.

I thought about that, too, she's said and galloped her fingers on the table's top. Now, she purses her mouth and says: I don't normally date like this, and he agrees: It's a little old fashioned.

The coffee? she asks, them surrounded by brick and steeped in piped keyboards, dishes, a machine to steam milk and one crushing fruit smooth. They don't get any closer and neither sees out the windows.

He flaps his hand between them. All this in the light, he says.


Of the other man he says: It's on again, though none was said in the first place about it called off. He and she've moved locations and days and now hold a dim booth in a bar new to each and he claims how he likes it and how does she?

I can hardly see you, she says and he says without flinching: The best to see me by.

She squints and means only to tilt her head but is overly limbered with drink so lays an arm on the table and her head upon that, one long-peeling wave fulfilling its crest.

Who are you? she asks feeling blocked in her chest. Sincerity crosses her mind in a cubical shape and she laughs at the sight like she's nowhere but there.

He shrugs to say: Same guy that I was. This is it, he says.

Had it been him who'd asked her she'd say try her back in a year. A lot's happened, she'd been saying, then ticking off: life, life, life, and life, in no particular order. Now she says, still collapsed: No one's ever just it, and he keeps looking ahead but grins to say: Or their it isn't ever.

Enough with the riddles, she says. My head's high and dry.

Between them rest tumblers, fried hash and corned beef, and they've drunk until they've crept from spots far apart to a clot at the joint of their benches at cornering walls, hemlines overlapping and seams puzzled one up and one down.

It's just one of those things, he says after a long stretch of nothing, arms dumped by his sides, and she asks: About who you are or this guy?

We're like two little old ladies, he says.

Are you talking you two or us? she asks and remains wilted but grabs a fist of her hair by which she holds and shakes her head slowly and thinks the parakeet's cage overdue for its towel, the pet a dregs of a twosome where there'd been a purchase of fowl. At the split her ex said: I'll take the pair. They deserve to be happy. They're delicate, remember, and she'd said: I can't be alone. At least leave just one. That one, she'd said, and pointed to the cage where they sat side by side so her selection was blurred. I'll get it a mate.

It, was repeated. It.

You'll ruin them, she was warned.

Then we'll sit at home in the sun together, ruined, she'd said, and remained in the gaze of this man who'd preempted the birds' removal with the acquisition of a second cage, had arrived to their rooms cage-in-hand like schlepping dry-cleaning or a grocery-bag, saying Hello before itemizing dissatisfaction, disenchantment, a revival, all sorts of hunger, then next he said: I guess you saw I'm all packed. She hadn't. She'd made it from the hall and his recitation to the fridge from which she pulled an old box from the back, something molded spumoni colors, and she'd threatened: You think you're hungry? I'm starving! You think I won't eat this? I'll die!

Of course you'll die, he'd said, his reserve dressed like patience and she wanted to break his throat. Then he said: I'll leave a stupid bird, further citing inconsistencies between them as if they weren't made of materials to be so, had rather come from a factory which prided itself on its turnout of replicas, exactitude, regularity, and here they were: duds. She'd felt a levitation but had looked to find the floor there so perhaps she only stood taller. The linoleum, she swore, wept its color which lulled her and she was drawn to fold to the ground, to react accordionly and become very small and neat upon herself.

You're right, she said instead. I should've figured this sooner. Goodbye, she said, her limbs a chorus inside her of varied appliances and their plugs and volts, her hand a cow but she raised it and held it and heard a roar in her ears as if seashells or somewhere in the distance a hollering crowd. She grinned.

I haven't met anyone, she was told, the birds separated to gape from behind their own bars, their swivel necks flexing and iridescing bluely, lavenderly, sunnily, beaks yawed and sealed in silence and their remainder of seed split in half. But you'll try to, she said, and he held the heavy front door by his foot and said: You, too.

Now whom she's with lifts his drink, a fourth and finished, and shakes its nubs and says: Us can mean anything. I'm smack in the middle.

You're drunk, she says.

He says: I'm the ham and you're mustard. Or the mayo or relish. An olive to my pimento.

If I'm anything, she says, it's the bread, and hits the table with her own emptied glass.

I like this, he says and swoops his nose near to hers and presses his lips to flick her own. You take an answer, he says, and make it your own, their eyes now so close that they can't keep in focus and while hers cross she sees his downturned or blinking, avoiding all effort of becoming aligned.


At a party they'd stood a stairwell and she'd approached his lower step and said: You!

They were strangers and she'd had too much punch, something mixed in a trashcan from which nobody ladled, just dipped his or her cup and one girl her whole face, lifting it dripping her soaked mascara back in the well, tongues dying purple and teeth having grayed.

She'd felt like a nag among foals, others gleaming and lithe in fabrics her body would balk, silk and lace slips and tulle and feathers and nylon, leather. She'd fit unpatched jeans and a slightly small T and both caught on her edges and she didn't feel embarrassed but overabundant amid their traced lips and jockeying spots.

She'd been invited by the son of a neighbor in her hall, the man young and diligent with trips to his mother who wasn't noticeably ill but he'd said before, when their meeting at the elevator meant her having left her boyfriend behind in their rooms or returning to him there, that the woman was on her last legs. To hear this she'd not caught her laugh. Me too, I hope, she'd said, and he'd smiled in a sad looking beard. You think it's a joke, he'd said, and she'd shrugged and pressed the button to keep the doors wide, him having stepped out and she in. There's nothing funny about legs, she'd said and watched his eyes narrow slightly, then regain their set. I saw one once at the knee, he said, without its calf or shin or a foot and puckered like it'd eaten something sour. That was a little funny, he said.

She didn't blink. Your mother's unwell? she asked, and he rolled and licked his mouth and said: She's doing the best that she can.

Because she's unwell? she repeated.

Because she wants to, he said.

When she saw him the Wednesday prior the party he said she looked tired and she said: I've been busy. Behind her door the bird squawked and he said: And there's that, and she said: How's your mom? and he said: Still kicking. For a last set of legs, she said, and he did that thing with his eyes again and he'd grown out more beard though its spottiness stayed and he said: There's this party, and she said: You bet I'll go, yes.  


In the party's stairwell, a first cup of punch slammed, then a second, her nursing a third, she began to feel less a nag and more singularly gorgeous as if in a suit she'd soon rip and out would step her that she'd always hoped shown. One who'd fine-tune a knife and know a carcass's map, could toss the knife airborne to catch like a pistol to next crank, could carry a body on her back as long and so far as it needed, as she needed it carried.

Impulsively he'd grabbed her hand, not the son but the one on the stairs at whom she'd told You and whom with she'd get later coffee, after that: drinks, and had thrown their knot in the air, them too like-sized that his gesture lacked height. Next he took her like a competitive pair's half and twirled her easily overhead. None of him shook and his fingers passed fat to hook her bone and he set her back gently, perfectly square on a stair, each breathing deeper than either began.

She shook her head and hissed: You're nuts.

Bananas, he said.

I only said You, she said, and he said: It was all in your face.

Was what? she asked.

Your face, he said, his mouth looking lipless how committedly he grinned.

Let's get outta here, she thought and wove in place and when she'd reached her furthest point from him he said, them still gripped together: Say we get outta here.

We get outta here, she said, ready.


In the morning beside his bed when they stood and dressed she said: I remember you taller, and he shrugged: Surprise.

I guess, she said, and: I shouldn't be here. But you've got a great place.

The walls were bright and plants in pots robust and unblemished, bobbing in the shake their clambering made.

I know at least one person who agrees with you, he said and snapped his waistband and she said: Don't forget you're who asked, so he held up his hands as if she'd brandished a gun, that knife she'd imagined, and said: I never said me!

She fed arms through their straps feeling pleasantly careless, dazzled by light. These moments were pure—what she'd done and who she was felt well drawn by staunch lines, unflappable.

Like I said, she said. I shouldn't be here. I started to dress after our, you know, and remember a bird scolding on the fire escape and I said, Max, right? Because you thought I'd misnamed you but I was naming my bird so you grabbed my hip and said wait and I did, I fell back to sleep and now that poor animal. Home all alone while I'm in here, basking.

Birds are pretty resilient, he said, and she said: So I thought, too, but they're delicate, actually, then grabbed her mouth like a wad to make trash, her copycat words quick to spoil her face. I figured they've survived all this time, she said, recomposed. But this ain't no pigeon, she said, his mouth reformed by a tug when he showed it again, the look of a cane pulling something from stage.


During her high school her parents made friends with a woman who'd married a man whose father soon died and left money: Esther, and her husband.

Her mother said of the death: It isn't suspicious? and her father replied, old papers and ads tidied from the sofa up under his arm: It isn't. He's been sick a long time which you seem to forget, he said, and then: I don't know what you're on, and her mother said first: Not enough, then very quietly second: Not the fucking moon.

Esther's house grew and her husband's car shrunk and became speedier and together they bought a stud horse they'd each eyed since an unproven colt. They were horse people and owned already a fine-boned little mare Esther barely controlled, looking in their pictures as if she pictured herself shot in a cannon's arc up high through the air.

He stands bigger in photos, said Esther when they'd arrived for a visit and all had settled in the front room and she'd taken from her purse a broadside advertising the petite stallion's live-cover and frozen-semen fees, walking it face to face to pause at each person a discomposingly long time. The mother who sat the arm of the couch said: Does size even matter? and Esther snorted and flared her small nostrils while her husband cried: She's got no complaints! after which the room festered quiet before the mother offered: He's very beautiful, and Esther flashed teeth and said: If I could wear him I would.

By the time the daughter was long gone from home but on a two-week return, Esther and husband invited her last Sunday there, the friendship had cooled, her mother having aged even smaller and joking those weeks to her daughter: Take me home and I'll sleep in your drawer. You'd never know I was there, stating at lunch while they moved to the table for crust-less sandwiches, tea, applesauce, mashed peas: How easy I pack! She'd smiled brilliantly, carried by her husband, settled in place. She'd been diagnosed and the treatment given was to remain among family, friends, to live as she had until she couldn't and then to just live a little less, to hunt in the forest, to use her best peering to find what she sought.

And what about all that she's lost in her head? the daughter asked of her father while the mother was out in the garden, combing through weeds.

It's a box, dolly, her father said. Things aren't so lost as we don't know their crannies.

Of course, she said, and said: I'm not sure I follow, and she thought: It's a bevy of boxes. A village of little and big and shack boxes. How do you account for all that?

Trust me, her father said, and then: Don't forget who I am, and she said: The nut in the cupboard?

Not exactly, said the man who grimaced. My arthritis would flare.

This made her head twist and she bit her thumb's tip and she thought, while her father smiled peaceably, picking his palmful of lines, then glanced for his wife through the window, still long in her waist: Perhaps this is children. She thought: This life in a blur and you bring your head up and you see what's gone past, all of a sudden these young things are old.

Welcome home, her father said softly, all the rows in his face for a moment flat nothing.

She'd never seen him so tender or charmed or devoted to this woman.

At the table that afternoon, to the mother's plea to her daughter, Esther made a fist on her mouth and said: Let's all keep our wits, to which the mother said, sounding lucid: A daughter like this one you'd want nearer, too. Then said without tripping: Like that horse you made love to to bear it a son. Esther coughed and crunched eyes and sighed: Belly, in a fondness for a name unknown to the daughter but to hear it her mother's shoulders turned to pudding, her spine pooled its shaft, and she slumped to the table needing fetched from her plate.

It was a long time ago, said Esther reaching through the settings to press the mother's wrist while the father dabbed gently at his wife's dirtied nose, all the peaks of her bones.

Almost everything is, said the mother leaning back in her seat. When your brain takes the reins, she said, and said Esther: You put a kick in its gut.

We're not talking ponies, love, said the mother, and Esther said: We're talking control, and the mother smiled faintly and nodded and said straight at her daughter: All my luck.


I guess I'd like to know what you're thinking, she says. I mean, I think I should know, right? Where I stand.

They've settled for breakfast too late at a diner and been shown the lunch menu to which he said: Drat. There wasn't a cool or ironic thing about it, which had a funny effect on her jaw, its glands' sudden swelling dismembering ears and triggering drool.

My sister Mira used to serve here, he said, and I'd come with her sister, Annalise, and we'd eat like lions.

Your sister and hers?

Several parents were involved.

What aren't you saying, she asked and arched in her seat and he looked at her brightly and said: Everything.

You don't just lift a person in the air, she said. You don't just take that person home and break your bed for nothing, she said.

It was my bed, he said, not yours. I'll get another, he said and she sizzled with blush and began fanning her menu. Any kind of melt, he said gently while her bangs flapped her forehead to the beat of her cooling. Any toasted cheese and you're fine here, he said, promise, and toed her shin beneath the table, a touch to mean nothing, but next he grabbed her calf close in his arches which she took to mean something.


I think I could love him, she'd claimed to her mother.

Well be careful, said the woman. You're not the first to think that.

You sound good, she said and her mother laughed like a punch so the daughter continued: Like a bank vault. Big and rich, she said.

God, gasped the woman. I think I stopped shrinking. We measured this morning and I've gained back an inch.

You're kidding, she said.

It's the Pilates, said her mother.

I thought you were breakable, she said.

Boring, sighed her mother, and then: What's there to ruin is already screwed. I'm getting my bearings, she said. I've gotta catch up.

Well it's good hearing you well.

You sound like a dream.

Pinch yourself, she said, and her mother sang: Voila, then said: You remember that horse?

It's not ringing a bell.

Esther's and that man's she was with.

Meaning her husband? the daughter asked, uncontrolled with her laugh. Then asked, still snorting: The stud or their mare? and her mother marveled, suddenly distanced: They had such a thing for them both.

At an earlier point there'd been mention of rabbits, ten new palominos bought to raise in the yard.

I prefer them albino, her mother had said, red eyes like the creeps, she'd said. Like I can't help but kill them, she'd said and her daughter said, Oh, and pictured the woman surveying her brood to choose whose neck next to snap, mother remaining their hunter, skinner, butcher, cook, these steps her most familiar and quick to recall, the walk in the trees to a trunk fallen down to dispose of furs there, to ditch their long guts.

You with me? the daughter now asked and the earpiece remained scrappy but she didn't hang up and in a minute her mother hissed: Margot! to which she kept quiet. Holly! her mother wheezed, Hello?

It's me, Mom, she said.

Ariel? her mother asked. Mona. Don't leave an old bag hanging, she chuckled nervously. George! she tried, out of breath, that's you?

I think you have a wrong number, she told her mother gently and pressed the crack of her knee's socket and cap into the nearest wall's corner until her joint fuzzed with burn like a blindness.

God, I'm embarrassed, her mother said, sounding most like herself. Tell me again, please, who exactly this is?

And the daughter said: I remember that horse. The stud and his eyes rolled back in his head. That's the one, right?

Her mother's breath sped sounding pressed to the phone, as if, unsure of its meaning, she'd force the receiver in her mouth to pulp and then swallow.

The daughter said, Hey, softly. Mom, she said, tell me what it was that you wanted to say.

He was the ride of my life, her mother snapped. All I'd imagined, and the daughter said: I can't recall when, the bird chirruping her background in sounds just like joy. Her mother coughed: Come on, Ed, think better, so the daughter replied: It was that time in the ocean, and her mother breathed: Yes, and the daughter's eyes closed: All that sun plunging for water and we saw you, she said, seeing it as she said it, wishing such sight had been then. You wore your hair long and it streamed like his tail and you looked like one animal, tearing through space.

Her mother disappeared again but her breath was insistent, crashing the receiver in erratic waves. Exactly, she whispered at last. Except for my hair being long, you remembered just right.


He didn't know that she saw them: how tenderly he held the man's face, its fit in his hand as if built just for that, the other much taller and as broadly boned yet when they stood side by side seeming the tinier, cinched tight.

When she'd pried for more details she'd been told he was a moon, a redwood, an anemone, flan.

Flan? she repeated.

You don't know, he said.

I can learn, she said, her voice so unkind that she paused before asking: Like dessert? to which he waved his hand as at a worrying bug and she felt multiple organs pinch in superficial places and they were organs, she reasoned: a pinch of one anywhere could mean its demise.

He said: I cracked his sweet shell. You're a whole different rainbow, he quipped and put his head on an angle and narrowed his eyes. You're summertime, he said, and she thought: It's summertime.

You're perfect, he said, and she scoffed: You're a liar, and he smiled again so his mouth showed its hole.

I've a preference for rain, she said, and he stood, having announced he was taking her a place though she'd told him not to, she liked where they were. You'll be glad, he'd said, and she'd said: I'm glad enough now. The bird will miss me. Let's just stay. Please.

He'd rumpled his mouth and bumped his hip with her elbow. You deserve more than a bird, was said, and she began popping knuckles of air and said: The bird does me just fine. We live well together. It's nearly saying my name, she said, though this was untrue. She'd coached it instead in the sways and beats of her mother, a song simple with stars and indelible youth, her plan now to prompt its beak speak to the woman. A gift, thought the daughter, not unlike an elk's ivory caught in a gold socket to be hung on the mother's thin neck. Unexpected, inspected, received. Brought by Esther and warmed in her pocket.

What's the meaning of this? her mother had asked while the daughter had watched from behind their two as the women bent near to look at the jewel, white and gleaming like nothing yanked from a head.

I know a guy, Esther said so her mother snorted: I imagine you do, and they'd tilted the closer that their shoulders were mashed.

See right here? she heard Esther ask, and there went a ripple in the woman's loose skin down the back of her arm and her mother giggled a girl's noise much more than a mother's of one. Show me again, said the woman then, breathless, and the daughter saw nothing through the seam of them matched but there'd come further giggle and quick little breaths and an end-hum from her mother sounding tricked up her throat. I can't, her mother whispered, and Esther said, unmuted: You must.

Where she is now has her eyes feeling fizzy, her ears deaf with ring. I know you mean well, she says, and he makes a half-grin and squats down beside her and says: Ditto to you. She puts a hand on him as she'd watched him do his man, holding his face full of scrub and compelled to press deeply, as if her skin might pass his and claim his jaw as its own. Gotcha, she whispers, her chest swelling armor. It's not what you think, she says, and he says: It most often isn't, and she shakes her head and says: It's like I lost my voice, you know? Like in those dreams where you open your mouth to scream and all there's is pressure. Just, nothing.

Like the bottom of the ocean, he offers, and she feels a brief luxury in the hush of the sea, then sniffs and says: Your stunt work's top-notch, my mother would love it, him saying: You look a lot like her, fingering skin where no hair's needing moved, and she says: I'm more of my father's, and he starts: But your nose, and I'm betting your ankles, too, and she snaps: You! Quit! but he continues: Your cheeks, the butt in your chin, your neck's shoulder-hump, the curve at your waist, and she closes her eyes to sigh: Your flan makes me sick.

He lines a thumb on her rib and says: Unicorn horn. Then palms her chest's broad plate bone, saying: All your love for a man not yet met, and she says: Your crystal ball says? and he says: I've got a great hunch.

The end? she asks, and he says: A dog in there, somewhere, gnawing a bone.

So that's been that noise, she says, and hears his grin to say: You might call the pound.

I guess you'll still see him, she says, the man-one of me, she says, and he nods and says: Love's a hard one to stop, and dips for her face keeping tight on her eyes, his breath a late wonder, its scent just of air.

The door cocks behind them and the steps in the hall are the son's of her neighbor, aimed for the stairs.

Hey! she calls, twisting. I haven't seen you! she says, and he says: I've been here, and she says: And the legs? and he grins and says: The pair of them, still here too, yes.

Her lips tweak her face and she can't keep them steady, they're pulling and arcing, buzzing her heart, zapping her lungs, and she trills: Great to hear! the other man's breath a new skin on her own, its wrap of her nose, the effect on her pores, and the son says: One of these days, then pauses and starts his steps going again. It'll be best that she's not, he says and shrugs. For her, he says. At some point, he says, his voice fading to echoes, it's best to let go, she hears, and she can't catch her eyes getting socked by her nose, its sting from her own mother's rabbits loosed of their cage, them white then like sun that shouldn't be seen. The day she learned to kill and dress bodies for table, had been tasked that she watch while her sight drowned in tears. It's okay that you love them, her mother had said, the woman's hands bloodied and her apron browned smears. But you have to let go, she'd said. You're giving them purpose they haven't yet known.

This isn't my job, the girl whined and her mother made a handicapped smile with no upright curves. You're the one who I trust, she said and said: I see you and see nothing of me, which I take as a sign. That you'll do as you know when the time comes you should, she said, and the daughter was young but felt her thoughts itch to grow, to know what they'd heard, like her mother was sun and her skull full of seed, the woman then stripping off hide over head, as she'd stripped her small girl of small shirts in her youth—guiding arms and thick legs, slowed at nose and each ear—her movements sure but gentled, too, as would be her girl's once age flopped their roles and girl became mother and mother again girl.


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