A Good Thing Going

By Marguerite Alley

Sitting at a corner table on the patio of a Lebanese restaurant, I watched Hank Nguyen chew viciously on a hangnail until a sliver of skin came loose. A flash of blood appeared on his teeth before it was wiped away with a brisk dart of his tongue. “You are the worst kind of tourist,” he said, with an elaborate eye roll.

I was working through a mouthful of flatbread and hummus. “I just don’t think it looks that tall.”

Behind him the Burj Khalifa rose into the night sky, glittering intermittently, so large that I had to roll my neck back to behold it. The action reduced it to parts, made it digestible and no longer grand. This was the Dubai Mall, and I knew that if I had marveled at what lay around me—the swarms of tourists, the extravagant fountain show every half hour, the way everything gleamed in the perfect sharpness of fluorescent light—Hank would have mocked me for that, too.

“You’re impossible to please, Berenice,” Hank said. “I take you to the center of the world and it’s not enough.”

“Okay, okay, I have an idea,” I said. “What if they made it taller?”

Hank laughed, illuminating the lines that had collected around in his eyes since I’d last seen him. It had been two years, and neither of us had fared particularly well: he had lost more weight than he could afford and I had gained the excess. We were wearing the same clothes we always had but were wearing them poorly, letting the holes in the collars proliferate and the fraying hems unwind without a struggle. I had known before he said a word that he and Mukundan had finally broken up for good.

Now he was occupying himself by guessing the nationality of passing tourists based on the brand of their shoes. “The Dutch only wear beat-to-shit Adidas, for some reason.”

“That seems anecdotal,” I said.

“You can also tell by the teeth,” he said. “You, for example, have very American teeth. Very white.”

“Not too straight, though, thank god.”

Hank snorted and I took a thick gulp of mango juice, the pulp coating my bottom lip. A waiter came by and I heard Hank ask him in Arabic for more bread. The reply came in English; Hank started a conversation in that casual way of his and quickly found out that the waiter was from Punjab, had been in the UAE for three years, and hoped to become a structural engineer.

Hank himself had only been here for two years, and would remain until he finished his dissertation or ran out of money, whichever came first. Then, he said, he’d probably be back at his parents’ place in Seattle until he located a faculty position. I had managed to polish off my doctorate a few months before but was conspicuously both without a job and without Jeannie, and so figured I had no excuse but to fly out and make a burden of myself in the name of solidarity, now that we were both single. It might be cleansing, I thought. The blankness of the desert appealed to me. I knew very little about where I was going.

After the meal I was forced to wend my way through the gleaming corridors of the mall to the black marble bathroom, attended by a small army of cleaning staff. In the stall I snapped my bra strap against my collarbone, absentmindedly enjoying the sting, then spent a long time at the sink so that the hot water became a smooth glove around my hands. A child sat on the spotless counter, letting out sobs from deep within her chest that echoed with the force of a freight train whistle. Her teeth were bared with every grand, palatial outcry. I did not have to think hard to remember what it felt like to sob like that; the act had remained in childhood but the strength of the feeling beneath it had not.

Hank and I had become friends because we both considered ourselves victims of the vicious, unofficial ranking systems of our graduate school seminars. We stayed friends because we had similar taste in men and women, a trait which had more than once created love triangles that might have been awkward had the two of us not found such situations hilarious. Always, we forsook our potential partners in favor of preserving our friendship. As we embarked on our dissertations, we both found ourselves suddenly in long-term relationships, having all but forgotten our old competitions to see who could successfully woo some desirable girl or boy in the living room of a house party or the back of a half-empty pub. Bisexuality may have been one of our first points of commonality, but it was not our last. We were, it was often remarked, unbearable together. Our significant others looked upon us with embarrassment during any public outing. An embarrassment that was, for a time, undercut by fondness. Once, at a crab restaurant somewhere on the Eastern Shore, I remember looking at a woman with a face like a clam and saying to Hank, “That lady has a huge fucking mouth.”

“A fucking mouth?” Hank snorted. “Also, do you think it’s better to have a too-big mouth or a too-little one?”

“Depends how you use it, I suppose,” I had said, laughing too loud.

At my side, Jeannie sucked her teeth in irritation. “Jesus, we’re in a restaurant. How would you like it if you overheard a stranger saying you had a big mouth?”

“I do have a big mouth. It’s one of my better features,” I said.

Mukundan, sitting diagonal to me, had giggled nervously at this, as was his way. It crossed my mind that I doubted Hank had ever giggled in his life—he had one laugh, and on that day it rocked his shoulders and the table and my hands atop it.

When I met Jeannie I was still going to classes and working as a TA for a two-hundred-student freshman lecture. She was a freelance photographer, hired to take promotional images of the campus. After a year I moved into her one-bedroom apartment, using it as a base of operations as I traveled back and forth to England to do research. When she asked what my dissertation was about, I showed her with excitement and exhaustion the object of my fascination: a Roman-era tombstone found in Arbeia that marked the passing of a British woman married to a man born in the area that would eventually be called Syria.

“He met her because he migrated to England. Like, on foot,” I told her. “It’s crazy.”

He was called Barates, and had left Palmyra at some point in the second century for Britain. Regina was a slave whom he freed and later married. Her tombstone was elaborate—a full-bodied, three-dimensional portrait of her sitting regally in pooling robes, her possessions rendered in loving detail at her feet. But her face, tragically, had been hacked away at some point in the last few millennia, and was now only a blank plane of sandstone. The inscription on the bottom was in Aramaic, and I translated it for Jeannie: Regina, freedwoman of Barates, alas.

I thought there was a kind of grief in the spareness of the language, an ache that leapt across time from the void that words failed to fill. I spent so much time studying the historical repercussions of the tombstone that it was easy to imagine that I mourned alongside Barates; when I thought of his life I inserted myself into it, becoming plural. We missed Regina.

Jeannie frowned. “He married his slave? Berenice, that’s kind of fucked up.”

“Yeah, well, he did free her first,” I said.

Jeannie, unconvinced, returned to loading film into her Leica at our kitchen table.

Hank had told me it was best to come to the UAE in January, to avoid the heat. When I arrived it was at the tail end of a three-day rainstorm that had drowned the country in more water than it had seen in thirty years—the result of a government cloud-seeding experiment run wild. The roads to Ras Al-Khaimah, where Hank researched the origin of a settlement constructed from harvested sea corals, were blocked by flooding. My hotel room on the border between Sharjah and Dubai was our only refuge for the time being.

“There’s a ten-car pileup on Sheikh Zayed Road,” Hank said. He was lying atop the pillowy white duvet on one of the beds, languidly translating the news as it blared from the TV at his feet.

“Goddamn,” I said, sucking on a travel-sized bottle of Absolut that I had smuggled in from the States, its effects mitigated by the pile of Lebanese food still in my gut. “Speaking of disasters—”

“Oh, lord,” said Hank. “Do not ask me about Mukundan.”

I settled down on the edge of the bed, close enough to see the gray-blue veins in his feet. Mukundan’s parents were migrant workers originally from Kerala, and he’d been raised in the UAE until he came to the U.S. for school. For his doctorate he’d settled in Maryland, where Hank and Jeannie and I happened to be lounging around, wending our way through advanced degrees. It had seemed natural for Hank and him to make the move back to Abu Dhabi together once Hank’s dissertation research began. Mukundan had friends, family, academic connections. They were going to get a two-bedroom apartment for appearance’s sake and explore the underground nightlife together. And they had done so, for two years, until Jeannie and I received a curt, raw email from Mukundan in November explaining that he’d been offered a fellowship in Germany and he would be embarking upon it alone.

Hank had an arm draped over his eyes. I said, “I was gonna ask you about your dissertation, actually.”

He was silent for a long while, his eyes on the ceiling. I thought perhaps he was trying to fall asleep with his eyes open, the kind of thing we had tried to teach ourselves to do in seminars when some pompous classmate grew the urge to drone on. The TV filled the silence, a white noise of syllables I didn’t understand as the camera panned over a water-logged desert road. Finally Hank looked at me and, seeing that I had finished my bottle, said, “Maybe we should go out.”

At a hotel bar next to the canal, I was charged an exorbitant amount for a tequila cranberry that slid down my throat like water. Hank did not drink and instead periodically spewed minty-smelling shisha smoke at me from across the table. He was lit by a neon strip light above our heads, the black of his curls tinted purple at the edges. On the dance floor a group of rowdy Australian tourists seemed on the verge of something—a fight, a fuck, or other means of revelation.

“I want to know what happened with Jeannie,” Hank said, shouting over the music. “Is it over for real this time, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “She moved out but she still picks up my phone calls.”

“That’s probably a good sign,” said Hank. “Though a bit pathetic.”

The song on the radio switched to “Despacito” and I mouthed absently along to the words without knowing what most of them meant. I thought about calling Jeannie, trying to calculate the time difference. After she left our Maryland apartment she’d said she was going to stay with her brother in San Antonio for a while. With her gone the laundry was piling up and the dishes in the sink were ridged with dried food.

“I suppose we were just tired of each other,” I said. “A little break will do us some good.”

Hank smiled reassuringly. “No doubt. These things ebb and flow.”

Eventually, we fell into conversation with some of the Australians. They seemed to think we were kindred spirits. It was a family group—a tall blond called Geoff worked for an architectural firm in Dubai and a herd of his relatives were in town to visit him. They were seeing the sights. “Perhaps we should see the sights together,” Geoff said, looking between Hank and me, his eyes unfocused but furtive, as though trying to discern our relationship to each other. Hank was ultimately persuaded to drink, and was shortly thereafter as buzzed as the rest of us.

“Want some?” Hank asked, offering the shisha to Geoff and three of his cousins as they gathered around our table.

“Absolutely,” Geoff said. He sucked down a hard gulp of smoke and looked proudly at his cousins. “It’s a shame these haven’t caught on in Canberra. Maybe I’ll bring it back. Start a shisha trend. My only complaint about the Emiratis—not enough of them in Canberra.”

This, as it turned out, was not his only complaint about Emiratis. He located Hank as another expat and zeroed in on him for a cultural dissection of the Gulf. Hank nodded along and appeared tolerant enough of Geoff’s views but then he looked to me, just briefly, and it warmed me how easily I could read the contempt in his expression. Geoff expounded and Hank blinked slowly, mockingly; gave me the slyest of smiles. We were in a seminar again, our old jokes resurfacing. In the meantime, the blond and long-legged cousins asked me if I knew of any good beaches.

Thrilled to be consulted, I shrugged exuberantly. “Rehoboth is nice,” I said.

“Is that close?”

“Oh, you mean in Dubai,” I said, flushing. I thought I felt the edge of a sunburn scrape beneath my skin, tight against my nose. “I just got here a day ago.”

They smiled politely at this. It was difficult to hear over the music, and their accents collided unevenly with my ears as we made small-talk about the unusually rainy weather. I drank a little more to alleviate my boredom, lilted slightly in my seat with the beat of the song. Hank managed to extricate himself from Geoff and then the two of us were alone again and out on the street, tottering along a grassy median in search of a taxi.

“Maybe we should call Jeannie now,” Hank said, raising an eyebrow at me. “You need closure.”

“No, I do not,” I said, my tongue thick in my mouth. “I am very closed.”

“I feel like you’re not.” He was drunk, too, but not terribly. He strode forward purposefully, chin held high, while I swam along behind him.

“I don’t even know what time it is in San Antonio,” I said. “We might wake her up.”

“I should just take your phone and do it,” he replied, motioning vaguely as if he were going to do so. I took a violent backward step.

“You better fucking not,” I said. He was already laughing. “I’ll have you killed if you do that. I’ll hire an international assassin on the dark web, fucker.”

Hank laughed until he cried, as though this were peak comedy. We found a cab, and while Hank chatted with the driver in Arabic about Game of Thrones I felt the prickle of his proximity to me as we brushed legs in the backseat. I was tinted with sunburn, undoubtedly, and I thought back to the previous summer when Jeannie and I had taken a day trip to D.C. in her kitschy old pickup truck. No air-conditioning; it was necessary to leave the window open, to flop the pale white fish of my arm over the sill and let the sun scorch it until the skin was swollen and thick with heat, my splatter of orange freckles uniting into a red sea. For a week, Jeannie religiously applied aloe for me, the clean beachy smell of it becoming entangled with the scent of her shampoo and mine. She washed my hair in the musty kitchen sink so I would not have to endure the pain of a shower. And, even after the skin had peeled and repaired itself, she still would occasionally indulge me in this: warm water through my hair, her hands, our bodies pressed close against the counter. A magnanimous little Sunday afternoon kind of treat.

In my hotel room, Hank had graciously accepted the bed closer to the wall instead of the window and seemed to quickly fade into sleep, lying on his side with an arm tossed beneath his pillow. In the dark I watched his back—a mountain range pulsing with each of his breaths, ringed by light seeping in from a streetlamp.

He shifted against the sheets and it was like the sound of a distant snake slithering. To lull myself into unconsciousness I employed a technique Jeannie had taught me that involved focusing, with great intensity, on each part of one’s body, starting with the feet and moving upwards. I only made it to my left kneecap before nodding off.

Hank awoke before me, rising early to run on a treadmill in the complimentary gym facilities. I let him borrow my shampoo for a shower upon returning, and could smell it on him as he passed by later, creating the sense of myself, replicated, shouldering around me to get to the mirror. We ate breakfast, also complimentary, at the side of a pool that overflowed with rainwater. If I turned my head to the right the desert gleamed, gray and unremitting, to the overcast horizon. To my left was a growth of shining glass towers, self-contained and unconnected like a jaw with every other tooth removed.

“Do you think a matriarchal society would dig holes rather than build skyscrapers?” I asked.

Hank was chewing on his thumb again, the nail looking tender and short. “Women don’t have a monopoly on holes, Berenice.”

He was quieter than he had been the night before, as though daylight didn’t suit him. I thought I might be hungover; my body was heavy with something. Hank was looking at me, and I was looking back; it occurred to me that we did not often do this. We saw each other but never on purpose, never with such a deliberate tilt of our heads, focus of our eyes. And now we were looking and not looking away. I was more aware of him than I had ever been.

We took a cab into the city. The clouds were hanging low again, moistening the air, obscuring the tops of buildings so that they ascended into a gray haze. At a pause in the flow of traffic I heard the call to prayer ring out through the streets and echo in the quiet of the car. Hank’s arm, extended across the backseat, brushed my shoulder. I wondered what Geoff and the cousins were up to—if they were seeing sights that I should be seeing. Hank did not spend much time in Dubai, generally, and did not have an intimate knowledge of what was worth seeing beyond the airport he met me at. With Mukundan gone, he spent most of his time cataloguing coral samples on the coast.

“Twelve million coral pieces, used like bricks in the absence of any other available building material,” he said. “Some from four hundred years ago, some from just before the town was abandoned in the seventies. That’s a lot of fucking coral to analyze.”

He said this forlornly, without affection. If he had asked me about Barates and Regina, I would have waxed poetic for an hour. He did not ask. “How close are you to finishing?” I asked, thinking of the way he dodged the question about his dissertation yesterday.

“Fuck if I know.” He shrugged.

“You must be close to done,” I said. Traffic lurched forward again; the call to prayer trailed off into the rain.

Hank’s eyes were on the street, on the collection of pedestrians dodging in and out of the businesses that populated the ground floors of skyscrapers, set back from the road by a wide sidewalk. I thought of how long it had been since we were all in Maryland, running across leafy quads like children, gossiping vapidly at parties thrown in drooping group houses. He was older, now—I could see it in the lines of his face and in the thickness of my own wrists. We were tired people, made useless by time and loneliness. I wondered if he was having a crisis. I wondered if maybe I was having one. The ingredients were there, certainly: post-breakup melodrama and no tenure-track jobs presenting themselves. I could have cried; it would have been easy. We could’ve cried together and maybe it would all feel better, but more likely it would just be a little bit worse.

In the absence of any other ideas, Hank took me down to a souq where I bought a collection of trite gifts: a magnet with the Burj on it for my parents, a coaster for my sister, a scarf for Jeannie. The vendors looked at Hank and greeted him with ni hao, to which he patiently replied in Arabic. As we stepped back onto the street, a sparkling black Cadillac passed and our bodies, reflected in the convex surface of the bumper, were briefly elongated into something grotesque and misshapen. Without much enthusiasm, Hank said, “We should have dinner in Sharjah. I know a good Iraqi place.”

This required a cab, and as night fell we sped across empty six-lane highways bracketed with date palms. The nanny software on the meter voiced a warning in prim English whenever the driver accelerated over eighty kilometers per hour, and a smooth scream rose from the tires as they pushed forward against the spotless pavement. But before long we were coming to an incongruous standstill, the way clotted with the idling vehicles. Hank leaned forward and asked the driver something in Arabic.

“He says the road might still be flooded,” Hank said, turning back to me.

“Oh,” was all I said, because Hank already seemed to be giving the driver new instructions to pull into the breakdown lane and take the next exit. But this did not prove to be much of a shortcut—the ramp led only to a rest stop and gas station, glowing with fluorescent light.

“What now?” I asked. The cab driver, after pulling into a corner parking spot, had climbed out to smoke.

“You want tea?” Hank asked. “I’ll get us some tea.”

I watched him cross the lot to the service station, disappearing inside. Heaving myself out of the backseat, I moved in the opposite direction, toward where the pavement fell away into sand. The desert, persevering toward the strip of orange still lingering on the horizon, was visibly sodden. Pools of milky water gathered between scrubby dunes, the sand speckled with damp spots and opportunistic weeds. The view was cluttered, even as the flat land made it seem boundless. The eye became overwhelmed; the body followed. I turned back to where Hank was trotting out of the building, holding two miniature white cups. A man in a white dishdasha said something to him with a smile as they passed on the curb and Hank laughed.

“Shall we sit?” Hank said, handing me a cup, and we settled down on an incline of sand that led down from the parking lot.

“What did that guy say to you?” I asked.

“No idea,” he said, shrugging. “I just laughed because he did.”

I made an incredulous noise. “I thought you were the Arabic expert.”

“I learned the Egyptian dialect,” Hank said. “He used some Emirati word I don’t know.”

“But you’ve been here so long,” I said. “I figured you knew everything.”

Frowning, he threw back the last of his tea and then placed the empty cup carefully between his outstretched knees. Even in the low light I could see where the wet sand was sticking to the hair on his legs. “Everybody I see on a daily basis is an expatriate from somewhere else.”

There was something lonely in this admission, and if I thought about it I might have been able to produce a reason. But I was wearing shorts cut off at the knee that were slowly becoming soaked on the bottom, and when I shivered Hank put an arm around me. With his other arm he motioned toward the blackening desert. It was the kind of thing Jeannie would have liked to photograph—she was always lured in by a flat expanse of space, only to be disappointed when the image never quite captured the depth of the vista, the fullness of it. She complained about this to me, once, and so I went and stood in front of the view so that there was a point of comparison. My body, tiny on the face of the earth, using its littleness in the service of conveying the bigness of something else.

“Is this good enough for you?” Hank asked, and with a strong pull I forced my thoughts back to him. The desert loomed before us. “Should they make it bigger?”

“A little bigger couldn’t hurt,” I said, and put my head on his shoulder.

When my dissertation was still in progress, I usually monopolized the bedroom as writing space. Blinds drawn, laptop fan screaming, the bed unmade, and Jeannie consigned to our kitchen counter with her hoards of vintage cameras. Once, I emerged from the bedroom with the intention of frying an egg and found her hunched on a stool over a negative from a wedding in the Hamptons. I said, “You know what I think is crazy?”

But before I could continue, she said, “You don’t actually have to tell me every thought that passes through your head.”

I thought it might be a joke. I wanted it to be, so I laughed. She did not look up.

We were in the pool when Hank said, “I don’t think I’ve been a very good host.”

When we returned from our aborted trip to Sharjah the water had seemed inviting enough but now I was cold again, floating beside him, feeling the fabric of the water push and pull around my flapping arms when my torso began to sink. The sky was a shiny black, shaded sickly yellow at the edges by the lights of the terrace. “You don’t think so?”

“I feel like I should be thinking of more sights to see.”

The water slopping periodically against my ears devolved some of his words into rough syllables. I said, “This is fine. I’m not picky.”

But I had the sense, as he floated away, that he no longer knew what to do with me—had never known. That my purpose here had become indiscernible to both of us. Our friendship was easier when there were definitive limits, when we ran loops around each other but didn’t touch, the distance unspoken but respected. It was simpler to set a border when you had a reason not to cross it. Because I knew you could ache with the potential of a thing. You could let it eat you. And in the end it could still go bad on you, grow disinterested and terse. It could still collect its camera and slither out of the apartment, down the stairs, and leave you thinking that maybe you had done wrong—were in fact wrong on some innate, primal level—but too afraid to know for sure. To know what you already knew.

There was a long silence and I thought of what I might be doing at home, had I not taken this trip—puttering around the disordered kitchen, forgetting to take out the trash, pondering the hairs collecting in the bathroom sink. And maybe Hank would be doing the same, on the other side of the world.

“I don’t know. It’s been hard out here,” he said. The rawness in his voice startled me; the vulnerability beneath it shot through to my core, gathered strangely in my chest. I thought of that old border we had obeyed between us, how he might be too nice to say No if I were to cross it, finally. But Hank wasn’t nice, not really. Neither of us was.

“It’s hard everywhere,” I said. “That’s just how it is.”

I wanted to commiserate rather than reprimand and, in case my tone did not convey this desire, I kicked swiftly to the shallow end where he had come to sit on the stairs. He seemed smaller, his shoulders thinned by perching his elbows on his knees. I reached out for him before I gave much thought to what I was doing; he took my hands between his larger ones, pulling me in, and then we were kissing and it seemed almost normal, like something we had maybe once done and forgot about, or thought about doing. It had been a while since I kissed a man and the scrape of a day’s worth of stubble surprised me, among other things that I catalogued and threw away as quickly as they were noted: his broad hand coming to rest on my back, his bottom lip dry and chapped.

When we pulled away, it was only to laugh. Without a word exchanged we knew to climb out of the water, to jog toward the elevator, to embrace giddily as the floors passed with a barely perceptible hum. Back in my room, I couldn’t help but spare a glance at us as we passed the full-length mirror in the foyer, couldn’t help but admire our intertwined figures in the dim orange light of the bedside lamp. My own body was still clad in a clammy bathing suit, the top of which Hank was making a valiant effort to pull over my head. I raised my arms and let him.

Our shared sense of purpose was exhilarating. It was nice to know what to do, for once, and I pushed Hank back until he sat down on the end of the bed. He made a show of running his hands down my thighs, kissing my hip so I could feel the smooth line of his teeth. We were doing things with a flourish, playing as though being watched and evaluated on the strength of our poise in the face of desire. But then I looked up and caught sight of the bed over his shoulder, still unmade from this morning.

“I should change the sheets,” I said absently.

“What?” He looked at me, eyes clouded, then at the bed. “Now?”

“No, when I get home,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve done it in a while.”

Hank was still so close to me I could feel his breath spreading across my skin like warm water. But we had stopped moving, his gaze on me and mine on the sheets.

“It’s something Jeannie used to do,” I added. “I keep forgetting.”

Hank’s hands dropped from my hips. Looking away, he said, “I think I left my shirt downstairs.”

Then he was abruptly on his feet. When the door shut behind him I was aware of some distant, untraceable emotion that I thought I might be feeling but didn’t investigate. I pictured Hank’s face and could see the way it would grow old—could see the lines that would pull down from his mouth, the gray that would invade the hair at his temples first and then poison the whole crop. But then he was back in the room again, sitting down next to me on the end of the bed, and I knew that I was being unfair, perhaps traitorous. Wrong. I located the feeling, finally: it was guilt, and to luxuriate in it was like coming home. It pulled me down like water, like shifting sand.

Hank’s eyes were on the floor. “I don’t think I’m going to finish my dissertation.”

“Why not?” I said. We weren’t touching; the heat of before was erased. We could have been anywhere, at any time, sitting and talking like people who knew things about each other.

“I want to go home,” he said, and sucked in a long, plump breath.

“You can do that,” I told him.

“Can I?”

“Yeah, I think that would be an okay thing for you to do, if you want,” I said. “These things ebb and flow.”

His hand was close enough to grasp, and I did consider doing so. His upturned palm beckoned needfully; I wanted to fill it with something. We wanted, I knew, to hold and be held. But first I needed to grope the side table for my phone. The last call I had made was to Jeannie, more than a week back, and I realized I couldn’t remember whether I’d told her about my upcoming reunion with Hank. Her contact photo was a picture I had taken of her years ago—she was standing at the edge of a stream, naked and contrapposto. One of my scarves draped over her shoulders, her camera bag at her feet. The smile on her face suggested she had found humor in the sunny drama of the pose. The picture was small and far away and so was Hank, when I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. The skyscrapers out of the window beyond him produced a perfect, unified glow. I thought about the border between the two of us, as we sat there—whether we might be able to cross and recross it at will, double back and surge forward, replace a hard line with something fluid and changing.

But I needed to tap out Jeannie’s number first and now the phone was ringing in my hand. There was a heavy inch of space between our thighs, a tight and unknown language in each intake of breath we shared. We became quickly unsynchronized in the sterility of the room; my exhale was his inhale. We looked at Jeannie’s picture together, our heads bent close. I wondered, again, what time it was in San Antonio and Hank said it was probably midday and then I watched the call end and go to voicemail and thought: alas.

Marguerite Alley (she/they) is a writer from Durham, North Carolina, whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, The Louisville Review, Chautauqua, Pigeon Pages, Bodega, and elsewhere. She received a B.A. in Spanish from NYU in 2022.

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