She watches Ben kneel and sink his index finger into the soil of the date palm, his eyes narrowed in focus, as if feeling it for a pulse. Two years ago, he’d told her he felt like he was moving into a nursery—setting his U-Haul boxes beside the thick bases of pots, tucking his books behind shelved plants, stepping around floorcoils of vines—but now she watches him tend the things with care, with something approaching love. Trim dead undergrowth with the thick kitchen shears, measure and level fertilizer with a plastic teaspoon. Check the moisture of the soil with practiced indices. She watches him look back at her, smile. Still all right, he says, before he stands and moves to the next.
Things, for now, feel OK. Comfortable: he waters the plants rotely, but pleasantly. But she’s long been afraid. Plants are precarious, finicky things—just when you think they are happiest, they begin to wilt. Three months ago, he told her he felt something was missing in his life, in their relationship, and her feet have felt eggshelled ever since. It has loomed over her, the Something. She wanted to scream, cry, pull herself apart: What is it that I don’t have, what is it that you need that I can’t provide? He spent longer hours in his bedroom-converted-into-office on the weekends, went for longer solitary drives; she only knew he was back when she heard his music, his Frank or Erykah, falling out his open car windows. She imagined his slow walk up the steps, his hesitation at the landing, his glance over the railing to the parking lot below, the palms and hazes of clouds in the distance, his one-two-three count before he twisted he key in the lock, like he’d found that Something somewhere out there and was making the choice now to leave it behind, to lock himself inside their apartment without it. She’s dreamed of their inevitable end again and again, woken with stones of regret in her throat, clutched at him like he was inflatable. He was still here, still here.
While she’s at work, a few days later, he finds one of her short stories. She’d printed it, left it out in the open—silly mistake. Erin, he says when she gets home—somehow breathless and booming, like she’d filled his lungs and punctured them simultaneously—you never told me you wrote stories, this is amazing. He turns the pages, ginger as scripture, and says God, this is it, this is the Something. More, more, c’mon, there’s got to be more. Print more for me. He’s still at her desk, in the corner of the kitchen, beaming. She hasn’t forgotten the something, she’s thought about it every day since, but to hear it aloud again stung like salt in a cut.
They have, for the first time since the early days, really great sex; he is ravaging, relentless. But his eyes, she thinks, keep wandering to the bedside table, where he’s set his phone, and beneath it, the short story. Or else it’s a trick of the moon, an untoward flicker of the TV light. He snores afterward, a light purr of a sound, as he does when he’s exhausted.
In the morning he holds the story over his bowl of cereal, eyes gliding through lines of print as he crunches. I should be bothered, he says, because you’ve kept this from me for so long. But I’m just so happy I’m being let in on it. Feels like a gift.
She had never called herself a writer; she’d chosen a different path, only rarely let her creative impulses out, on weekends when Ben was away for meetings or trainings. She had forgotten the shiver-slick way it felt to have his attention. He quotes one of the lines—one of her lines—and she winces in misery; it’s torture to hear them read back. I mean, he says, come on, how good is that. You have more, don’t you?
He turns to her, in the late hours of another night—when she thinks he’s asleep and she’s listening to his cycles of breathing, watching his hands folded across his sternum, tracking the fissures in his knuckles lit by fractals of streetlight—and says, eyes lit with wonder, What else have you been hiding from me?
She had been surprised he’d wanted to see her again after their first date. She’d noted, she thought, the precise moment at which the light had left his eyes, the exact second he’d lost interest. Tried to figure out which preceding hobby or opinion had turned him off, or perhaps she’d smiled too wide or laughed too loud. Thought of his goodbye kiss as a reluctant thing. Turned it over as she fell asleep, felt the last buzzing traces of the cocktail leaving her system.
In the morning she saw his text, and she left it unopened, turned the screen on and off, allowed its buoyant light to hit her again and again.
In the early months of the relationship with Ben, her friend Claire, across the top-heavy bar table, limeless stir stick in her left hand, said: I don’t know how you landed him. And Erin nodded, feverish, because Claire was right. He’s unspeakable. One of those people who attracts admirers everywhere he goes, leaves legions of shiny-eyed new admirers behind. She’s long known her luck, and she’s been waiting for him to wake up and blink the fog out of his eyes and realize it too, to say, This isn’t where I’m supposed to be, and take flight. Any day, now.
The next time she saw Claire, across a different bar table nearly a year later—Claire had often, since the start of their friendship, drifted out of touch for long periods—Claire asked, Are you seeing anyone? and Erin said, Still Ben, and she reveled in the look in Claire’s eye, the sheer unfathomability, and she held onto the look for a long time, wielded it in her mind like a slick power. It wasn’t a victory against Claire, per se, but a victory against the world: the unimaginable thing she had was working, it was lasting. She and Ben were good together, they were a good fit. She wants to say it over and over again.
Her mother had walked out on her father when she was a senior in high school. Her sister had caught her husband with another woman’s breast in his mouth. She needed to believe that what she had spent her life chasing, and finally believed she had pinned down, could be real. And so she clung.
She runs another story off, on the office printer, a few days later. One at a time, from the archive; low doses. Last night he read the first story before bed, muttered lines to himself, quiet, incomprehensible. She fell asleep to his soft murmurs: I’m delirious, he said, this is the best thing I’ve ever read. This morning she noticed the story hadn’t even made it to the nightstand when he finished; she got up to shower and he lay there, on his back, the story beneath his clasped hands, flat against his chest like it was snuggling up against him. In the middle of the night she’d woken in shivers, pulled the blankets higher. Pulled them in like a limb, like a body. Do you still love me? she whispered in his direction. He shifted in his sleep, rolled onto his side, his arms still clutching the story like they were straitjacketed there.
A third story, now, sent to the office printer. She doesn’t want to think about what happens when she runs out, what Ben will become. In the morning, she’d lifted the second story to wipe beneath it, and Ben leapt at her like she was trying to steal it. She hasn’t written a new one in months, but eventually, she knows, he will need something new. On her way to the pick up the copy from the printer, her boss stops her at the door: What’s this? he asks, clutching her story in his right hand. He flips through it with cigarette-darkened fingers, smiles at her with stained teeth. Straightens his tie, hands the stack over to me. Doesn’t look like invoices, he says. She fears termination—it’s happened for lesser reasons here—but he says nothing further, lets her walk back to her desk.
When she enters the apartment, he is looking at her like a dog that smells meat. She lingers in his gaze for a moment before she hands him the story, and he immediately takes it to the couch. He has been neglecting the plants—the leaves are beginning to curl and brown at the ends, the new growths yellowing. His feet propped on the opposite chair, the spilled-ink tattoo spiraling his ankle, the slight hunch of his shoulder as his head cranes toward the open faces of pages—he is a man in love. Her soul splits open for him.
I was going to go to school for it, she says. For writing.
He doesn’t look up from the page; she wonders if he is listening.
But that was when Mom got sick, she continues. She was so sick.
He laughs, at something on the page; she knows he is not hearing her.
So I couldn’t go, she says. But I keep trying. I don’t know if I can ever stop trying.
He flips the page; she goes into the bathroom, lingers there, sighs into the sink.
Claire would hold her, pull her hair back, feed her bites of ice cream from the carton; she would help her through. But with a gleam in her eye, a smug sense of victory, because Claire had been right all along, hadn’t she?
On Valentine’s Day, the next weekend, he wakes early, rises from the bed, goes into the other room, rummages around in the kitchen—he hasn’t forgotten, she thinks, they aren’t in a state of dissolution. She is tired—she was up late writing a new story for him. She rolls over, allows herself to fall into a blissful half-sleep, figures he will wake her when he is ready. She sits up at 11:30, realizes he still hasn’t come. Pads into the kitchen, finds him at the desk in the corner where she works, a bag of King’s Hawaiian rolls open at his side, half of them gone—his jaw moves in slow motion, crushing the same bit of bread again and again. His fingers are perched over her computer’s trackpad, the document of her stories open in front of him. She doesn’t know how he got the document—whether she’d left it open in the night, whether he’d broken his way in. Tears, she notices, are pooling in the hollows of his eyes, bubbling over onto his cheeks.
Morning, she croaks, blinking back tears of her own.
He can’t just do that to her, he says. It’s not fair.
She knows exactly the story he is talking about; she had been saving it for last, not because it was the best, but because it felt like the end. Because she knew it was coming, the clean cleave of it, when she had exhausted all other options and had only one last offering, and there was nothing else for him to take, nothing else that interested him. He had picked her bones clean.
He steps over the pothos vines, the yellowed crisps of their leaves, on his way into the bathroom. The faucet runs—he is washing his face, wiping it clean, scrubbing the emotions away. She used to love the faraway sounds of him. Wanted to hear them forever, to keep them there.
She prints everything she has for him, at Kinko’s, slams a heavy duty stapler through the corner. He’d barely relinquished her computer from his grip, at the corner desk, till she talked him down with promises of printing. Her eyes are heavy, foggy—she only caught a few hours of sleep, after finishing a new story for him. She is beginning to think of him more and more as deranged. Fuck it, she figures, he can have them. If her hold on him is going to give, let it come crashing down.
But she doesn’t quite anticipate, in the coming days and weeks, the sheer degree to which he recedes into the pages. The snake plant, which is supposed to be the easiest for them to keep alive, begins to sour; a few of its stakes bend in half, flop over onto the rim of the pot. He begins to raid their supply of packaged ramen; she comes home to find its nuclear yellow powder on the tiles, bowls crusted with dried broth in the sink. He stops showering, begins to smell like he has long been dead; the pages of the manuscript begin to yellow and crease from the sweat in his hands.
On the fourth straight day, when the soft red T-shirt he hasn’t taken off has begun to darken with pit stains, when he’s piled the sink with dishes and scribbled words across the manuscript pages, her tenor changes. She’s looked over his shoulder, tried to read the markings, but they are indecipherable, scratchings more than words, long stretching lines spread along the margins. No longer is she interested in the spectacle of it, how long he could keep it going, how long he could survive. It becomes solely sad, lonely: the thing she has fought so hard to keep alive is cut off at the roots.
It’s like I’m not even here, she says.
I’m sorry, he says, I’m falling in love.
But you don’t show it, she says.
Not with you, he says, eyes soft and distant. Strokes the top page manuscript, its neat, clean edge.
But the writing is me, she says.
No, he says. It’s not.
At the end of the packet she printed is the newest story, finished in the early hours of the morning. She watches with dread as he gathers the pages, detaches them from the packet. Not as good, he says. Feels rushed. The pages flutter to the ground, fold over each other like leaves.
She meets him on the couch, extends her hand. His eyes shoot up to hers, narrowed, like he knows what she is going to try.
Give them back, she says. She puts a hand on the manuscript, attempts to pull it from his hands.
His eyes brim with anger. No, he says. Strengthens his grip, till his knuckles are white, pulls it right back toward him. Looks at her like an enemy, stalks off to read in peace. She stays on the couch, sets her hand at the imprint of his body, the cushion still warm. She scoots into his former spot, sits in the stink of him there. Hears him turn a page from down the hall.
He’s a light sleeper, so her task is difficult, but not impossible. She waits till his eyes dart back and forth behind his lids, till she knows he’s in REM; looks at the manuscript curled on his chest, as always. The middle of the bed is so cold. She extricates the pages, slides them out slowly from under his forearms. He shifts at one point, and she thinks she’s been found out, but his eyes go back to their darting.
In the living room, she rolls the pages into a cylinder, as if to wrap them in a rubber band. Instead, she fills the watering can all the way up and tucks the manuscript into the hole at its top. Watches the pages soak, relax. Watches the double-spaced type, and his ink scrawlings across the rearmost page, loosen and disappear into the water. Only the bottom half of the manuscript will be wet, but she can flip it later. She is killing his darlings, and her own too.
She looks around at all the dying plants: such tenuous hands she had put her trust into. She has written loving onto his basic functions—coming home, watering plants, cooking meals—and has wrangled him into a loving creature; her eyes are tired from straining to see him in that light. In the morning, when she and Ben wake, she will tell him what has to happen, where he has to go. She will wait for him to come back to himself, and she will wait for him to see her. She thinks she hears him stirring, now, in the bedroom. Shuffling, feeling around for Something.
HAYDEN CASEY is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Arizona State University. His fiction has appeared in Witness and Bat City Review and his music can be found at haydencasey.bandcamp.com.