We realize, of course, that one day the force may strike again, leaving one of us breathless at the side of the road.
Ridley Howard, Italian Shoes, 2013. Oil on linen, 6 × 6 in.
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York
In the office where we worked, a windowless kitchenette stood at the end of a hall; in it, an espresso machine proudly rose from a countertop made of cold marble. One day, we craved the coolness of the marble, the heat of bitter caffeine, at the exact same time. In the kitchenette, we reached for the knob, then for the nozzle. Our hands touched, our skins tickled. The machine roared, let out steam. Still, we laughed it off. We said, Excuse me. We returned to our desks and emulated the motions of coworkers. You see, we had both offered our freedom to other people long ago, and they’d accepted.
The next day it happened again. And again.
One of us, though we are not at liberty to say who, began to suspect the presence of a powerful force.
For a while, only a few people shared our secret. After nodding at these people over glasses of stale iced tea, as they advocated for restraint and touched the tips of our shoulders, we’d often find gray spots under our skin. They looked like bruises. We knew what they were. We had no escape, the force was reminding us, lest our friends’ words fool us.
Once, we bought a special detergent, legal in our state only for the use of veterinarians with pure intentions. Over the small kitchenette faucet we hunched, as one of us tried to scrub the other clean. We squeezed grainy matter out of green tubes. It didn’t work.
What could we do? We said goodbye to our spouses, affectionately kissed them on the cheek, avoided their eyes as we reached for the door. We left many items behind. We held on to our keys. Anything else, we knew, would be too cruel.
We found a house with leaves on every window. We were undressing each other so often that some days putting clothes back on seemed a waste of time.
We had a plan: separate apartments. It’s the difference between cooking to surprise a lover, and cooking because your lover is hungry, we said. But every morning we’d wake up together, unable to remember the previous night. Unwittingly, we started using the same Laundromat. At the grocery store, we found ourselves aware of each other’s preferences, shopping for two. Why am I choosing semi-soft tomatoes? one of us would think; I always said soy can’t be milk, the other would mumble, carton in hand. Soon, the elaborate ring of keys felt heavy in our pockets, and the clinking sound it made annoyed us.
We found a house with leaves on every window. We were undressing each other so often that some days putting clothes back on seemed a waste of time. We appreciated the trees for this reason—they made it so we could be naked and believe ourselves unobserved. Except, that is, for the force, which, we assumed, if it wanted to watch us would not be deterred by greenery.
After a while, one of us—and it truly doesn’t matter who—had a crisis in the family. We have different memories of what the crisis was—one of us believes a beloved aunt fell ill, while the other remembers it clearly as a sibling’s drug problem. What is not in dispute is that solving the crisis involved travel and an extended stay, and that while one of us was packing, the other felt terrified, and thrilled.
While one of us was away, the other started working long hours, creating expectations in the office that later proved difficult to amend. We were not working in the same office by then, but we were still in the same business—figuring out if companies needed to get bigger or smaller—and we both understood the nature of that business.
We still talk about that trip often—it seemed to take something away from us, and perhaps give something in return.
We admit that freely, often over a glass of wine, and one of us tickles the other’s knee to remind us we are still playful.
These days, we have a good division of labor in the household. We hug each other often, to convey support.
Over time, we got in the habit of taking our own clothes off when needed. When you undress yourself, you have plenty of time to close a curtain, and so the trees grew less important. But we still loved the green on our windows, especially when the yellow of the sun mixed with it a particular way. Such views were hard to come by in our state—most living quarters were overlooking other living quarters. We fully accepted that our love for our windows meant staying in our rather expensive home. And we accepted that that, in turn, meant one of us—the one making more money—had to work even longer hours. It seemed necessary to have a home that looked like a home, if we were ever to have children, which we kept feeling we would want next year. That’s life, we both said, and shrugged. During the workday, we texted each other often.
These days, we have a good division of labor in the household. We hug each other often, to convey support. We cook—dinner, sometimes breakfast, and definitely brunch on weekends. We own a humidifier.
We’re big on personal hygiene—a shower or a bath every day, sometimes two. Showers and baths are taken separately, for convenience. We fantasize about a big house. Our big house would have exposed-brick walls, a fireplace, and a Jacuzzi where two people could bathe together and save time. The big house is not our only fantasy: sometimes we fantasize about other people. (It’s only natural, we remind ourselves; we try to forget our past.) We eat cereal frequently. We often stay up late. We take turns buying soap and toilet paper. We never watch Doctor Phil.
Occasionally, we see our friends, many of whom have developed a drinking problem. They spike their iced teas, lean back, and stare at things we can’t see. They don’t touch the tips of our shoulders. They ask about our house and our jobs, and we ask about theirs, but most of the time no one answers. Sometimes they ask about our old spouses, about how they’re doing. We say we hear one of them got a dog, the other a cat. We say both of them have moved away. We say from all accounts they are happy, dating. For all we know, these things could be true.
Sometimes we go to parties. We talk to new people at these parties—some couples, some who are not coupled. These people are mostly attractive, and sometimes they say things like Hi, I’m Shira. They find an excuse to touch one of us while the other is eating Brie in another part of the room. I love your shirt; is it silk?
When we come home, we look for gray spots under our skin. We shake a little as we uncover ourselves to see. Every time, our skin is clear. We stand there for a moment, looking. Then we start touching each other with relief.
We realize, of course, that one day the force may strike again, leaving one of us breathless at the side of the road. We realize, but we try not to think about that. When we do, we say things like This understanding only makes us stronger. Sometimes one of us nods, says, Right, then adds, But how, exactly? It’s as if all that exists for us is the present, the other says; in it, we must stand still, hold each other firmly.
Excerpted from New York 1, Tel Aviv 0: Stories (FSG Originals).
Shelly Oria was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Israel. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, TriQuarterly, and Quarterly West, among other places, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Shelly curates the series Sweet! Actors Reading Writers in the East Village and teaches fiction at Pratt Institute, where she also co-directs the Writers’ Forum. New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is her first book.
Photo credit: Kira Madden