Jennifer Berney
About Experience
           She sits on the edge of the mattress on the floor and tries to listen to his voice, which rises and falters. They have been living together for seven months in a studio apartment. The apartment was hers to begin with and she remembers hanging pictures on the walls. She hasn't noticed them lately but now, while she listens, she stares at a painting, one she did before the end of college. He is explaining himself to her, explaining something about a feeling he had the other day, fleeting, when the new waitress in Thai Palace took his order. It's not about the waitress at all, and it's not about you either, Anne, it's just about—experience. They're too young, he claims, for dinner and TV each night. 
            The painting is amber, gray, and white, painted from a photograph she found at a yard sale. It is a group of people picnicking on a mountain. The women are in skirts and sweaters, cross-legged, the men in khakis. They are drinking wine, conversing. Anne wonders, again, how they got there and why they look so placid.
            Are you listening, he wants to know, because I want to make sure you understand this isn't about you and I'm not leaving you for someone else, I probably won't even date this girl, it's just a way of explaining something larger. She nods and pulls her knees against her. Looking away, she can barely remember who he is; she can only remember facts about him: he has two older brothers and one younger sister; his mother sees a therapist; he collects records; they met in the coffee bar where she works and on their first date they bought milkshakes and walked across the bridge and he said you're kinda pretty, joking but not joking, the whole date a joke, but not. When his milkshake was finished, he pulled the straw from its hole in the lid and tossed it off the edge, where the brown water took it and carried it until it disappeared. But she's not sure how they got here, him in the middle of her mattress and her on the edge.
            The man in the corner of the painting sits away from the group and holds a half-eaten sandwich. The wind has caught a piece of his hair. He is older than the rest of them and the only one who looks like he belongs on a mountain, really. He is the one that Anne remembers painting. In the photograph, his nose left a shadow that angled over his cheekbone and Anne never got it right. By the time she gave up, he felt familiar. Though he has watched her side of the bed for months, she hasn't looked at him once and, now that she does, his expression finally makes sense, like it was made for this moment, sympathy locked behind the hard features of his face. The voice in the background continues.
            I think you're great, he says.
            She can see the three months ahead far more clearly than she can remember the last seven. He won't bother to stay with friends while he looks for a new apartment; he'll stay in this bed. In two weeks, he'll be dating someone, not the waitress, someone else, and he'll think she doesn't know. One night he won't come home; the next night he will.
            Something inside her uncurls when she imagines him gone, imagines these walls holding only her, and, though she is here, the ache of this news spreading, she is also somewhere brighter, returned to the center of her world. Will you look at me? he asks her. She nods and wipes her cheeks before turning. I'm sorry, he says and gets up to use the bathroom.
            Anne lies down on her side, facing her wall, and wipes damp pieces of hair from her cheek. She can hear everything he does in there, the sounds of bristle on teeth, of spitting, of pissing, of toilet seat returning to toilet. The toilet flushes and water rushes through the walls. Anne breathes in and out. The bathroom door closes. He turns out the light and braces himself against her. Everything about him feels heavy: his smell, his lips against her cheek, his fingers in her hair. I love you he whispers, and slides a hand over her breast. She lets him because she doesn't want to start a conversation; she doesn't want to give him words. She sinks into image, not sleep, and finds herself floating beneath the bridge they crossed, carried by cold and murky water, disappearing in its folds, like that long ago discarded straw. She finds that this is not a prelude to a nightmare, that the water, though cold, acts as a cloak.