Jeff Moscaritolo holds an MFA from George Mason University and teaches at Doane University. His fiction and other writings have been published in Indiana Review, Paper Darts, Lincoln Journal Star, and also previously in Carve. He grew up in New Jersey and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Keep in mind, I was still new in town. I didn’t know people yet. I had no community here, no family. At a time when I needed to be seen, she saw me. And she was engaged to a man for whom she had done the same.
Before becoming her fiancé, he sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident—some maniac in a utility van ran a red light and t-boned him—rendering him completely paralyzed from the waist down. They had only been together three months.
Here’s what I imagine: She gets the call at work, leaves in the middle of her evening shift and arrives at the hospital where it’s all beeping machines and sterilized surfaces, and there’s a sack of some mysterious liquid hanging from a pole beside his bed, and he’s all bandaged up and has a brace around his stomach and tubes in his arms. And his legs. Motionless. Eventually his mother and sisters and friends all leave. It’s just the two of them. And this guy, he’s scared. Terrified. No more walking. How will he live? He says this, How will I live, and she has every reason to bail on him now—they barely know each other, she owes him nothing—but instead she looks him in the eye and says, I’m moving in with you. Says, I’m going to help you get better. No hesitation. No stuttering. Just says it. Better. Implying healed. Implying, you’re going to get through this. And this guy, this twenty-five-year-old kid, he’s completely overwhelmed. He starts crying. We’re talking crazed, red-eyed, biblical weeping. Imagine it. Your little metal world caving in around you, the crunch of crumpling steel and shattering glass, the pain exploding from the bottom of your spine like it’s been ripped off. That was me in that car, he thinks. That was my body crushed and thrown. He squints up at the florescent lights and jams a fist into his mouth to keep himself from howling. She waits. His weeping slows. The beeping on the heart monitor slows.
Marry me, he says. And she says yes. A moment like that? Of course she says yes. And of course she regrets it later.
“Stop it,” she said. “You’re gawking. I hate gawking.”
I was nearly ready for a second beer. “Sorry, I don’t mean to gawk. It’s just, hell of a story.”
“I wish that’s all it was.”
Jozi worked at the coffee shop a few blocks from my apartment. She had a switchblade wit and painted dark wings on her eyelids and wrapped her hair in Rosie-the-Riveter bandanas and had eyes the color of volcanic glass.
But this isn’t the part where I describe her body. That comes later. I haven’t figured out how to cut that part out yet.
I had only just moved to Nebraska—I’d needed cheap rent following The Big Breakup—and after a few weeks of Jozi preparing my late-night tea, I asked her out for a drink. “I’m not single but sure,” she said, and we found ourselves at bar a few blocks from a university neither of us attended, lamps cutting through the crisp night, a high wooden fence dividing the patio tables from the cars on the street and the shrieking horny drunks on the sidewalk, and she was telling me her story like we were chatting about the weather. Of course I was gawking. I was in awe. Of her unsentimental manner. Of their romantic attempt to beat back tragedy. Of the tragedy itself.
“Why Lincoln?” I said. “Why not stay in Omaha?”
“There’s a good rehab place here. Madonna. Gotta learn to walk again! But actually, it was great at first. I’m not kidding. I think because we had something to believe in, something to work toward. It dropped us in love. And frankly, it was nice having some damn direction. I didn’t even care he didn’t get me a ring.” She swallowed her last swig. “But fuck. Lincoln’s awful. I make lattés and I take care of him and that’s my life. Like maybe I’m paralyzed now too? That thought actually crosses my brain, maybe I’m paralyzed, and then I vomit everywhere because what an awful shitty selfish thing to think. Woof.”
She pulled a metal cigarette case from her backpack, popped it open and put a clove to her lips, then offered one to me. I said I didn’t smoke. She shrugged and lit up and told me they still had no wedding plans, that she’d grown doubtful of whether the big day would ever come at all. “But it’s not all shitty,” she said. “I promise.”
“Okay. Tell me something not-shitty.”
Smoke curled up past her eyes. Resting her cigarette in the ashtray and unbuttoning her cardigan, she stood and rolled up her shirt partway. My eyes took a moment to adjust. It was a word, evolve, all lower case, arranged vertically down her stomach like tears dripping off her ribs. A blonde guy in a polo whistled from a nearby table. She gave him the finger and his crew burst into laughter. She sat and shut her cardigan and the people around us returned to their conversations. “My first tattoo,” she said, reclaiming her clove. “Few weeks old. I’m liking it a lot right now.”
I sensed the game forming between us. Like she was challenging me to figure her out.
“But I’m talking too much,” she said. “Your turn. Who are you?”
I told her my name.
“Don’t be slippery. Who are you?”
I told her I was trying to be writer.
“Few stories. Nothing major.”
She threw back her head and punched a laugh into the night. “Nothing major. Sure. No false humility, please? Honesty. That’s all I ask. Stay honest and we’re solid.” An ash fleck had settled on her lip. “You’re gawking again.”
“Don’t apologize. And don’t feel all bad about yourself. I don’t need that either. Listen, I like you. I choose to be here talking with you. Okay?”
She reached across the table and put her hand on mine.
I found her charming. I didn’t see a person hurting, a person caught between the elation of nurturing and the imprisonment of it. Or I did, I saw all that, and I was charmed. The way she dropped her guard in brief stark flashes. Told her stories and rejected pity. Used brutal honesty as her personal self-evasion.
I wanted her to freeze the blood in my veins, then thaw it for me and make me think it had always been frozen.
. . .
I found her on Facebook and clicked through her pictures. Jozi silhouetted before a sunlit cornfield, Jozi seated against a brick wall smoking, Jozi wearing a Christmas sweater cradling a tiny dog, Jozi aiming a clunky camera at herself in a bathroom mirror. One by one, they formed their mosaic in my brain, a nebula pulling itself inward and becoming a star.
Then I reached a couple photo. She was seated in his lap, arm over his shoulder and sticking her tongue out at him. A baseball cap sat back on his head. Messy mouse-brown hair. Unshaven neck scruff. Creases by his eyes. Mouth open in laughter.
So this was what he looked like.
I clicked his name—Bobby O’Brien—and another mosaic began to form. Pictures of him with Jozi. Him kissing her cheek. The two of them joke-frowning in a restaurant booth. Him in the hospital bed with her by his side, laughing together at something on an iPhone. When I reached a pre-accident photo—him standing on one foot and balancing a skateboard on a guardrail with the other—I shut the laptop and went to bed.
. . .
For our next outing we met at a graveyard at 9 o’clock in the morning. Her idea.
A cold fog clung to the red-leafed trees. Exhaust coughed out the tailpipe of her beat-up Toyota. She got out and zipped up her puffy coat, a shrunken clove dangling from her lips. She had parked in the handicapped spot.
“Fuck the cold,” she said. She dropped the cigarette and crushed it with her boot. Then, smelling of tobacco, she touched her lips to my cheek.
We walked the stone paths drifting through topics. Movies we liked, family histories, music. Commonalities amazed us. Her parents were also divorced. I also loved the constellation Orion. I told her my own tragedy—nothing compared to theirs, but a badge nonetheless—met a girl at school, dated for years, exchanged unofficial promises, moved halfway across the country to be with her in Minnesota, got dumped and ended up here. Lincoln: land of indie coffee shops and cheap rent.
Jozi described what it’s like living with him. How they hadn’t lived together before the accident. How he cries every day. Comes home high “on fuck knows what” and lies to her face about it. Treats her like shit, gets angry with her, yells at her, and when she threatens to leave he says, Please, no, I can’t do this without you. Preys on her self-esteem, then preys on her pity.
“But it’s not that simple,” she said. “This isn’t a little rip in old upholstery. A dab of Elmer’s glue won’t do it. That first day at the hospital he pooped on the floor. I watched it happen. He couldn’t help it. Literally had no control over his pooping apparatus. All of a sudden this turd drops out of him like a potato, and we start laughing. We laugh our asses off. What were we supposed to do? It was fucking hilarious. He gave me this look like, well, that’s my poop. Hope you still like me. And then we were looking into each other’s eyes and it was one of those gorgeous moments where you’re like completely in love.” She blew into her hands. “Never thought I’d see a guy poop and think it was beautiful.”
A crow landed on a gravestone, then resumed flight.
“Do you know someone here?” I said.
“Buried? Nah. It’s just a nice place to think sometimes. Peaceful. Nobody’s getting loud in a graveyard.” We sniffled in the cold. We had stopped walking. Her eyes moved up my body. She looked past me and bit her lip.
“What is it?”
She dropped to one knee and fished through her backpack for her camera—I recognized it from Facebook—and aimed it at me.
“You’re a photographer?” I said as though it had just occurred to me.
“Should I be doing something?"
“Whatever you like.”
I felt self-conscious. Was something behind me photo-worthy? Pretty headstones? Trees?
“No, look at me.”
“These headshots or something?”
“Stop worrying. Jesus. I’m gonna delete them anyway.”
. . .
We went downtown for lunch. We parked in a garage and walked the sidewalks together, her arm linked in mine. On an opposite street corner sat a bearded man with a cardboard sign. “Let’s cross here,” Jozi said. I let her lead. When we reached his corner, she took a knee and brought her face close to his and held out a ten-dollar bill. “You gonna buy alcohol with this?” she said.
“You gonna get yourself something to eat?”
He took hold of it but she didn’t let go.
He smiled. He had a gap in his teeth like a curtain opening in a big cold theater. “Yes ma’am,” he said.
We walked a block to Sultan’s Kite and picked the booth furthest from the doors near a wall-mounted television set. We sat on the same side, eating our gyros, pressed to each other, and she placed the camera on the table and started clicking through the pictures she’d snapped.
“They any good?”
“Mm hmm.” She stopped on a photo of me with my mouth open in question. “I like it when they look real like this.”
“Well, yes. They’re photographs.”
“Not what I mean, dummy. I mean sloppy, unrehearsed. No sugar added.”
She stared absently into the TV on the wall. The screen in her hands showed my body twisting away, face hidden.
“I wish I had a picture of Bobby’s crash,” she said. “Of his face right when it happened.”
“Why would you want that?”
“You can’t understand. You have no idea how much I wonder about that moment. It’s like, maybe if I could freeze it in time I could actually reach out and touch it.”
“Then anything. Then whatever comes next.”
Her phone vibrated on the table. She silenced it and tossed it in her backpack.
“You can answer that. I don’t mind.”
“He got stupid drunk again last night, so I slept on the couch. He probably just woke up. Big surprise, I’m not there to do his shit for him and suddenly he misses me.”
The screen on her camera went dark.
There were things I could have asked about him but didn’t feel I should, things that would have rendered a more complete picture of him, but she was in one place and I was in another, so instead I imagined him waking from a dream of walking. He reaches across the sheets and she’s not there. Head pounding, he crawls to the edge of the bed and flays himself into his chair, a maneuver learned in physical therapy. He goes out to the living room but she’s not there either.
. . .
For the next few weeks we saw each other any moment we could, but we only slept together the one time, after winter arrived. Nearing orgasm, I told her I loved her, and she smacked my ear and said, “Shut up, no you don’t,” then kept going until I finished.
I woke up cold. The covers had slipped to the floor. I could make out her tattoo along her stomach, evolve, expanding and shrinking with her lungs. At some point I registered the smell of wood burning but ignored it. Then came the sirens. They stopped outside my window. I stood and peeked through the blinds.
The house across the street was on fire. Second and third trucks blared in the distance. Firefighters scrambled on the street, unrolling hoses. Jozi hadn’t moved, hair thrown across the pillows. Heavy sleeper. I threw on pants and a t-shirt and went downstairs.
Orange smoke billowed past the sickle moon, turning black as it rose. The whole house was engulfed. A policewoman silently commanded me to stay on the sidewalk. I obeyed but imagined lifting out of my body and drifting invisible past the policewoman and the firefighters and the ghostly mist coming off the jets of water. I found the door to the burning house unlocked. I stepped inside. The smoke did not burn my eyes. The heat did not make me sweat. I walked through that inferno, flames licking up the walls and over the furniture. The next door led into the bedroom.
I knew I’d find him there. His soot-black body splayed across the floor, a hand outstretched toward the wheelchair, which had rolled beyond his reach. A ceiling beam crashed onto the bed and he screamed. He saw me watching him. He had my face and I had his.
I hadn’t even heard her come outside. She held her camera chest high, aiming up at the flames.
She had her coat on, hair wrapped, backpack slung over her shoulder. She wouldn’t be coming back upstairs with me.
She checked the screen. “Wow.” She backed up and dropped to one knee and put her eye to the viewfinder.
She twisted the lens, then twisted it back.
“You deleting these too?”
“Are you kidding? They’re gorgeous.”
All along the block, spectators had gathered on sidewalks and porches and balconies, aiming phones at the fire.
“Won’t he ask where you got them?”
“What would give him that idea?” A line divided the orange-lit part of her face from the part in shadow. I couldn’t decide if she was grinning.
Once she was gone I got on Facebook and looked up my ex, stopping on a picture of us wearing life vests on a motor boat on a lake in Minnesota. She’s in close-up, wishing she was single. I’m in the background, terrified of falling in the water. We’re both smiling and squinting into the wind.
. . .
She stopped answering my texts. I went to my bookstore job and sat behind the register for hours hoping she’d come in. I unearthed the old shoebox from the back corner of my closet, still taped shut from the move to Nebraska. I couldn’t find scissors so I slit the tape with a steak knife. The box held notes the ex had written during our years together. Meet at the library. I went to the store. Happy Birthday. Happy Valentine’s. Happy Graduation. I left them scattered across the carpet for days. I would enter the bedroom, see the notes, and leave.
. . .
The coffee shop door jangled. She heard it and saw me but showed no response. The guy at the counter finished paying and returned to his seat with a scone in his fist, and I stepped forward.
“I ever tell you about the doctor I dated?” I said. “This was a few years ago. I told her I was agnostic and she said, ‘I hope someday you grow up and start believing in God.’ Isn’t that funny?”
“It was at the beginning too. We weren’t even an item yet. We barely know each other and she says that to me. But I ignore it. No big deal, I tell myself. She doesn’t mean it. She’s perfect, I told myself. Except for that one little demeaning comment, she’s perfect.”
“Did you want tea or something?”
“Serves me right, I guess. I don’t listen. Never see the omens. Just jump right in.” Hearing me, the other barista, a pink-haired white girl named Cherokee, placed her copy of Franny and Zooey on the counter and came over to us. It became clear Jozi had told Cherokee about us. Makes sense. You have to tell someone, so you tell your coworker. But you spin it, of course, so you’re not at fault. He manipulated me, she probably said, deceived me into a lapse of judgment, and now he’s at the counter and we both know he’s a jerk. What a jerk.
“Eight ounce rooibos.”
“Our small is twelve ounces.”
Cherokee slipped back to her book in the corner and Jozi began preparing my tea. “A witness came forward,” she said.
“Bobby’s trial. Some guy at the intersection saw the whole thing. Out of the blue he gets in touch with police, police put him in touch with Bobby’s lawyer, bingo-bango. So we’re probably gonna, you know, win.”
We. Casually tossing that word in the air, knowing it would land in my chest.
“How much is he getting?”
“A lot. I don’t even like to think about it.”
I shouldn’t have been asking. It shouldn’t have mattered to me.
“Soda cans. Yes, dollars.” She handed me the cup and I snapped a lid on it. I felt her studying my face. “Why did you say you loved me?”
“I was being honest. I was telling you what I really felt in that moment.”
“That’s not honesty. Honesty doesn’t jerk itself off.”
A banjo cover of “Thriller” came on. A pair of old women sat hunched over a chessboard. A guy checking his phone raised his mug to drink and missed his mouth. All around us people tapped away at computers and tablets, working diligently, or distracting diligently. When the door chimed behind me, my body went rigid. It was him, I knew it was him. But when I looked, it was a lady in a fur hat with flaps.
Jozi nodded at my cup. “It’s one eighty-seven by the way.”
. . .
I found another coffee shop. Life sank into steep cold. Daylight shortened, snow came in sideways drifts. At my Gallup call center job, I droned through opinion polls surveying wellbeing. I asked strangers over the phone if they’d felt happiness in the last three days, dreading the inevitable unconvincing yes.
Her cover photo became a top-down shot of two hands on a wooden table, crossed at the fingertips, engagement ring gleaming. I decided I had fulfilled my role in her life. The lurking infidel who threatens to demolish and in so doing reaffirms.
Telling myself this helped nothing.
I needed to visit Laundry Land but couldn’t make it out the door. Boots felt impossible. I stalled grocery shopping for a week after finishing the last of my food. I ordered delivery. Hoagies, pizza. One night I ordered Chinese and read my fortune—Maybe sleepwalking doesn’t mean anything—and wept for ten minutes. I went to my dealer’s place and she asked if I had lost weight. I told her I’d been doing push-ups.
. . .
That time of night, everyone at the 24-hour Russ’s Market looks tired, there because something kept us away during the day. I dragged through the awful florescence like a creature left to haunting, slumped, eyes darting, barely making sense of the shelves, tuna fish and baking soda and coffee filters, cookies, donuts, cashew tins, avocado paste, tomato syrup. In the frozen breakfast section I found a boxed product called Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick and thought I’d fallen into an alternate dimension. I turned into the sandwich aisle.
There he was, near the ketchup, with a shopping basket in his lap. When I saw his face I knew exactly who he was. “Excuse me,” he said as we passed, and stopped at the wall of buns, scanning them up and down. It was really him, the fiancé in three dimensions, reaching for a bag of brioche rolls. I felt my jaw tightening.
The aisle was empty. Anything I did I would need to do quickly. Grab a jar of pickles off the shelf and smash it through his skull, glass cracking, blood gushing. Quick, do it quick, then run from the place and keep running until you escape your life.
He glanced my way and I realized I was gawking, so I reached for a pickle jar but couldn’t get a proper hold with my gloves still on. It slipped from my hand and burst to pieces on the floor, startling him.
He grabbed his chest. “Jeez man! Got some buttery fingers there?”
“Uh oh. Somebody feels glum,” he said, flashing a charming smile. “Don’t worry about it, man. Everybody drops things.”
I could see why she liked him.
“Ha! Look at you! You’re shocked. You’re like a fish in a tank.”
He already had his phone out. Click. Picture taken. Deed done. It would soon be uploaded to Facebook with the caption, Random dude who dropped the pickles.
“Look,” he said and, avoiding the mess I had made, came closer to show me the phone. “Funny, right?”
I studied that person on the screen. You can see how stunned I am, standing in my coat and gloves over the pickle piss puddle, and I remember deciding I would not ask him to delete it. There I would be, unmistakable, staring back at her from inside the frame, forever calling out in desperation, Remember me? Remember me? Would the picture cause anything? A sudden flare of concern that he knew about us? Probably not. Probably the opposite. As the picture confirms, I am random. A tiny scratch on the record of their lives.
A man in a red Russ’s polo passed our aisle but abruptly stopped when he saw the pickles and juice and broken glass.
“It slipped,” I said.
He sighed. “All right. Shit. I’ll get the mop.”
They never did end up marrying. For a while I followed their lives online. Broken up by summer. On Facebook she made cryptic claims about honesty and pain, but as far as I can tell they remained friends. He moved to Michigan, where he had family. She moved to San Diego, met a musician, fell in love. Then, while the musician was touring in Oregon, he had a car accident. His best friend died in the seat beside him, but he survived. She drove up to see him in the hospital. Before long she was engaged again.
I try to grasp their entwined evolutions, and my own evolution orbiting somewhere nearby. I think about the gravitational pull of her presence, her quick-witted way of switching textures—from kindness to coldness, from awestruck to over it—and my silly illiteracy, my need to read her one way instead of another. Sometimes I recall that chance encounter with him. Here was a person I thought I could understand by imagining him. I had seen his pictures and heard his story and created a character onto whom I could project all my sympathies and fears. I had grown jealous of his tragedy, grown ashamed of my jealousy, grown angry about my shame, and for what? For a competition over a woman I had imagined just as flatly, a competition he never saw. Just as well. I hadn’t seen it either.
I finished my shopping and returned to my car and waited a lifetime for the engine to warm. My breath was becoming windshield fog, and as I leaned forward to wipe a circle in the vapor I heard a distant rumbling, far away but getting closer: a helicopter coming into view over the black treetops and wiping circles through the sky toward the hospital down the road.