The Space Between
When Jack tells me his deepest fear I want to laugh. Not at his fear, but just in that moment - sitting on the ratty couch on the apartment balcony, watching as the colour is drained from the earth. I want to be laughing. Carefree. But Jack is the serious type, and August’s evening glow is a time for introspection, not giggling. He says he has lived many lives in twenty-five years.
I wrap up the rest of our takeout, careful to have only eaten half of my pad-Thai so that I would have lunch the next day. He says thank you for buying dinner, but I know that he really means sorry. Instinctively, I want to ask him if he is going to look for a job tomorrow but I immediately chide my selfishness and affinity for certain aspects of traditional gender roles. Perhaps the problem is his skin colour and tattoos as he says, but I can’t help but wonder if he approaches employers with the same slumped shoulders and grave expression as I so often witness. Gosh, I am awful, I think, and a terrible feminist. I remind myself that I couldn’t possibly understand.
“No problem,” I say and kiss him.
I hear laughter from an apartment below, and music with heavy bass slices the air as the last rip of pink is muted to grey dusk. I realize my foot is tapping and I stop it, wrap my arms around him and lay his head on my lap, his legs stretched out along the couch. He tells me his greatest fear.
“I’m afraid of being a burden,” he says, eyes closed.
His voice cracks as he tells me again about his father he didn’t know, his dead-beat mother, and his sister that raised him only to kick him out on his eighteenth birthday. He takes long, weighty pauses when he speaks, but I have learned long ago not to speak, but to wait for the words to climb out of his chest and into the spaces between.
“Hush,” I say, gently lacing my fingers through his hair. Like a mother with a newborn, I’m not sure if I’m saying it to him or myself. “Hush now”.
He tells me again about the summer he spent homeless in New York, and I try not to mouth the lines along with him but focus on making well-timed, affirming grunts and tracing the inked lines on his arms. Wolf on his bicep. Bible verse on his wrist. And on his forearm - the ink not yet faded or cracked – peonies, my favourite flower. Milky and unmarked, I think my own skin looks bland next to his museum flesh. He says that he likes that I don’t have tattoos.
“You don’t need them,” he tells me, a hint of envy in his voice.
He’s gone quiet, feet resting on the arm of the couch and hands folded over his chest like he’s in a therapist’s office, or a coffin. I realize I need to say something, and I try desperately to discern the correct response. Do I make an attempt at a thoughtful comment, or perhaps take a crack at advice? I feel under-qualified. The music thumps below us, and laughter ripples into the thick darkness.
I tell him I couldn’t possibly understand.