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37 Thirty-Seven

    Humphrey and I were playing with alphabet blocks the next time Namid knocked on the front door.

    I stood to let her in, leaving Humphrey to knock over my vowel tower.

    "Hello, Namid," I said. "Did we finally get that cold front?"

    She walked in with her hands in her jacket pockets. "Yeah, it's finally stopped being blistering hot. Strange when seventy degrees feels like winter."

    "Where did you grow up?"

    "Half Massachusetts, half here, but I never get used to the heat." She dropped her bag off her shoulder and shrugged out of her jacket. "Have you always lived here?"

    "No. Florida, most of my life. Here for most of the last twen...several years. A few other places in between." I sat next to Humphrey again. "Hey," I said to him, "you almost spelled 'supernova.' Good job, kid. You want to be a scientist one day, don't you?" I tickled his feet, and he kicked the supernova into nonsense.

    Namid took my spot when I went to put on my shoes and stuff my pockets with Zip-lock bags again. I sighed as my pockets bulged with them. One day, I wouldn't have to bother with this. But then I realized what that would mean, and I looked at the Zip-lock bulge with sadness.

    I left the kitchen, gave Humphrey a hug, then went to the front door. I stood for a while there, my hand slowly twisting the knob all the way to the right, then all the way to the left.

    I could skip therapy today. I could stay here, or I could spend a few hours walking in the city, hunting, reading in the cafe.

    I could stop Keats's story here, never get to the end. Dr. Parrish wouldn't mind. I would become the blank hour on his schedule. And he would forget about me completely in a few weeks. Maybe he could even stop believing in vampires.

    The stupid arguments about nothing would be the last thing Dr. Parrish would ever hear about Keats.

    Or I could go to therapy today and a few more days and finish the story. Dr. Parrish deserved that for all he'd tolerated from me, and he did want to know how it ended. He'd asked for the ending, and I'd told him he had to wait. It would be wrong to end it here, with nothing decided.

    Then I could tell Dr. Parrish that he'd cured me, that I had no more need for therapy, and he would understand that our meetings had only ever been about this, about making sure that someone else in the world knew what had happened when Keats came into my life, then left it.

    I let go of the doorknob and went to touch Humphrey's soft baby skin one more time, then I said good-bye to Namid and walked to Dr. Parrish's office.

    "I don't think I have a story today," I said, crossing my legs, then uncrossing them, then crossing them again.

    "Tell me more about your sex life," Dr. Parrish said.

    "What the **, Dr. Parrish-"

    "What? Does that offend you?" His eyes looked out with innocence over his mythological nose.

    "No, I just want to know what the hell that has to do with anything."

    "You've been tellingly reticent about your sex life," Dr. Parrish explained. "I was just trying to fill out the picture. So?"

    "I really don't want to talk about this," I said. I should have hunted before I came. I hadn't known how much I would need that euphoria.

    He glanced down, making a note.

    "Don't make notes," I said.

    He put down his pencil. "Okay," he said. "What about your last relationship before you...changed? Will you talk about that?"

    I took a breath and nodded.

    "Inez," I said, and then she was in front of me, her dark brown eyes and black hair, like a goddess. She cut her hair herself, always this cropped, wild look, the kind that's designed to look like you just rolled out of bed, and I remember...she would roll out of bed in the morning, and her hair would look neater than it had looked the whole day before.

    "How old were you when you met?" Dr. Parrish asked.

    "Seventeen. She was twenty."

    "How long did it last?"

    "We were together two years."

    Dr. Parrish lifted his pencil into writing position, then remembered and set it down. "How did it end?"

    "She said I killed her plants."

    "Did you?"

    I considered that. "Not on purpose," I said.

    "She broke up with you because her plants died?" he asked, not smiling.

    "She was studying to be a botanist. Our relationship was doomed from the beginning. I even warned her, but by the time I thought we were serious enough for a warning to be necessary, we were too serious to break up over something so...hypothetical."

    Inez, a little unreliable, vibrant. I wanted to leave her early on, when I missed the first half of a Fountains of Wayne concert because I was waiting for her outside, or when I sat at home calling her, knowing she wasn't home when she said she would be. I wanted her to be both things: to be unpredictable when I wanted her to be unpredictable and reliable when I wanted her to be reliable.

    Instead, I went to movies without her. I brought a book when she said she'd meet me at a restaurant. I copied her apartment key and never again slept in the hallway outside while I waited for her to come home from work.

    "Will and Keats both know about Inez?" he asked.

    "I told Keats," I said. "He told Will."

    "Didn't that upset you?"

    "I glued Keats's CD collection to the kitchen floor when I found out. He was pissed. Said he thought Will already knew."

    Dr. Parrish seemed to be trying not to smile. "How many CDs?"

    "About two hundred. They covered the kitchen floor, so I had to glue a couple of them to the ceiling."

    Dr. Parrish lost the battle, and his smile broke through. I was so happy to entertain. "Super glue?" he asked.

    "Elmer's glue. Most of them were still playable after we scraped them up. Floor was ruined though. I don't know what kind of cheap flooring would be destroyed by school glue and a paint scraper, but there were small torn circles everywhere until I moved out."

    "Until?"

    "I heard the place burned down not long afterward."

    He nodded. I listened to the fountain talk in the quiet until he found another question to ask. It seemed to take longer without his notebook. I wondered if he had them all written down there, lists and lists of questions for every contingency. A "Best Friend/Potential Sweetheart" page. A "Gluing CDs" page. A "Lesbian Lover" page.

    "How did you meet Inez?" he asked.

    "At a bakery. We both reached for the last low-cal cherry Danish."

    Dr. Parrish tilted his head and studied me. "No, you didn't."

    "What?"

    "You didn't. You're screwing with me. I can hear it in your voice. You do that to me all the time, don't you?"

    I grinned. "Yes."

    "Did it ever occur to you that that might be a counterproductive thing to do in therapy?"

    I thought about that. It really hadn't occurred to me. "We met at Chili's. I was her waitress. Her date eyed me all evening. I wore thicker bras and lower shirts back then. When I brought their check and his second frozen margarita slammer, he brushed his hand across my breast, blatantly, and then apologized like he'd groped me accidentally."

    "And you hit him?" he said, leaning forward.

    If only all my relationships could be like this: a twice-a-week meeting in which I only talked about myself. I could hear Will's voice in my head, saying, "Wait, your relationships aren't like that?"

    I held back a laugh.

    "You have no subtlety, Dr. Parrish," I said. "I didn't hit him. I accidentally knocked his frozen margarita into his lap, then dropped the napkin-holder on his head in my eagerness to help him clean up the mess."

    "And Inez...?"

    "Said I was her hero, asked for my autograph and told me to go ahead and put my phone number under it."

    Inez shined. She was what movies led you to believe movie stars were: people with personalities of their own, who really lived that life and did those things that made you laugh and cry and applaud and shell out thirty dollars for popcorn and two sweet hours of distraction.

    It wasn't just charm. "Charm" implies a lack of authenticity, implies effort or a magic spell. Inez spilled over with easy, true lovability.

    I could see her sitting in the red restaurant booth under the dim table light, and I wanted to touch her hair and her skin, to be touched by her, to hear her voice, to see every expression her face could make. But more than that, I wanted to be her. I wanted to step inside her skin suit and flaunt that lovability for an hour.

    But with me inside, it would only have been charm.

    "You really met Inez that way?" Dr. Parrish asked, scrutinizing me.

    "Yes. I repent of screwing with you," I said, raising my hand as an oath. "Oh, and she wasn't studying to be a botanist, by the way. So we weren't doomed. She wasn't studying anything. She made hideous jewelry and worshipped Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell pencils and stationery and toothbrushes and socks and underwear and purse and a tiny Tinker Bell tattoo on the back of her neck-not in color, just black, and just lines that didn't connect so it was like an eye-teaser; you didn't see it, and when you did, you wondered how you could've missed it."

    Dr. Parrish listened, tapping his foot. The foot tapped out five beats of silence. Then he said, "Did you really glue all of Keats's CDs to the floor?"

    "Yes. But I used super glue. And they were all ruined."

    And Keats was furious for months. We still talked and laughed and made love, but there was this difference between us, this off-color something like a television that gave everyone caramel faces.

    Keats stopped going into the kitchen. He used to read in there because the bar of

    fluorescent light under the cabinets lit up the low countertop, and he would bring in a kitchen chair and lay his book on the counter and read for hours.

    But while he was angry with me, he went to the library to read, or to the park, or somewhere he knew I wouldn't find him.

    I told him to stop being so passive-aggressive and to yell at me if he was angry, but he wouldn't say anything, just exhale and let the force of breathing out carry him into the next room like an untied balloon.

    I called him Grumpy and Mopey and Scrooge, but he still wouldn't argue or move on.

    One morning, he crawled into bed next to me, put an arm over me, and said, "Tell me more about Inez," and I knew that he'd finally forgiven me.

    And I told him about how Inez smelled like honey and wildflowers, so that you were always sure she'd just walked in from a wild-growing field somewhere.

    And I told him how she seemed to forget that there were bad things in the world, so that once I found her weeping over CNN one morning, and half an hour later, she was making pancakes in the shape of penises and laughing until she couldn't breathe.

    "Do you ever wonder about her?" Keats asked, his cheek against my shoulder. "I mean, about what she's doing now?"

    "Sometimes," I said, but I didn't really want to hear about her somewhere with her husband and their kids and their summer vacation plans. I didn't want to hear about her growing older. I didn't want to realize one day that she would certainly be dead by now. So I tried to keep her out of my head.

    That's what I told Dr. Parrish when he turned our discussion back to her: "I'd rather keep her out of my head."

    "Okay," he said, picking his notebook back up.

    I imagined him asking something vague next: Are you happy, Annie? Any regrets, Annie?

    But he only said, "What else did you and Keats fight about?"

    "Nothing significant. We argued about his feeding habits, occasionally about how much money to spend, how much to save, whether legal marriage was important to either of us-"

    "Was it?" Dr. Parrish asked.

    "No. Well, yes, but not so important that we actually did it. Will told us that divorce might be difficult if we both looked twenty or thirty years younger than our legal age, but we just laughed at him."

    "Will didn't want you to get married?"

    "No. I don't know. Maybe that's why we didn't. Keats would never have entertained the idea if he thought Will disapproved. But it didn't really matter. We had ten years together. Being married or not being married wouldn't change the number."

    Dr. Parrish let his notebook drift to the side of his lap. Then he asked the question I had been sure he would ask earlier:

    "Are you happy, Annie?"
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