TAR AND SALTWATER • by Emily Graff

I slept beside my neighbor: a tall man with red stubble, whose past is a series of blank, lined pages to me. On one page, there is a splatter of blood where his father killed himself. One another, residues of vomit and purple ink from where he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He was careful not to touch me except for the rare, odd brushes of skin that make up intimacy: grazing kneecaps and heads knelt together in the prayer of sleep. He had the cluttered, cast-aside room of a college student: a closet full of jerseys falling from their hangers, one boxing glove on the windowsill, a poster of a basketball player leaned against the wall. But his bed had the softest sheets, silky and dove-grey.

He slid one arm around my waist and his heart beat like a small animal’s, fast and shuddering against my back. I thought of the Spanish firewalkers, whose lovers’ heartbeats rose and fell to match their own as they took those burning footsteps. Across oceans, I wondered if another heart could sense mine.

In the blue gloom of Halifax at 5:00AM, my neighbor whispered: “I think we need to kiss.”

I have a lover somewhere in a foreign port. In a world so distanced from me it almost feels like we never met at all, that we only know each other through photographs. He sails in bulky naval ships painted a sad grey-green so that they can hide in the world. They carry away all these lovers, whose skin you know like the layout of your parents’ home, and bring them back as strangers filled with evil little secrets. They are slivers of glass that work their way into the seams of your relationship and saw away at what holds you together. In seven days I will meet this newly minted stranger at the dockyard. I will be leaned against his car when he walks out of the gates and the Halifax harbor will smell salty and cold and he will smell like the ocean and engine grease. I will carry all my sharp little secrets in a space in my heart and when he squeezes me to his chest, they will shatter into a million fragments. I will open my mouth to say “I love you” and a diamond-dust powder of all my lies will puff out into the spring sunshine and glitter there, suspended between us.

I tell my neighbor: “I think I’m just lonely. I don’t even know you.”

And he says, “You can.”

But I don’t want that either.

Emily Graff‘s writing focuses on short and flash fiction.

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