Vol. 1, Issue 1, What Love Is

by Claire Rychlewski

I meet you in late spring, at a shitty bar where you drink a crisp cup of water and a blonde singer screeches inanities from a wobbly, raised stage. When you ask me to see a movie with you, I go because I like you, so, so much and I can’t remember the last time a man hasn’t asked me to just get a drink. We get a drink anyway, but after the movie, and you ask me if this is a date. I say yes.

You have hair you drag a perfunctory comb through, and you don’t think much about it when you reach for a shirt. You smirk during sex. You are the kind I like. You are the kind who won’t call me. You don’t, for a while. And then you do.

I love the way your backwater Albany accent rounds your a’s and o’s.

“You have a dangerous blue-collar fetish,” you tell me.

You are tender when you want to be. When we lay in bed, you kiss the back of my shoulder so naturally, as if that was exactly what you were meant to do. You tell me I look picturesque when I sleep. You run your hand over my skin, accidentally confounding the person inside the skin with the sensation of the skin itself, which prompts you to lie to me about how much you like me.  

It has been a long time since I have felt this strung out, and with this feeling of being born into new obsession comes new red flags to ignore, which I do, beautifully. You disappear for weeks. One night we get very, very drunk and you throw your phone across the room in a fit of anger and the screen shatters.  Another night you refuse to touch me, telling me you don’t want to ruin things, and I pretend to understand because you have the perfect amount of hair on your chest and I love the way your back slopes. We do not talk about it the next morning and I do not see you for 10 days, until you call me and I come over and you fuck me like you’re diving into a ravine, and without asking if I came.  In the morning we talk about attending Catholic schools and I wonder if you remember your catechism. Genesis 2:18—The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

After the last time—after I sit perched on the arm of your chair in your living room and run my hand through your hair, watching your eyes close like a cat’s, after you stick an errant finger into a tiny hole in my black tights and widen it, after I walk the block between your house and the train station and try not to look back—I come back to my apartment. It's late in the afternoon, that violet hour when it’s too late to eat lunch but too early for dinner, too ambiguous to really do anything but think. I lay off the edge of my bed upside down, with my head touching the floor, and try to envision the sweet words whispered from the night before slithering out of my ears.  If I visualize it, it will happen, just like that book The Secret. You do not call me and I do not expect you to. 

Forget it; that’s what Mariana would tell me. Forget all about it. I throw the tights away—they’re ruined now, and besides, we’re coming on bare-legged weather anyway. The warmth of summer makes men bold, makes guns hot—and June rushes on me, slapping my face with a heaviness that leaves a wet stamp. On one end of the city, a man calls to me.

 “You’re a pretty thing,” he says. “What’s the problem, beautiful?”

 It reminds me of the time you drove up my block while I was walking to the corner-store—a happenstance occurrence, and you took the opportunity to click your tongue, pursing your lips exaggeratedly at me out the window.

“Hey, ma!” you yelled. “Smile!”

I grinned, gave you the finger, wondered if I’d ever tell you about the time I was twelve and a man my father’s age beeped at me from his car and pursed his lips, licking them once, slowly, like a cartoon snake.

July sees thirteen shot dead minimum each weekend, every corner of the city coming to claim someone’s child. I am at the beach every other day, waiting for the radiation from the sun to beam me up into outer space where there are certainly aliens that I wouldn’t have to pretend to understand. If I don’t recoil when you kiss my shoulder blade while we lay in bed after sex, it must be love, right?

I do yoga. I buy a new kitchen table. I think about you. You are somewhere on the other side of this city. You are doing things, but they are things without me.  I see you in snatches, online, in pictures. I wait for your name to come up in conversation. Everything reminds me of you, even things that happen to me long after you stopped calling me, which I don’t think is fair.

Something else happens. I cut my thumb open chopping vegetables and the quick slice through my top skin makes my whole hand feel cold. The way the blood comes gushing out reminds me of a movie. Except it isn’t a movie—it is my hand, and the absurdity makes me laugh. My roommate finds me, hand covered in blood, my pointer fingering the opening of the wound and my white denim shorts a horror movie extra’s costume. She rushes me to the hospital and they put six stitches in my hand.

“You could have cut a nerve here,” the nurse says. “You’re lucky.”

When I get home, I peel back the bandages and look at my thumb in awe. I take a picture of the wound and I text it to you.

“What happened?” you ask. But I don’t answer. What can I even say?

Later that month I am flat on my back on my hardwood floor trying to get away from the heat that seeps in to my small apartment. My window unit is broken. My head is on Mari’s lap.

“I haven’t fucked any famous men,” I say, the thought suddenly occurring to me.  “Should I feel bad about that?”

Mari’s waist-length hair tickles my face as she tilts her head to look down at mine, her face owlish. She’s been my best friend since high school. She is beautiful, but doesn’t seem to feel one way or another about it. Men don’t stick to her; when they try, she shakes them off.

She straightens her head back up, and doesn’t speak for a while. I can tell she is considering my question.

She lets out a little breath before she speaks, like she always does, and cracks her neck.

“No,” she says, slowly. “You still have time, though.”

“I’m almost 26,” I reply.

“Well, who do you want to fuck that’s famous?” she asks me.

I deliberate.

“Maybe that guy from Mad Men,” I say, dubiously.

She cracks her neck again, and says:

“You better be sure about it, if you’re going to try to fuck a famous man, ho.”

We both laugh—tiredly, because it’s hot. I can feel her nails, long, filed into perfect squares and painted beige, gently scratching my scalp. I wonder if this is what love is.

Mari says, “The men you fuck with are busted.” I have to agree. She never met you, but she wouldn’t have liked the blind way you reached into your closet for a sweatshirt. She especially wouldn’t have liked the way you didn’t hold my hand, and she would have thought your tattoos were dumb.

Mari’s family is from Puerto Rico, and she is business. No nonsense, and she’ll never date a musician. Mari says, “That shit, I don’t have time for.” Her father left when she was three. Her brother is an addict.

No, she wouldn’t have liked you.

Mari and I spend time on my back porch, because we’re broke and alone.

“I thought men in their thirties were supposed to have their shit together,” she shoots at me, after a particularly dead weekend. “Is anyone going to take me on a plane? What the fuck is this?”

“I don’t know,” I reply. “Do you think feminism ruined our lives?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Now all of these fuckers think they don’t have to take our asses out.”

I see the way men look at Mari; a simultaneous look of hunger and bashfulness, and a little rage, too.  She sleeps over at my house every other weekend, and sometimes I wake up before her to find her forearm crossed over her face, fed up with the world.

Mari goes to PR to visit her family in August, and when she comes back, she is different. Something bad has happened, but she won’t tell me what. She stops leaving her house, and her sisters guard her door in hushed whispers.

“Shit like this always happens,” one of them says. "Remember what went on with Valeria?" They click their tongues, a swath of dark-haired fury. I call her repeatedly but the phone goes to voicemail.

In September, you call me.

“I’m in your hood.”

I’m laying on my couch watching PBS. I tell you to come over, and I run gloss over my lips and blush on my cheeks. It’s been five months since I’ve seen you alone. You come, and you tell me about your brother in grad school in Boston, and how you want to go somewhere too. Your hand brushes against my knee and it’s intentional, but you don’t even seem to realize, your fingers combing against my bare leg as if you’re running your hand over shirts in a department store; an absentminded gesture of intimacy, a subconscious reminder of ownership—your hand brushes against my knee, and then we have sex. 

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” you say. “I was hoping we could be friends.”

After you leave, I call Mari.

“They just throw you away,” she says, flatly. “That’s just what they do, homegirl.”

I think maybe she is right. She starts coming outside more often, but she stops doing her hair and her nails are cut short.  She doesn’t laugh much and I understand what has happened to her but I do not ask, preferring instead to braid her hair while she looks out the window. I think about calling you, telling you how fucked up that was, telling you that I deserve more, but I don’t. I think about deleting your number from my phone, but I don’t do that either—instead I just trace the letters of your name over the skin stretching across my ribcage and wonder if I’m crazy.

The heat of the summer would engulf me if it weren’t for the storms. El Nino brews somewhere deep under a sea thousands of miles away from me, pushing fantastic thunderstorms north. They come just as I feel the pavement underneath my feet shuddering, ready to give way, under the weight of a thousand blades switching and my own brain buzzing. Mari and I sit on my back porch and watch the sky bloom under itself, a giant bruise, greens pouring through grays. You can smell it before it comes, almost taste the rust in your mouth, and the air smells like blood. I hear it beat on the roofs. In the distance a dog always barks, calling back to the cracks of thunder.

Everything washes into itself, and Mari and I watch.


Claire Rychlewski is a writer and storyteller living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Mic. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from American University. If the weather is upwards of 50 degrees, she can be found near Lake Michigan.