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BLISS STREET

by: Nicole Haroutunian

The realtors all thought we were husband and wife. Eric played along but I corrected them. “I’m not married,” I said.
            
Eric had a hundred reasons why we should get a place first, before he told Isabel he was going for good. I’d never met her, only seen her photograph once in Eric’s wallet. No matter how he described her, I imagined her frail and helpless. I imagined her imagining me, swooping in and stealing him like a witch on a broomstick. In her version, I’d get what I deserved in the end. I’d give up my cheap share, move into the new place and wait for him there forever, paying all the rent myself—a New York nightmare.
           
“If we already have a place, I can just go. There won’t be a painful in-between time,” he said. It was hard to argue. If I found some way to fight that logic—doesn’t she deserve a warning? I would ask—he just came back with more. “What if I told her first and she called the co-op board? Don’t think she wouldn’t do it.”
           
Once we did find a perfect place, I didn’t feel like arguing any more. We handed over our first rent checks in the lobby and ran upstairs with the keys. We lay down on our backs, on our shiny expanse of hardwood floor, and projected our new life together onto the wide white ceiling.

Some might consider a move from Brooklyn to Queens a step down—lateral at best—but what we lost in terms of architectural beauty and hipster cache, we gained tenfold in spicy food and space. Eric said that Isabel would eat only the readily recognizable: French bread, pasta with cheese. But Eric was like me. We would try anything: Filipino crispy ruffle fat dipped in vinegar sauce, Korean mung bean donuts for breakfast, squash blossom and cactus tostadas. When we were introduced, over Thai food in Queens, we shared a plate of catfish salad that looked like a golden nest studded with chilies. He told me he was married right then, but each fiery pepper we ate that night burned us on the way down and just kept burning.

The second time we met, it was at a dark Tibetan restaurant under the elevated train. I bought a new shirt, white eyelet, for the occasion. To get to our table, we ducked through a thick wall of tapestries, the jewel-colored threads brushing our cheeks. I’d never had Tibetan before and, even though Eric had, he wouldn’t order for us.

“If we just go with what I know,” he said, “we might miss the best thing.” When the waitress came, we asked for the entire first page of the menu, every single dish. And he was right—if we hadn’t done that, we would have missed something amazing. The description hadn’t even looked appealing: “dried vegetables.” But when I took the first bite, scooping a dense mash of fibrous leaves flecked with orange, yellow and gold into my mouth, my tongue twisted with the taste: concentrated, pickled, shot through with heat. Strange music spilled out of speakers suspended in filigreed cages from the corners of the restaurant; I was overwhelmed with the taste of the vegetables, with the sound of sitars ringing in my head. I had to close my eyes. When I opened them, Eric was holding a half-eaten momo out on his chopsticks, the inside of the dumpling pooled with soy sauce and gleaming red oil. His eyes were shining as he offered it to me across the table. Looking at him then, I could tell that he knew it, too: we were at the beginning. When I took the momo from him, I spilled oil all down my shirt, but I didn’t care. I chewed and spooned dried vegetables into his mouth and could barely catch my breath.      
            
But all those six months before Eric left Isabel, it was only in restaurants that we could really be together. Space was the constant issue—where could we have some for ourselves? Not in my bedroom with my roommates just beyond the sheet I had for a door.  Not in the few hours before Isabel returned home from her late shift each day. It wasn’t until our couch was delivered that we ever sat beside each other. We had always been separated by a table, our pinkies linked across it as we ate, our skin sticking to the plastic tablecloth.

 

“What is she going to do with your place, now?” I asked Eric, a few days after we moved in. We were standing in our kitchen as he ground mustard seeds and peppercorns together with a mortar and pestle and I peeled potatoes. We had barely talked about anything since we’d been handed the keys, only clutched at each other and marveled.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Eric answered, wrinkles appearing around his eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was squinting because of my question or because of the fine pungent powder rising in a cloud as he ground.
            
“I just want to know,” I said, wiping my starchy hands on my jeans. “She can’t afford it on her own, right?” I ran the potato peeler under water and left it in the sink.
            
Eric cocked his head to the side and I could see the little patch behind his ear where his hair was graying.

“No, she can’t. She’ll probably move in with her sister, in Connecticut.”
           
As happy as I was, I couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like to have to leave your home because someone left you. My friends all said it was because I thought if he left her, he’d leave me, too. But that wasn’t it. I knew your worst fears never come true. The bad things that happen to you are the ones you don’t expect: illness, falling rocks, your husband leaving you for someone not even younger, not even more beautiful.

“What did she say when you left?” I asked.
           
“She didn’t say much,” Eric said. “She was surprised, I guess.”
           
What surprised me was that I could destroy something so easily. I didn’t know that I would have to wonder—as I chopped potatoes into a fine dice, as I let a handful of salt sift through my fingers into a pot of boiling water, as I brushed my teeth, as I slipped into sleep with Eric breathing softly beside me—if I would do it again. 
           
I saw how Eric changed when we could finally be together and it was for the better. Everything about him was lighter. He said that he hadn’t realized he didn’t love Isabel until he met me. He said that things were fine between them until then, but now he knew that fine was no way to be.

 

Sundays we read the paper in the lemony sunlight of our kitchen. I had curtains folded on the windowsill but couldn’t bear to put them up and dampen that light.  
            
“There’s a new Senegalese place,” I said, shaking the Dining section at Eric.

“The review mentions that dish you told me about eating once.”
           
“Mafé?” he said. “I can’t wait to see your face when you taste it.” Sometimes I thought that, if given the choice, Eric would rather watch me taste something than eat it himself. It was the same with gifts we exchanged; he would insist I open mine first and then get so caught up in the clasp of my new necklace or the pages of my new book that he would forget about his own packages. “Where’s the restaurant?” he said.
            
My hand was sticky from the croissants we’d been eating and the article smudged as I ran my finger down the page, looking for an address. I found it and pressed down, leaving a dark fingerprint across it. It was in his old neighborhood, just a few blocks from the apartment I’d never been to. “Maybe we can learn to make it,” I said.
           
Eric leaned over me to see the paper; he smelled of coffee and butter, decadent. I expected him to tell me I was being unreasonable to rule out a whole neighborhood because she was still there, but instead he said: “Maybe I’ll go by and bring some home for us.”
           
I figured he meant later, but he got up to look for his shoes right then.

“Are you going see her?” I asked. I stood next to him as he tied his laces, my hand on his shoulder.
           
He stopped mid-loop, one shoe on. “Would that be okay?”
           
It sounded to me like he was really asking: Would we be okay? I thought if I knew she was, we could be, too. I took my hand off his shoulder and opened the front door.

“Go,” I said.
           
As I cleaned up breakfast, I could see the footprints he left on the way out where the sun hit the tiles on the floor. I did the dishes and wiped down the counters, but left his footprints where they were. After a few hours, I took a shower, letting the water run hot.
           
He was back when I emerged from the steam-filled bathroom and the apartment smelled deep and rich. I opened my mouth and he placed a piece of sweet nutty chicken on my tongue. I licked the dark sauce from his fingers. I settled onto the couch as the mafé started to settle my anxious stomach. “So?” I asked.
            
“She’s packing up,” he said, the couch sighing with his weight. I tipped closer to him, into the valley he made in the cushions. “I helped her with the heavy things.”
           
 “She isn’t hiring movers?”
           
 “No,” he said.
           
We hadn’t either, but we had so little to move. Eric took almost nothing with him when he left. He said it would be easier for her, not having to replace things, but I imagined it would be an affront, as though nothing from those years they’d had together was valuable to him.
           
I picked up a heavy glass paperweight from the coffee table as I chewed another bite of chicken and turned it over in my hands. I had walked barefoot on Eric’s back after he carried our few boxes up the stairs, kneading his muscles with my toes. We unpacked over two days, taking time to find the perfect spot for each small item, this paperweight placed on the desk with precision and care.
           
“Do you like the mafé?” he said, like he was asking for forgiveness.
           
I took the last bite from the take-out container, swallowing my answer.

 

I had summer Fridays, half-days free before Eric got back from work. I’d spent the three previous weeks since we’d moved picking through bins of vegetables at the local market on those afternoons, digging to find a few perfect specimens with which to concoct a dinner. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that mafé and how it soothed my stomach. If I waited one more week, I could go down there and Isabel would be gone. I could go down there and there would be no chance of seeing her, of being tempted to trade her, to try to give it all back just to feel like myself again: lonely, but not guilty. I couldn’t wait.
            
I slid behind the wheel of our car—it had been mine, but now, so easily, it became ours—and pulled out of the parking spot. My hair was rising with the summer humidity, expanding into a black cloud all around my head. I could see it crowding into the rear view mirror. A trickle of sweat tickled its way down the center of my back as I drove down the street.
           
As I turned onto 46th Street, I eased off the gas pedal and slowed to a roll. All the streets in the area were beautiful but that one particularly so; it was called Bliss Street before all the names were stripped off and replaced by numbers. Bliss Street was still on some of the signs though, too apt a description of the row of squat cherubic houses and the high canopy of tree branches to let go. There was an effort going on to landmark those houses, to save their small-town garden charm from new buyers who wanted to apply vinyl siding to the weathered brick. I’d signed the petition; even though we lived a few blocks away, I felt enough connection to want to protect it, to fight for it.
           
I was so caught up in admiring my new neighborhood that I didn’t notice until it started to honk that, behind me, a large SUV was crowding the street. When I started to drive faster, it did, too. The street was narrow; there was no way to let it through. I sped up, but I couldn’t go any faster, not on a small side street. The SUV got closer and closer until I could feel my car hum; it was almost touching my bumper.
           
When I turned right onto Skillman Ave, the SUV squealed around me, wheels streaking across two lanes. A dark shape flew off the hood of it, rising a few feet up above the street and ricocheting into my car. It felt like hitting a bag of logs, solid but with some give, damp and living. I stepped hard on the breaks as the SUV sped away.
           
For a minute all I saw were shapes and colors, the jolt knocking sense and recognition out of me. But then a scene began to coalesce: a swarm advancing from the down the street—teenagers in full skater splendor, traveling at full speed. They were mohawked and multiply-pierced; their chains rattled behind them like glittering tails and their young freckled faces contorted as they barreled into the wind. When they reached my car, they dropped to the ground.
           
I couldn’t move my hands; I couldn’t move my head. I could feel my pulse in my ears, behind my eyes, shaking me in my shirt. I was breathing in hiccups.
           
When the skaters stood back up, there was one more of them. He was in red and black plaid with a streak of bleached blond hair down the center of his head and a handful of gravel embedded in his cheek. There wasn’t much blood, but there was some.

“Was it you?” I asked, opening the door suddenly, grabbing for his shoulders. “Was it you?”
           
He was laughing. I gripped him, held him at arms length, searched his body for more and more signs he was alive. Panting, breathing, sweating. He smelled alive. “It was a hit and run,” he shouted, pulling back, banging his hand on the hood of my car.
           
At this I felt a little release, the pop of a bubble. “But I didn’t run,” I said. “I’m right here.”
            
“Not you,” he said, looking me up and down. “The other guy, who hit me first.” He wiped at his cheek and a shower of pebbles hit the street. He was still laughing, his friends slapping him on the back. One of them retrieved his skateboard from near my wheels, a little bent but still intact. He went to step on it.
           
He was taller than me and had brown eyes, wet with mischief. A bruise bloomed underneath the scuff of blood on his face.  He and his friends roared off down the street, picking up speed, straight into traffic.

 

“Everything is fine,” Eric said when he returned home from work, laying take-out Tibetan on the table. “What did you mean when you said the car was acting strange?”
            
“I just couldn’t drive it,” I said, pouring soy sauce into two small dishes. “You really didn’t notice anything?”
           
“Nothing,” he said. “How did you get home?”
           
He dipped a finger into a puddle of fragrant red oil. I opened my mouth and closed my eyes as his bittersweet fingertip hit my tongue.
           
I had walked home, but I hadn’t come straight. After I parked the car on the side of the street and called Eric to fetch it, I went after my skater. Even though he was already weaving his crew through traffic blocks away, his blond stripe of hair was illuminated in the sun, easy to follow. I ran like I hadn’t since I was a teenager myself, flying down the streets to get to him. He popped and pivoted among and around the cars on the road, his head lolling back with laughter. I caught up as he neared Queens Boulevard and he didn’t stop there at the curb so I didn’t either.
           
I stepped off. At first I walked in his wake, in the space he created between the streaming cars. I started slow, the rubber soles of my sandals sticky against the hot asphalt street. But then I began to lift my feet into a jog, moving faster and faster, veering from his path. I felt a rush of wind over the road; it was my own current carrying me through those eight lanes.
           
Like the skater, I was a lucky one. Maybe I caused accidents around me—I heard the screeching of breaks and the desperate pounding of horns—but I didn’t look up and I didn’t look back. I just looked ahead and made it across.
           
Then I traced my way back through my new neighborhood, to my new home. By the time I got there, I was so hungry—I couldn’t wait to eat. I set the table with bright ceramic dishes and filled two glasses to the top with wine. Sitting in front of my empty plate, I waited for Eric. I knew exactly what he’d say when he arrived, and I believed it. 

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