“I feel like my life is a movie,” you say. We are freezing under the single sheet of my twin bed, the newly wine-stained comforter in a pile on the floor. Before I spilled my glass of Trader Joe’s finest merlot, which we’d bought to celebrate the occasion, you’d made one of those comments like you always do, something about my poetry being too confessional—I don’t want half the English department workshopping my pubic hair—and usually, when you make these comments I withdraw, lie flat and alone on the other half of the bed until you change the subject. Now, my ear is pressed against your chest, maybe for warmth or maybe because I’m not tipsy enough to handle an argument yet.
“It’s like,” you say, “The Rule of Three. Like…you know, like Chekhov’s gun.”
We’ve talked about Chekhov’s gun before. You mentioned it the first time we had sex. If there’s clothes on a pretty girl in your fiction workshop, you said, kissing my shoulder and peeling down my jeans as I giggled, they should come off by the end of the story.
But this is real life, I’d said, helping you navigate the pants off my ankles.
“Today in class–well, actually, let me start this a better way…”
I roll onto your stomach and hover my face above yours, watching you search the ceiling for the right words. Look at me, I might say if this were a novel. Closeup on the girlfriend’s hungry eyes, the script might say if this were a film.
i’m a doll on your shelf
as childhood wanes.
i’d apologize to the sea
if it drowned me,
I might say if this were a poem.
But I say nothing.
“So this morning,” you say with wine-tinted lips. You’re going to talk for a while, I can tell. “I saw this girl…No, hang on, I can’t give away the ending so…Uh. So this morning, I was walking…I was making my pilgrimage, my daily pilgrimage to that salad place in the food court after class. And I saw…Well, I could tell that something was off because usually there’s just kind of this stream of people walking, but today it was like something had interrupted that, we were all like…trains off the track.”
“Trains off the track.” I nod in approval, but only because I know you want me to.
“So the first thing I see is this empty chair. I didn’t actually see her fall—”
“I’m getting there. So I see this empty chair, and I know, I just know this means something bad happened, it was literally like a movie shot, and the next thing I see is this little crowd and people keep getting pulled into this crowd like magnets, and then I see this collapsed girl—”
“Oh my god.”
“—And this one girl, she’s like the chief bystander apparently, is trying to talk to the girl, she goes ‘Can you hear me?‘ and then on the ground—”
You stop. You’re untangling wires in your mind, weaving them back together into a new pattern.
“Have you told anyone yet?” I ask. “About us moving?”
“I don’t think so. Or at least not that you’re coming with me.”
I reach over your arm for my cup of wine and take a sip. “I told my mom this afternoon. When I decided.”
“Cool. Uh. What was I saying?”
“The girl’s on the ground, the other girl is helping her—”
“And then I turned around and left. And you want to know what my first thought was?”
“I thought, Oh, I guess I won’t get a salad today. Can you believe—This girl’s like, dying or something, and my instinct is Oh, no salad today.“
Your chest moves up and down, and I feel like I’m on a see-saw.
“I mean, I couldn’t have helped her, there were already fifteen people there, I would’ve just gotten in the way…But part of me was weirdly guilty. Like I was standing in line for Subway thinking oh my god I’m an awful person I shouldn’t have turned around wahhhhh and they’re like ‘what kind of bread?’ and I’m like holy shit am I a sociopath?”
I place myself in the sequence of events. You had a Subway cup when you stopped by my dorm to kiss me after I called to tell you I’d turned down the internship.
“And OH I forgot the last part, there was this image, this image when I was walking away, my last IMAGE, my last IMPRESSION of the whole thing was like…I saw the girl’s soda cup lying on the ground, she must have dropped it when she fainted or whatever, and there were all these ice cubes on the tile and then the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d never seen her fall but all I needed were…were these IMAGES to construct the whole sequence in my brain like, she’s swaying in her chair, her legs buckle, her elbow knocks the cup over, the ice making this clinking sound when it hits the floor…The whole beginning, middle, and end. And then later I tried to google if anyone died on campus today or anything, but nothing came up so I guess she was fine. Which is good. Because that would’ve been traumatic—”
“How?” I say.
“How would it have been traumatic? Your experience would’ve been the same either way.” I feel smart for saying this, and I feel myself trying to sound smart.
“What do you mean?” It’s a professor-y tone you adopt, less like you don’t understand what I mean and more like you’re trying to prove that I don’t know what I mean.
“You saw this girl fall,” I say, “You didn’t see her die. Even if you find out later she died, you still only saw her fall. You didn’t see her die.”
You frown at me. “Yeah, but like—knowing the context, the different context. It just would’ve been awful to know that she died, and I didn’t do anything to help.”
“So, you’d only feel bad for not helping if she died?” I say, “Not because it was a shitty thing to not help, but because you’re uncomfortable feeling guilty?” I don’t actually say this. I’m telling a story, too.
“Here’s where it gets weird.” You’re talking with your hands now, and I keep almost getting poked in the eye. “So I eat Subway, whatever, and I’m walking past the bus stop on my way to the scene shop for class, and I’m kind of drifting off, kind of still thinking about the girl falling, not really thinking about my surroundings. So people start getting off the bus, and I don’t really consciously notice, but there’s this lady coming toward me, this older lady, maybe in her fifties, she’s dressed kind of like a hippie, doesn’t look like a professor or anything and she’s on crutches and she’s wobbling down the sidewalk, she’s really shaky. She almost looks like those closeup videos of spiders walking, you know? Like it feels like the crutches are like, these other legs.”
“Okay? And then?” I’m cold, and I want to go to sleep.
“So she’s swaying back and forth kind of like those pirate ship rides at the fair, you know? Sorry for all these metaphors. Ha. So then, I’m five feet from her and she FALLS. Just falls. And it feels like such a huge moment, it feels like an earthquake—Jesus, metaphors, sorry. And as soon as it happens these two random people rush over and scoop her up. So I pause for a split second, but again, there’s really nothing I can do and before I can even decide to do anything, my body just veers to the right, and I’m like, okay, guess we’re going the long way to class today.”
I glance toward the wine bottle, but it’s empty.
“And behind me, I hear the lady whimpering under her breath but she just keeps on going, and I’m like, okay, that felt weird, that felt like an omen or something. So I get to class, the stagecraft one, and by then I’ve kind of forgotten the lady, whatever, and we’re learning about nail guns or something, you know how I hate that class. And we’re all standing around this table, looking at the nail guns, learning what the different ones are called or something, I wasn’t paying attention, I don’t even know if there are different kinds, but then Ellie slumps over—”
“Actually, this is weird, I don’t really know if I saw her slumping first or if I heard someone say that she fainted first, but suddenly she’s like, dying, and everyone’s like holy shit what do we do. All of us just kind of freeze for a second.”
How much longer is this going to be? I envy the version of myself I was a few months ago when all I wanted was to listen to you talk all day.
“And then Yvonne who’s kind of holding her up is like, ‘Hello, someone do something!'”
You’d talk and I’d listen—in the car, on walks to class, waiting for water to boil in the dorm kitchen.
“And I’m, like, not in the room, I’m in my head and I’m picturing being thirty-six and thinking back to this day and being plagued with guilt for freezing up while she died and how much that would suck if she died and we all had to feel guilty for the rest of our lives.”
I used to imagine us old. I used to imagine getting interviewed by your biographer, smiling wistfully as I talked about how I was always your first audience.
“And then someone’s like oh she has a blood sugar condition. Someone calls an ambulance. I hand Yvonne my water bottle, and she kind of drips it into Ellie’s mouth. Someone gets this apple juice packet from their bag, and I’m like, okay, I see, you’re trying to one-up my water bottle.”
I imagined us being like F. Scott and Zelda, except for the part where Zelda goes crazy.
“And then one of the administrators comes in with a first aid kit and shoos us all out of the room. So we’re standing in the hall, and some of the others start joking around while we wait—ten, fifteen minutes?”
Actually, I might’ve done the going crazy part if I thought it would help you.
“And I’m half-listening, but I’m standing there thinking about how the last thing I said to Ellie was something about how cool her paint job on her project was—she painted these Russian doll things coming out of each other, it looked really cool. And I’m like, damn, that was such a stupid thing to say, I could’ve done better than ‘cool.’ The whole time, I know, on a rational level, that she probably wouldn’t die from low blood sugar, but with the other two things that happened today, I was thinking holy shit, this is like a movie, there was foreshadowing and everything, something bad is going to happen—”
“The Rule of Three,” I say.
You frown. “Yeah. Exactly. That’s what I was trying to say.”
Suddenly, looking into your eyes is too much, and I curl back up on your chest. I’ve learned in poetry seminars that commas are for breath, and every time your chest rises, I count another comma. I start workshopping your story like we’re in class.
“Someone wheels in a stretcher, and it’s weirdly low to the ground.”
Take out the adverb.
“And I realize that it’s a prop from the show they just started rehearsing.”
Specify. Fiddler on the Roof? The Crucible? Hamlet?
“Like, come on, this is so farcical.”
Cut this. Too heavy-handed.
“I’m just thinking about how pathetic it would be if they rolled her dead body out of the scene shop on a prop stretcher.”
The first thing you ever said to me was in that fiction class, something about how it didn’t make sense that my protagonist would let everyone treat her like that without fighting back.
“And then I start thinking about, okay, there’s this thing in Greek tragedy called an ekkyklema. Because they never showed deaths on stage, so they’d have a messenger character that would run on and proclaim Oedipus or whoever’s death and then they’d roll out the ekkyklema, which was like a cart thing, and on it would be the fake dead body.”
Even after we started dating, we continued to sit in our usual seats, across the room from each other.
“So we’re all in the hallway and we can’t talk about Ellie, obviously, so Josh is telling some story about getting drunk on a study abroad trip or something, and I keep thinking they’ll wheel out the prop stretcher with the body and go ‘She’s dead!’. And Yvonne would probably be offstage wailing, and we’d all tear our hair out and spend the rest of the semester haunted by the traumatic experience, and they’d have to do a memorial at graduation, and maybe we’d all cry during lectures about drill safety and shit.”
You pause, waiting for my laugh.
“But anyway, she’s fine now, I guess. The real paramedics got there and put her on a real stretcher and we went right back to the nail guns. Ha. The show must go on, right?”
You laugh for a few seconds, and I, on your chest, feel like a baby being shaken.
“But how weird is that? Like, how crazy that all that happened in one day. And in that order, and…”
“Did that really all happen?” I say.
“What? Of course it all happened! What are you trying to say, you think I could just make up a story like that?”
The air conditioner has cranked up. I shiver. The sheet is no longer doing its job, so I open your chest and climb inside, pulling your lungs around my shoulders for warmth.
“I don’t think I love you anymore,” I say, or don’t say. Before you can get a word in, I fall asleep inside your ribcage.