Ava is asleep and turned towards me. Her mouth is slack and she is breathing through it a little, and her hands are cupped inside each other, upturned, like she is trying to hold water. She looks like a child. I wonder if that is a strange thing to think about someone I’ve had sex with, but I’ve thought it.
Downstairs I make coffee. It’s early and the sky over the backyard still has pink and lavender in it. It rained last night and through the crack between the window and the sill I smell wet. I think about going into the backyard, where the air would feel good, but I don’t.
Upstairs, Ava is in the same position. I sit where I slept and drink coffee and look at nothing, sometimes at her and sometimes at the window. She is wearing a shirt of mine, and underneath she is wearing a bra. I told her once that this business of wearing a bra while she sleeps is the one thing about her that makes me wonder if I have this all wrong. She said, What? I said, Something about it just makes me question everything: someone who could wear bras while they sleep – what else could they do?
She knew I was teasing her and she laughed, but then she said, This is the way I am.
We met on Hinge in September, and then we got a drink at a place that was loud and smelled like vomit. I remember everyone inside the bar was very attractive and well-dressed, probably in their mid- to late-twenties, and no one acted like they could smell the vomit, or said anything I could hear about it. We didn’t either, until a month or so ago, when we laughed about it. But I remember thinking at the time that it was funny that everyone acted like they didn’t notice, until I realized we were doing that, too. I wondered then if the other people thought we were similarly attractive and well-dressed, and weren’t saying anything because we weren’t, either. People would have thought this about her; she’s very pretty.
She asked me after we had been talking for a while about how I identified, sexually. I didn’t know at the time if this was a part of gay dating: that everyone asked you kind of quickly how you identified, sexually. I felt I didn’t have enough data to confirm, but the three women I’d gone out with since moving to Nashville, including Ava, had all asked me how I identified sexually.
To all of them I shrugged and said, I know I’m queer, I guess, but it’s a new thing, like a few months new, and so far it hasn’t felt that helpful to me to try and put a word on it. Ava nodded, and I asked her the same question, to which she said that she feels comfortable with gay, queer, pan, bi. I said I thought I did, too, except that with bi I wasn’t sure, because I was attracted to non-binary people, too, and were they not included in that?
Ava nodded and lifted her hand, which was slim, and twisted it around a few times as she spoke, to show one side, then the other. She said some people think of bi like that, but she has also heard of people thinking about it as straight on one side, and gay on the other; as in, comfortable in either kind of relationship. She said this like she had thought about it and talked about it before. I nodded and said I liked that better, that made sense.
When she wakes up, we go get breakfast and then go to her house and pick up her dog and her roommate’s dog. Ava has a thing in her car she calls a taco, which is like a seat cover that clips onto the backseat of the car and rests in a curve, like a taco, so the dogs feel cradled and also don’t get her car dirty. But the dogs go under the taco, instead of on top of the taco, and look out at us looking like they are wearing nylon cloaks. We laugh and I take pictures of them.
I like driving with her. It’s one of my favorite things we do. Sometimes as she drives she reaches over and puts her hand on my leg, so it’s just there while we’re talking. Tennessee is very pretty sometimes but also, when I see the scenery now and specifically the signs when we enter new counties whose names I know, I think of my cases at work, which are dark: meth, murder, Confederate flags. I don’t say this to Ava in case what she sees is not meth, murder and Confederate flags; I don’t want to change the landscape for her and I also don’t want her to be surprised if it turns out we’re seeing different things in the same places.
We go to an area she knows for hiking. It’s by a river and towards the water there are trees, but at the beginning we are in a large field of tall grasses with walkways cut in. The grasses are as tall as we are, so we can see where we are only when we are at the top of a slope. We keep the dogs on leashes. A family drives up a few minutes after we start walking. They are a man, a woman and two small kids, and we can hear them as we walk away.
I wait with the dogs while Ava goes back to the car to get the water she forgot. The family catches up to me and the little girl asks if she can pet the dogs. I say yes and we all stand there while she pets them, one at a time. The girl asks, about Ava’s dog. Does she have a favorite color? Probably I say, but she hasn’t told me what it is. The dad behind her says, Did you say collar, or color? The girl says, Collar. I say, Oh. I think she just has one collar. I think she likes it OK.
The family moves on and Ava comes back. As we walk, we talk about Ava’s research, an art class I want to take, how fast the water is moving, how kids are cute, how kids are scary. Ava looks very pretty and I take a picture of her while we’re walking. I think about putting it on Instagram, and then I think, Who would that be for? It would be for people who aren’t Ava, so I don’t do it. I do put a picture of her dogs under the taco on my Close Friends story. I know people won’t know what it means exactly, but to me it means we are together.
At dinner I ask Ava about her research. She says her rats are almost born, except she uses the language she has for it – they’re almost cultured, or something. I know that then she’ll kill them and dissect their brains. This is how I talk about her to my friends: Ava’s dissecting rat brains today, or something. We laugh about this, but we are also impressed.
When we leave I put my arm around her shoulder and she puts hers around my waist. We walk like that until we’re at the car. She doesn’t spend the night but drops me off. Often she doesn’t spend the night during the week, but usually she does on Friday nights, and then we spend some of Saturday together before she goes to the lab, or sometimes we go to a coffee shop and she works on her data. But tonight she just drops me off. We kiss goodbye in the car and I wave to her from the door before she drives away.
Part of me wonders if it’s odd to be only a few months into our relationship and not sleeping together more, but part of me doesn’t care; I figure I’m happy and she seems happy so it must be fine. At the beginning I asked more questions, calling my friends in other states who might know what is normal, but now I ask fewer, or I’ve just already asked them, and don’t need to ask them again.
I did have one conversation with a friend, closer to the start of dating Ava, that I appreciated. It has served as a kind of point of reference. The conversation was with my friend Anya, who is gay and lives in Brooklyn. I was sitting in the back room on the first floor of the house my roommates and I are renting. There are lots of windows in this room, and I was sitting sideways in an armchair, so my knees were bent over one arm and my back was resting against the other. It was sunny, a weekend morning.
Anya and I had been talking, and then I said, I’ve been thinking about Ava. Sometimes I’m not really sure. Sometimes I feel like, I’m not that attracted to her? Like I love being with her, and find her attractive, and the sex isn’t bad exactly, but it’s not that good?
Anya said, Yeah. Well.
I said, I don’t really know if that’s a good enough reason to not be with her, though? I don’t know. I haven’t had this before.
Anya said, Well. I think it’s kind of up to you. And how important sex is to you, right now.
Before that, I hadn’t ever really thought about sex like that, at least in terms of myself: as something that might not be important, or very important. I did once have a friend who told me that something that worked in her relationship at the time was that she and her boyfriend both weren’t that sexual, as people. I remember noting this, and then I remember noting a few years later when she started dating someone else, who was a woman. This friend told me it was like discovering a new part of herself, one that was sexual. Which kind of negated the point she’d made to me about her boyfriend, and made me wonder a little about all the things we ever say, about anything, and whether any of it will feel true a few years later.
In my Theories of Counseling class we are talking about a book we read on couples counseling. It is by John M. Gottman, Ph.D., and Nan Silver, and is called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. When I had to buy it I thought, I can’t believe I am attending a graduate program where I am supposed to read a book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, but then I read the book and found it compelling – if not necessarily what I wanted to believe, it was at least interesting.
Today we are talking about this book and our professor kind of looks to the side, then back at us, and says, Gottman also felt very strongly that the sex is never going to get better than how it is at the start of a relationship. That was how he felt. I don’t feel that this is at all an inappropriate thing for our professor to say, because we are in school to become counselors and probably a lot of people want to talk about sex. But I do feel a kind of register, like, Oh.
I call Ava when I leave class, because her house is right by campus. She laughs at me when she picks up because she says that I always giggle when I hear her voice on the phone, even if I called her and must have expected to hear it. I giggle again, then hear myself, which makes me laugh.
I’m sorry, I say. I must just be happy to hear your voice.
She says, Don’t be sorry. I like it.
It’s October and still warm out in the dark. The moon is huge here and I walk towards it in the direction of my car.
Sure, she says. Yeah, come over.
She lives in a white brick house with some other medical students, or two other medical students and one who is in the same program as she is, which is an MD-PhD program. So you will be two kinds of doctors, I said to her once, and she said, Yes. I said, Can I call you doctor doctor Ava, and she laughed and said, No.
We talk to her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend. I talk about how I had to read this book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and Ava’s roommate says she actually read that, too. Ava then says she also read it. I wonder what world I am living in where the people I hang out with socially are reading The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, but then I think, I read it and I’m here, so. Then we talk about the dogs, which happens when people have dogs, I’ve realized, maybe more than you might expect. Unusual not to talk a lot about the dogs.
Ava and I go into Ava’s bedroom, which is small and much messier than my room. I find this charming about Ava, because as far as I can tell she is extremely accomplished, between research and medical school and her publications, but her room has piles of things that I can’t identify because I just register the piles. On top of one of the piles is a cardboard box that Ava looks in while I lie on her bed. Ava says, My mom sent this to me today, it has snacks and things from the Asian supermarket she goes to, do you want anything? I say, Maybe, and she takes out individually-packaged bags of green tea and some kind of ginger candy and some wrapped mochi and begins to put them on my stomach. I unwrap a mochi and eat it. Thank you, I say.
After a while Ava lies down. I put the tea bags and candy and mochi on the table, leaning over her to reach it, and then I lie on my side and put my hand on her stomach and forehead on her shoulder. She is on her back, with her hand under her head. She says, I think sometimes about that book.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
She is quiet for a moment. I lift my forehead from her shoulder and rest the side of my head on my hand so I can look at her. She doesn’t look at me, but says, They have the part with the four horsemen, for when people are going to break up. And one of them is contempt, and a sign for it is rolling your eyes. And you roll your eyes at me sometimes, and then I wonder, Does Devon have contempt for me?
I don’t know what to say to this at first, because to me it makes no sense, since I have never felt anything like contempt for her, as far as I can tell. I say, I don’t have contempt for you.
She nods. OK.
I’m so sorry, I say. I don’t mean to roll my eyes at you. When do I roll my eyes at you?
She shrugs and says, There was one time, on our first date. I said something about the last person I dated, and you rolled your eyes. And I was kind of like, Oh.
I don’t. Do you remember what it was about?
Ava shrugs. No, not really.
I look at her. She’s not looking at me, but still at the wall in front of us. Her mouth is not exactly stiff, but it is a little set, like she’s holding it there.
OK, I say. Have I done it other times?
A few times, she says. But not that much. There was a time when I felt like, maybe I should have a conversation with you about it. But then you didn’t do it for a while, so I felt like, maybe it’s nothing.
OK, I say. I am still looking at her. She hasn’t looked at me, so I move my hand from her stomach onto her hip, just so she feels it there. I’m really sorry, I say. I don’t think I mean contempt when I do that. I don’t really know what I mean, I guess, but I think maybe I’m playing? Because I don’t have contempt for you.
She nods. OK, she says, and the way she says this makes me realize how serious she is, that she actually might be a little relieved to hear I don’t have contempt for her. This is scary to realize, because I really don’t think I do, and because she has thought something that is so untrue.
I’m really sorry, I say. I really don’t feel that way.
OK, she says. She sits up and turns away to mess with something on her nightstand, and the conversation is over.
Ava texts me when I’m driving to see if I want to get dinner that night. I tell her I have class, but after that, yes. In class, we talk about ethical dilemmas, such as: a teenager tells you her boyfriend is abusing her. She’s been in abusive relationships in the past. You have just started building a therapeutic alliance with her. Do you report it to DCS? The answer: yes.
Ava and I go to a Thai place on 8th. It’s small and very cute, wooden with lots of signs and pictures on the walls. We order things to share. She always wants to order soup to share; I think this is so funny, because it’s the least shareable item. I say this to her – Ava, who loves to share the least shareable items – and she laughs.
On Saturday Ava comes over in the morning. It’s raining outside and quiet in my bedroom, and we hang out together, doing separate things. She told me earlier that she thought this was a nice and unexpected thing about our relationship: we both like doing things indoors together, not actually doing them together, but near each other. I have my homework, for example, and she is always working on her research, and both of us read. I also work on art projects sometimes, like weaving, which I do in bed while she does her research.
In bed I’m reading a book of essays by Natalia Ginzburg. I’ve read it before, and when I get to ‘Human Relations’ I say, Here, Ava, can you read these two pages? I love them. She reads them aloud and I listen, and when I hear her say the words I hope she is taking the good parts well, not sadly. The good parts: the whole section that begins with, ‘One day we meet the right person’, and ends with, ‘And only years later, many years later, after a dense web of habits and memories and violent conflicts have been woven between us, do we finally know that he truly was the right person and we couldn’t have lived with anyone else; only in him could we seek all our heart requires.’
I worry that the middle part will make her sad, because it is about not knowing that this person is the right person, because nothing is on fire, and instead there is peace. But actually this makes Ava sad because she says she is worried that to find the right person, she has to meet them organically, like Natalia Ginzburg did: her right person was someone with whom she went on walks. They walked and talked, and only slowly did it seem possible that it was the right person. And even then, maybe not; she only really knew after a long, long time.
I understand Ava’s concern as concern that she and I can’t be the right people for each other, because we met on Hinge. I say, I don’t think it’s a problem, that we met on Hinge. By this I am meaning to say, but don’t say, I think we could still each be the right person.
Then we have a conversation about how there is no one right person – there could be many people, and Natalia Ginzburg’s point is that her right person was the right person because he is who she chose. So he became the right person, because he was the person. We say this because it is true and logical, but it is not really what I am trying to say. What I mean or am trying to say is, Look at this, maybe we have found the right person, because with you I feel peace.
I don’t say exactly this. Instead I say, I’m trying to write a story for my friend, who asked for one for her friend’s magazine. She says, About what? Love? I say, Yeah. She smiles and reads on her computer. Later she says, Did you decide what you’re going to write about? I say, Yeah. She says, What did you decide? I say, I don’t know.
Sex feels different with Ava, I think because I didn’t realize until now how much sex with some or most men felt like a promise, or an investment, or a kind of bargain. That sex was always sex on the way to somewhere else, potentially towards more sex, but was also maybe a project, which had a time limit, or a deadline. Specifically I am saying, the time limit that existed if I was going to make a baby. Even if we never talked about having a baby, or even about having sex again: I think there was the thought that if the sex worked out, we would continue, and there would be landmarks until the question became when, not whether, pending we kept going at all. I don’t think I registered this until Ava and I started having sex: the two of us can make no baby, and we don’t have to get married. I can recognize this is obvious and it can still feel profound.
On FaceTime I tell my friend I’m dating someone, it’s been four months. My friend laughs and says, We love gay Devon! She says, I always knew it. She says, There were all these times when I was like, Is Devon flirting with me? I laugh. I say, Well, I didn’t know. I say, I’m really happy.
In the car, Ava and I talk about Taylor Swift. She is embarrassed because Taylor Swift made every top song on her Spotify Wrapped. I say, You don’t have to be embarrassed, though it is kind of embarrassing. We talk about an interview where Taylor Swift said her friend asked, What will you make music about when you’re happy? And Taylor was worried about this, but then she became happier, and she still made music she thought was good. I don’t tell Ava, but I think, I used to write so much about my bad relationships, and it’s true I haven’t been writing as much. But it’s also true that my writing wasn’t very good. I was just upset, so it meant something to me.
We like different books but she laughs at my jokes. I’ve been reading less because when I’m with her I weave or we talk. It doesn’t feel like talking is a creative project, or like I need to tell her everything I think and have thought. It feels more that I can say anything, but I don’t have to. It feels like I have fewer thoughts in my head, and more like I am breathing air and am situated in my body. She doesn’t leave even if we’re tired of talking, but works in my bed or reads on her computer in the armchair in my room. When she thinks about her data, she looks up and to the left, like a picture of someone thinking. I imitate her and she laughs. It is a nice thing when we say to each other, I am as happy with you as I am when I am alone. Is it true that happy stories have no plot? My life has been feeling so plotless, by which I mean that I am stable. Maybe it is boring to read but I don’t think it’s not worth expressing. Nothing much is happening and it feels like a very good part of my life.
I told her already that she has theme songs, in my mind: when I wake up before her in the morning I think of the song ‘zombie girl’, because she kind of looks like a zombie girl the way she reaches for me with her eyes closed. The song is by Adrianne Lenker and goes, ‘What a dream that was / I almost couldn’t wake because / I was frozen in bed with a zombie girl.’ It keeps going after that but that is the only part I sing to her. She tells me this whole album is very sad and about a break-up, but I don’t care because I like it and think of her again at the part that says, ‘And I almost could have kissed your hair.’
Ava is reading a book my mom loved, but that I didn’t like, and didn’t finish. She’s reading it on her computer. I don’t tell Ava that I didn’t like it, because Ava loves it. She is almost done. When she’s done, she cries. I ask her why she’s crying, and she tells me it’s just so sad. One person saves the other, and then the other saves the one, and they go back and forth until finally one can’t be saved, and it’s just so sad. It involves World War II. I say, That sounds really sad.
Ava then gets up and lies on the bed beside me, but not touching me. I think this must be intentional, so I don’t try to touch her. She is still crying. She then stands up and shakes her hands, then lies down on the floor and starts crying again. I move over to the side of the bed, on my stomach, and look down at her, crying on the carpet.
She nods. I’m OK, she says, and wipes her eyes.
OK, I say. Are you sure?
She nods. Yeah, I’m OK, she says.
On Wednesday in the library I send her the thing I wrote about her while we were in my room, when I told her I hadn’t decided what I would write about. I download the document and save it as ‘zombie girl,’ but I send it to her in an email with the subject, ‘story for you’. She texts me an hour later to say:
I love your story
And also a smiley face emoji, the one that comes up if you’re typing on your computer and includes blushing, as though you’re really very happy. I send her back the same emoji, and think of a therapist I once had who told me she hated emojis, because they kept people from saying anything.
Ava and I talk on the phone. I am in bed, lying down, looking at the ceiling. I say, My professor said this thing about sex. He said that Gottman said that if the sex isn’t good in the beginning, it’s not ever going to get better.
Ava says, I think that’s wrong. She says it like she doesn’t need to think about it; that it is wrong and not worth thinking about. I say, How do you know? She says, I think a lot of sex is getting to know each other, and learning about each other, and what the other person likes, and you like. I say, Yeah, you’re probably right. I say this but I think, How much do I care what Ava thinks? Does Ava maybe come from another planet? Does this make her thinking more or less valuable? Is it irrelevant to me?
On Saturday morning I’m running when Ava calls me. The past few days we’ve been having trouble connecting, or have talked on the phone but only for a few minutes. We haven’t seen each other since early in the week, which is longer than normal; but at the same time it’s been snowing a lot and yesterday everyone was pretty much stuck where they were. So I’m happy when I see she is calling me. I am running by this flock of geese I always run by, near the pool by the Christian college. I tell her,
I am running by those geese I hate.
She laughs and says, What?
You know. Those geese. They always flap at me.
She laughs. They flap at you?
Yes. I’ve told you about these geese. They’re fucking awful, I hate them. As I say this it sounds too harsh; they’re not fucking awful, I don’t hate them.
She laughs and says, OK. She’s at home, working on her data. She says she’s doing mindless stuff now, just copying cells on a spreadsheet. I ask if she’s working on her cool 3-D model thing, and she says, What? I say, The thing you were doing at the coffee shop that one time, with the colors. She laughs, then says, No, not today.
We talk for a while longer, until I reach my house and want to take a shower.
In two days we sit on my bed, both upright. She says things including: Something just doesn’t feel right; It’s a gut thing; I wish it wasn’t this way, because logically you are someone I would want to be with; You can ask me anything if you have any questions; I’m going to miss you; I’m sorry.
I say things including: OK; If that’s how you feel, I’m not going to push you; No, I think I got it; OK; I’ll walk you out.
When we go downstairs she asks if she can help me clean up dinner. I say no and stand by the door. The saddest image is that: her standing in the threshold of the open door, looking at me. She’s crying and I don’t touch her.
Months later I’m looking through notes in old Google Docs. I find this, from December, after a fight I don’t remember:
I think about her face and I love her. Her outside my house, standing with one of the dogs by her car after coming back from Cookeville.
We went to Cookeville right after Thanksgiving. One of her roommates is from Cookeville, Tennessee, a small town. I didn’t know where we were relative to Nashville because Ava drove, and Tennessee was new enough that I didn’t know about anything relative to anything else. I knew that it was an hour and fifteen minutes from Nashville.
Ava, her roommate and I all stayed in a little one-story house down the street from the roommate’s parents’ house. The house we stayed in used to belong to the parents of the roommate’s parents, and I think the roommate said that her grandmother lived there in her old age, which makes sense; but it might also have been true that her dad lived there in an intermediary age, between college and marriage, or something. Either way, no one had changed it much since the seventies or so. Ava and I stayed in a small warm pink room with a small high window. It reminded me a little of a motel in a music video filmed somewhere out West. The color scheme, and the itchy warmth under the blankets felt to me like the holidays. It was our first holiday together. A few days earlier, Ava and I had invited people over to my house for Thanksgiving, and we both cooked a lot. She had said, It’s our first holiday together, the way you might say it when you expect there to be more.
I want to remember what Ava looked like in that room in Cookeville, but I don’t remember. I remember it feeling warm and pink and that I felt warm next to her body. I do remember the way she looked outside my house when she dropped me off, after we drove back. She was standing outside her car with her dog. I waved goodbye again from my door. It was one of those moments where you realize as they’re happening that you will remember them. I do remember it, but only because I was reminded.
Ava emails me that her article is finally officially published online. It’s called: ‘Neurotransmission Modulation and Synaptic Plasticity: Ionotropic Glutamate Receptors, Sigma-1 Receptors, and Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1 in the Regulation of Cortical Excitability.’ I email back, Congratulations!
I text Ava one afternoon because I want to. We take her dog for a walk. Her dog remembers me. Then we sit on her couch and talk about things for a long time. She is dating someone. When I leave I feel sad but also not sure that I’m sad. I feel sunk into my body, maybe because with Ava I always feel like I’m in an alternate universe, or like maybe she is an alien. Or maybe that I am the alien. We are aliens relative to each other.
I don’t look at my old Google Docs very often, but sometimes I do. When I read what I wrote while dating Ava, little essays about books and things, I notice this: they are not good essays, but I sound very happy. I sound very light.
Image © Drew Morton