More Than Space

I push the paddleboat out into the black water of 2 A.M. It scratches the sand in protest before coming loose. I hold it steady as it floats. Ava walks over slowly and gets in. I follow her and we're off, our feet resting on the black plastic pedals on each side of the boat. We rotate our legs, as if we're biking. We're both completely naked.

Coffee House Readings

I'm pale, skinny, bony in fact, my ribs countable by sight. She's much more attractive than I am, a perfect biracial blend, Kenyan and white, fantastically curvy, with glowing brown eyes that always seem to stare through, rather than at, a person. We reach the wooden dock, anchored about fifty feet from the shore. Ava hops on and ties the boat off and I step out after her. We lie down together on the damp, cold planks and we have sex, her hair dipping into the water as she lies on her back. It's glorious.

Seven months after that night, I board a train from Paris to Aix-en-Provence for our reunion. Since we parted in September we had promised each other I would make this trip, made sure to mention it whenever we spoke. With Ava studying abroad for a year in this romantic town in Southern France, I'd come visit, stay with her in her cute little apartment with the beautiful view. We'd shack up for a week or so. She'd skip class and we'd go out at night and drink cheap red wine and she'd teach me French and we'd stumble back to her place at four in the morning and sleep until two the next day. Then we'd go out and get coffee and be Bohemian together.

Now it's March and I'm a train ride away from all this and I'm nervous. My acne had gotten worse last winter and I began taking this medication, Accutane, which the dermatologist called a "reset button," and promised would grant me a smooth, blemish-free face after six months of two little orange pills a day. In the mean time, however, it has left my skin unbearably dry. My lips are cracked and peeling and glossy from too much lip balm. I look hideous.

I sleep for much of the train ride, battling jetlag. For the rest of the four hours, I look out the window, at French trees and French cows and French farms, spreading into the distance over rolling hills. And I read my book, The Savage Detectives, a sex-crazed 672-pager about two journeying poets. It makes me horny.

Then all of a sudden the ride is over and I'm there. I call her and she answers. She's on her way. I sit. I stand. I pace. My phone vibrates. I snatch it from my pocket and she tells me I'm waiting in the wrong part of the station. She's here. I climb up a red staircase to the overpass that crosses the tracks. As I walk to the other side I see her, standing on the platform below. Her hair is short, a miniature afro. She shaved it all off a few months before, tired of the constant straightening, how damaged it looked and felt. She wanted it natural. I don't like it, but it hardly matters. The rest of her is just as beautiful.

I drift down the second staircase to her. We hug. I should sweep her off her feet and kiss her. If only my lips weren't so chapped. She reeks, in the best way possible, the way she always has. It took me the longest time to pinpoint the smell, a common smell, cigarette smoke. Once I realized precisely what she smelled like it drifted into my nostrils everywhere I went, a constant reminder. She rubs my head. I got a haircut a few days before I left for France. "It's too short," she says. I don't comment on her new look.

After a bus ride and a walk we're at her apartment. There's no view. Her room is messy, covered with shirts and panties, empty wine bottles and crumpled paper. I drop my bag and collapse onto her unmade bed. I'm more exhausted than I thought. She sits on the edge and looks in my direction. I peer back, licking my lips. "What do you want to do?" she asks. "Have sex," I want to scream. "It doesn't matter," I say, so we go out for coffee. We bump into her friend, another girl at the school studying for the year. Her name is boring and American. She's on her lunch break. Ava hasn't been going to class for weeks, so her lunch breaks are perpetual. We speak in English. I try to appear relaxed and nonchalant, while simultaneously being cool and interesting. It's a challenge. Ava must have told this girl about me, and I really want to live up to whatever expectations exist.

I'm still trying later that night when we meet her important friends, the ones she plans to see. There is Pony, an American Apparel model I'm told. She looks it, plump and gorgeous, possibly Filipino, but it's unclear. She wears neon yellow tights and a striped button up shirt. She pulls the outfit off with ease. Her boyfriend is Igor, a gnarled looking Frenchman with an ugly face to match his ugly name. It's maddening how drastically mismatched they are. My favorite group member is the Parisian, Antoine. He's nineteen like I am, but looks younger. Relentlessly energetic, flirtatious and charming, he impresses me immediately.

It's a Wednesday, and we hit a crowded bar, for them a quiet night. We huddle around a table outside. The night is warm and everyone smokes. I'm offered, but refuse. I don't talk much, not that I'm trying to be cool anymore. I'm now just Ava's awkward high school friend, a burden because I can't understand a word of French. Her friends are politely curious, asking me about where I'm from, my family, but I bore them. I've been living at home for the past three months, taking two Harvard Extension school courses and doing little else. I walk my dog Gizmo in the mornings, then eat cereal and watch Sportscenter. They are young and bilingual, partying five nights a week in Southern France. What can I possibly tell them that will spark their interest?

I was stupid to come. Of course we've grown apart. It's been six months, six months of her having the time of her life and forgetting about me. But she asked me to come. She wanted me here. And it's only the first day. Things will be fine. I've got to stop being so impatient. We'll get back to her apartment tonight, to her one bed that's plenty big enough for the both of us and it will be glorious again.

I hope.

We leave the bar around midnight. The alcohol has made me sleepier, but that's it. I'm not brave. I'm not the man. Last summer wasn't like this, all those nights sneaking down to the guest room after my parents had gone to bed, because they wouldn't let Ava sleep in the same room as me. Of course we didn't let that stop us. From there we'd tiptoe out the backdoor and into the hot tub, whispering to each other and wearing nothing. I was so much cooler then, lips less chapped. How can two people, who spent days on end together, hours and hours never leaving each other's side, now be so distant? Time is sad. I have nothing to say to her as we walk to her apartment, through alleyways and along wide cobblestone streets. The city really is beautiful.

In her room we lie down on the bed, me on my back, her on her side, facing away from me. Should I touch her? Of course I should. I rotate towards her and wrap my arm around her. She's unimpressed. I kiss her on her left shoulder. It tastes the same, but still no reaction. Is she asleep already? Not a chance. But I'm so tired. All I want to do myself is sleep. But sex would be nice, not to mention a relief. We'd be picking up right where we left off. And it's been so long.

I wake the next morning, but I don't open my eyes. She's still next to me. I pretend to be asleep for a while. I lick my lips. They're not as bad in the mornings. Sleep heals them. Finally, after more pretending, we get up. Off to coffee, this time with the gang from the night before. Ava rolls cigarette after cigarette, sprinkling the tobacco, rotating the paper to pack it, licking the edge to make it stick. A French couple comes by with their young son. They know the group from around town. The girls, Pony and Ava, greet them and coax the son into their arms. He's shy at first, glancing back at his parents for reassurance. But once he reaches them he's a natural. Four little kisses, two for each girl, one for each cheek. I stare, wide-eyed.

The rest of the day is lazy. Ava and I wander into a bookstore, now with the boring, American girl from the day before. We're hunting for a birthday present for a friend of Ava's. We will be celebrating that night.

Robert Pattison's face covers the shelves. We're living in a post-Twilight world and he's in the process of becoming an international heartthrob. He apparently has Aix-en-Provence conquered. There are picture books, biographies, ones for little kids with stickers and games, all with his face. His lips are flawless. "I'd do him," the American says.

"Duh," Ava replies. I say nothing.

Later on we have burritos at a place too small for tables. So we stand as we wait for our orders. The guy preparing the food speaks English and roots for the Red Sox. I like him. He shrinks the world.

After eating we part ways with the American and head to a sex shop to meet Pony. She's getting the birthday girl a vibrator, which is sure to overshadow the Tin Tin book Ava settled on as a present. After a bit of perusing, Pony selects a smallish pink one with glitter on the inside. The shop owner smiles widely, revealing giant, crooked teeth. He tells us it's one of his favorites. He pulls out a replica from behind the counter and shows off its vibrating power. That's all Pony needs to see, and she makes the purchase.

We stop at a liquor store on the way to the birthday girl's apartment. "What do you want?" Ava asks me as we enter.

"Umm, what are you getting?"

"Just a bottle of wine I think."

"Ok, yeah. I'll have a bottle of whatever you get too."

I have developed no taste. Back home I drink to get drunk. I'm taken aback by all these options. Can I even drink a whole bottle of wine? It seems manageable.

At the apartment I get to it. The first glass is a struggle. I hate wine after all. I power through it and am on to the second, this time pouring a bit more into the plastic cup I'm drinking from. The birthday girl is admiring her vibrator and Pony shows me a youtube video of Stevie Wonder drumming. It's amazing. Ava sits elsewhere, chatting, drinking her own bottle.

Suddenly Antoine is in my face, more energetic than he was the night before. I'm happy. Antoine is fun. "Hey Mathis," he sings, and I love the way he pronounces my name, with that accent of his, emphasizing the 't' and almost swallowing the 'h,' "You want to smoke hash with me?" I glance over at Ava. She doesn't seem to care one way or the other. I tell Antoine yes and he's delighted.

My head is spinning, thoughts incoherent. I can still taste the smoke on my lips. I stand next to Antoine now, peering out the open window. The street below seems so far away. A little French couple walks arm and arm along the sidewalk. It's a fifth story apartment, which had meant nothing until I looked outside. "We're so high," I say, in awe. Antoine starts yelling at a girl who's staring at us from her room in the apartment across the street. I yell with him. We're untouchable. He puts an arm around me and kisses me on my cheek, French affection. We keep yelling until the laughter takes over. It's uncontrollable. There must be a dozen other people in the apartment, and we're annoying all of them. Ava glances at me, embarrassed. I try to settle down, but I can't. Antoine's energy is irresistible.

And it's so early, not even eleven yet. This apartment only begins the night. From there we head to a bar, Ava, Pony, Antoine, and I. There's more drinking all around, even though Ava and I polished off our bottles of wine before we left. Pony won't stop complaining about the state of her boyfriend Igor. He's laid up sick in his apartment and she misses him. Ava expresses how hot she thinks Igor is and they giggle. "Did you ask him yet?" she asks Pony.

"He said definitely," Pony responds.

They giggle some more and then start to whisper in French. There are people all around us. We're standing on the street outside the bar, but it's way more crowded than it was the night before. Antoine tries to talk to me, but I pay no attention. I'm locked onto Ava and Pony's conversation, which has shifted into English.

"You want to go over now?" Pony asks Ava.

"Isn't he sick?"

"He's not that sick. He said he really wants us both to come."

They're talking about a threesome. Ava is talking about a threesome. She's seriously considering it, in fact. She wouldn't even kiss me last night and now she may be on her way to Igor's apartment. "What do you want to do with him?" Pony asks, glancing over at me. Ava seems uncertain for a moment, and in that moment there is hope, desperate hope, that she'll look at me, stare into my eyes and see me, pull me close and let me smell her.

That night, if only she would remember that night, when we lay on the beach and made each other stay awake, waiting for the sunrise, her smoking and me talking endlessly. And when the sun finally did come up, the sky was so cloudy we couldn't actually see it, just the bright outline behind the grey. But still I felt we'd made it, that it counted.

She turns to me.

"Can you find your way back?" she asks and I crumble.

I'm furious, not at Pony or Igor, only Ava.

"No," I say, "Can you walk me back?"

I'm silent as we return to her apartment. She lets me in and leaves immediately. Mercifully, I'm alone. I sit on the bed in her disgusting, filthy room, sobering up and trying to make sense of it all. I was so sure she wanted me here, wanted me to come all this way to reignite whatever the past summer had given us. But I was wrong, painfully, embarrassingly wrong.

I wake the next morning and pack. Ava still hasn't returned. I gather everything I have. I'm careful, checking the room over and over again. I must not leave anything behind. At 1 P.M. she finally comes back. I don't know what she did last night. I don't ask and it doesn't matter. "Take me to the bus." It's the first thing I say to her. I'm terrified she'll protest, that she'll try and get me to stay, and then I'll have to confront her and tell her how horrible she's been. But she doesn't, just questioning me weakly, and only once.

"You sure?"

"Yes."

"Okay."

We walk together once more along the cobblestone streets. My head is down. I'm hoping, praying we don't run into one of her friends, especially not Antoine, the only one I'll miss.

At the bus stop we wait without words. I pull a tiny tube of lip balm from my pocket and squeeze some onto my index finger. I cover my lips with it, licking away the excess. It's tasteless. Then I rub them along each other, the upper lip and the bigger bottom one. They feel smooth now, almost perfect. The bus arrives. I barely look at her. She seems to think I'll hug her but I don't. Rigid, almost robotic, I step onto the bus and it's over, every experience we've shared mangled, demolished, clawed at and ripped apart, because this, before everything else, is the moment I'll always remember.