Mara Grayson

“What do you think of the ocean today?” Max asks his companion. Her hair is reddish from the sun.

“I’m not thinking about the ocean,” she says. He must know what she is thinking about.

“Try looking at the ocean,” he prods. The water has been churned by the breeze, its depth almost black, its crests foamy white.

“The ocean looks angry today,” she says, humoring him. She wants him not to speak. Max has something about the ocean, something he says he feels but can’t explain. He wants her to find peace here but she sees only water, the ledge of rock beneath her feet, New Jersey across the way. There is no more magic.

I can’t believe I’m standing here, thinks Vera. Her eyes want to close; she wants to fall backward. She kicks a loose pebble with the front of her shoe and watches it tumble down the steep rock. A car passes by on the Henry Hudson Parkway too fast for her to see its model or make out its details. Just a blur of color, a hazy flash of gray or gold shot through the black tar highway. A stronger woman would have left by now, or she might not have cared at all. She might have forgotten the whole thing, brushed it away like a crumb from the tabletop.

Max stares out at the horizon. Vera wonders what he is thinking. Her own feelings are always on her sleeve, her thoughts on her forehead. Max is like a narrow book with Cyrillic lettering, as cryptic and foreign to her as his native tongue. His thoughts, when shared, are overviews, neither dissected nor analyzed. If he does think through his feelings further, it is not out loud and it is to not to Vera.

Vera squats down and braces one palm on the flat of the boulder. Without Max noticing, she slides down the side of the rock and starts on the trail back home. She doesn’t look back until she reaches Fort Tryon’s entranceway; Max stands still with his eyes forward, just a few feet behind.

Their studio is on the sixth floor of a seven-story apartment building on a small side street one block past Broadway. They have only half a kitchen but their bed is set behind a wall, dividing the apartment into what feels like a one-bedroom. There are no doors, however, and now Vera feels like there is nowhere for her to hide. She’s taken to the bathroom lately; she locks the door and sinks to the tiles, knees tucked to her chest, head tucked in, her whole body curled like a child’s.

Max removes his shoes at the door, then changes out of his jeans and t-shirt. He throws them onto the green wooden chair that Vera’s grandfather made fifty years ago, which now serves as her lover’s wardrobe. His presence is like this: messy and comfortable, on display everywhere. Vera always folds her shirts, hangs her pants and blouses, and leaves surfaces clean.

“I’m going to take a nap,” she announces, softly and almost to herself. Max nods his head as he pulls on a pair of gym shorts and sits on the bed with his shirt off. The hair on his chest is matted, moist from sweat. He lies back with his arm under his head—even when they made love on the warmest days of summer, he never wanted to sweat on the pillowcase.

Vera pulls a tank top and a pair of flannel pants from the bottom drawer of her dresser. She hasn’t worn these since last winter. She slips her feet into house shoes and pads across the bedroom.

“Where are you going?” Max asks.

“Pajamas,” she says, gently closing the bathroom door. Vera has not let Max see her body uncovered in more than a week. They have never been so long without sex. Once very comfortable with skin, she has become possessive about her body. She was sensual, her lovers always said. Max first called her a free spirit. She used to wander naked around the house, curtains drawn, unnoticing the shadows her legs cast upon the bare wood floor, and she laughed when Max scrambled around to draw the shades across the windows.

She can’t bear to even undress before Max anymore. Discreetly after work she removes her bra, pulling it through one sleeve of her camisole. She doesn’t change into her bed clothes until long after dinner now. There is no more lounging freely, naked and content, her back stretched upon the bed, catching Max’s eyes on her bare breasts.

She hates the restrictiveness of clothing and their narrowing of personal space. Her clothes feel like a straitjacket; her apartment is a cell.

Before the bathroom mirror her blouse is unbuttoned and shrugged off, her jeans unzipped and folded on the back of the toilet. Vera watches her reflection as though another person were undressing before her, strange and without intimacy. Her breasts are full, nipples soft, her veins visible like inky blue sketches of tree roots beneath the bright lights of the vanity. If she were to walk naked now before her lover, he would see straight through to the insides of her: her pumping blood, her shrinking heart.

She has been too open; she has for too long shared too much. Her skin is paler now that she keeps no secrets. She is stark, translucent.

Is this what he likes, the voyeurism? The starkness of the women before him, their vulnerability, his control behind the scenes—that he can watch them without being seen?

“It made me feel good,” he told her the first night she found the videos on the computer, leftovers of the many he watched each night after she fell asleep. He lied then, telling her he’d only looked at them once or twice, and the first time only because she was out for the night and he was alone. He only told her more a month later, when she found scores more videos, broken links he’d tried to hide… but he had left traces.

“You lied to me,” Vera said. She was incredulous. “How could you lie to me about this?” She thought it was the lie—the untold truth—that hurt her most, even more than the idea of Max sitting awake until four a.m. before the computer, eyes glazed over, close-ups of raw, naked women, legs spread, penetrated by faceless, bodiless penises, pulsating across the monitor.

“It needed to be a secret,” he said. “It was something I did alone; it only belonged to me.”

“It’s never just you,” Vera said. “Those bodies belong to other people.” She felt like a hypocrite when the words left her mouth. After all, was it really the videos that bothered her? She’s thought of nothing else for seven days and still she can’t understand his actions, or her own indignation. Pornography—it’s fake. Even its carnality is fake, all camera angles, silicone and Viagra. Vera knows a body is a just a body, but those bodies, their bluntness and plasticity, they make her stomach turn.

In college Vera worked as a radio disc jockey and as a nude model for the Fine Art and Photography department. Her figure graced the cover of her best friend’s photography thesis: In black and white she lay on her back on her dormitory bed, which Elena had dressed up to resemble a studio. Her legs were lifted straight against the wall behind the bed, where a tan canvas drapery covered up her Pearl Jam poster, and her feet were crossed at the ankles. Hair tossed toward the camera, she looked backward at Elena with wide eyes and her mouth slightly parted. One of her nipples was visible in shadow.

Elena’s goal had been to turn typical sexy woman poses that dominated the media—Playboy centerfolds, newsstand magazine covers, beer advertisements—into elegant artwork. The project was exhibited in the main lobby of the art building for almost a month at the end of the semester. Vera’s college boyfriend was displeased:

“Everything on display? For everyone to see?” Jamie shook his head like a disappointed parent. It took all Vera had not to roll her eyes.

Jamie was a wrestler. He was not from New York and he was far too conservative for Vera. They met her sophomore year and spent almost two years clashing over topics ranging from politics (her mother was a Communist) to holidays (his parents insisted they come to church on Christmas Eve in his small town in Pennsylvania) to lunch plans (she was vegetarian; he had learned to hunt as a child). Art was another topic they rarely agreed on, mostly, Jamie admitted, because he didn’t understand. Nudity was yet another, because, Vera surmised during the semester she took Psychology 201: Human Sexuality, he was devastatingly repressed.

“There are 20,000 people in this school,” he told Vera. They were in her dorm room—the drapery was gone and music posters decorated the wall. A small lava lamp she never turned off burned on the night table. He was doing pushups on the small area rug beside the bed. He’d been a state champion wrestler in high school, so good that national scouts came to his matches, but he broke his leg at the beginning of his senior year. He recovered well enough that he got free tuition, but the big recruiters all disappeared before the cast came off.

Vera liked that Jamie was damaged, a once-perfect male specimen made imperfect. His injury made him interesting. She wouldn’t have dated him back when he was a star.

“There are 20,000 people in this school,” Jamie said, looking over his shoulder at Vera from a one-armed push-up. She loved the muscle at the back of his arm and that he didn’t tremble in this uncomfortable position.

“You said that already,” Vera said. She swung her legs over the side of her bed.

“It’s a lot of people.” Jamie pushed himself back onto his feet.

“And I don’t know 90 percent of them,” Vera said. She pulled at the waistband of his sweatpants. “Come here.”

“It makes me uncomfortable,” he said.

“It shouldn’t.”

“But it does.”

“Let’s not talk about this right now,” Vera said. Talking, she knew, was not where they excelled. She wrapped her hands around his neck and tugged gently to pull him toward the bed. Their sex wasn’t gentle—it never was—but it felt genuine to Vera, which also made it melancholy. Jamie was just so earnest.

“I don’t want to share you,” he said afterward, tracing circles around her belly with his index finger.

“They’re just photographs,” she said. “I don’t expect you to share me with anyone.”

By the end of the semester, he had shared her—first with one of the deejays at the school radio station where she worked, while Jamie was away for a tournament, and later, with a freshman who lived downstairs from her, because they were drunk and they liked the same music, one weekend when Jamie was training for a match. She only told him a month later, when they were breaking up, and only because she couldn’t stand Jamie thinking he had done something wrong.

“I neglected you while I was training,” he said. He thought that was why she was leaving.

“It’s not because of that,” she said, but in a way it was. He had wrestling and she had the radio station and her writing. He didn’t like Van Morrison and had never taken a course on jazz; and no matter what interest she feigned in his matches, she couldn’t be a part of them.

“I’m a moron, I know,” Jamie said. She thought he might cry and that made her stomach queasy. She told him about the one-night-stands, knowing it would end things and he wouldn’t blame himself.

“Get out,” he said. That was it—no fight, no questions. Vera didn’t see much of Jamie the rest of their senior year. She heard he won a district title and she sent him a note of congratulations, which he never answered.

Why does she remember this? Vera shakes her head at herself. She is sitting on the tiled bathroom floor, staring at the pedestal sink. She likes the bathroom: the tiles are new, black and white off-centered checkers lain down just before she co-signed the lease, and they are cool on the pads of her feet. She likes to straighten her back against the clean white wall and wait for stillness.

“Are you alright in there?” Max’s voice: a painful gentleness.

Vera shakes her head to herself as she stands and straightens out her pajamas. It’s no use getting into another fight. No matter how many times they discuss it, she will never understand.

“Are you going to answer me?” Max asks. His hand is hovering at the door knob when Vera snaps the door open.

“Are you just going to hide in the bathroom and ignore me all night?”

“I suppose not,” Vera says, crossing the room and tucking her street clothes into her dresser drawers. “I can ignore you just as well out here.”

“This is how we’re going to fix our relationship?” Max is solution-oriented; Vera wants understanding.

“Our relationship is not a broken computer or something,” she says. She sits tentatively on the edge of the bed. Max stands. Max stands when he talks and lies down when he reads or watches television. When he’s on the phone he paces their apartment from the window to the door and back, stopping every few feet to gesture with his hands or to roll his eyes. He stands in the lit space between the refrigerator and its door when he drinks soda straight from the bottle.

“A computer?” Max used to fix computers, mostly for his friends but sometimes for a little money. He held every odd job imaginable – valet parking attendant, security camera installer, wedding photographer – before Vera met him.

“Or something. That you can wipe clean and rebuild with a new hard drive.” Vera hates computers. She hates them more now that they have become the conduit for Max’s fantasy life to enter her private space.

“Why are you speaking in metaphors?”

Vera lets out a sound—a hybrid of shriek and grunt—and slams her body back onto the bed. Her head bounces against the pillow and her hair flies into her face. She has always preferred to fight while lying down, usually facing away from Max, so that she can speak honestly without seeing his reaction. Now she doesn’t want to speak. She has been too honest and Max has hidden too much.

“I don’t know what to say,” she says.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He has apologized four hundred times but it is not apologies Vera wants. She wants explanations. She wants to know Max—his desires, his fantasies, what he is thinking, what he thinks of her.

Who is Max? Maybe she hasn’t known him at all. He is practical, unemotional. He is kind but dutiful about it: He washes the dishes every night, but he claims he must do it because it is right, because she cooked dinner and the cook should never clean. He is contradictory: He has this thing about the ocean, private and indescribable. I like the water from a distance, he told Vera the first time they walked through the park, stopped on the topmost path just past the Cloisters, and leaned upon the rock ledge for nearly an eternity so that Max could look out at the stillness of the Hudson. He never explained the feeling; I just like it, he said whenever she asked.

That can’t be all. No one, Vera thinks, who sees so much beauty in the ocean can be so simple. Whenever she is frustrated with Max’s pragmatism, his unemotional aloofness, she remembers his fondness for the ocean and tells herself that there is depth there. Vera wants to understand everything—she wants to crawl into the cavity of his chest and scrape out the details, emotions stuck to his heart’s chamber walls.

Max is silent while Vera breathes raggedly and stares at a repainted crack in the ceiling. She sits up slowly and curls her legs to her chest on the bed.

“You’ve turned me into an idiot,” she says to her knees.

“You’re not an idiot,” Max says. “Can you look at me when we’re talking, please? I don’t like talking to the top of your head.”

“You don’t like talking to me much at all, it seems.”

“I hid one thing from you. One. I was embarrassed. It was a private thing. I am sorry. I am. Why isn’t that enough for you?” Max’s voice isn’t angry. “What can I do to make this better?”

“Goddamn it,” Vera whispers to her knees. She looks up slowly to meet Max’s eyes: they are narrow, tilted down in the corners—Russian eyes, she used to joke, just like my mother’s—and too genuinely sympathetic. “Why do you have to be so earnest?”

At the beginning she loved how genuine Max seemed, how unlike the last man she’d been with—a self-involved, passionless tax attorney who’d wooed her with expensive dinners and overblown stories about his career, his money, his first-class flights to Europe. Vera had thought he was nervous and covering up with braggadocio, and she hoped she could draw him from his shell. He was handsome, despite a few strands of prematurely gray hair he covered up with a box of Just for Men she found hidden beneath the bathroom sink, behind the rolls of extra-soft toilet paper. It took almost four months for her to accept that however nervous he may have been, those stories were the only ones he had. He had flown first-class to Rome, sure, but he wasn’t awed by the spacious Coliseum and he didn’t bother to wait in line to see the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

Just a few weeks later, despite her vows to remain single for a while this time, she met Max at her younger cousin’s engagement party. Max was a longtime friend of another cousin’s; she had heard his name many times but they had never met. He was quiet at the dinner table, though they’d been seated across from one another.

We’ve been paired, thought Vera. They were the only two single people there. She immediately thought he was handsome—no, she remembers now, she thought he was pretty. He had clear blue eyes and full lips, high cheekbones and very pale skin.

He is manlier now. He has put on weight in the past year and a half: his muscular arms are fuller, more protective; his torso is softer, his chest a perfect resting place for her head when she is tired. He’s the first man Vera was not only wildly attracted to when they first met but also still attracted to, even more so, the longer they were together. She hasn’t thought of other men—she remembers other bodies, all of them, but the chemical reactions these memories used to ignite for her have stagnated. She hasn’t been turned on by another man in almost two years. But Max is turned on by other bodies: bodies that never even materialize, bodies that are confined to a two-dimensional space in a virtual fantasy world that has made its way into their one-room apartment.

Jealousy is new to Vera. She catches herself watching Max’s face as he watches television: Is he attracted to that detective on the cop show, the one with the long hair who always stands with her hip jutted out to one side, her thin hand hovering over the handle of her gun? There must be something powerfully sexy about a woman who so comfortably handles a gun. Did he look too long at the perky young waitress at Mel’s when she took their drink order Friday night? She tries not to let him notice as she observes his eyes and the way he parts his lips when he may be telling her lies. She checks the browser history on their computer every morning before he wakes up; she checked his email twice last night when he was in the bathroom. She is a spy now, a suspicious shrew poring over and analyzing every word, every glance, and every touch.

Max sits beside her on the bed. He lifts one hand to her face and she clenches her teeth but she doesn’t pull away. He kisses Vera, more slowly than she has ever been kissed before. Their first kiss was rough and desperate, him leaning against her, her back pressed into the window outside the bar where they drank together before they started dating, when they were still just friendly, where they would talk for hours and inch close on a wood bench without touching. She kissed him first that time, after crushing the cigarette they’d shared beneath a stiletto boot heel. Their teeth knocked together, her hands inched up the hem of his t-shirt. He was respectful – he didn’t touch any part of her body but her hands.

He kisses her neck, leaning over her as she leans back onto his left arm on the bed. His right hand hovers at the strap of her camisole. Vera’s hand flies up to clutch her shirt, to protect her bare breast beneath.

“Why are you doing this?” she whispers.

“I’ve missed touching you,” Max says. “I just wanted…” He pauses. “I don’t have to.”

Max is the only man from whom Vera has never kept a secret. They spend every day together, in the smallest of spaces fit to occupy two people. When her father died, he held her hand in the hospital waiting room. He stood beside the podium at the funeral, while she stood with folded notebook paper in shaking hand and delivered a eulogy. She told him every dream sequence she remembered, every nightmare from which she woke before morning soaked with sweat and shivering, twisted in their blanket. He has met her friends, he reads her writing, now that she is writing again—there is no part of Vera that Max has not known.

She slips the strap of her undershirt slowly off her shoulder, raises her chin to find his lips with hers. She keeps her eyes open as they kiss, as he pulls her camisole down, as her bare skin bristles with the cold, as his weight on hers begins to warm her. Now she is always naked before him. Without a secret, she feels empty, as though he had poured the entire weight of her body like a cold glass of beer on a hot day, and swallowed.

She tucks her face into his chest while they make love. This is something she has never done before, an intimate gesture that had never even occurred to her. She could cry but she won’t. If she might, she will stop herself.

As his breath increases her mind begins to wander. When he comes she is staring at the door—she remembers the men she was with before, the men she left, men she lied to with a little guilt but no regret. Max’s head falls into the space between her neck and shoulder, rests there. Who does he picture when his eyes are closed? Does he remember other women from his past, the real ones? Or is it those women on the computer screen, their perfect plastic parts, wet and soulless, always open, whenever they are wanted?

Her focus blurs on the deadbolt lock, the metal bar that protects this space they share, the space that builds one wall of her life. They both have keys, their own sets of key chains, the ability to come and go as they wish. The lock so easily turns. Is it only this that turns Max on, she wonders, her eyes drifting listlessly shut? Is his favorite part that he can close his eyes, or turn off the screen, and leave anytime he wants?

Mara Grayson is a writer and teacher from Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Mr. Beller’s NeighborhoodConstruction and Jewish Voice, among other publications. A former staff writer for Show Business Weekly, Grayson holds an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches English at the City University of New York. She has recently published a cookbook, The Vegetarian Home Gourmet, and is currently working on a collection of short stories.