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It begins with a cacophony of horns, skidding and squealing tires, and one shrill scream, so, in that way, it begins the way it never has before. When she realizes that the taxi into which she hurled herself this morning, already running late, has just hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk, she wants to throw up. She does throw up, actually, and as she watches her vomit roll down the mustard-yellow paint of the cab, she ponders the fact that all she had in her stomach was cold coffee, and isn’t that an awful shade of muted mocha sliding over mustard? She really should eat better in the mornings, she tells herself. And then, cushioned cozily in her revulsion, her mind can genuinely process that fact that her taxi just hit a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Then, she is able to scramble out of the cab and, while fumbling with her phone, she takes note of the cross-streets. The ambulance she’s calling will want to know. She can’t look in front of the taxi yet. She won’t let herself look. 56th and 10th. 56th and 10th. 56th and 10th, on the Westport side. Secure in the absolute facts of 56th and 10th on the Westport side, Mt. Sinai two blocks away, and an ambulance dispatched, she allows herself to move to the front of the taxi. 

There’s a bruise blooming across his jawline, blood dripping steadily from his temple, and his split lip makes her wince. She’s not a medical professional, but she’s reasonably confident a wrist is not supposed to bend at that angle. Blood and asphalt mix on the knees of his faded jeans, and there’s a stain from black coffee spreading across his arm and chest. Tracing the stain back to its source, she spies a now-cracked travel mug covered in paint spatters. She takes a few halting steps towards the mug, noting as she goes that the crack goes through the insulating layer. That’s more than aesthetic; that’s beyond repair. She hopes the same isn’t true for his wrist because she’s pretty sure he’s an artist based on the expensive brushes and small tubes of paint that have spilled from his shoulder bag. There are the dried paint smears over the coffee mug, the labels on the tubes themselves are peeled back and picked at, and he either doesn’t have a wallet, or the wallet he has is terrible and doesn’t hold anything. There’s a pile of cards, fanned and scattered out from the mouth of the bag, and a faded plastic bag filled with quarters, torn on the pavement. She isn’t trying to blame the victim, but if he’s this chaotic with his belongings, what’s he like crossing the street? She busies herself with collecting his various belongings as the EMTs load him onto a stretcher. The taxi driver is arguing with the police officers who have arrived, and the EMTs are looking at her expectantly. They must not realize she was in the taxi that hit him, not with him. She’ll cancel the rest of her meetings for the day on the way to Mt. Sinai, she decides as she scrapes the cards together and shoves them into the bag. 

She likes that he invites her into his hospital room after his CAT scan comes back, and she can tell he likes that she replaced his coffee cup with an I Heart NYC one from the hospital gift shop. She knows by the way he leans toward her as they talk that he’s interested. Interested enough for a guy who was hit by her taxi and is currently on an IV drip of pain meds with a cast on his wrist, at least. She likes that he asks if she’s texting her boyfriend, and she likes that he smiles in sheepish relief when she tells him it’s only a client for her firm. He jokes that she can represent the taxi driver who hit him, and she likes that he can joke about being hit by a taxi as he sits here. She tells him she’s not that kind of lawyer, but she’d be willing to make an exception to see him again – even if it’s in a courtroom. He throws his head back and laughs. His laugh is the best part of him, she decides. She doesn’t need anything else. 

-||-

It goes the way it has never gone before. Both seem to silently agree that there is no sense in wasting time. As soon as he’s been discharged, he leads her down three blocks to a Starbucks. Once inside, he orders for them both, and if any other man tried that shit, she would’ve called him out and then walked out. But he does order for her, and he’s shorter than her, and it totally bothers her, but she’s trying to be accommodating and not apply any of her usual dealbreakers. So, the second time he looks up at her, she kicks off her heels and takes them in one hand. He smiles now that she’s shorter than him. She likes his smile. 

Now that she’s paying attention, she realizes he ordered her least favorite drink on the menu. She tries not to hate it. To be clear, she tries not to hate that he ordered for her. She does hate the drink and, as they walk down 10th, she pitches it in a trashcan covered in stickers, posters, flyers, and the most graphic Mickey Mouse graffiti she’s ever seen (someone has taken creative liberties with genitalia in a way that Walt would not appreciate). He sees her toss the drink, and he laughs. She likes his laugh. She hates his haircut and the fact that he orders for her, and she really hates that he’s shorter than her. But she likes his laugh, and she likes that something just feels right, and he feels it too. 

-||-

He likes that, even after three months, she lets him order everything except wine. He’s always been insecure about wine pairings, and even after the overly-priced cooking class (a gift from her) that swore it would make him an expert, she knows he still gets that lurch in his head and tightening in his stomach whenever anyone asks if he has a preference. So, she orders the wine, and she’s a wine snob. He loves it. He can’t tell the difference between her expensive brands and Barefoot, but she can, and so she finally settles on a Pinot Clos Du Val from 2003. She thinks he’s trying to memorize it since he’s chanting the French under his breath until it rolls off his tongue as easily as her name does. 

He likes that she makes fun of him when he proudly orders a bottle of Pinot Clos Du Val 2003 for them at their favorite seafood place – the one that is so far east on 74th that it’s got to be a special occasion. Three months is a milestone for him; he tells her that he’s never kept anyone around this long. They always seem to get tired of his bullshit, but she sticks around. He likes that she tells him that the wine is great with beef, but it’s absolute trash with the herb-crusted salmon he ordered for them. He will drink the wine and be just fine and not care, and he likes that she will continue to make fun of him for this for the next twelve days. He likes that her lawyer-brain has drawn up terms and conditions for the relationship, and there is a clause on exactly how many days faux pas, like the wine incident, are fodder for mockery. He loves that she honors the agreement down to the minute. 

-||-

She doesn’t like that he assumes that they’ll just keep his furniture when they move in together after six months. She’ll miss the overstuffed plaid couch she’s had since law school, but he’s a fresh, new start, and some other grad student will get to love the couch now. She does like that he sells it for her and handles the transaction and pick-up while she’s at work. She likes that she doesn’t have to watch her couch leave. She’s not sure she could bear to see it go. She doesn’t love his couch. It’s firm and unyielding, and worst of all, it’s trendy. All angles, no comfort. White suede – who the hell buys a white suede couch? – and he has absolutely forbidden eating on it. She loves – loved – curling up on her couch with takeout from the Chinese place around the corner. That is what the dining room table is for, as he always says with a gesture toward the glass table mere feet away. She doesn’t like his couch; she can’t fall asleep on it when they’re watching a movie at night. She can’t curl up on her side, put her head in his lap, and fall asleep to his hands stroking her hair. She’s tried, and he didn’t even touch her hair, and the couch hurt her shoulder and hip. She hates his couch, but she loves him. 

She loves that he leaves the bed unmade. She loves that he knows she gets deep satisfaction from creasing sheets and tucking them firmly under the mattress. She knows he does this for her, and she loves it. She doesn’t love that he follows behind her, untucking one corner (and it’s never the same corner, which makes her a little crazy), but she understands that he’s an artist, and he needs some chaos to thrive. If the living room and dining area are to be pristine, he needs the bedroom to be a little chaotic. So, she lets him untuck the random corner. Or knock a throw pillow off the bed. Or leave a dresser drawer slightly ajar. She lets him. But she hates it. 

She loves that her job of fixing and consulting allows her to be home early, and she loves that she can meet him at the door when he gets home from his studio with a warm, damp washcloth. She takes his hands in the material and cleans the dried paint from them gently, tenderly, reverently, even if she wonders to herself why he’d leave the studio without washing his hands. She anticipates his needs and knows his schedule; she loves that sweet, lopsided smile he gives her when she slips from their bed to go brew his coffee. She wishes he’d put the I Heart NYC travel mug in the sink when he gets home or even wash it himself, but she likes that he likes using it so much. She wishes he’d offer her a back massage when she complains about the pain, but he just makes an excuse that his hands hurt from holding brushes all day. She hates that he tells her that her back hurts from her heels, and if she’d just stop trying to be taller than him, she wouldn’t hurt. She hates that he doesn’t see that the pain comes from adjusting her posture to avoid being taller than him. She hates that even after she’s massaged his hands, he falls asleep without thanking her. 

-||-

They love going to museums and making up names for the pieces they don’t recognize. She loves the sly smirk that creeps across his face when he comes up with one that he thinks is incredibly clever, even if Suicidal Shovel isn’t particularly inventive for a shovel hanging from the ceiling. Modern art is so weird. She loves the way he clutches her hand as he laughs at her suggestions, even though he clearly thinks they’re never as funny as his. She loves that when the game grows weary, he eagerly leads her through his favorite galleries, even if abstract expressionism exhausts her and suprematism is mind-numbing (which are things she’ll never tell him). Sometimes he’ll talk, chatter, practically rant as he takes her from display to display, gesticulating intensely and flooding her with all of the context and meaning and purpose and feelings he has inside him. She likes seeing him like that, likes hearing about the works that inspire him and drive him and push him to further develop his own style, but she loves when he goes silent and solemn. She loves how he looks around furtively, checking for security before bringing her right up to the work, so close that she can see the marks of the brush in paint, and then steps back as if to give her a moment alone with the work. That’s when she falls more in love with him. When she turns to him with understanding in her eyes and openness on her face, the look of pride in his eyes makes her fall more in love with him. 

They hate taking taxis together, even though they agree that taxis brought them together. They prefer to walk everywhere, even if it’s an irrational number of blocks. He knows that she doesn’t mind walking and whenever her feet start to hurt, she’ll take her shoes off, and he’ll take them from her. She loves that he carries her shoes, and he says he loves that she’s crazy enough to not care about walking barefoot in Manhattan. She just shrugs and says he’ll warn her if she’s about to step on anything sharp. When he asks how she’s so sure, she smiles at him and tugs him in for a long kiss. “Because,” she whispers against his mouth, “your artist’s eye will notice the little things.” He loves her. He tells her he doesn’t love that her mouth still tastes like the stale pretzel he bought her twenty blocks back (no mustard, extra salt), but he does love her. 

-||-

They fight over stupid things, like whether or not watching ahead on Netflix without the other counts as cheating. She says no, don’t be ridiculous, and he says (yells, really, as he pins her to the couch playfully) that it is possibly the biggest breach of trust he could ever fathom in a relationship. So she pushes him, just to see. She chooses a day when all of her clients seem to have their shit together and, when he leaves for his studio, she watches an entire season of Ozark. She loves that when he gets home, hands covered in dried paint, he sees it, but she isn’t thrilled that he throws the travel mug at the wall. She tries to rationalize it, arguing to herself that he must really value their Ozark time together. Plus, she’ll get to take a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to the dove-gray wall later, and she gets great satisfaction from fixing things, even if it’s just a coffee stain on interior paint. She ignores the radiating pain from her spine to her neck that’s triggered from stooping to reach the lowest splatters. 

They fight over important things too, but she tells herself that it just means they are invested. If they didn’t love each other, they wouldn’t fight; they’d just give up and walk away. So, she loves that they fight over whether she can have a Christmas tree in the apartment. She loves that he thinks it infringes on his firm stance as anti-religious, but she thinks it’s dumb that he doesn’t call himself an atheist. She hates that he says she doesn’t deserve a tree because she hasn’t been to Mass in forever. She brings home a tree while he’s upstate for one of his “concentration expeditions” when he goes and sits in the woods like a creep, not eating or sleeping or doing anything except “immersing himself in nature.” It’s a real tree, and she loves it. She rented a car, drove to a farm upstate and everything, then walked through the rows, trailing her fingers along crisp pine needles, searching for The One. She walked for a while, so long that she closed all the fitness rings on her Apple Watch. That’s not what she’s proudest of, though. Sure, she’s proud of the fact that she got the tree back to the city, and she’s prouder that she got it up seven flights of stairs and set it up all by herself. No, she’s proudest of the fact that she put the antique angel (handed down from her grandmother’s grandmother) on top without a step-stool.

She’s a little nervous when he gets back and sees the tree. Maybe this was a mistake. He didn’t react well to Ozark, and that was much smaller than a tree. What will he throw at the wall this time? The nerves fade as he flips the lighter in between his fingers. She doesn’t think he’ll actually do it; she thinks he’s posturing for effect. He sees her smiling, and he laughs. She hates his laugh right now. He doesn’t burn the tree; she knew he wouldn’t. Instead, he grabs the tree and is hauling it, tinsel and ornaments and lights and all, towards the window. She doesn’t let him see the panic on her face. She tells him he wouldn’t dare. She’s admittedly afraid he will do it, but she’s pretty sure he won’t. She doesn’t try to stop him. Honestly, who would throw a Christmas tree off a fire escape? Inwardly though, she’s scrambling for the thing to say to make it better. Just in case he’s really doing this, if he’s going to throw it, and it sure looks like he intends to – the angel. She has to get the angel. She’s never been the sentimental type, and yeah, she hasn’t been to a service in six years, and no, she doesn’t plan to have a daughter to pass it down to, but that angel still means something. 

She picks her way through the fragments of porcelain ornaments that have shattered on the hardwood floor, and she’s reminded of all the times she’s practically danced barefoot through the crosswalks of Midtown. She tells him he won’t do it, and she hates that he pauses on their fire escape, considers her for a long moment, and then, as carelessly as he drops his bag by the door every evening, releases her angel and the tree with it. She doesn’t bother putting on shoes to rush down the seven flights of stairs. She crouches over the warped figurine, now with a new halo of tangled tinsel, broken lights, and the little twisted gold ornament topper things that go on the boughs, and she hears him call down from overhead that he meant it when he said no trees. The dirt smeared on the chiffon dress bleeds as her tears fall.  

She hates that, after twelve months, he tells her he desperately wants children, but she loves that he argues so fiercely when she tells him she doesn’t. She loves that he cares so much and sees a family with her, but she hates that he won’t respect her stance. She points out that he has his stance on Christmas trees, and she has hers on children. She doesn’t love his face when he points out she brought home a tree anyway, and she doesn’t love that afterward, she has to start hiding her birth control. She hates that she ends up going to get an IUD, but at least he can’t tamper with that. Still, she reluctantly, begrudgingly respects his determination and dedication to getting what he wants. That’s what she tells herself is happening, at least. But even telling herself all of that doesn’t stop her from wanting the security. She hates that he puts a hole in the wall when she tells him about the device, triumph in her eyes, and tears in his. 

It began like never before, and it’s going like never before. He doesn’t leave when she pushes him too far, and she doesn’t leave when he’s a self-professed asshole. He asks her why she stays, and she tells him that she stays because she loves him. He wonders aloud if that’s enough, and she insists it is. When she asks why he stays, he doesn’t meet her eyes. She repeats the question, and she can hear how her voice trembles. How her voice cracks. She knows he’s never heard her voice like that. She’s always so confident and self-assured. She assumes he doesn’t have a reason to stay, but then he trips over his words when he tells her that he does have a reason, and the reason is he loves her. He laughs when she asks if that’s enough. He tells her it’ll have to be. God, she loves his laugh, but she hates his answer. 

-||-

Her friends are worried, and her friends don’t like him – and they don’t even know about the birth control or the Christmas tree. Her friends give him cold stares over tapas and text about him under the table, but she says that it could be worse when he goes to the bathroom for the eighth time just to avoid talking to them. When they ask her how, she says that he could’ve skipped the get-together altogether. She’s stunned when her best friend dumps a green apple martini over her head, and she blinks back tears when said friend says she just wanted to wake her up from whatever bullshit fugue state she’s in currently. She tells herself it’s because the green apple flavoring burns, but she thinks that might be a lie. He comes back to the table, passes her a napkin, and flags down their server for the check. Then, he lets out a litany of abuse that makes one of her friends cry. Another stalks off angrily, and her best friend tells him to go play Frogger in 56th again. She blinks down on her index fingers, trying to keep her mascara from smearing. 

They leave the bar together, and she loves that he kisses the green apple martini off her skin in the back of a taxi like she did it on purpose for him, like it’s some sort of new, weird foreplay. The trick of blinking down hard on her index fingers to avoid smearing didn’t work; she thinks she looks like an absolute mess, and she thinks it just might be his fault, even if he wasn’t the one to throw the drink. She doesn’t love that he takes a photo and sets it as his phone background, but she loves that he still wants her and wants her as his wallpaper. They laugh more, and they kiss more, and she doesn’t remember how they get upstairs when the taxi deposits them at their apartment. They fall asleep on his awful couch, Ozark still playing in the background. He still doesn’t run his fingers through her hair.

He loves that even on the weekends when she could sleep in, she goes into his – no, their – kitchen and makes him an omelet. He loves that she cleans up as she goes, so when he gets out of the shower, his – no, their – kitchen is sparkling, and there’s food waiting for him. She loves that he loves the omelets she makes. She hates that his only reason to stay is that he loves her, and she’s starting to think she doesn’t love his kind of love. She hates that her baptism-by-vodka is what it took for her to realize that a laugh and an appreciation for a stellar omelet isn’t enough.

She’s a fixer by nature, and her relationships usually end the same way her clients leave: when both parties agree the goals have been met or one party feels the other is not honoring the contract established. Her role in the breakup has always been to gently point out the issues, present an assessment that the problems are obstacles that cannot be surmounted, and offer a timeline for the separation process. Before, she’s given them four weeks to look for a new place to live. She’s never moved in with any of them before; they’ve always moved in with her. She wonders if she can get her old place back. Wonders if the scuff marks from her couch are still on the floor or if her inflated security deposit eradicated them. Before, she reminded them after two weeks that they should start packing. Now, she tries to be subtle about it. She tells him she’s just downsizing, and those boxes are full of things to donate. She promises she’ll take them to Goodwill. Really, they’ll end up in the guest bedroom of her best friend’s brownstone. Before, on the morning of the split, her job is to go for brunch so the guy can vacate the premises in peace or, in one worst-case scenario, she supervised him as he quietly packed the last of his things and texted his friends to come help. 

It began the way it never had before, and it went the way it never had before, so it ends like it never ended before. The first casualty is the couch. God, she hates that fucking couch. She misses her couch so much it makes her cry, and then laugh at herself for crying over a couch, and then cry harder. The plaid was awful, but she could’ve gotten a slipcover. She realizes how much she hates that she didn’t meet the grad student who picked it up, hates that she didn’t watch her couch start its new life. It’s been four weeks and two days since the Green Martini Debacle and she’s on the floor, crying over a couch, and he’s standing over her and telling her it’s stupid. She hates that he thinks she’s stupid, and when she mumbles this, he rolls his eyes and tells her that’s not what he said. He leaves for work; she takes another sick day. She wonders if she’d be able to get the couch off the fire escape. Instead, she empties a bottle of Pinot Clos Du Val 2003 all over their – no, his – white suede couch with a bowl of popcorn in her lap. She does it slowly and reverently, a glass at a time. She hasn’t been to church in six and a half years, but this is a damn good Communion.

He doesn’t say anything when he sees the couch. He just walks past her and, grabbing a tube and a brush, paints “fuck you” on the wall in swirling and shining wet letters. Then, he goes into the kitchen and finds the eggs. With a frighteningly serene expression, he hurls them at the wall one by one. He tells her all the things he hates, and it occurs to her that the list has many similarities to the things he once loved about her. One thing he hates for each egg. The yolk drags clumps of paint down in runny streaks. The way the yolk glistens in the hazy afternoon light reveals the uneven paint over the wall repairs from the IUD Incident, and she loves that she won’t be the one to clean it. She walks to their bedroom with scissors in one hand. “You know,” she says, turning on her heel in the doorway, swinging the scissors on her fingers the way she swung her heels that first day, “I think your issues with Neo-impressionism say more about your own insecurities than it does the inherent flaws of the style.” He’s still sputtering with indignation when she turns with the scissors and goes into their – no, his – bedroom. 

She kneels beside the bed and cuts all the excess fabric off the flat sheet until it is perfectly sized to the mattress. She deposits the fabric scraps on his pillow. “Try to untuck it now,” is all she says; he laughs, calls her a crazy bitch. He tells her she’s only sabotaging herself, tells her it’s going to be such a pain in the ass to make the bed now. She loves that he stops laughing when she tells him the only thing funny is the thought of ever sleeping in the same bed as him again. 

She rises up on her toes, feeling the stretch in her calves, and it’s so satisfying, that burn of muscle that she hasn’t felt since she got the angel onto the tree. She straightens, and her spine realigns, and she makes a note on her phone to schedule a massage. The echoing of her footsteps down the hall is satisfying, and she doesn’t even mind how heavy her single suitcase is in her right hand or how overstuffed her work bag is with her laptop and all of her chargers and cables. She’s alone in the stairwell, and she’s alone on the curb when she emerges from the building. The sun is setting; the streetlights are flickering to life. She sets down her suitcase and scans the street before stretching out her left hand to hail an oncoming taxi. She leans into the old, familiar gesture: the shifting of weight into the front leg, her body angled and hip cocked out, her arm fully extended and fingers outstretched.

 


Nora E. Webb is a high school English teacher from South Carolina working on her Master’s in English Literature. Her favorite things to read are anything pro-feminist, heavy on mythology, or a haunting dystopian (bonus points awarded for combinations of the above). In her free time, she enjoys writing, binge-watching The Good Place on repeatlistening to Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, and playing with her cat, Maybelle. 

© 2021, Nora E. Webb

One comment on “Vodka Baptism, by Nora E. Webb

  1. Barry says:

    Wow! Truly impeccable storytelling, at its finest!

    Like

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