Emerson Henry

[Non-Fiction]  If/When

After dinner, we go to another bar and she buys me another drink.  The bar has two courtyards and inside there are pinball machines casting a beckoning glow over the room.  It is cold but we go outside anyway, needing something to keep us huddled.  We sit leg to leg and do not hold hands.  Her beer is hoppy and my cider tart; neither of us is happy with what we have but it is close enough.

Beside us, a table of men and women chattering loudly and chain-smoking.  If I sit turned to her I can’t see them.  She has the habit of taking her glasses off when we are close, swears she can see me but can’t see them.  It’s dark anyway.  All I need is the darting brightness of her eyes, laughing and contemplative at the same time, turned down at the corners as though always on the verge of–something.  I know there is sorrow she hasn’t told me about.

We take turns drinking and talking.  Tell me another story, she says.  A moment of unexpected revelation.  A time you thought your heart might break.  I try my best, but all that leaps to mind are strange, sad anecdotes.  Too much, too soon.

“Let me buy you a cigarette,” I say.  I have been quit for a few months, she for many years.  We lapse occasionally.  But so far, never together.

“I could take it or leave it,” she says.  She turns her beer counterclockwise three times, then drinks.  Behind me, the sound of another match striking.  I’m getting that itch under my skin that comes with the second drink, the ache in my lungs, coals ready for the flame.

But I sit back and let her tell me about the communist school she attended on the outskirts of Bogotá, how she always played soccer with the boys, how she’d never even kissed a real one, how she and her brother and mother lived in a one-bedroom together for a year while her father was preparing life for them in the US.

What kinds of stories could I give her that could possibly make her feel like I was opening up equally?  The paradox here is that she would not, probably, know that I was not actually opening up; she may find out later, but for now, I am able to put on a show, at least through the second drink.

At some point, I interrupt her to kiss her and as I do the boisterous table behind us falls utterly silent.  I remember then why I don’t go out and almost always regret doing so.  And it was supposed to be a tolerant neighborhood.  But tolerance is often truly fear somewhat alleviated by fetishization.  When I pull back, I see in her eyes that she noticed too and that she is also not pleased but not surprised either.  We don’t have to say anything to know we have (already) implicitly agreed to not kiss again in this place.

We talk until I drain my glass and say again, “Let me buy you a cigarette.”  She looks at me and takes two swigs of her drink and pushes the rest toward me.  I drink that too and we go.  After equivocating on our choices, we buy a soft pack of somethings, anything to get that soft floating feeling that comes from smoking after a drink or two. The man at the corner store doesn’t card me, just asks how old I am as if he is a human lie detector. When I tell him, he looks like he doesn’t believe me but hands the pack over anyway. I ask for matches and we light four or five before we finally get a smoke going.

We walk along Eighth Avenue because it is the quietest, kissing and giggling all the way from Union Street to Ninth. On our way, we pass strangers who glance at us and then look away, maybe smiling, maybe glowering. Around Third Street, an older white man who has been walking behind us calls out saying, “Is there a First Street? I didn’t see a First Street.” We stop and stare at him. This is not uncommon, people interrupting just to make us stop being ourselves in public and to make things uncomfortable but more comfortable for them. Of course, there is a First Street, I say. It’s back there, you already passed it. But the man doesn’t even stop walking. He didn’t really want to know, just needed to insert himself into our private world. Lord, give me the privileged feeling of absolute safety that one must have in order to intrude on others’ lives like that. A safety I think I have never known.

It’s just above freezing and I’m wearing my black jacket because it goes with my outfit, not because it’s the one appropriate for the weather. We sit on a wrought-metal bench outside a shuttered business on the corner of Eighth and Eighth. The bench is still there and every time I pass it, I remember how frozen my ass felt, how warm her fluttering hands on my cheeks and the slick softness of her tongue on my lips.

At half past midnight, I finally go underground to take the G home and she goes back to her apartment that she still shares with her ex-wife. That’s why she can’t bring me home. Visiting her place is only an if, not a when.

The following Monday after work we stop at a bar halfway between our houses and get a drink.  It’s about four and they’ve just opened and we are the only patrons there.  We sit on the same side of the booth this time, legs touching, holding hands under the table.  Her beer is not as hoppy as advertised, and my cider comes in a can, but who cares?  The faculty meeting was short and we are playing hooky from our lives for an hour or two.

We talk for maybe 40 minutes and then switch to the pool table.  I beat her in that way that all pool games seem to go: quickly, then excruciatingly slow, then an abrupt ending, like a train that pulls into the station before you’re done saying goodbye.  She takes it well, by which I mean she spends much of the time glancing at my ass as I take my shots and trying to look as though she’s not looking.

As more people come in, we move to the back of the bar, where we are more or less alone.  They’re playing salsa, and we remark how odd it is: salsa in a bar in Clinton Hill?  5 PM on a Monday?  Good salsa, too.  We are both itching to dance; somehow we’re both a little tipsy, even after just the one drink.  The teacher schedule is strange that way: we lunch around eleven, sup at 5 or 6, snack before bed.  Even now I can feel the gnaw setting in and am cataloging in some corner of my mind the possible foods I could prepare when I get home.

But it’s hard to do that for long with her in front of me.  Hard to do anything other than stare at her lips and twine my fingers with hers.  She is having trouble too.  But it’s easy to talk, and we do.  The time seems to fly.  I don’t remember most of it, except I know I read her my favorite poem, in Spanish, stumbling over some of the words out of nerves or the exquisite ache of holding my mouth near her ear so she can hear me over the music.

As she is gathering her things I say, grasping for some minor bookend to this conversation, this afternoon, which is perhaps our second date, although time has not been moving in a linear fashion with her and I can scarcely remember a time in which we were just friends and I had no designs on her mind or mouth or hips, “I’m afraid of what might happen if we fall in love.”


She stops and looks at me and hesitates for a moment, and then says, “Well, first–I’d change the word ‘if’ for ‘when.’  And we will just have to be gentle with each other.”  She continues, I think, but I have stopped listening already, thrown into a heart murmur by the if/when.

Later that month she takes a trip to DC and spends the bus ride back texting me incessantly. It’s become our little game lately, making each other blush and laugh in as few characters as possible. We trade songs, poems, and stories. She asks if she can come over that night, sooner than we’d planned, says she can’t help it, she wants to see me more than anything. Okay, I say. Moving so quickly from the if to the when. Queer time flows funnily, often too quickly in the eyes of normal people. How could they understand what it feels like to find your other half? We are two parts of a whole, not opposites.

The morning after the first time she stays over, when all my roommates have left, I crawl out of bed and put the coffee on. After it percolates and settles, I bring two full mugs into my room. She holds up a finger as I walk in, smiles. From her duffel, she takes a plastic bag and reveals a jar of Arequipe, a dulce de leche I haven’t had in years.  “It goes great with coffee,” she says, and after I fetch a spoon we lay back on the pillows.

The first mouthful brings tears to my eyes.  I feel like a child, yet nothing could be less childish: here in my bed, in my apartment, with my lover.  Outside the B43 rumbles past, squeals to a halt at the corner of Hart, and takes off again.  I close my eyes and with the taste of dulce de leche in my mouth, I’m at home again, in the rainforest, the town streets unpaved and dusty.  I can hear the screams of my brother and his friends as they careen around the house (through the back door, across the courtyard, through the front door, living room, kitchen); at night the cicadas and crickets and katydids eclipse all other sounds.

I swallow and look away and say, “I’m not crying,” although I am.  I know that to say this is to throw the truth in relief, to acknowledge without admitting.  She knows, too.  We sip our coffee.  The cats nose at the door, lap the water noisily, stalk past each other, tails stiff and high.

We’ve only spent the one night together and I don’t know how she knows what to say, how the creep of her hands around my waist feels like everything and nothing.  All I know is that we were dancing in the kitchen when she said slowly, “I don’t think we’re going to break up” and it didn’t scare me.

“I don’t think we will either,” I say back, and the words don’t hurt, they don’t feel like lies I will eventually regret, promises wrapped and delivered by a make-believe version of me, whichever the relationship calls for. These words are from the real me inside, the one that doesn’t get seen on the city streets, the one that dies a little with every “miss” and “lady.” This version of me is the when.

“Want to take a walk?” she says. I could use a cigarette too, I think, to go with the coffee. With her, I think I don’t mind not being seen as much. I know she sees me, and it is enough.

Outside my window people walk, cars pass, everything a possibility in the new day. A world full of ifs and here, inside, the two of us just whens.



Emerson Henry studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College and was a recipient of the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction there. Henry’s debut story was nominated for PEN/America’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Emrys Journal, Bayou Magazine, Emerson Review, and Foglifter. Henry is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Portland State University.

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