The Mess We’re In by Emily James

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image of manhattan bridge out of a window, with a reflection of the bridge in the other half of the window - at night with lights

It’s not the beginning—but it’s one of them—the afternoon her big brother agrees to buy her a six-pack from the 7-Eleven. His license suspended, he needs her to drop him at his friend’s house on Eagle Road: a fair trade. She walks out of the house with her keys;he trails, a hooded sweatshirt and a reversal of power play. He’ll see I’m a good driver, she thinks. Should I smoke a cigarette? As they approach the car, she pictures herself swerving up and down the hills, six-packs and sunsets, stick shifts and winding roads.

They crowd themselves into a two-door Acura, among crumpled receipts, single flip-flops, manuals wet from rain. This is fuckin nasty, he tells her, throwing a brush from the lever below the seat before he slides it back, reclines. She takes toll of the mess: pizza boxes darkened with grease, broken cigarettes, tobacco splashed on folded floor mats. Fuckin nasty, he says again. Who’s gonna wanna marry you?


He’s been telling her since single digits, since they sat on the stubbled carpet in the den early mornings playing Zelda, Corn Pops spilling out of the paper pouch beside them. You can watch because you suck at this. You suck at everything. Since middle school dangle-nosed drawings with mustaches and round bellies, her name in bubble letters below. No one’s gonna wanna marry you, he told her then, he tells her now, and for years and years she tries so hard not to believe him, to take each man she meets and paste his face onto a photo-ream of forever, to make him fit, say this is the one, here is the person who will prove it all wrong.


This is the one, she will think, about Derrick the musician, who lives in a wooden shed out back from his parent’s house, cobwebs in the corners, makes love to her amidst a slight smell of mold. Mmmm, he’d say between soft kisses, as though he was consuming her, and sometimes his breath is rotten, and sometimes it isn’t. He has the same beautiful sadness in his eyes as her brother, she notices, as he stares from above, moving her sticky hair out of her face, and they kiss and lick and taste over the hum of a box fan. One April afternoon when a roach scampers down the angled wall behind him, she spends an hour with a trash bag and gloves, clearing out the garbage from behind his TV stand, gathering blunt guts into small piles. He’s three years younger; she’s the older woman, more folds of experience, more cleanly, more wise. She warns him that pills are a deal breaker (she lost her friend to an overdose some months before) so he assures her: I’m done with them, I don’t even like how they make me feel. They spend hours at Blockbuster roaming the outer walls, a gaggle of after-sex comfort, his arms draped along her neck from behind, each time, she lets him choose, and they continue this way until she finds the orange bottle beside his dresser, he promises in slurs it isn’t his. She tries believing him, because he is the one, but when the truth arrives, she quietly packs up all her own secrets and leaves.

Moves to the city, doesn’t say goodbye.


This is the one, she will think, about John the chef, his Baltimore accent and unfurnished apartment on Bowery, because finally, a man who will cook for her, have her over for apple-braised pork and some type of leafy green she’s never heard of, serve it to her on a patio table in the hallway by his kitchen. When they make up from a fight, he whispers I beg you as he rests his hand on her smooth side-belly, seems to digest the green of her eyes. It moves fast, until the night he falls asleep in the top bunk of her dorm room and she wakes up with his dick inside her, moaning from a dream. You need to go, she tells him, and he says nothing, climbs down the ladder, a desktop screensaver moving mountaintops and waterfalls behind him. Buttons his shirt, pulls up his jeans, fastens his fly. He takes his time.

He’s really sorry, their mutual friend tells her over the phone, in between bites of something, maybe some kind of chicken salad with walnuts, maybe with a plastic spoon. Keeps telling me he feels bad– like shit. He doesn’t call. For days she looks out at the Manhattan bridge sunsets from her window, sweatpants and flannel shirts and quesadilla delivery from La Taqueria, where she picks off the strings of surplus cheese, dials her brother’s number, hangs up before the first ring.


This is the one, she will think, about Angel, the bouncer at the local neighborhood bar, because now she has made a down payment on a studio apartment uptown, sat with a lawyer in high-heeled Mary Janes and signed here, here, here, now she pays mortgage and maintenance, and she even rides the narrow red-seated one train every morning to collect a paycheck from a classroom with broken blinds. Life, packaged—just needs a bow. In evenings, she shoves the stack of vocabulary quizzes into a large purse, re-doses her ADD medication, waits in mascara and a short skirt for his shift to start at 10. Pensando en ti, he will text her, and she’ll walk down West End Avenue past the older women taking their Labradors out for one last piss. At 108th, she stumbles down steps and presses her face into his clean white T shirt, soap and smoke, stubble and mushed cheeks, breath hot against her forehead.

And at night when he unfolds his cocaine from tin foil, uses keys and dollar bills and sometimes the sides of her soft stomach near her love handles, she waits for him to offer (she would have shoved it up her nose in a heartbeat, to amplify the sweat and lust) but because she knows the answer, she never asks. This is not who you are, he would have said, because to him she is the teacher, the white girl, the other woman.

And she’ll tell him about her brother, his car accident, the midnight phone calls looking for 24-hour Bronx pawn shops. But she doesn’t get to tell him about the failed intervention where they sit on her mother’s re-upholstered couch in a semi-circle—siblings and aunts and an ex-girlfriend and a man named Bob—and her brother laughs: Is this a joke? Where are the cameras? Ok, the camera crew can come out now! When he stands alone with her by their childhood kitchen sink, holding a cup beneath the running water, his eyes stay fixed on the blue jays pecking at the feeder in the yard. You? he asks, after a long, patient sip. I would expect them to do some dumb shit like this—but you? And then he turns to her, and waits, holding a cup half empty, ocean eyes brought back by tears, belt loop hooked into the last hole. That’s the last time she’ll see him.

She cries there, and she cries later, Angel breathing on the line, silence between her sobs, and finally: I guess I should tell you this. He will show up an hour after, envelope with a torn lip, four hundreds and ten twenties, and she grabs at his thumb, but he’s already gone. She won’t see him again until the grey light of an early morning after the appointment, when he appears in her doorway with an almost empty Heineken, bellows: Where’s the receipt? He seems even bigger—angrier among all the loss that has become her—stares just below her eyes. Receipt? she will ask, then search the pile of mail and menus and say I don’t know, and he will tell her find it or he’s not leaving, and watch her standing bra-less in the kitchen until she pulls up a printout with aftercare instructions: No intercourse for 48 hours, if saturating more than two pads in an hour, return to emergency room.


You coulda typed this on your computer, are the last words he will say to her—his goodbye—and she closes the door, leaving him on the green hallway carpet, careful not to bump his shoes.


Word is, when the Feds break down her brother’s door, there are guns stacked along the living room walls, barely balanced, ready to fall. Broken floorboards, white Hefty bags bursting in corners, a bed without sheets. Dog feces, they said. Filth. In the basement is a marijuana garden and a set of free weights, scales and bags to measure and distribute cocaine. Maybe a brick or two, enough between it all to take him away.

When they tell her, she sits on a throw rug in her studio apartment, forehead in hands. When she lifts her head again, she’s dizzy, blood rushing back. She makes her bed, carefully folding the patterned blanket over the comforter. She slaps the pillows—like she’s seen in the movies—to see how it looks, to hear how it sounds. She doesn’t cry.

She keeps looking.


It’s a weekday when she finds Him: he appears softly, quietly, like a dream. She picks him up outside McDonalds on 174th street; he is wearing Ray Bans and an Afro. It’s not like I was eating there, he will tell their five-year-old daughter years later, when she inquires with a little sister from the back seat. It was just an easily recognizable place. And that’s exactly what he is: the way his hands fold into hers, the gap in his front teeth, the space he leaves for her.

And look at the mess we’re in, he’ll say, now that we got the both of you! Knowing how it will make them shriek and cackle, kicking their legs from their car seats, the four of them so saturated with fullness, they will have to crack the windows just to breathe.

emily-jamesEmily James is a writer living in New York City.






STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Lars Plougmann

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