I used to go in every day at six for shipment shift, which is where you take the boxes off the truck and sort everything, first by department, then color, and finally, size: when I was done the racks looked so neat, tiny pink cargo shorts on one end and big ones on the other. I got straight out of bed and went in the clothes I slept in, most days. When I parked, the sun would just be cresting over the PetCo. My wife, who was not yet my wife, was still in bed. The summer I worked this job, she was gone a lot, visiting her parents in another state, another time zone: to me, at the time, another world. It was harder to leave when she was there in the bed with her hair sticking to the dried spit around her mouth and all the covers tucked up underneath her left knee. She never woke up, even when I ran my coffee beans through the grinder; I could see her, sleeping, from the apartment door, as I closed and locked it.
The girl I worked next to, most days, was called Emma and would never let you forget that she had three-quarters of a master’s degree in sociology, as if that made her smarter than the rest of us. She had dropped out for some reason she never quite got around to naming but I thought it was probably either that she went broke or had some kind of mental breakdown. She wore her long dark hair in a complicated French braid that always looked a little fuzzy, like she did it up at night and then slept on it. Her personality was like that: trying too hard, never sticking the landing. The kind of girl who finds out too late that she’s hopelessly, permanently provincial. Not so long ago, I saw her on Twitter, in a thread about academic precarity; she was arguing with some white guy about job placement in humanities PhDs, and when I clicked the little picture next to her name, I saw that she had cut her hair, and looked overall much more confident and like someone I could be friends with if I met her now. But at the time, I felt that she was my opposite: the same pieces, arranged to make an incompatible shape.
Let me start again. When I was twelve my Girl Scout troop and I visited a gallery of contemporary sculpture in a certain second-rate American city. The blackish-green figures stood all together in one large, round room, under a domed ceiling in the eighteenth-century style. My first impression was of scale: some of the poised, gesturing bodies were eight feet tall, some a foot and a half, sharing features and poses but with wildly different effects. The room smelled of metal. I and the other Girl Scouts circulated between them, holding our palms out to test the radius of the sensor which flashed red and beeped loudly when a guest came too close to the art. We all had travel buddies; mine was Emma, who was not named Emma, but is so clearly an Emma that it seems silly to call her anything else. This Emma was white-blonde like the rest of her family and the spit and image of her two older sisters, but with shorter hair, a pixie cut, due to another girl having cut out a whole hank of it at a slumber party gone wrong. The haircut had transformed her by revealing her enormous, spoon-shaped ears; she now looked striking in a way that was hard to assign as good or bad. My mother said she would grow into her looks. I had never thought about a person’s looks as temporal before, and now when I looked in the mirror every morning before school, I tried to guess whether my moment was ahead of me or already behind.
Emma grabbed my arm and tugged me down, to whisper in my ear. She was still girl-sized, and I was, by then, nearly my adult height.
“Watch me,” she said. She waggled her eyebrows.
“Okay,” I said. When she was around, I rarely did anything else. She shuffled toward the largest statue, right in the center of the room. I thought of it as ‘it,’ unsure whether the figure was meant to be male or female and without any other language for their overlap, or absence. It covered its face with one hand and trailed the other, unnaturally long, arm toward the ground, grazing along its bent knee. Every limb tapered to impossible thinness: its hands were not true hands but flat, lacy mosses, growing outward to cover whatever they touched. Its feet, the same. Every time I looked at it, I felt the room as full of threatening presences. They all, large and small, seemed to know I was there, but held their gazes carefully aside. Emma was not affected in this way. She had eyes only for our troop leader and the parent chaperone, who had their backs turned, comparing tags on their smocked, peasant-style blouses. When the beeping started up, they rolled their eyes but didn’t turn to look. Emma planted one foot on the figure’s knee, pushed off, reached her arms up to its bowed, sorrowful neck, and hung there, light as air, until the docents came to drag her away. I remember the soles of her sneakers kicking out in protest, scuffed with whatever paint they used to treat the bronze. When I tell the story now, I describe this act as a kind of message, in strange code, that none of us understood until later: an urgent, languageless cry for help, a valve for some unseen pressure. And it was outrageous, it shocked all of us. But it was also an embrace.
At work, Emma and I would move the baby sock display out of the way and then stand still with our rolling racks beside us while Matt and Lorraine met the driver, who was a different guy almost every day. The two of them hauled the boxes out of the truck and laid them at our feet, and then we ripped them open and hung the contents on our racks. The job required a lot of squatting. Every size and color was subdivided into plastic bags, shrinkwrapped and thrown together into the boxes, and each bag came from a different factory, and had a different smell. I was told that some polyesters are treated with formaldehyde, and they certainly smelled like death: treated death, mediated death. By the end of the shift my hands had a smell too and were streaked with whatever color dye was the worst fixed, usually red or pink.
We stopped work midway through to eat breakfast in the employee break room. Emma brought glass jars carefully layered with chopped fruit, nuts, and some kind of cooked grain, which she would then drizzle with honey from a little packet and eat excruciatingly slowly, scraping her spoon against the glass to get every last morsel. I packed peanut butter sandwiches and half the time didn’t even eat them, just put my head down for fifteen minutes while my coworkers shot the shit. My tolerance for their company waxed and waned. Sometimes, when my wife was out of town, I found my coworkers nearly unbearable, and went outside instead to sit on the bumper of my car and watch the parking lot trees cast long, menacing shadows across the asphalt. It was always a little bit cold before nine in the morning. Once, I was leaning against my car and had just cracked open a can of Coke when I heard a gasp from the neighboring hatchback and a man sat abruptly upright in the backseat. His beanie had shifted forward on his head and his dark hair was sticking messily out of the back. When he saw me, he yawned all of a sudden and covered his mouth, then turned the handle to roll the window down a crack.
“Sorry I scared you,” he said. I had pulled back a step to put some space between us.
“It’s cool,” I said.
“Shift’s over?” he said. He craned his neck a little to see the level of the sun behind the strip mall, or maybe the length of the shadows across the parking lot.
“We’re on break,” I said. The guy nodded. He was young, I saw now. I had a sharp, unexpected memory of a guy I used to catch rides to school with in the tenth grade, who had dressed just like this guy, worn the same kind of beanie, and been just as clearly stoned pretty much all the time. After work, I watched to see who the hatchback belonged to. It was Emma. She nodded to me as we both got into our cars, and then said something I couldn’t hear to the guy in the backseat, who flipped her off. They both smiled. Then I saw the resemblance: he was her brother. With one hand, he slid his beanie down over his eyes and put his head back against the seat. The guy he reminded me of, my high school friend, is a youth minister now; he works at a big evangelical church just out of town, in the old Food Lion building. The beanie is gone and he has that polished kind of semi-hip look that you’d expect, clean shaven, hair buzzed on the sides but long on top, gentle eyes, and a tattoo on the inside of his forearm of the words “GOD IS LOVE,” overgrown with red, thorny roses.
My wife was gone; and then she came back. Her flight was delayed, so I waited for her in the little museum that all dinky regional airports seem to have. I read a display about the history of the baggage cart, and put my hand in the mock airstream that kept a little model plane afloat in the children’s corner. Then she came out of the security gates rolling her suitcase behind her. She looked tired, almost jetlagged, although the flight only took two hours, and should have seemed shorter coming back, because of the time difference; but I’m guessing about that. I never asked her. At the time, we hardly ever talked about these trips, because of me, because I could not bear to hear the names for the people she saw there—those ordinary words, the very first you ever learn. On the drive home, my wife leaned her head against the window, breathing softly while the highway lights strobed over her face. She fell asleep as soon as she dropped into bed, but it took me a long time to settle down, and then before I knew it, it was five o’clock and my alarm was going off. I hit snooze more times than usual. When I parked and ran up to the front door, I was late enough that no one was there to let me in: Lorraine had already headed back to the stockroom to meet the truck. I had to bang on the glass with my fists for a full couple of minutes. Finally, Emma came sprinting down the center aisle of the store in her ballet flats and turned the bolt to let me in.
“I was worried about you,” she said. “You’re never late.”
“I didn’t sleep well,” I said. She looked at me softly, empathetically.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“You’ve got a,” she said, gesturing to the crown of her own head. “Cowlick.”
“Whatever,” I said, and pushed past her into the store. On my way to clock in, I slammed through the swinging doors into the stockroom and nailed Matt hard in the arm, crushing his hand against the box he was holding and leaving a bruise over the bone of his wrist that took almost a week to fade. There were no hard feelings, as far as I could tell, but he steered around me for the rest of the day and put his boxes down in front of Emma instead. She radiated calm that day, like a statue of a saint, her expression loving and beatific. I tried not to look at her. There was plenty of work to do: the truck was packed top to bottom with flip flops for the seasonal display. Ten colors, eight sizes. The smell was like putting your face up against a tire. I racked two dozen boxes on my own, refusing Emma’s offer to team up, split duties, and pass the flip flops along fire-brigade style. My hands smelled like rubber even after I clocked out and washed them twice, three times, in the employee bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror: looking at the fucked up mess of my hair, sticking up in the back. When I got home, I opened the door and saw my wife twitch slightly, push her face more deeply into the pillows, and then sigh and go still, not even really there, and I had to shut the door again and go out for a long drive before I could calm down.
I went to my senior dance with Emma, sort of as a joke, sort of not. She lived on the south end of the county and went to the bigger high school, but I knew her from a community college Shakespeare-themed summer camp that my mom sent me to and her mom sent her to and where our mutual resentment had brought us together to smoke cigarettes behind the equipment shed with the flagrancy of the acting-out. She had this move where she would lean back and hook her thumb in the belt loop of her jeans, sliding them down and off one hipbone while her copper bangs fell over one eye. She did it even when it was just me there, so I wondered if she knew what I was now old enough to know about myself, but had not done anything about yet.
We went shopping at the Salvation Army and the Goodwill and the St. Vincent de Paul store, where all the clothes smelled like old cigarette smoke and powder detergent, and sometimes mothballs. Emma changed behind a dusty green curtain in the back while I brought her suit after suit, neither of us knowing how to translate men’s sizing into the shape of her long, flat body. Finally, we found one that fit. She struck a pose, hands in pockets, hips thrust forward.
“Handsome?” she asked. I looked her up and down.
“Pull your hair back,” I said. I dug a scrunchie out of the pocket of my jeans and gave it to her. When she bent her arms back behind her head, the jacket rode up on her shoulders and swung apart in front. With her hair out of the way her jaw was visible. It made her look less girl-like, like something between a woman and a boy. I nodded.
“Handsome,” I said. But she chickened out, in the end, and borrowed a football jersey and old JNCOs from her brother. In the pictures, she stands behind me with her hands on my waist, making an exaggerated face with her lips pushed out, like a caricature of a guy’s confident smirk. The teachers laughed when they saw us together. I broke a heel dancing and spent the rest of the night barefoot, and then drove her home in my dad’s truck. Emma had ditched the jersey when it got too sweaty and wore only a tank top, holding her cigarette out the open window so my dad wouldn’t smell it and get mad. The roads were empty and the stars were out, no streetlights in the sticks where Emma’s family lived, and it was a little bit like being truly alone together, whatever a real date would be like. Romantic, I thought to myself. Before she got out of the car, she hugged me around the neck and smacked a kiss just above my ear.
“Love you, girl,” she said.
“Love you too,” I said. She smelled sweaty and the insides of her upper arms were soft. We weren’t friends much longer; I went away for college, and so did she, but not as far. I heard she came back after a while and re-trained in massage therapy and married a guy who works for the coal company, and he paid for her to open a cute little studio downtown where you can take a personalized yoga class or get a deep-tissue massage in beautiful sunlit rooms with all the signs in yellow cursive and daisies over the i’s. Her kids are redheaded, like her, and she posts pictures online of them in down dog or mountain pose together like a little baby yoga class, the big ones helping the little ones, falling down sometimes but always getting back up.
Emma dropped out towards the end of her second sophomore year, pregnant, although that didn’t come out for a month or so, with her biology tutor’s baby. She was no longer a Girl Scout. The news went around church right away and prompted my mom to sit me down and have a long conversation about boys and pressure and Waiting Until You’re Ready, which would be funny to me later but wasn’t yet; it seemed real, the idea that one misstep, a loss of control, could keep me tied there. I wanted to go to college. I saw her in the grocery store a couple of months later, with an older guy trailing around behind her holding a loaf of Wonderbread. Her hair looked good; it had darkened a little in her teens, less silver, more gold. Her body was unrecognizable. She was still small, so the extra weight altered her more radically than it would have a taller girl, changing her from the inside. She either didn’t see me or pretended not to, out of embarrassment, I thought then, unable to imagine anything more embarrassing than this visible, naked anchor.
My wife and I met in a lecture hall, in a class about women’s health that we were both taking to fulfill some lower-level science requirement. On the first day, the professor put up a Powerpoint where all the slides were full-on beaver shots, to get the giggling out of the way, I guess. Midway through week three, I sat down by accident next to the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. We didn’t talk, but I was aware of her just to my left for the whole fifty minutes: her hair falling in her eyes, her neat handwritten notes, her knee only four inches from mine, bare, lightly furred. She radiated something I could not yet identify. My roommate, Emma, got sick of this kind of talk very quickly.
“What’s her name?” she asked me in the dining hall that night.
“I don’t know,” I said. I probably sighed dramatically.
“Uh-huh,” Emma said.
“I should look at the sign-in sheet next week,” I said.
“You should like, talk to her, probably,” Emma said. She scrubbed at her face with one hand. “Okay,” she said, “I’m gonna hit the library for an hour ish. So, you know, room’s all yours, if you need to be alone with your fantasies tonight.”
“Gross,” I said.
“You’re gross,” she said. I ate the rest of her salad and put both of our trays away. The mystery girl from the lecture hall was out there somewhere, probably eating dinner herself, in a different dining hall, somewhere else on campus. I imagined finding her, kissing her, fucking her. This is significant, now, only because of what happened later. If she weren’t now my wife, I would have forgotten her a long time ago. Instead, she and I work together to remember everyone else. Just the other day I thought of a time three months into our relationship when we were fighting quietly in my dorm room, and then Emma came in, having just cut her own hair in the bathroom, and when she turned her head we both saw that she had missed one big curl in the back which sprung out longer than the rest and tickled her neck, and it looked stupid, and my wife and I both laughed and stopped fighting. I said this out loud, when I remembered it. My wife came and tapped her nose against my shoulder from behind and reminded me of what happened next. That Emma was upset, and cried. That we asked her why. That she wouldn’t tell us. That we found out later her boyfriend had sometimes grabbed her by the hair when he was angry. That was why she was so weird about it that day, my wife reminded me. I had never put it all together like that. I didn’t realize anything was wrong with that guy until later; the summer after that, she was always telling me to break up with my wife, that I cried too much when we were together, and she wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell her that it was the good kind of crying, where you let go of the person you always thought you’d be, and the people who loved her.
I stopped working next to Emma. Matt pulled a muscle in his back and couldn’t bend to get up into the back of the truck any more, so he swapped with me, and Lorraine found him a folding table to unpack his boxes on so he wouldn’t have to squat. The inside of the truck smelled like cardboard and hot tin. The driver who came on Wednesdays was kind of a dick, and always late, but the Saturday guy was nice; he helped us with the boxes sometimes. It was a relief to only have to talk to Lorraine, who was fortyish and had three kids still at home plus a granddaughter. She looked a lot like the moms I knew growing up, who would smoke in the car and laugh when we cussed. She wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and neither was I, at that point, my wife gone again, the bed cold, the rent due. It becomes boring to harp on it too much. Difficult to remember the difference between now and then, my wife and not my wife: the chief one being the unknowability of my own future, the struggle to imagine that my wife would remain my anything. The two of us were a triangle that could not collapse into a single point—home, and home, and this new place we were building together, whatever it would turn out to be—integratable. One day, after work, I was getting into my car when I saw Emma jogging across the parking lot toward me, waving her arm. She was wearing some kind of jingly charm bracelet that slid around on her wrist and caught the light.
“Hey,” she said, out of breath, stopping at my window. “I’m sorry. Everybody else is gone.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Do you have jumper cables?”
“No,” I said.
“Shit,” she said, and bit her lip. “Listen. I wouldn’t ask normally, but like, can you maybe give me a ride home? Otherwise I’m stuck here until my mom gets off work.”
“Fine,” I said. She was grateful. I drove us out of the parking lot, past all the customers coming in, and out to the main road, where she told me to turn left instead of right like I usually did. I thought Emma might be judging my car, which was kind of messy. She didn’t try to chat, just looked out the window and told me where to turn, absently stroking her braid with one hand. We drove out of the big-box-store district and passed the exits for the downtown area, crossed the river, went south into a residential neighborhood with some nice-ish houses squashed close together. Every other house was painted buff. She stopped me in front of one cute split-level with an attached garage that was more like a shed, a little concrete porch and white railing, a gravel path from the driveway to the front door. It didn’t look fancy, just comfortable. Now that I was parked, I looked Emma in the face. Her eyes looked tired, puffy underneath, and she was breaking out on her chin and around her mouth.
“I know you don’t like me,” she said. “So thanks.”
“I don’t not like you,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “Thanks.” She opened the car door and turned to get out.
“Wait,” I said. It was like she was waiting for me to stop her; she drew her foot back into the car, closed the door again. I wasn’t sure what to say. I was torn between apologizing, because I didn’t want to be a bad person, and the fear that if I gave too much in this moment she would invite me in. There was probably striped wallpaper on the dining room walls, beige roses in the bedrooms; I could see it as clearly as if I had once lived there myself.
“I tried really hard with you,” she said. “No matter what I say, you just ignore me.”
“I like you,” I said. I tried to make it true. I really looked at her: something about her face was familiar. The expression. I felt something for her, maybe generosity, a desire to ease whatever invisible thing weighed on her, to tuck all the escaped tendrils back into her braid. The upstairs window in the house opened up, first the glass, and then the screen, screeching the whole way. Her brother stuck his head and one arm out. He had something in his hand, and he was blowing smoke out into the air. When he saw the car, he called her name and she waved her fingers to show that she had heard him.
“I should go,” Emma said.
“This is your family’s place?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. She looked embarrassed. I didn’t know how to tell her not to be. I didn’t think she would have understood what I felt when I watched her take out her keys and let herself into the house, propping the door open with one foot while she checked the mailbox. The door closed behind her. Eventually, her brother drew his arm back inside the house and screeched the window back down again. All the openings in that homely little building shut and barred themselves. It was like a face with its eyes closed, not looking. On the drive home I kept half turning to talk to the space where Emma had been, wanting to explain something, but the words wouldn’t come to me; what came to me was not words, just the feeling of reaching out and smoothing her phantom hair.
This was years ago. Now, all of the Emmas seem like children to me, the same way that all of my students seem like children, and my younger selves, arrested in memory, seem like a procession of children marching uncertainly to some unknown destination. A parade, at which I wave and cheer, and throw candy, as they round the courthouse and the fire station, walking in the street through the center of town. By the time they finish their route, I’m tired. The sun is dropping fast and the air smells like woodsmoke from the Methodists’ barbecue stand. Beside me, my wife tugs her shirt away from her body, not used to the heat.
“Did you drink enough water?” I ask her. She’s sweating.
“I thought so,” she says.
“Let’s get you into the air conditioning,” I tell her. We amble towards the car. There is so much we will pass by on the way home: the high school, the new Food Lion, the closed-down roller rink where I used to skate to Shania Twain and eat ice cream cups with a little wooden dipper. I tell my wife about all of it and she watches with big eyes, seeing everything. I want her to remember it too. How green everything is. The smell that comes through the open windows of the car, mud and river water and horseshit. I turn my head to the side now and again just to catch half a glimpse of her face: caught in profile, mouth a little open, one dark shape cut out of the pink and purple sky. She’s older now, too. Can you believe it? I forget to notice sometimes, especially here. It’s the light, maybe, which makes her look so young, it’s almost as if she had been here all along.