Claire is waiting for me on the townhouse steps, wearing a green dress. “That’s not what you told me you’d wear,” I say. The block is lined with budding lindens and shabby, enormous rowhouses. Claire’s dress has thin straps and it’s obvious she isn’t wearing a bra.
“Hi to you too,” she says. “It’s too hot for pants. Is this the right house?”
She’s right, it’s unseasonably warm. My jeans feel oppressive and tight. On the subway I’d noticed a dull but worsening pressure in my abdomen. I considered subtly undoing my fly, but the train arrived at Ninth Street.
I check a number on my phone against one etched on the transom. “Yeah, this is it.” We’re here, I text Jesse.
Claire steps closer to me and runs her fingertips over my scalp. She does this sometimes, to fluff up my flat hair. “Are you nervous?” she asks. She’s trying to annoy me, to exert some control because she probably feels a little nervous herself. But I like being so close to Claire that I can see her dry lips, the flecks of blush suspended in her cheek hairs, her pores. It’s calming, like when my mother used to show me internet photos of makeup-free celebrities. She would call me verrückt for bringing Claire to meet Jesse, but I want them to meet tonight, at this house, at this party. “Why would I be nervous?” I say.
Then Jesse opens the front door and I immediately picture us having sex the previous morning. I’d stayed at his apartment, again, and while I was still mostly asleep he put his hand down the front of my underwear. I could hear birds chirping outside, and glass falling into a recycling truck. After I came he got inside me and we did it over and over, until finally we got too hungry to stay in bed.
I’m not sure if I just narrated my thoughts aloud, but Jesse is looking at me with a normal expression, so I say, “Jesse, this is my best friend Claire. Claire, this is Jesse. He’s, um, in the band.”
They laugh at my dumb joke. Of course Claire knows we’re sleeping together. Of course Jesse knows that Claire knows. We all know! Claire says “I was beginning to think she made you up” and hugs Jesse fraternally. He puts one hand on her back, on the bare skin between her dress straps. “From my clitoris to Claire’s back!” I shout, then realize I haven’t said this aloud either.
When people meet Claire, especially men, I watch for the moment when they register her looks. Sometimes their pupils become heart-shaped; sometimes their bodies start glowing. Bestechend schön, my mother says whenever she sees Claire. Strikingly beautiful. Jesse looks at her, I think, for one second too long, and the pressure in my abdomen intensifies. I know from the date that the pain isn’t anything menstrual. It’s possible I need to use the bathroom, but I would rather pee in my too-tight pants than leave them alone together.
We follow Jesse through several big rooms where Claire says things like “amazing newel post” and “I would die for this wainscotting.” She has a fluency with interiors that, for some dumb reason I’d never admit, makes me feel inadequately feminine. We’ve lived together since the day we met, moving into our freshman dorm, so I’ve always had an intimacy with her bedding and her makeup bags, her pajamas and her Mary Cassatt poster. When my mother visits our apartment she says, “Claire hat ein Fingerspitzengefühl,” Claire has an instinct, though literally Fingerspitzengefühl translates to fingertip feeling. What my mom is really saying is that I do not.
“Your parents live here?” Claire asks Jesse. The windows at the back of the house are open and I hear party sounds, people talking and music playing.
“We grew up here, but after my brothers graduated my parents pretty much moved to their country house upstate.”
Claire looks at me. I’m standing out of Jesse’s sightline and I shrug, like, Oh, did I forget to mention that?
“Why don’t they sell it?” says Claire.
Jesse leans against the counter and crosses his arms. “Nostalgia, I guess.”
He points us toward the kitchen and goes outside to finish setting up. “Well, he’s cute,” says Claire. I wonder if there’s a German word for a tone and/or inflection calibrated to convey several layers of meaning, but which is only decipherable to one other specific individual, with whom the speaker has an intimate relationship. Claire’s tone and/or inflection conveys that I should appreciate her generosity in calling Jesse cute, but that doesn’t mean she finds him attractive, and “cute” here is meant diminutively, so she’s not at all threatened by the fact that I’m sleeping with him, and she therefore remains superior to me in every way.
“I know,” I say.
I take two beers from the fridge and Claire follows me outside. It’s twilight and everything is blue. About twenty people our age stand around in groups, talking and drinking. A string-lit tree canopies the garden and I recognize it as a callery pear tree, the kind that grows white, fetid-smelling flowers and which Claire refers to as “those cum trees.” Instruments are arranged on a Persian rug against the house, but for now the amps are tuned to a playlist probably called Essential Aughts Dreampop Algorithm. Dandelions, and one mushroom, grow in cracks between the uneven flagstones. We sit on a wrought iron bench and two bats fly low over our heads.
Claire stares at her phone. Some girls are standing near us, talking about a town in Connecticut where there’s a pizzeria that some of them find amazing and others find underwhelming. I picture myself at the party without Claire. Maybe I’d join their conversation and we’d all become friends, and they’d invite me on a “cabin weekend” or to play laser tag. “God, what a small world!” one of the girls says, and I gather that several of them had grown up in the same Connecticut town, but had only just met.
Without looking up from her phone, Claire says: “Shocking that a bunch of rich people from the suburbs all ended up at the same party in Park Slope.” My pelvis throbs. I hadn’t known she was listening. Claire would never admit it, but her political opposition to wealth is a cover for envy. I text my mom about the hypothetical tone and/or inflection word. I’m from Connecticut, but the trailer park rural stripmall part, not the yacht club fancy pizza part.
The playlist cuts out and reverb echoes off the brownstone as instruments are plugged into amps. Everyone sits cross-legged on the flagstones, crushing dandelions, facing the musicians. Jesse steps up to the mic and deftly adjusts its height. His fingers are very knobby. From my nipples to that mic stand! The inside lights are turned off, and in the string light glow the garden looks shadowy and romantic. Jesse has never sent me any of his music. I’d asked him why, when he invited me to the release party, and he’d done a sort of self-conscious groan.
“Sending your music to girls is sort of, I don’t know, cringe,” he said.
We were sitting on his bed in T shirts and underwear, eating pizza straight out of the box. The duvet and pillows were on the floor. I stared at the pattern of oil stains on the inside of the pizza box. “I didn’t know I was ‘girls,’” I said.
“You’re not. Just come to the show,” he said, and laughed, like I’d said a joke.
Jesse thanks everyone for coming and asks us to give lots of listens and hearts to the band’s newly uploaded tracks. Then he steps back and begins to play. The music, like the playlist, reminds me of music I liked in high school. I sit very still on the wrought iron bench and let the amp and drum vibrations move through my chest. They feel enormous. Jesse looks at me a few times as he sings, then stops. He probably doesn’t want to overdo it. It’s probably cringe. I try for a while to orient music’s relationship to sex. Is it metaphorical, like eating or dancing? Are their roles in society similar if you exclude them from late capitalism? Are all sensory experiences just an illusion created by firing neurotransmitters? Eventually I realize that I’m rehearsing things to say in a conversation with Claire, or that she’ll at least overhear, and I tell my brain to shut up so that I can experience the music without filtering it through “lenses.”
When Jesse gets to a part of a song where he’s singing, but there’s no guitar, he closes his eyes and lifts his hands to the sides of his head. If I’d been watching a video of him on mute it might look ridiculous, but singing is clearly obliterating any self-awareness, which makes him and the music more beautiful. I look sidelong at Claire. She’s watching him, frowning, the string lights outlining her perfect profile. There’s still pressure in my abdomen but it’s almost pleasant now, in a masochistic way. The song ends and everyone whistles and claps for Jesse. I’m sleeping with him, he’s mine, I’m ultimately superior to everyone here in every way. Claire meets my eye and I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing.
Jesse starts another song and I finally go into the house. The rooms smell earthy and sweet, like the inside of an antique dresser. Backpfeifengesicht? my mom has texted back, but she’s making a joke, it’s not the word I was looking for. There’s no bathroom on the parlor floor so I go up an ornate staircase and find one at the end of a hall. The rest of the house is grandly run down in a last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again sort of way, but the upstairs carpeting is coming away from the walls and dark rooms are filled with water damaged boxes. The medicine cabinet is missing its mirrored door. It reminds me of my mother’s little cottage, the house where I grew up. My dad left for a younger woman when I was four and my mom always blamed him for the state of our home, plus all her other problems. Through a stained glass window I hear Jesse on the mic, maybe introducing the band, but I can’t render his voice into individual words. I imagine Claire alone on the bench, unable to engage him in conversation, and I sit down, finally, to relieve myself.
Downstairs I get two more beers from the fridge. I offer Claire one but she doesn’t want it; she always drinks less than I do and I take it personally. A girl has joined Jesse to sing backup on a Simon & Garfunkel cover. When I sit on the wrought iron bench the pressure feeling is still there, as if I haven’t just peed. Now something lower down stings too. I’m envious of the backup singer’s talent, and that she probably doesn’t have any mysterious pain in her crotch, but she’s not pretty or thin so I don’t feel jealous of her in relation to Jesse. Then I wonder what kind of person I am, to have a thought like that, and what kind of person Jesse would be to reject an obviously talented, probably lovely girl because she wasn’t pretty or thin. Claire would tell me not to fat shame, even though she’s thinner than I am. Hey-ey, let your honesty shine shine shine Jesse sings.
I go to the bathroom again before the music ends but nothing comes out. While the band breaks down their equipment everyone stands in a large circle and talks about what a beautiful, if unseasonably warm, night it is. The mood has changed, from the music and probably the alcohol. The light on the underside of the cum trees looks lovely against the dark, starless sky. Claire is genial and talkative, and when someone asks how she knows the band she wraps her fingers around my wrist and says, “She’s with Jesse, and I’m with her.” Then everyone grasps who I am and seems excited to meet me. Jesse smiles at me from the other side of the garden, where he’s coiling a thick gray cable, and I feel like my emotions are too warm and effervescent to be contained inside my physical body.
Once the instruments are packed we all go inside. The mosquitoes are already bad and there’s concern about noise and the neighbors, now that it’s late. A few people say goodbye, and I fantasize about everyone leaving until only Jesse and I are left. In the parlor I sit with him on a scratched chesterfield. I assume Claire will take this opportunity to leave, but she sits on the floor, between Jesse’s and my legs, so that her shoulder is touching my thigh. The conversation turns to the townhouse and Jesse answers everyone’s simping questions: thirty years ago, only two-hundred thousand dollars, six fireplaces, eighteen seventy-nine, Gothic Revival.
“It is a beautiful house, but,” says Claire. Everyone turns to her like they’re surprised, and a little bit honored, that she’s been paying attention. She folds her arms across my knees and looks up at me. Everyone will think she’s asking my permission to continue, because they all know I’m sleeping with Jesse and she’s come along as my friend. Backpfeifengesicht means a very slappable face. I look at the geometric birds in the carpet and try not to convey permission, or anything at all.
She turns to Jesse. “But it seems criminal for a house this big to sit empty in a city full of unhoused people.”
I’ve heard this performance before. Either she’ll pick a fight, so that later she’ll be justified in talking shit about him to me, or she’ll make him feel negged and then he’ll be into her. I picture spiders, sirens, Lilith and Delilah. Claire thinks my mom’s gender politics are a generation behind because she was born outside Zurich right after the war. Having fled Nazi Germany, my grandmother probably just wanted her daughter to find a safe home, and marriage looked like the easiest route. Before Jesse responds I turn to him and say, “We should stay here.”
He scratches his ear. “Seems a little weird to use my childhood home as like, a pied-a-terre. But we could, if you were into that.”
Claire frowns. She leans more of her weight against my legs. The crown of her head looks lovely, which I find infuriating, as it’s not something she could easily see in a mirror.
“I would hope,” she says to Jesse, “That given how many nights a week she’s sleeping at your place, you’d know what she’s into by now.”
The pain in my abdomen is becoming unbearable. I try not to hunch as I walk through the house, up the stairs. Since Jesse and I began dating I’ve fantasized about doing bizarre things to Claire. I want to shave her head in her sleep, or lock her in our apartment “by accident,” or post photos of her vulva on the internet. Then we’d really know who was superior. It feels good to sit on the toilet and relax my pelvic muscles, but I only pee a little and the stinging is worse. When I pull the toilet paper from between my legs there’s blood.
A few minutes later Claire puts her head through the door. “Are you okay?”
“Go away,” I say, but she steps into the bathroom and closes the door behind her. I fold forward over my naked legs and focus on the amber stitching inside my jeans.
“There’s something wrong with me. There’s blood in my pee.”
She crouches so that we’re eye level with each other. “Your period ended last week, right?”
“Yeah. It’s not that. It stings.”
“Do you pee after you and Jesse have sex?”
Her fingers are touching my knees. She flairs them in and out, in and out, like flowers blooming and closing. “I hope he’s worth all this,” she says, but her tone says he isn’t. I slap her so hard that she loses her balance. As she falls backward the green dress rides up and I glimpse her very plain underwear. She stays seated against the wall for a moment, holding her face and looking at me like I’m a stranger. Then she stands and runs a finger under her dress strap, to move it back into place, and says: “You have a UTI, dummy. That’s what happens when you have sex a thousand times and don’t pee afterward. Come on, we need to go to urgent care and get antibiotics.”
“No,” I say. My voice cracks. “I want to stay here.” I picture myself going back downstairs, alone. I’ll sit next to Jesse and he’ll tell stories about the townhouse that make everyone laugh. Once they’ve left we’ll have lots of sex on the chesterfield and he’ll whisper, “Everyone loved you. But not so much Claire.” We’ll stay for weeks, maybe months. Jesse’s parents will give us money to redecorate the house, and when my mother comes to visit its beauty will make her cry. We’ll throw lots of parties, fundraisers for housing insecurity and climate change, and more concerts in the garden. I’ll learn to sing backup and join the band, we’ll get famous and Claire will see us on TV. I’ll rip up the yard and plant a kitchen garden, and tea roses, and a boxwood border. Although, I kind of like the garden as it is.
“Even if I thought that was actually what you wanted, it’s not going to happen,” says Claire. “No one’s going to take care of you here.”
I think of the two little bats, swooping together over the garden. The pain is so bad that it’s spread up through my body, to my fingers and my mind. Claire’s right, I think, but the thought feels far away, on the other side of the stained glass window. I let her pull up my underwear and jeans, then we put our arms around each other and she walks me down the stairs. She always smells so good, so familiar, like vetiver and rosewater. The front door closes behind us. An ugly purple mark is forming on her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Livia Clark is a graphic designer from New York City. Her work received support at the 2022 Tin House Summer Workshop. This is her first published story.