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KAREN KEVORKIAN

QUEEN OF THE NIGHT

One of those nights I showed up at his apartment, I followed him past the opened containers of Chinese food in his kitchen to the bedroom where he watched television. A plate was on the floor by the bed, holding leftover noodles and smears of cottage cheese. It seemed to me an inadequate meal but I knew if I said anything he would say I was always watching, always wanting to tell him what to do.

He sat down in a chair and I lay on the bed, sticking my bare foot in his lap. I thought he must like me being there, because he held my foot as if it were my hand. Images came and went onscreen while I perused the room. On the bureau was a sprawl of change and a small wicker basket. In it lay medals won at swimming meets for men over forty, their fake gold coins and flat-pressed ribbons pinned to cardboard squares. One of the ribbons, he told me, he'd won in New Orleans, and plastic carnival beads frothed from a tall cup. When the Bosnian war came on we turned off the set, to not see the street where the bodies lay at odd angles, inert things.

We didn't talk about Bosnia, because after we'd started seeing each other again he said I talked only about dismal subjects. So for a long time I listened carefully to what I thought before I spoke. Yet I touched him more boldly, as though the line and texture of his body composed a trustworthy language.

If he wanted to end our evenings he'd say he had to work. I'd gotten where I could feel this coming, translucent, jellyfish-like, something both amorphous and palpable. I hated feeling dismissed, so I'd learned to stand up fast, pretending something important awaited me in the house where night circled all around. He had moved onto the bed and taken off his watch, which he always did before sex. He lay face down and I knelt, rubbing his back. Since he'd moved out he'd lost weight, which I didn't think surprising, given the kind of stuff he ate. His body now might have belonged to a younger man, and in the dark that was both exciting and annoying, as if he were trying to trick me with a substitution. I did not expect him to say that tonight he wanted to be by himself. But he said he was sleeping badly. Getting up and down might disturb me. Make him feel guilty.

Look, I said to his back, you don't want me here. Why don't you just say it? Just say, "I don't want to see you." Or say that you do.

You expect too much, his mouth moved against cloth.

Right, I said. You have your own place. You went after another woman. Now that's over and you act like you want to see me. Then you act like you wish I'd get lost. For god's sake, make up your mind.

His head was buried in his arms, his voice muted by his sleeve. You're getting worked up, he said.

Look at me. Is my voice loud? Do you see tears? Maybe I'm too old. I break my glasses. Lose my keys. I thought I was Queen of the Night. Even Queen of the Night can get old, I guess.

No, he mumbled.

What? I said.

None of that sounds true.

I said I couldn't take any more of this. Because I stood up he sat on the edge of the bed. Because he could see me leaving he wanted to hold me. He kissed me and laughed a little, the way you do when you are just beginning with someone, and you often look at each other and laugh for no reason. Then I was crying. I told him I couldn't stand to think of never seeing him again.

I don't know why you love me, he said, still in that good-humored, coaxing way. You should hate me.

He called at midnight, as he often did, saying, I don't know, I don't know, let me have more time.

Since that night I'd been several times to his apartment. I'd drop by, and he didn't seem to mind, though each time it had been late, following an evening with others when I'd had some wine. Wine made me feel he must love me. A few weeks later, one night after coming home I did not go in, but found myself running to his apartment, which was only blocks away. I ran, past the yards hidden in shadow, the sepia light washing over car hoods. The air sparkled with fine rain, and I sensed the deep wetness penetrating the earth. Faster and faster I ran until I was where I wanted to be. I rang the bell.

Though there was a light, no one answered. I rang it again, leaning against the stucco wall, breathing hard, laughing at the pleasure of the run, at my damp, electric hair. A third time.

You can't come in, he said. I have someone here.

I laughed at him, because I'd been drinking, and because when I looked down at his feet I saw he wore black dress shoes with his khaki pants. I thought this error in judgment was a sign of his confusion.

Someone from out of town, he said. A woman.

What do you mean, a woman?- It was as if I'd become stupid.

No one you know. You have to leave.

You said you weren't seeing anyone. Where is she sleeping? Let me in.

Get away. Leave me alone. I have a right to my own life.

I was left standing at the door. Rain's little kisses on my face. His face was swollen, furious, screwed tight, like someone in tears.

A wall that came just up to my chest separated the sidewalk from a flower bed beneath his front window. I stood on tiptoe, arms stretching across the wall, struggling to reach tall stalks of flowers he'd planted from seed. He had never had a garden, and his obsession with it seemed to me like love.

They were nearly all dead now though still upright in the dirt, the winter rain beating on them, turning the foliage a dull bronze. The only things left were a few stunted, end-of-year blooms. As long as any flowers remained, he would not uproot them.

I reached the top of the tallest stalk, yanked it from the ground.

It came out with the roots attached to clay, a big clump that smashed against the wall.

I ripped up others, flung them at the window.

The blinds were pried apart in the apartment next door, someone inside peering this way, that, for the source of the noise. Then his door slammed.

If I didn't go away, he would call the police.

I said I didn't care, and he disappeared back inside.

Then I was at his door again, ringing the bell. One time. Twice. Five times. The door flung open. I demanded he at once return to me, with another woman waiting on the other side of the door, a silk slip I'd left in his apartment.

No. I'll call the police.

Go ahead-

He slammed the door again.

What did I think was so funny? Far back in his apartment I could hear his furious tread. He opened the door and took the wadded knot of fabric from under his arm.

Here-take it.

I was back on the street, heels nastily tapping. Motherfucker. Motherfucker, I softly sang. I was looking for something. At the edge of somebody's garden I found a stone that weighed heavy in my hands. Carried it around on the side of his building to the bedroom window. Motherfucker. Raised the brick, smashed it down against the metal edge of the screen. The noise seemed very big.

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