A Swamp in Boston

by Paige Towers

He said he was sorry but I couldn’t tell if he actually was, and now I know for certain that he wasn’t, and what is it about men—I used to ask myself—that they are so unwilling to let themselves fall in love?

Then I’d start wondering if it isn’t just men in this shitty, non-sensual, every-man-for-himself American culture because, god, we’d never even danced or shared a bottle of wine. Not even on that first and last candlelit dinner in the North End of Boston when we ate lobster ravioli and mussels in a spicy broth that we soaked up with garlic bread. We were still just “friends with benefits” in order to keep things uncomplicated, as if that was a possibility for me past week three.

Uncomplicated was in his beat-up car, riding back from the Fells Reservation into the city with our fingers interlaced and a feeling of such elation that I shook my head “no” when he looked over at me from the driver’s seat and offered me a hit of weed with his other hand. My dog, Gorbachev, was alternating between nodding off and jolting awake in the back seat. He was exhausted from having just gone hiking but still nervous about me being touched by a man, and thus nudged at my elbow with his nose, grunting.

I ignored him.

I’d already torn my walls down.

The windows were open and I was in love even though I didn’t admit it out loud. We were listening to Top 40 and he moved his hand to my thigh in the sweetest way possible that said “you and I,” not “let’s fuck.” We still did later on the couch, or in his bed, or maybe the futon on his porch when it was dark enough, because we could never end or start a day together without one person grabbing at the other.

He’d been growing into his face since I’d shown up on the doorstep two years ago with two suitcases, three boxes, and one big dog. I was the subletter, and he was one of six tenants in a massive, rundown Victorian home in Brookline, and I remember thinking, Cute, but way too boyish. Then he started telling pointless stories and making terribly timed jokes, and my feelings were solidified. I knew there wouldn’t be any temptation on my end, even with the shared door between our bedrooms.

Yet, I couldn’t help but laugh at his failed attempts at humor, even after I moved out. Poking fun at him eventually became like poking holes in his odd exterior. A genuine person with feelings and warmth and intelligence and even a good sense of humor eventually seeped out.

About a year and a half later and the angles of his face were sharper, his eyes were a little more worn and smoky, his hair was grown out long and tied in a knot near the base of his neck, and his sideways glances towards me lasted even longer. We laughed and talked easily—way easier than I could with my casual boyfriend at the time.

That boyfriend was either sulking in front of the TV—catatonic with a video game controller in hand—or throwing cigarette butts at the dirt, talking about how he was for sure quitting smoking next week, he was serious this time, he just needed to get through one more god-awful work week and then that’s it. I could never get him out of his room on the weekends without a fight, so I gave up trying and started calling my former roommate him instead. We were all friends and it seemed harmless, although at night I occasionally fantasized. I thought about pushing him up against a tree, or leaning towards him in the car. I thought about cornering him in a hallway at a friend’s party, or in an alleyway in Chinatown after dim sum and too many bottles of Tsingtao.

He called me “Peggy” or “Pegs” because I once told him about how my former co-workers at a job I’d once had in South Korea had a hard time pronouncing my name. The soft “G” in “Paige” became a hard “G,” and the “R” in “Towers” turned to “L” and it all came out as “Peggy Towels.” His upbringing in rural Pennsylvania caused him to laugh too hard at stories involving cultural mishaps, and he was practically crying, bent over to his knees, when I mentioned it. Later, the nickname belonged to him, rolling sweetly off his tongue, and I forgot about the country that had invented it. Everything belonged to him.

Possibly the best ever, he said one night, several months after the short-term boyfriend was long forgotten, after we were sticky on the couch and drinking from the same glass of water. Another night it was your skin feels amazing in a barely awake voice, before drifting off. I miss you, I want to touch you, I thought about you all weekend, come over, I need to see you—I collected these little phrases in the same way that I saved all of the strips of paper from fortune cookies and stuffed them into a box on my dresser thinking that, when all piled together, they meant something.

The night after moving into my new third-floor apartment, he came over and we wrapped ourselves up in sweaters and blankets and sat on the floorboards of my porch that overlooked someone else’s backyard. It had just turned from August to September, and the air had started to cool off in the evenings. The dog whined from behind the screen door, wanting to come out, but I ignored him. We were entering yet another week of us-without-barriers and we passed a bowl of weed back and forth, back and forth, exhaling thick clouds of smoke, and I let myself stop thinking about my unpacked boxes and unfinished lesson plans and the growing, nagging realization that he never appeared to worry about anything, or consider consequences.

With the weed, the world in front of us transformed. For the first and last time, we were seeing something that wasn’t there, but seeing it in exactly the same way. What had been a crude, uneven strip of land with scrub trees and overgrown bushes in a rough part of Boston was now—with the help of our stoned minds—a backwoods, southern swamp with heavy fog rising up from the still, dark water.

I pointed out the half-submerged trees growing out of the muck, and he pointed out the moss that hung from the branches like old tattered shawls and we didn’t know how we were creating the same dream world, but we were both seeing it as if it were really there. The apartment building in back of mine—a New England-style triple-decker with chipped paint and a partially cemented yard—was now a beautiful old stilt house with creaky floorboards and a wraparound porch that had water lapping near its edges. All the windows had lit candles in them. Fog rose up and blurred the lights. Look at this, we kept saying. It’s straight out of Louisiana.

Then I got excited about how great it would be if there were alligators down there and maybe an old man smoking a pipe in a rocking chair, and he mentioned the sound of frogs, and together we got lost in the mystery of this new world in the back of my apartment building, or just in the mystery of weed.

Building walls back up is much more difficult. I finally admitted that I couldn’t keep playing the friend game, and he admitted that he’d never be able to play it any differently, and I told him to not to contact me anymore—I would try to do the same. I took two-hour long walks with the dog and smoked weed in order to try to forget about his hands and feet and everything in between and above.

My memories of the awkward roommate he once had been were replaced with everything that had happened since. What is it about men in this culture, I would say to myself.

But eventually I stopped feeling angry, and just let myself be numb, which seemed appropriate since it was winter by then. Snow drifted across my porch, and sometimes I sat out there in a lawn chair, in the freezing cold, smoking a joint, trying desperately to envision bricks, thinking about piling one on top of the other until I’d created a solid wall that could block out the view of what I now knew to be just scrub trees and cement and overgrown bushes—nothing meaningful, nothing magical. But I couldn’t do it. Even while high, it seemed impossible to imagine things that were not there.

Paige Towers earned her BA from the University of Iowa and her MFA from Emerson College. She currently lives in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee and is at work on a book of essays about sound. Her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney's, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number, and many other publications.