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By the end of that summer, I knew Alexandra could never fold a shirt without some part of it wrinkling. I knew how fast she could dice an onion: three minutes, forty-one seconds tops, and then she’d go to stand at the window and dig the heels of her hands into her weeping eyes. I knew how the light fell across her face, across her sharp Roman nose, as she sat at the kitchen table at 5:45 on a Monday evening, and I knew why her parents still called her Mushu. I knew she never wrote to them, rarely called them back, and if she wasn’t going to make the effort with them, then she certainly wouldn’t with me. I knew none of it mattered.

I knew her weakness for almond croissants and for tattoos hidden by her clothes: an infinity symbol on her left hip, a fern curling on her spine, the Deathly Hallows halfway up the inside of her right thigh. I knew she snorted when she laughed. She borrowed my apple-green dress at least once every other week, and I knew I was never going to ask for it back.

I knew she sometimes locked herself in the bathroom and drew a bath and played cassettes—Blind Willie Johnson, Billy Holiday, Julie London, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole. She’d come out later, wrapped in a floral towel, still singing “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” the fragments of lyrics breathed out so softly I could barely hear them, and we’d edge around each other for hours, not talking, not even looking at one another. I knew that outside of work, I was the only person she knew, had bothered to get to know, in Brooklyn.

I knew the way our lives fit together into new routines, soon as comfortable and familiar as though we’d lived together all our lives. We were both morning people, up by 7 a.m. I always started the tea brewing and watered the bonsai tree on the windowsill while she showered; then I showered while she threw together two omelettes, hers with mushroom and red pepper and mine with cheese. We ate in companionable silence, our feet bumping sometimes under the kitchen table as I flipped through the news on my iPad and she pinned her latest comic book open with the edge of her plate. There was no future, those mornings, just an infinite present.

We worked blocks away from each other—she had an internship at a record label on Halsey Street, and I worked at the Brooklyn Museum—but we always walked to the subway together before we had to go our separate ways. This was how I knew she was the kind of person who stopped to pick up litter, or to scratch people’s dogs behind the ears, or browse the menu posted outside a café, or pause mid-stride to look up at a passing plane. And this was how I would’ve known, even if she hadn’t told me, that she’d never lived in a big city till now: she lacked any sense of urgency, of moving straight from Point A to Point B. When going anywhere with her, I learned, I had to leave plenty of time for getting there. A lifetime of this might’ve been too much, but for one summer, I was charmed.

Even before she came home in the afternoons, roughly an hour after I did, the apartment felt inhabited in a way I’d never managed on my own. I didn’t fill the emptiness, but she did, even without being there, just by her orange scarf thrown over the back of a chair, the citrusy smell of her shampoo in the bathroom, a sticky note in her handwriting on the fridge, her reading glasses left unfolded on the kitchen table. I visited places, even my own house, but she could settle into the bones of a place in the span of a few days and uproot even faster.

That summer, she coached me into ordering Pad Thai with medium spiciness instead of mild. She taught me the difference between catsear and dandelion, affect and effect, DC and Marvel. She showed me the proper way to slice a mango and kissed my thumb where I jabbed it with the paring knife. One night when I couldn’t sleep, she let me draw Batman on the back of her hand, then Kokopelli on her forearm, then honeybees swarming from her elbow to her shoulder. As I drew, she told me about the various ways her dad had tried to bribe her every summer to jump off the high dive, back when heights still scared her.

Eventually there were hundreds of these fragments in my head, all scattered and dreamlike in retrospect, but unambiguous. I knew from the start that this wasn’t even close to forever, that she was leaving for D.C. at the end of the summer. Saturating each memory was the knowledge that whatever I felt for her, knew about her, didn’t matter. I tried to remember anyway, keeping these facts about her the way a traveler might keep a coin from every country—not to buy anything, just to say I’ve been here.

 

Alexandra left on the final weekend of September.

“I’m not going to lie, Cecily, I probably won’t call you,” she said at the Amtrak station. It was 9 p.m., a half hour before her train was due in, but she didn’t want me to wait with her, so here we were, hovering, a flock of her bags spread around her feet. She was wearing my green dress.

I grinned, easy and light, and said, “Yeah, I know. But hey, I’ll write to you every now and again. Maybe send you some pictures.”

“Okay. And I’ll send you a postcard or two from D.C.,” she said. Her grip on the handle of her suitcase tightened, and she looked away, at the ticket kiosk in the corner. I knew that in her mind, she’d already gotten on the train; we’d already said everything we had to say; the distance was already there. I knew she wasn’t going to send me a postcard.

I didn’t want her to look at me again the way she’d looked at me the night I drew bees on her arm. I didn’t want her to throw away her ticket and come home with me. I’d never wanted anything like that. I was realistic. But someday, I knew someone was going to run after her, talk her off the train, and anchor her to one city, one street, one house, and she was going to be happy. It was the last thing I was going to know about her.

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