I'm Thinking of Ending Things Page 2

Jake is long and sloping and unequal, with jagged cheekbones. A little bit gaunt. I liked those skeletal cheekbones when I first saw them. His dark, full lips make up for his underfed look. Fat and meaty and collagenic, especially the bottom one. His hair was short and unkempt and maybe longer on one side, or texturally different, like he had distinct hairstyles on each side of his head. His hair was neither dirty nor recently washed.

He was clean-shaven and wore thin-framed silver glasses, the right arm of which he would absentmindedly adjust. Sometimes he would push them back up with his index finger on the bridge. I noticed that he had this tick: when he was concentrating on something, he would smell the back of one hand, or at least hold it under his nose. It’s something he often still does. He wore a plain gray T-shirt, I think, maybe blue, and jeans. The shirt looked like it had been washed hundreds of times. He blinked a lot. I could tell he was shy. We could have sat there all night, beside each other, and he wouldn’t have said a word to me. He smiled at me once, but that was it. If I’d left it up to him, we never would have met.

I could tell he wasn’t going to say anything, so I talked first.

“You guys are doing pretty well.” That was the first thing I said to Jake.

He held up his beer glass. “We’re helpfully fortified.”

And that was it. Ice broken. We talked a bit more. Then, very casually, he said, “I’m a cruciverbalist.”

I said something noncommittal, like “huh” or “yeah.” I didn’t know that word.

Jake said he wanted his team’s name to be Ipseity. I didn’t know what that word meant, either. And initially I thought about faking it. I could already tell, despite his caution and reticence, that he was exotically smart. He wasn’t aggressive in any way. He wasn’t trying to pick me up. No cheesy lines. He was just enjoying chatting. I got the feeling he didn’t date all that much.

“I don’t think I know that word,” I said. “Or the other one.” I decided that, like most men, he would probably like to tell me about it. He would like it better than if he thought I already knew the words and had an equally varied vocabulary.

“Ipseity is essentially just another way to say selfhood or individuality. It’s from the Latin ipse, which means self.”

I know this part sounds pedantic and lecture-y and off-putting, but trust me, it wasn’t. Not at all. Not from Jake. He had a gentleness, an appealing, natural meekness.

“I thought it would be a good name for our team, considering there are many of us but we aren’t like any other team. And because we play under a single team name, it creates an identity of oneness. Sorry, I don’t know if this makes any sense, and it’s definitely boring.”

We both laughed, and it felt like we were alone together in there, in that pub. I drank some beer. Jake was funny. Or he at least had a sense of humor. I still didn’t think he was as funny as me. Most men I meet aren’t.

Later in the night, he said, “People just aren’t very funny. Not really. Funny is rare.” He said it as if he’d known exactly what I’d been thinking earlier.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” I said. I liked hearing such a definitive statement about “people.” There was deep confidence bubbling just under his veneer of restraint.

When I could tell he and his teammates were getting ready to leave, I thought about asking for his number or giving him mine. I desperately wanted to but just couldn’t. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to call. I wanted him to want to call, of course. I really did. But I settled on the likelihood that I would see him around. It was a university town, not a big city. I’d bump into him. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for chance.

He must have slipped the note into my purse when he said good night. I found it when I got home:

If I had your number, we could talk, and I’d tell you something funny.

He’d written his number at the bottom of the note.

Before going to bed I looked up cruciverbalist. I laughed and believed him.

—I still don’t understand. How could something like this happen?

—We’re all in shock.

—Nothing so horrible has ever happened around here.

—No, not like this.

—In all the years I’ve worked here.

—I would think not.

—I didn’t sleep last night. Not a wink.

—Me neither. Couldn’t get comfortable. I can barely eat. You should have seen my wife when I told her. I thought she was going to be sick.

—How could he actually do it, go through with it? You don’t do that on a whim. You couldn’t.

—It’s scary is what it is. Scary and disturbing.

—So did you know him? Were you close, or . . . ?

—No, no. Not close. I don’t think anyone was close with him. He was a loner. That was his nature. Kept to himself. Standoffish. Some knew him better. But . . . you know.

—It’s crazy. It doesn’t seem real.

—It’s one of those terrible things, but unfortunately it’s very real.

“How are the roads?”

“Not bad,” he says. “A little slick.”

“Glad it’s not snowing.”

“Hopefully it won’t start.”

“It looks cold out there.”

Individually, we’re both unspectacular. It seems noteworthy. Combining our ingredients, Jake’s lean height with my overt shortness, makes no sense. Alone in a crowd, I feel condensed, overlook-able. Jake, despite his height, also blends into a crowd. When we’re together, though, I notice people looking at us. Not at him or at me: at us. Individually, I blend in. So does he. As a couple, we stand out.

Within six days of meeting at the pub, we’d had three proper meals together, gone for two walks, met for coffee, and watched a movie. We talked all the time. We’d been intimate. Jake has told me twice after seeing me naked that I remind him—in a good way, he stressed—of young Uma Thurman, a “compressed” Uma Thurman. He called me “compressed.” That was the word. His word.

He’s never called me sexy. Which is fine. He’s called me pretty and he said “beautiful” once or twice, the way guys do. Once he called me therapeutic. I’d never heard that from anyone before. It was right after we’d fooled around.

I thought it might happen—fooling around—but it wasn’t planned. We’d just started making out on my couch after dinner. I’d made soup. For dessert we were splitting a bottle of gin. We were passing it back and forth, taking swigs right from the bottle like high school kids getting drunk before a dance. This instance felt much more urgent than the other times we’d made out. When the bottle was half-finished, we moved to the bed. He took off my top, and I unzipped his pants. He let me do what I wanted.

He kept saying, “Kiss me, kiss me.” Even if I stopped for only three seconds. “Kiss me,” again and again. Other than that, he was quiet. The lights were off, and I could barely hear him breathing.

I couldn’t see him very well.

“Let’s use our hands,” he said. “Only our hands.”

I thought we were about to have sex. I didn’t know what to say. I went along with it. I’d never done that before. When we were finished he collapsed on top of me. We stayed like that for a bit, eyes closed, breathing. Then he rolled over and sighed.

I don’t know how long it was after that, but eventually Jake got up and went to the bathroom. I lay there, watching him walk, listening to the tap running. I heard the toilet flush. He was in there for a while. I was looking at my toes, wiggling them.

I was thinking then that I should tell him about the Caller. But I just couldn’t. I wanted to forget about it. Telling him would make it more serious than I wanted it to be. That was the closest I came to telling him.

I was lying there alone when a memory came to mind. When I was very young, maybe six or seven, I woke up one night and saw a man at my window. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time. I don’t often talk—or even think—about it. It’s sort of a nebulous, patchy memory. But the parts I recall, I remember with clarity. This is not a story I offer up at dinner parties. I’m not sure what people would make of it. I’m not sure I know what to make of it myself. I don’t know why it came to mind that night.

HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent? Instinct always trumps reason. At night, when I wake up alone, the memory still terrifies me. It scares me more the older I get. Each time I remember it, it seems worse, more sinister. Maybe each time I remember it, I make it worse than it was. I don’t know.

I woke up for no reason that night. It’s not like I had to go to the bathroom. My room was very quiet. There was no coming to. I was immediately wide-awake. This was unusual for me. It always takes me a few seconds, or even minutes, to come to. This time, I woke up like I’d been kicked.

I was lying on my back, which was also unusual. I normally sleep on my side or stomach. The covers were up around me, tight, like I’d just been tucked in. I was hot, sweating. My pillow was moist. My door was closed, and the night-light that I usually left on was off. The room was dark.

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