That time, the wife started her letter with:
I’m in Australia now for work. I haven’t been home in six months to the day and I can tell Donnie is having a hard time. I need a letter that will remind him of all the things I love about him.
And as usual, she attached this description to the bottom:
Wife: Suzanna Ward
My Husband: Donnie (Donald) Ward
Donnie: He is just short of six feet. Strong brown eyes. Black hair. Very tan. An endearing beer belly he has no desire to get rid of. He’s apprenticing to become a painting restorer. He listens to books on tape because he has no time to read. If he does read, it’s poetry books before bed. When he’s feeling brave, he does open mics. He initially wanted to be a fireman then quickly learned he was useless in the face of danger.
Us: We dated for five years. We’ve been married for two. My new job requires me to travel often. I am hoping writing him love letters on top of our daily communication will add to our relationship whatever being apart takes away.
Feel free to message me if you have more questions.
At the time, Archeline did feel like Suzanna loved him. If nothing else, she could give her that – that she tried, it seemed. Archie couldn’t give the other couples she wrote for the same grace. Suzanna was consistent, too. In the six months Archie had been writing for her, she’d never gone longer than a few weeks without seeing Suzanna’s name in her inbox. Throughout her time in France, Holland, and New York, Archie could always expect her word.
When Archie first started writing for the Wards, she had thought the way Suzanna spoke of Donnie was refreshing. It wasn’t the callousness she’d grown used to. It hadn’t seemed that she was hired out of indifference or a love that had withered into apathy. They almost had a honeymoon level of admiration for each other that, somehow, persisted after all this time. Not like another patron Archie wrote for, that, through a mini-Facebook investigation, she’d found had been using her letters to throw off his wife as he engaged in an affair.
It seemed Suzanna only wanted to say the right things to Donnie, and she felt that she wasn’t capable of doing so on her own. After three months Archie urged Suzanna to try her hand at letter writing. He loves you, Archie said. Your words will be enough. You don’t need me. But Suzanna always found a way to reel her back in. Besides, Suzanna had said to her once before, he sees your writing as mine now. It’s too late to change. It has to be you.
Archie responded to Suzanna’s most recent message in a chat:
Archeline: Are there any specific details you would like me to put in the letter?
Three dots sprung up as she typed.
Suzanna: Say that I miss the way he stresses the re in refrigerator. He always gets after me for not shutting it all the way and when that happens the fridge starts chiming and he hates it.
Suzanna: Also add that I miss the way he burns our eggs in the morning despite knowing he always has the eye up too hot.
Yawn, Archie said aloud to herself. Instead she wrote:
Archeline: That’s all?
Suzanna: That’s all. Thank you, Archie. I will tell you when he replies.
Suzanna would relay Donnie’s replies back to Archie. There was a time or two when Archie didn’t hear back, though. Once, while at a movie, Archie repeatedly checked her phone for Suzanna’s message. The movie ended, and it hadn’t come. It never did. She went home and lay in bed. Archie stared at the white, cratered popcorn ceiling and thought about what he might have replied with; how he felt when he read it.
When she clicked out of the chat, there was a window up on her work computer. The blue Facebook logo was chipping away at her curiosity. She took a careful look around her cubicle, then, with one fluid spin in her rolling chair, began typing:
She closed out of the tab; too fast, maybe. She did a less panicky turn in her chair.
“How many today?” Iverson stood, leaning against her grey cubicle. His brown skin was dewy like springtime. She wanted to touch it and see if it felt like the gloss that paper pictures were printed on. There was a copy machine murmuring in the distance somewhere, mixing with the sounds of occupied cubicles and the undersides of mugs making contact with desks.
“Just the Wards again.”
“The Wards…” He trailed off dreamily. His tie was so precisely tucked in it almost looked like a balloon animal, but she decided against telling him. “I like them, you know. There’s something particularly attractive about the two of them. Not physically, of course, but in their bond.”
“I like them, too.”
“I know you like them.” His smile was presumptuous. “Are you heading home soon?”
She moved past his prodding. “I think so,” she said. And then suddenly, against herself, “I’m supposed to have a date tonight, so…”
“Look at you.” Iverson moved so his body squared with hers. She had his full attention.
He paused as if to give her the chance to elaborate, but all she did was nod casually. It was then that he abandoned the open space outside her cubicle to claim the only cleared part of her desk with his navy dress pants. “Who’s the guy?”
“You don’t know him.” Technically, this was both true and false.
There was a part of her cubicle that her fixed desk light shone directly on, and he was sitting in the line of fire. His eyes looked all liquid-y brown; like she could pour them in a tin and bake them into brownies.
“What’s his name?”
“Darius.” She was glad that was the name that came to mind.
“Darius…” He nodded. “What are you guys going to do?”
“Stare at each other and eat food, probably.”
“And you’d like that?”
She shrugged and turned back to her computer. “Actually, yeah. I’d like that very much.” This was the one true thing she’d said to him.
When Archie returned to her apartment, she pulled a pink shoebox out from under the bed. It was a collection of all the original, first draft letters she had written for the Wards and Donnie’s printed out replies. It was needed for keeping continuity, though she didn’t keep all her patrons’ letters in a shoebox under her bed. She needed to make sure nothing was ever overlooked; not his hair colour, or the way his hair felt in Suzanna’s fingers. The way Suzanna took her tea. The way Donnie liked his bacon blackened and preferred seltzer water.
Unlike most other couples, Suzanna never sent Archie a photo of the two of them. Through the time she’d spent at the small company, drafting letters out of the fifth floor of an office building, they were the first couple to create that barrier. Being able to see the couple and their physicality often helped with descriptions in the writing, but despite the rapport they had built, Suzanna maintained their privacy. Archie didn’t know what Suzanna’s job was, truthfully. She was, however, able to piece together that they lived in the same city through the mention of local coffee shops relevant to letters and a museum fifteen minutes from her house that Donnie had proposed in. For privacy reasons, however, anyone that submitted requests to the company never knew where it was based. The location wasn’t on the website, and neither were the pictures of the writers, despite their full names being there. Because of this, Archie felt a slick sense of excitement, for knowing they were close while Donnie remained oblivious.
In the box, Archie picked up a letter that Donnie had written to her – to Suzanna – back in May. It was “The Letter,” as Archeline referred to it. The turning point. The letter where he said: Whenever you write to me I feel something inside of me shift, and then, I feel more like myself when I’m talking to you like this. It all came to a head near the end when he said:
It occurred to me when we started writing like this – something I’d never considered before – that all I ever wanted was someone I could be honest with. I’ve been my most honest self-writing to you all these months.
After, he went on about his day, about the paintings he was dealing with and the apple pie he’d attempted to bake the night before, but that was the portion Archie read again and again. That was the Donnie she often imagined in the threshold between her awareness and her sleep. When she crossed that threshold, and again when the sun began to rise. That image of him was there, and it was pestering, and she imagined his black hair in her fingers; his tired breathing in her shoulder. When he signed his letters with: Yours, Donnie, she felt as if it were true.
Archie had tried on many occasions to stop writing for Suzanna, mostly because her intrusion no longer felt like intrusion, but a seat with her name on it. Suzanna always brought her back in.
In reply, Archeline responded to “The Letter” with a three-page letter – partially with:
Before your letter, honesty in relationships had never really occurred to me – not in the way you explained it. I feel it now, but on about our third date – when the car broke down – I’d been fighting every urge to grab your hand and kiss the back of it over and over again. Are fighting my urges dishonest?
To which Donnie replied, simply:
I love the way you say things.
After she read that letter, she went for a five-mile run and slept until noon the next day.
She kept writing for them.
She started the new letter that night:
Donnie, I hope you understand that being this far away from you is no easy feat for me…
She wrote through the rest of the night. Through the sounds of her housemate and her housemate’s boyfriend spinning ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ on the record player in the kitchen as they cooked; through the dinner itself, their laughter, and then the sudden silence as they fell asleep on the couch and track thirteen skipped over the same part incessantly, Lennon crooning, I’d love to turn you on.
Anytime Archie had tried to look up Donnie on Facebook there were no results. The first couple times she figured she was mistyping “Donald” considering she only ever addressed him as Donnie. Then she checked under Donnie Ward, which met her with white men with blonde hair, or white men with brown hair, sure. One or two with black hair. One gay and married, one straight and single. Don Ward? DW? No results.
At work the next day, she messaged Suzanna again:
Archeline: Hi Suze.
Suzanna: Hello, Archeline!
Archeline: Your letter should be in your inbox. Feel free to read it over and tell me if there’s anything I should change.
A pause. Blinking dots appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Suzanna: It’s perfect, Archeline.
Suzanna: I’m very happy I met you.
And then, without thinking:
Archeline: When do you return from abroad?
Suzanna: Not sure. I’m meant to return by Christmas but I’m at my company’s mercy. Could be gone forever (haha!)
Archeline: That’s a shame. I would love to meet you sometime.
A much longer pause. Fifteen minutes’ worth of white computer screen. Then:
Suzanna: Oh, Archeline. You know that should not happen.
“Archie,” Iverson led with, as he always does.
“Give me the rundown. How was your food and staring?” He moved into her cubicle and assumed the same position he did the day before. She shut off her computer.
“As it always is.” She wasn’t sure what that really meant.
“Nice,” she corrected. “Pleasant. Refreshing.”
“No one has ever described a first date as refreshing.”
“How do you know it was the first?”
It was around then that she wondered if she enjoyed this tension; the creation of a hole she would need to dig herself out of.
“You keep such a low profile.” Iverson sucked on his teeth and looked up at the ceiling. She suspected they both knew she was lying and instead were just playing a game to pass the time. “Tell me something.”
“Something…” She turned her body so they were square with each other.
“Something that happened last night. Was he good to you?”
She nodded. “We got sushi and he paid. At some point he reached across the table and wiped some spicy mayo off my face which was…endearing.”
“That is endearing.”
“I thought so.” His eyes were digging into hers. “He drove me home and kissed me. A pretty standard date.”
“Can I see a picture of him?”
“You could,” she teased. “If I showed you one.”
“And can you not?”
“I would rather keep my work life and personal life separate.”
“I thought you two were serious.” He was playing with a pink highlighter on her desk and tracing the dark lines in his palm.
“Who said that?”
“Well it wasn’t a first date.”
“Does that make it serious?”
“No,” he added after a moment. “But it also doesn’t make it casual.” He reached for her wrist and held it, pulling her hand so it was palm up. Iverson began to trace the lines of her hand with the cold ink of the lighter, carving meandering pink pathways over her palm. She thought it felt nice. She wondered if Darius, in his non-existent realm, would do things like that; if Donnie ever had to Suzanna.
“How do you feel about writing letters?” Iverson said.
She took her eyes from their hands and up to his face. It was still facing down, deeply concentrated on his forming artwork. His dark eyebrows were touching together in the middle.
“What do you mean?”
“How does it make you feel?” He finally looked up then and gently laid her hand back in her lap. “There you go.”
Iverson is looking for honesty, she thought. It was the warm static in his voice; the distracted hand scratching his leg.
“Well,” she began. “Well, yeah. I don’t know. It’s odd, I guess.”
“You don’t think so?”
“No, I think so,” he smiled. “But I want to know why you think so.” He sat back and twirled the highlighter in his fingers the way kids used to do with pencils in middle school.
She evaded his eyes for a moment.
“In some ways I’m lying…I’m helping someone lie. In some ways I’m not.” He nodded, hummed, mhmm to encourage her to continue. “Either way we don’t exist really, do we? Not actually. Not outside of the letters. We’re in a weird, grey, lover’s purgatory.” She looked back at him. He leaned forward. “But it doesn’t always feel that way.”
“It is a bit weird writing all these beautiful, kind things about someone you don’t know, and you will never know. I have struggled with that a bit.”
“But they don’t know that, they just know that they’re being loved and that has to feel nice, right? I’m sure if I was on the receiving end of one of these I would like, combust.”
“I know I would.” She laughed. It stifled something sadder.
Iverson stood up for a moment, jumping a bit to wake up his legs. “Maybe I can write you one day – pretend to be your lover of 10 years or something, and you can write me one, and we can see what it’s like.”
“Ah, more work,” she joked, despite the curious feeling the proposition gave her.
“But this time it’ll be for us. And the work is never for us, so, is it work?”
“As long as you make me funnier in the letters.” She smiled, using one foot to press down hard on the other. “Make me funnier and a better cook, maybe.”
“Yeah, alright. I can do that.”
“What would you want me to say in yours?”
“Mmmmm.” His face contorted for a second, and he headed back to the open space of her cubicle. Iverson rolled up the blue cuffs of his dress shirt and said without looking at her, “Just write me as I am. I think that’s all I’d really want.”
Though she was not proud of it, and up until that point had avoided doing this exact thing, that night before bed she allowed herself to really think about Donnie; fully, with all the maddening emotion she was always attempting to squander. She imagined they were nose to nose in bed – their foreheads pressed together and his warm breath teasing a kiss on her lips, filling the space between them that was hardly even there. The fabric of her sheets chilled the inside of her fingers that night. She imagined it was Donnie’s hands after having just washed them with cold water. She’d stretched her right arm out over the empty space, over his chest – and whispered into the air, into his ear, that she was happy that she had met him, and he whispered it back.
Two months had gone by before she heard from Suzanna again, which surpassed her usual couple of weeks. When Suzanna wrote her again, Archie and Iverson were working overtime on a Friday. The empty office lulled with the sound of the heat humming. All the others had gone home. Iverson had taken his work laptop and set up camp in the only free corner of her cubicle, quietly playing Talking Heads off his phone. ‘And She Was’ began when Archie read the message in her inbox.
Sorry to be distant for so long. Anyways—
Donnie is doing a poetry reading at a coffee shop next Saturday and I wanted to write him a letter of encouragement. I felt like it would be nice for him to have some written affirmations since he’s a bit out of practice in terms of performance. I was thinking about having something by Wednesday or Friday? What do you think?
“What is it?” Iverson moved to her desk and began to hover over her right shoulder.
She exited to her desktop.
“What do you mean?”
“You gasped.” He crouched down to her level and began scanning her face. “And your eyes look like golf balls.”
“Do they?” She looked in the desk mirror next to a family photo. Her eyes were wide.
“Was that the Wards?” He reached for the mouse and opened the minimised email tab.
“Iverson, no.” Her hand hovered over his. She exited out of it, then picked at nothing on her face.
Iverson turned to the corner of the cubicle he had been working in and pulled his rolling chair so it was directly across from hers. Their knees were touching in precise 90-degree angles. He had a pitying look on his face that made all his stoic features soft like a baby.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he said, leaning back casually like there was a point he had and he would be proving it very soon. “It’s happened to all of us.”
“What has?” She was looking at his neatly polished dress shoes.
“Look,” he started. The back of the chair creaked under his pressure. “For me it was the very first couple I wrote for long term. Four months in and I was living on the wife’s Facebook page. Mira, the girl next to me –” he pointed next door to where his cubicle was, “– hers was from just a one-off letter. A girl wanted just one love letter sent to her girlfriend and she was hooked. When you write for someone long term things can get…weird.” She was still admiring his shoes and the way the light bounced off them like a diving board. “I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.”
Archie said nothing for a moment. Iverson allowed it.
She then pulled herself from his shoes and turned to his eyes.
“I think they live around here.”
His mouth parted, stunned. “Really?”
“They don’t … know we’re based here, do they?”
She shook her head. “No. I never disclosed it. And it’s not on the site, so…”
“What about the guy you’re seeing?” He added cautiously, perhaps just to reach the final instalment of their game –just to say they saw it through.
She turned back to his shoes, as if there was more to see. She raised her shoulders and said, “Eh.” She looked at him. “What did you study in undergrad?”
He looked at her apprehensively. “Journalism, why?”
“But you wrote poetry, too on the side, correct?” He nodded. “Did you ever do poetry open mics?”
“Maybe one or two in my whole four years. There’s only one coffee shop around here that hosts poetry open mics, so it was always crowded, and stages aren’t really my thing.” His hand was on his neck, loosening his tie, unbuttoning the top button of his shirt.
“Hm. I never would’ve guessed that.”
“That there aren’t more open mics?”
“That you have stage fright.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, well.”
She turned back over to the computer and opened the email. She sat back while he scanned it over.
“And you know they live around here?”
“Fairly confident,” she said.
“And you…want to…go?”
“I don’t know.” Archie tore up a sticky note just to feel something in her hands. “I feel like I have to.” The yellow bits fell to the ground. “It might help me in some way. Seeing him.”
Iverson’s face got all twisted up. “Shit, Arch. What if you get fired?”
“Why, would you miss me?”
“I’d miss having another 23-year-old in the office,” he explained, though the corner of his mouth was tugging to the right when he said it.
She had a brief and innocent fantasy about him –about riding bikes on the bike trail in the park by her house. It was autumn in it and there was a green leaf stuck to the back of his shirt. Then she saw him standing in the sterile white of her cubicle with his pestering eyes. Then, she thought about Donnie, standing on stage, delivering poetry not knowing what was to come when he came off stage. It felt like she was blindly throwing darts at a dart board. An unknown warm feeling was the bullseye.
The following Saturday Archie held a physical copy of the most recent letter in her hand as Iverson wove them through their small-town excuse for a downtown. It was a handwritten version of the letter Suzanna had asked for.
Iverson’s car was old. When they’d first gotten into it, he handed Archie a Ziploc bag of loose CD’s and said: You can DJ.
She felt around in the bag as the sunlight burned into darkness beside her.
“How much longer?”
“I’d say, five.”
Archie pushed her pointer finger in the centre hole of a CD written on with blue sharpie that said, ‘Mix #25’. She held it out to the CD player like it was a bowling ball. There were white marks etched all over the silver back of the disk. Once the disk was in, a very choppy version of New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ skipped through to the end in a matter of seconds. ‘Every Little Counts’ however, played significantly better. It was bare in comparison to the last song, with light percussion and moments of emptiness. Archie snorted as the singer laughed through the first verse.
Every second counts/ When I am with you/ [laughter] I think you are a pig/ You should be in a zoo/ I guess I should’ve known I’d end up on my own/ Every sound counts/ when I am with you
“Do you like it?” he said as they pulled to a stoplight.
“I just think it’s nice that he’s laughing. The words are funny, too.”
“It all comes together in the end in this really big way,” he said. “Just wait for it.” He turned his head towards her. The green glow of the traffic light painted his profile and all the sharp lines of his geometry boldly. She didn’t know what to make of it.
They drove in silence, only disrupted by the jumpy track flowing in and out of cooperation. They pulled into a metered parking spot outside of a coffee shop called Kafé Kobalt. There was fluorescent light filtering through the curtained windows. The silhouette of a stage –of people.
“What’s the plan when you get in there, huh?”
Archie looked at the letter in her hand–her slanted, passionate handwriting, then up to Iverson’s patient face swallowing the dark of the car.
“Hell if I know.”
Iverson’s eyes turned from her, to the road, then back to her. He pulled the keys from the ignition, unlocked the car and with an anxious smile said, “Do you actually love this guy?”
Archeline turned her head towards the shop to her right and picked at the fraying skin around her pointer finger.
“I mean, I think so.” In the silence that followed she looked up at Iverson who was smiling warily to himself. “What?”
He shook his head, still grinning. “Come on.”
Once inside, the two of them sat in the back corner of the coffee shop. It was the only free table left. Iverson was getting himself and Archie a pot of Earl Grey to split while Archie gazed into the white light shining onto the stage. There, she thought. That’s where he’ll be standing. She wondered what his voice would sound like, what shoes he would be wearing.
She wondered what she wanted.
It occurred to her that she could sit there, quietly in the back with Iverson and snap when she was supposed to. She could turn to Iverson and say, That’s him. Look at him. And then they could drink their tea and step out the back door when the time came. She could also walk up to Donnie and say, I’ve been speaking to you all these months. I’m Archeline, I’m 23 and I think about you a lot. Or, Hey, I liked your poem. And he might say, Thanks, what’s your name? And then she could tell him.
Thanks, Archeline, he could say before walking back to his table and ending their interaction forever. That’s always nice to hear.
“Hey.” Iverson set the small pot down on their table, followed by a small bowl of honey and two teacups. “There’s a sign-up list on the bulletin board. I took a picture for you.”
He pulled his phone out and showed her the photo.
She read it.
“Foster Roberts, Rose Turner, Nadia Hayes, August Summers…”
“Cool name.” He took a sip.
“Andrius, Luca, Darshan Walla…” She scanned the list twice over and looked up with tense eyebrows. “He’s not here?”
“Let me look.”
She gave Iverson the phone.
“August, Andrius, Luca, Darshan, Emile, Conn—”
“He’s not there I’m telling you.”
“Well that doesn’t make sense. Check Suzanna’s email again.”
Archie pulled out her phone and scanned the email:
“Right here. It says: Donnie is doing a poetry reading at a coffee shop next Saturday. She sent that on a Friday, and she wanted something by the following Wednesday so it couldn’t have been last Saturday. It had to be this Saturday.” She could feel sweat soaking into the cotton of her t-shirt. She thought she might throw up her heart.
“Maybe he’s not signed up yet.” Iverson looked at Archie slumped over her hand, elbow on the table. “We can sit for a while and listen. Maybe he’ll show up.”
“Okay.” He rubbed her back and she stared at the brown floorboards.
Archie imagined Donnie’s physical form in that room. His tan skin. His black hair. His painter’s fingers and poet’s mouth.
The poetry happening in the background was radio static.
“I don’t know how I feel about this one,” Iverson whispered.
“What? This poem?”
Archie turned her ears back on but by the time she’d paid attention all she heard was snapping. She looked up to the stage and watched the man clutching his green moleskin in his hand.
“I didn’t hear anything. I was zoned out.”
“You didn’t miss much.”
The snapping continued and the poet walked off the stage.
“I’m kind of hungry,” Iverson said. “Do they have any pastries up there?”
“Probably. Want me to check?”
Iverson nodded and pulled a ten-dollar bill between his fingers.
“Spare me.” Archie laughed.
When she walked up to the counter there was a weirdly spaced-out queue that staggered and turned in ways a queue shouldn’t. The poet from just before was in line but off to the side.
“Excuse me, are you in line?” she asked.
The man turned around and looked at her with brown, round, moon eyes. His mouth was slightly parted as he nodded.
“Okay, sorry.” She got behind him.
When it was the man’s turn to order he got an iced chai latte with oat milk.
“What’s the name?”
“Darshan,” he mumbled stoically.
Archie ordered two blueberry muffins after him. He hung around the table with the napkins and straws.
When she walked over to the table to get napkins Darshan was stood there, subtly eyeing her from the side. She tried to ignore it, until he said:
“What did you think of my poem?” It sounded like he said it by accident.
She turned to him with two wobbly muffins in her napkin stuffed hands.
“Oh…well, you know.” She looked around the room. Iverson was playing on his phone. “It was nice, I guess.”
“You guess?” There was a hurt smile between his cheeks.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“Yeah. I’m kind of bummed tonight, honestly. I’m sure your poem was lovely, though.”
Darshan moved to the side a bit to allow another person access to the counter.
“Why are you bummed?” This was said slowly.
She shrugged because he didn’t feel like explaining to a stranger that she was considering homewrecking a long-time relationship. Instead she said: “I thought I’d see someone here.”
Darshan looked at Archie, long and confused. His hand found the back of his neck and he scratched harshly at the hair back there. He whispered an expletive under his breath, but she couldn’t be sure what. A combination of shit and fuck, maybe.
He took a long, deep, heavy breath, and then said:
“Why are you here?” This sounded more intentional.
Archie looked up at the man and the bending worry lines on his brown face.
“Why are you here?” Quieter, now.
“I’m… here to see someone.” His skin.
“Archeline.” His eyes closed when he said it. Archie’s grew wider. “This was a bad idea.”
She was deadly still in her shoes. His hair. His shaggy black hair.
“Come, sit,” he said, showing her to his table.
Darshan sat with his back to the stage as another poet began to speak. She looked at him with purpose this time. The black hair that fell to his ears. The skin that was the same colour as hers. The brown eyes. His body in the chair across from hers. His near-ness. His movement.
“Wait, so, you know?” Archie whispered. “How did you find out?” Her foot brushed his under the table. She thought she might short circuit.
“Before you go, I need you to know that I didn’t think this out. I just started…I don’t know. You just love Suze so much, and she’s using me to write to you, and I thought you should know. I make all of it up. I say it all and it isn’t coming from her. And you should know, you know. You deserve the honesty you’ve been asking for.”
“Stop, please.” His palms were rubbing his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think this through.” Her thoughts were doing marathons in her brain. Those neurons were firing themselves out of canons.
Darshan didn’t say anything for two minutes. Iverson was staring at them from across the room.
His face was sagging so low you could catch it. She wanted to.
He looked at her in the eyes for the first time in a while. Something inside of her twisted.
“How did you know it was me?”
He shook his phone lazily, still doing everything in slow motion. “Your name’s on the website. I just…” Darshan leaned forward onto the table and mimed looking something up on the computer. “Look, I appreciate you coming or whatever. I don’t know what you were looking for or what you wanted to do, but you don’t have to worry about me.” He nodded his head towards Iverson. “You can go back to your friend.”
“I know, I know. I just…does it not bother you?” Her eyes were glossing over. “Do you see that it’s been me, all of it, all this time?” She shook her head waiting for something to click in him. “None of it’s real. Does that not bother you?”
After a moment, a poet left the stage and a symphony of snaps erupted. More to himself than to her he said, she’s not gonna give it up.
She couldn’t make out what he said.
When he looked back at her, his face looked like a surrender; soft and malleable. His shoulders rose and fell with his breath.
Darshan pulled out his phone, showed it to her, typed something, then put it away.
When Archeline looked down she had an email from Suzanna.
Oh, Archeline. You know that should not happen.
She looked at the words. And then again. Then she bathed and soaked in them and let them dry into her psyche. When she looked up, Darshan was looking at Iverson. Iverson was looking at Archie with raised eyebrows. Her face was loose with confusion.
Iverson mouthed: Are you okay?
She mouthed back: One sec.
Archie turned back to Darshan. He was leaned back in his wooden chair. His wide shoulders were back in his plaid shirt. His legs were open. He was ready to be dismantled.
“But…” She scanned his body, but he did not protest. She waited for him to interject, and he never did. “But…”
She was trying to ask him a question.
“I don’t know, Archie.” He took a sip from his drink and flicked the paper from his straw off the table. “Why not?”
A myriad of questions popped into her head one by one –like why he chose a different name – but in a way, she felt like she could answer them on her own. So, she just stood up and scooted in her chair. In most ways he was still the Donnie she’d been speaking to all that time. A part of her still wanted to love him. Wanted to tell him that, but it began to feel more like pity in the moment, or something else less real. Still, she managed to say: “I thought about you a lot.”
His face twisted, like she pinched him.
“Ah, Damnit, Archeline. I never wanted it to become all this.” His voice was low and sad. He scratched his back with his long nails. “I mean, sometimes I wondered about you, but mainly I just needed… something. Someone. It just gets like that sometimes, you know?”
She nodded slowly but wasn’t entirely sure why.
“If you just wanted…that, you could’ve just said that. You didn’t have to come up with all this.” This was so soft it was more a thought than anything. “I would’ve still done it. I would’ve still talked to you.”
“Would you have? Would you have been shameless enough to just bare it all if you were me?”
She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know, at that time, that Darshan would email her again two months later as himself, apologising for the trouble, and explaining a sensation that he described as “his gap”; the emptiness in his ribcage, and how that bareness could only be filled by love, or at least the illusion of it, by anyone. I needed to know what it would be like; he would eventually say. I never imagined it would become real for you.
But there, that night, it was just him across from her, evading her eyes. Would you have?
After a long moment, she whispered, “Okay,” mostly to herself, not knowing what it meant in that context.
“Yeah,” he whispered back, staring at the wall to his left. “Alright.”
At that, still stunned, she turned around slowly and walked back to Iverson’s table.
She set down the muffins back at her table and then looked over at Darshan, scribbling hopelessly in his notebook—sitting at his table alone.
“Was that Donnie?” Iverson said, ripping a piece out of his muffin.
“In some ways. I’ll explain later.”
“Really?” She nodded. “Did you tell him you weren’t paying attention?”
“Bru-tal.” His smile was tinted blue. “Do you want to stick around?”
“No.” She looked at Iverson and he nodded in agreement. “Let’s get some real food or something.”
“Alright then.” He looked around the room a second and started brushing the muffin crumbs off the table. Iverson stood up and Archie followed suit. “In some ways, huh?”
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it myself,” she said, pushing in her chair.
After Iverson started the car again ‘Every Little Counts’ was still playing, but it was smoother, less fractured.
“This is what I was talking about,” he said as they sped through a green light. “The good part’s coming.”
She waited for it.
Allegra Solomon is a fiction writer from Columbus, Ohio. She is a current MFA candidate at University Kentucky. She got her B.A. in Creative Writing from Ohio University. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Sphere Magazine.