What I Ask of You — Katharine Bost

It’s half past midnight when you wake me up. The light beside our bed is on, and you shake me—a rough shake that creates bruises on my shoulder blade from your careless fingertips.

I’m delirious, and when I sit up, only one side of my hair touches my shoulders. Before I went to sleep, both sides did. I’m tired of these uneven haircuts, but I’m even more tired of never getting a full night’s rest.

“It’s time,” you say, and you are already dressed. Formal wear. Your eyes are wide and pupils are blown, but I can’t tell what drug you’ve taken. It’s too early and my mind is hazy.

I dig the heels of my palm into my eyes as if that will wake me up. It doesn’t. Cotton is on my tongue and it tastes stale. “Time for what?”

There are no clouds in the night sky. I know this because the curtain to our window is open, and moonlight shines in. Being able to see the moon relaxes me.

It doesn’t relax me tonight.

“Our meeting,” you say. You get up off the bed and bounce on the balls of your feet. The knot on your tie is loose, but I don’t reach up and tighten it. Your fingertips leave bruises, and I’m not yet healed.

“Where is the meeting?”

It’s not what I want to ask. I want to ask who we’re meeting. I want to ask why we’re meeting them in the middle of the night. I want to ask why I have to go with you to pick up drugs. I have my own dealer; I don’t need to trek out to wherever yours is. Besides that, you help yourself to my stash, and I never get anything of yours.

“TradeWinds. On Gulf Boulevard. Just get dressed. Wear something nice,” you say.

Your response makes me stop stripping the sheets off my body. TradeWinds is a little fancy for a drug deal. There are bound to be cops everywhere for the safety of the patrons. I don’t know if I want to join.

Then I notice that there’s a filled duffel bag at the end of the bed. The mattress creases around it, the fabric of the comforter puckering. The letters from your high school logo have peeled off the side of the bag until only bury igh hool remains.

I stare at the spaces where forgotten letters used to reside. What happened to them after they detached from the bag? Did you pick the pieces from the ground and assemble them so they read what you desired? Or did you shove them into a trash can? Did you burn them with your lighter? Maybe you stubbed your cigarette out on them and smiled while they melted from the pressure of your touch.

Maybe I am the letters and you are the duffel bag.

“What’s in the bag?” I ask as I try to find my bra. I know it’s somewhere in my suitcase, but I’m having trouble locating it. Unpacking my suitcase would probably solve the I can never find any of my clothes issue, but I’m afraid to unpack because I know that the moment I do, you will ask me to pack my things up and leave. And although life might be better without the judgmental curl of your lip or insult of the hour, I’m afraid of that too. I’m afraid because I don’t know who I am without those things. They are my identity. Without them, I am just letters. Forgotten letters that have peeled away from something that once resembled a human.

“Clothes,” you say. “And books. For our journey.”

Our journey. I wonder where you believe we will go this time, or what will happen so that we don’t.

“You need to hurry up,” you say. “He won’t wait forever.”

“Who is he sending?”

“An agent. Important. C.I.A. We can’t risk me falling into the wrong hands. So hurry the hell up, or I’m going to leave you behind.”

I debate begging you to never leave me behind, but I end up deciding not to say anything at all. Instead, I continue to search for my bra.

You toss a dress in my general direction. It lands at my feet, wrinkled from being stuffed in the closet without a care. “Here. Wear this. He’ll love it.”

I pick the garment up, turn it over in my hands. The wrinkles are too noticeable. You must have noticed them. Behind your head, I see my bra hanging in the closet. Somewhere I would never put it. I don’t go for it. I know why you’ve put it there.

I slip the dress on. It bunches in odd places on my body. The creases seem to taunt me as I look at myself in the mirror.

My face is swollen, and there are pimples along my forehead and chin. I am not wearing makeup because you will not allow me to wear makeup. The hairs on my legs brush against each other as I step closer to the mirror. I haven’t shaved my legs in months because you will not allow me to groom myself. The dress is not bunched in odd places. It is bunched on pockets of excess skin and fat. I am not allowed to run because you will not allow me to exercise.

You pull the strings and my puppet head turns to you. “Does this dress look okay?”

“You look fine,” you say, but you are not looking at me and you don’t notice how the words sting.

I don’t want to look fine. I want to look beautiful. I want to be beautiful for once in my life. I thought that you might make me feel beautiful, but you have never wanted to.

We are delusional.

You think that you’re communicating telepathically with the president. You think that he has sent someone to bring you to the White House so that you can correspond face-to-face about the fate of the world. You think that you are the second coming of Christ.

I think that you love me.

“We’re leaving now,” you say. You zip the duffel bag up, and I realize that you didn’t put any of my things in the bag. None of my clothes. None of my books. I wish you would have asked me. I could have told you what I needed. I could have packed a bag for myself.

I try to zip my dress up, but my arms can’t bend around my back. It remains unzipped, and you do not offer to help me.

You do not open the car door for me. You do not wait for me to get inside the car before you start it. You do not wait for me to buckle my seatbelt before you put the car in reverse.

I light up a Camel and crush the menthol ball to release the minty flavor. You take the cigarette from me and say, “Damnit. I hate it when you crush the ball. I don’t like menthols as much as regulars.”

It is your cigarette now. I light another one for me. It is my last one. I crush the ball.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” you say as you blow smoke out with each word. “I didn’t want to bring you with me, but the president insisted. This is too important of a mission, but he thinks you’re essential.”

The mint is bitter and burns my tongue.

“Okay,” I say.

I look at you and try to figure out if there was ever a time that you loved me. If on our first date, when you surprised me with wine and roses. If when you asked me to be your girlfriend. If when you took me to all those baseball games and kept your arm around me through every inning. If when you wore that Jacksonville Jaguars shirt I bought you, even though you hate the Jaguars and it had been several years since they had a winning season. If when you proposed at the threshold of my bathroom after we’d been drinking too much at Outback.

I think about these moments often, but I can never figure out what they mean. I can never figure out if they mean love or if they mean control.

Maybe love and control are the same thing.

You are talking about the mission and what it means for you. Not what it means for us.

I stare at the burning cherry at the end of my cigarette when I inhale. It is a safe thing to look at, but it will extinguish soon. I toss the cigarette out the window.

We pull up to the resort, and you park in the back of the parking lot far away from all other cars. I want to ask you why the agent didn’t just pick us up at home because our car might be towed, but I don’t.

You throw the duffel bag at me and curse when I don’t catch it. I stumble to the ground to grab the long strap so I can sling it over my shoulder, but the fabric rips, and the bag tumbles to the ground again.

You push me into the car. “Use the handles, dumbass.”

It’s all you say before you walk off. I am left with the deteriorating duffel bag and a bruise on my elbow from hitting the car.

But I pick up the bag and scurry after you. It is heavy, and I wish I didn’t have to carry it, but I’m afraid to ask you to relieve me.

You walk into the inner courtyard. The hotel borders this courtyard. Surrounds it, like it is a treasure. It is beautiful, and there are beautiful people throughout. Each person is holding at least one drink.

A brunette around my age stops me as we walk past. You don’t notice this exchange, and you continue walking until you’re in the middle of the courtyard.

She reaches out and, for a second, I think she’s going to touch me, but then her hand is back at her side, the other hand cradling what looks to be a margarita. She is squinting like she is asking me a question, but I don’t know what she’s asking, so I don’t answer.

She smiles at me, and for a moment, I want to drop the duffel bag and have a conversation with her. As she looks at me, despite my disheveled state, I think that I could possibly be beautiful to someone.

But then her boyfriend bounds up to her, asking her what she is doing. She is whisked away, leaving only a parting smile, and I am left forgotten.

I try to forget her too, but she reminds me of someone I used to know and someone who I think I loved that may have loved me, but you tell me that belief is impossible. You constantly tell me that I am unlovable and that I am lucky that you love me.

I must be lucky, I think, as I run to catch up to where you’re standing.

I wait for you to notice my presence, but you don’t acknowledge me at first. You stare up at the top floor of the hotel, where the rooms are.

“See that man? The one that’s standing in front of the room door. Second to the top floor. See him?”

I think of the brunette’s smile. I think of the way her fingers curled around the stem of her drink glass.

“I see him.” Even far away, the man doesn’t look right. He towers over the railing in front of him, but his arms are crossed, and he is not wearing a shirt. Bright pink and yellow hibiscuses are on his board shorts.

He does not look like an agent, but maybe he is undercover. I suppose that I shouldn’t be able to tell if he’s an agent or not. That would make him a bad agent.

“That’s our guy.” You move as if you’re going to meet him, but stop abruptly, pressing your index and middle fingers to your temple. “But that’s not possible.”

You are not talking to me.

I want to ask what is wrong, but I am afraid to. I am always too afraid.

“Damnit,” you yell. You snatch the duffel bag from me and hurl it away from us. It is loaded down with books and does not go very far.

I am a good doll and pick it back up by the handles while everyone in the courtyard stares at us.

“We have to go. Now,” you say. I think you would like to yank my arm the same way you yanked the bag from my grip, but you know better with the number of people nearby.

“What happened?” I ask as I follow you. We are almost out of the courtyard when you whirl around on me. The sudden motion makes me knock into you, and you push me away.

“Our position was compromised,” you say. You squeeze your forehead with your hands, fingertips straining with the pressure, and I think you’d rather it be my neck. “If we had been here a few minutes earlier, we would’ve been fine. I shouldn’t have taken you. I should’ve gone against his orders and acted on my own. I’m more powerful than he is. I shouldn’t have listened to him.”

You stomp toward the car again, ranting about the embarrassment of my failures, though you have no audience. I don’t think you care that I’m not beside you.

I stop at the edge of the courtyard and try to find the brunette. She is not there. She is probably laughing with her boyfriend and her family and friends, surrounded by people who love her and who she loves in return.

I wonder if she has already forgotten me. I think I will always remember her.