(first published in Storychord #25, February 2011.) He tells you that you remind him of a gypsy so you start wearing even more red, more bracelets that tinker together making that bright sound that you've since gotten so used to. You tell him that he looks French and he says he's not and he's not the only man you're dating and you don't know if he knows that. The two of you never talk about it. You talk about almost everything, but not that. And you only go to the artsy movie theatre, never the regular one.
But the other man carries your lip gloss in his pocket so you don't have to take your purse inside. He puts it in the same pocket as his little black tube of Chapstick and you like thinking about the plastic tubes tapping together in his dark jeans as he walks beside you. His legs are a lot longer and you take two steps for his one. And something about him smells like cinnamon but you know it's not anything he wears on purpose. It's a memory of something you cannot place, but it's a dark and smart smell that makes him your favorite of the two. Sometimes. Sometimes, it does. He's more affectionate in public. He throws his arm around you and says your name more often. He kisses with urgency. He kisses like a dying man. He kisses like he worships women. Your mouth is his church.
You call him Tennessee when you talk about him with your sister and friends. He's from Nashville. You call the other one Kentucky because he grew up here too. You heard something like that in a country song once and always remembered it. Women calling men not by their real names, but by where they're from. You call Kentucky, James, when you're talking to him. But that's his last name and not his first. You don't know why you do that but it keeps your relationship more casual than it should be. It keeps the both of you forever on the fringes of whatever it is; as if neither one of you wants to come into the middle of this room you've made with each other. But the shades are drawn in this room. It's so dark and it's warm in there and you like his breath on the back of your neck. It's as warm as the air in the room.
Tennessee wears glasses and you're glad he doesn't take them off when you make out. You like to decide when it's time to take them off. You dated a guy once who used to take his glasses off and it always seemed too forward. Like he anticipated too much. You thought of telling him that once but didn't want to hurt his feelings. He never hurt yours. He was too kind and too quiet.
Tennessee listens to Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan in his car. Sometimes, Johnny Cash. He asks you to help him go to the grocery and he says it's because he never has anything good to eat. He compliments your pantry and asks what gluten flour is. He asks what textured vegetable protein is. He never tasted natural peanut butter until he put one of your spoons into the cold jar. You made tempeh ruebens with Russian dressing for dinner one night and after he ate the last bite he leaned back in his chair and told you he would always remember that sandwich. He asked you to make them again the next week. He says I learn something new every time I come over here. You are suspicious that he says things like that only to flatter you. He doesn't seem to have that falseness in him but it's hard to accept things as they actually are when they're that pretty and good. And that's part of the reason you keep Kentucky around.
Kentucky puts “Crimson and Clover” on the record player because he actually still listens to records and the two of you share a joint and lie down on the rug in his living room and lie there and lie there and barely move, like you're two long, thick magnets stuck to metal. He reaches up to touch your hair and tells you it's beautiful. He talks about his ex-girlfriends like he misses them. It makes you jealous and you tell him that and immediately feel guilty because you've never told him about Tennessee. He mentioned Nashville the other day and your tummy made a quick, deep drop. You thought of Tennessee growing up on a horse farm there. You thought about him sticking his cowboy boots in between wooden fence rails and hoisting himself over. You thought about how he'd be a good father and teach your sons to ride bareback. And then you let Kentucky go down on you right there on his rug while the song plays over and over again and he stays down there forever like you are impossibly delicious. He kisses you afterwards and his mouth tastes like salty, spiced exotic earth.
But why don't you get rid of Kentucky and keep Tennessee? He's far more husbandy. He's far more loyal. You actually feel guilty after you've been with Kentucky because you know that Tennessee will look at you with his wide brown eyes and wonder why you are the way you are. And somehow you know Kentucky would understand. You start calling Tennessee by his real name and see if that works.
Ben, do you want to go for a walk in the forest? What's the difference between a walk and a hike anyway he asks. You both agree that it just depends on where you are. You can't go for a hike in the city you say. Maybe it depends on how far you go he says. Maybe it's a hike if there are hills you say. Maybe it's a hike if we take a lunch he says. Let's definitely take a lunch you say. And you stop and get two big salads in styrofoam boxes, a loaf of crusty bread and two icy bottles of water. He puts the salads and the water in his backpack and you have a long loaf of bread sticking out of the top of yours. And you walk and maybe hike to a little clearing where there's a big rock and a small stream and you sit down and are pleasantly surprised to see that there are purple flower petals and red slips of strawberries in the salad. This is special you say. And you mean the salad and you mean being with him like this in the middle of the afternoon on a summer Saturday with the sun warming your shoulders and your face and the top of your head.
So you eventually do tell Kentucky about Ben and Kentucky shrugs. You've just had sex and you're still a little stoned and guess that he is too. He's propped himself up on his elbow with one hand and he's tracing little invisible lines on your bare stomach with the other one. You're self-conscious because your stomach isn't perfectly flat. Maybe he has a girlfriend with a perfectly flat stomach. You ask him that. And he tells you that her stomach isn't perfectly flat either. And he asks you why women believe that bullshit. He asks you why women hate themselves so much. He tells you that men don't hate themselves like women do. And when he says it, it's mean and not encouraging. It makes you feel like you've given up on something. But then he rubs his eyes and tells you he thinks he's falling in love with you and he doesn't know how he's supposed to feel about that. And you don't say anything because you don't know how you feel about it either. And when he said it, it sounded like he thought it was a mistake but he couldn't help it. Like he was falling into a hole instead of love. Like he took a wrong step. Like he was pushed.
Ben asks you to ride with him to Nashville because he needs to go down there to take something back to his parents and there's a guitar case in the backseat of his car so you assume it's that. You just want to put on your yellow sundress and ride and ride with the windows down and stop at a little gas station with a sign that squeaks when it blows back and forth in the sweet and southern wind. You want to stop for greasy beef jerky and orange soda. A candy bar and a newspaper from another city. You put your bare feet up on the dash and share bites of the candy bar. Your mouth and his. His mouth and yours. He's wearing a small white t-shirt and the same dark jeans he always wears. You reach over to touch the warm skin of his upper arm before giving him the last bite. You shove the wrapper into the plastic bag you've been using for garbage. And the sound of that plastic and the wind blowing through the car gives you déjà vu.
Once you're in his parents' driveway he turns to you and tells you that you were the something he wanted to take back to his parents. Sure, he was dropping off one of his guitars for his little brother, but really it was you that he wanted to bring. And you say Thank You before you tell him about Kentucky. And you don't tell Ben his real name because you never even say it yourself and besides, you don't really even like it. You tell Ben that you're sorry and you tell Ben that if he wants you to choose, you will choose him because you're almost positive that it's him and everything is him and it should always be him because he's the one and Kentucky is not and if you had a Georgia he wouldn't be the one and if you had a New York or a California they wouldn't be the ones either.
You tell him that you call him Tennessee. And his wide brown eyes are searching yours and they look so sad and he wants to be sure that you're going to stop seeing Kentucky and you promise him you will. You promise. And his parents and little brother are great and you spend the night in the guest room and he sleeps down the hall in his old bedroom and in the middle of the night you hear a slow creak and he's standing there leaning against the door and you ask if everything is okay and softly, so softly, he tells you he loves you and doesn't want you to be with anyone else. His voice is deep and sleepy. His hair is messy and it looks like he's been tugging at it. And your hands are tucked into the long sleeves of one of his high school shirts and he reaches in and pulls them out and holds them and you tell him you love him. And it must be a full moon because the moonlight is shining underneath the pulled shade of the bedroom window and it's so bright. It's just so bright.