L always had her hair in a braid. Sometimes, it would drape over her left shoulder if she was feeling adventurous, but most of the time, it would settle on her right. She said it reminded her of happier days.
I can count the number of times L’s hair wasn’t in a braid. The first time was three months into our relationship. A small bird had flown into her straw-colored hair and got one of its toes tangled in her plait. I cupped the bird with one hand and shifted its tiny foot, but the more it wriggled, the tighter her hair knotted around it.
L untied her braid and let her unnatural waves fall loosely around her face. I unknotted strands of her hair and released the bird.
“It must’ve mistaken your hair for a nest,” I said afterward. L didn’t find it too funny. Almost immediately, she tipped her head to one side and began braiding her hair again, her fingers aggressively pulling it together.
I looked away, the act of it was somehow too intimate. I felt like I didn’t deserve it.
I was in the fluorescent office of a general practitioner. I constantly had this uneasy feeling inside me. At first I thought it was food poisoning, but I would go an entire day without eating, and still the feeling persisted.
The doctor asked me when it started.
“Two weeks ago? I figured it was something I ate.”
She scribbled something down with that knot-like alphabet medical professionals call a handwriting.
“Might be a bug,” she said. She handed me the piece of paper with her notes.
Before I left, I noticed that she had her hair down. It looked nice.
It was around this time that L began cultivating her newfound passion for artisan coffee. I never understood coffee because I had a mild allergy to it, but she thought it was just an excuse to miss her coffee sessions. It was this whole spectacle that she had to dress up for. She would disappear into the walk-in closet for half an hour, and I’d wait for her on the couch, looking out the window and counting the seconds that passed. I made a bet with myself that if I ever got to 1,000, I would break up with her.
It’s sick, I know. But like that little bird, that thought became entangled in my head. Of course, I shouldn’t break up with her. I had memorized every freckle on her face like an astronomer would a constellation. I knew her more than I knew myself.
Then I felt my abdominal muscles contract before sickly yellow vomit splattered on the carpet.
Lilies, roses, hydrangeas, tweedias, clematis, orchids. I had to choose one, but they all looked the same to me.
“I don’t know,” I said to L. She was talking to an uncannily tall florist who smiled too much for my comfort. Every so often I would look at the frowning gentleman in the corner to make myself feel better.
We were picking out flowers for the centerpieces. It should match the bouquet and the boutonnieres, apparently. But it didn’t bother me at all. Flowers will die, and I have no interest in objects with a lifespan of under a week. Might as well have a fruit fly as a pet.
“You have to know; people are going to judge.”
“I don’t think they will. No one cares about flowers.”
A collective gasp. The florist dropped her smile.
“We’ll go with roses,” L said, stroking my arm. “Let’s make it easier for you.”
“Sorry. Yeah, roses.”
It was another coffee session somewhere downtown. L had her hair in a special braid, the one with multiple weaves, a fishtail or something. She saved that for special occasions, but I didn’t know what occasion this was, and she didn’t say.
She came back with a piccolo latte, and I always made the joke, “It’s never to latte to picc-o-nother drink.” She never laughed, but I always said it anyway. Part of me wanted her to think of that joke whenever she ordered a piccolo. Or maybe I just wanted her to think about me even when I wasn’t around.
“Do you really have a coffee allergy?”
“Sort of,” I said. “I get itchy, but it’s not that bad.”
I watched her take a sip from her small cup, her dainty hands lifting the glass like it was the heaviest thing in the world. L didn’t speak much, but she had a lot to say. If she were happy, she would take me to a coffee shop. If she were sad, she would go to the park and play a game on the giant chess set with any bystander willing to play with her. If she were angry, which was usually at me but sometimes at her mother, she would read To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t know why, but she would. It relieved her somehow.
If she were feeling alright, not sad or angry or happy, she would ask me to play Scrabble. One time, she scored 164 points on the word quartzy (the z hit a double letter score while it played on a double word score) and became so inexplicably excited that we drove to a cafe in another city. It took three hours, and the coffee was alright at best, but it was a day that struck me as memorable.
“Are you ready?” she said.
“Yeah, I am. Are you?”
“Of course, I’ve always wanted to marry you.”
My stomach lurched.
The orchestra played Air on G String, a soft melody that seemed to incite tears in many older women. The sniffling first came from L’s grandmother, and then, like a Mexican wave, everyone began to lift their handkerchiefs to their runny noses.
L came into view with her father by her side. Her hair was in a braid on the left side. Some people had their eyes on me because I was supposed to cry, and they all wanted to see me drown in my own tears. I did cry, but not for the reason everyone else did.
Her father helped her up the steps to the podium. She ruffled her dress before taking my hand. I smiled; so did she. We both looked up at the priest and waited until we could speak. That’s all everyone was here for. The vows; the heart-wrenching, soul-tearing monologue to remind everyone that our love was strong enough to last a lifetime.
After minutes of religious babble, the priest handed me the microphone. The room waited in anticipation of what, they hoped, was a gratifying declaration of my love for the woman I would marry.
L looked up at me. Her eyes were like a child’s. She was always feeling something, even if she looked like she wasn’t feeling anything at all, even if she was just playing Scrabble. L was kind and quiet and smart. She was good too, not just to me but to people who don’t deserve it. She liked to collect leaves and use them as bookmarks. She wore clothes that were always too big, always. And she never went to sleep without brushing her teeth, no matter how late or how tired she was. She was very L, and no one else was L. No one could be.
I sat in a coffee shop and drank my first coffee in seven years. It was a piccolo latte. I found that I wasn’t allergic to coffee after all.
The sun hadn’t been out since the wedding day. Everywhere I went, a dark cloud loomed above, giving the promise of rain but never really keeping their end of the deal.
I hadn’t seen L in two weeks. As much as I loved her, I didn’t want her. It was this ambivalence that never sat quite right.
But out of all the things I wondered about her—where she was, how she was, whether she still had my things in her apartment—all I could think about was if she would braid her hair on the left ever again.