by Katya Cummins
Eva had a habit of falling in love with men she couldn’t have. Her current infatuation was with an actor named Dean Richards, who materialized on our television one evening and refused to go away. Eva bought all his films, and began analyzing him the way she had once analyzed a dead raven that had had been perfectly preserved by the snowstorm that killed him. She named the bird Harold and bartered him a spot in the meat locker at the university’s cafeteria after I refused to split the cost for a small freezer.
Eva spilled factoids about Harold as if she were filling me in on a mutual friend. “I found out that Harold’s wings are 120 cm long, which is a bit disappointing, but still.” Or, “Harold’s beak is 5.9 cm, which is very impressive. It makes me proud. Not gonna lie.” She was majoring in pre-med so it wasn’t all that weird. I could have scored far worse as girlfriends go. Eva’s cleanliness had a manic streak that suited me, and she committed my schedule to memory every semester. This semester, for example, she knew to prepare a bowl of soothing ramen every Thursday after my night class.
“How was sadistics?” she asked, punching open the microwave and maneuvering the steaming bowl carefully onto a towel. She handed me a fork and a spoon. I tried to ignore her hands, how she now performed simple tasks without any remembrance of how those index fingers had once coaxed my back into an aching arch.
“Awful,” I said, and glanced at the television. Dean was faking an orgasm. “How’s Nick?”
“I’ve just about nailed his mannerisms,” she said.
“You know he’s playing characters, right?”
“Everything has to come from him, though, and he re-uses gestures.”
She had focused on his lips the week before. Dean apparently had five smiles, if you excluded smirks, which Eva of course did. This week she was focusing on his hands. She drew my attention to their delicacy and poise. It was true. The eye was inexplicably drawn to them, especially during kissing scenes, when they would unfold, tilt, and cup the actresses’ heads in one sweeping, precise motion. There was a subtle hint of violence in it, which suddenly broke into sincere tenderness and passion.
“I wonder if he trained his tongue to move as well.”
“Methinks you’re jealous,” Eva teased.
“But what is it about him?”
“I’ll tell you when I know,” she said and pressed replay.
Eva was known around as the skirt-and-corset girl, all old-school romance in reds and blacks. She was wearing opaque tights and a short skirt and matte red lipstick the day I lifted eyes outside our drama class to finally make her acquaintance. She looked the type to smoke herbal cigarettes with a dirty elegance, and spout the shoddy kind of philosophy Ayn Rand inspired. It turned out Eva was not interested in cigarettes or philosophy. She was majoring in physics and minoring in math, and only taking drama to appease her mother, who worried all those numbers were pulling a screw loose. Her mother was convinced Eva needed to find a way out of herself. Eva said what she really needed was to “get the fuck out of Illinois.”
“And what I really need is a fuck,” I said.
She gave a laugh. “At least that can be arranged.”
Eva liked women and men. Unlike Eva, I liked someone without violent hands.
We took hours from our weeks and committed them to learning one another. It was a thrill to unearth small details, like how Eva sometimes bought Victoria’s Secret to cover her own. Her teeth shone like pearls. Her breath was tinged with peppermints and stale coffee, always. In the mornings, I liked to perch on our bed and watch as she settled in front of the space heater to straighten and dry her very long hair. Afterwards, she would streak on cosmetics to cover up flaws I couldn’t find.
We committed time and then we committed space. It wasn’t long before I became a permanent guest in her three-person dorm. Her other roommates had requested transfers after the first week. Apparently they hadn’t found Eva videotaping their sleeping habits as charming as I did. This was before Eva discovered that experimental psychology wasn’t for her either.
We fought, too, mostly about her weekend disappearances. Her voicemail replied with an all-full message. I began wondering how many other voices had gone unheard so she wouldn’t have to hear mine.
Eva believed she knew when Dean was drawing upon experienced emotions, or was silently improvising an imaginary situation that would prompt the emotions he needed. You could see it most, she said, when he cried. When he was using an emotional memory, his face would contort, and unaffected tears would stream down his face. These were the times Eva found him most attractive. More often than not, though, Dean resorted to burying his face in his hands and emitting over-dramatic sobs, which Eva deemed inauthentic. She spent two whole weeks drawing up diagrams, placing facial expressions into two columns. Smile: authentic. Frown: inauthentic. Grimace: authentic. Annoyance: inauthentic. She did this until I pointed out she could not possibly know where his emotions stemmed from without talking to him directly. Her study of him dropped off significantly after that, and I felt nothing but relief.
What was it about Eva? One day, she’d be feeding you, teasing with those slender white fingers, cajoling you to sleep, and the next she’d be having lunch with someone else and locking lips in the bathroom.
Eva didn’t bother covering when she spotted me watching. She merely pulled the other girl over, introduced Shannon as her lover, introduced me as her roommate, and that’s how we broke up. One moment, I was something and the next I was nothing. Shannon stuck out a hand first, which I was slow to accept.
When did she leave me? Where did she find her?
Shannon seemed to assess and dismiss me. If she didn’t perceive me as a threat then it was safe to assume Eva had already told her about me. I could imagine Eva saying something like, “Sometimes there are girls you have to break up with twice.”
Eva slipped between us and swung her arms around our necks. “The three of us will be the best of friends,” she said.
Shannon and I soon discovered that being in love with Eva was about the only thing we had in common. The main difference was that Shannon seemed to hold an exclusive all-access pass to Eva that I didn’t. I figured that Eva’s disappearances would stop now that I knew about Shannon, but they didn’t. Eva was not in our dorm the following weekend and she didn’t answer her phone. Shannon and I had exchanged numbers and I decided to call. I told myself we were all adults. Lovers move on. There was no need for petty jealousies.
“I’d love to have lunch with you but Eva’s not with me,” Shannon said.
“But then where does she go?” I asked Shannon.
“But you know.”
“It’s mundane. Don’t trouble yourself.”
“As mundane as her seeing someone else? She spends her nights online. God knows what she’s doing. When I ask she says things for class, but I know she’s lying. You know what she’s doing, right?”
Shannon hesitated. “Have you ever wondered why Eva dropped major after major?”
“She got bored with the subjects?”
“No. She grew bored with the teachers,” Shannon explained pointedly, but I didn’t understand.
Shannon said this as if I didn’t know Eva at all, but I knew plenty, and besides, there were things about Eva Shannon didn’t want to know. She didn’t know, for instance, how Eva would sometimes rock when on the computer, or how she picked at her toenails, or how she would always leave an inch of milk in the carton to sour.
“It’s not like we have to save some for the kittens,” I said, after Eva suddenly reappeared after three days of being gone.
“We’re not getting a cat. Don’t even think about it,” I said.
“What’s your problem anyway? It’s just milk.”
“Why are you wearing all that?” I asked, nodding to the jeans.
“You mean clothes?” she asked innocently.
“I mean, since when do you wear jeans?”
“Normal people do. We don’t live in a nudist colony.”
I tried staring her down.
Eva just crossed the room and switched on the television. Dean was there, paused in mid-jog. He had what my ex-track coach called exquisite form. Every step connected with the ground mid-foot first, allowing the entire foot to land, softly, under his hip. His steps were short, quick, fast, but never pounding. This movie was about an ex-FBI negotiator who used all his skills to save L.A. from a jumbo jet filled with terrorists and bombs. Dean did not play the ex-FBI agent. He didn’t even play one of the terrorists. He played the stoic, then frantic, then dead Homeland Security officer. Eva preferred him stoic. I preferred him dead.
“No, not tonight. You just got back from wherever the fuck you went.”
Eva’s shoulders went up. “I was having dinner with my family,” she confessed softly.
Her tone made me pause. She had not been willing to give up TV Dean, so she’d served up the very information I’d wanted for weeks. I suspected Shannon in that. Eva never talked about her family, except to say her parents had fled Soviet-oppressed Albania to settle in Des Moines, where they founded a restaurant they hoped Eva would manage one day.
“Why don’t you come eat some time?” Eva offered.
Eva didn’t respond at first, but she must have felt me soaking her in. This stripped-down version of her, wearing dark-washed jeans and an unassuming white shirt with a push-up bra. No makeup. No skirts. No corsets.
“Don’t,” she said and flicked Dean into motion.
Eva’s house smelled of oregano and nutmeg and garlic. Her mother, Elizabeth, was preparing Albanian lamb chops with thick, tart yogurt and rice. As we waited for the lamb to finish cooking, she served bukë gruri, a wheat bread, and yaprak dolmas, which turned out to be hollowed-out vegetables doused in lemon and stuffed with mint, dill, tomatoes, and eggplant. Elizabeth’s face was creased but held a shadow of something beautiful. Eva had inherited her jet-black hair, raised cheekbones, and gray-blue eyes. Elizabeth’s voice was brisk, low, and strong. The questions she fired at me were edged and probing. She expected to hear honesty in every reply.
Neither of them seemed troubled that Eva’s father hadn’t come to greet me. He didn’t come to the dinner table even after Elizabeth slid the lamb from the oven. About halfway through the meal he finally materialized from the darkened hall. He paused behind Eva’s chair. His hands traced up her back until they rested lightly on her shoulders.
I saw it then, a flicker of an action that had perhaps wanted to be one thing but which had been performed, last second, as something else. All of Eva’s analyzing had made me sensitive to ghost emotions, the underlying meaning of false acts.
Eva flinched, and her father’s face showed the rejection I had felt many times.
“Are you girls excited for your trip to California? Shannon will be going with you?” Elizabeth asked too suddenly. She had noticed me noticing.
“Our trip to California,” I echoed very slowly.
Eva dragged tavë kosi across her plate and didn’t look up. She mumbled, “As part of our acting course. Did you change your mind about going?”
I tried not to react. Not only had we not continued acting, we had dropped the acting course altogether after the instructor had made us bend our tongues into unusual shapes.
“I was skeptical at first, I have to admit, but then Eva showed me the e-mails from the actor you all are meeting. What’s his name again?”
“Dean?” Eva and I intoned in unison, question marks included.
“It was nice of him to put Eva in contact with that talent agency. I never knew an acting career could advance so quickly.”
“Neither did I,” I confessed dryly.
Eva’s father ate dinner sullenly. We all fell silent when he scraped back his chair, and watched as the hallway accepted him back into its dark folds.
On the bus ride back to campus, I broke the silence by saying, “I’m the last one to know, aren’t I? Even your mother knows.”
“I never lie to my mother,” Eva said.
“And your father?” I asked tentatively.
“Can go fuck himself,” she replied softly.
I waited until Eva fell asleep. Then I slipped into the lighted hallway and called Shannon.
“She’s meeting him? Like what the fuck?”
“She’s been talking to him for a couple of months now. They connected over Facebook. She didn’t tell you?” A note of gleeful self-importance had swept into her voice. “Actually, I’m glad you called. She knew you would need some convincing. Listen, Eva is actually dropping out for good.”
“But why? Her GPA is immaculate.”
“Her GPA doesn’t mean anything. She has more credits than the two of us combined, but none of it amounts to an actual degree. The economy is crashing. She’s not going to land even an entry-level job. None of us are. Why can’t she go be poor elsewhere and chase after her dreams, too?”
“You mean this sudden and inexplicable desire to become an actress? We both know she’s not interested in acting.”
“So you can’t drop a human being like you can go drop a major.”
“Why not? People do it all the time. Well, maybe not you,” Shannon said.
I fell silent.
“Are you coming to California with us or not?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said gloomily.
“I’ll buy your ticket. You can pay me back whenever.”
I needed to think.
The sky was the color of rotting plums, beautiful and dangerous. An unkindness of ravens perched on tree limbs like disfigured fruit. Stale snow cracked under my toes, and the wet seeped into my socks. I walked loops around the north river. I trudged and slipped and stumbled until flurries began to fall, the twilight triggering electric lamps, blurry through the snow. We had shared our first kiss in this type of snow, Eva and I. I could still feel her quivering.
I realized now that Eva’s obsession with Dean was not an obsession at all. She had actually interacted with and developed feelings for him, and I had helped her do it. I had planted the idea that her cataloging would remain incomplete unless they started talking, and for this reason, I had no right to anger. She had never lied to me. Her intentions had always been clear: she wanted out of Illinois, and Dean was the way out.
Eva was waiting for me. I accepted the bowl of ramen even though it wasn’t Thursday. The television was off. “Please don’t be angry,” she said.
“I’m not,” I said truthfully.
Her eyes searched me and seemed to lock onto a change. She gave a sad smile and nodded. Then she said, “I’m going to bury Harriet today.”
“Who the hell is Harriet?”
“Harold is a she?” I laughed, though this change bothered me, too.
She leaned her head onto my shoulder. “You never know. Dean could be a psychopath, in which case, I’d have to forget all about this.”
“Yeah,” I said optimistically. “It could happen.”
California looked thirsty despite the rain. Everything was shriveled or dead. We discovered California rain created slick mud instead of lush soil and green plants. The fog was thick in the mornings and there was a dry chill in the afternoons, but everyone dressed as if it were sunny. The girls had flair and elegance. Haircuts with edges and bangs were in. It was hillier than we had expected, and public transportation in these northern parts was close to non-existent. Shannon had to rent the car since neither Eva nor I could drive.
Unfortunately, Dean Richards wasn’t a psychopath. He was wearing normal pants and a normal pale blue t-shirt that matched the exact color of his normal pale blue eyes. He was unshaven, thinner, and four inches shorter in life than on screen. I hated him instantly. He bought our coffees and slipped into the booth next to Eva. Their knees knocked together, but she didn’t seem to mind. I remembered how she winced the first time we ever touched, and I had to look away.
Dean had quit a high-paying pharmaceutical job so he could focus on acting. Said he was really very good at selling people poison and placebos, but he could feel his soul decaying.
“Dean also produces music on the side. He gets money from the residuals,” Eva informed me knowledgeably.
“Does he? And how is that faring now that people pirate more frequently?” I asked.
Eva shot me a warning look.
Dean’s eyes narrowed too. “I’ve taken some hits,” he admitted.
“I’m so sorry,” I said flatly. I could almost hear their palms creating friction underneath the table.
Shannon intervened. “I think we’ll let you two catch up a little, right?”
Eva relaxed. “I’ll meet up with you later?” she said, avoiding my gaze.
“Yep,” Shannon said and dragged me away by the elbow.
“Is that the sort of crap he’s been feeding her this entire time? How could this possibly work?” I asked as soon as we were safely out of earshot. “They know nothing about each other.”
Shannon hesitated and I could see she agreed.
“What has he been telling her?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Some shit about how the educational system is failing and that everyone should follow their dreams and that she’s beautiful enough to become an actor. I get it. It’s the sort of lies actors tell fans, but he’s just a character actor. He doesn’t have fans, and he’s flattered. I don’t think he truly expected her to go through with any of this.”
“Are you serious?”
“I think this is just something she needs to do,” Shannon said calmly.
“How can you be okay with this?”
“I’m not okay with it, but I can’t stop her. Eva loved us to the extent she was able, and we have to make our peace with that.”
I hoped returning to Illinois would bring Eva to her senses. I hoped she would settle on a major, and graduate into the depressed job market with me. She, of course, did neither. Meeting Dean only strengthened her resolve and solidified our separation. She resigned from the university the first day back. I watched, saying nothing, as she packed her half of our life away into three large boxes. Then she was gone. Last I saw was a thin shoulder angling out the door. I tried calling for news a few weeks later, but her voicemail said it was full, and as I listened to it on repeat, my love for Eva Green flipped off like a switch.