Going Dark With Her

Going Dark With Her

I’m sitting at a table under one of the mezzanine arches in the Brown Hotel, Louisville. The Manhattan is kicking my butt. I study the medallions in the Georgian Revival décor and wonder when, or whether, she’ll come down. Sometimes she doesn’t. The waiter, impatient to know our dinner plans, has approached twice. The maître d’ seated me on condition that I order from the prix-fixe dinner menu.

I signal the waiter, who quickly steps over.

Another Manhattan, please. This could take a while. She…

I understand, sir.

Below, bar and bar tables are packed. Travelers arrive, eager to check in. We’ve been here for days, mostly arguing, some lovemaking, a few intense discussions. So intense that I became unnerved by the people at the next table in the hotel restaurant, overhearing us, which is why I sought this arched alcove—no next table. Our intense topics vary. Time: She doesn’t believe it exists. Stars, constellations, galaxies—she sneers at constellations because in another galaxy no such star patterns would appear. Pastoral countryside, which she loves, especially that depicted in old 18th century engravings. But they’re black-and-white! I protest. Doesn’t matter. Implied green is deeply felt, as is the air, “salubrious air,” she actually says. Flowers racing up mountainsides, rills racing down—

Love, of course, we discuss—always dangerous. Or mostly we don’t discuss it, which is worse. And—

The arches, the ceiling, resplendent with medallions—


She and I have known each other for a long time, decades, though seldom have we been together. One time was in a small town in Nebraska, on Route 20, America’s longest highway. We stayed in an old hotel on the main street, with odd décor and strange room layouts—Old Western, maybe? We picked that equidistant town through a series of letters working out a dual road trip, she coming from the east, Rhode Island, I from the west, eastern Oregon. Both of us on Route 20. A wild lark after years apart, an excitement in our letters that gave me hope—

Skies transfixed us, laid us low with awe. In the town we held hands, stopping in at shops, having drinks at bars peopled by staring farmers and cowboys—

As it turned out, we parted, none too amicably, she headed back east, I back west—


In the bright chaos of Taipei, we meet in a loud, garish bar, barely able to hear or even keep our places amid the jostling.

What? she yells.

We have to get out of here, I shout.


I ask a bartender where one might retreat to a private place.


Dark, quiet, intimate.


He casts a knowing look at her, and directs me.

Indeed it is so dark I can scarcely see her past the tiny table candle. The steamed clams and fish with rice noodles are stunningly good.

Death, she says—

And disappears into the women’s room, and never returns.


In the Falkland Islands, alone. I sailed there on a freighter to get myself out of everything. Out of everything, I mumbled to myself at the ship’s rail during the long voyage. Still, I half expected she might show up there. She did not. I roamed the moors, rocky gray, green, brown, anxious signs warning of land mines from the Falklands War. Seabirds, everywhere, their instinctual flights and landings—


After she abandoned me in that Nebraska town, I brooded at the hotel bar for days. In the room, her lingering perfume tormenting me, I dwelled in the past. Certain things about the town, not its look but its situation under the violent sky, reminded me of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where we’d met. It was the frightening openness of the place to the wind and the snow and ice. I lived in a rough part of town, worked at a crisis hotline, along with her. It was the early Seventies, when people our age were trying to gain some sense of what to do next, given that the Revolution had not come to pass. Not that we ever understood what the Revolution would have meant if it had come to pass. Where did we go from there? Most of us tried to live our own Revolutions, I suppose, doing things that seemed good. But meanwhile drugs had done a lot of us in—many dead of overdoses, some trying to recover in mental hospitals, some in prison. On the hotline phones we dealt with the continuing fallout, people calling in because they’d taken two different pills of uncertain origin and were starting to feel out of control. I avoided drugs myself because of what I was seeing, though I drank freely; she was of the same mind on that. Back then, at least.

She had the cheeriest voice and the bleakest outlook, sunniness of speech contrasting always with impassive mien. A boyfriend she’d dumped had gone to Vietnam and been killed. After that, a husband had died young of a hemorrhage. She tried to get past it all by helping people on the phone and (so it seemed to me) by occasionally sleeping with guys like me whom she liked and who needed to be slept with. She was my first. When I confided that, it put her in a weird state regarding me. We still bedded down now and then, but she would brook no endearments, no talk of love. Didn’t even care much for foreplay. “I think we should fuck,” she’d say. “I don’t need all the kissy-kissy. Just fuck me.” If I tried to kiss her too deeply, she’d bite my lip. Yet she always had an orgasm. I remarked on that with veiled pride. “It excites me when a man comes in me,” she said. Yet even at our closest, in bed, she kept her distance.

A libertarian at a time when we were all supposed to be near-communists, she was also a painter—“Just learning”—but would not let me see any work. I also painted, though not steadily, or well. Oils (I scorn acrylic). In our conversations she seemed to manifest a sensibility of older times, an older outlook in the body of a young woman, an older way strangely stuck in an uncongenial present. And she could be testy about it. Once at her apartment I noticed on her bedside table The Sketch Book and Pickwick Papers.

You’re reading these old things?



Because I like them.

They have no applicability today.

Like hell they don’t. Even if they didn’t, I’d read them anyway. Now get out.

Cheery voice, start to finish, as her hazel-gray eyes glittered with fight. A week later she let me back in. I craved those hazel-gray eyes, brown hair parted in the middle, unadorned except for two blue barrettes, pale translucent skin, its tiny freckles—


I could never escape those eyes. That hard glitter—I sought it everywhere, tried to bring it out in my occasional paintings. It, the vision of it, kept me going through bad times. Now and then, in Fort Wayne and afterward, she sought me out, as if after all I had something she needed—sometimes only for drinks and talk, sometimes for brief flings, an hour, a day or two. Then she wouldn’t answer my calls or letters and we’d have no contact for weeks, months, years.


By a lake in Indiana one dusk we lay after lovemaking on an old green blanket I kept in the trunk of my car. We had both enrolled in summer school at the university, to our apparent mutual astonishment—riding a bicycle past a river of students going to class one day I’d heard my name called out in a high, elated voice. We were both taking art courses, though not the same ones.

I pay ten dollars a week for my apartment, I said. Shared bath, but still. You could live with me—five dollars a week.

She pondered.

It’s tempting, she said. But you’d become too attached. I know you. So thanks, but no.

Later we threw pebbles into a little inlet, the water spangling silver with each splash in the dying light. We threw and threw until all was black.

I could do this with you forever, I said.

Always a mistake with her.


At a small outdoor café table overlooking the Dordogne, the street running right along the edge of the ridge, she sat in wrath. I had just proposed over red wine, bread, sausage, and brie.

Damn you.

Still the happy zing in her voice.

The open ring box was in my hand, the ring between my thumb and index finger, winking in the sun, breeze blowing her hair back. She would not touch the ring.

I told you, you idiot. Now you’ve wrecked the rest of our week here.

Indeed I had—lightning, thunder and rain boiled up from behind the hill as if summoned by her. Papers and hats scattered in sudden heavy gusts as everyone scrambled to get indoors. In our small pension we pulled off our wet clothes and made love with a strenuousness that gave me hope. But there was none—she had stopped speaking to me.


Under the Georgian Revival alcove arch at the Brown Hotel, I sniff the Magie Noire perfume of her approach before I see her. Now she sits before me, haggard, exhausted, an undefinably unpleasant odor mixing in with her perfume. She has plunged heavily into drugs in the last decade, abandoning her earlier stance: pot, hash, uppers, downers, cocaine, heroin, everything except psychedelics—she drew the line there.

Too many minds that no longer work because of acid, she has told me.

The glittering eyes—dulled. Dark circles beneath. Ghastly pale otherwise, hair unwashed. The blue barrettes remain. Wearing a faded violet dress adorned with black roses. Under her scent she smells of oysters, urine, mildew, something else acrid, and the pages of old books. The waiter, bending a little too close, straightens up. She orders a bottle of the most expensive Champagne on the menu and a Hot Brown, the house specialty.

It’s night, she announces, And I am diseased.

I mutter something about her being wasted on drugs.

I am wasted on me, she says.

Silence as the Champagne is brought, and another Manhattan for me, along with my hamburger.

At night we’re all dark gardens, she mutters. And tombs. Watched by owls.

I’m not sure I can handle this, I say.

Then don’t handle it. No—you goddam well will handle it.

Day dispels disease, I venture.

Trite, she says after a long gulp that drains the Champagne.

The Hot Brown comes steaming merrily to the table, and she eats the entire dish at alarming speed.

All seems at its worst, a wintry contagion, she states after a long surfeited silence.

I need a cigarette, though I’ve quit. Outside we can smell and feel the Ohio River, some blocks downhill, its immemorial watery breezes, its dark freight of history.


The stench of her in bed has become intolerable. I dash her with Magie Noire, as if with an aspergillum, to bring back old times. She doesn’t appreciate that.

Fuck you! … Fuck me.

I am terrified by her odor and her ferocity.

Long after, she says, I want to go to a village in Tibet. Alone.


Winnipeg, dead of winter, twenty below zero. Some years later. We’re in a luxurious leather booth in a hotel restaurant, red leather, old dark wood everywhere. She smells like what I imagine the Elysian Fields to smell like, glorious with blooms, daffodilled, Persephone personified, buoyant with scent that harrows the Underworld and strains for Heaven’s battlements, a different aroma, no longer Magie Noire. She orders a twenty-two-ounce steak. Candlelight reflects in her eyes, their glitter restored.

I am helpless before her.


She was painting.

What are you doing? I asked. She turned the easel away from me.

Creating spirits.

Good spirits or bad spirits?



Hot breezes blow across greensward on a Sardinian hillside. We lie ecstatic, elbows on the turf, faces upturned to a heaven of sun.

Putrefy, purify, she says as her hair blows into my face.

Under a pergola resplendent with flowers, a meal of pasta, wild-boar meat sauce, cheese, vegetables, bread and wine awaits us. Pears pulled down from the trees above us in the little walled courtyard. Rosebushes along the wall.

I want to be uncomfortable with myself, she chirped. I want to go dark.

In broad daylight I feel myself pulled toward a dark shore.


She was bereft at the death of her dog after he had gone missing in her Fort Wayne neighborhood. Sighting him at last, she had called his name and he had run joyfully, trustingly toward her, across a lawn, only to be hit by a car.


Running from pub to pub in Belfast with big snowflakes in our eyes—


In her Northern accent, the words “married man” sounded like “merried meehan.” I upbraided her several times in Fort Wayne about seeing a merried meehan. Did he have children?


And you think this is right?

His wife doesn’t understand him.

They always say that, I knew enough to say, even at age twenty-three. She shrugged.

It’s his choice.

It’s your choice.

You’re just jealous.

Of course I’m jealous! I want you—I want—

Want what?

To love you!

No, you don’t.

I sure as hell do.

It’s just that I was your first. There are girls galore out there. See, this is why I didn’t even want to see you again.

But you did see me.

You’re pretty. I like your cock. I like your company.


Black times would strike her down. Sometimes she’d withdraw completely, stay abed for days, would not see me, nor the merried Meehan, nor anybody. Other times she would arrive unannounced at my apartment in rain or snow, announcing merrily, Taken over by dark forces!

Then she would sit with me, in my old green chair, knee jiggling up and down, speaking inspired nonsense that I wished I could have written down but didn’t dare move from my seat. No sex during these spells. Sitting with her, I felt myself on the edge of hallucination, disorienting electric danger in the room. Afterward, she might remember nothing of what she had said. Other times, she’d recall what she’d said, but not why. When she was strong enough, she’d declare a need to be “sunnized”—to lie in the sun until the darkness dispersed.


Why so cold, I asked her in my apartment in Fort Wayne, So cheerfully indifferent?

You have to ask me that? she blazed out gleefully, blushing in her translucent skin.

I’m broken, she said. Can’t you understand that? No, of course you can’t. What’s happened to me has never happened to you. When I learned about Max in Vietnam I walked out onto Indiana 15 out of Leesburg and considered ways of killing myself. Then I walked along the railroad. Ultimately I decided it wouldn’t be fair to a driver or trainman to throw myself in front. So—chipper voice, arms oddly raised straight up—Here I am, still alive. For whatever reason.

Plenty of reasons, I said.

But my probing questions had made things go bad.

I haven’t been this depressed in five years, she said. And I don’t intend to be for at least another five.

I’m sorry.

No, you’re not. You always keep asking. I know you mean well, but…

She kissed me and left—


After the brief times I spent with her, my paintings would change for a short period. They were of a young world, greenly bright, a fresh wish. My feelings after being with her—excitement, then heaviness, a deep need for sleep—a sense of something pressing down on me that must be confronted—days of painting as if in a trance, the pictures effervescing not with happiness exactly but with something, something—an energy, a deep fizzing urge to live—

Something awful descended on me from her—I did not comprehend it. A life force but also a rage. Deep burning rage for reasons unknown.


She looks. She won’t let me see her paintings, but she insists on seeing mine.

You’ll need to redo that, she’ll say.

What is in my pictures that I don’t see? I’ll say.

Something outside your personality. Forcing its way in—


Only now does it occur to me that, seeing me riding by on the university campus, she could have just let it pass. Thousands of students, tens of thousands; the chances that we would run into each other were nearly nil. Yet she called out. Was she conflicted about me? Fond, but not in love? Fonder than she wanted to be? Maybe. Yet she would listen eagerly to my woes with other girls, even as we occasionally slept together, and would advise me.

I’m telling you, she’d say, she’s a complete bitch. Have nothing more to do with her. Tell her to fuck right off.


We climbed a mountain she loved, out west. At the top I could barely breathe.

I love it up here, she exulted. I could live up here.

Snow lay about in patches, though it was early summer. Clouds covered everything in thick fog. I stumbled on stony ground, slipped on slick grass. She never did. She knew where she was going and how to move to get there. For a time I lost sight of her, finally seeing her ahead as salubrious air swirled away the vapors.

Wait! I cried.


About the Author

Brian J. Buchanan is a writer in Nashville, Tenn. His short stories, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Literary Imagination, Crannog, BULL, Hamilton Stone Review, Chronicles, Tupelo Quarterly, The Westchester Review, Literary Matters, Modern Age, National Review, Cumberland River Review, Potomac Review, Northwest Indiana Literary Review, Puckerbrush Review, Frontier Tales, The Chamber Magazine, the Nashville Tennessean, and elsewhere. Buchanan was co-winner of the 2017 Meringoff Fiction Award from the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers for his story, “Wisdom Teeth.” The judge was Brad Leithauser.


Photo by Zayceva Tatiana: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-back-in-darkness-14675462/