The first thing she noticed was his tattoo.
The one peeking out just below his hairline. A snake, or half of one. She could just barely see it disappear into his hair, cropped short and dark. The snake snuck around to his ear, its tongue out and menacing. She thought it was artsy.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Estella,” he repeated. She giggled.
“Everyone calls me Essie.”
His eyes were dark. Everything was dark, the shadows playing around with his face, pronouncing his cheekbones and sucking her in. He didn’t smile.
He just said her name again, “Estella.”
The music was loud, and her heartbeat was caught in it. She looked him in the eyes, his dark eyes.
“Johnson,” he said. “But everyone calls me Josie.”
“I know.” A smile tugged at her lips. He looked away, then thought better of it.
Her favorite was on his wrist.
The inside, the tender side, just below the creases. It was a date, in a stocky font: 12.26.09. And then a signature underneath. L. Johnson. She loved to trace the loops of the the L, the quick jerk up of the h. His regular pulse underneath the thin, pale skin. She could see his veins, feel them under her fingers. Under the loops and the jerks, the square periods and the fat 2s.
The second time she met him he was gone, wasted, high, his eyes unfocused and a loose smile playing on his lips.
She swore she wouldn’t see him again.
“Stell.” His voice surprised her, and she turned, saw him standing in the door way and ran to him. He caught her and kissed her, his eyes bright and dancing. “Hello.”
She payed attention to the way his arms felt against her ribs. She held his head in her hands, her left thumb just resting on the snake’s outstretched tongue.
There was another one on his stomach, in a thin font, a Dutch phrase she couldn’t pronounce, though he said it all the time. It sat about an inch above his boxers, in his own handwriting.
He wouldn’t tell her what it meant, and she only found out a year after she’d met him that he spoke fluent Dutch. He’d spent his summers there when he was a kid, living with his grandmother.
The first time she heard him speak it he was on the phone with his brother. He was in the kitchen, and she was at the dining room table. At first she just thought he was mumbling, but the sounds weren’t the same, and she stared at him, angry on the phone.
“What was that?” she asked when he hung up.
“I know. What language was that?”
He glanced at her across the room. “Dutch.” It was matter of fact. She should’ve known, his voice said. Why was she asking, his voice said.
“You speak Dutch?”
He wouldn’t say any more about it, and she let it drop, watching his thumb tap rapidly on the countertop, the line of his jaw sharpening and unsharpening as he clenched his teeth. He was distracted, hardly paying attention to her questions at all, so she let it drop.
“They’re here, Stell.”
It was the dead of night. She couldn’t sleep. She knew he was upset, and she couldn’t sleep, so she came over. She’d been right. He was up.
It was dark. The blinds on one of his windows were open, and she could see one of his eyes skating across the room, flitting up and down and left and right, faster than she could follow.
She went to the bed. He was sitting up, a pillow clenched in his lap, his knees at eye level. She got in on the other side. He always slept on top of his sheets. Under the covers, on top of the sheets.
She sat next to him and waited.
He whispered something else she couldn’t hear, and she sat next to him and waited.
Eventually, she slid one hand over his, just touching, resting on his, until she felt his fingers relax their hold and fall into hers.
His eyes were full shadow now, but in the slits of light a tear appeared and rolled down his cheek, then back into the dark.
“I grew up in Tennessee.”
She laughed. “So you’re a redneck?”
He grinned. He had a great grin.
“Josie Morrow, you big fake. You’re just a good ol’ boy from Tennessee. You’ve got everyone fooled.”
“He’s in the bathroom. Vomiting.”
She bit her cheek and ran a hand through her hair, pulling it just a little too tightly. Her eyelids were heavy. “Is he high?” She whispered the question, knowing the answer.
“Yeah, Essie. He is.”
She exhaled sharply and blinked against the tears.
“He’s just been feeling it lately, Es. They’re louder than normal is all. He just can’t take it sometimes.”
“I’ll handle it.” She smiled thinly. “Thanks for calling me.”
He died on a Tuesday. Two years and a day after they’d met. She was with him that day, had traced the loops and the jerks, had watched his eyes get hard and dark. She had felt the thin skin beneath her fingers, so thin and fragile and pale.
“Destiny will blow you away.”
“What?” She looked up at him.
“That’s what it means. It’s a saying, or something. My grandmother used to say it a lot.” He paused. “I got it ironically. I was angry; I was bitter. I thought I was being cute.” He looked directly at her. “But it’s true, Stell. You just got to give it a chance, and destiny’ll blow you away.”
She had smiled then.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I’ll love you forever.”
“As long as I live.”
“I love you, too, Johnson.”
He shushed her with a gentle kiss, small, short, quick. “They’re coming back again, Stell.”
“Don’t let them, Jose. Stay with me.”
“I will. I’m here.”
“I love you, Josie.”
“As long as I live, Stell. As long as I live.”