Here and There and Everywhere by Robert Herbst
A tumult of sensory perfection paired with stunningly precise detail, Robert Herbst’s “Here and There and Everywhere” pulls absolutely zero punches in its heated, dizzying, and ultimately gorgeous rendering of a relationship spiraling in and out of pain, bliss, and chaos.
In fewer than two thousand words, Herbst crafts a story that pulses, its verbs alive and sizzling. His diction helps to create a momentum that does not carry us through the narrative—no, carry is not strong enough a word. We are pulled and dragged, a movement tidal and consuming. The emotion brought to the surface via the first-person narrator’s interiority, combined with the specificity of the memories examined, create a sort of slingshot that ricochets the readers from the doomed and prescient opening line (“I ended it in Chicago…”) to the devastating final paragraph. The result is a breakneck speed, a pace that not only works to hold our attention as readers, but also to reflect the scattered, desperate, and overwhelming nature of love and its aftermath.
In his author’s note, Herbst comments, “As I was writing, it quickly became about the sheer joy of language, and I let myself get carried away by what was possible on the page. I indulged in a sort of one-upmanship with myself as I wrote, the voice in my head constantly jeering, Is that all you’ve got?” Interestingly, the story seems to mirror Herbst’s approach: Don’t we, the readers, also get carried away? Might one imagine this narrator posing that same question as the lovers gallop through the story?
“We spent three days in bed, naked as salamanders….”
Is that all you’ve got?
“We drank mezcal and ate stuffed olives until you were smote with migraine, and you banished me from your darkened chamber to wander the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.”
Is that all you’ve got?
“We took your honeymoon in La Spezia. While your husband slept, we picked street oranges and ate the bitter pulp.”
Is that all you’ve got?
With each turn in the story—with each new development and detail—the relationship and our understanding of the relationship changes. The stakes rise and rise, a mammoth wave obscuring the skyline.
In the final moments, Herbst writes, “You asked if I’d like to go again, and I said yes, but we would need some ground rules this time.” And isn’t that always the question? Would you wear the same dress? Would you write me the same letters? Would you swim with me in the sea?
Would you love me, again? —CRAFT
I ended it in Chicago, when the snow bloomed in every direction and plows passed over and over across the major roads like blunted razors. It was no use; people abandoned cars in the middle of streets. Cafés shuttered. Trains sat stationary (except for the Metra, which lit fires along the tracks using a proprietary mixture of magnesium and Epsom salt). You found me on your stoop with a sodden duffel and pulled me inside by my sleeve. The storm raged and I disrobed and your bearded lizards blinked under their heat lamps, oblivious. We spent three days in bed, naked as salamanders, the blinds open so that we could watch the businesspeople skating to and from work on the north branch of the river. But when I opened a window and tasted the cold air, I finally came to my senses. “No more slithering, slinking, susurrating,” I began. You donned your thickest bathrobe and spat.
Two months later, I met you at the Oasis, which is how you advertised Santa Fe. You wore a green twill dress and thick clogs, worried as you were about stepping on cacti. We drank mezcal and ate stuffed olives until you were smote with migraine, and you banished me from your darkened chamber to wander the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I wrote little descriptions of her canvases on Post-its and slid them under your door. You refused to read them, wanting to see the paintings for yourself. Using every ingredient in the fridge, I made a soup, which I ate alone on our terrace while the desert night swept in like a matron.
We made our fresh start in London, until a lead actress fell sick with laryngitis, and you got the call four hours before curtain. You whispered your lines as we waited for the tube. Virginia, tell Charlie he can keep the dog, you repeated, passing the inflection between words. At the after-party, I got stuck talking with the director. I watched you slip out the back for a cigarette, a smear of rouge not quite wiped from your cheek. When I finally excused myself, there was no sign of you in the alley, only the sour whiff of chypre perfume and rotting eggplant.
The next I saw you was in Edinburgh, eight train tracks between us, and you shouted to meet you in Florence. I waited for hours by the Duomo, eating cup after cup of pistachio gelato and feeling constantly for my wallet.
I heard your voice on the phone one desolate April. You spoke in a murmur because you were in a house full of strangers, all sleeping or playing cards. “Remember Chicago,” you said, “and the chariots of fire? Remember how you poked me?” “That was Santa Fe,” I said. “Meet me on Sixth Avenue,” you said, and I did. We ate swordfish and walked off the calories. Turning into a Chinatown alley, you mugged me, and I walked home alone without wallet or shoes.
The last time I was in love, I saw you on a train. I held a bottle of wine and a muffuletta salad, and the back of your head peeped into the aisle several rows in front of me. In it was tied a green bow, and your left hand kept reaching for the knot, making it straight, then crooked, then straight. I feared to approach, lest these things transform into the possessions of a stranger. I feared to approach, lest the sight of you pickle my love into a briny thing to add to my bowl.
The last time we made salad, I told you to “Stop, stop!” We were in a kosher kitchen, three in the morning, and I, bullying, perched on the dishwasher. “Who puts creamed corn in a salad? Who puts smoked oysters? Who needs so much cheese?” And to each of these questions, you muttered, “I do. I do. I do.”
I write now of your wedding, which is still a painful memory. Why did you choose Tokyo under the cherry blossoms, when you know full well that cherry is my favorite pie and Blossom one of my nicknames for you? Why did the groom wear an emerald suit, and why plaid shorts for the officiant? Why did you call me from a pay phone across the street, your organza stuck in the door, and insist I meet you in Istanbul? In Lima? In Sacramento? After the ceremony, when I caught the bouquet hurled at me, a bee flew out of a white lily and stung me on the tongue.
We took your honeymoon in La Spezia. While your husband slept, we picked street oranges and ate the bitter pulp. The juice and the grime cemented our knees together, and we hobbled between towns like a stunted, disfavored creature. Only the sea dissolved us when you finally convinced me to leap. We doggy-paddled away from each other and then back again, away, then back. “Free!” you shouted, overjoyed. “Free!”
In later dreams, your knee would feature proudly. Unpeeling your skin, I’d examine your beautiful meniscus, the tender lateral ligaments. I’d learn how they undergirded your crescent kick, your pistol squat, your grand jeté. Memorably, you leapt from that train to escape my schemes, rolling end over end through an alfalfa field. Your knee cushioning each rotation. If you had asked me again to rank your features, your knee would have climbed from the twenty-second to the fifth slot. There were nights when I wanted to lisp this at you, swallowing my swollen tongue to get the pronunciation correct.
You found me again in Chinatown, where I had taken up as delivery boy in a dumpling shop. When you couldn’t make out my stilted Cantonese, you thrust my wallet into my face—the universal symbol of remorse. I pocketed the cash and indicated my bare feet, black with grime. You brandished your new loafers, you braggard. I shoed away you and your rotten pride.
But when I returned to my hole that evening, I found waiting for me your favorite clogs, worn soft by use. I bought the first ticket back to Santa Fe, and for years I made tapestries and threw dinner parties.
I was losing my accent. I remembered our grammar but spoke it as a headmistress pronounces her Latin: cluelessly. In phone calls and letters, your conjugations alarmed me, and I grasped for the right phrase. What were our passwords again? Which the word to reverse the years? When your third wedding invitation arrived in my mail, I struggled to uncover its cypher.
I sat along the Great Wall one starry evening in Inner Mongolia. Villagers kept approaching to pry stones from underneath me, intent on finishing their dam. I began to doubt that you’d show, but when a local approached with a pickax, I recognized your face. We strolled. The wall came and went like seasons, and for miles we kept losing our way, only to spot a new rampart or derelict crenellation. I asked you if it was the same dress after all those years, and you told me yes. An obvious lie. “You’ve never once worn the same outfit twice,” I said. You handed me a black kettle as a wedding gift. In truth, my suit had been tailored only last week.
“It’s a good little world we have,” you said, and I agreed. “Although,” I said, “someone will have to do something about those oranges.” You asked if I’d like to go again, and I said yes, but we would need some ground rules this time. “No more soup,” I said, “and no more salad. You will see a psychiatrist, and I will see a podiatrist, and we’ll start in Rome…” but I was speaking to empty air. I turned and saw you sprinting away from me straight into the desert, ripping off three veils, your heels in your hands. Another local politely asked me to scoot away, and he ripped an uneven chunk of marble from the spot where I’d been standing. He wiggled away like an ant. Reaching into my pocket, I found your note, which was just a recipe for angel food cake, an incorrect list of Qing dynasty emperors, and, on the back, the location of our rendezvous: The Moon! The Moon!
ROBERT HERBST is a writer and violinist based in Chicago. His work has been published or is forthcoming at Witness, The Offing, Maudlin House, and other publications. He is a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and he enjoys the company of his dog, Reba, who is a very good girl. Robert tweets @rickarob.
Featured image by Eddie Hsu courtesy of Unsplash