For P.E. Garcia and C. Hopkins…
The doorway braces to grip the man as he leans into it. His lover has finished dividing batter into the individual cups and now slides the tray into the tiny hell of the oven. Once the door is shut, he watches as she lowers herself to the floor and puts her forehead to the hot glass. He snubs his cigarette on a dish on the counter and slinks up behind her. She doesn’t move when his fingers slip through her hair and curl around her face and part her mouth. He squeezes, and she invites the taste of blood.
“Love?” he asks.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I can’t breathe unless your breath is in the air.”
When he has wiped his hands and retreated to the back of the house, she tends to the leftovers and leaves the dishes to soak.
Despite the warmth of the brief afternoon sun, her joints ache, so instead of touring the garden and talking to the spouts, she meanders upstairs to her sewing room and library. There’s a pile of mending on the window seat and she lands beside it. A button slips out of the bundle and bounces onto the rug. She extends to retrieve it and studies its smooth, plastic edge before tossing it onto her desk.
By now, the hallway and rooms begin to gossip amongst each other. She focuses through the window, where the trees at the edge of the property open for the stretch of a gravel driveway. Their branches have bloomed and she counts the silhouettes in the leaves until the man has come into her view.
He is carrying one of his guitars and smoking out of one corner of his mouth, while singing from the other. She cannot hear him. His song is one of long, backward secrets.
A ginkgo and a willow have found stages beside each other, planted by the previous residents. They stand in the front yard, just outside the crop lines. The day is warmed by a half-dressed sun, but the ginkgo is out of sorts.
“I don’t appreciate your shadow,” it tells the willow. “It smothers.”
The willow doesn’t reply, so the ginkgo clarifies: “Your shadow –it smothers. I’m being smothered by your shadow.”
Still, the willow says nothing, but some of its leaves brown and detach into the wind.
The weight of the man’s melancholy has forced him to bed early. She tries to kiss and stroke him into sleep, but he rolls away from her to melt into the fluff of the overdressed mattress. Leaving him, she turns the lamp off too soon and bangs her knee on the bedframe while navigating the dark. Her cursing startles the hall, but the door to the sewing room cracks with a soft squeal.
Inside, she limps passed the desk and wanders the spines of her crowded bookcases. One wriggles a little, prompting her to take it.
When she lifts the book to her lips, she finds that the pages no longer smell of apple pastry. The discovery is a disappointment more terrible than waiting.
“You said once that we had the same eyes. Do you remember that?”
He smiles and drags an index along her chin. “Yeah,” he says.
“I don’t agree, actually,” she says. “Your eyes are lighter than mine. They are like the English Channel, while mine look more like… Like the dark interior of some cavern.”
Once in a while, she becomes bedridden for a day, bleeding postcards. Her flesh opens in slits to expel the hard paper. The pain is something supernatural.
The man waits on her, bringing her orange juice and decaffeinated tea. When she doesn’t look, he collects the cards from the rug so that he can mediate on the images when he is alone and she is better.
His favorite bears a photo of a blonde toddler, standing near the center of a snow-laden parking lot. The backside reads, They were right about you. The message pokes at a queasy ache in his stomach, yet he cannot bring himself to get rid of it. Tucked into a notebook and pushed to the bottom of his sock drawer, it rests and he’s never forgotten that it’s there.
Spring is challenging the afternoon with a breeze like florescent graffiti when the phone rings. She quickly rinses the mashed bananas from her hands and wets the receiver as she picks up.
No voice accepts her greeting, but she understands.
“I need some way to tell you that I love you,” she says before setting the receiver back into its cradle. Through the window, the man is returning from the shed with a rusty, gray tool box and an armful of short, white oak boards. His image shudders as it grows closer.
“It never ends,” she murmurs, watching him gain vibrancy with every step.
Finally, she put putty in the keyholes to keep the eyes of the hallways at bay.
Lately, and only at night, she is filled with a curious desperation that she combats by sitting in the rocking chair on the porch. Sometimes, she only stays there long enough to smoke a cigarette. Other evenings, she’ll fall asleep by the creaking of the chair.
Once, he asked about her routine: “Do you enjoy the company of the stars?”
“No,” she said. “I would will them into polka-dots and wear the sky to my grave, if that were the case.”
Her explanation filled him with an awful buzzing. Inside their shared bathroom, he wept into the sink and wished that his face was that of someone else’s.
Now, he knows when she has fallen asleep because the buzzing returns to rouse him. He sits up, pulls on a pair of thick socks, and descends to retrieve her. Cocooned to his chest, she continues to sleep, though her fingers still curl into the blush meat of his shoulders for balance.
The man is sitting at the kitchen table. His hair is dirty and he is wearing an extension cord for a belt. He pulls from a bottle of cheap rum and motions to her with the cap.
“But seriously, bell peppers are so fucking good; every other vegetable can kill itself.”
She has prepared peppers stuffed with black beans, scrambled eggs, diced tomatoes, and yellow onion. The man’s commentary gives her goosebumps, for pleasing others is how she best warms her bones.
“I’m going to make granola pancakes tomorrow. I thought raspberry jam would be great on top of them.”
“That sounds fucking excellent.”
In her giddiness, she neglects the hole in the corner of the oven mitt and moves to extract the baked peppers from the oven.
“Ballocks!” she cries, almost dropping the ceramic dish. The pad of her left ring finger becomes a white pucker.
While she cuddles the burn in her mouth, the man leans across the table, narrowing his eyes at her. “You know,” he says, “I really hate the word ballocks.”
She gapes at him and her shame is like a cloak.
He has teased her so much about the existence of the Mothman that she’s sometimes wary about driving at night. But when they’ve ran out of granulated garlic and soy milk, she forces herself to don a sweater and trace the darkness until she’s been temporarily enveloped by the artificial lighting of the grocery store.
On her way back, she watches for awkward forms in the apexes of trees. Once parked, she bolts for the imaginary safety of the porch.
The pounded cries of the piano’s keys welcome her before the front door is unlocked and pushed aside. Her companion is drunk and wears a thrifted mini-dress and stiletto boots. A brunette, polyester wigs sags to one side of his head. He has on hot pink lipstick and sunglasses with wide, square lens.
“Listen to this, tiny dancer!” he brays, still playing. “I’ve got something novel!”
She doesn’t linger, opting to drop off her load in the kitchen. When the jagged music ends, he has followed her.
He takes her wrist from reaching for a mug and smears whiskey in kisses along her neck.
“Aw, what’s up, kitten cat?” he clucks. “I danced around the living room while you were gone. I feel beautiful and unique tonight.” He bites her, before adding, “Which is exactly what you are.”
His hands have moved from tracing her hips to gripping them. His dress catches, exposing a twisted garter and a thickening bulge.
“Please stop,” she says. “You know that you’re too rough when you’re drunk.”
“Okay, sorry.” He lets go. “Will you listen to my new song?”
“Sure. Let me put the kettle on first.”
While the burner heats, she enters the hall to find the man lying on the rug.
“My head is too big for my body,” he tells her.
She responds by lowering herself to the floor. She removes his wig and rubs his neck until the kettle prompts her to get up again. Then, she remains standing until it is time to go to bed.
“I took an early sleep. Dreamt that houses have relatives –you know– other certain houses. I was living in the brother of the house that I grew up in, the house that burned down. I sensed its sadness in the paint, in the apathetic kilter of the chimney. I became close with the house and secretly wished to be its brother. As I was walking up to it, fire suddenly erupted from all of the windows.”
He pauses to steal a long drag from his cigarette and scratches a bite on his shin. She looks into and beyond the garden and digs her fingernail into the flaking paint of the porch swing. She is holding her breath.
“The fucking house wanted me to see it burn down,” he says. “It fucking waited for me to come into view.”
Two cats sun themselves in grass that is soft and doesn’t prickle. The caramel-colored long hair turns to the calico.
“What have we done?” it asks.
“We rushed,” says the other, turning its head toward the ruddy, distant geography. Looking back, its companion has dissolved into the breeze. Its presence is replaced by the faraway cries of anonymous birds.
Only the bed stays behind, dressed by her shadow. He can still smell her in the creases, in the tremors of his sleep.
Eventually, he moves his dresser to the living room. There, he rests on the sofa, pillowed by excuses, and falls asleep to the electric chirp of the television. It obscures the scraping of the bedframe as it drags across the hardwood –and the unanimous shhh! of the rug and window curtains who want her to stop.
Some years have passed when another house presents itself to the woman. It’s yellow, with rooms that swing to encapsulate a slumping, winding stairwell. The walls are collages and its dusty carpet pulses with gentle music. There, she sleeps on the floor of a child’s old bedroom. A different, delicate man’s chest cradles the draperies of her arms and eyelashes. In the morning, he boils water for tiny cups of brazen coffee. As they smoke, they map symphonies from sentences. He makes her feel that nothing is objective.
When someone mentions commitment, they consider the scenario before agreeing swim in the rivers of each other instead. This suits her well enough for now –now that she has tired of the smell of crumbling glue and vintage wallpaper.