expired restaurant coupons from the old neighborhood, bread bag ties, hair band, tangled tape measure, wooden matches, half a packet of cut flower preservative, green plastic Brontosaurus, 37-cent postage stamp, a crazy idea, empty Scotch tape dispenser, calculator, one pill with no name, six inches of red Christmas ribbon,corks, chopsticks,
“She won’t stop referring to you as my roommate.”
Sandy adjusted her purple headband until it rested evenly upon her dusty, short-cropped hair. There was a long silence in the room as she scrutinized herself in the mirror and picked at a tiny piece of dry skin that hung from the tip of her nose. Mariah admired the shape of Sandy’s pea-sized nose and the way it pointed up at attention like a tiny soldier. It was one of the first things she noticed about her. “It’s as if we never even had the conversation,” said Sandy, who had stopped fidgeting. She looked herself over and sighed, as she often did in front of the mirror. “I shouldn’t have told her over the phone. I should have waited.”
Mariah watched Sandy helplessly, the way only a lover can watch her beloved when she’s been inundated with troubles that are out of her control. Sandy began to fiddle with the straps of her long dress. It was dark blue with a simple floral pattern. The ends of it danced around Sandy’s ankles as she moved. Mariah thought Sandy looked out of place in that dress. She was used to seeing her girlfriend lying on their couch in pajama pants and a t-shirt or out in the world in a collared shirt and a pair of slacks. Sandy liked to present herself to the world as a customary professional, with folded arms and a stern but genuine smile. Mariah decided to cherish the dress while she could. Although it looked foreign on Sandy’s body, it characterized innocence in her which Mariah had only become acquainted with after several months of sharing space with her, after the emotional barriers that Sandy had spent years surrounding herself with finally broke down and the two of them found themselves next to each other in bed.
The hair followed me everywhere. I could see it from the corner of my eye, waving from the loose green weave of my sweater—something I bought at a garage sale from a swollen, gouty woman in ripped denim. It had been her dead husband’s sweater. She sold it to me for three bucks, throwing in a small, squeaky toy for my dog—a pug named Tiny—saying: “My husband loved those fucking beasts. Smelly things. Our whole house smelled like dogs. That’s what I said when he asked me why I smoked so much. I said anything is better than the smell of dog.”
I first saw the hair when I was riding the bus the week after I bought it. For a minute I thought it was something attached to the window, but when I turned to brush it away, it moved with me. The hair was blue-black. Blue-black. Just like her hair, I thought. The girl I’d left in Austin.
The hurricane passed in rain and in wind that threw sand from the beach against our windows. But none of the windows ever gave and we only lost power for couple-minute spans, never for the long haul.
That next morning, the sun was shining. It was still windy, but not the kind of wind that would overturn a car or uproot a tree. The kind that would, at worst, mess up your hair, maybe pry loose one of the balloons outside the venue.
Well it’s a bit odd to write this stuff rather than to talk to you about it, but if that’s what you’d rather then that’s what’s happening.
I talked to Emma about how things were while I was over there between us. She had a lot to say on the matter that I won’t repeat here, but she did push me to ask you one question. I’m going to ask it even though I feel like it is the same question that I’ve already asked, because I suppose in my mind at the moment it’s probably the most pertinent question that we – or at least I – have.
But before I do I’d like to say that in spite of everything, I had a good time when I saw you; I saw potential for our relationship to change and grow with better communication, and above all else I want to make this work with you. I understand if you don’t anymore and want to give up on us, but I hope that you will give us that chance to see if we can fix things, because after everything we’ve been through I feel like we at least owe it that – a proper, honest chance.
My brother once told me a story about a broken dog. He swears it’s true. It could be, but it’s probably not.
This is how he tells it, every party and every quiet night we have:
He was walking home from his part-time bartending gig. Why he was walking, who knows. Maybe the bus was late. Maybe he didn’t have enough money for an Uber. Anyway, he started to walk home.
The first Christmas I ever spent without my wife was the year she studied on exchange in Germany. I was in the final semester of my own studies when she left and in the months leading up to the festive season I had struggled with life in her absence. At the time I was flatting in Remuera with Ingrid, a Plunket nurse working in Glen Innes, and her eleven year old daughter Emily. After everything I’d put them through all I wanted was to give them a perfect day. I owed them that. And so I decided to avoid the usual calamity with my family in favour of remaining in Auckland with the girls, and any other unloved orphans left in town on Christmas morning.
I thought I could hear Ingrid moving around her bedroom. I didn’t want to wake her but the milky concoction in my hand only she could call coffee was lukewarm at best and I was already considering making her a new one. I pushed my glasses back up my nose, looked at my watch, and knocked.
I drove to the liquor store in the bright red Ford Ranger that I used for work, covered in all the dents and scrapes that I was responsible for. I wasn’t very good at my job, and given how torturous the experience had been when my father taught me how to drive, having already parted ways so many years before, the idea that I would now be working for him in a role that required precisely the skills that eluded me seemed the cruelest twist of the knife. As if I needed another chance, with every dent I inflicted, to make him ashamed of me, the son who could have been nothing but a failure to him. That to maintain my bohemian dreams, the price I would pay would be to see him staring at me not knowing if it were his glass eye or not. The same look he gave me when I saw him after my mother had told him that my wife and I had split, so long after it had happened.
“And it’s what—permanent?”
“I think so, yeah.”
It was the closest we had ever got to really talking about anything and my skin burned. How could I talk about it with him? How could I talk to him anymore than I could tell Danielle that I couldn’t have a baby with her?
“Just the Lion Red?” the man at the liquor store said.
In August of 1934, when my father packed his bags and went to bury his friend Otto, I was still too young to have any friends among the dead. Otto would have been a good friend to have, I suppose, if his keen sense of politics helped him to open any doors in the world beyond, but the sad truth was that I could barely remember his face. For obscure reasons he’d stopped coming to visit us long ago.
Rolling the ball of her mother’s carpal-friendly mouse, Ani woke the hibernating laptop to find an unfamiliar screen. The last person in the office, a balding guy Marie had called an impudent beast because he’d devoured the last package of peanut butter cookies without asking, must’ve changed the default from Chrome. This new search engine’s logo was a cyan ball with big, cartoon eyes that glanced toward the text box when she hovered the cursor around it. Ani steadied herself as she typed.
Rapid heartbeat, nausea, confusion, dizziness.
“Ani, we need those sheets changed.” Marie hustled down the hall with a bottle of window cleaner and a bundle of newspaper. Her dark hair was held in a high bun that looked like it’d fall out if she turned her head too quickly, and she was still wearing the loose cotton pants and tank top that she called her pre-guest outfit.
“They’re in the dryer, Mom.”
The computer stalled. The impudent beast must’ve forgotten to clear the cache. She refreshed, noticing that the camera light was blinking purple instead of red. When the same old links came up, she deleted the search and began to type impudent, just to be sure.
The phone is all the way across the house. The kitchen, the dining room, the long corridor. It didn’t used to look so long. I’ve told you this house is too big for you. Each step is so slow. Just three digits to dial, 9-1-1. And yet, it’s so far. A trip across the house like a perilous adventure. One more step. Betsy offered to stay, didn’t she? You should’ve taken her up on it. She will feel terrible if…no, no, you can’t think that. Not as long as you keep making step after step. Yes, that’s right, step after step. And that pressure in my chest is okay, it’s not so bad. It was nice of Betsy. She’s been nice to me for the last year or two. She used to be so irritable. I wonder what’s changed. One more step. Don’t panic. You can make it. Yes you can. One more step. One step at a time, nice and slow. Betsy has been doing better since she divorced that terrible man. Why not let your daughter stay overnight? You know why. She can’t stay every night, can she? Then she might as well move in. Tonight is like any other night, or at least it was supposed to be.
It started the night when my friend Allie had a stand-up gig at a place called Go Laugh It Off. I tagged along because I had nothing better to do, and it was more of a bar than a comedy venue in that Go Laugh It Off made most of its revenue selling cheap wine to its lineup of comedians every night than by selling tickets to an audience. Anyway, there we were, comedians and their wayward friends, drunk after the show in the lobby, some of us passing joints, others sipping warm champagne, when it was decided that instead of bar-hopping we would stay right where we were. I thought this was a fine plan. I got in trouble when I mixed my drinking establishments.
A portable karaoke machine was sent for then, and I went in search of the restroom to see if my eyeliner was spilling my secrets already. On my way to the restroom, which was behind the stage, I passed a brooding, pierced type sitting stage right in a black beanie and full-blown Technicolor sleeves of images that belong better on murals than on both his arms. He was pounding a hand drum with his palm. His face was Zen and handsome. You know him already.
1855: the year Dr. Livingston became the first European to set eyes upon the waterfalls he would subsequently christen after his illustrious Queen. The same year British North American backwater Bytown was renamed Ottawa, inching up to a declaration of Capital. The year Central Park in New York City was orchestrated, landscaped, and constructed. The world did not yet exist in photographs.
The colonial mind of Dr. Livingston, concluding that anything not witnessed by Europeans sat nameless, awaiting. A man of his time.
More than half a century later, from the rubble of the First Great War, the British bully who forced a hard line in the sand through the nomadic tribes, and arbitrarily defined the Saudi Arabian border against Iraq. A border held, but never stable.
Upon a mound of bodies is no foundation for a moral high ground.
He writes in his notebook: at times I try to fabricate a memory.
Ross was the type of guy one hoped never to run into at the grocery store because of his big, fat mouth. Really, he was not that fat; instead I would have characterized him as tall and hefty, like the magnolia tree he cut down in his side yard, only without the possibility of blossom. Back then he was just my neighbor, father to twin teenagers Allison and Ralph, and the wood shop teacher at the local high school, which might have led you to believe he kept up his property by painting the shutters, polishing the porch railings, or building birdhouses complete with turrets, terraces, and a colonnade.
Tucker was struck by how different Miles looked in his pictures. Time had been good to him. He was bronzed and broad-shouldered, muscular and bearded, a handsome, smiling buccaneer. Gone was the pale, waifish, gloomy boy of Tucker’s memory. Tucker looked different, too, he knew. His hair was thinner. He was softer and flabbier, thicker around the middle. There was more flesh under his chin. He had, by his own admission, not aged as well as his friend. But he reassured himself. Looks aside, he had been pretty fortunate. He had a beautiful wife who loved him. He had sold more houses last year than any other Realtor in his company. He had financial security, a nice house on a good street, and a son on the way. By nearly every objective measure, he was doing quite well.
By the looks of his house, Miles was doing quite well, too. He lived in a large, impressive Tudor in the middle of a broad shady street lined with other large, impressive Tudors. As Tucker and his wife pulled into the driveway, Tucker estimated the house’s value. He figured it would go for about four hundred and fifty thousand if it were listed tomorrow. If he were the seller’s agent, he thought he could probably get five hundred thousand for it. He quickly calculated the commission in his head: a little over six thousand dollars after the buyer’s agent and the brokers took their shares. Not a bad haul. With that kind of paycheck, he could take a month off.
Tucker and his wife parked and got out of their car. Miles came out to greet them. Dressed in a tight gray t-shirt and form-fitting jeans, he looked even more chiseled and strapping in person than he had in his pictures. Behind him came a tall, trim man with a shaved head and dark, deep-set eyes. Tucker reached out to shake his friend’s hand. Miles ignored the hand and went right for a hug, wrapping Tucker up in his strong arms. He slapped Tucker on the back and pulled away. “Tuck,” he said. “It is so good to see you. It’s been too long.”