Their first and only house was the last stop on a dead-end country road. It was a lonely plot, abutting the orchards of an apple farm. Anna detested it. The house was raw boned and unlovable with yellowing sheet rock and a splintery porch. Most of the windows were painted shut. The two-acres were swallowed up by unchecked horse nettle and yellow foxtails and cut in half by a savage dirt driveway, blown out, so full of washboards that every trip put your joints out of socket. Like an invasive species, her hatred of the house now existed outside her control. It was a constant presence; a plangent hum emitting from the foundation.
This morning, she flitted from room to room, unable to sit still. She read a few pages of Noise: The Political Economy of Music but the words went right through her like gamma rays. She played a couple nocturnes and thought about cutting her hair. Where was Lewis hiding? She hadn’t seen him all morning. He hadn’t come to bed last night, something she minded less and less even as it happened more and more.
Not being in love was exhausting. She put the kettle on and sat at the kitchen table, in one of the mismatched chairs she hated so much, bouncing her leg up and down on her heel. Took pleasure in tightening up her toes and digging them into cool stone of the floor. Killed the heat on the kettle before it even boiled and just let the water sit there. She found Lewis in the study, lying on the couch with his arm across his eyes, an oscillating fan positioned a foot from his face. On the floor, a glass and the dregs of ice cubes.
Lewis’s study was a place she avoided. She didn’t like looking at the disused instruments, synthesizers and keyboards thick with dust, guitars with strings long broken. The room was dim and cold, in gentle disarray. The ceiling was swollen and peeling from when a pipe had burst in the upstairs spare room. It was four months later and they still hadn’t fixed the water damage. For a couple years now he had been giving music lessons but he used the study less and less, opting for the porch in spring and fall and the kitchen in summer and winter. When he had clients that was. Missed appointments, no excuse given, no contact made, occurring too often to be ignored. But she had a talent for ignoring.
She existed, he existed. They had a past, they lived in the present. But beyond that was fog and self-doubt. What did he want? What did he need?
He hadn’t been to a doctor and she felt too numb to suggest it. She wanted to dose him in secret. That was her style. The great silent gulf that lay between them could be enticing. In that void, she floated without effort, as in a dead sea, open wounds stinging but ignored. She could go to the doctor, co-opt his symptoms as her own. No doubt he heard her come into the room but he hadn’t moved.
She focused on keeping her tone neutral: “I’m going to the city to get a few things. I’ll be back soon.”
“K.” He won’t remember and it will make no difference. He won’t wonder where she is.
She couldn’t bring herself to leave right away and washed a single cup to the point where the notion of clean lost all sense and shape, like a word babbled over and over to oblivion. At the time she had no concrete thoughts, nothing she could articulate. Only a tightness in the chest and the realization that a man can break for no reason at all. Some secret thought or dream in his head, unacknowledged even to himself, and it’s proved false or perverted by outside forces. He becomes appalled by where he is and who he is with. He imagines a soundtrack accompanying him walking down the street only to turn a corner and realize it will always be silent. There is no next. Accidents of circumstance and environment, innocent choices start to feel like pebbles in your shoe you can’t ever remove.
Here is how he used to be. Here is what she could remember if she tried:
The rooms were dark, lamps dimmed with a blanket or a scarf, but they were emptying out, the party dying. Rooms in this state can be either sinister or welcoming. You’re glad you made it to this point or you panic that you’re all alone. She was tired, sitting on a couch all by herself, unsure of what to do next. “Had he met her before? She looked so familiar.” It wasn’t anything clever. It barely qualified as trying. She was about to get angry but his face was open and honest, with limpid eyes and long hair, so instead she leaned back and breathed out an inviting ‘no’. He sat down and started asking her questions.
It was intoxicating, speaking unreflectively, without fear of judgment or misstep. This is how people fall in love with themselves—someone lets them talk all night. And when someone helps you love who you are, well, you are in their debt.
She talked about her sister. How she joined a church and now won’t return their calls. She told him about how she had totaled her grandmother’s car. She told him what she though music should be. He didn’t comment. He asked for more. She could have planned better. The heart moves without permission, only ever begging for forgiveness. When you don’t have to fight for something, when it comes effortless from the beginning, you will never truly respect it.
Later, they will rent a place together. He will sit on the edge of the tub and feed her tangerine slices. He’ll sing to her from behind the bathroom door, drowning out all other sound in their thin walled apartment, to save her the embarrassment. His voice high and clear. He makes up the words as he goes along.
But history is not worth anything and she couldn’t find any solace in it.
Is a reasonable person ever negligent? she demanded. Can you really blame her?
Gliding into the city, she kept fretting over the radio and wondering why no one was walking down the street. A zombie city, a snow globe city: quiet, Midwestern, stalwart. A thousand years from now it will look the same, it is in fact incapable of change, inured against outside forces. She had asked Paul to meet her at the park because she didn’t want to interact with anyone else.
Her preferred mode of nature was the public park. Anything less manicured made her heart race. She sat on a bench under a living oak with her legs tucked up underneath her long skirt. She sat and waited and twitched. Her hand played air piano atop her knee. She wore large, cat-eye sunglasses and short, blunt bangs and she waited and she twitched.
Paul walked across the undying lawn in his slouched gait. She spotted him but didn’t wave. Lewis, Paul, and Anna had shared an apartment junior and senior year. They used to tease him with exaggerations of his country mannerisms, stomping around the apartment bowlegged, thumbs through the belt loops, and elbows flapping. He hadn’t been able to shed his origins as Lewis had.
Your heart doesn’t forget how to flutter and that hot rinse of shame rises so easily. Should she stand up when he gets to her? How close will he sit to her? If she stands up and he sits down first, how close should she sit to him?
She didn’t stand. He fell into the bench, without grace or caution. He looked comfortable in his own skin for once. The clothes fit and he had let someone cut his hair. He sat close enough she didn’t doubt herself.
“Hey Anna, good to see you,” he said.
“Yeah Paulie, good to see you too.”
She was familiar with his silences. They had not been especially close. He was more a presence to her than a person.
“I don’t know where to start,” she said. She had no urge to cry.
He chuckled and shook his head. “I love him. You know I love him. I’ll do whatever we need to. But he doesn’t want to listen. What can I do? What can I do?” He looked over his shoulder and muttered, “At this point it probably doesn’t matter.” He might not actually love Lewis.
“If I’m being honest,” he said, “You and I shouldn’t have to sacrifice because he can’t handle, I don’t know what, but can’t handle something. What do we owe him?”
She was having trouble keeping her eyes focused and her legs still. She tried to trick her mind with the mantra of all late 20-somethings: everyone was the same; everyone was worried all the time; no one knew what they were doing.
He rubbed his face and then dug his knuckles into his eyes, a tick he resorted to when he was uncomfortable. Back in college, when they had all three lived together, she had come home early—class canceled due to teacher’s unending depression—and caught Paul going through her underwear drawer. Nobody spoke and they didn’t break eye contact as he side stepped around her and out the door. For a month he had rubbed his face raw anytime they were in the same room. She had never told Lewis. Looking back she was not exactly sure why—attributing some innocence to Paulie that he probably didn’t deserve.
The heat brings the blood, and with the blood comes the indefensible pleasure of scratching an itch. Something she couldn’t account for had allowed it, past all reason and logic.
And he was so different now. The haircut and the weight loss. At the very least, it didn’t hurt.
Why were they meeting here? For a minute she couldn’t recall or didn’t want to. Same thing. It was early fall.
Pity made her chest flush. Her ears stuck out from her hair. She was a better musician than either Lewis or Paul but look at the successful one. Paul had fought his way into a job as a studio musician, was also doing some producing for a local record company. Nothing huge but he got to tour all over Europe last summer. Lewis wouldn’t stop making comments about it.
The sun was directly overhead. He put his arm around her and pulled her head to his shoulder. He had unfinished tattoos on his arm.
“It’ll be alright,” he said. “We have time.” She reached a hand around his chest and pressed herself into him. You sink into a feeling, you feel the burn and tingle, like a too warm bath. Comfort shrinks the world down, it obliterates time and obligations, makes you brave and unworried about tomorrow. And with comfort comes sticky sweet indulgence.
He kissed the top of her head and that was all she needed. They didn’t say another word, went back to not speaking, he became a presence again. He had a new apartment, in a high rise overlooking the park. His room was bright and empty and the fresh paint made her knees weak. The afternoon in bed was clumsy, timid, and blissful. Her car got two tickets. She’d need to pay them in secret. That shouldn’t be hard. Even when he was sober, Lewis was not great with details.
Did she blame herself for what came next? Was what happened to Paul her fault? Could she live with it? One afternoon, six months later, will forever dominate her life. She will lose Lewis. She won’t bring herself to stay with Paul. Throughout her life, she’ll take a string of lovers, keeping up the rotation well into old age. A student will fall in love with her and then be repulsed when he searches her name online (the portrayals of her in the press get increasingly vicious). ‘Can she live with it?’ may be the wrong question. She will live with it, the best she can, as anyone would. Instead, perhaps, we should ask ‘What do we want from her?’.
There is another question: Was it a fair trade, those few months of happiness for years of misery? The question appalled her and yet still, in certain moods, she enjoyed telling the whole story. But she always did it in the most callous way possible, pretending it had nothing to do with her. She pretended that she understood Lewis; she pretended that she did not understand Paul.
And she had a bevy of ways to make herself feel justified. Once she scrolled through Lewis’s phone and found pictures of herself asleep and naked. Some hot summer night before they could afford air conditioning. Before he had this phone. She saw no other old photos. He had taken the time to transfer just those.
On his way to Anna’s house, he dreamed about the way her stomach looked when she reached for a glass in his kitchen, the lascivious parting of her t-shirt and panties. Unfamiliar with these country roads, the reverie caused him to run a stop sign. He realized it as it was happening and his whole body tightened with terror. He pulled off to the side of the road, palms slick with sweat and knuckles aching from his death grip on the steering wheel. Not another car in sight.
It’s warm and it’s spring, days like slippery slopes, days like a fair compromise, days of purpose and possibility. Still he felt a near-constant, low-level panic because he knew, at some point, time becomes an enemy instead of an ally and it is a betrayal deeply felt.
The roads were straight and empty. The fields were in bloom, the machinery lumbering between furrows, the migrant workers gathered around a cooler under the lone tree, the mobile sprinklers turning the ground dark. In college, he would smoke a joint and have a panic attack brought on by white guilt for the plight of the migrant worker. Not that he ever did anything about it when he sobered up. Was he complicit? Was he doing the best he could? Why did he deserve this and not them? Lewis, Anna in his lap, would laugh at him. “But how do you deal with it?” Paul pleaded. They never bothered to answer him.
Rumbling up the driveway, he was flooded with the hot blood of anticipation. He had dated little in college (meaning not at all). It hadn’t seemed worth the trouble. And besides, who would want such a half-formed thing? Lewis had never brought it up. Which Paul was thankful for. Not to say he wasn’t well acquainted with lust. Countless, one-sided affairs were a near daily occurrence. He would anticipate sitting next to a girl in class or ordering from a cute barista. It barely qualified as unrequited.
When he opened the car door, the level of noise was shocking. The fields vibrated and pulsed with this insect disquiet, the light a greater brightness and intensity then the city could ever manage, sweat prickling along his hairline. Across the field, he saw Anna standing in the door way, drying her hands on her long dress. He thought she looked desperate, strong, and indefatigable; sometimes he imagines her as a revolutionary, staging coups with whisper campaigns.
It was a slow walk across the unkempt field, head down against the sun, kicking rocks with new leather boots that pinched his toes. He stomped up the porch steps to let her know he was not afraid. But he couldn’t keep it up and didn’t meet her eye, half a smile on his face and not a single intention hid. She leaned against the door jamb, her body spring-loaded with resolution, a shoddy mix of love and fortitude.
“I don’t know where he is,” she said.
“Then why’d you call me out here?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to.”
“What should we do?”
“I have no idea.”
She bounded back inside. He gave her a head start. A moment just outside a door has its own special rules. The rush to get yourself in order before entering; the cigarette passed back and forth in an alleyway; the way your heart feels when a porch light clicks off as you make your way to the car. He had long used these moments to provide a space to breathe, a second of recollection before plunging back into the turmoil. He could never hold it for long, he got anxious for the raw edges of what was to come.
“Let me fix you something to drink,” she said. He followed her into the kitchen, through the aggressive disarray of the living room, and, despite having been there numerous times, he moved with caution, as if afraid of leaving evidence behind. This was a home invasion. He sat in the mismatched chair and picked at the label on his beer.
The kitchen was a reflection of her state of mind. Not plain, unvarnished; not dirty, neglected. The kitchen was bright and oppressing. He felt isolated and abandoned.
“I wrote some new stuff this week.” She sat on the counter top, heels lightly tapping against the cabinet below, and stared right at him, didn’t turn away.
The kitchen smelled of dishwater and rotten fruit and the intimacy of this neglect made him feel unwelcome. As if the house were holding him in judgment. He flinched at every noise, sure it was Lewis coming home.
“Let me hear it,” Paul said.
She jumped off the counter. “I got my keyboard upstairs. Come on.”
Did he want this dilapidated house? The wood floors dusty and scratched, the walls bare and yellowing—none of the windows had curtains. Would he move Anna out to his place? There were clothes on the stairs, peeling wallpaper.
The bed was unmade, the air heavy and redolent. The keyboard was leaning against the wall in the corner, looking proudly untouched. Like a kite string cut, her dress flies away. Or maybe: The sight of her dress dropping hit him like a depth charge.
At certain points it felt as if the whole house was rocking back and forth, the way a car might. But that is not what he will remember years later. Remember is the wrong word. Haunt perhaps, but that might be overused. What he does remember will never leave him alone, like an uninvited guest or a sexual disease. He will worry it over and over till he his sure there is probably a portion of his brain devoted to recreating the sensations for him. A memory that will cause him to be forever distracted. Because it is a memory of the last time he was wholly present in a moment.
He felt the shadow before he saw it move across the bed. The transformation of her face was slow and total, like a building collapsing from dynamite. Her eyes went wide and wild. Paul will play it over and over again till he dies.
And then the burn in the scalp when he was pulled out by his hair. The hot pressure in the chest. He thought he had only been punched. Then the screaming.
Lewis did not make mistakes. An expert at knowing himself. Bit his knuckle when he was wrong. Anna, white-gold skin and opal eyed, was his idol. He didn’t love her in any traditional sense. It was a religious experience. Like all good Catholics, he came to love her in the confessional. She had drawn out his ordinal sins like sucking poison from a puncture wound (but nobody ever told him it was useless to treat a snake bite like that. She put him through a triage, a battlefield surgeon, womanhood like a bone saw).
Sun and thunder filled the room where Lewis was sleeping on the carpet. Lewis was a dyed in the wool rebel—contrapuntal by nature. So he did not question the unfamiliarity of his surroundings. He proceeded as if he owned this house too. He made his way to the kitchen and rifled through her cabinets for what he needs. Located tea, tea kettle, and mug.
Lewis tore the cardboard flap on the tea box, despite his conscious effort not to. He liked how the wax paper felt as he pulled it apart, ancient and elemental. Lewis was a sucker for home cures.
He had always gravitated towards the precious. His first girlfriend had drawn cartoon animals committing non-violent crime: a fox dressed smartly in a vest cheating on his taxes, a bespectacled turtle abusing his partner psychologically, a bald eagle in jean shorts shoplifting. He had looked her up the other day and she had two kids and was selling supplements as part of a multi-level marketing scheme. His favorite had been the grizzly bear that pirated movies and sold them from the trunk of his car.
It was 11 AM on a Wednesday. He was in the apartment of a woman he had met the night before. Making tea in her kitchen without a clue where she might be. The subtle shift can often be more violent than the sudden wreck. Alone in the warm and quiet house of a stranger. As the kettle began to murmur, he spied her liquor bottles lined up on the counter top among the spilled salt and rotting, half-cut limes. Lewis did not hesitate.
Now the thunder was gone. Tongue swollen, hand twitching. His mind the razor, his body the strop. Calloused finger pads and the same four notes in his head.
Paul and Lewis met in middle school. An alliance rising from a shared, quiet intelligence. An operational invisibility. Not bullied but ignored. Natural musicality they could take any direction they pleased, neither suffering from over-bearing parents. Garages like secret lairs, filled with teenage debris and secondhand instruments they technically “own” but ignore where it came from, as if financed by some shadowy organization they didn’t want to recognize. A friendship further forged in the desire to hide all aspects of puberty, to not grow, in parallel, till nature overwhelmed and they each spin and wind in opposite directions: Lewis’s orbit becoming wider and louder while Paul hummed and sheltered in place. Music, sweet and weird, rotating through bands, basements, small town blues, the corner in a diner, lusting over Moogs.
Out in the courtyard, vodka in a coffee mug, he could feel the coming heat of the day in the concrete. The smells of fabric softener, wet earth, and bacon. From a another story, two voices singing along to a pop song. He dreamed of futures where you no longer needed to eat or sleep.
Tomorrow, he thought, I will rise early and accomplish many things. I won’t feel overwhelmed or unloved or powerless. It’s unlikely that I will feel insignificant. Let them grind down this world to a fine dust.
Took a sip and licked his lips. He liked to joke to himself that he could gargle it if he wanted to. He didn’t think of the last weeks or month, nor did he have any urge to. Why would he? People don’t do this because it has proven ineffective.
When had he realized that it wouldn’t be easy? Here he is, years ago, fresh and hopeful, sitting on the curb off a wide boulevard, multitudes spilling out from the club behind, chatter and glassware clinking, the flick of a lighter like Morse code. But his mind is empty. He doesn’t know what to think. So he sits and stares and thinks of nothing. Can’t get a grip on his opinions. That should have been the first warning sign. Like the handful of screws leftover when you build your own furniture. Where do they go? Did I skip a step? Should I save them? It made him happy to be sadder than everyone around him.
Almost noon. Best to get a move on lest she comes home for lunch and finds him here. He took a bottle with him as he did.
He walked up and down the parking lot twice. Around the block once. His car wasn’t there. He walked down to the corner store. Bought a two-liter, poured half of it out and refilled from the filched bottle.
The next bus won’t come for 45 minutes. He forgot that he needed cash until he was on the bus and the doors closed behind him. He dug in his pockets over and over, making an exaggerated show of patting down his t-shirt and the sides of his jeans until a woman sitting by the front rolled her eyes and gave him a dollar.
“Thank you kindly,” he said and attempted a little bow just as the bus lurched forward and sent him sprawling to the floor. No one moved to help him up. His two-liter rolled under the seats and he had to get down on his knees to retrieve it. The grooved metal floor bit and pinched and he came up too fast so his vision swam. Back in his seat, he made himself small against the window. The passengers rotated out and all was forgotten. He watched a young Muslim woman unwind and then re-affix her head scarf. She didn’t seem to mind him staring. When he leaned down to swig from the two-liter in semi-secrecy, he could smell his groin through the jeans.
He got off at the first stop downtown. He felt alright. He remembered where he started. Did the people part from him or was he imagining it? Walking in the city in the springtime, drunk before noon, the leaves have vibrancy these other suckers can’t possibly grasp. The car was there, the meter long passed expired. Two tickets under the wiper blade. He pulled them out and dropped them on the ground. Fished out a couple quarters from the cup holder, fed the meter. Grabbed the guitar from the back.
He set up on the corner, dark side of the street. The lunch crowd lingering in the weather. Money like moonlight in the dark plush of his case on the concrete. Played jazz guitar muted and loose. Mostly Django Reinhardt, gypsy jazz, hands made of fire. Swigged from the bottle between songs. Made more money busking than he ever had before.
He went back to the bar by his car. If the world were on fire, the inside of this bar would still be dark. It was quiet, he could hear the water in the pipes in the walls. The bartender cut an eye at the plastic bottle so he tipped his head back and made short work of it.
Shot and a beer. Paid with quarters and dimes. Anna will always love him. Things were looking up, the street corner felt like a stadium, the $15 like a royalty check. He reached out for memories of her but only came back with the way she looked leaving a room or images of the back of her head.
“You all right sir?” the bartender asked.
The ‘sir’ startled him.
He drove home slowly, feeling heavy in all this light, the sun fractal in the windshield. Later they will wonder if he noticed Paul’s car and, if so, what that means about what he did. He did notice it but by the time he had reached the front door he had forgotten it completely. So it means whatever you want it to.
When he opened the door it was like waking up to the fire alarm. Or maybe the carbon monoxide beep. Like waking up to a TV left on in the night. Like waking up into a second dream. Like waking up in the tub, the water cold. But now he didn’t understand. On his way up the stairs he slipped on a bra and banged his shin. He didn’t remember starting up the stairs. His brain was still a minute behind his body. Knife from his pocket in hand, the door ajar, he pushed it open wide with one finger.
The details of the scene made no difference to him. He was beyond thought.
His nails scraped the scalp as he grabbed a great tuft of hair and tugged backward. It seemed impossible how light this man felt. A small yelp and moan. He might not have meant to plunge the knife in. Might have only meant to menace him with it. But it slipped into the chest easy, right between the ribs, all flesh and no bone. Once there, a natural reflex to come back out and in again.
But now the weight of the body became more real, his forearms leaden and strained. He dropped the body. Screamed till he ran out of air. Lost focus and sight.
He was in the orchard now, running down the rows, stumbling over great clods of earth and the soft piping for the drip systems. It was not clear to him how he got there. Stopped and vomited.
There was a ladder under the tree. Did the ladder give him the idea or was it always there and the ladder simply reminded him? He slipped the belt easily from his pants. Climbed up with the thick leather looped in one hand. The end through the buckle and over his neck. Knotted it around the branch. Kicked the ladder away. The panic was unwelcome. He can still reach the branch and tried to lift himself up but couldn’t manage it and the drop caused the leather to pinch the skin where his neck met his jaw. He slapped at the knot but it had been pulled too tightly by his weight.
He thought he saw Anna running down the row. Coming to him. But it wasn’t her. It wasn’t anyone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C M Dragomanovich lives in Austin, TX. This is his first published story.