— sufjan stevens, “the world’s columbian exposition/carl sandburg visits me in a dream,” from the album come on! feel the illinoise!
“are you writing from the heart? or are you just being pretentious?”
that’s what i’ve asked myself periodically while writing this short piece of fiction (which is not complete). i’m not sure what the answer is.
— — — — —
he looked at the half-empty whiskey bottle on the table, the cold light of morning spilling in through the window, throwing stark shadows on the faded melamine tabletop. perhaps he should put it away. the bottle looked embarrassed, sitting there with no companion glasses. company unto himself, he’d sucked on it like a greedy infant, until the pain was replaced by haze and dawning’s half-light. it had rained, he remembered, and the raw, amber fire had poured down his throat to the tune of thunder rumbling somewhere in the distance.
mercifully his head did not feel as though it were being chiseled open. he ran his hands over his short, dark hair, roughing it up in places. he leaned forward, resting elbows on knees, and tried to slap himself alert. he was afraid to discover what tales the mirror told on him, but, with the light to his back, he risked a look. somber, slightly bloodshot forest-grey eyes stared back at him out of a sleep-whitened face. he fingered the day’s-worth — or was it two? — of stubble playing along his jawline. not the most dapper-looking figure, certainly, but sober enough to stave off the flock of unwelcome questions breakfast would bring. he sighed, and got up to stow the whiskey away before she arrived.
he didn’t know why she insisted on making him breakfast. even though she didn’t come over weekday mornings, it was her cereal in the hand-thrown ice blue bowl she’d brought him; her orange juice, freshly squeezed sunday night; her cloth napkin lying unused in its wooden ring.
having stuffed the whiskey bottle behind the cans of ammonia cleanser in the cupboard, he wandered toward the bathroom to brush his teeth and remove any other telltale signs of the night’s adventures. he squeezed some paste onto his toothbrush, noticing as he did so that she’d carefully flattened the empty part of the tube. why did she think he couldn’t do that for himself — and what made her assume he liked his toothpaste tube like that? maybe he liked squeezing from the middle.
he stared at himself in the mirror again as he brushed his teeth, wondering how she’d permeated his life to this extent, and why he’d let her. she was everywhere, all the time; it seemed he could never get away from her. her imposed menu and place setting greeted him at breakfast. at the office she was always just a disconcertingly few booths away. sometimes they’d even carpool. in the evenings she’d come down from her apartment on the floor above and cook dinner. afterward she’d do the dishes, water his plants, fluff up the sofa cushions. and sneak around looking at his toothpaste, apparently. then she’d say goodnight and go back to her apartment, and they’d do it all again the next day.
one day he’d been the new guy at the office and they’d discovered the coincidence of living in the same building one floor apart. the next it seemed she’d staked out her territory as his personal chef, housekeeper and nanny. if he had friends over, or a girl, she’d stay out of the way, for which he was grateful.
but she oughtn’t to have been there at all.
his family had met her, and had, in their odd, roundabout way, voiced their approval. his friends thought she was weird and a little obsessive, but liked her cooking and her tendency to blend into the background. their coworkers, he knew, gossiped about the status of their relationship. the girls never found out about her, unless by accident.
he spat the foam into the sink and washed it down, then took a gulp of water and spat that out, too. the taste was off.
rifling through his closet for a fresh shirt, he found himself wondering why he cared what she thought of his slips into the still. what business was it of hers, really? his family thought nothing, or little, of it. they were all normally a finger or two off sober. a few fingers more, a whole hand … he never let it interfere with his work. management were willing to excuse a certain amount of ‘irregularity’ from the creatives, so long as the job got done, but they were firm with the careless few who’d crossed the line. he’d been near it several times, but she’d always made sure his copperplate appearance was kept intact for work hours, no matter how violently his head throbbed and his stomach threatened to abandon him. oxford shirt, fitted, crisp. the jeans without holes or fray marks. the belt that matched his italian leather shoes. a cardigan to ward off sudden chills from the spastic office air conditioner. and she made sure he put his contacts in — he couldn’t see for shoot on his own and refused to wear glasses in public. such was the standard at which he liked to start the day, although evening usually found him considerably rumpled from this shining morning state.
it had been the weekend after he’d moved in, at the side door of the building, in the middle of another howling thunderstorm such as comes only in a midwest summer. he’d been drunk and couldn’t find his key; his exuberant bonhomie had quickly been drenched into a slurred, indecipherable wail. she’d had her key, of course, and had brought him up to her apartment to dry off. she’d given him a cup of tea, he recalled — very strong, very hot, very black — and he’d noisily explained he didn’t like the bitterness of tea.
“i don’t like the bitterness of whiskey,” she’d said in quiet amusement. “drink it.”
he had, then, and by the time she’d found his key and seen him through the unlocking of his door, he was considerably more sober, if less awake. he’d collapsed on the sofa, in the midst of half-unpacked boxes, and had fallen asleep to the sound of the storm blowing itself out over the city.
on his way back into the kitchen he paused in front of the mirror for a third evaluation, contemplating the blue-black shadow darkening on his face. was it time for a shave? or would she get suspicious, seeing him clean-shaven and clean-shirted — a state never indulged in past thursday — on the weekend? he forced himself to meet his reflection’s gaze. if anyone would notice, she would. she didn’t always comment, but he knew she didn’t miss a detail that came into her sightline. and she had a memory so detailed it was scary.
once he’d had the worst head cold imaginable and she’d made him green thai curry, even though he could never remember telling her that was his favorite food.
“i know you can’t taste this,” she’d said, “but i made it extra hot to burn your sinuses open.”
once he was convalescing and could taste again, the leftovers were so spicy tears streamed down his face while he ate. but it was the best curry he’d had in his life.
not that he’d told her, or ever would.
most saturdays after breakfast she made him come grocery shopping with her. she had her basket, and he had his, but she’d tell him what to buy anyway, and he’d have to go to the shelf or cooler or produce bin and get what she’d told him while she got her own groceries. he’d never really had a taste for junk food so he didn’t (really) mind what she made him buy. every once in a while he’d slip in a hershey’s bar and hope she didn’t see. he knew she did, and knew she didn’t care, but he wanted to hide his weakness for milk chocolate.
for the same reason, he bought his alcohol alone.