She always does this when we argue before bed. She strips the covers and starts over, making sure to tuck the sheets in tightly under the mattress because she knows how much I hate that. We lay back-to-back in these sheets that she smoothed with a stubborn hand, every wrinkle; a chore she only carries out on nights like this. She tosses a little and kicks her legs. She sighs impatiently, but I lay still, feigning sleep.
“Are you asleep, baby?” Her voice takes on that sympathetic tone, that I-want-to-make-this-right-so-I-can-sleep-tonight, tone.
“Can we talk?”
“You tucked the sheets in again.”
“It’s a baby; it’s not the end of the world.”
“I know, it’s just…”
I turn and rest my hand in the dip of her waist. Even when she’s angry she sleeps naked. In the dark of our bedroom I can barely make out the curve of her back. I press myself against her and rest my face in her hair.
“What is it?”
She turns her head toward me, and we find each other’s eyes in the dark. I see the wet shimmer on her cheeks; I hold her face in my hand and wipe her tears with my thumb. She clenches my arm tight, right above the elbow.
“Things will be different from now on.”
“You’ll stop tucking the sheets in?”
I wake to a lonely bed. Ever since I started working nights she’s made sure to get up quietly in the morning, but I secretly hate it. When we first moved in together we would wake up face-to-face. Lilly was never a morning person, not like me, but in those days she always woke up smiling. The first time we fought like this, the first time I watched her make our bed with indignant care, I was the one to sneak downstairs in the morning and make her breakfast. That was when we still had the house. I broke the yokes and burnt the toast. She laughed and cried and hugged me, and ate every last bite.
Lilly peels off her robe as she steps into the room. The morning light pours through the blinds streaking her naked body. I watch her for a while from the bed, watch her put on deodorant and slip into a pair of cute pink panties. She bends down with her back to me, unraveling the towel in which she had wrapped her hair. The water tints it a dingy brown. She turns, realizing that I’ve been watching the whole time.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
She seems a little flustered and stands for a moment at the foot of the bed, awkwardly positioning her arm to cover her breasts. It never used to bother her, me looking at her body.
“What do you mean?” Her voice is broken and high pitched. She quickly grabs a bra out of the dresser drawer.
“Nothing, never mind.”
We’ve had this apartment for over a year now, a one-bedroom flat in East Columbus, just north of Bexley. I’m going to miss its hardwood floors, its high ceilings, the way none of the window trimming runs parallel to the floor.
She’s already gone when I get out of the shower. I miss how her underwear used to drape over the side of the tub. I miss drying myself with towels off the floor because her wet panties were hanging on the rack. She’s become more discreet with her laundry lately. Things will be different, she said, but things have changed so much already.
Her coffee cup sits on today’s paper; the white mug smudged with red lipstick, the one I bought her when we first moved in together. I pick it up and newsprint clings to the bottom. I peel the sticky rhetoric from its underside and rinse out the left over Christmas Blend. I never liked the smell of coffee. I brew a cup of chai instead and take it with me to the window. I open it just enough to let in February’s chill. I hold the cup close to my face letting the warm spice of the black tea mingle with the frost smell of the city in my nostrils.
I sink in the pea-green, micro-fiber cushions and pick the paper up off the glass-top coffee table. I usually make it a point not to read the paper, but the mocha ring left by Lilly’s coffee cup catches my eye. She had made a coaster of the classifieds. The ring encircles a single ad: A Jaguar ran a red light and hit another car right outside the old Samuel Street Pickling Company Sunday, February 11, at 6:45pm. Anyone at the scene should call Trisha at 555-6754. Michael’s accident was Sunday.
I fell in love once, before Lilly; her name was Trisha. I was twenty then. She was seventeen. She came from a devout Catholic family, the oldest girl of eleven children, all adopted. We met in Canton, at the University—a little satellite of Kent State—while she was doing post-secondary work. She sat across from me in our speech class. Her long black hair was always down, and she always wore the same blue, hooded jacket with a little pink butterfly over the left breast.
It was spring then. I remember her sitting in her swivel chair, turning from side-to-side, looking at the floor, while someone made a speech about the detriments of sodium benzoate in soft drinks. I stared at her for a long time before she looked up at me. I smiled, and she smiled in return and quickly looked away.
I had to see that smile again. Before class the next day I waited in the seat right next to hers. She hugged her books as she walked into the room, her eyes watching the floor. She pinched her bottom lip between her teeth and sat down next to me.
“You’re speaking today, right?”
“Yep.” She took a deep breath and looked up at me, but she didn’t smile.
“A little.” She bobbed her head from side-to-side as she said this.
“What’s your speech about?”
“First ladies, I give tours at the museum.”
“There’s a first ladies museum?”
“Yeah, it’s downtown.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“We don’t get a lot of locals; it’s rather odd, most of our visitors are tourists.”
“Who the hell would want to vacation in Ohio?”
“First ladies enthusiasts?” We laughed. Her jacket was only zipped halfway. A gold chain hung around her neck, its pendant resting on the light pink shelf of her polo shirt pulled tight around her small breasts.
“What are you doing over spring break?”
“I’d like to see you.”
She bit her bottom lip, and her eyes circled the room before returning to me. “Yeah, I would like that too.”
I looked into her dark brown eyes and smiled. She smiled back.
I forgot that it’s Valentine’s Day today. The next ad down reads, God, Happy Valentine’s Day from all your little angels. I wonder if God really gives a shit. I’m drinking down the cold remnants of my chai when the phone rings. It’s Lilly.
“I lost it.”
“What? What did you lose?”
“The baby, I lost the baby.”
“This morning,” her words adopt that nasal quality that words take on after crying. “I was just sitting at my desk, and…and it just happened.” She’s outside; I can hear the wind yelling at me through her cell phone.
“My God, are you alright? Do you need me to come and get you?”
“No, I’m going to the hospital. I’m going to sit with Michael for a while.”
“I’m so sorry, Lil.”
“Me too, I want you to know that, darling. I’m so sorry.”
“There was nothing you could do.”
“I’ll be home late again.”
She’s been coming home late ever since her brother’s accident. Last night she didn’t get home until two o’clock, but I can’t sleep without her anymore so I wait. She doesn’t tell me about Michael on those nights or about sitting in that hospital room for hours. She just comes home, angry, so we fight and she makes the bed. She didn’t really want a kid. I don’t think she’ll ever really want children, but I thought that this child could fix us, that somehow it would bring back what we once had.
Lilly’s brother, Michael, is somewhat of a local hero. Kluson’s was a mom and pop fried chicken place. When old man Kluson died his wife tried to run the business by herself but had to sell the restaurant a year later. That’s where Michael came in. He bought the building and the recipe and turned Kluson’s into a local chain. He’s loaded. Lilly doesn’t talk to him much. I’ve only met him a few times, once at our wedding and again at a New Year’s Eve party at his place. We don’t get along very well. It’s not that he didn’t think I was good enough for Lilly; he just never seemed to care about her or about anyone for that matter.
We were together for about a year when she told me that he touched her once when she was seven; Michael was sixteen then. It was only once, but she never forgot, and they never talked about it. But the reason I hated Michael was because of his eyes. You feel like you don’t exist when he looks at you, like you’re transparent. I hate those cold, indifferent eyes. I used to think he was somehow impervious to things like the flu and car crashes, the common colds that affect the rest of us, and now he’s lying in a hospital bed. If he dies, I wonder how Lilly will take it.
I fold up the newspaper and take it with me into the kitchen. I notice the Kluson’s ad on the back, complete with Michael’s bleached business smile, too wide to be genuine, his eyes, too open to be kind. I grab a pen off the counter and poke out his eyes before throwing the paper in the trash.
I remember the day Trisha called me from work and asked me to meet her at the Kluson’s downtown for lunch. It was summer then, late June. Her parents had insisted that she not see me, so we would sneak visits in between her summer classes at the university. We fucked everywhere, in the bathrooms, the rickety desk chairs in the corners of the second floor of the library—no one was ever up there in the summer. The first time, we tried it in my car, but the heat made me feel dizzy by the time we had finished.
She was already seated when I entered the place. Her red eyelids suddenly made me aware of my idiot grin. I didn’t know if she had just finished crying, or if she were just about to start, or both. Embarrassment flushed my face, that unavoidable embarrassment that you get when reality explodes expectation.
She looked into my eyes for only a moment.
“What is it?”
“I missed my…” She glanced straight down and then off into some corner, where the wall met the ceiling. All I could do was mouth the word that was on the tip of our tongues: Period. She always felt uncomfortable discussing the corporeal. Even after we had become comfortable with sex, she could never bring herself to say words like pussy or clit or fuck.
“But you don’t know for sure, right? We need to—”
“I bought a test yesterday. I took it at school so my parents wouldn’t find it.”
She looked up again but not at me, at something embedded deep in the wood grain in the back of my chair, something far off that I couldn’t see. Her eyes, those vacant, tear-filled eyes screamed what she could not bear to say aloud. The three feet of table between us felt like five hundred miles. She wasn’t even gone yet, and yet, I was already losing her.
On Samuel Street the rust covers everything like a skin disease. The corroded fungus that lines the bottoms of cars parked along the pot-holed street, crawls along the abandoned railroad tracks. It eats orange holes in aluminum rooftops and feeds on decrepit, wrought-iron fire escapes.
I park outside the Samuel Street Pickling Company. The city shut it down fifteen years ago because of the iron content of its wastewater. I open the door and step out of my car. Something crunches under my feet; windshield crumbs and fiberglass shards litter the pavement. Grimy mountains of frozen sludge are all that’s left of the snow, grimy mountain chains pushed to either side of the road.
Across the street a tiny something glints silver in the snow. I walk over and pull a chrome jaguar from the murky ice. He’s frozen in mid-pounce, teeth bared, but he will never catch his prey. I turn the icy figurine in my hand. Its chrome finish is left untouched by the accident. I stuff the hood ornament in my coat pocket and get back in my car.
I check my cell phone, no messages. Lilly hasn’t called since this morning. There’s a bakery at the end of Samuel Street, on the corner. I stop to buy a paper and a sticky bun on my way to the hospital. I leaf through to the classifieds and tear out the ad that Lilly’s coffee mug had circled this morning.
I still smoked back then. I thought of the stereotypical father-to-be, chain-smoking in the hospital waiting room of some old Warner Bros. film, but I wasn’t waiting for my baby to be born. I stared at the NO SMOKING sign tacked to the board on the wall, so I went outside to smoke. A handful of picketers shot me accusing glances from behind their protest signs.
Trisha had insisted that we drive to the next town to have the abortion, so no one would recognize her. We used to argue over issues like this. I could see her in those protesters, or at least what she used to be. She came out of the clinic and into the reproachful gaze of the four-person mob. I put my arm around her shoulder and flicked my cigarette at what I supposed to be the leader of the group. The smoldering ember bounced off her picket sign and instantly came to life in a small shower of sparks that fizzled out before the butt hit the ground.
The car ride home was silent. I pulled into the school parking lot where she had left her car, the place where I had first asked her to kiss me. She had said it was still too soon. I remembered that night, standing in the school parking lot in that perpetual embrace, thinking it had been the perfect time, the perfect moment under the orange glow of those parking lot lights. Our first kiss ended up being a week later, after her parents told her that they wanted her to stop seeing me. Oppression had been our aphrodisiac of choice.
She hugged me goodbye and kissed me on the cheek, but she didn’t feel the same in my arms, like a different person. She even smelled different, sterile. I watched her drive off; hopelessly, I watched her. I got back in my car and smelled my clothes, my hands, my forearms, all the usual places, but I couldn’t smell her.
The hospital parking deck glows orange in the dusk. The stairwell leading down to the street smells like urine. A man in a wheelchair rolls down the sidewalk. He interrupts puffs from his cigarette with gulps of oxygen from a tank attached to his chair. I walk faster. I stop at the payphone in the lobby and dial the number in the ad: 555-6754.
“Yes, this is she.” It’s not her voice. “Is this about the accident?”
“Sorry, wrong number.”
I don’t know why I called, what I was hoping for. What if it had been her? What would I have said? I still love you; I never stopped loving you. I don’t even know what love is. Still, it was the same accident, but I don’t know anything about it. I can’t help her.
I walk up to the front desk. The receptionist is a petite blond with a cute face. She wears a plastic smile to compliment her scrubs; a smile that says I’ve put in too many hours tonight to deal with your shit.
“Uh, hi, I’m looking for Michael Koch.”
“Okay, he’s in ICU, fourth floor, but visiting hours are over.”
“I think I’ll take my chances. What room?”
The rooms on this floor have glass walls in front. The dumpy brunette at the nurses’ station looks up at me from her celebrity gossip magazine. “Sir, visiting hours are over.”
“I know; I’m looking for Mr. Koch; I think my wife is here with him?”
She motions for me to follow. We stop in the doorway to room 213. The room pulsates with the blue light from the television, blackening briefly between scenes before blaring its flashes. I catch glimpses of Michael in the intermittent light, tubes coming out of his arms, his nose. His chest lifts and falls ever so slightly, the only movement I detect in the chaotic pulses of light. In the other bed I see Lilly, asleep, her eyebrows furrowed and her mouth agape. I hate the way her face looks when she’s sleeping.
“The other bed was empty, so we let her use it.”
“How is he?”
“It doesn’t look good. He slips in and out, but—”
“He’s going to die.” I try to color my words with sympathy.
She nods, courteously avoiding eye contact. She leaves the room, closing the door behind her. I stand over Michael. There are cuts all over his face. His nose is flattened. Everything is either black or shades of electric blue. The television is muted. All I hear are Lilly’s sleeping breaths intermingled with the faint, airy exhalations of the machine in the corner, almost in unison, as if she were breathing life into her brother, as if she had been these past few days. A faint gurgle groans from deep within Michael’s throat. The light makes his eyes open in stages. They settle on me. I can feel them.
“Didn’t think you’d show up.”
“Well, here I am.”
“Right here, sleeping.”
His mouth widens uneasily. His voice is weak and wet. “I never gave her anything, never. Why is she doing this?”
“I guess she feels obliged.”
The gurgle grows into a phlegmatic cackle. “You know, I never liked you.”
“You’re shit; you’re nothing. She could have found someone better.”
“She knows it too, that’s why she’s been screwing someone from the office.”
“Shut your fucking mouth.” I quickly look back at Lilly to make sure she’s still asleep. I can still hear her heavy breaths over the machines.
His mouth widens into a sadistic grin, pushing folds of skin against his neck brace, but he can’t hold it for long. The effort re-opens a cut on the side of his face, and a tiny bubble of black blood rises on his cheek. “It’s his, or it was his.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The baby, she got rid of it.”
“She lost it.” I try to keep my voice hushed.
“She got rid of it because it wasn’t yours.”
I can’t speak. I can’t think. I want to rip out the tubes; I want to cave his chest in with my fists the next time he takes a breath; I want to stop his gurgling laughter. But most of all it’s those eyes. I want them to stop looking at me. If only I had my pen.
“You impotent fuck,” he chuckles between moist breaths.
“I brought you something.” I take the chrome jaguar out of my pocket and set it on Michael’s chest.
I’m awakened by the sound of the apartment door and the tap of Lilly’s heels on the linoleum. The first blue lights of dawn peak though the windows but do little to curtail the darkness. I’m sitting upright on the sofa, hands in the pockets of the jacket I never took off. She walks into the room and turns on the light. She flinches upon seeing me on the sofa, the way an abused dog would flinch if you were to raise a folded up newspaper to it.
“You scared me.”
“I spent most of my life hating him, and now, I don’t know; now I realize we never even knew each other. I used to think I wouldn’t care if he died, but…”
“I guess you spent a lot of time talking to him in that hospital.”
“What do you mean?”
“He just seemed to know a lot.”
“You were there?”
“You were sleeping. He did seem to know a lot, though, about you…and the baby.”
“Please don’t call it that.”
“You’re not really in a position to make demands.”
“Look, it’s over now. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Oh, that’s very considerate of you, fuck some guy behind my back and then lie about it. But what I don’t get is how could you lie to me about the baby?”
“I said don’t call it that.” She paces to the window and back. “I don’t know what to say to you.”
“Just tell me one thing.” I get up and she backs into the wall. “What did you do for him?” I get close, and she looks away. “Did you suck him?” She tries to move, but I slam my palms against the wall, caging her in with my arms. “Did you suck him like you’d never suck me?” She looks directly into my eyes. “Did you get down on your knees?” I’ve never seen her eyes like this, never this alive, full of hate and tears. “Did you get on your knees and suck him?”
Her mouth contorts, miming fragments of words, but she resolves in the end to just stare at me, with those eyes. Just like her brother’s.
Lilly insisted that I take the bed, but I can’t sleep. When I go back an hour later to check on her, she’s lying on the couch. I stand in the dark listening to her sleeping breaths, thankful that they are no longer feeding her brother’s lungs.
Our bed feels impossibly huge, a great expanse of cotton crests and valleys, a down-filled sea. I get up and turn on the light. I strip the bed. I slide the sheets onto the floor and peel off the mattress cover. I undress the pillows. I start over, stretching the form-fitted sheet over our queen-size mattress. I clothe the naked pillows, and make sure to tuck the sheets in tightly at the foot of the bed because that’s what she would have done.
I lie awake. Despite my fight with Lilly, despite Michael’s death, all I can think about is Trisha, and how foolishly I wished it could have been her on the other end of that phone line.
I feel a pulse in my ear. It grows gradually until I’m sure it’s not my own. My leg brushes against something in the sheets, something hard. It grows with the pulsations; it throbs with them, in unison. My ear aches and fills with fluid. The pulses become audible, a low murmur that gradually builds to loud ring. The hard thing against my leg rings too. I reach for it underneath the sheets. I trace its cold, metal surface with my fingertips. I lift it up onto my chest. It’s a phone; one of those old rotary dial phones like my grandpa used to have.
“Do you know what a mongoose is?” It’s Trisha’s voice.
“I don’t know, some kind of rodent or something.”
“It’s kind of like a cat.”
“Don’t they eat snakes?”
“Sometimes.” Her voice enters me in pairs, a clear, pure voice followed by a second voice, delayed, distorted by the telephone company. I turn and see her lying on Lilly’s side of the bed, her naked back to me.
“Are there butterflies in New York?”
“Only the ones I put on my jackets.”
“That’s a shame, a world without butterflies.” I try to touch her, but I can’t. No matter how far I reach my arm cannot span the inches that separate us.
Somewhere in that place between dreaming and waking, I slide my hand over to Lilly’s side of the bed, expecting to feel her body next to me, but her side of the bed is cold. The chill forces my shivering memory out of a dream where everything’s all right, but I’m not with Lilly.
I sneak past the living room, past Lilly, still asleep, on the sofa, past her heavy breaths whispering down the hall. I sneak into the kitchen, careful not to clank the stainless steel pans as I take one from the cupboard and set it on the stove. I remove two eggs and what’s left of a stick of butter from the fridge. The burner ignites in a burst of blue flame. I watch the butter melt, slowly, from a giant to a child, from a god to nothing. I tap an egg on the side of the pan, lightly, so as not to wake Lilly. A small crack forms on the shell, barely a hair’s width. I tap again and a thin stream of translucent white seeps out, solidifying in the butter. I attempt to pry into the crack with my thumb, but the shell caves in, sending egg white, yolk, and bits of shell into the pan. I pick out the tiny eggshell fragments, careful not to rupture the thin membrane containing the yolk.
I crack the second egg more successfully. The whites turn opaque and the yolks throb and pulsate with the heat, side-by-side. They look like eyes, two perfectly formed golden pupils, the white sclera, shiny with tears, staring at me. Without thought, spatula in hand, I cut through the center of each eye. Yellow aqueous oozes out.
It was August the last time I saw Trisha, two days after my twenty-first birthday. Her parents let us go to a nearby coffee shop, but we ended up back in the deserted school parking lot. She was going off to New York the next day. She had gotten accepted to a fashion school there, much to the chagrin of her parents, and tomorrow she would be five hundred miles away.
We sat in my car, in the dimming dusk. The orange lights came on, and I wanted to be back in that moment six months earlier, when we stood here in the cold February air, illuminated by the orange lights, holding on to each other, neither of us wanting or willing to let go. I wanted it to be the way it was back then, before the abortion.
“I love the way they flutter around like that.”
“Butterflies…so carefree and beautiful.” A butterfly fluttered in front of us and came to rest on the windshield of my car.
“Yeah, they are.”
“I question the purpose of some things.”
“Flies, mosquitoes, I mean what do they do? At least butterflies make the world look beautiful. I suppose that’s not such a horrible purpose.”
“No, not at all.” We sat in silence for a while, watching the butterfly. Its wings were deep blue and black. It had been a long time since I had seen Trisha wear her blue jacket, the one with the little pink butterfly over the left breast. I had always liked the way she looked in it, but maybe that was just because it covered up the polo shirts that she was so fond of wearing. “I thought we were going to make this work. I wanted this to work.”
“So did I.”
“What are you doing?” Lilly’s voice still holds the husky tone of morning grog. It’s not until she speaks that I realize I’m still stabbing at the pan with the metal spatula, clanking and scattering eye fragments.
“Cooking, I was cooking, and…”
“I was cooking eggs, and I came to a decision.”
“What was your decision?”
“I wanted them scrambled.”