This is the first draft of a story I wanted to
offer for sacrifice to the great elder god Cthulhu/CUNYFirst get feedback for. It clocks in at about 2300 words, so my apologies for the length—if you find it too long for a blog post, I think that's perfectly valid. Enjoy?
The tile floor of the kitchen feels cool and damp along the underside of my legs. The landlord keeps the heat on until summer, the momentary distraction a chilled glass of iced tea. The grout between the tiles crumbles, showing the gaps, leaving red marks in my skin.
My neighbor has been cheating on his wife. I hear the buzzer through the walls, heels knock up the stairs, his door open, close—within the hour his wife leaves for work. Their lives come through vibrations in solid surfaces.
It’s not a happy marriage. Obviously. They argue into early morning, when the light let in is from streetlamps and every footstep resounds. Their prosody smolders and melts the drywall: get a job, leave me alone, rent money, always complaining, useless, fat, asshole, slut. Devolves to ad hominem until the door slams and punches down the stairs into the street—the only times he goes outside are in chase. Fat bitch, deadbeat idiot.
I tell Joel about the arguments; he just waves them off. He grabs my hand across the food he bought and made for us; sets his eye-line parallel to mine, his voice to a caress.
—It’s not our business. Don’t fret, hon.
He falls asleep before the screaming starts.
The headboard bangs against the wall through to the living room, crescendos and increases tempo until climax. His mistress(es) are professional; there is no full measure before footsteps start and a belt is lifted off of the floor. He calls to her unheard as his door opens and closes, keeping time down the stairs. His footsteps echo through the wood floor dejected, erasing his mistress from the apartment and a part of himself along with her. The post-coital feeling of having been used.
His wife returns around seven, unsteady up the steps with the shuffling of plastic bags. She pushes the door open with her foot and thuds the bags onto the table, slamming the door behind her. Cabinets and pots build up in a din. Gunshots from the television; no words exchanged until a shout:
Turn that down.
A starting pistol. Their voices industrial roar until—done. Clock out; there is no winner in capitalism. The quiet refusal to hear one another.
Joel comes through the door at nine. He kisses me as greeting, after taking off his shoes and walking to the kitchen, asking what I’d like for dinner. There is silence, then ambient city noise and random shouts from the street that feel like silence. We eat.
He asks if I’d have Liam over sometime soon.
I don’t care.
If I’m uncomfortable with it, he doesn’t have to come.
I don’t mind.
Am I sure?
It’s just that Liam has his depression, and I haven’t been feeling great lately, and he doesn’t want to trigger anything.
I do the dishes as he readies for bed. I burn candles and wait for the screaming to start. In the morning he finds me asleep on the couch on his way out the door; he carries me to the bed, but having woken I stay awake—cycles, of 20 hours. I wait for the screaming to start, or for me to realize it, or for it to be the only sound.
Every other weekend, my neighbor is visited by his daughter. His wife leaves, then at eight in the morning the buzzer sounds and two pairs of shoes ascend: one with soft steps and rubber soles, excited; the other with high arches, stabbing each step. His daughter screeches as the door opens, falsetto, the scratchy material of her jacket being rubbed as she is lifted from the ground. He calls his daughter baby.
I’ll be back for you Sunday afternoon, sweetie. Why don’t you go inside and take off your shoes so your father and I can talk?
His daughter laughs, saying she doesn’t want to.
—Go on; I’ll be in in a minute.
The door closes.
He’s late on the payments, again.
He’s unemployed, doesn’t know what she wants him to do about it.
There could be a warrant for his arrest if it gets to be much more.
She’d love it if she could keep him from his daughter. Three days every two weeks isn’t enough. She needs her father.
She does. His support especially.
She’d just spend it on herself.
He always does this.
She’ll get the money.
She needs the money.
She’ll get it.
The door opens, cutting her off. A rasp catches her throat, wavering on the mat, her heels pushing into the shag. His daughter’s voice resounds excitement through the door, through the wall; his backchannels a tone reserved only for her. His backchannels pause as his daughter’s mother descends the stairs, resuming once she’s out of the building with a final door slam.
He and his daughter don’t leave the apartment. Her time there is spent in company of constant entertainment: they listen to Queen while he uses the microwave to make her food; they dance and clap along to Nina Simone; they watch movies starring Vincent Price, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin. When she leaves her book bag is heavier, the books like water shaking, the zippers like bells.
Joel works half-days on Saturdays and tries to spend Sundays getting ahead on his readings for the following week. He grades manuscripts on a scale from one to five. Sunday nights he likes to eat out. On the doorstep we’re bathed in the sounds of Coltrane and the smell of jerked chicken. The subway takes us somewhere. We eat. Staccato conversation:
How was my week?
I didn’t do much.
How was his week?
Have I had any luck with the job hunt?
Have I been looking?
No one has gotten back to me.
He’s sure something will turn up. He says I’m talented; he remembers the one album I mixed, five years ago.
He thinks I should find something else, to occupy my time.
Like painting, recording something of my own; a part time job. Something.
How have I been?
Is there anything I want to talk about? Anything on my mind?
He only asks because he cares.
If I saw someone.
How would I pay for it?
He could pay for it.
I don’t want to talk about this right now.
Cadential end to phrase.
He cares. He just doesn’t know how. He buys me melatonin and herbal tea. He tells me he cares. He kisses me. He tells me everything he loves about me. I’m beautiful; I’m smart; I’m a wonderful person; I’m interesting. He tells me everything is okay, will be okay. He doesn’t think he’s lying; he’s earnest; he was raised on Spielberg. He walks on eggshells placed around the crest of the hole I’ve dug myself into.
When we get back, my neighbor’s daughter is gone and his wife is appeared. They stew.
I try to read as Joel sleeps. The laptop watches me pretend to try to read. The sounds present: heartbeat, house music from a car stopped at the light on the corner, a woman crying into the street at random intervals, Joel snoring faintly.
I can’t do this. It is killing me.
In bed he tries to fuck her. The headboard bangs as he puts himself into position to feel her up. But:
All movement stops. The world between beats. Time doesn’t move correctly after dark, if it does at all.
When is he going to get a job?
Has he even been looking?
He’s a lazy piece of shit.
The couch is made of leather and sticks to skin. Sweat builds and the only relief is to get up. The bed is made for two people, but I’m less than half a person, and drown in the sheets.
Joel feels useless. He can’t help me, and I refuse help. What can he do?
—Whitney, please. Tell me what I can do.
The wood grain of the living room floor sticks where Joel spilled beer—where Liam made Joel spill beer. Liam was here last night. Joel brought him over to have dinner with us. They cooked. They had beer. Liam left around one. Joel talked about the death of publishing. Liam talked about death. Liam couldn’t take Joel’s complaints seriously, because Joel has a job that rejects Liam’s attempts at income.
When Joel couldn’t find the perfect word Liam said it didn’t exist.
It has to.
Why would Liam say that?
He thinks Language is a failure of communication; modernists thought music was the true window to the soul.
So as opposed to the perfect word, what, the perfect note?
How do I feel about that?
So Liam means to tell Joel that language is, what, pointless?
Or not pointed, at least. Dulled.
Joel said that was a good turn of phrase.
Liam said language was worthless.
Liam is a writer, how could he think that?
He was drunk.
Because he’s a writer, of course he thinks that.
—It takes a specific blend of self-hatred and vanity to participate in the masturbatory effort of art. All of it is useless, glorified entertainment, and now there are too many tortured souls for any of them to make a living off of self-imposed crucifixion. Nothing I’m saying matters; relevance is the allusion of depth of a piece of paper, burning; fine arts are an artifice of privilege. It’s all doomed.
Joel thinks Liam has had a few too many.
Drinks or rejections?
I ask, what about love?
A desperate scream in the street.
Then why bother?
On the doorstep, my neighbor’s daughter’s mother is tapping her foot. She’s early. Joel passes her on his way out; he doesn’t say hello. After he taps down the stairs she starts banging on my neighbor’s door.
She screams for him to wake the fuck up.
His daughter starts crying, being woken by the banging. This wakes him up. He runs to his daughter’s noises.
He screams at her to hold on a fucking second.
The banging stops. Her fingers pat against his door as her weight rolls to the balls of her feet. She listens to him calm his daughter, ushering her into the bathroom where she brushes her teeth. His door opens.
What does she want?
He’s supposed to get another nine hours.
What, so he can show her movies that will give her nightmares and try to cover up the smell of whores on him?
She needs to lower her voice.
She’s his daughter too.
Not for much longer, she won’t be.
What does she mean?
He’s an unfit parent. Unfit parents don’t get to see their children.
She pushes her way inside and gathers his daughter’s things, calling to the bathroom.
—Come on, honey, it’s time to go home.
She can’t do this.
She carries his crying daughter to the door, then down the stairs.
She shouldn’t cry, she’ll see him soon.
Joel doesn’t come through the door until four. He looks like hell. He meant to call from the hospital, but he didn’t. Without taking off his shoes, he slides down the door until he’s sitting on the tile.
—Joel. What happened?
I sit next to him. He takes my hand and tells me he wouldn’t know what he would do if he lost me, that I’m so important to him and so full of life and I can’t give up now even though the situation looks bad, I just can’t.
Joel took time off work. He wouldn’t tell me what happened for a week. He found Liam just hanging there. He couldn’t get him down. He thought it was his fault.
He didn’t buy the rope.
But he wasn’t there for him. He could have pushed a story through, or gotten Liam an internship. He could have done something.
Nothing he could have done would have fixed the problem.
I didn’t know that.
Did he ever listen to a word Liam said? Did he ever hear any of it? Liam flayed himself open, but to the wrong person. There was nothing he could have done.
There was nothing left to do but grieve. And after that, remember fondly.
Liam deserved better than him.
Liam deserved better than himself.
How could he live with this?
The same as he did before.
The tile floor of the kitchen feels cold and damp through my tights. The heat hasn’t been turned back on. The tiles feel like ice packs on a burn. The grout is so that the tiles can be moved, pressed together and farther from other tiles, lifted away, broken, set atop.
My neighbor’s wife has moved out, but she returned once and knocked on the door. It was two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. She was thin and wore tweed. Flats.
She said she was sorry to bother me, just checking to see if any mail had been accidentally shipped to us instead of her, for Alexis St. John.
We hadn’t. I apologized, asked if she was expecting something.
I asked if she had an address to ship to if anything showed up.
She said no.
His daughter wasn’t brought over anymore. He had no one to love, no one to argue with. He just existed: breathed, fucked, ate. He woke up in the afternoon. He had heels walk up the stairs. He had groceries delivered. He watched Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers.