I pack my stuff into three backpacks and two pillowcases. I pack the apparatus that I use to fashion cut-up fruit. I pack many items; and though she told me when I came here that I would want for nothing, I end up leaving unfulfilled, wanting everything, and with persistent diarrhea from anxiety.
I walk home. In seventeen years, no car has slowed for me, and no driver inside has asked me if I needed a ride. Today, a tan man in a Porsche SUV slows and offers. I decline the ride. My best friend, Tom, has told me that the cost of such a ride is too much, always. Men don’t offer rides to guys like me for decent reasons.
The key to the door of my home fits into the lock differently, more snugly, than I remember. The air of my mother’s home smells other than I remember: it’s sweeter. My mother waves at me when I enter her ranch-style house. Though I didn’t phone her to tell her I’d be home for the first time in over a month, it seems as if she knew I was coming.
A black man is at my mother’s dining table. He’s eating scrambled eggs. He has a cloth napkin on his left knee. My mother stares at him with appreciation, an intensity I’ve never seen her have. He is younger than she is by a decade; he wears tasteful, thick ropes of silver jewelry, one around his neck and one around his right wrist; he has a shaved head, a slightly pocked complexion, and a handsome, off-white smile. He takes small bites. He chews many times.
The black man smiles and waits to be introduced. His name is Leo. I say that I am glad to meet him. He says that he is pleased to meet me. I go to my room, which does not smell so sweet; the door has been closed for more than a month.
My mother knocks on my door, which is ajar, and says that I’ll have to wash my sheets if I plan to sleep here. I slump on the bed and agree to do so. She sits on my bed. She touches my scabbed cheek and arm and asks me what happened. I say that I ran into a door, and she says that she doubts that very much.
I ask her what happened to Kalvin, her last boyfriend, and my mother says, “You know. The curb feelers?” She explains that, at her age, she cannot put up with peccadilloes. She says, “Remember your father with the automotive grease under his nails? I put up with that for twenty-two years.”
“He disliked black people,” I say to my mother.
“Who? Your father?”
“Well, he’s gone, Larkin.”
“You know all the terrible things he said about minorities?”
“I always thought you agreed with him.”
“Does silence mean compliance?”
I think about this. I say, “Yes, I think it does.”
She pats my knee. She says, “You’re wrong. It just means silence.”
I tell her that I recall countless jokes about lazy people that can’t get enough watermelon and industrious people that do not pronounce the letter R well, and I recall her giggling at those jokes.
She changes the subject. She tells me that my soccer club have been calling almost every day, wondering where I am. She tells me that she’d really like to see me get back into it. She tells me that I have talent there. I nod. It’s empty. I don’t know if I mean it.
I tell her that her new boyfriend, Leo, seems pleasant, much better than Kalvin. My mother gets up and heads for my door. I call her. She turns and shows me the eyebrow-rise. I ask her if, when she goes to the supermarket, I can have some Frosted Flakes and green beans. She wants to know if I’m staying for the remainder of the summer, and I say that, yes, probably, I am. She leaves and closes my door.
I think of all the terrible things that my father used to say, sometimes even in crowds of Caucasian strangers that were assumed sympathizers with his views, about all the different races of the world. If my father was still alive, if he knew about me, he would be repulsed by me: Pakistani and Japanese girls have touched my skin, and I have touched theirs; Hispanic girls have been on top of me and underneath me.
Most of all, if my father was still alive, if he knew all about me, he would suffocate me with my pillow: a man once gave me a handjob. To mention that the man was a little browner than one can get from a suntan would be superfluous. The handjob would be my end.
My mother was right; my sheets smell bad. I kick off my shoes. I try for sleep but can only think. My eyes move behind my eyelids, and the scene is crackling-red on an azure snot canvas.
I think about how my story should be all about my girlfriend and me. I think about how it’s not. I think about how my girlfriend was lost, sick, detached, and a bit brutal on the nerves. About how everything she did and said was psychologically castrating. I think about how I said that I loved her. I think about how I am a coward. I think about my lack of a plan. I think about how she told me that love is inseparable from communication and a shared plan, and I think about how I never understood what that meant. I still do not.
I can return to my erstwhile job, the soccer practices, the very same parties, art and geometry, and my mother’s prepared meals. I can return to all of it.
I do not feel comfortable in my old bedroom. I move to the hallway bathroom. It is my favorite room in the house. I tote everything that I imagine I will need to survive alone, for a few days, down the hallway and into the small, comforting room. The toilet is beautiful and pink. The bathtub is inviting and pink. Everything is beautiful: the rugs, the toilet lid slipcover, and the washcloths. Everything in the room goes from blush to rose, from rose to deep burgundy.
After three hours, my mother knocks. I tell her that she can enter. I am in the tub. I lift up my legs so she can’t see my penis. She asks me if I’d like something to read, she has brought me the newspaper. I tell her she can leave it on the toilet. She eyes my two blankets and pillow that I’ve brought in here from my room. She says that she supposes she and her new boyfriend, Leo, will use the bathroom in her bedroom, and I say that I appreciate that very much.
I spend hours in the bath. I listen to German hardcore. I drain the cool, used water; I refill the tub with piping hot water that makes my skin turn red. I sit in the tub while it drains, and I sit in the tub while it fills. I wrinkle. I get chilly. I read the newspaper. Most of the articles make me sad or tired. I do not relate to any of them. I wonder if my mother relates to these articles, or if I am expected to relate to them.
My mother knocks on the door sometime when the sun is low in the sky. The sun enters the small window, crosses the bathroom, and makes shifty parallelograms on the back of the door. She yells through the door and offers me baked ziti for dinner, and I tell her that I’m not hungry. She asks me if I’m still in the tub. I lie. I tell her that, no, I’m not in tub anymore. But I am in the tub. The water is cool.
“Okay,” she says. “We’re in the den. You can heat up ziti later.” She sounds worried.
I eat a packet of peanut butter crackers, one of twelve that I brought to the bathroom with me. I drink tap water from a cup I used after I brushed my teeth as a child. It’s rose-colored. It matches the décor of the bathroom because the décor has never changed. The small meal makes me tired. I climb from the tub, drain it, and wrap myself in a large, fluffy burgundy towel that I’ve been looking forward to using all day. Already, I have arranged my pillow and two blankets on the tiled floor.
Sometime after sundown, my phone buzzes against the tiled floor. It wakes me. Before my last bath, I placed my phone in the very corner of the bathroom, the corner behind the toilet, the corner that is difficult to reach. I ignore my phone, though it buzzes four more times. The bathroom is timeless, except for my phone. I promised myself timelessness. I squeeze my eyelids together, and I fall asleep again.
My second day in the bathroom goes much as the first day went, including the newspaper, hiding my penis from my mother when she entered to give me the newspaper, my pleasant refusal of meals, and the consumption of three packs of peanut butter crackers, one for each of the traditional daily meals. My phone buzzes many times. I do not touch it. I add bubbles to my bath today—I found them underneath the sink—and I read only certain parts of the newspaper. I read the local news. I read the advertisements, and I try to view them as a wildcat-striker would do. I do not know what I should or should not see. I just see trousers and sunscreen on sale, and I see that pineapple has risen in price since I last purchased it.
Sometime after sundown, I am wrapped in the same, somewhat less fluffy towel. I am sitting on the toilet. I am listening to Dutch hardcore in one ear. I am counting the capital letters on random pages of the newspaper. My mother knocks and asks if she can come in. I say that she can. She offers me a pitiful look. She asks me if I broke up with a girlfriend or something. I swallow hard and shake my head. I nod. I don’t know if I mean either thing.
“I made chicken. Can I bring you some chicken?” my mother says.
“No, no chicken.”
“Your coach called this morning. I told him you were ill. Are you ill?”
“I’m not ill.”
“Why are you—?”
“I’m just in here, thinking. My bedroom smells old. It was distracting me.”
“Where are all your friends?” she says.
I say, “What friends?”
“Tom? Those other boys you like? That one girl—what was her name? From the spring?”
“Tom’s…working on some projects. And I don’t really have any other male friends.”
“Sure you do. How about—?”
“Which girl do you mean?”
“The tall, brunette one? With the Volkswagen.”
I shrug. I pick at my fingernail. I say, “Anyway. I don’t want any chicken. Thanks, though.”
“Larkin, when are you coming out of the bathroom?”
My mother shrugs. She says, “Sounds logical to me.”
I struggle with the remaining hours of light. My phone buzzes many times.
On the third day, my mother knocks on the door and delivers the newspaper to me. A minute later, she knocks again. I ask her what she wants. Through the bathroom door, my mother says that at our front door is a man with slicked-back black hair and “a lovely physique,” and he is asking for me.
My mother says, “Is that your coach?”
“No. Tell him I’m not here.”
“I already told him you’re here. Who is he? He seems very nice.”
“His name is Carlos.”
“But who is he?”
I mumble, “He is a Black and White Legend.”
(I took the stairs two or three at a time. I called out for my best friend, Tom. On the second floor, I called out for Tom again. I peeked in each room as I staggered down the hallway. I entered my girlfriend’s room. The French doors were open, and the sun was spilling into the room. Catty Wilson sprawled on a pillow; he considered me for a second, and then returned to licking a front paw.
There was movement on the balcony. I saw Tom there. As I said his name with a question mark, he lighted a cigarette. I said his name again. Tom raised an eyebrow. I followed his eyes to the opposite side of the balcony, where Carlos sunned himself and lifted his face toward the slight, hot breeze. Next to Carlos, in white cotton panties and a t-shirt that hadn’t been laundered for two weeks, stood his wife, my girlfriend, barefoot on a wingback chair.
My lovely, militant woman had one leg up on the balcony railing, her journal propped open on her bare knee, and she frantically scribbled with a red pen. She didn’t acknowledge me—just kept scribbling—and she smiled, widely, at nothing. Her severe haircut was soft. A series of three bed sheets, one white and the others blue, had been tied together. One end of the assemblage was a roomy noose around her neck; the other end was delicately figure-eighted through the metal spindles of the balcony and, finally, secured to the sturdiest spindle at the corner.
All four of us had jellied, run like rivers, and bound-split-bound all summer. So, now, one of us had noosed herself. And not one of us cared.)
“Larkin,” my mother says, “who is the gentleman at the door?”
I say, “He’s my girlfriend’s husband.”
I hear my mother clear her throat. She walks away from the bathroom door. Honesty: I should have tried it first. Right now, she is telling Carlos to go away. She may be polite about it. She may not.
I imagine Carlos, turning on his heel and walking away from my front door, no cut to his pride. Carlos looks like a Spaniard. I mean, he has the formulaic features of a sketched-out Great Explorer rendered in any American text, c. 1982. Dark, solid, staid. A Black Legend, only without the poncy clothes and shoes. A Great Explorer: the toffee-colored flesh, the glassy, chocolate eyes, and the slicked-back black hair. “The thirteen of the fame,” always plays at Carlos’s mouth. I swore that each time I saw him, he whispered to me, “Los trece de la fama.”
In the middle of my third night in the bathroom, I am cold for the first time. I break my rules and sneak to my bedroom to get another blanket. My bedroom smells like winter. It just smells lonely.
I lock myself in the bathroom again. I turn on the light. I eye my phone. I drink tap water in gulps from my rose-colored cup. I eye my phone. I reach for it with my bare foot. I drag it out to the edge of the sink. I lie down and cover myself. I stop shivering. My phone is face down on the tiled floor. I touch it. I flip it over. I will not listen to any voicemail or read any texts; I promise myself this. I press the button that lights its face. It’s 4:34 a.m. The timelessness of the bathroom disintegrates. I slide the phone back behind the toilet.
On day four, my mother knocks earlier than usual. I smell breakfast meat, and I hope she has not brought me some. I am in the tub with bubbles. The water is still warm. I am wrinkled. My hair is clean and damp. My face, when I last checked, was gaunt. My eyes, when I last checked, were bloodshot. I ask my mother what she needs, and she knocks again. I can hear the frustration in her knock.
“Can I come in,” she says, “or not?”
She whispers, but not to me, “He’s in the bathtub. Maybe you can…”
My mother pushes my best friend, Tom, into my small burgundy room. His eyes widen at the sight of me. My mother closes the bathroom door. Tom stands, staring. I tell him that he can have a seat— the obvious joke—but he doesn’t laugh. Tom stands, staring.
I say, “What do you want?”
“What are you doing?”
I say, “I am bathing.”
Tom shakes his head. He says, “Where’ve you been? I’ve been fucking calling you. Where’s your phone?”
“Behind the toilet.”
Tom takes his eyes off me for one second to glance at my phone behind the toilet. Tom stands, staring. He drops his pack on the tiled floor. He takes a step closer to me. He wants to get a better look at just how bad I appear.
“Holy shit,” he says. “Why do you look so fucking…white?”
“I’ve been sitting in the bath for days.”
“It feels right on my skin.”
Tom grabs a towel. “Well, could you get out now? You’re kind of making me sick, and—wait. Are you eating crackers in there?”
I lie and say that, no, I’ve not eaten any crackers in here, though both of us eyeball the many empty cracker wrappers next to the tub. I tell Tom that he looks well, that Los Angeles made him glow.
“You know that I’ve been back for awhile now, right?”
I am caustic when I say, in deliberate syllables, “I know that we haven’t interacted since then. I remember. So? How was it? How was Los Angeles, Tom?”
Tom asks me again to get out of the tub, and he holds out the now damp and smelly towel. I say that I don’t want to get out of the tub right now. Tom throws the towel against the mirror over the sink. He says, “Fuck, Larkin.”
I wince. I remain in the tub. I watch the pattern of the tub bubbles change.
Without taking off his shoes, socks, or trousers, Tom steps into the tub. It looks to me as if he wants to yank me up by my armpits. Instead, he sits down in the tub with me. His shoes, socks, and trousers are fully immersed. The water creeps up his t-shirt.
Though I hate that it is, Tom’s presence in my tub is comforting. He speaks to me now in a soothing yet conspiratorial way. Right now, it is as if we’re the only two people on this side of the playing field. He says, “I knew you’d get like this.” He situates his legs on the outside of mine. I can tell he’s avoiding looking at my penis where some of the bubbles have ebbed.
I study Tom’s face as I once studied the visual proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. I say, “I miss her.”
“Well, she’s gone, Larkin.”
“You know all the crazy things she was doing for her wildcat strikes?”
“I always thought you agreed with them.”
“Come on, Lark. Real people, we have real shit to do.”
Tom inhales so hard his nostrils disappear. After a bored sigh, he says, “LA was busy all the time. I hung out on the sidelines. It was hot as shit. I liked some people, I got high with some people, and I hated some people. I hated some of the people I got high with. I was bored a lot. They threw cash at me. I ate a lot of shit food. I sat on the side of the road one night, and I got five offers for blowjobs.” Tom tilts his head. “I never figured out if I was supposed to give them or get them.”
Tom says, “Larkin, did you see the picture on her fridge?”
“What? Yeah, I know—”
Unhurried, Tom says, “On her fridge?”
Hurried, I say, “The ultrasound. Yes. Yes. I saw it.”
Tom pauses. He says, “You did the math?”
(It was a refrigerator door void of magnets and clichéd magazine articles; that day, however, on the side panel, in an inconspicuous spot near the top, there was a black and white picture cello-taped to the metal. I tiptoed to see it. What was I looking at? Upside down? Numbers? Random numbers lined the edges of the shiny black and white photo. It looked as if someone in the house has taken an interest in interstellar gas and dust.
I wiped the sides of my mouth with my thumb and middle finger. I took two steps to leave the kitchen. I had a second thought. I returned to the photo and studied its detail. At the top of the glossy photo, I saw my girlfriend’s name. One of the codes, GA13w6d, which was typed at the bottom of the picture, was meaningful to me, suddenly. GA13w6d meant thirteen weeks and six days.
It was not interstellar gas and dust.)
I shiver. The water in the tub is as high as it can go. Some water splashes over the edge every time one of us moves. I want to add more hot water. Tom sees me shiver; he looks around us. I think he comes to the same conclusion as I do, that there is no room for more hot water.
I stare at Tom. I say, “Where have you been sleeping?”
“My room,” Tom says.
“At Carlos’s? Or at your house?”
“My house. I’ve been holed up there since I got back. I was saying to myself yesterday, ‘I can’t believe Larkin, that motherfucker, hasn’t come looking for me.’ But now I know why. You’ve fucking lost it.”
“No. I’m just taking some baths.”
“Some baths? It’s like I don’t even know you. You need sun on your face. You need—”
“I need her back.”
Tom groans. He knocks his knee against mine. He says, in a sincere manner, that he wouldn’t bring her back, even if he could, because she was revolutionary, pregnant, and deadly: likely to end my life before it began. Tom says that he would do anything for me. Anything but that.
I think about my best friend, Tom. I think about how I believed it would be unnecessary to mention Tom in this story (violent violet eyes; fingers all knuckle; wholly unlikeable). I think about how Tom and I, all summer, have moved toward a fade, or an explosion.
For years, we were inseparable, indefinable. Now, we are invisible. Soon—and I hate to hope it—we will be unmemorable.
I say, “We’re moving to the end.”
“You and me.”
“The end of what?”
“The end of friendship.”
“The fuck we are. What does that mean?”
Tom is insulted. I attempt an apology with my eyes. It doesn’t work.
Tom scrambles up to his knees. Much of the bath water ends up on the tiled floor. He braces himself on the edge of the tub and the soap holder. I believe I recognize the expression on his face: I’ve made him angry. He doesn’t hit me, and he doesn’t leave. He pulls my head to his lips. Embarrassed, I look down at the murky bathwater. All the bubbles have disintegrated now. Tom claps a warm hand against the side of my head. Against my damp forehead, he whispers, “My allegiance is yours, Lark. And you never told me to pull her back.”
Jennifer Greidus thinks there’s really not much to say here, except, “Where is Michael Alford of Austin, TX?” She has works published at Eclectica Magazine, 322 Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, Storyglossia, and more. Soon, she’ll be posting some stuff at urwhatulove.com.