When I open the door to the hall, I see Warren against the wall, asleep. I've told myself until this point that this morning will be okay. It'll be easy, and I'll just get up and go about my business and no one will have to worry about anything. But here he is, and here I am. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this situation?
I didn't really believe I was going to be okay anyway. I don't know about him, but I'm not. It's funny that with all my talk, it was Warren who made the decision.
I step over him and sit down on the floor next to him, and I look over at him for a few minutes, then I take his hand. I'm not angry today. I'm sad and bitter, broken and near breaking points of all kinds, but definitely not angry.
He's waking up now, slowly, his mouth moving a little, maybe saying something I'll never hear.
I look over at the window at the top of the stairs, down the hall from me, and I can see the sun is out finally. No dark clouds, nothing ominous, just clear sky and dirty glass. It's such a slap in the face, but makes me smile.
And I look down at our hands, then over at Warren again, and he's awake, looking at me, his eyes dark and quiet and full of sleep.
He retracts his hand slowly and rubs one eye, yawning, then he puts his head back against the wall and sighs, staring at the railing over the stairs.
“The couch sucks,” he says to me finally, his words slurred.
I'm at the table with my cereal, and he's in the living room putting his hoodie on.
“I have the day off,” I tell him, and I don't know why I'm telling him. He probably already knows.
He comes into the kitchen. “It must be nice,” he says.
My eye still hurts, but now it's this endless throbbing dull ache.
“I may call my Aunt back finally,” I tell him.
He stops at the sink, turning to look at me. Then he smiles, and laughs a little. “She might like that.”
I smile, kind of, hating my cereal.
“Yeah, she might.”
He turns back toward the sink to look at the dishes. “There are dishes in the sink still,” he says, as though this weren't obvious to me.
I sigh and look over at him, my stomach getting cold.
He looks back at me, his eyebrows raised.
I stand up from the chair, my cereal rotting in milk, and I leave the room, saying, “I'll do them later.”
“I'm just saying,” he says from the kitchen, following me, “You're usually really good about it.”
I stop in the doorway between the hallway and the living room and turn and look at him. We stare at each other, and it becomes obvious what the point is.
“Why don't YOU do the dishes this time?” I ask him, amused.
He laughs a little, but still stares at me.
And I turn and continue into the Living room, knowing that I will do the dishes after he's left.
I do the dishes, but not before hating them for a long time, and what they represent. I do them just like every other god damned day. I do them because if I don't do them, the dishes will never get done, and we'll be eating with toothpicks and paper towels. It's a standoff I'm not willing to initiate, because I'll be the only participant. We're two separate people now, but I'm still the dish washer.
I realize as I look out the window that part of the pink paint has been sanded off of the siding next door, and something about the sight of bare rotting wood tells me that this is important.
I dry my hands and call my aunt.
“Aaron?” she says when she realizes who she's talking to.
There's a moment of hesitation, and then I ask how she's doing, and she says that she's fine and so is everyone else.
And then she says, “Aaron you ought to come stay with us again for a day or two. We miss you a lot down here.”
There's a long pause on my end, full of thought and worry.
“I know Pete would love to see you again. You know, he was so sad when you left.”
Pete is my cousin. The name fills me with voids I can never cross. And after some thought, I say, “I'll think about it.”
I get a call from Martha shortly after that saying that she needs me to come in and handle a situation, and I hate life all the way out to the car.
On my way in, I pass the bridge with no incident, wondering what kind of situation prompts a phone call on my day off.
There are things that don't change even after your ship has hit the bottom of the ocean. Work is one of those things.
Martha meets me in the parking lot, her eyes wide, and she almost tears the door off of my car when I'm parked, not letting me unlock it before he starts yanking on the handle.
“There's a lady saying we made her slip and fall on the floor,” she says, out of breath, holding my door open for me once I unlock it.
I follow her inside, where an woman is flailing wildly at the front counter, talking quickly, and when she sees me in street clothes, her eye get huge and she says, “A health code violation! He's in street clothes!”
I approach the counter and say, “I'm the store manager, Ma'am. What happened?”
And she looks at me like she can't believe I didn't dress up to see her. “Well finally someone who might care,” she says finally, and then she says, “You really need to not leave your mops so wet when you clean the floor, I just busted my god damned ass out here!”
Some people in the dining room burst into laughter, prompting her to look over at them in irritation for a second, and I take a deep breath and smile at her.
“She tried to go down a couple times before she managed to do it,” someone calls from a booth.
She turns indignantly and says, “That's a lie! I went down honestly.” Then she looks at me again and says, “You idiots ought to warn a person when the floor's wet!”
I look around and see four wet floor signs, one at every door, and I look back at her.
“What?” she says after a second.
I look over at Martha. “Were those signs out when the mopping was done?”
She nods, and the woman finally sees the signs and gasps angrily. “Well fuck, everyone's lying today,” she says finally.
Martha says, “I put the signs out myself right before we mopped.”
“Did not!” The woman glares at her over the counter like she wants to come over it and kick Martha in the face. Then she looks at me, and back to the group in the dining room, who begin laughing again. “I'm leaving,” she says finally, still looking away. Then she turns to regard me with malignant resentment. “This place is a dump, by the way.”
“I do what I can,” I tell her coldly.
“You really ought to be nicer,” she says.
And she leaves.
Martha clears her throat, and I let sigh and go back to the office with her following me. No point in closing the door now.
“She tried to fall a couple times they told me while she was screaming,” she says, and I imagine she means the people in the dining room.
The idea of coming back to this particular world tomorrow is too much stress.
“Martha,” I say finally, and then I stop, not sure what to say next.
She stares at me, her eyes big, and I realize that this is what I've been waiting to say all day to someone, anyone. And here she is.
“Martha I need to get out of this shit hole for a while.”
She stares at me for a few more minutes. “Shit hole,” she says finally, like she's never heard the words before.
I laugh, sitting down in the chair, and I look up at her. “I'm going nuts,” I tell her.
“You need a vacation or something I think,” she says quietly.
And that's it. That's totally it.
I look up at her again, and she starts to smile, cautiously at first, then larger.
“You want to run the store for a few days?”
Her eyes are wide with excitement and she draws in a deep breath.
“You can have it.”
I call my aunt on the way home and ask if she would mind if I came down to spend a few days after all.
“Oh my goodness, that would be just fine. When?” She says, and I can tell she's excited.
I sigh and think about running the car into the bus in front me, just so I won't have to think about anything ever again.
“Is tomorrow too soon?”
There's a short silence, and then she says, “Well that would be wonderful; I bet Pete will be so excited.”
And my stomach is lead.
“Yeah, I bet,” I say.
I haven't made dinner when Warren gets home, and he stares at me like I've lost my mind when I tell him as much.
“What are we eating?” he wants to know, quietly.
“Stuff,” I tell him from the couch, wishing I were dead.
He comes around the couch and sits down beside me.
“Pizza Hut?” he suggests.
I smile, and I turn to look at him, then I nod. “Pizza Hut.”
We take his car, the trees and houses going by, lights on and the dark sky hiding the shapes of garages and sheds and cars between buildings.
“Some lady tried to kill herself today at work.”
“I thought you had the day off.”
“I did. I got a phone call about it and went in.”
We sit in silence for a bit, and then he says, “Did she get herself killed?”
“No, she couldn't do it right.”
And we look at each other and laugh.
“I'm going on a little trip,” I tell him over our pizza.
He doesn't look up, but says, “Oh?”
“To see my family,” I say for clarification.
He puts his pizza down.
“What was your cousin's name?” he asks me again.
“I'll be gone for three days,” I say, ignoring the question. “I put Martha in charge of the store.”
He laughs and says, “Martha.”
I turn so that I can put my back against the wall next to the booth. “You'd rather I put one of your brothers in charge of it?”
And we sit in silence for a while. It's palpable and suffocating. I could touch it if I reached out far enough.
Suddenly he says, “I still love you, Aaron.”
I close my eyes, putting my head back against the wall. “I know you do,” I say.
And after a minute, he says, “Pete. Wasn't that it?”
“Pete,” I say, not really answering so much as repeating after him.
I realize somewhere between Pizza Hut and Bernard Street that I've been this stupid animal, going through life without questioning anything. Isn't that the way it is with everyone though? All of us never asking questions, only doing. Not even being told to do things, just doing them.
Who am I? I am an animal, my hair bright blue and my eye still throbbing.
I am organic matter collapsing into dust.
I text Harrison on the way home telling him I'm going away for a few days, and that Warren broke up with me.
Eventually it's time to go to bed.
Warren sees me pulling the sofa bed out of the couch and looks at it like he forgot it was there. Finally he says, “I forgot we had that.”
“You can have the bedroom tonight,” I tell him.
He stands there all sad and unreadable. “You don't have to sleep down here,” he says finally.
I finish making the bed and I look over at him, tossing a final pillow onto it. “It doesn't matter anymore where we sleep,” I tell him.
He looks like a little kid, small and alone. “It's a big bed up there,” he says quietly.
I sigh and sit down on the sofabed and I say, “Exactly.”
I hear him go up the stairs slowly, and the floor creaks under his feet down the hall to the bedroom upstairs.
I don't know who I am anymore. I might be a stranger, living in an empty house on an unfamiliar street.
I do know that this bed is bullshit, all springs and fuck-yous, with bars that cause organ displacement. I can't sleep. I admit it. The couch does suck, even when it's a bed.
So I turn on the TV and it's the same infomercial we watched a week ago. I remember Warren's comments about it and smile. I change the channel a few times and end up watching an old episode of South Park.
And after a while I hear footsteps on the stairs.
I look over the back of the couch and see Warren standing at the doorway to the hall, rubbing one eye.
“Did I wake you?”
“I was awake already. I can't sleep,” he says.
I sigh and say, “This couch sucks.”
“I told you,” he says.
He comes around the couch and sits down beside me, and I hand him the remote.
“This is fine,” he says, dismissing it.
We watch South Park for a while, and then he says, absently, “I miss us. How we were when we met.”
“Me too,” I tell him.
I wake up to the sound of my phone vibrating on the table by the couch, and I feel Warren's arms around me, his body warm against mine.
Moments like this make me want to scream until I feel better. We're strangers, but we have this strange need to sleep in the same bed.
I reach for my phone, letting myself slip out of his grasp, and he wakes up a little and rolls over away from me.
On the screen the phone says HARRISON.
The message says “Sorry.”
And that's it.
I put my phone back on the table and lay back down, feeling empty, because I'm sorry too.
And Warren rolls over and puts one arm around me again.
I can't fight it, and I don't want to. I sigh as he pushes up against me, and I know that I might still be home after all, even if the house is unfamiliar.
I might still know these halls and these rooms, even if the paint is new and the carpets changed.
Even if I leave here forever.
(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt