I suppose I've been in the bathroom about twenty minutes watching myself in the mirror brushing my teeth when the door opens. Warren walks in and goes straight for the toilet for his morning pee. He looks over at me and then up at my hair, turning the water in the toilet bowl a light shade of yellow, and he kind of smiles and scoffs.
I stop brushing my teeth, toothpaste foam collecting in the corners of my mouth and dripping down the stem.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He asks, narrowing his eyes at me.
“What?” I ask around my toothbrush.
We continue to look at each other. He adjusts his shorts and starts to leave the room, and my heart is going about a million miles and hour as he vanishes around the edge of the doorway.
I stare at the toilet bowl, yellow and full of tiny white bubbles.
I walk over, toothbrush still sticking out of my mouth, and I push the handle to flush it. I wash my hands at the sink and continue brushing my teeth.
“Your hair is going to fall out one day,” he calls to me from the bedroom.
I stare at my reflection in the mirror for a second, then I spit the toothpaste foam into the sink. I turn the water on and close the door so I can't hear anything outside the room.
Today isn't like yesterday at all. I know that I've said that before, but this is the first day that I've had two suitcases in my car.
That's the difference.
Warren leaves without further incident or conversation, preferring to let the door slam behind him as I scrub the cereal out of our bowls at the sink.
I might cry. I can feel it, a sting that has to be swallowed and shoved away, the sounds of the world outside the window, already muted, fade completely, and I start breathing too hard. Focus, I tell myself. Focus, focus. I open my eyes, and the sound of the world comes rushing back in. My legs are rubber.
I put down the bowl I had and I pick up the other to start again.
After I do the dishes, I go upstairs.
In the bedroom Warren and I used to share, with the house empty and the windows open, I can hear the little sounds of the neighborhood: Cars passing the house, the distant chatter of students and old people on the sidewalks, and rising above it all, the absolute silence of things which are no longer reality.
I'm lying on my back on the mattress where I've slept literally millions of times. I've had dreams here, and I've woken up to hear these same sounds every morning for years, with some variation: the trash truck on Mondays, school buses on weekdays, and on Saturdays the wailing test siren from the Fire Department downtown.
I almost remember how I got here. The table at the corner on University Strip, Warren sitting in a chair with a plastic cup of coffee.
God, we were young. I suppose we aren't old now, but we were really young.
It's funny the things you remember about how you met someone.
He had the best smile, sort of a half-smile smile, the same one he still does occasionally. We exchanged names and ideas, phone numbers and secrets.
I thought I had found myself in someone else.
I thought I had found god.
I don't remember when the bedroom became just a room with a bed.
A few hours later, I'm in my car, heading for work. Technically, I'm late. I've got my uniforms in a plastic sack on the car seat beside me, and a plan forming in my head.
I pull into the parking lot, and there are no customers. The lot is empty except for my employees and the regional manager.
I park my car in the space furthest from the building and turn it off, my heart pounding.
This is it, I tell myself. I think of the suitcases in the car, and I can taste stomach acid. My pulse is racing in my head.
My chest hurts, and my hands are white on the steering wheel. I stare at the houses in front of me, across the street from where I'm parked, and they stare at me, aluminum and shingle sided variations of the house I just left, empty eyes watching Burger King, wondering at its existence.
I get out of my car and shut the door, and I stand in the parking lot, my head beginning to throb.
After a moment, I hear the drive thru window somewhere open behind me, and I turn to see Martha's sad little face in the window.
“Aaron he's here,” she calls to me, as though the regional manager's vehicle were not in the parking lot.
I sigh and wave at her, and she waves back, then shrugs and closes the window, and I'm alone in the lot again, except for a single minivan that's just pulled in. I watch it go around the other side of the building, and after a second or two of holding my breath, I watch the minivan pull up to the speaker, and I hear the faint beep inside the building.
I can do this.
My heart is beating me to death, but I can do this.
I've got the sack with my uniforms in one sweaty hand, and I'm clenching my keys in the other, my black hair burning my head in the mid-day sun.
“I can do this,” I tell myself, and I just stand there.
After a moment, though, I start toward the building.
I don't work here anymore. Yesterday was my last day.
The building is closer now, the bricks cold and full of resentment.
“I don't work here anymore,” I tell myself under my breath as I pull the door open and step into the dining room.
The chicken is behind the counter, glaring at me with his name tag crooked.
“Where in the name of cluck cluck have you been?” He asks me when I approach the counter. “Get back here; we need to talk.”
“I quit,” I say to him, the words louder than I had intended.
We stare at one another across the counter.
“Cluck cluck bok cluck?” He asks finally, his voice rising.
I toss the sack with my uniforms over the counter, and I continue to stare at him. I can hear someone laughing, and it's so far away that it has to be someone in the kiddie room at the front of the building, but then it gets louder and louder. Finally, I realize it's me. I'm laughing.
“...any idea what I've had to deal with today?” the chicken was asking me, almost yelling. The empty dining room is full of his voice.
I stop laughing, because I realize how inappropriate it is, but then I think of him answering the drive thru and making Whoppers and I start laughing again.
I back away from the counter and turn to leave, and I hear him behind me.
“You're gonna leave me with this mess? Cluck cluck bok cluck cluck!” he's calling after me as I open the door and go outside.
I'm almost to my car when the window opens behind me again, and Martha's voice calls to me.
“Where are you going?” she asks, almost excited.
I turn to look at her, and she's smiling at me from the window.
“I don't know,” I say to her, my voice loud and echoing in the empty lot. “Away, I guess.”
She nods and says, “Goodbye, Aaron.”
The window closes, and I start laughing again as I get in my car, but now there are tears, too, and I hate myself for it.
When I get home, there are no messages on my phone. No missed calls, either.
What is this nonsense?
I leave my car in the driveway and walk to University Strip, the houses watching me.
I wonder if any of these houses know my name, or if they'll remember it when I'm gone. When my car slips away and never returns, will they stare at one another across the streetlights and parked cars and wonder where I went? Or will they simply blink out of existence?
Do they even know I'm here?
I stare at them, front porches toward the street, attic windows facing forward, exhausted lines sagging and twisting and covered in white and green and yellow siding.
Am I a ghost?
My feet are solid enough on the sidewalk, but I suppose that doesn't prove anything.
When the houses give way to the colorful commercial buildings of the strip, I start looking for him. Harrison, I mean. I want to see him again. He's in my mind, running down the front steps away from me, vanishing into the dark between the houses across the street. I feel like a monster.
I scan the sidewalks, I go in and out of the shops, the bookstores, and the subway. Finally, I'm standing across the street from the building where he lives, staring up at the windows of his tiny apartment.
I feel like a stalker. I feel like I should have an alter in my closet with his photo. Here I am.
Fuck it, I'm going up there, I tell myself, and I cross the road to the door. I go inside and up the long flight of stairs to the second floor. Down the hall, I turn and go to his apartment door.
Don't do this, I think.
My hand reaches across the dust and space and I hear the knock before I see it happen. The sound is loud against the white painted walls.
I lower my hand and the hallway is quiet for a minute, then a group of girls comes down the stairs from the third floor, giggling and talking. They go around the turn in the hall and I can hear them going down the stairs to the first floor. I stare at the doorknob in front of me.
There are no sounds from inside the apartment.
I think about trying to open the door, but instead I just stand there. Time passes. A couple of guys come up the stairs around the corner and open a door at the other end of the hall. It closes behind them, and I can hear muffled laughter.
What am I doing here?
I back away from the door, my heart pounding, until my back is against the wall behind me, and I stare at Harrison's door.
“I shouldn't have come here,” I tell myself, and I turn to go back down the hall, tears forming in my eyes. I can hear a TV turn on behind one of the doors, blaring a commercial about dog food.
I should not have come to this building.
I should not be here.
My hand is white and shaky on the banister, and for a second I picture myself lying dead at the bottom of the long flight of steps, my neck twisted at an impossible angle and my leg broken, the bone sticking out.
Then I continue down the stairs, not thinking at all.
I push the door open, gasping for breath, my ears full of the sounds of voices and traffic, and I run down the sidewalk, away from the strip.
I should not have come here at all.
The cars are loud on the street, and the houses stare at me.
I should have left town and been on my way by now.
And I stop, looking back at the strip, now a few blocks behind me.
People gather in groups here and there on the sidewalks, and some guy is selling pizza on the corner I just left.
To where? I think. On my way to where?
At home, the TV is not very good company. All I see are happy couples driving cars and eating mints.
I'm a dead body on the couch, rotting to the tune of the latest Snicker's commercial.
I suppose a few hours have passed, now. I'm sitting in the dark, and I can hear Warren's car in the driveway outside. A few minutes later, I hear footsteps on the porch, and the door opens.
I wonder if he's surprised to see me sitting in the dark. A corpse on the sofa watching Cartoon Network. This is what my life has become.
“You quit your job,” he says from behind me, and my heart starts racing again. “I went in for lunch.”
“Why?” His voice is angry, now.
I watch the screen for a few minutes, feeling him standing behind the sofa.
“I had a better job offer.”
He goes into the kitchen without further comment and turns the light on. The light illuminates the hallway between the rooms and shines into the living room through the doorway.
“No dinner tonight,” Warren says, dropping his things onto the counter.
“Leftovers,” I tell him.
I hear the fridge door open, and I picture him looking at the containers, trying to find the one that isn't spaghetti.
“It's in the back,” I call to him, not looking away from the TV.
After a moment, I hear him pull a container out. “I knew that,” he mumbles and I hear the microwave start.
He comes into the living room and lets himself fall onto the couch beside me. It's almost uncomfortable having him near me.
“Another job offer,” he says to me.
“Yeah,” I tell him.
I can feel him looking at me, but I don't look at him.
The microwave beeps, and he stands up and goes back into the kitchen. I can hear the plastic door being fumbled with, and my headache is coming back.
About ten minutes pass, I suppose, the light in the kitchen turns off, and he comes back in to the shadows of the living room and sits down on the couch again with his container of whatever wasn't spaghetti. Pot roast? Potatoes? Who knows.
“I don't think there's a job offer,” he says as he eats.
I don't respond.
We sit in silence, then, except for the TV with its episodes of shows from our childhood and loud commercials for chewing gum, which are, of course, full of happy couples.
“I know you're leaving,” he says, finally, his voice quiet and full of things I haven't heard in a long time.
“Leaving,” I say, and by pure coincidence, the man on the TV says “leave bad breath behind.”
I look at him, and he's still eating the food in the container. He looks over at me in the light from the TV, his features mostly obscured by shadow.
“It took me a long time to realize you were leaving, but I guess I can't blame you,” he says. My stomach begins to knot. Shut up, I think. Shut up, shut up.
“Yeah,” I say to him. What else is there to say?
He puts the container on the coffee table and says, “I'll probably move back home.”
Home being his mother's house a few blocks away, near the empty school.
He picks up the container and gets up to go into the kitchen. The light turns on again, and I hear him rinsing it out, then the light turns off again.
I hear him stop at the doorway to the hall. I can't see him, but I know he's there.
“Aaron,” he says, his voice small.
I mute the TV. The whole world waits.
There's a silence now like water. I could swim through it.
“I love you,” he says finally. “Goodnight.”
After a minute, I say, “I love you too.”
Then, he goes up the stairs to the bedroom, and I'm sitting there like a dumb piece of shit on the couch. I might cry. I think I really might.
Alone, scared, hurt and wounded, I lay down on the couch and watch TV in silence until the world closes in around me.
I wake up, and my phone says it's midnight.
Everything is already in the car, so all I have to do is go out there and get it. I'm sitting on the couch in the dark with the TV off and Warren asleep above me.
I can do this, I tell myself.
Stand up, go to the closet, pull out a hoodie.
I go to the sink in the kitchen to wash the container Warren ate out of, slowly and deliberately, and I look up at the sanded-down siding next door. I'm leaving, I tell myself.
“I can do this,” I whisper to myself as I drain the sink. I put the container away and dry my hands, thinking of the world outside.
The highways leading to cities. The places I've never seen. As I cross the room to the door and fumble around the furniture, I think of Warren sleeping.
And of the table on the corner on University Strip.
I think of everything, I guess. Everything a person thinks about before he leaves the only life he's known for years. Sort of like having your life flash before your eyes. This is just as scary an oncoming collision. I think I might shit my pants.
But instead, I just open the door and step outside. There's my car with the suitcases, waiting with silent, cold headlights for me to get inside.
There are the houses across the street, which might blink out of existence the moment I'm gone. This whole world, in fact, might be a bubble of reality around me, no more than a few miles in any direction. I may be the only real person on earth.
I don't suppose it's fair for me to feel bad for Warren, now.
I do love him. I swear I do.
I close the door behind me, making sure it's locked.
I move slowly toward my car, and in my mind, I can see us, holding hands on the front porch the first day we started moving in, and it makes me stop walking, my chest hurting, because I miss that person. The one whose hand I held. The one for whom college was worth quitting, to start a life together.
I turn to look at the house, dark and unsuspecting in the very early morning hum of the streetlights.
To start a life together, I think again. It's not like we wanted kids or anything. Nothing like that.
I suppose we figured we'd live here forever, with the rooms and each other to keep us company. I suppose we never thought we'd leave. I didn't, at least. I was going to grow old here. I was going to collect dust and be happy to do it.
I find myself smiling up at the house, because it reminds me of a life I knew, a while ago.
A man I met at a table at college.
I get into my car, then. I might go anywhere.
And the tears come, then, as I start the car. I look up at the house and I start sobbing, moving the gearshift into reverse.
I might go anywhere, I tell myself, a little less confidently.
And then, I'm backing down the driveway, my eyes wet and my hands shaking against the wheel.