Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008
This floor, our floor—if you must know we rent, but the place a person eats, shits, sleeps, and makes children is, metaphysically speaking (or at least bacterially) theirs—is French oak, which has more knots than American and is darker in hue. The planks are just about flush—a good thing, as I’m not a fan of festering food particles. I was out for a playdate (detestable word—not used here) at the house of a woman I met at the three-and-under play-center-slash-psychologist-run-observation-tank who’s bourgeoise in the sense of classic-type wardrobe, Catholic, chaste-but-feminine coiffure and a real stickler for the kind of propriety I was never clued into during my glorious career as the only child of divorced new age-y artistic types, and the fledgling friendship we were trying on despite the unspoken mutual intuition it would never, ever work, fizzled right out—anyway, her floor (this is a house we’re talking) was slapped together like Robinson Crusoe’s raft. A Belgian I discussed the matter with, (of floors that is, not fledgling friendships), a decent, fresh-vegetable-eating, art-house-cinema-dwelling father-of-two as well as owner of a sustainable-growth type flooring business, (as established we don’t own and won’t be changing so much as a door knob, but—information, information, information: better than crass ownership any day), explained that hardwood was meant—a century or whenever ago—to be dressed with rugs. Hence the gapped teeth aesthetic, the three-quarter-inch-wide crevices sealed with filler that shrinks and shrivels and Hoovers up in hard yellow lines. Floors, you see, were slapped on like girdles to give shape to substance, not to be flaunted like so much bare-naked wood.
With two babies I put in a lot of time down here.
I’ll be able to walk to work, says Alice (pronounced Aleese), the first downstairs neighbor, two days before she moves out. This neighborhood, she adds, makes me shit anyway.
The pouches of grainy gray-yellow flesh under her lower lashes (which have an actual name here: suitcases) say things Theo and I understand.
So it’s not the babies, we sigh as one. Sweet lord the relief!
Ah no no no no, she says and her eyes are large and very blue (above the suitcases) in her small round upturned face. The babies are no bother—au contraire. Anyway, she adds, you can’t very well glue them to the walls now, can you? (I picture this: sadistic yet briefly satisfying.) However, she continues—and now her pot-and fag-smoker’s deep-throated wheeze tips from affable to severe and our smiles freeze like Camembert on a pre-global-warming January windowsill—the moving of furniture in the middle of the night (I won’t bother asking why you do this) is not the same lemonade.
Theo squeezes his nails like bird-of-prey claws into my shoulder.
A tall figure sweeps past and brushes my coat: Wadena.
I know this because yesterday, moving-in day, I watched through the curtain as she sat on a bumper and joked with the men who carried her scant furniture, boxes and garbage bags of assorted crap from the truck to the ground floor apartment. This business of sitting on bumpers—my god here especially—is not done. (Note to self: reassess?) Her laugh, melodious and deep—Africa!—floated into our living room.
Now she strides into Achat!
What will she purchase? Bananas? Cookies? Milk? Eggs? (Wait—that’s my list.) I watch her largish round-but-firm ass twitch left to right, the sun-shimmer of a fake yellow hibiscus pinned to her hair above the purple-amber-brown of a carved cheekbone.
Forgive me: I’m tired. I forget things and don’t get sequences right. My father’s mother when she first married had upswept hair, red lipstick, and a dazzling lopsided smile. In a studio photo of her and Big Dad on their just-for-show piano (before the ten children were born) he wore a leather aviator jacket (from doing god knows what as a wartime pilot) and she was dimpled and rosy cheeked (okay, the photographer painted that on) and grinning a giant grin of gapped upper incisors. The years unraveled like a long cocktail-hour-soaked tongue and each Christmas and Thanksgiving the aunts, uncles, cousins, wives, husbands and occasional bewildered friends trooped past that selfsame piano (with its iconic image of family pater and mater) and filled the air with the round, swooping family accent—Hey dere, Murray Christmas everybody! Kids check dat out: ain’t dat a beauty-ful tree—and the perfume of mixed drinks, canned black olives, mini-Snicker, Mars bar and chocolate-mint stuffed cheeks. Most of the men were like elephants with something to prove (“they’re playing”) and an occasional thumb was broken or Oedipal-style drama lumberingly enacted on the carpet beneath the stuffed bass in front of the ten-foot glittering tree. Big Ma, her eyes like turquoise sea glass, would be three-sheets past laundry day by nine p.m. Her head would poke out of the slick red tiled kitchen—a smell of glazed ham at her back—to watch “the boys” as they bellowed curses and rolled around. She’d swipe her hand from ear to waist like swatting a swollen Blue Bottle and a wry smile would lift one side of her mouth and the corners of both eyes like bubbles forced up the side of a glass of champagne. Big Dad would be ensconced in the recliner with a tall glass of gin, stick-legs stretched long on the rug, ankles skinny between beige nylon socks and green and red fir-tree-patterned polyester pants, eyes electric-blue and bulging. Warnings came off him like waves off a radio tower. “Shut the hell up ya buncha idiots,” he’d warble. The long fingers at the end of his thin muscled golfer’s arm could reach out to slap your back, pinch your cheek, or knock your block off. There was a floor-to-ceiling window in the kitchen that had shelves of tchotchkes—animals formed out of plastic, wood and glass. The refrigerator door was monumental and beige; it dispensed ice cubes. The basement had a big color TV.
Theo’s into shaving his balls; he likes smooth, hairless balls.
I prefer a wild-man’s bush—all this shaving seems, I don’t know, overzealous. (Note to self: is this puritanical?)
It becomes a joke between us (or might if we still joked):
Theo’s baby-soft cock-and-balls. Caulk-n-bawls.
This afternoon Theo disappears into the bathroom. The shower blasts into action. Wafts of Tahiti Beach in coconut-rose slither down the hall like fingers of sixth-grade Chap Stick, my cousin’s brown Bain de Soleil arm, or the swinging tree on the rearview mirror of a drunk guy’s VW turbo. Precision is the name of the game here—Theo’s game. Before (things change when you have two babies even if you swear by the gods they won’t) he applied deodorant upon waking and before bed. He sniffed his armpits and blew air up into his nostrils. He buried his nose in his socks and underpants. For Christ’s sake, I’d say. You know they stink you weird man. He’d sniff with a little smile and say: I want to be sure.
Now he emerges in a lime-green towel, a mask of French clay upon his angular features. He lifts an arm with an enterprising look: his armpit is shaved—it glistens with moisturizer.
Ha, ha, he says. See this? I’ve had it with yellow stains.
You’ll still sweat, I say.
Yes, but it will dry. It won’t sit there, trapped. This is more hygienic.
Then he whips up the towel and shows me his fresh-shaved cul: a pink origami rosebud.
We’re tense; we don’t know if we’re going to make it. By ‘make it’ I mean as a couple, as parents, and as human beings. Sex is the rope that leads to our future. (Or so The Parent’s Guide to Health, Happiness, and Orgasm by Wilhelm Banesh M.D. implicitly states.) Theo needs it—sex—to release “stress.” I need it to maintain “a connection.”
Today—as everyday—Theo taps away in his corner. (The sound of his keyboard clicking and clacking makes me want to drive sharpened pencils into my ears.) If people left a color imprint on the areas they most often plant their ass, that corner would be bright red. It hums. It teems with clumps of wires. It sears the air with its single technocrat-blue eye. To break from its soul-sucker’s pull Theo lies on the bed with a pillow over his face. The bed is Theo’s Tomb of Depression. The toilet room his Throne of Denial. If I’m a pair of double D’s and a self-haircut with ill-conceived bangs, Theo’s a ghost. He eats not much but gorges on Nutella-on-baguette. White rice is, in his book, preferable to brown. Frozen potato balls to pancetta-laced gratin dauphinois. You spend too much time in the kitchen, he complains. Not enough on your knees. His eyes are deep and harassed in their sockets, his mouth a pinched rubber band. In his dreams he possesses special powers and saves the world. In reality he makes less now than as a waiter in New York. After work and the metro-stink of other people’s liquid expectorations, gas expulsions and general B.O. (Theo’s nostrils flare in outrage), a scalp-inspection session (the comb, the tempest of dandruff and hair, the patting and positioning of thin beleaguered fuzz that flanks his widow’s peak), he bolts dinner and regains his true seat of command: the P.C. (Pronounced ‘pay-say’.) Once there he checks emails, verifies “propositions” and delves into “research” about Costa Rican real-estate, San Fran and NYC lofts, and the earning-potential of your average high-society Palm Beach male escort. After that he looks at video of people doing things with eggplants and cans, defecating and pissing, going psychotic on keyboards and computer screens, and whacking each other over the head to see if they can produce a loss of consciousness. I read. (I’m currently on page 112 of Rage: Pacifying the Beast Within.) If the babies aren’t asleep we take turns lying with them. At some point we get in bed too (if we’re not already there getting the babies to for-the-love-of-Jesus give-it-up already). In the night Theo’s biological imperative, no matter our level of exhaustion, prompts him to reach for me. The gremlins are quiet and spread-eagled and take up three-quarters of the queen-size futon a friend gave us when his downstairs neighbor wanted to clear out her storage space. We shift them out of the way. Later Theo and I hiss into the night like demon-possessed snakes:
Wake up you shit! I need help here!
I have WORK in the morning!
What about me? This isn’t work? I changed the last diaper!
Shut up and let me sleep.
On the sixth night after Wadena moves in Theo and I wake at 3:10 to a high keening cry.
Theo whispers: I didn’t know she had a boyfriend.
He places his ear to the floor and shushes me. (Shush yourself, I say.) Anyway I knew.
That afternoon I heard voices and craned to see through the angled metal shutters. Wadena was beneath the orange and purple sign of ‘Frankie Téléphone’. She leaned against its window with its display of Afro creams, pink-cellophane weaves, plantains, limes, ginger and odorless industrial coconut oil. Her dress was fastened with black-rhinestone buttons, fitted at bodice and waist and constructed of patterned fabric in blue, green, rose and black. It looked hand-tailored but is Made in China. (I find this out when I scour the shops) On the feet she wore sequined plastic Made in China Moroccan-style slippers. I was stunned—that dress, those shoes, the easy lean of long back against shop window: the girl was a black Sophia Loren, a New Woman, a Higher Being. The outside door banged beneath my window and a dark-haired man jogged across the narrow street and wrapped his arms around my new neighbor the goddess. The man was young (twenty-one, twenty-two?)—the first thing I noticed—and possibly Italian. He wore a skull-and-crossbones bandanna, wet-look pomade and “deconstructed” designer jeans. His mouth was like two sections of cut-into plum, his teeth like white shells tossed up under a hot sun.
Who am I? I thought as I watched. The upstairs neighbor? The lady with the kids?
(I’m twenty-eight—did I mention that?)
Now I pictured them below: licking, flickering like flames in a pyre. I drift off and wake four more times to nurse the gremlins. All is quiet. I stare into the abyss.
In forty years, I think, I’ll be sixty-eight.
I resolve to live to a hundred and twenty:
Difficult but possible.
Definitely possible. My children will be ninety-three: they’ll never know fear because I’ll act as a buffer between them and death. Do yoga, I command. Get off the pill, coffee, white flour. Oh god—I’ve started—
“Imagine,” Theo says, “you are sucking off that homeless guy.”
I look and see the guy: yellow-bearded, filthy, an exposed ankle—bright red, mottled, swollen. Diabetes? Frostbite? Too-tight socks? This is five years ago, New York.
“Imagine you are pulling back his foreskin—what it smells like as you put it in your mouth.”
“He’s probably circumcised,” I say. “This is the US of A you know.”
On hot days Theo comments on random people walking down Second Avenue. He points out that under their clothes people have sweaty asses and that between moist scissoring sticky thighs their “sexes” are warm, squishy and yeasty as pounded dough. He uses specific words like “anus” and “glans” (words that are—interestingly—identical in English and French).
Of all the places your mind could go—I say—Why here?
Theo doesn’t answer, but invents further grotesqueries.
A pall has been cast: we are bad parents.
Our ten-month-old children sound like a team of soccer players, demented dwarves, or a small hospital of pleurosis sufferers on peg legs depending on which page of Wadena’s letter, one, two, or three (discovered in our mailbox our third day as neighbors), you reference.
Theo has dragged home moldering 80’s era rugs from his parents’ storage space and placed them around in gray-black configurations of doom. He has sprinkled poisonous carpet cleaner and vacuumed it up. (We all have white powder on our socks.) I have pulled—with bare fingers mind you—dried-up moths and casings from various crusty yellow tassels and humidity-curled woolen edges. On the upside: we may be more historically accurate this way. (Though floating triangles and faux spatters of paint remind me more of my eighth grade underpants than anything Art Nouveau.)
Today Wadena’s mother gave me the evil eye through the curtain. Actually, no: “through the curtain” implies she was somehow concealed or veiled. She was, rather, framed by the curtain (standing as she was in front of Wadena’s kitchen window which looks onto the courtyard where I “park” the double stroller); a mere pane of glass separated the children and I from her bald witch’s stare. Whether this method of hyper-extending one’s eyeballs as though knives will fly from them and flay one’s opponent in the face is a specialty of her country or a spur-of-the-moment tactic, I care not. There’s a limit to the abuse I will take.
Theo has devised a tactic to deal with the Wadena problem. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I laugh at our deviousness! We invited her to our apartment and she is—at this moment—sitting in our living room drinking champagne! Yes she has the career, friends, connections, clothes, an Italian boyfriend with all his hair—but it matters not. We have vanquished her with kindness, borne her sting in our blanket of passive-aggressivity! The noise isn’t our fault (no isolation, floors hollow like a drum, etc, etc.) a point we all agree upon.
I’m such a clown! Wadena said a moment ago while the babies gazed, a little afraid, from the doorway; her glitter-shadowed eyes were like onyx-encrusted wells.
Kids always laugh at my funny clown’s face, she added with a what-me-worry? grin. I fascinate them.
Victory is ours!!!!!
The sun angles over the rooftops, spills into our bowl of mirrored brick and asphalt and narrow pavement and it streams dust-motes and sleepy wakefulness, time suspended and the important breathing of others into our window. It pours forth as we sit on this floor of warmed worn caramel-pudding oak and we could be here, there or anywhere. But we’re here.
One has to ask at a certain point: how did this happen?
Wadena’s second and third letters arrive on Thursday and Friday.
(I say ‘arrive’ but of course they travel only five feet from her apartment to the mailbox in the hall.)
The landlord wants us to put down more rugs—and to be more careful about the noise we make—requests both short sighted and ironic as the floor is like a drum over a vast echoing cavern and squeaks and creaks with or without the damn rugs, with or without shoes or soft-soled slippers or pillows placed in circuitous pathways and I tell you if we are more “careful” Theo will finish it with a triple-murder/suicide.
Yesterday he shaved his chest.
I’ve figured out where the table and chairs have to go in relation to the couch, the four-foot chipped-gilt mirror, and the over-varnished but otherwise good cabinet Theo’s great-grandfather made circa 1946, and it’s impossible for me to sleep.
The only question is:
What to do with the bookshelves now the east wall is taken?
I shall persevere.
The furniture, walls, placement of door and molding is an equation: move it around, cajole, flatter, add, subtract, divide and the answer will squeeze to the fore like a pearl from a shucked-off oyster. Who needs money when you have cunning and elbow grease and will power? Our little castle, when I’m through, will gleam like a burnished acorn on a boulder in a pure mountain stream.
Theo must be in a profound sommeil because he hasn’t once banged on the wall.
Did I hear a tap from below? A broomstick on the ceiling?
My god I’m paranoid.
I don’t have to live like this, Theo says from in front of the bathroom mirror and emerges five minutes later with his head shaved bald. He looks insectile with those cavernous bruised eyes and that head cresting in a white stubbled point, though I won’t say so. (Well—I already did: these days it’s no-holds-barred.)
Wadena and her boyfriend are emptying her apartment through the window. She’s wearing that dress but her hair is sticking up in a waffle-grid of fuzzy rubber-banded pom-poms and the effect is lost. It’s four a.m. I’m torn: should I rat her out? The landlord told us to river dance in clogs if we want to (I’m starting to hate that bastard: rugs, clogs: whose side is he on?); Wadena hasn’t paid rent in two months.
He answers after five rings in the scared, vulnerable voice of early-stage Alzheimer’s.
Oui? he says. Allo?
Did you just call me? I say.
No, he says. I don’t think so…
I yawn and then cough.
Excuse me! I say. I’m not really awake…
There’s a long silence and the sound of a woman mumbling.
Well, he says at last. What do you want?