by Michael Howard
Jeff took his headphones off and put them right back on. The bastard was still there. Still in his bathroom. That was never part of the arrangement. The goddamn bathroom. The bathroom was out of bounds. Sacred, like a pagoda. Some hard and fast ground rules were in order. There are certain things a man cannot abide. Jeff tried turning up the volume on “Wakin on a Pretty Day” and found that it wouldn’t go any higher. The horrid midday sun was invading his room, assaulting him through the gaps in his curtains. He groaned. He felt like throwing up. He must remember not to mix beer with spirits. Mixing things was a bad idea—he was beginning to see this. Who’d bought those damn curtains anyway? Too small for the goddamn window. And if he did need to throw up? Where could he go when his bathroom was so occupied? Yes, he would write out those rules and have her sign—today. If she refused, well, it was his name on the lease. Jeff threw off his headphones and rolled onto his stomach, wrapped his pillow around his throbbing head.
At two-thirty he got out of bed. He pressed his ear to the door and listened. All was quiet. He opened the door and went into the bathroom. His bathroom. Not for rent. No vacancy. The nausea lingered in his stomach but he was well past the point of vomiting. He stood under the shower for a long time, taking in big lungfuls of steam. He could stay in here as long as he liked. Let someone tell him otherwise. Let her say something about wasting energy. He’d show her wasted energy, he thought nonsensically. While he shaved he heard the door to the apartment open. Oakley started yapping excitedly. Jeff stopped and listened. She said, “Hiya Oak,” and let loose a torrent of baby talk, referring to herself in the third person as “Mommy.” There was nobody with her. Jeff wiped the foggy mirror with his hand again and finished shaving.
When he emerged from his bedroom to begin the day it was nearly five o’clock. She was sitting on the couch watching Investigation Discovery and loudly snacking on something from a bag she had in her lap. Probably the tortilla chips he’d bought the other night from 7-Eleven. She saw him and, chewing, said:
Jeff ignored that and started rummaging around the kitchen for some breakfast, making more noise than was necessary. His stomach was finally settled. The fridge was almost completely empty. Filtered water, flat Pepsi, half a loaf of bread, two old bottles of salad dressing and a bag of unwashed grapes. The cupboard was just as sad. He splashed some Black Label into a glass from the sink and gulped it down.
“Where’s the pizza?” he asked. There was an accusatory tone in his voice.
“Pizza?” She didn’t take her eyes off the TV.
“We finished it two days ago.”
He closed the fridge and looked at her. “I don’t think it was two days ago.”
“Well it was.” She brought a handful of tortilla chips to her mouth and crammed them in.
“No,” he said sternly, “It wasn’t.”
She finally turned her head. There was a commercial on. She finished crunching and said, “We finished it the night before last.”
“OK, see?” He stepped forward. “That’s what I’m talking about. The night before last. That’s not two days ago. That’s a day and a half.”
“Whatever. Close enough.”
“Close enough?” Her indifference was irritating him. Was it deliberate?
She shrugged. “It’s almost nighttime anyway.”
“Almost nighttime?” He pointed dramatically at the window, but the commercial break was over so his theatrics were in vain. “It’s the middle of the day.”
“If you say so.”
He sighed as though exasperated. “Look. I think it’s time we started being more … precise around here.”
Her phone buzzed. She picked it up and brought it close to her face, chortled, typed rapidly with both thumbs. When she was finished she gave her attention back to the TV. Jeff said:
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes. I’m not that deaf.” She was deaf in one ear so there was always a chance that she had not, in fact, heard what Jeff said.
“So what do you mean by precise?”
That was a good question. He answered it with another. “You don’t know what precise means?”
“Sure I do. I just don’t know what you mean by it.”
That was more like it. They were getting into the rising action now. “For example,” Jeff began, “when I buy a bag of tortilla chips, I expect them to be right there in the cupboard when I want them.”
“These were on the counter.”
“No they weren’t.”
“OK. They weren’t.” She rolled her eyes.
“I think you’re missing the point here.”
“Didn’t know you had one.”
That dug into him. He tried to think of something good to say. He said, “Is that so.”
“What’s any of this got to do with precision?”
“Who said it does?”
“You did!” She thrust her arms in his general direction.
“It has everything to do with precision,” he rallied. “I buy things for precise reasons and put them in precise places. The precise reason for buying those chips was to eat them. I put them precisely in that cupboard—not on the counter—so I would know precisely where to go when I got hungry.”
She dropped the chips and clapped her hands in mock approbation. He saw that he was succeeding in pushing her buttons. He was getting on her nerves. He was pleased with himself and felt that he really did deserve some applause. Oakley heard the bag hit the floor and automatically began walking over. Jeff swooped down and beat him to the punch. He snatched up the chips and moved back into position, right on border of the kitchen. He opened the bag and peered inside. There was still a fair amount left, despite all her cramming and crunching.
“Crumbs,” he snorted.
“Oh my God. I’ll pay you back for the fucking chips.”
“It’s not about that.”
She shot him a nasty glance. “What’s it about?”
Jeff thought for a minute. He frowned into the bag. His mind wavered. Then he inhaled sharply and said, “I just hope you washed your hands.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” The aggression in her voice was matched by her body language, the expression on her face. Her eyes were narrow and ferocious.
Jeff’s nervous system told him to flee. He felt himself surrounded by many rows and columns of little red “abort” buttons. His pulse raced. But the self-destructive impulse was overriding. He composed himself and forged ahead.
“It means precisely what you think it means.”
She got up and stormed across the apartment to her bedroom. The one that used to be theirs. She tried to slam the door but its light weight wasn’t conducive to slamming—it caught too much air and failed to close at all. She kicked it shut. Oakley lay stretched out on the hardwood floor with a sad look in his big orange eyes. Jeff stood there like an idiot, tortilla chips in hand. His anger was dissipating fast, to be replaced by a bruising contrition. Some things really don’t ever change. He shook the chips around in the bag. He had no appetite. The nausea was back. He carried the bag over to the armchair and sat down. The sinking sun glared mercilessly into his face. He closed his eyes and saw swirling orange blotches. Soon it would be dark again.
“Are you taking Oak?” Jeff asked. It was dark again—the following evening.
She set a bag down and looked at him, Oakley.
“He always liked you more,” Jeff added sincerely.
“I can’t take him now.”
“I’ll pay my share,” she said. “Until you find someone.”
Jeff scratched his forehead. “Hope you have deep pockets.”
She didn’t laugh. She went quietly back and forth between rooms, placed more things into bags and zipped them up and dropped them near the door. Oakley sat among them. She asked Jeff to watch him. He did as she made three trips down to the street. Her black Honda was parked in front of the building along the sidewalk. Jeff could hear its doors being opened and shut. Its trunk. A cool wind breathed into the apartment through the open windows. It was a fine night. Early fall. The sort of night that makes you feel OK about things. Soon the Honda was packed and ready to go. The clock on the wall said quarter past eleven. She looked at Jeff.
“I’ll come back for the rest.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do it anymore.”
Jeff nodded. “I know.”
She said goodbye to Oakley, who began to whimper. She promised him she’d be back. Then she was gone, and what had long been dead was at last buried, never to be disturbed. Cursed be he that moves my bones. Jeff turned off all the lights in the apartment and sat down in the armchair. “Bye,” he said. The sound resonated in the dark.
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