“On What It Means to Stay”

Published in Loud Zoo Vol. 1, No. 3 (December 2014).

On What It Means to Stay

As I crouch behind our cramped apartment’s front door, vacuuming for the second time today, it flies open and I have to catch it with my right hand before it hits me.

David’s screechy voice overpowers the Dustbuster’s hum in our tiny living room. “I brought Mexican for lunch.”

I twist at the waist and look up at his sparse, mousy mustache he says will soon look good. I call over the whirr, “I thought you were bringing sushi.”

“I changed my mind,” he says, swinging one of his long, slender legs so his foot hits the door. It slams and the wall rattles, rocking the picture on the wall above me like a pendulum. Asshole.

I turn off the hand held vacuum and set it on the green carpet; my guts bubble and clinch as I stand and walk past him into the kitchen. Sitting at the table in front of my cold cup of coffee, I lift my left leg over the right and shift the round bottle of coffee creamer along the wood grain on the table.

I sniff, but all I can smell is the dry, stale scent of a hangover. “How’d you know what I wanted?”

He blinks his thick black eyelashes as he looks up at me and crosses the kitchen to the table. “I didn’t. I just got you some of those spicy burritos. The meat asiado ones. You like those, right?” The plastic bags grunt against Styrofoam containers heavy with greasy Mexican food as he sets them on the table, his keys clanging down beside the bags.

I roll my eyes. Asada, not asiado. Dumbass.

He tosses his grey windbreaker over the back of a chair, and it swishes against the yellow vinyl seat cover.

As I watch him pull forks out of a drawer, I blink as if something is lodged in my eye. “Remember this morning, when I didn’t get out of bed ‘til ten because of my stomach hurting?” He was supposed to be here last night, watching movies and drinking with me instead of at the bar with Saruh and Jessie.

“Oh, yeah. Want a Hot Pocket instead?” Without glancing up, he pulls out the chair opposite me and lifts one of the square Styrofoam containers out, opens it and begins assembling his steak fajitas with quick, swooping motions.

I look down into my mug. “Nah. Don’t worry about it.” The white chocolate cream slowly roils in my coffee, the color tan and smoky.

 My mouth has gone dry; my stomach is too tight to handle any caffeine. I hate his dopey fucking face.

Outside on the abrupt little balcony, two city pigeons bring tiny branches, flower stalks and scraps of hay—where do they find these things?—to build the pitiful twig nest I have already ripped down three times this week. Idiot birds.

David is cramming half a fajita into his mouth at once. Red-brown juice drips down his chin and onto his white Oxford shirt.

“Shit,” he mumbles through soggy tortilla and peppers. He swallows hard, his throat flexing wide and then relaxing slim again, and pushes the rest of the fajita into his mouth with one spidery hand. “I’m gonna go change,” he says as he wipes his mouth with a paper napkin – the metal legs of his chair squeal along the linoleum floor away from the table and he walks  down the hallway into the bedroom.

I uncross my legs, turn to the right and stand, then slide the smudged glass door open and step outside. Fucking asshole.

As one of the dull pigeons takes flight, its fat little body pulling down the glimmer of sun on its salt and pepper wings, I brush the little pile of scrap from the corner of the porch with my foot. All you little bastards, nest somewhere else. This is my balcony.

I turn to the kitchen as David walks back out as he’s tightening a green tie. He lifts his jacket from the back of the chair with a swoosh. A drop of dried grease still clings to his chin.

“Paul, I’m just going to eat this back at the office.” He looks over at me and smiles. I nod as he scoops everything back into the noisy plastic bag, tosses his fork into the sink from across the kitchen and passes the ugly blue couch to the door. One sleeve of his jacket almost gets caught in the wooden frame as the door swings shut.

I turn and lean on the smooth metal railing of our balcony, licking the peeling corners of my chapped lips. I look down the twenty-three stories at the stained, uneven sidewalk to watch the glass door swing open and David stride out. His cell phone is balanced against one shoulder and he’s almost juggling the Mexican food to pull the grey windbreaker on over his white shirt. I look down at the blue veins snaking beneath my white, white skin. I look sick.

The only reason I went to get tested was because David started wearing underwear. He had never worn any—no boxers, no briefs—since we had met. I immediately found it sexy, and his lack of undies directly led to him waking up in my bed. But two months ago, as I watched him get dressed from the still-warm sheets, his hips were hidden by green elastic shorts. “What are those?”

He turned to me with wide, deliberately blank eyes, as if he had ever been a good liar. “What?”

“The boxers. Are those mine?”

Face full of surprise, he looked down, apparently mystified to be wearing underwear for the first time in three years. “Oh. No. Last night. I got a few pairs. Been getting colder out.” Then he turned, one black sock still in his hand, and shut the hollow bathroom door before I could ask anything else.

So, the next day, just to quiet my paranoia—after all, we had abandoned condoms after the first month or so—I sat in the kitchen and called the city’s free clinic after David had left for work.

The woman on the other end chimed, “So are you having symptoms, or just want to make sure nothing is going on down there?”

I scrunched my nose up and squinted my eyes. ‘Nothing is going on down there?’ I thought they had to be nurses to work at these places. “No, no symptoms. Just been a while since I had a check-up … down there.” I stepped across the flower-print linoleum to the sink with the portable phone balanced against my shoulder  and started washing the day-old crust of linguine from the pile of cheap ceramic plates.

“Oh, my. Well, that’s no good. No good at all.”

I paused and raised an eyebrow. “You’re right, it’s not.” Was she high? Popping other people’s meds between appointments or something? “I was also wondering, since it’s been a while, how long do the results take?” I turned off the water and set my hip against the counter. Holding the phone with my fingertips and leaning my head into it, I ignored the rubbery pasta left on David’s plate.

“Well, for the less serious ones, only a few minutes. We’ll let you know those results before you even leave the clinic.” I imagined this woman as Dolly Parton from “9 to 5,” chipper and completely oblivious. “Now let me just see when we can fit you in.”

As she flipped pages, I scraped under my fingernails with the prong of a freshly-dried fork.

“How about Saturday at two?” She sounded as if she was smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled in an STD clinic. Nor seen anyone who has.

“Sounds great. The name’s Paul Williams. I’ll see you then.”

The phone cradle beeped as I set down the clunky phone and went to the bedroom. I could feel the dusty quiet of the apartment crawl along my skin as I sat on the bed and chewed my already ragged nails for an hour; they used to look so nice, before I started getting really anxious. Then I finally dressed to take a jog and absorb some vitamin D.

Now the light in the kitchen has dimmed and I glance at the clock: almost two-thirty. I step inside and sit. The dry terry cloth wrapped around me is scratchy and rough against my bare skin as I look down at the maroon cloth clashing against the fine blond hairs on my arm. Asshole.

My cell phone vibrates on the countertop. I lean my chair back until I can reach it. My tip-toes barely touch the cold floor, and I look at the LED screen. David.

I flip the phone open and stare at the screen for a few seconds before putting it to my ear. “Hello?”

“Hey. So I was thinking maybe I could come home from work early today. Ed told everybody to take the afternoon off. So I’ll be home in, say, an hour. Sound okay?”

I lean my head back and stare at the white ceiling. “Sure. You live here, too.”

“I know, but …” He sounds nervous or anxious, like someone is standing over him. “Look, I’ll just see you soon, okay?”

“All right.” I push down the top of the phone until momentum pulls it closed and set it on a dark circle in the table’s wood grain, just beside the bottle of creamer.

I pull at the waist cord of my robe. My fists are tight, shaking knots, and it grips tighter and tighter around my torso, which feels icy and desolate inside. I wrap one thin arm around myself and reach for my cold coffee. The fog of creamer shifts and curls as I lift the cup. I sit still for a long time, picturing my zippered suitcases in the hall closet; the two bookshelves in the bedroom with my pictures and books; the last statement for my empty bank account; Mom’s face if I showed up back home, half the country away; David’s mouth as he slept after the last time we had sex.

I didn’t even tell David I had gone to get tested. They make you come back in to get the results—something about mixed-up paperwork in the eighties and a privacy of information act. So I sat in the waiting room, trying to tell everyone with my expression that I was there for a malaria shot and not for the same reasons that made them slouch into the bright plastic chairs. The only one who seemed to know was the hunched old man with scraggly grey hair who winked when the nurse called my name. I sat quietly in the exam room, smoothing wrinkles out of my jeans with my hands until another nurse walked in.

“William?”

“Well, that’s my last name, it has an s on the end, but yes, that should be me. People do that to me all the time, especially in situations like these, where it’s listed with my last name first. They always call me William instead of Paul, but it’s actually Paul Williams, and then most people ask why I have two first names instead of a first and a last name, but my middle name is actually Lynnwood, which is so rare people think I’m making it—” Her face told me I needed to shut up. “Sorry.” I folded my hands between my knees and lowered my chin, eyes trained on her wood pulp clipboard.

She looked back down and flipped a page over the silver clip. “Your results are back.”

The only other word I heard was “positive.” It flashed in my mind like a marquee with big gaudy red letters: “AIDS” in fucking Broadway lights. I walked out of the exam room and back into that ugly crowd waiting for their turn, their news. When the old homeless-looking guy reached out for my arm, I slapped his hand away hard and glared down at him, my breath coming out in quick puffs as his eyes went big and watery. I was standing on the apartment’s puke-green carpet with the door locked behind me, holding the slip of paper labeled “POSITIVE” that they make you take, before I even thought to apologize.

When David saw my red-rimmed eyes after he got home, I told him a friend’s dog had died. He thought I was angry about doing the dishes all the time, the bookshelves he promised to build me six months ago for the living room, or at least his refusal to vacuum. He had no idea.

I bite the inside of my cheek with my molars—hard—and stand. I march down the short hall to the bedroom.

 The shelves lining the other side of the room—all the shiny textbooks that I’m still paying for, the bestsellers David refuses to read—are reflected in the mirror above my dresser, and I step up to it and watch my cheek bulge as I push my tongue against the raw, salty spot where I bit it. He would crumble if he found out. I can almost see it: his legs limp as he drops to the floor, then he looks up at me and starts to cry, his eyes smeared dark with tears, cheeks turned splotchy red from embarrassment and fear. His keys and jacket and cell phone would be scattered on the carpet around him. No more leaving me here to go clubbing with those two sluts, no more drinks after work until two a.m. or spending the night God-knows-where because he “couldn’t find a way home.” No need to pack and haul my shit across state lines.

I drop my robe in a soft pile on the floor and pull open the top dresser drawer, then slip out a pair of jeans and lift my legs into them. I clasp each cold, round button slowly. I reach for a white t-shirt, then pull back. Fuck it; I may as well look dramatic. I pick up my wallet from the dresser, pull the folded piece of paper from inside and spread it open with both hands. The bold capital letters in black ink shine through the creases, overpowering the rest of the Xeroxed print. I refold it and slide it into my back pocket.

I stride back to the kitchen and pick up my coffee mug and the creamer. I move to the sink and pour the cold coffee down the drain. The fridge door makes a soft shushing sound as I swing it open, and I set the creamer on a glass shelf.

I pull the paper from my back pocket and set it unfolded in the very center of the bare, wooden table. Even he should notice that. Moving to the glass doors in front of the balcony, I face the sun already dimming behind the tops of tall downtown buildings. At least I had enough time to get ready. I place each hand on a hip half-clad in denim and turn my back to the light. The Dustbuster still sits on the carpet behind the front door, gleaming grey in the fading sunlight that is filtering through the living room windows. Just then, David’s key rattles quietly into the door’s brass lock, clicking as the gears inside begin to grind and turn.

2 thoughts on ““On What It Means to Stay”

  1. see you are the new instructor for Santa Fe Writers Workshops. Thought I would peruse your writing. I’ve read two archived pieces both compelling and very personal. I can’t tell if it’s fiction or memoir, and that’s probably a good thing.
    I’ll take a course eventually, though what i might need first is therapy to find out why i have a compulsion with no ambition.

    1. Hi Sheila,
      Thanks for checking out my writing! I appreciate you taking the time to write me. This particular story is fiction, as is the vast majority of what’s archived here. Recently, though, I posted “The Stars of Our Ancestors”, which is nonfiction. For the rest, though, it’s probably a good bet they’re fiction.
      And know that a lot of people, even professional writers, struggle with the motivation side of writing. It’s one thing workshops help alleviate!

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