I’ve been in an “exhaustion” workshop for the past few weeks, writing about 15 pages per week. It’s been rough. I’m working on a series of shorts that take place at a couple’s retreat. Not sure why I feel like sharing, but here are two things from my submission this past week.
Attic (Janet on Mario)
Mario snores and occasionally grunts, but he never jerks or twitches. The snore is throaty and wheezy. He never should have smoked for so long, Janet thinks, it’s the history of smoking that keeps her awake.
She stares up at the ceiling, through the dark, and recalls the apartment from their undergraduate years. One winter they left the heat off in the New England cold, the winter during which campus pipes froze and all those students and faculty had to go to the massive gym for showers. Ice storm. She never went to the gym, but she imagined cots covered with blankets and pillows from wall to wall, though the storm didn’t really impact anyone’s heating system. Campus heating was always oppressive and dry and always made Mario’s nose bleed. So that’s one reason letting the apartment stay cold was a positive. Also, it gave them hundreds in savings over those three or four months, the goal being a summer trip they never took. So for nothing, really, they spent the winter squirming for friction under stacks of comforters. Always they wore more than two layers of clothing. The tights, the sweatpants. The fleece. The wool. Fucking solely for heat.
In November, chipmunks crowded together in the ceiling. They rushed from side to side all night, their claws scratching. No matter how many times she told Mario to pretend it was just a bad setting on a white noise machine, he still stood on the office chair and beat the ceiling with his fists in sleepless wild anger, while the chair rolled back and forth beneath him.
While he was out at work, where he stayed late into the night, and when she wasn’t reading or meditating on the confused anxiety their isolation generated, she sat on the porch. The porch was warped like a Dr. Seuss house and wobbled when you jogged up the steps. She sat naked on the porch in the snow and wrote her name over and over. She leaned in toward Mario’s sleeping ear during the early morning and said, “I’m tired. We’re alone.”
He came home each night like a detective. Insatiable appropriation of her. He woke her up by shaking her body and asked: What was her day like? How was class? How was walking? How was eating? How’s the cold? How’s the medication? His is shitty. Can we just stay in this weekend? Do we have to see your asshole father? Do we have to not smoke around him? Do we have to go out at all?
The loudest family of three on earth lived on the second floor. The house’s owner lived on the first. In the basement were the washer and dryer. You had to walk in through the landlord’s apartment, past his cold-to-the-touch couches, his tall wooden sculptures of nothing. His children hunched in reclining chairs where they wore over-the-ear headphones and twiddle handheld gaming devices, screens pressed against their noses. You carried the laundry past them without looking at them, hoping they don’t notice you. And you kind of wanted to press your nose with that level of interest against anything, so you touched your nose to the clothing, which made you sneeze, and then you hopped up the wobbling stairs and wondered why the washer couldn’t get those pizza stains out from your sheets.
Move In (Mario on Janet)
It took three days for her things to fill my apartment. The toaster stood beside my toaster. Her clothes overflowed my dresser. We stacked our collected silverware in a second drawer-nested plastic organizer. Our things filled cabinets, shelves, cupboards. We had to lean a chair against the refrigerator door to keep it shut. We carried furniture over the unframed photograph stacks that blanketed the hardwood between the bedroom and bathroom. Photographs from our childhoods. That first night, when we woke up in the middle of the night and walked toward the bathroom to pee, the glossy side of that image of my father napping while I watched cartoons stuck to the bottom of our feet.
We came home one night and found a single couch that resembled neither hers nor mine sitting in the living room. Its cushions were plump and the frame was strong and smelled the room up like balsam. We laughed together. We shrugged. We hopped onto the cushions and bounced. It was a keeper. Comfortable. We rolled back and forth on the couch, shed our clothes, fucked on the new cushions— something she really wanted to do. She called it christening the thing.
The next morning our plates and glasses and televisions also transformed into new, single-set replacements. The plates her mother bought her disappeared. My plastic stolen cafeteria cups were gone. In their place we had solid off-white dinnerware. All matching. And then it was the computers, the bed, our clothing, etc. We could wear any of the pants. No jeans stood out as hers or mine. The scattered photographs, which we never did clean up, appeared in crinkling new photo albums, chronologically ordered, our childhood paths completely merged. The stories we told while flipping the photo albums’ pages now involved each other. At this we glowed. She clawed my skin and I rubbed my nose in her hair. We stared at each other’s eyes with rabid adoration.
Then our hair started to tangle nightly. At first it was only strands from our heads, but soon the patches either of us typically shaved—face, leg, pubic, and armpit hair—grew aggressively overnight and twined. In the morning we had to pull our bodies apart slowly and comb out the snarled lengths. We bought fine combs for these mornings alone. I’d help her re-shave. She’d help me. We were sometimes late for school and work.