I work down the street from a discount coffin warehouse, if that gives you any idea. When I walk by the storefront, I try not to look through the tinted windows but always, out of the corner of my eye, I see blurry faces through the glass. Defeated heads shrunken into endless shoulders.
Yesterday, one of my students asked me what the tattoo at the base of my back said. "Read it," I told her. For five minutes, she struggled. "Life, what is it but a _____." She couldn't make out the last word. "Long 'e' sound," I said, before I gave in and told her. "You did a great job," I said. "Good try."
I realize that this is an unorthodox approach: letting a student read my skin; but maybe I need to try something new. I tell myself this because really, what I'm afraid of, is that I'm just another disappointment for her.
The view from my bedroom window is of the top of a telephone pole; of the wires, of the pigeons that roost there. I am close enough to see each black cord sag beneath the tension of the pink and black and gray birds' feet; tiny nails sharp as needles clicking, vice-like tendons. They reposition themselves every few minutes, move their claws in a soundless two-step and hide their heads in sooty feathers. If I reached my hand out the window, I could almost touch one. "Do it," Steve says when I tell him this, so I act like I don't hear him. There's no point in proving a misperception.
The first time I ever slept at his apartment, I found a nose in his sock drawer. That was what worried me about him at first; he didn't seem to mind that I was already going through his stuff. I rolled the disembodied anatomy around between my fingers, sniffed at it, held it up to the morning light. Finally, "What the hell is this?"
"It's a nose," he said.
He pulled the sheets over his head, against the light of the blinds that I had opened. He didn't say anything.
"Well, where did you get it?"
"When I was in Rome," he said, "my buddy dared me. I chipped it off a statue."
He shrugged beneath the blankets.
"Was it a famous statue?"
"If it was, I did them a favor. Art gets more valuable when it starts falling apart." Instead of arguing with him, I slipped the nose back into the sock drawer and closed the blinds.
This was a few years ago. He'd never mentioned moving in together and I wasn't going to push it. He never noticed how often I left my toothbrush, my underwear, my antiperspirant at his house. He'd always show up on my doorstep a few days later, "You forgot this," he'd say, and hand me a plastic grocery bag full of my stuff. He never noticed when I stole the nose out of his sock drawer and put it in my purse. He never noticed how often I forgot to take the Pill.
Yesterday, I got fired from my job. It was nothing personal; the tutoring program wasn't improving the kids' test scores, so there wouldn't be any more grant money. Everyone was given one week's notice. Since I wasn't on a first name basis with any of the other tutors, I couldn't feel sorry for anyone. I am already not sure about showing up for work today when I find the sweater I was planning on wearing bunched up in the back of the closet. There's a hole the size of an apricot on the left side of the chest, near the armpit.
I close the door to the bathroom, so the cat won't follow me in and sit on the toilet, position my legs on either side of the bowl, stick my hand into the empty V. I hold the little white stick beneath the stream of urine and try to count to three, but I keep getting distracted: the leaking faucet, the moldy smell my landlord says isn't there, the stupid cat scratching at the door "meow, meow, feed me."
I pull the test out from between my legs and stare at the little windowed boxes on the front. The urine is soaking up the fabric of the stick; I can see the wetness feather out below the clear plastic screens. The plastic screens are centered, squared like television screens, and I wonder if this is a mistake: everything, everything just a vision to watch from the outside. A bright blue line fades in beneath the plastic of the lower screen, and I wait to see if a matching line will appear in the top. Nothing happens. I cap the test and set it on the counter.
Girls on birth-control get pregnant; happens all the time, especially to teenagers, especially to the friends I had in college. My nipples feel like they're being nibbled on by mice; my breasts are large, soft bruises. There is no way this is psychological. I lift my shirt up and look at my profile in the mirror, suck my breath into my stomach and stick it out. I leave the test on the counter and open the bathroom door. I don't want to see the blank television screen; I don't want to see it empty.
My cat won't chew a hole in a shirt unless she finds the shirt on the ground somewhere. If I'm wearing the shirt, she just crawls up the front, tucks her face into my armpit and sucks at the fabric. I cradle her in my arms and wait for her to nuzzle. She is the perfect part of my life.
The first time she did that in front of Steve, he was disgusted. I pretended like I hadn't realized what was happening and I pushed her off of me. "Bad kitty!" I screamed, and she bolted. I found her hiding behind the toilet later that night, legs tucked inside herself, wide moon-green eyes the only motionless feature of her trembling body. There was nothing I could do.
I killed my cousin's pet hamster when I was twelve, but I didn't mean to. The thing was shaking like snow when I poked at it, and each time I poked, it shook more. I wanted to see if I could turn the hamster into a blur; if I could erase the hard line between its body and the air, between its body and my finger. Every time I poked, I waited to see its chest and my finger merge together. They never did. The hamster stopped shaking; went stiff. My cousin cried and I learned that all mammals are capable of heart attacks.
This is how I felt when I saw Dave in the parking lot of Pak n' Save last month. Whenever you lose a friend, and I mean, you lose a friend the way the bad guy loses the cops who are trailing him, you never think you'll run into them again. Especially after a few years. This is the way a bad guy feels when he runs into the cop who's been tracking him for five years, both of their carts full of Hamburger Helper and Jell-O and generic brand soda. I feigned delight. I gave him my real phone number because I couldn't think of any others. I forgot about it.
I'd forgotten that I'd given him my number, so it's not the first thing on my mind when I answer the phone. When I answer the phone, the first thing on my mind is Steve, and the first thing on my mind about Steve is that he's probably calling to tell me that he won't be over tonight. No excuses, since I never ask for any.
When it's not Steve; when it's Dave, I am quiet for a few minutes, so I am forced to listen to his "Hello, hello, hello?" These aren't cop sounds he's making.
Finally, I answer because I can't think of what else to do, and he tells me that he's being kicked out of his apartment. He tells me that he's being kicked out of his apartment and he has nowhere else to go and can he sleep on my couch for a few nights. And me, I say, "Yes," because I can't think of what else to do.
I am in the bathroom, looking at the empty top screen of the test when my doorbell rings. I am trying to decide whether or not to take another test, since this test is only 99% accurate, and not 100% accurate. The doorbell rings again and I blink the tears back from my eyes.
Steve comes in and says "What died?" and I don't say anything, because I don't know what he means. He leaves me confused for a few more minutes while he adjusts himself on my couch and then he says "What died?" again. He says, "Seriously, it smells like something died in here."
I sniff, and immediately, I know what he's talking about. The fact that I didn't notice the smell before strikes me as an impossibility. I start following my nose, my eyes squeezed into ugly black slits. I look like a mole, but walking upright, and with less animal charm. The smell is coming from the laundry closet. I open the sliding shutter-doors; I peek behind the washer, the dryer, and I see nothing. The smell is overwhelming. "The cat must have shit in here," I say, and I close the doors.
The laundry room was the reason I moved into this apartment. The interior of this apartment is the best I've ever had: Formica countertops, oak front cabinets, my own washer and dryer. The apartment is also across the street from an adult bookstore and less than a block away from the freeway. As soon as I walk out my door, it's all pornography and traffic. My whole life is a compromise.
The doorbell rings again and I let Dave in. I don't even try to explain Steve to Dave, or Dave to Steve. I simply let Dave sit on the couch and I walk into the bedroom and close the door.
The pigeons on the telephone wire outside my window are making noise. "Coo, coo, coo," one of them says, and suddenly, there's a chorus. Suddenly, there's just one bird; many mouths, many bodies, but only one voice. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard, and the greatest argument against language that anyone could ever make. I am sinking into the bed, I am enveloped in the voice of the birds, my throbbing breasts are part of one, great, meaningless rhythm; I can't feel where my body begins and where it ends.
Inevitably, I am interrupted by Steve. I am interrupted by Steve throwing open my door and demanding my cat. "I can't take it anymore," he says, as if he understands how to be passionate about something. "I need to find that cat's shit and rub the cat's nose in it. Where is it?"
I bury my head underneath my pillow and turn my back to him. He pulls at my arm, twists me out of the bed. "Let's find the cat," he says, and I am led out of the room.
"Here, kitty, kitty." Another chorus; not a chorus, but a duet, as Steve and Dave dance through the apartment, opening drawers, peeking behind chairs. I can hear one of them rustling through the wastebasket in the bathroom, looking at all my trash: my Q-tips, my Kleenex, my not-baby.
And suddenly, I realize that no one has found the cat. I realize that the cat isn't here, and that I'm crying. I realize that the cat isn't here, and I go back to the smell, and Steve and Dave are storming through the house like ballerinas, like this is a joke, screaming for my cat so they can toss her around and smear shit on her nose. I open the shutter-doors to my laundry closet. I open the dryer, and there is the smell. There is my cat. There are my knees. There is my cat. My knees. My arms, my cat, my fur, my blood my black my cat black fur black and the hollow in the pit of my black stomach black.
Steve's hands wrap round my neck, in my hair, his lips somewhere on my skin. He brings me a sponge and some bleach before he fades his way to the door.