He stood with his shoulder in the doorway, arms crossed, and she glared back at him. The linoleum of the kitchen cold under her bare feet. Another disparity between them, another contention: his slippers kept him warm. He sniffed, more to do something than out of a biological need, and turned his head away from her. She folded her arms, too, a soft click in her head telling her she was mirroring him and not caring to fully acknowledge the thought.
Her feet cold and his warm. The way of things.
In the heat of a moment now lying dead between them he had called her a bitch. This was the final vocalized word the apartment walls had heard in ten minutes. The sting of the word was as if no one else had ever uttered it before, as if he had saved it just for her, specifically to hurt her. But he had not budged from where he’d said it, as if the curse had roots.
An art deco print hung behind him. She had always hated it and would never tell him, not even if they made up this time. It was amorphously daubed, apparently with a child’s finger paints; the variety of colors seemed schizophrenic without context. The title, in tiny black print at the bottom, provided no such reprieve.
Fine, she thought, glaring past him. I can remember. I can remember a great deal.
I can remember last fall, trucking your sorry ass to a movie theater thirty miles away to get tickets for some new “experience,” only to find out they sold out the day before, and we should really check the website first next time.
(In her memory she skips past the part where, on the way home, dejected and irritated, they stopped for hot apple cider at a local farmer’s market and did not fight again for another three months.)
I can remember listening to the Cocteau Twins in your basement and racing to see who could guess the lyrics first and you not telling me you had memorized their first three albums while you were in the hospital the first time.
(She also conveniently excises his second hospital stay, when they both discovered John Williams — the classical guitarist, not the composer.)
I can remember finding you in the bathroom, doubled over, hands pressed to your torso as if holding in your own entrails, puke in the tub and tears in your eyes. I can remember that.
These memories and still others flashed and sizzled across her mind like finger-flung water on a hot pan. His shoulder’s nearness to the jamb caused a phantom ache as if he’d been punched, but he would not move. He saw her determined look. His stomach cringed at its potency; a cancerous churning started somewhere deep. He followed her gaze to the painting, a gift from his aunt —- the eccentric one, not the lesbian schoolteacher. He glanced back at her and tore himself from place, to the painting, to take the thing off the wall. After a pensive moment, staring at the brighter space on the sun-drenched wall (now embittered by an ink black night), he broke the frame across his knee. Glass sprayed into the carpet, across the linoleum towards her bare feet. He looked up at her.
Her lips pursed, but no words came up her throat to move them. A silence as wide as the one between them now roared behind her forehead, immaculately conceived goldfish in a dark bowl. She could feel right down to her chilly toes a vacancy of charity on her part, as if the need to communicate with him was far outweighed by her own need to hide her stale bemusement with their situation. This need growing as the wordless moments fled their rage. They could stay here all night and nothing would change; this they both knew. Yes. He could break every painting in the place and she still wouldn’t have anything to say to him. An impasse.
His hand, nicked by an errant piece of glass, ran over his face, leaving a thin red streak from chin to temple. He blew air out through his mouth, as close to a response to her grim nothing as anything. The broken frame slunk to the floor, making a lopsided triangle over his left slipper. His stomach lurched again, and he dared to let his eyes pass hers. Four icy and silent lighthouses, manned by apathetic keepers both struggling to become beacons of apology.
She knew the look, registered it with a small splashback of similar memories to reinforce it, and did her best to remain outwardly unconcerned. But where his health was involved, she was not impassive. Could not be. In that arena she was positively verbose, normally. The muscles in her foot made like they wanted to lift, but the larger ones above remained frozen, so she stood there on cold linoleum with a half-tensed foot for a moment or two before relaxing again. Tiny diamonds on the yellow floor, winking.
The novelty clock by the refrigerator chimed ten: the call of a common nighthawk. He moved suddenly, pushed past her as she listened to it, startling her back a few steps. His hand — her favorite one, the left — closed around the dustpan and a small brush. With his arm he gently pushed on her shins so he could sweep up his mess. She let him. When he moved to dump the pieces in the trash, she stepped into the hallway, feeling as though she were passing through the ghost of his shadow as she bent past the jamb. Began making a small pile of shards in a cupped palm.
He made a sound in his throat — ut — like his throat got sealed off before a real word could come out. He saw her bare feet. She turned the corners of her mouth down and kept preening the carpet fibers, ignoring the shard she could feel poking into her heel. She had a flash of a monkey in Borneo performing the same action to its mate, two other nonverbal life partners stuck in a rut. His sweeping brought him close enough that she could smell his body, and she cursed herself for wanting it so suddenly. Some intoxicant, having a form other than hers to explore. If she closed her eyes and ran her fingertips across him in the dark, she could take herself to an alien land with an utterly indescribable landscape. This land also lived behind her forehead, pebbly kitsch for the fishbowl. She didn’t know how to tell him this, so she didn’t. Thoughts banged against the frontal bone of her skull, dead on arrival.
She stood with her shoulder in the doorway. Arms limp. He sighed again and put his hands on his hips.
Remember, he said, when this was easy?