They’d been living with me for two months. He slept sixteen hours a day—from four in the morning until noon head-to-toe with her on the ratty couch, from noon until eight or so in my room.
Early on, I’d wake up some days and find her standing at the stove in front of a pan, the flame turned on high. She’d have her arms at her sides, an egg in each hand. She would be crying silently, or about to cry, and the first thing that would go through my head was this: If she drops those eggs, how many will I have left in the fridge? And then: Will she expect me to help her clean up the mess?
He would still be on the couch, sweating through his T-shirt, stretching out his legs, and I’d wonder not what she was doing with him—I couldn’t give a shit about the intricacies of their love or desire, whatever it was—but how she managed to sleep each night on a couch that smelled so bad. My old roommate and I had found it in an alley, and it’s like it was made of equal parts animal and piss. I refused even to sit on it.
What to say to her on those mornings? Her boyfriend would vaguely notice I was up and make his way down the trailer’s hallway to my room. Sometimes, he’d put on a little show before he left. He would stick out his belly and scratch it through his T-shirt, or run his fingernails over his ass through his boxer shorts. He’d affect a southern accent—we were all doing it that summer, I can’t remember why or how it started—and say something about having to take a piss. “I’m gonna go shake the dew off my lily,” he’d say. Trying to joke his way out of his depression, out of his joblessness. I’d done this kind of thing before.
I didn’t have cable or Internet access, but the PC was rigged up to some fairly miraculous speakers, and I would leave her in the kitchen and walk back into the living room to play some music—not too loud, hoping that by the time I returned, I’d smell eggs frying.
A few weeks later, I would find her crying while standing in the hallway in front of the washing machine, about to add the detergent, or I would hear her through the bathroom door.
If she was at the washing machine, I’d turn and head the other direction, but if she was in the bathroom, I couldn’t help myself. I’d push the side of my face against the door’s rough wood and listen. At some point, I’d get tired of listening, and I’d tell her to open up, to let me in.
The door would inch open seemingly on its own, and I’d find her sitting with her back to the sink, holding her face in her hands. She was usually wearing her glasses, not her contacts, and she would smush them against her cheeks with her hands. The lenses of her glasses were so thick they seemed to belong to some other person. Not to a woman this pretty—whose lightly muscled and long pale legs were crossed at the ankles in front of her.
I’d sit down next to her and put my arm around her shoulder, and she’d lean into me and continue to cry.
When I first met her, she waited tables at the place where I tended bar. She’d just graduated college with a double major in political science and art, and she was seeing a woman who would bring guys home and tell Lauren to suck their dicks, to let them fuck her.
Lauren. That’s her name. The woman I knew for a while three years ago who had come back to town and asked if she could stay at my place with the depressed guy who’d lost his job.
Lauren’s girlfriend brought the guys home as a kind of test. She knew Lauren had been with men and wanted to see how it all went down, to see how Lauren reacted to their dicks now that the two of them were in a relationship. Only she didn’t give Lauren much of a choice. She’d bring the guy home and basically tell Lauren what she wanted her to do to him.
This had been going on for a few months, I found out later, when the three of us were drinking at their place one night after closing. There was a DVD playing in the background—something Disney, animated, it was probably supposed to be funny in an ironic way—and we were chasing shots of tequila with chilled sweet red wine we drank over ice. Lauren and I sat on the couch and talked mostly about work. Her girlfriend sat in an adjacent chair with her elbows on her knees, holding the bowl of her wine glass in both hands, and listened. At some point—the movie’d stopped playing and the television screen was blue—her girlfriend sat back and took a sip of wine. “I’m kind of looking forward to watching this,” she said.
Lauren’s hand made a fist around the stem of her wine glass. “No,” she said. “You’re not.”
Her girlfriend smiled, but there wasn’t any kindness in it. Lauren set the wine glass down on the coffee table and put the hand that had been clinching it on my knee.
“I’m not?” her girlfriend said, one eyebrow raised.
Lauren put her head on my shoulder and fixed her eyes on the carpet. “Look,” she said to me, her voice a whisper. “Would you—”
Her voice broke off, and though I couldn’t see her face, I knew she was crying silently. It may have been the first time I ever heard her do it.
Lauren’s girlfriend took over for her. “What I’d like to see happen is this,” she said.
She didn’t get too explicit. Instead, she told me about how this had been going on for a while, how it was a way, however strangely, for Lauren to do something for her enjoyment. She enjoyed watching, she said, enjoyed watching Lauren, but she wouldn’t join in. “I know you’ve at least thought about this since you found out about the two of us. Since you found out Lauren wasn’t just friends with that chick sitting at the end of the bar most nights during closing.”
Before Lauren’s girlfriend started coming around work, Lauren was different. When business was slow, she would empty a couple saltshakers onto the bar and make these relief portraits of the other waitresses and me. Or she would talk world politics. She had this way of letting you know what had happened in countries you’d never even heard of that made you not feel stupid. About a year before that movie about Rwanda came out, Lauren lectured three or four of us one night during closing about the Tutsi and the Hutus and genocide. I couldn’t believe something like that had happened during my adulthood and I had no idea about it. I at least watched the news most of the time. “At any given moment,” Lauren said, “we have no idea what’s going on in the world.” She recommended the BBC for news, and a couple other sources I’d never heard of, but she did it in this way that was not condescending at all. It’s more like she was filled with wonder, and she wanted to share that wonder, to see it spread.
After Lauren’s girlfriend started showing up at work, it wasn’t hard to notice how differently Lauren acted when she was around. The tray she carried drinks on would wobble. If her girlfriend got up from the bar to go to the bathroom, Lauren would come behind the bar and ask me to pour her a shot. “Hurry,” she would say, making a rudder-in-water motion with one hand. She never sculpted with salt or showed me the sketches she’d been working on in her Moleskine. She didn’t even talk politics.
“So look at it this way,” her girlfriend said. Lauren rubbed her cheek against my shoulder, and her mouth made a soft kissing sound.
“You’re getting half the fantasy,” her girlfriend said. “You’re getting her. You can pretend I’m not even in the room.”
I realized I was staring at the television’s blue screen, the one that had been playing The Little Mermaid? The Lion King? just a half hour earlier. Lauren’s girlfriend left the room and came back with the jug of sweet red wine and the bottle of tequila.
She sat down and poured a round of shots, and as she handed one to Lauren and me, I thought about how this was the exact kind of thing I’d fantasized about, for about three days after I found out Lauren and this woman were together. Once I’d watched Lauren struggle to keep a tray of drinks steady, once I’d seen the urgency with which she’d asked for those shots, what I was drawn toward didn’t have anything to do with sex. It had more to do with her vulnerability, her fragility. Most nights, I imagined her not naked but standing fully clothed in the middle of a sown cornfield during an autumn thunderstorm.
Lauren’s girlfriend raised her shotglass with one hand and leaned over, used her free hand to pick Lauren’s chin up off my shoulder.
The three of us stood. Lauren and I, too, put our shotglasses in the air, and a few seconds later we were heading down the hall toward their bedroom.
Lauren and her boyfriend had been living in Ohio, where he worked on some kind of pipeline and she was still putting that double degree in political science and art to good use by waiting tables. They were back in Illinois to be close to his parents in Woodhull, but they didn’t want to stay there for some reason or other—less freedom, more pressure to get the guy back on his feet, whatever. When she showed up at my door asking for a place to stay, I kind of tuned out her explanation after a while and said only, “Fine by me. Stay here as long as you need to.”
When Lauren first showed up, it wasn’t so hard to be calloused toward her. Over the next month, though, I softened, let her draw me back in. She may or may not have been doing it intentionally, trying to get me to care for her. Whatever the case, after two months of finding her crying at the stove, the washing machine, the bathroom sink, I decided I was going to kick her boyfriend out. I told her it was coming, that the guy’s days in the trailer were numbered. We were standing in the kitchen on one of those mornings when he had taken the hallway down to my room. She was cooking three eggs overeasy in a pan, and music came at us low from those miraculous speakers in the living room.
“You,” I said, “can either stay or leave. It’s up to you.”
She nudged an egg with the spatula and didn’t look at me. “Okay,” she said. “Thanks.”
I wasn’t sure whether I should, but I said anyway, “I’d rather you stayed.”
She lifted an egg with the spatula, flipped it over. “Okay,” she said.
I waited for more of a reaction from her—some indication that she wanted to be done with him, that she would stay with me.
She picked up a plate sitting next to the stove and folded an egg onto it. “Do you want the other two?” she said.
I wished that I could just go back to bed, but I knew her boyfriend was in my bedroom now, and that he would pretty much stay in there for the rest of the day, until some need to eat or piss or smoke a bowl of marijuana roused him. I even considered lying down on that stinking couch.
“Sure,” I said. “I could eat.”
For the next few days, I stewed. Some of the regulars at the bar knew about Lauren and her boyfriend—about the people who hung out at my place in the evenings while I worked—and I told these regulars that I was getting rid of the lazy bastard. “He’s outta here,” I would say. “Pronto.” Trying to make some machismo joke out of it.
I let them know, too, that I’d told Lauren she could stay, and that I hoped she would.
“What do you think she’s going to do?” they would ask.
I would shrug my shoulders, wipe down the bar, pour somebody a drink. It was a tough act, staying stoic, but I think I managed. The regulars would “hmmph” and “ahhhh” in consolation. They would buy me a drink.
The truth was, I had no idea what Lauren was going to do. I tried to tell myself that she hadn’t yet made up her mind, and that however I chose to do this—tell the guy it was time for him to pack his bags—might influence her decision, but I wasn’t really sure.
Standing behind the bar, I tried to imagine various scenarios about how it all might go down. I imagined yanking him out of bed some morning, his T-shirt balled up in my fists, me screaming in his face. I imagined him being outside for some reason and me locking the door so he couldn’t get back in. In this fantasy, Lauren was on the couch, and she looked at me solemnly and said, “Don’t open it. He’s got his truck keys. Just let him go.”
No real plan ever panned out even in my head. They were all too violent, too silly, too melodramatic.
When we arrived at the bedroom, Lauren’s girlfriend lit two candles and told me to sit at the foot of the bed. Then she ordered Lauren to stand directly in front of me and take off her clothes.
Lauren stood in front of me but looked at her girlfriend, who was standing off the to the side, squinting her eyes, the tip of her index finger in her mouth. Lauren’s shoulders slumped.
“Keep your eyes on him,” her girlfriend said.
I entertained a brief fantasy: swooping up Lauren, still fully clothed, in my arms and carrying her out of the bedroom, the apartment, all of it. Her girlfriend couldn’t have stopped me.
A few days after my conversation with Lauren in the kitchen, I came home from work a little after two in the morning and found Lauren and her boyfriend in their usual spot on the couch, watching a movie. There was a bag of marijuana and a bong on the table, and they were smiling, laughing. They offered me the bong, and I sat in the chair and smoked a bowl, watched the movie with them.
This was how a lot of the evenings went those two months, and I found myself for a while that night as content as usual, stoned and in the company of these two. Though I was disgusted at times with Lauren and her boyfriend, I had actually come to enjoy those nights. And so, sitting back in the chair, laughing with them at the movie, I figured I would probably put off kicking him out for another day or two.
A little while later her boyfriend paused the movie and said he was going to make dinner. This meant, most likely, warming up frozen chicken nuggets in the oven. And that’s exactly what he did.
After he’d arranged his dinner on a baking sheet and preheated the oven, he asked Lauren and me if we wanted any. I told him I was fine, but Lauren said she’d love some. “Put some extras on there for me,” she said.
And then, while her boyfriend added the extra chicken nuggets to the baking sheet, Lauren found a bag of cotton balls and her red toenail polish.
Her boyfriend returned and said in that mock-southern accent we were all using, “Dinner will be served shortly.” Lauren stuffed balls of cotton between each of her toes, and while the chicken nuggets baked in the oven, she applied the red toenail polish in slow, even strokes.
This killed me. I’d seen her boyfriend for the past two months wear the same pair of boxer shorts, the same T-shirt, for three or four days in row, and here she was, giving herself a pedicure, making sure her feet looked pretty.
I smoked another bowl, tried to enjoy the movie her boyfriend had restarted.
Soon, the timer beeped in the kitchen, and Lauren’s boyfriend went to shut it off and came back with a plate filled with chicken nuggets. He’d pooled ovals of ketchup and mustard near the rims of the plate, and he started dunking a nugget at a time in both the ketchup and the mustard, swirling them together.
Lauren sat with the arches of her feet posed on the coffee table—the cotton between her toes, her nails drying. I can’t say for certain, but I imagine she was waiting for her boyfriend to offer her some of his food.
A few minutes later, he got up off the couch and went to the kitchen, came back with more chicken nuggets and a glass of iced grape Kool Aid. He dunked each nugget in ketchup and mustard and slurped from his drink just the way you would imagine someone who only ate once a day might. He never seemed happier than when he was eating.
Except for right after he’d finished eating.
When he finished the second plate of chicken nuggets, he sat back on the couch and patted his small belly through his T-shirt. Lauren began removing the wads of cotton one at a time from between her toes and making a pile of it all on the coffee table. Her boyfriend had shaved three or four times that summer, but he had a substantial amount of facial hair, and his mustache and lips looked wet, greased. Lauren flexed her toes once they were free of cotton; she began crying without sound. Her boyfriend licked his lips.
I was out of my chair in a matter of seconds, standing over the guy, hoping the words that came out of my mouth weren’t too silly, violent, or melodramatic.
Lauren leaned into the arm of the couch, away from her boyfriend, and tucked her feet beneath her, waiting.
I stood over him and stared at the plate of swirled ketchup and mustard. It was as if I could see them drying, getting crusty, right before my eyes. “Look,” I said.
“Yeah?” her boyfriend said. I was pointing with one hand at the plate, and he followed my finger to it. “Hey, man. I thought you said you didn’t want any.”
He looked so sated, so full. With that grease all over his lips he could have been ten years old.
“That’s right,” I said. I crossed my arms. “I said I didn’t want any.”
And then he remembered, looked at Lauren, and noticed she was crying. “Aww, babe,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ll go and make you some.” He used the accent to add, “No use cryin’, kid.”
I told him I was going to bed. “I’ll be up at noon tomorrow,” I said. “And I want you gone.”
I started walking down the hall toward my room but turned around and let out a little bit of that hillbilly accent myself when I said, “Lauren. It’s up to you whether you want to join him.”
When Lauren looked at me from the bed, when she lifted her shirt over her head, exposing her flat white stomach, her lacy navy blue bra, and a mole the diameter of a pencil eraser on her ribcage, I realized that maybe she wasn’t doing this only for her girlfriend’s enjoyment.
And once she was fully naked in the candlelight and directed by her girlfriend to get on the bed on her hands and knees, I saw the two share a look—Lauren tossed her hair over one shoulder and narrowed her lips; her left eye seemed to wink—that made it clear Lauren was no victim in this. She needed no rescuer.
When Lauren got on the bed, I stood. Lauren’s girlfriend told Lauren to tell me to get rid of the clothes. Lauren, on her hands and knees on the bed as had been directed, gave me my orders. She must have known what really drew me toward her, though, because when she spoke, her voice was as broken and tinkling as a wine glass dropped behind the bar. Her voice sounded like the candlelight, flickering. She even bowed her head, let her dark hair fall down over her face.
God, she was beautiful.
If I could remember what kind of shirt I was wearing, and if that shirt were button-down, I could perhaps say that I had worked two or three buttons loose, that I’d lingered there, at least considered going through with it, before I walked out of the room. But I don’t remember anything about the shirt I wore. I remember only that before I left, Lauren changed her position on the bed. She improvised.
Maybe she sensed that I was going to leave, and it was her last-ditch effort to get me to stay. Whatever the reason, she tucked her feet beneath her and sat up. Then she settled her butt on the bed and placed her legs, knees bent, out in front of her. She wrapped her arms around her bent knees, wiggled her polished toes.
It would have been easy, simple even, to scoop her up once she was in that position. I would have felt the dampness behind her knees on my wrist and the skin at the small of her back on my forearm, as I lifted her. And as she shifted in my arms, her head would have fallen against my shoulder, she would have wrapped her arms around me. It would have been a little difficult maneuvering her, and maybe her girlfriend would have protested, would have dug her nails into my shoulders from behind as I tried to move diagonally out the bedroom door and down the hallway, but I think I could have managed.
Instead, I just left.
By the time I’d turned around to deliver my final take on it all—by the time I’d said, “It’s up to you whether you want to join him”—Lauren was already at her boyfriend’s end of the couch, snuggling into his side, wrapping her arm around his belly, patting it.
I had expected to have to wait for her decision, to sweat it out alone in my room that night, hoping that maybe she’d open my bedroom door, pad barefooted over to my bed. I’d imagined as many scenarios related to this encounter as I had regarding how I planned to kick the guy out. None of these scenarios, like those others, ever worked out even as fantasy.
And that, that was the most beautiful thing about her.
Not her toes, or that vulnerability that I’m not so sure was vulnerability. It was her curled up against her loser boyfriend, nestling him. Snuggling.
It was how she held to him in this way, despite everything, or because of everything, that looked so tight I couldn’t even imagine how it might feel.
About the Author: Chad has lived most of his life in small Midwest towns. His first collection of stories, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, won the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. You can find him online at sadchimpson.com, Facebook, sadchimpson.tumblr.com, and @sadchimpson.