A Man Who Helps the Neighbors
The crow tilts its head and looks at me with his onyx eye saying, yeah, you saw it too, I know. I know you want to say, says the crow, oh he was just helping with the plumbing under her kitchen sink, patching up her siding. Her siding is what got you into this trouble in the first place. In the first place it was Celeste and she was the landlady and she was all, to tell you the truth, I am just useless without a man. A man who, when you got married, everyone said was worth his weight in gold or at least in Microsoft stock because it was 2009 and that was a thing that meant you had great value and, anyway, he didn’t have a stock portfolio and neither did you. Did you think that wouldn’t matter because you had love? Love, as you now know, is for chumps and now you think it might be time to go, but you won’t admit it to anyone else because he’s just cleaning her gutters ― it’s so hard for her to reach those places. Those places where a woman can’t reach but, oh sure a man can, a man certainly can reach those spots hard to get to. Get to the point, he says when you’re talking. When you’re talking he rolls his eyes like the most delicate of teenagers. Teenagers like you used to be, years ago when you hung out by the p-patch outside the high school with him. With him, you smoked cloves and nibbled on chard you both were too proud to say was bitter and, when the season was right, you ate not-yet-ready blackberries and talked about how obviously no one told these gardeners that blackberries were a weed and, if allowed, it would grow and grow and take over with its tart juicy berries and its sharp as fuck thorns that got caught in your hair and drew blood from your skin. Your skin. Your skin was so young, dewy, elastic, soft ― the skin of a child. A child neither one of you wanted. You wanted it, but you didn’t say. Didn’t say so since you both decided no, no children. No children in this house. This house is mine, he said. He said, I paid for it and I don’t want any kids mucking it up and this is what we wanted, right? Right now, you realized you changed your mind about the baby and then you wouldn’t, couldn’t get over the miscarriage and he was like, you just fucking mope around the house and burn chocolate chip cookies like you’re Betty fucking Crocker’s fucked up sister and that is why I went to Laura. Laura said its time for you to get over it. It’s funny to hear advice on a dead baby from the woman fucking your husband. Your husband is surprised when you carry three suitcases and a duffel bag out to the car. The car is yours, you tell him. Tell him you’re leaving him and also point out that Laura’s house is brick and doesn’t have siding and I don’t know anymore who you are. You are not at all clear on who I am. I am not for you. You are, he said. He said he loved my thighs and my fiery road rage and the way I ate the frosting off cake first. First, there was love.
Love, you said.
You said, calm down.
When you say I’m sorry I can’t pronounce this and look directly at me, I just say “present” and think I am giving you a gift. It is as if you think I am poisoning your mouth with my syllables. Your smile isn’t apologetic, but the smile of a middle-aged teacher living two hours from the nearest Applebee’s.
You scroll through the class names and not once do you stutter or stub your tongue on anyone else’s name. This goes on every day. Allen, Barker, Smith, White. You eventually just skip over mine, look for me and nod when it’s my name’s turn.
Later, when you push that stubbed tongue down my throat, you still say nothing and I ask why not and you point at your mouth as if to say, I’m chewing right now and I’ll answer you once I swallow. I am not a rude guy, you seem to be saying.
The janitors’ closet is filled with all kinds of things. Not just bleach and mops and Playboys.
When you say all the girls like this, I say what girls, because where I come from ― down the block ― none of the girls would like this. We’ve talked about it ― you ― at the top of the slide where we apologize to the little kids but don’t move. We only talked about it before and we all agree that there’s no way we would even. Now I barely go to the playground. It’s for kids. But I can hear laughter echo from the top of the enclosed slide when I walk home. Sometimes I cross the street to avoid hearing that sound.
When you say it’s our little secret, it’s really not little. It’s everything I can think of. It’s melted solder in my veins trying to piece me together again because maybe then I’d shine and you could see me. And here, I made you something in art class. It’s my stained glass heart. You say it’s pretty.
I want to talk to you about the smiley face you scribbled next to the B minus on my essay. Do you really think I don’t understand what it’s like to be a cockroach? I know what it feels like to be underfoot, an unwanted pest who skitters at the very hint of light. I know these creatures. They share the peeling linoleum and late-night brawls and empty vodka bottles with me and my mom.
When I tell you about it, you tell me I’m safe here. With you. In this closet. With all the poison. I start to wonder what “safe” means and you take my face in your hands and I think I might know.
One day after class, you etch your initials into my desk like a sixth-grade wannabe bad boy. As I walk out, my fingers brush another desk and find the splinters of your name. I check the desk next to it. And the one next to that. And the one next to that. I stay late to check and all the desks in all the rooms are branded by you, as if you own us all.
When you say if I tell, and pantomime a gun, your thumb the trigger, I wonder why. You said you loved me. Even though you don’t say my name.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Hobart, The Rumpus, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.