a short story
It was almost dark beyond the walls of the living room, and we were sitting there together: the small plant that was growing bigger inside my veins and you and myself. There were only seventeen people at the New Year’s party, but I couldn’t remember who among them had invited us. The little plant just kept chugging and I held a wine glass between my thumb and my forefinger like a card at the end of a magic trick. The plant sighed. Yeah, we met in college, a girl told me and looked at you. I thought he was brilliant because he could quote just about any philosopher you’ve ever heard of. Ain’t that something, I replied. Turns out they’re all just tidbits from Calvin and Hobbes. But yeah. We’re really happy together. The plant wrapped its tendrils around my liver, squeezed.
Looks flitted between ex-lovers, one girl tottered on her heels, had to sit on the couch while her wine wore off. I asked her what her name was. Does it matter? she said. I guess not, I said. I admired the grandfather clock. I admired the silk painting. I poked at hors d’oeuvres with a toothpick. The plant stayed quiet; it was bedtime; it was sleeping. The nervous host dropped a plate of sweet potatoes on someone’s toes. I helped because I had nothing else to do. I took the remnants of the glass tray back to the kitchen and licked the edges.
Every New Year’s Eve, I have trouble sleeping. I knew I would probably stay up all night. I would probably stay up all year. I’d make pancakes in the morning. I’d buy myself a good book, a new pair of sunglasses. The clock drifted on, and the plant shivered. It had lost almost all of its leaves. It looked like a shaved poodle. It looked pitiful. I thought about putting it down. I thought about buying it a coat. It sulked, and its roots grasped for something in my lungs to hold on to.
What’s your resolution? you asked me, when midnight had come and gone. Your tongue is bleeding, you said, after the obligatory kiss. Did I bite it?
I knew that I could not undo this mistake. I had pulled the flesh already off the bones, checked that it had turned the correct color of pink before I would squeeze lemon over the remnants of its body and wonder whether it had ever had friends, or if it was capable of such a thing, anyway. I had already slid the knife against the grain of its scales, before I tossed the fish in the trashcan and opened up the refrigerator.
The mistake was really that he had sent me only photographs of the house in the first place, since a picture does not accurately represent how rooms can feel like quiet, grumbling giants, and empty bookshelves can wonder whether the inhabitants that swirl around them have ever learned anything at all except how to cook salmon and watch television and leave sticky notes on the front door with messages like “umbrella & thumbtacks” or “Stewarts coming at 7.”
On Mondays we played dominos. Our daughter wasn’t old enough that we could tell her not to cheat, but her father would rearrange the game back to fairness when she would get up to refill her glass of milk or look out the window or ask again where her goldfish had gone. Mommy, can fish become ghosts? she said one night. Yes, said her father, that’s why you shouldn’t waste water when you brush your teeth. Otherwise the fish will haunt you. Later, when I tucked her into bed, I whispered that fish couldn’t really become ghosts. Daddy had just been joking. Later, when I tucked myself into bed, I crossed my fingers and hoped that the ghost of the salmon wasn’t haunting my bathtub. If it had been, though, I would have been okay with it.
I have nightmares. One is about an antelope on the dining room table. I draw it furiously, night after night, for fear it will disappear. One is about the water in my shower turning to oil. I blame it on the salt. Restaurants these days. In one, all the houses are balsa wood. All the townsfolk taste like cardboard; they all own paper pets with ribbons around the necks. In another, F.T. Marinetti steals all my good pairs of socks. Norman Mailer brings all but one back.
When I am not sleeping, I am contemplating writing a novel. It would be about a woman in a cutting room, working with bits of time instead of film. She weaves stories as she likes. In another, a lifeguard drowns with the final thought: Of all the bad habits in the world, my girl had to bite her fingernails. She goes under without a struggle. The third is little more than stock market advice, all of it gathered from overheard conversations in the elevators of hospitals. Anyone is an expert these days.
My mother told me there were only three things to look out for: people who think everybody is important, people who are actually important, and the kind of people who would believe that you are important. Then she gave me a glass of lemonade, and we looked up at the sun together, our lips pursed. The weather sure is nice, I said. Yup, she replied. And that’s just about all you need to know about that.
Nowadays I think her advice was often more self-indulgent than it was helpful, but I sure learned how to cut grass and bake snickerdoodles, paint my lips and the rest of a house, fall in love and get something out of it. Now I possess a small repertoire of potable skills, of which bringing things upon myself is only one. That’s what she said to me, too, when the sun stopped shining and the whole marriage was over. You brought this upon yourself.