He called out from the bedroom instantly as the key turned in the lock, “What took you so long?” His tone was urgent, though not abrasive. More like the voice of an anxious child waiting to be picked up from school. He paused for an answer and repeated, “What took you so long?” once he heard the door open with its usual bellow as it bounced off the tightly enclosed walls of their narrow apartment.
She set her oversized canvas bag on the kitchen table, sunk into the folding chair next to it, and rolled off a collection of explanations as she unloaded the bag’s contents. “I had a lot of stops to make,” and then, “You sent me all over the place.” Her words were overly melodious, an inadvertent byproduct of the professional optimist she had worked so hard over the past few months to become.
From the canvas bag, she pulled out a comic book and set it aside on the delicate glass table, running her hand over the plastic encasement to flatten a crease that had occurred in-transit. She asked, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find Captain America comics in this city?” She scraped the price sticker off with her fingernail, fearing that he might get upset how much she had paid for it. But, anxiously awaiting the smile on his face, she justified the price that she had paid.
“Can’t be that hard. I used to buy them from the hobby shop down the street all the time when I was a kid,” he replied.
“Yeah, like twenty years ago. That place closed.”
“Really… Been a rough few years for those little shops.”
She could hear a smirk from the bedroom as he added, “Probably cut their losses and ran…You should consider the same, you know?”
She smiled at the hardwood floor, responding flatly, “Very funny,” but did not hear another response from the bedroom.
She then unloaded the remaining items in the canvas bag, refrigerating the beer, the pomegranate juice, the oranges and fresh spinach; and storing the canned beans and oatmeal bars in the cupboard. She pulled these items off a medical website, though he coyly added the beer to the list and later insisted, “Barley’ll be good for my recovery.” While she didn’t exactly agree with the statement, she rationalized that it might be good for both of them to have alcohol more readily available. They used to drink socially, she recalled, and suddenly saw the image of them in black formalwear, laughing and stumbling underground as they rode the subway home. Almost in another life, it seemed.
He called out from the bedroom, “You could have called. I was worried.”
She looked up toward the bedroom’s open doorway. This wasn’t like him, to worry. That was her job. She tiptoed quietly toward the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of him before he knew she was there. She half-expected to find something completely unfamiliar in their bed. An elderly man, maybe. Or an abandoned puppy. This might have made his insecurity less alarming. She recognized the man, or at least a portion of him, lying in the bed as the comforter hugged close to his chin like the turtle-neck sweaters he consistently refused.
Neither his exposed head nor right arm seemed attached to anything like the body of a man, an athlete for that matter.
Not the man who took her mountain climbing in Argentina, or cycling in Alaska. And despite her fear of heights and speed and the entire natural world for that matter, he had grabbed her by the waist as they clung to the side of a mountain and somehow convinced her that there was nothing in the world to fear except “the fear of not living.” She had believed him at the time, too. But now, she wasn’t quite sure.
She watched him as he held the remote control unwaveringly at the television, ready to change the channel at the first indication of a commercial break. A full beard concealed the entirety of his face, with the exception of two small patches of skin that appeared to hold his eyes in place. She had angered him earlier in the day, teasing and calling him “Grizzly Man.” Months ago, he would have teased back, perhaps even tickled her or playfully made love to her as a result of her antics.
She stood in the doorway, conspicuously now, though this did not shake his fixation on the television. She shifted her position, extending her arms up along the door frame and shook her bottom-half seductively, as if presenting herself to him for the first time. When this failed to produce the desired result, she spoke, “I have a surrrpriiiiise for you.” The statement hung somewhere between seduction and condescension, a place in which she was reluctantly becoming more and more familiar as her frustration grew.
“Oh yeah?” He sounded interested, but maintained his concentration ahead. She turned to see that he was watching Montel Williams, the bottom of the screen asserted, “My Uncle/ My Pimp.” One of the guests was being berated with a chorus of boos and jeers, and retaliated with a series of curses, registering as beep beep beeps on the television. She sucked back her frustration, relieved to see him at least moderately content. She slipped off her jeans and a t-shirt and, as she lifted the covers to get into bed with him, glanced briefly at his nakedness.
“You didn’t get dressed again?”
His reply was a simple and matter-of-fact, “No,” as he ignored the implications of the question. She slowly moved into bed and cradled him in her arms, his head resting firmly against her chest. This posture, though awkward at first, had transitioned to familiar. After a good deal of practice, she poured into it almost fluidly now, like Jell-O into a mold. “Want to know what the surprise is?” She wished to intrigue him, but sounded slightly edgy and anxious instead.
“I thought the surprise was the comic book.” He changed the channel to ESPN, but instantly turned back to Montel, as if even the sight of physical activity was too much for him to tolerate. She began massaging the top of his head with one hand and scratching his chest with the other, hoping to divert his attention towards her. “Why would that be a surprise? You sent me to get it.”
“I don’t know.” More bleeps registered on the television as two oversized men rose from their seats and began brawling. He stared at the scene, not smirking or appearing entertained, but merely watching it unfold, void of any visible judgment as was the case when they used to watch Montel together on lazy weekend afternoons. She waited to see if he would question her more about the surprise, but he continued to stare ahead silently.
Her response was raw and brusque like sandpaper on skin, “Can you turn that trash off, please?”
He contested calmly, ignoring her reaction as if he had expected it, “It’s almost over.”
“Can you just turn it off?” She abruptly shifted her position, so that his head fell off her chest and onto the mountain of pillows behind them. He let out a long-winded grunt, though it seemed more out of protest than discomfort or pain – the tonal distinction of which she was actually aware — and he remained entangled in the pillows as he raised his exposed arm and turned off the television. The harshness of her words lingered like stale garbage, as the two sat in silence. Her aggravation was thick, though her guilt finally motivated her to speak,“Look at me, please.” Her tone softened, although a hint of irritation leaked through still. He turned only slightly, his eyes off to the side somewhere towards the door. “I’m just tired…I’ve been running around all day,” she said. She touched his cheek and turned it gently towards her, handling him again as she might crystal or glass in a department store. She meant to say something when his eyes finally locked with hers, but she lost focus somewhere deep into his hazel eyes. Her own eyes only widened at the sight of them, as if she had already spoken the words that swam chaotically in her mind. But there was only silence between them.
She wanted him to speak, but he seemed wedged somewhere in his own thoughts. “Well…do you want the surprise?” He replied with a rather unconvincing “sure,” though this was all the enthusiasm she needed to bounce out of bed and skip through the hallway toward the kitchen table. She had been working on the surprise all day and her latent excitement exploded at his acquiescence, however meager it was. She soon appeared with a digital camera in hand. Her sing-song disposition returned as she approached the bed. “If you can’t go to the park, the park will come to you.”
This had become her campaign slogan lately and had crept into nearly everything she said to him. Statements poured out of her such as, “If you can’t get to the burritos, the burritos will come to you,” and “If you can’t get to the movies, the movies will come to you.”
Literally, everything in the city had “come to him” via her as of late.
He watched her walk to the desk in the corner – piled high with GMAT review books that he had never read, for a test he had never taken — and pick up her laptop, asking, “What? That doesn’t even make any sense.” She looked at him disapprovingly in a didn’t-you-read-my-campaign-button sort of way, and carried the laptop back to the bed. She spoke as if they were playing a game, he the naïve contestant from the Midwest and she the omnipotent moderator from the East Coast, “What day is today?”
“I know what day it is. I’m not in a god damn coma.”
“It’s part of the game.” She continued to probe her contestant as she plugged the camera into the laptop, “What day is it?”
He exhaled loudly, knowing there was no use trying to stop her, “Friday.”
She smiled, as she tapped cavalierly on the face of the keyboard, “And where do we usually go on Friday?”
He paused for a moment, though the answer was obvious, “Tompkins Square.” His tone was lackluster as a rusted piece of metal, one that had aged past its point of usefulness. “So…” she continued, thoroughly pleased with him, and repeated her slogan, “If you can’t go to the park, the park will come to you.” As if on queue, a photo appeared on the screen that sat no more than six inches from his face. Like every other thing she brought in from the outside, he instantly became annoyed at the sight of it.
He winced and asked, “What’s that?”
“You tell me.”
He then shifted so his body was pulled free of hers and responded while reaching for the remote, “This is stupid.”
She looked up from the screen and searched through his eyes. The telemarketer in her subsided; the perpetual optimist disbanded. She revealed a hint of the fear that had buried deep within her months ago, “Please…” She pleaded, “Just tell me what it is.”
He struggled, detesting her pleas, knowing he couldn’t comfort her the way he wanted; the way he used to. He hated the bed he was forced to lie in; the apartment that trapped him inside like a dark cave until she came home. “It’s the park entrance,” he forced from his lips.
She smiled and switched the photo. As he looked at the screen, she watched him, eagerly waiting for something to happen like a telephone that wouldn’t ring. Until it did. “It’s the dog run,” he answered. She laughed, hoping to direct his attention towards something specific in the photo and he somehow picked up on her cue, “There’s a fat bulldog over by the fence.”
She giggled, “See how he drools!”
“I wouldn’t want to clean those wrinkles.” A laugh spewed its way from his mouth, forceful and deep, and surprised them both.
“I’ll bet he’s hiding a small child in those wrinkles!”
She switched the photo quickly as the laughter subsided and he asserted, without a cue this time, “You’re sitting on a bench.”
She corrected him, “We’re sitting on a bench.”
“Right.” He paused briefly, searching through the photo, using all his energy to transport himself there, to be with her on that bench like he used to. “This guy across from us, see him? To the right…”
She perked up, “I see him…”
“Well…” He propped himself up on his elbow, moving slightly closer to the screen. “He’s a spy. Just transferred here… From Belarus.” He paused again, to carefully construct his narrative like he used to on Fridays at the benches of Tompkins Square Park. “It’s his big chance. His first assignment. They want him to scope out our black market diamond trade down at the pier. But he has a soft spot for basketball pick-up games, so he’s sitting on the bench, hoping they ask him to play.”
She added, “Oh! Poor spy…I hope he gets picked.”
He turned towards her, lifted his arm towards her face and touched her skin. He had no purpose for the act, aside for the mere purpose of touching her. He slowly lifted a smile, carefully, as if it was something heavy he was lifting. “Me too.” He fought a wave of fatigue that swept over him, visible only as his eyelids slowly advanced over his eyes.
Through closed lids, he heard her say, “Oh no.”
“What?” He kept his eyes closed.
“It’s frozen.” She began hitting the keys.
He opened his eyes to the panic on her face and said, “Stop, you’ll mess it up.” He reached for her hand as her key-tapping turned aggressive. “Do the Control/ALT/Delete thing. That usually works.”
“Okay. Okay.” She stared at the screen, waiting like a lottery addict for the night’s numbers and said, “I can’t believe this computer is so slow. I hope there’s no virus, I can’t afford to lose everything on here.”
“There’s way too much on here. And these pictures…it took me forever to get the right ones with the right angles and–”
“Its ok.” He touched the back of her neck like he used to do when she had had a stressful day at work, suddenly realizing how long it had been since he had even asked how her day was.
He spoke softly, “Just needs a reboot. Give it some time.”
“But we were in the middle of something.”
“Our something got interrupted, that’s all.” She turned to him and caught a smile that should have been more familiar after all their years together. “Look…” He pointed at the screen, “Its back. Just a little diversion…” He spoke through a yawn that pulled his entire body further into the plush comforter. “Now where were we?”
She stroked his arm lightly with the tips of her fingers and smiled inwardly as the hairs on his skin reached for her. “Let’s take a break, okay baby?”
“Okay.” He said, and dropped to his side, releasing his elbow from the task of holding his body upright and attentive. She shifted to assume the Big Spoon position, though he was significantly larger than she. Her body barely enveloped him from such an angle and this time, as in most times, she felt like a Small Spoon hardly adequate in a Big Spoon world.
“Maybe more later,” he assured her.
She repeated his words, “Maybe more later…” as she kissed the tip of his ear lightly, over and over, counting the times she kissed him as he drifted off to sleep.
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