Maybe I expected to feel something the next morning. Better, worse – either one. But when I awoke beneath the thin sheets of the strange bed, it was the same as always. Even during those seconds when I couldn’t be sure of where I was or how I’d gotten there, there was no panic. My head was all right. And then I did remember the details of where/when/how, recalled a few things about the night before. I looked over at the woman next to me and then over at the door to the bathroom. And one thing I did feel when I saw her was that I wished the whole deal seemed a little stranger than it actually was.
I got up, found my jockey shorts and jeans lying in the floor and pulled them on, then went into the bathroom, splashed my face with water, rinsed out my mouth and pissed. I reached into my right jean pocket and checked to make sure the ring was there, and it was, right where I’d put it before leaving the house the night before. I looked into the mirror and felt of the ring for a minute, then walked back over to the bed and decided not to leave. I knew what it was like to wake up and not see the person I expected to be there next to me. So I lay back down and watched her sleep. When I got tired of that, I stared at the box fan blowing air at us from the corner of the room. Then I tried to see out the window, between the drapes that were tossing back and forth. I went back to looking at the woman, and after some time she started making little morning noises and shifting in her sleep.
I pulled myself up until I sat propped against the headboard. She sniffed, reached up and scratched her nose, and then slowly opened her eyes and squinted. She grinned when she saw me watching her.
“Morning,” she said.
I nodded and smiled back. She ran the palm of one hand across my bare chest.
“I think I’m going to have a shower,” she said. She was looking me straight in the eyes.
I pulled the covers off my legs and swung around over the side of the bed and started picking the rest of my clothes up off the floor. She placed her hand on my right shoulder, then let it slide down to the small of my back, then let it fall to the bed. She sighed and yawned.
“Well,” she said. She sighed again and rubbed at the nape of her neck. “Well, I’ll be quick about it. Wait around until I’m finished, and I’ll fix some breakfast.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I said. I’d pulled my shirt on over my head. I turned around and saw her staring at me again and changed my mind. “I’ll wait around until you’re out.” I didn’t have any reason to hurry.
She went into the bathroom and I heard the shower start up. I finished getting dressed and then headed toward the kitchen, going slowly and staying quiet. There were a couple of kids sleeping somewhere, and I didn’t know which room was theirs. It wasn’t a big house, but I passed by three closed doors in the hallway, and they had to lead somewhere. In the kitchen, I checked in the refrigerator, and all there was to drink was a bottle of cheap wine, just a touch of milk, and a plastic container of something red. I started opening up cabinets and found the cups and glasses to the right of the sink, pulled out a little blue plastic one, and used it to get some water from the faucet.
I thought I should do something, so I looked around the kitchen and spotted the coffeemaker on the other side of the fridge. I went over and found the big can of Folgers and some filters in the cabinet above. I lifted the carafe out and filled it at the sink, then poured the water into the back of the maker, replaced the carafe and loaded the maker up with a new filter and several spoonfuls of coffee. I turned the thing on, pulled two mugs out of the cabinet with all the glasses, and set them down next to it. Then I wandered into the living room.
The room was untidy. There was a couch positioned across from the television, and covering the couch were several stuffed animals and an old felt blanket. A ragged-looking recliner sat off a bit to one side. Toys were scattered all over the floor, dump trucks and airplanes and little people, other action figures that didn’t quite look like people. Behind the couch, on the stretch of carpet leading to the front door, I saw the red plastic toy convertible I vaguely remembered tripping over on my way in the night before. The fireplace looked dusty and neglected, and it was summer so it wouldn’t have been used for a good long while, but the mantel was full of small pictures propped up in oval and rectangular frames. I maneuvered around the stuff in the floor and walked over and looked at them.
There hadn’t been time for picture-looking the night before. Most of the photographs were of two little boys, or one or the other of the boys, playing with a toy, or running around outside, or posing in a baseball uniform, things like that. There was one professional looking, posed shot of the woman with the two boys. At the end of the mantel was another studio shot of an elderly couple. I didn’t see any shots that looked like an ex-husband, but then, there wouldn’t be any of him.
There wasn’t any remote control anywhere, so I bent over and flipped on the TV. I turned the channel to an early morning newscast and lowered the volume, then walked back across the room and looked around some more. I saw the little plastic convertible again and picked it up off the floor, took it over to the recliner and sat down. The car was made of hard plastic, rather than the flimsy kind, and it seemed sturdy enough. It was as long as my arm from the elbow to the ends of my fingers. I spun the car’s tiny wheels in my hand and watched them pinwheel freely. On the lamp table next to me sat one of the little people I’d seen around the room. The little guy was five, six inches tall, but at the moment he was bent at the waist so that, the way he was sitting, he was staring right at me with this painted on half-smile. I stared back at him a minute, and then I blinked and reached over and grabbed him.
He was dressed in camouflage, and so I guessed he was some sort of soldier. His plastic was harder than the stuff the car was made from, but he was flexible at every joint. I bent his knees for him and then tried to squeeze him into the driver’s seat of the convertible. His legs just barely fit underneath the steering wheel, which wasn’t proportioned well to the rest of the car. But I managed to position the man’s hands on top of the wheel so that it looked more or less like he was driving, like he was in control of the thing, and I lowered the car to the floor and pushed it hard across the carpet.
It rolled quickly, bouncing a bit at certain rough spots in the carpeting, and then crashed into the TV. The man ended up falling to the side, still bent up in that same position but now turned over onto the seat. No toy police cars, ambulances, fire trucks were needed, since the car certainly hadn’t flipped end-over-end and come to rest in a pile of crushed and twisted fake metal. Nothing like that. There was no blood, no broken bones for the little man. He hadn’t even been thrown clear, landed on his empty little plastic head or anything. He still wore the half-smile.
I got up and turned off the TV. The coffee maker was making gurgling, brewing sounds and I knew it would be done soon. I took the car with the man in it and rolled it over into a corner of the room, off to the side of the TV. I started gathering up all the other toys, too, the other vehicles and figurines and animals strewn about, and congregating them all in that same corner.
“What are you doing?”
I turned around and saw the woman standing at the entrance to the kitchen. Her hair was wet and straight, and she had on a pair of sweat pants and a white tee shirt.
“Just trying to make myself useful,” I said. I got up off my knees. “Thought I’d get some of this stuff out of the way.”
She tilted her head to one side, then felt of her wet hair.
“I’m sorry it looks like this,” she said. “When my sister watches the boys, she lets them leave their shit wherever they like.”
She walked into the kitchen, and I followed her.
“I thought I’d go ahead and get your coffee started, too,” I said. I got to the kitchen and she
turned and smiled.
“You’re sweet,” she said. “That’s nice of you.” She took one of the mugs I’d set out and put it back in its cabinet and took out a tall glass instead. “I don’t usually drink coffee. Just have the machine for when somebody else is here and wants some. But that’s nice of you, anyway. You take anything with it?”
“No,” I said. I went over and filled the mug with coffee from the full carafe. The woman had the door of the fridge open now and was down on her haunches, rummaging around. I had to squeeze past her to get to the table, and I tried not to make any contact but ended up brushing against her rear, anyway, thinking all this time that the coffee can hadn’t even been close to full. Somebody had been here often enough to drink themselves a bunch of it.
“What do you feel like having?” she asked me without turning around.
“I’m fine, really.”
I took a seat at the table and blew on the hot liquid in the mug. I didn’t care much for coffee,
either, but I wasn’t going to let the whole pot just sit there. I’d made the damn thing, after all.
“You have to be hungry,” she said.
“No,” I said. I took a sip of the coffee.
I heard her pull something out of the fridge and then she whirled around and was holding a
package of bagels.
“Will you split one with me, at least?”
I tried to smile, then nodded. “I can do that,” I said.
She grabbed the container with the red drink in it, shut the fridge, and set the package of bagels and the container on the table. She poured some of the red drink into the glass and then started undoing the tie around the bagel package. She looked up at me and smiled when she saw me watching her. I took another sip from my mug and looked away. She pulled out one bagel and walked with it over to the counter, took a knife from out of a drawer by the sink and cut the bagel in half, then popped the two halves into the toaster. She came back to the table, and I felt her looking at me again, but I managed not to return the look until she’d gone back to replace the package and container in the fridge. Then she sat down across from me at the table and took a drink from her glass.
“I really like this juice,” she said. It came out awkward and then she sort of giggled, which made it worse. “I know that sounds childish,” she went on, “but it’s my version of morning coffee, I suppose. Simple pleasures.”
I tried to grin at her and nodded my head as best I could, then took another sip of coffee as she drank from the juice. There was more silence as we both waited for the bagel to finish browning, and all the while she kept on staring at me. She could really stare. I tried not to stare back, and finally she dropped her eyes from mine and stared at her drink instead.
The bagel popped up out of the toaster. She got up to retrieve it and brought the bagel over on a plate with two butter knives, then went back to the fridge for the cream cheese, and as she was sitting back down with it, she finally said, “I don’t feel bad. Really, I don’t. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything. Maybe I was hoping, but that’s another thing.”
“That’s good,” I said as I watched her spread the cream cheese all over her half of the bagel.
She glanced up at me. “You don’t believe that at all, do you?”
“I believe you,” I said. “I believe you. It doesn’t make me feel better, but I believe you.”
“Why should you feel bad?” she said as she chewed her first bite. “Eat your bagel.”
I reached over for my half. I started to dip my knife into the cream cheese but decided against it. I took a tiny bite of the bagel and then set the rest of it next to my coffee mug.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with you, to tell you the truth,” I said. “I mean, I feel bad no
matter what, anymore. I feel bad if I wake up alone, even.”
She stared again, then her eyes shot off over my shoulder, past me, and she blinked a few times. I guess she had no response to this because she said nothing for several minutes and just ate the bagel and drank the red juice. I hadn’t wanted to say it like that, exactly. I chewed on my part of the bagel, taking a few larger bites, and drank more of the coffee, which tasted okay with the bread. She got up and refilled my mug.
“You’re quiet,” she said, sitting back down.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t apologize, goddamn it,” she said. “Just stop it.” She shook her head. “You talked about a lot of things, last night. You were just a rush of talk then.”
“You were a good listener,” I said, and I thought that might have been true. I tried to remember just what I’d told her the night before. “You were easy to talk to. I needed to talk.”
I was twisting the mug around in circles on the table and pushing it against my knife. I could still feel her eyes locked in on me.
“A year and a half,” she said. “Isn’t that what you told me?”
“Yeah,” I said. I nodded. So I’d told her that part. Or else she was good at guessing. I’d told her something had happened a year and a half ago, maybe.
“You still feel real fucked up, don’t you?” she asked me. It was matter-of-fact, but her voice was softer now. “It’s like things will never be normal again.”
“Normal,” I said, repeating her, shaking my head. Then I laughed. I looked up and saw her face had dropped into a sympathetic-looking half-frown. I was already tired of that look, no matter who was flashing it at me. “What do you know?” I said. “It takes time, right? Is that what you’re going to say now? I’ve got all the goddamn time in the world. That’s not a problem.”
I glanced down at my bare ring finger and then felt in my pocket for the band. I rubbed my index finger along its smooth metal.
The woman sighed across from me.
“Time is overrated, in that way,” she said. She bit into the bagel again, and a dab of cream
cheese hung on the edge of her lips. “The trick is not to allow yourself a mourning period at all,” she went on as she chewed, still looking kind of sad, though I was beginning to wonder. “When my husband left me, it took two years before I could even date again, and that was only because my sister got me drunk at the bar one night and pawned me off on some guy, ditched me so that I had to leave with him, and that sort of rekindled something, I suppose. So I do know a little something about this. You have to move ahead. Some things you can’t do anything about.”
I stared at her, and at that point I didn’t give a damn what I’d told her the night before. I forgot all about that stuff.
“Who the hell are you?” I said. “Who the hell are you, saying this?” I could feel my arms start to shudder as I sat there, my fingers gripped tightly around the coffee mug. I took a big gulp of the coffee and stuffed the last bite of bagel into my mouth. “How can you even think that compares?” I said, chomping the bread. “How can you sit there and say that.” My cheeks were burning.
“Go to Hell,” she said. “We’ve had our fun and fucked each other and taken care of the small talk, and now the two of us can go our separate ways, too. So now you can go to Hell.” She said this matter-of-factly, too, almost a whisper, really. Then she bunched up her face and for the first time looked less than sympathetic. She seemed disgusted now. Confused, too, maybe. She kept staring at me, still. “What’s your story?” she said. “You’re not making any sense.”
I stared back at her, knowing that I was growing red and that my fingernails could be heard barely tapping the mug as my hand started to shake. She looked me over real good then, glanced down at my tapping fingers, and her scowl slowly disappeared. Then she bit her lip and ran her hand through her hair. Her eyes widened and I could tell she was going to say something.
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t say anything else. Just leave it at that.” I pulled both my hands up and
together and used them as a resting-place for my chin, then blinked and swallowed. “Here, I’ll tell you a story: It was a cold, dark, rainy night. It was slick out. That was the story. How was it? And my own story is I keep waking up in other people’s houses. That’s my story. When I get to where I can accept my own fucking empty bed again for what it is, I’ll be okay.”
The woman was shaking her head. She wrinkled up her brow, and her mouth sort of shifted to one side like she was grinding her teeth. She pinched off another piece of bagel and raised it to her lips.
“That’s not much of a story,” she said as she chewed. “And even if it is, it’s not the one you told me last night. Not that I care, but you didn’t tell anything like this, last night. Not that I can say I know what you’re talking about, anyway, but this doesn’t sound like your story from last night.”
“I must have gotten things mixed up,” I said. I lowered my hands again and ran them across the smooth surface of the table.
She blinked at me and shook her head once more. “This is just bizarre,” she said. “You’re strange or sick, or both.”
The woman chewed and chewed on that piece of bagel until it had to be down to nothing, then popped in the last little piece and ground into it at an even more deliberate pace. She lowered her eyes and seemed finished with me. She wasn’t looking at me anymore, at least, instead staring at her glass. I was thankful for that, I suppose. We sat there a while. I drank down the rest of my coffee. She kept chewing, grinding her teeth again, even after I knew she’d swallowed the last of the bagel. Maybe she wasn’t just absently staring but was thinking of things. It was like she’d forgotten there wasn’t anything left to chew on. Then in a quick motion she raised her glass and downed the last of her juice, pushed away from the table, got up and smiled again in my general direction.
“I should get the kids up soon,” she said. “They’re spending the day with Grandma.”
I nodded and stood up.
“Do you want to take the rest of this coffee with you?” she asked, motioning toward what was left in the carafe as she carried the plate and the glass to the sink and threw them in, causing a sort of minor crash. “I’ve got an old thermos I could just give you. It’s not like I can save the coffee.”
“That’s all right,” I said.
I lay my mug in next to the dishes in the sink and followed her to the front door. I reached past her and opened it, and then she turned into me and wrapped her arms around my waist.
“Thank you,” I said, though I can’t say why I said it.
“Okay,” she said, rubbing her hand up and down my back as she pulled away. “Thanks.”
She closed the door behind me and that was that, and as I walked off the front porch I felt past the ring to the car keys at the bottom of my pocket. It was quiet out, and still mild this early in the morning. It had rained a bit overnight, and when I reached my car at the end of the driveway there were still a few droplets lingering on the front windshield. I unlocked the driver’s side door and stepped in, slammed the door behind me, and put the key into the ignition. I turned it over and the car started up. I hit the wiper switch and watched the water droplets get smeared off the windshield. I adjusted in the seat and reached into my pocket and felt of the ring, let my finger stroke back and forth across the thin metal. I pulled it out and held onto it as loosely as I could between my thumb and forefinger.
Then I let the car idle in park and just thought for a while. I had the time. My house wasn’t far from where I was, but I wasn’t sure I should go straight home. There was also a cemetery close by, in the other direction, and even a flower shop on the way, if I was up for that, up for a scene. I had all the time in the world, but what do you do with all that time? I didn’t know where I wanted to go. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about, mostly. What I was thinking was, I was mixed up as to which roads would take me to my house, and which would lead to the cemetery. I was confused, still foggy from the night before. There was a gas station just down the street, with roadmaps, if one of those would help. There was a pawnshop somewhere close by. I had to get rid of that goddamn ring: This seemed the next logical step, the next first step. I slipped it onto my finger and drove off, my eyes fixed on the slick, waterlogged pavement up ahead, squinting for a familiar way home.
Ryan Crider has previously been published in Moon City Review. He is the past Section Editor for the literary journal Natural Bridge. As a graduate student, he has been nominated twice for the AWP Intro Journals Project in fiction. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English and creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the editor of The Southwestern Review.