By Zack Hardy
Ethan caught the door as someone left. He stepped into the apartment building and warm, contained air hit him. He climbed the handful of flights to her apartment, not really having to catch his breath. Though it was late May, summer still hadn't broken yet. He knocked on her door, Louise opened, and turned away, not looking at his face. Glancing inside, he saw the dozens of boxes, the cardboard flaps flipped open like outstretched arms, on wooden floorboards so covered with dust that he could see footprints.
“You're packing,” he said.
“Shocking, isn't it?” Louise said. She wore gym shorts and a t-shirt, barefoot. He hadn't seen her without shoes. He caught a hint of henna racing towards her toes.
“Need help?” Without waiting for a response, he grabbed a glass and some newspaper sitting next to the empty, gleaming ashtray the girls had used as a soap dish.
“Thanks,” she said, watching as he wrapped it, gentle fingers curling around glass. They worked together, silent, stacking boxes on boxes, pushing containers and suitcases closed with leaned weight. They threw words at each other, casual instructions that the other followed without thought. She displaced dust and he sneezed. He tripped over shoes and she laughed. When the room was clear, he went to her window and opened it, the cool air of late spring washing in. It just felt like the thing to do. He collapsed in a chair, across from the sofa where she reclined, her leg up beneath her like a flamingo. Sweat collected underneath his armpits, drawing dark half-moons out of blue. He grabbed his bottle of water before she could reprimand him for not resting it on a coaster.
“What do you think McDavin is doing?”
“Celebrating probably,” he said between gulps. He imagined their red-haired, soft spoken foreign policy professor drinking heavily from the bottle of whiskey they'd gotten him, shouting out the window that you can't win a war in Afghanistan. “Why? What do you think?”
“I don't know.” She shook her blond hair and picked idly at the whitehead on her neck until it bled. “You know this is the first time we've been alone together?”
“Except for when we both came to thesis early.” He cracked his knuckles, careful, one at a time, a magic trick where it looked like he was knocking the joint out of socket and snapping it back. She chewed on her fingernail and winced each time he did it. “I'm sorry,” he said. “Is that-?”
“No, no,” she said. “I was just-”
The sun had set now, and he could hear the distant rush of cars as they passed, mimicking the endless rhythm of crashing waves. He glanced up and down the hallway, though he knew her roommates had already left. Katie, his girlfriend, returned home to New Jersey. She was going to spend the summer filling out desperate law school applications. Liza, their third roommate, would spend a quiet Montana summer in isolation and then Guatemala through the Peace Corps in the fall. They said goodbye shortly before graduation, boxes and duct tape, hastily hidden tears. Liza with the careful determination of a farmer, gulped twice and didn’t say anything, just hugged. Katie sobbed against his shirt. She couldn’t hide her emotion even if she wanted to. The polyester dried.
After Katie and he started dating, he got to know them all. They were understanding with late night visits and early morning departures. But he and Louise kept out of rooms and awkward situations. He would get to restaurants early and wait in the car, knowing she would be early too. She would help in the kitchen after dinner, cleaning the dishes when it was anyone's turn just to avoid small talk.
They didn't speak simultaneously or in similar patterns. They didn’t like the same music or have similar beliefs about God. Louise’s approach to foreign economic policy, their shared major, was built on analytical roots. Her theories grew out of spreadsheets, computer-generated graphs, and statistics from the United Nations. Ethan used cultural and anthropological understanding to create a more thorough picture. The statistical trends and line graphs interested him less than individual stories, the vast layering of a people’s struggle. But they found each other nodding from across the room.
After the last class, the three girls and he splurged, taking themselves out for three or four bottles of wine at Three Tomatoes, a place off Church Street, cheap enough for college students but nicer than most bars. Louise, laughing, talked about how her maternal grandmother said bot’le, a slight hint of cockney, a remnant of recent English immigration. Ethan shared from his French-Canadian family, the way his uncle would make up swear-words, not really knowing what the words meant when put together, just combining the ones he thought sounded good next to each other. She sang “Alouette” softly after he said he’d never heard it before. He described the Irish countryside from studying abroad in Dublin, the sharp contrast of sudden cityscape in the center of green. He said he felt so alone while living there, the people impossible to engage with, all familiarity so far away. She said her brother always felt more loved than her, his ability to pick up languages making it easier to connect with their father, a linguist. The lights lowered and flickering shadows from the candle played across faces. Katie and Liza stayed silent while Louise and Ethan spoke, their faces leaning closer as the conversation drew on.
Later that night, Katie pressed him against a cool, brick wall as they passed an elementary on their way to his place. When he kissed her neck, he heard Louise’s raspy voice in his ear, singing “Frere Jacques.”
Louise sighed from across the empty apartment and he looked at her now, the water bottle halfway to his mouth.
“I'm going to miss Vermont,” she said, smiling at him.
“Me too,” he said and swigged another gulp. There was a long silence, while he drank water and she stared absentmindedly at the light centered in the ceiling. He finished his bottle and remembered his manners. “Are you thirsty? If you want I could-”
“I'll get one later,” she said.
“What are you going back home to?”
“What do you mean?”
“A job? Or...?”
“I don't know,” she said. “There's a couple of congressional races around Charleston I'm interested in.”
“Anyone I'd know?” he said.
“Really?” he said.
“Yeah,” she said and half-smiled. “Not that McDavin would really agree with her.”
“Not many people live up to his standards,” Ethan said. He half stood, curled one of his legs underneath him and sat back down, his body pushing awkwardly into the sofa. “Sometimes I wonder who his favorite president was.”
“Truman,” she said. She leaned forward, furrowed her brow, and slowed her speech to the languid Southern touch of their professor. “The choice not to deploy the atomic bomb in Korea set the tone for the next sixty years of political and military retribution.”
“That was pretty good,” he said. “Although, you aren't wearing a paisley shirt.”
“Hey, what do you want from me? I make do with what I have.”
He took another sip from the bottle and felt the air relax a little, the silence felt a little more comfortable. He wondered if Katie was sending him a text. When she didn't know where he was, what his plans were, she tended to do that, filling his phone with incoming pings, little checks to remind him he belonged to her. He had left his phone in the car.
Louise shifted on the chair and he watched as she folded and unfolded her legs. He found the scar on her ankle the shape of Cuba, his eyes tracing it over and over.
“Do you believe in dreams?” He looked up and her eyes were on him, watching him watching her.
“No. Why? Do you?” he said, staccato.
“Yeah,” she said. “The last couple nights I -” She sighed heavily and breathed deeply. He saw her shudder, her skin marked by gooseflesh. “Drowning. I was drowning in the lake. I was right on the surface and I could see the others standing above me, but my hands couldn't get through the water. I was so close. Just...” She took another breath and her skin rippled. “So close.”
“What do you think it means?”
“I think it means I'm dehydrated,” she said and got up to get a glass of water, spilling a little so the outside was slick. “You grew up around here, right?”
“Massachusetts,” he said. “So yeah. Kinda.”
“Four to six hours away, depending on where you are, where you're going and how fast you drive.”
“Right,” she said.
“So, like, two hours for you,” he said.
“Hey,” she said, falling back into the chair. “I'm a good driver.” The glass slipped from her hand as he laughed, shattering on the floor. “Damnit. I'm not wearing shoes.”
“Shit,” he said. The light from the living room reflected against the glass, scattering against the walls and ceiling, the bottoms of her feet, as she tentatively attempted to find refuge. “No, no,” he said to her feet. “Do you have shoes I can get? Where are they?”
“My room. My flats.” She put them on as he knelt, his bare hand pulling against the glass. Now that the sun had set, the room was colder and he could feel her body radiating. When he was in Junior High, he grew his hair out, and the girls who liked him would run their fingers through it. He shivered a little, as much from the cold as remembering fingers, pulling, untangling, soothing. He noticed her skin again when he maneuvered back and forth on the wooden floor, attempting to rescue the remains of the glass, small raised bumps of constellations. She bent down and he could feel her hand almost touching the back of his head. It would be so easy to lean back, to force the two to meet, a sudden movement, as if he cut his finger. She would say she thought his hair looked soft and he would stand up, her hand running through his hair, settling on his cheek.
But the glass was sharp, and he felt it sliver into his skin.
“You shouldn't be doing that with bare hands.” She stepped over the area, her feet safe in shoes now, and opened a cupboard in the kitchen. “I've packed everything away.” He sucked on his finger and felt the cool grit of the glass pull away from his skin. He spat it into his hand when she wasn't looking, wiping it on his pants. “There's a couple bandaids in my car.”
“Okay,” he said and she disappeared down the stairs, leaving the door wide and he could see into the hallway, one connected space. Four years in Burlington, three summers, and he never really believed it would be his last. He looked down the hallway to the closed door of what was once Katie's room. The hot skin of angry fights followed by crying and holding. The smell of post-coitus, fresh sheets and sweat and body odor. Lazy afternoons with naked bodies uncovered, flashing TV, Ben & Jerry's. If it had been Louise in the room and not Katie, they wouldn’t be in there. They would have been out, going to plays or political rallies, carrying banners together as if it was the seventies. They wouldn’t have needed to disappear into each other’s body as he and Katie had, they wouldn’t need to pretend as much. His cut jumped again and he saw the blood well up. He ran warm water in the kitchen. He winced once or twice as the stream pushed his flap of skin open, emptying the pocket created by the cut of any blood at all.
When she came back in, she slammed the door like she was scared of his silence or letting someone in.
“The kitchen,” he said and she came, a box of Disney princess bandaids in one hand. “What the -?”
“My sister got them for me. Shut up.”
“I didn't say anything.”
“Sure. Dry it off.” He did, the blood, again welling up, again, but this time expanding and improvising into the paper towels, finding the nooks and crevices, as it did in his fingerprint. When it was as dry as it could be, he held it up and she carefully wrapped the plastic and fabric around it, tight enough to keep the blood in, but not so tight he lost circulation. She held onto his finger for a moment longer than she should have, not looking at him, inspecting the edges of the bandage. Her fingers shook a little as she held it, one cup of coffee too many. Her eyes were dark blue. Watching, he saw them flit from one side of her face and then the next, avoiding looking directly. Her mouth twitched. She was terrified.
He was pressed against the sink, couldn't step back, so instead he stepped sideways as she let go of his finger.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What for?” she said.
“I don't know.” He didn't look at her and she stood there, her arms crossed in front of her chest, the bright pink box of bandaids sharp against her green t-shirt. He wanted to close the window, but remained still. Her body rippled again and turned away. He kept his eyes on the back of her head as she went to the recliner and sat. He watched as the chair swung back and forth, squeaking softly. He closed the window, but it was too late: he saw a moth land on the naked light-bulb sitting in the center of the ceiling.
A Note About the Author: Zack grew up in central Massachusetts and went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he studied creative writing and computer science. Currently, Zack lives in southern Wisconsin where he works in IT for a large medical software company. This is his first publication.