Copyright is held by the author.
NICK CUES up “I Got You Babe.” Just like yesterday and every other day for the past month. Fervency and adoration rise from Sonny and Cher. Flowers in springs and rings, mountains that aren’t insurmountable.
Then Nick turns off the phone, dons his Khakis and navy-blue Polo shirt and steps into oversized rooms, painted half-purple and half-white. He tries to rid himself of that couch. Again.
Their couch. Her couch.
Her, a name he cannot pronounce after a month. But her, at least is a precise nomenclature, not something flowing and elegant like her given name.
In deep beige and green cushions, he still smells her Camels, warm, overwhelming, mixed with mint shampoo. Giggles that held traces of youth and the precision of throwing Junior Mints in movies. The couch once held sagging, but beautiful weight, reminders of making love to Tchaikovsky. She said classical music stirred body and soul and not just fucking animalistic instinct.
But Tchaikovsky is just a series of notes, things you can interpret a thousand ways. He needs words. Words that explain longing, why people love and fall out of love.
Nick turns the couch perpendicular to the middle of the living room. The couch’s presence becomes amplified, a monstrous series of curves and lines. He covers it with a tarp, but it still peeks out.
He even tries to shove the couch into a corner, as absurd as it is.
But he’s just greeted by dust, rising, dancing. Dust dances a slow sideways dance, like a ballerina with a twisted ankle. Bare oak flooring stares up.
She joked he was a fluent procrastinator where housework and responsibility were involved. Then procrastinating turned into sharp words, slacking, drifting, senseless dreams, then a slammed door.
The room gapes. Half-painted walls stare, the ones he was painting lavender for her. The bookshelves, lined only with his texts and items off his own self-created reading list. Revolutionary Road, by Yates. Rock Springs by Richard Ford. Anna Karenina. She took her collection of mysteries, the Agatha Christies and the more commercial fare with chiseled villains lining the front covers.
Nick should be off to teach beginning creative writing and pre-1917 Russian Literature. He should don what she jokingly called his constipated smile. She used to help him rehearse smiling. Before her, frowning was his natural idiom.
And he was almost fluent. If she’d held on, maybe he’d have become that model professor, being exalted in the department newsletter. It’s not like they were dirt poor. They still made rent payments, even if they occasionally had to make up an excuse to buy time.
He still could become that man. Professor Nick Botkin, instructor extraordinaire. But motivation’s a balloon, deflating by the moment with each day and the expanding emptiness. Who would notice? What purpose would it serve beyond simply highlighting his ability to teach abstractions, things students will discard like condom wrappers and burnt joints?
She could have held on.
But she didn’t have time. Not after Dr. Edgar asked that he partake more in the department’s activities, in motivating students to pursue English degrees. Dr. Edgar had mentioned Professor X and Professor Y doing community readings, offering tutoring, having booths, all with a precise smile, meaning all too clear.
She didn’t have time. Time, time, what a word.
Nick moves for the door but pulls back. Time enough. She always left for everything a half hour early, especially in those last months. It seems sad to go on the defensive against time. Why not wait a half hour before traffic dies? Then at least he can cruise to campus in his Subaru Forester, playlist on full blast. By the time he gets to campus, Dr. Edgar will be firmly ensconced in her office too and Nick can steal into room 420 of Reddy Hall without interruption.
Nick sinks into the couch. Feels softness. Closes his eyes, imagining her walking through the door again, wearing lavender blouses or T-shirts. Lavender. What a fleeting, beautiful word. He imagines her standing at the door, fumbling for words to bridge that space between the living room and the man on the couch.
But the door still echoes in his mind. A commanding slam. There are many kinds of slams and he knows the inherent difference between the going-to-work slam and the screw you slam.
Plus she left the poem he wrote, the ode to her body. Once she would have laughed at him rhyming “breasts” and “crests.” A gentle giggle. On top of that, she left the DVDs that they once laughed at. Step Brothers. Cyrus. The Big Lebowski.
She even left Groundhog Day. Once she wanted to play chicken with trains and rob banks like Bill Murray. Just have a chance to reset. But now, she said, they were just absurd. Childish. If the characters had just grown up and made good choices, their stories wouldn’t have to be told.
Nick sinks deeper into the couch. He’ll leave in a few minutes. He’ll go teach and he’ll go offer tutoring services or something. Whatever it is Dr. Edgar wants. Maybe the motions of talking about literature will make something, anything rise to the top. Maybe he will feel some small use among the empty rooms.
All he smells now is mustiness and his own sweat. Something stale too. Nick grasps cushions, trying to imagine slender, yet firm arms. He tries to will laughter into the couch, to resurrect talk of dreams and poking bears, jokes about pompous department heads.
But now new buzzwords rise from the spaces between cushions. Get along. Stop fighting. Quixotic, dreamer, practical. The words are precise. Aged, and not like a fine Merlot.
Nick blasts Sonny and Cher again. Almost time to go.
But it sounds like something else now, their words blurring, nasal.
I had you, babe. I had you, babe.