I’VE drawn up a list of pros re: cohabitation,” he says. “What we discussed on Tuesday.”
She bundles her puff vest tight in her arms, stares ahead, lets her body hum rigid with the force of the bus, moving. Sitting at a right angle, their knees jar. She doesn’t flinch at the contact but she doesn’t keep her knee pressed into his, either. A child screams down the aisle trailing two safetypinned mittens, salt- and grime-stained butterflies.
“OK, so, One: On Fridays? You lose the worry-V in your forehead. Yeah? You’re a part of the General Friday Uptick, the lightening-of-mood. Cashiers at Cinnabon and Auntie Annie’s are more likely to shout, you know, pleasantries and stuff across the concourse during slow hours – weather speculation, commiseration, semi-serious invitations to check out DeValera’s happy hour clams and Labatt’s bucket specials – in addition to your standard end-of-shift wave.”
Her six-day wrinkle deepens, a cracking plaster wall over faint blue veins.
“Oh-I-know,” he says – to cut to the chase. He’d practiced this in the Elevator Pitch Workshop – he’d been so fast that Merl who ran the seminar said Maybe it’s not so much speed as it is concision, and Eli had jotted this down. But this isn’t an elevator pitch, she can’t step off at 11 and walk the rest of the way up to 12. They have eight more stops. “Oh-I-know,” he says, “payday. Payday, this is what smooths your forehead better than any Garnier, but I’m moving toward a ‘point’ here, namely, on the last Friday of the month your forehead actually maintains a slight V-shaped indentation. It’s not so severe – not actually a wrinkle, but like if somebody drew it on in graphite? And then tried to smudge it out without really erasing it? –”
“– Because-the-rent’s-due! Lessening the weekly payday pleasure. Or in your case the payday easing-of-worry. Actually –”
“Eli,” she says. “The day’s long enough.”
The bus thrums; she is stiff with it, buzzing with the generator and the general humming of the earth, unstiffening in the silvery March sun, cracked by weedy grass-shoots and muddy in spots like wounds.
“Eloise?” he says. “Can I just get to point B? Just B?”
The child, screaming still, begins to hit itself in the face with the mittens, dirty butterflies now apparently manic to the point of suicide. Seven more stops.
“Number B,” says Eli. “Safety. You live in a great neighborhood. Very cool, very hip, semi-gentrified. But it’s next to my neighborhood. Not so much those things. And walking home? At night? My stop is the one after yours – every time I watch you step out those doors I get worriedsick! I wonder if I’ll see you at work the next day. And I think, I’m worried? What about her? I mean you, I mean. Actually –”
“That’s sweet Eli –”
“Well it’s just human –”
“Shut up for today, Eli,” she says. “Just shut … the fuck … up.”
Later the sun hides below even the lowest of the houses, not ranch-style but box homes that once strained against gravity just hard enough to put up one floor and a gabled crawl-space called ‘attic’. On the streets move multiples of the same three stock figures: the ill-intentioned, the unintentioned, the afraid.
“So do you have any plans for Easter, going home, staying in, both –”
But she’s risen, she’s walking down the aisle, dodging the loose kid with a duck of her hip. Eli watches her step from the bus into the little light of the plexiglas shelter. She waits there a moment between the three walls, as if for another bus to come and take her somewhere else. Then she steps out and walks west. Their bus, the 147, rolls on into night.
ONE OF THE Dadz is getting hot with the putter. He has the arms of an ex-jock, and whizzes his stick baseball-style too close to the gag gift HoverPricks – comes near to a circumcision. DadzPlay Policy is: you break it, you buy it. Cash or credit. And this one? Wearing a ring. HoverPricks are more of a bachelor/divorce party thing.
Not to mention the tots running around, a gang pinning one down to give him some kind of HeadScrape/ChestHammer/FootGrind torture, a high-tech spa treatment out of hell or Hieronymus.
“Sire?” Eli says. “– I mean, Sir?”
But the headphones are the new PrivateWorld model, of course.
“Sir,” he almost-shouts, ducking the club head to risk a shoulder tap. The man spins, eyes wild, huffing through a smile. On the screen behind him a home invader lies bludgeoned on a kitchen floor in the yellow/blue light of a fridge knocked open at midnight. The shelves are stocked with beefsteaks, the door with mustards and Budweiser. On busy days Dadz queue to play the new PGA Pro Tour with Off Season Expansion, because of the burglar/perv miniquest you get if you break 80 on any 18 mid-level holes. Day after Christmas the queue formed a Dad-chain all the way to the Chili Shaq in the food court; men passed money, dogs, and bean cups up and down the line, a spontaneous Dad fraternity.
“Sir, can I just ask you to be a bit careful? Of the kids? Also the merchandise?”
“Ah,” he says, “Sorry, son.” He looks around as if for the first time: sees the ballpoints, bubble-blowing Buddhas and Newton’s cradles, the leather-covered everythings.
“We like to let the customer try everything at DadzPlay,” Eli says, reciting the Policy, posted and laminated next to the back door to the Conduit. “But sims like these are designed for large domestic spaces? – living rooms, for example, or dens or rec rooms.”
“They couldn’t get ya for manslaughter; not in your own house,” the Dad says.
“OK,” says Eli. The man smiles, putter over his poloed shoulder like an ax or a bazooka. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
Customer at the register. He is old and doesn’t have a face so much as an arrangement of porous pouches: ruddy nosepouch, lavender undereyepouch and broad cheekpouch, bulbous chinpouch, neckpouch and even a browpouch, each one separated from the rest by wispy hairs that didn’t deserve or seem to want the name of eyebrow, moustache. Eli rings up a box of polymerized sand, $49.97. A telephone chip to screen any caller in the voice of Rosalind Russell, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, playing a personal secretary. (The G-Dadz who know the names still have land lines.) $62.99.
If he and Eloise could break out, he could get a job that didn’t involve standing between a man with a fake but rigid foam golf club and the digital intruder threatening his digital house, his sleeping digital wife. The world would change for them – or it would be the same world with a different Answer, like the flapping ventricles of a cootie catcher, Lonely Ageing giving way to CarreerHouseSexLove.
His list ( Pros: Cohabitation ) ( Subheading: ELOISE ) is next to the cash drawer, he has written it again on the back of a receipt.
1. Increase lifespan via reduce stress/worry
2. Maintain apartment, SoL
Unnumbered, he sketches, ink smudging on the waxy back of the paper:
Comfort when sad?
(Cooking? Candles? Etc?)
Sex (… ?)
A HoverPrick dings Eli in the side of the head, hard, poky, spirited. Vascular. Tots laugh, scatter. Someone must have dropped the remote: the Prick coughs, whizzes, falls to the carpet with a clunk. The spazzy Dad, having battered the perv, is back on the course, makes an easy 400 yard drive. And outside (past the recessed sensors) people catch slow currents, faster currents, switching streams, stalling in eddies outside the Starbucks, or in the middle of the concourse to watch a Bengali boy make a helicopter almost kiss the one-time see-through roof. $29.99. Eli grabs the list, crushes, drops in wastebasket. Holds down ‘Print.’ Begins:
1. Increase lifespan via reduce stress/worry
HE DECIDES SOME frankness is in order. He must shock to get through to her. Shock then comfort. (Added benefit: proving his talent for spousal consoling. [Spousal? Don’t let that slip. Roommate. Whatever.])
Because-they-are-not-made-of-time. Twenty-four turns to twenty-five whether or not you keep an eye on the calendar. He has read somewhere that humor is telling the truth more quickly than a person expects. So maybe she’ll laugh.
“Re: Letter B: the topic of rent,” he says, the bus sounding l o o s e, as if every single screw had been given one quick twist counter-clockwise. “You did the college thing – good. So did I, you know; Art Hist. So then degree in hand you picked the neighborhood you dreamed about, thinking probably that you could leave perfume sales in the back of the closet with the cap and the gown. OK. But now most of your neighbors have passed the bar. Or work at bars, the nice kind, with absinthe and big tippers.”
She makes a tiny sound like being struck in the ribcage; or else the bus hits something unseen in the street. Either way, not a laugh.
“Your friends – you told me – they’ve mostly moved away or found future-ex-husbands. Romance,” he says, with a shrug like an apology, a hand-sweep to the classifieds, rumpled and tobacco-flecked, to her left. “Your work friends think you’re a bit … No, no – they like you, more or less. There’s a degree-prejudice in the world of department stores. Anti-intellectual. They can smell it on you. Beneath the perfume. Ha-Ha. Plus you’re quiet. What I mean to say is, living together, with one of them? might not be an option. But-I-am-an-option!” he says, wondering where to put the stress of the sentence; stressing every word. “I can help you keep that dream. The apartment. Together. We could afford it.”
“Eli, please … For one day could you –”
“Because, looking at it frankly, how long can you keep going like this –”
“The apartment isn’t the dream, Eli – Oh –”
“– Then-night-classes! That’s phase two of the plan. We could take turns. I would trust you, I’m saying – you take fewer shifts and I’d take more. I’m talking MBA. MBA, I don’t know why we didn’t do it four years ago, but hey – this is America, we have a reset button. I took this workshop, see … so MBAs, you can do the whole thing online in six weeks or something. Then BOOM – corner office. And then we switch, and I get mine. And maybe you have a career by then, and …”
And for the first time Eli stops on his own. In front of Eloise a man swings from a rope – neck bent and hidden beneath his shoulders, for a moment they both think he’s been hung. But he spins on his arm – a hand grips the greasy noose. He smiles somewhere over Eloise’s head. She opens her mouth, until she can break her gaze from the man to look at Eli, next to her, lost in an ellipsis.
“… And what’s point B today, Eli?”
For a moment he is silent. The bus shudders; numbtingling from the contact of knees. He comes to himself.
“Actually that was Point B. Points B and D, actually, which were: maintain apartment-slash-standard-of-living; and pursue education. I guess ‘Phase Two’ is an elaboration of Point …”
And now she does laugh. A muffled percussion, skipping on the loose-rattle of every bar bench pane grate and grip on the bus. Sad, but maybe not only sad.
“You know you’re attractive,” he says, before she finishes; before he can think. And adds, in piano parentheses, “Point C.”
Her Ha-ha-ha picks up – more than percussion now there is wind in it, flute.
But – Point C aside – she is. And she does. He’s seen her put it to use at the perfume counter, selling to the wedlocked and fiancéed, who purchase Giorgio Armani not just to please but as a kind of sublimated infidelity. I just can’t remember which one she … Would you? … On the wrist? I can? … And he’d seen them take her arms (bare then but off-duty always braceleted in rubberbands); press their upper lips flecked gray with all-day stubble, or their young waspish nostrils spotted black and sebaceous, to her pulsing radial; inhale. Yes … This one perhaps … Coffee beans? Some coffee beans? Stimulant like a cigarette in a motel bed.
“You’re a target,” he says. “It’s a risk, alone. What kind of locks do you have – a Yale? Just takes a kick. A bolt? Same thing. Don’t tell me a chain, a chain of all things …”
Eli had seen the sign walking through the Conduit, past the city of Sears boxes, past the shared storeroom for Urban Outfitters and St. Vincent De Paul, past the DSW loading bay with its black tumulus of broken shoe horns, down next to the Baby Gap clock-out box and their Employee Welfare board. Under a laminated illustrated guide on How to Turn Re-Stock Day into Workout Day (And Avoid Injury!) and above a 72-pt prayer for a lost ferret named El Gringo last seen two months ago on the West Side (all the little phone number tabs had been torn off; or else just dropped out of their own unwillingness to help) a sign warned WE ARE ALL VICTIMS and suggested some steps to prevent sexual battery, starting with the buddy system and ending with a Declarative No, delivered firmly, it said, but not shouted.
Sure, Eli thought then, thinks again. But some people are victims more often. (And Eloise, she didn’t quite get the Declarative No.)
“I could …”
“… Protect me?”
She is not laughing; it’s as if she had never been laughing.
The days are getting longer. But still the sun falls below the roofline, dark before flashing in too-bright orange through driveways. Riders squint at stoplights. Others only blink ahead, as if into the optometrist’s penlight.
Eloise sinks into a heaviness.
She is far from heavy and not even well-fed and her bones are small and delicate but she carries a weight in her cheeks, which makes her smile slowly; in her arms to keep them down below the countertop or balled in her lap; and probably Eli guesses in her stomach, and also in her hips which makes her feet fall flat (no more weight than stones in her pockets) and all with the air of a girl unused to it, who spent her whole life light and quick and almost floating.
Anyone could see it. Anyone could see she is beautiful.
“Eloise, I –”
And then she is moving and then she is gone, into a slash of orange in the doorway and then just gone. Their bus, now just his bus, rolls on into night. Eli crunches and uncrunches a receipt in his pocket.
HE POPS OUT of a closet, bodyslams a mannequin, hugs it to hold it up, spills coffee down the front of the Anne Klein dress. She thinks Shit shit why why – and of course the dress is white. She can’t be the only one who sees him.
“Happy Friday,” he says. “Good Friday. You’re on break, right?” A cornfield of dresses swishing together behind him. She is, and he knows (of course).
She’s moving – out of Shoes, too visible – through Handbags, bombed out and ransacked by 3 pm, into the anonymity of Coats. And he keeps up, a retail guerilla – how did he get into that closet? And why? – and he reaches over with a half-unwrapped hot-egg sandwich from Tim’s. The smell is physical – factory bread, brute bacon, semi-solid cheese and delirious grease. Unwrapping. Eating. The coffee he hands her is too hot – the paper’s coming apart where it spilled over the sides. Onto the dress. Leave that for Caitie. Tastes like Tim’s always does: just this side of burnt. Eli, hands free enough, swallows his sandwich in two bites. Now he’ll start the dumb pitch again, she thinks, all he can talk about. Price of a free lunch.
“How are you?”
“Oh,” she says. “I guess –”
Security fast-walking toward the scene of the spill. Marlene – the Boss Lady, little puffin of a woman – is in Fine Jewelry with Chaz the NonDenom Springtime Bunny and talking on her walkie, with her I’m Only Hearing About This Now? look. Ahead, a girl about her own age looks with sequined eyes at an infinity scarf and Eloise (still moving) opens her coffee-mouth to say “Hi, are you finding everything alright?” before she remembers: keep going, keep moving, get out. In fact, the girl looks like the shoplifter-fantasy type. She wants to walk out with the scarf on (it’s not even tagged), but she won’t. Eyes meet; the girl blanks, walks away. To her right Eli fingers prices as he passes racks and shelves: a blue North Face, a shiny zip up, something long, black, cashmere. Step-for-step with her, dodging cheap-racks of accessories. No way she’ll shake him.
“Cm’ere,” she says, and ducks through a door, the one they never lock.
“So have you thought about the thing? About the roommate thing?” he says, behind her.
She leads the way up the unlit stairs, less stairs than angled and ascending shelving for boxes of forgotten things, broken mirrors, plastic widgets, Lazy Susan racks, all empty. Someone has pushed a vinyl cutout of Tommy Hilfiger feet first into a gash in the wall – he tooths out from his plaster pocket.
“I’ll run through the points real quick,” he says as they step out into the Attic now, the great dim dumping ground for whole counters, halls of mirrors, makeup stools and things out of fashion, and more boxes, library shelves of unmarked boxes, and the whole thing peopled with scattered mannequins – which apparently (she thinks every time she comes), like models, are suddenly one day past their prime.
“Number one: combined income slash reduced expenses – think food too, not just the rent – equals less stress and worry. Life in general will be more enjoyable. And – studies-have-shown! – you’ll live longer.”
Eloise always expects to find someone else up here, looking for some prop or replacement appendage. But she is always alone. New things appear – retail flotsam she recognizes: a Vera Wang cutout, oversized secular Winter ornaments sparkling dimly. But nothing is ever removed. The feeling is of a permanent purgatory. No hope of a heaven on the other side, just airducts and a view of the big runoff ditch.
“Next point,” he says, after a pause. He’s taking it all in, eyes up like a tourist – but talking fast as ever. “You get to keep your apartment. I – I admit – I get to move into a better apartment. But there’s space, right? Anyway … Sleeping arrangements, we can figure that out. Just sort of see what happens, or …”
The only real light comes from the heavy door to the roof. Someone’s duct-taped the bolt in, and the battered thing hangs loose, bleeding real light in a white rectangle, leaking a March draft. They push out into the sunlight together.
“I’m not moving in with you, Eli. Or you’re not moving in with me. Please. Please. Just shut up.” She walks out, further into the real world, past the crusty husks of snowdrifts, living their last in the lees of murky skylights, boxy vents, and lazy fans. “Thanks for the food,” she says, two steps ahead of him.
“OK-OK-OK – I respect your reasoning here. Ah … But what is your reasoning here? I mean I didn’t mean to offend you,” he says. “The other day? On the bus?”
“It’s fine, Eli.”
“I just meant that it’s a dangerous world. It’s dangerous for two people, sure, but two people are better off than one. Isn’t that … Isn’t that just the basic …”
She turns to him. Now he isn’t looking at her but down as if into the words that just left him.
“Eli, I said it’s fine.”
She keeps walking.
“OK, so that doesn’t have to be Point C. Number 3. That was just a for-the-record kind of thing. And we move on to the next one?”
And then the roof’s edge. It looks down to another roof, lower; then to a parking lot, gray and glittering with cars, their colors whited-out in the lowering sun. And the highway. There is nowhere else to walk. Eloise sits where she always sits, at the edge. Eli’s too spazzy to sit. But no one can see them this high up, this far back.
“I don’t want to hear the next one, Eli.”
“Actually, you did hear it already, the other day –”
“I’ve heard it all already – ”
“The one about education. Number Three – I guess this is Number Three now – is really a ‘plan,’ about taking turns, we take turns getting degrees? I went to this workshop – maybe I told you? So my idea is: MBAs. Or maybe Law? If you like that? Law’s not so good right now. Anyway –”
She can feel him walking behind her, just moving, sweeping with his paper cup like the lot below is an abacus, the cars colored beads he could move.
“This might not have been worth the coffee,” she says – and looks to see if he heard.
“Humans need to be together,” he says, moving still. “That’s why … That’s why … What is ‘family,’ after all? Just breakfast, things like breakfast and world affairs, do you know what I mean? And afternoons when it rains dark for hours and you don’t know anything about world affairs, together? Because – because taking something, a room, a kid, fresh banana bread, and saying ‘This is ours’ is better than saying ‘This is mine’ and it’s better every time.”
“Eli, please. Please.” His shoes scuff on the bitumen.
“OK, ‘family,’ didn’t mean to scare you there, I don’t mean like … I’m not proposing, geez, Ha-Ha, this is about being roommates, right? Strength in numbers? Beating the, the System, beating …”
“Sit down, Eli. You’re going to fall, or something.”
There’s a hitch in his step; but still he stands there, behind her.
“So not to scare you again, Ha-Ha, but I have a metaphor, see? You know how it takes two to make life? To ‘make,’ ah – sure, you get it. Well maybe this is more than all that, the rent and the V in your forehead, I mean maybe … Eloise it’s spring and I have to say it, Eloise, maybe it takes more than one to make a life, Eloise! For damn –”
“– Eli!” she says. She shouts. Oh god god god. It’s spring. The cars change places in the lot. “Can we just sit here and take our fucking state-mandated fifteen-minute break, Eli? Can we take a fucking break?” The words come so fast they should be a mess, mispronounced, in the wrong order. But they’re clear as individual bells. “And can you sit down?” she says. “Eli?”
And Eli sits. They look out together on the parking lot, the highway. The plaza on the other side. They both remember the coffee, and take long drinks, long enough to feel the steam warm their noses, cold from the air. It tastes better, hot in the chill spring. He looks at her. She is looking at him.
“Are you happy?” he asks. “Could you be happier?”
They drink and finishing this look out up to the edge of the state’s fifteen minutes. Eloise leans – leans out, into the chill space between the two of them and the glittering cars.
“And what is Point D, Eli? Number Four,” she says. “The next bullet. ‘Re: cohabitation.’ What is your god-damn Number Four.”
“ – I ”
“Save it for the bus,” she says, and stands – to lead him back to the Attic, blind after the bright roof, down back again to the mall, to the waking waiting, to finish the shift.