you think you're
in each other's shadows we grew less and less tall
and eventually our theories couldn't explain it all
and I'm recording our history now on the bedroom wall
and when we leave, the landlord will come
and paint over it all
Ani DiFranco, "Both Hands"
TAKE EVERYTHING APART
Everything was laid out before them, but of course they didn't know how or even why it would unfold. Maureen didn't know why it was that day, not any other day. Not on Roger's birthday when everyone got drunk and the window glass froze over and cracked, when Mark vomited three times in a row and came out of the bathroom looking sallow and sweaty and terribly cute. It could well have been that day. She had thought about saying something, about offering to change his dirty sheets so he could take a nap and maybe they would have paused so awkwardly in his room, five o'clock winter sunlight streaming down the brick walls in faint orange stripes and it might have happened then. But it didn't. She didn't know for sure whether he liked her then and he was too shy, too aloof. After he vomited, Collins made him wash his hair and shave his face. He sat in his bedroom, door closed, reading a biography of Genet that Collins had pressed into his hands the week before. She ate stale grocery cake and thought that in the future, she might regret not having done what she wanted to do. Now she regrets everything else, but not that day. It was for the best.
She got her nose pierced the next week, not that that's important. Or is it? A hundred times, he must have fingered the intrusive blue stud and asked her if it hurt and she always said no, laughed, he worried too much about everything. Maureen didn't remember how much it hurt, quite honestly. The memory was too infused with what happened after, though she doubted that it had led to anything later on. Anything that he might remember. At home that evening, Roger high-fived her and she had a beer, a whole bottle. Maureen drank it as conspicuously as possible, setting down the glass against the table with a decidedly rounded thunk. She wanted Mark to stop cutting up his film strips and come and notice her nose piercing, how spontaneous and plucky she had been in just deciding to get it pierced after she finished her shift at the café. And she was past eighteen, she was drinking.
He eventually finished his work and came by the table where she sat, his thick glasses perched upon his nose cockily, shy white hands grasping his pockets. Maureen waited for what he'd say.
"Have you got your paycheque, yet?" he asked softly.
"Oh," said Mark. "It's fine, just that we're a little short this month, but I can ask Roger to lend us some money if he gets that set on Friday night, but he said that he's pretty sure he'll get it, so we'll be fine."
"Alright," Maureen replied slowly. She tilted her face up to his, trying to get the blue stud to catch the light. He hadn't seen it.
"But you can ask for it sooner, you know," he said. "If, um, that's what you want. It's okay if you want me to ask Roger, but you can just ask Candice—"
"—to pay you sooner, and deduct it from your next cheque."
She stared at Mark intently for a moment, at the white-hot light bulb reflected twice in the lenses of his glasses. He looked down and she averted her eyes.
Mark walked off, back into his room, the door only half closed. He had work to do, loans to apply for to pay off his debt from Brown. She thought it strange that he had gotten his B.A. from an Ivey League school; he didn't seem like an Ivey League person. Too soft spoken, too unsure. He didn't wear the college sweatshirts either, but he had one. She knew, because Benny wore it once and said he had stolen it from Mark's drawers. They were both twenty-three, five years older than her. Not that that mattered when you were eighteen, but still.
A month later it was January and the five of them went to a movie. She was going to turn nineteen in two months. Her hair had been cut short in September and had grown out again, a little curlier than before. Maureen wore four beaded necklaces, each overlapping with the next. Her lipstick had the consistency of glue, but it brought out the natural blush of her cheeks. This was something she mulled over while smoking contraband cigarettes in the bathroom, door firmly locked to keep out Roger and Benny, who liked to pee and leave the toilet seat up.
Benny sat next to her in the movie. He leaned back in his chair, legs spread apart, staring at the screen with a feverishness that suggested he was desperately trying not to stare at Maureen. He had asked her out twice already. She agreed to go to lunch with him, mostly for the free meal, but declined going any further. Maureen knew it was silly, it wasn't as if she were holding out for Mark or anything. She wouldn't wait for anyone and this wasn't high school anymore. It was real life. Boys—men—didn't exist for the sole purpose of stealing shy glances at her, blushingly offering to carry her things with their high hopes tucked beneath their arms.
They watched the film. Mark was eating popcorn as inconspicuously as possible, but his rhythmic chewing and swallowing had a nervous edge to it that gnawed at Maureen's mind the whole time. She glimpsed him pushing his eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose for the fortieth time that day. It might have been a nervous tic. He was fixated on the film, his fingers interlaced in his lap. Roger occasionally turned around to give suggestive smirks to the pretty purple-haired girl behind him, who giggled and was promptly shushed by her friends. Time crawled by slowly; she lost track of the plot. Maureen got up and made her way out to the washrooms, so she could stare at herself as critically as possible. Take everything apart. What have I done wrong? The undersides of her eyes were hollowed out by half circles. She didn't get enough sleep, not since she started waiting tables during late nights so she could take the train to day classes at Pratt. Maureen tore a strip off the paper towels hanging from a dispenser and pressed her lips against it, making a dark pink kiss against the white. She moistened her lips. Everything was fine, fine, fine. She looked fine.
Roger was out in the hall, tapping his foot against the patterned carpet, drinking a lemon soda from a vending machine. His pockets jingled with change. He grinned at her. "You look good," he said. "But you're trying too hard."
"I'm not trying to look like anything," Maureen said steadily. She realized how hard she was clutching her purse.
"Don't worry," he ignored her comment. "I know him better than you do."
The purple-haired girl strode down the hall and flashed a smile at Roger, whose coat she dangled from one hand. Her eyes were large and dark, ringed by smeared kohl. She was thinner and taller than Maureen, with white wrists and a flat bosom.
"Are you coming to see the rest of the movie?" asked Maureen. She held her purse more loosely, albeit closer to her body.
"Sorry," replied Roger, "I have somewhere to go." The girl squeezed his hand. He laughed and waved at Maureen, accepting the jacket from his new paramour. Everything was easier for Roger. But it probably wouldn't last.
Maureen rejoined Benny and Mark in the dim theatre, awkwardly stumbling up the stairs, the pale footlights illuminating her path. She thought about tenth grade, and kissing boys in the dark, and Michelle Haldrow, who touched her hair sometimes. They shared gum, and whatever beers they could sneak out of the house in their backpacks. Michelle got her hair short like a boy's in eleventh grade. She dyed it an affecting shade of purple and everyone said she was a lesbian because they were jealous that her parents let her dye it. Maureen had two boyfriends in junior high and three in high school. She didn't think about them much anymore; their kisses were metallic and scratchy like braces, their hands moist and large. Michelle was different, not that they kissed or anything, but sometimes they leaned against the chain link fence and smoked as conspicuously as possible. They held hands like friends do. But her nineteenth birthday was only two months away, so high school was ancient history
PEOPLE LIKE YOU
After the film, Benny got in line at the concession stand to buy coffee and something to eat. The line was long and it was hot and stuffy inside. Everyone wore jackets fully unzipped, with scarves draped loosely around their necks and cheeks red from the cold outside and the heat inside. People breathed on each other. Maureen announced that would wait for Benny outside, underneath the marquee and Mark followed her.
Because he thought it was stuffy inside too.
They lingered next to the marquee, gazing up at the crooked black letters that spelled out the film they had seen. It was a small film, a mockumentary with English subtitles. Mark had known of it and suggested it. He was interested in films; that's what Roger had told Maureen when he introduced her room mates to her. Collins was a genius who liked to get stoned; Benny was an anal asshole who liked baking and being annoying; Mark liked films.
"What do you mean?"
"He likes films. He studied them in school."
She wanted to speak to Mark, but she couldn't think of anything to say. It was cold out; despite her mittens, her hands were freezing. She burrowed them into the pockets of her coat and gazed at the dark sidewalk. Traffic lights burned down the street; it was a moonless nights. There were no stars in the city. She bit her lip and thought about subtitles; they were annoying. Maureen preferred silly American movies that you understood. You knew them too well; you could predict what would happen next. You don't watch those movies, you just hold hands and wait for the right time. There was no right time with Mark. He was twenty-three and he watched real movies and he wanted Benny to come out so they could go home.
"It's cold," he said suddenly. His voice was soft. She looked up at him. He was swallowing; she saw the momentary bulge in his pale throat.
"Yeah. I'm shivering." She wasn't.
He nodded shyly. "I liked the movie."
"Yeah." She was being repetitive. "I liked it too."
Mark looked hard at her and then looked away. He wandered over to the brick wall of the building, where a bank of posters were contained in glass cases. He fingered the front of one. She couldn't see what movie it advertised because the posters were out of range of the marquee lights. They lay in shadow.
"French films are good," he said slowly, "but I wish I could speak the language." He looked up, as if he were thinking. "My favourite is Le Dernier Combat."
"I've never heard of it," confessed Maureen.
"You probably wouldn't have. It's pretty obscure. And it's science fiction," said Mark. "I mean, not that you necessarily wouldn't like science fiction," he added hastily. "I just thought you wouldn't."
"Why not?" asked Maureen. He was right, though.
"I don't know," he muttered. "You don't seem like the type. But I could be wrong. I mean, I just thought that people like you don't like science fiction. In French."
"I don't," said Maureen with a weak smile. They stood quietly, a few feet apart from each other. Mark looked tired. His glasses had slipped down the bridge of his nose. A streak of light made his blond hair glitter like silver. It was sticking up in the back. He could have used a few hours of sleep. Or more.
Something took hold in her. She went up to him and pushed his glasses up his nose, grinning too widely. He seemed a little surprised but unoffended. They paused in the moment.
And then he said, "I don't always like sci-fi. We didn't learn a lot about it in college."
"Oh." There was nothing else to say. It was very cold outside and she realized how freezing her features were. Her wool mittens had probably felt scratchy against his face when she pushed up his glasses. It was a silly thing to do. It was smart. It was flirting, but it wasn't. They slipped down; she pushed them up. Where was Benny?
"I'm really chilly," Maureen murmured. "Will Benny be out soon?"
"Probably." He had a really nasal voice. Deep and nasal. She hadn't noticed before. They glanced at each other, at the light playing off each other's skin. Her eyes glimmered and he glanced down.
"You're cold," said Mark softly. He touched her cheekbone with the scratchy leather of his gloved fingertips. He ran his fingers down to her neck and then drew his hand away quite suddenly. She was sweating through her coat, her t-shirt bunched up uncomfortably in her damp underarms. Hot and cold. Maureen kissed him suddenly on his moist mouth. She learned things then, unspoken facts of no real significance about the invisible stubble above his upper lip, the slight puff of his cheeks where they met the corner of his mouth. It was over so quickly. He exhaled gently and she tasted his breath; they separated.
They looked at each other. It was a fraught moment, a bit of frozen time outside on the frozen sidewalk. She saw his breath drift away in clouds and he tugged on his fading coat awkwardly.
Benny rushed through the doors of the theatre with sudden force, making both of them jump, startled. He was carrying a red and white striped cardboard tray of their food: two coffees, one of which was black, a bag of pretzels and a can of Tab. Mark and Maureen accepted their food gratefully. Mark wrapped his hands around his coffee, warming them.
"Pretty condescending, no?" asked Benny.
"Your Tab," he said. "The label." She glanced at it. It was pinkish red, with feminine white letters.
"I guess," she answered breathlessly. They made their way to the bus stop and drank and ate in the cold. Benny crunched on his pretzels; she imagined his salty saliva stinging her lips if they kissed. If he asked her out again, she would turn him down. She would turn him down indefinitely.
They rode the bus home. Benny and Mark spoke to each other in hushed tones about Roger and his latest female acquisition. Maureen sat on a worn velvet seat with her hand curled around the soda can, trying to hear what they were saying. She wore one mitten; the other had to be removed so she could carry her Tab.
"She's hot," said Benny. Mark glanced at Maureen for a split second and then replied with something unintelligible about Roger and "the last time…waitress with leukemia…and then he—." The bus went over a bump and they swayed forward and back. The two spoke softly; back ground noise filled the bus with a gentle buzz. Maureen was stuffy in her jacket, the heat pouring forth from a radiator next to her boots. The frost was melting off her hair, dripping onto her coat. She considered the taste of her soda. She had kissed Mark. He had a taste. He was better than Tab.
WHAT YOU WANTED
Six days passed. She counted them off. School and work dragged by, a blur. Maureen cleaned diner tables and studied Bauhaus architecture with one textbook balanced on her knee, her hand wiping off the Formica tabletop with mechanical motions. She memorized terms; exams were coming up. It was hard to focus. Maureen worked the latest shift at the restaurant, when skanky waitresses with pierced lips would wipe out the coffee maker and deep fryer, gossiping about their boyfriends, girlfriends, the cockroaches in their walk-ups. She liked to look at her reflection in the dark glass window. Her hair was full of flyaways, loosely knotted at the back. I'm pretty, sort of. I'm pleasant looking.
They hadn't spoken since that night at the theatre. There was no they yet, anyways. Later, Maureen would remember those six days with a strong burst of feeling. She could remember waiting, always waiting, behaving as normally as possible although she felt like an actor pacing backstage, nervous, waiting for her cue to come so she could float into the limelight. But she didn't know her lines, or what her cue would be. It had a dreamlike quality and a nightmarish intensity. Now Maureen knows that that was the week she started dividing all of her memories into two categories: Before she kissed him, and after. She thought about deciding what movie to see, zipping up her violet jacket, its hood drooping against her collar. That was before she knew what was going to happen. She wanted to warn her past self, but what would she say? Savour it. Just appreciate it while it happens.
One evening, Maureen worked on an essay for Pratt. It was about Bauhaus architecture, something she had little interest in. Big glass windows, the nineteen twenties, etc. Mark was labeling his cassettes with a fine ink pen. They tapes spilled out of a cardboard box, landing on the floor with impatient clicks. Mark sat next to the box, his legs crossed on the floor, emitting satisfied sighs every time he finished labeling a cassette.
"Hi," she said to him from the table. He glanced up at her without moving his head. His forehead wrinkled and the whites of his eyes shone in the light.
"Hi." He always said Hi. Maureen thought it was cute, one of those things you noticed about people but never mentioned. She had added it to her mental repertoire of Things She Knew About Mark.
"I'm just labeling these. I haven't really, um, they haven't been sorted since I left college, so…"
"Yeah. I'm working on a paper."
He nodded and went back to the box. Not all of the tapes were his; she noticed some labels that said Cindy's Concerto Thing and Give this back to Roger.
He was silent, except for his rhythmic sorting. She became frustrated and clawed at the misshapen metal rings of her notebook with her fingernails. She was wearing glossy red polish, chipped at the edges like dried blood.
"Y'know," Maureen started slowly, "you haven't said anything to me about what happened.
"What happened?" He was dangling a tape between his thumb and index finger. It was slipping through his grip.
She licked her lips. "Friday."
"What happened on Friday?" His voice was strong. She didn't detect the quavering in it.
"You're such a guy," Maureen said, attempting her best half-laugh. She spun around in her chair to face him. He dropped the cassette; it hit the floor with a decisive clunk. Her gold necklace had become tangled around her neck, its delicate crucifix sticking out at an odd angle. She untangled it with her fingers, flicking off a tiny shard of nail polish which came off after she scraped the chain with her nail. "You don't even remember?"
"I don't know…" said Mark. "I don't—what do you mean?"
"You kissed me," Maureen told him forcefully, "and you haven't even spoken to me since. I'm sorry, but that's what happened. You don't remember?"
Mark blushed softly. "I do remember. But it wasn't my fault, Maureen—"
"What do you mean, it wasn't your fault?" She felt warm again, sweaty, nervous. A dull ache in her stomach told her that she might regret saying what she was saying. "Somebody made you not speak to me?"
"Not that," he said, his eyes downcast. "You kissed me. I didn't mean to…" he trailed off.
"Well, that's what you wanted," Maureen whined. "You touched my face and leaned in, so I kissed you. It wasn't only me."
Mark put a cassette into his box lamely, his white hands clutching it tightly like rosary beads. He pushed up his glasses. Finally, he said, "Well, you were cold."
"And touching my face, that was really going to warm me up," she muttered sarcastically.
To her surprise, he laughed. Softly at first, and then more loudly. His face was now a charming shade of crimson. "Well," he said kindly, "I guess it wouldn't have, would it?"
She glanced down, discomfited by her angry tone. At how self-righteous she had been. He was smiling at her, his glasses askew upon his nose.
"No," Maureen agreed, glad for dissipating the tension. "It's okay."
Maureen giggled. "So you wanted me to kiss you."
He sighed awkwardly and paused. She fingered a seam in her jeans and waited for him to answer.
"I don't know if, like, if that's what I…I wasn't really thinking."
"Neither was I."
"But I wouldn't mind…" he murmured. "Like, if you kissed me now."
"Would I mind?"
Mark looked at her hard. "I don't think so?" It was a question.
"I wouldn't mind."
"Okay," he said. She can't remember much more after that. They probably kissed. He might have played Puccini on the stereo. Or not. There were Oreos involved, and playing with the soft collar of his t-shirt, the tiny holes in it letting pinpricks of light seep through. There were plenty of awkward moments and things almost said. It was only later, lying awake in bed and replaying the thing when she realized how cruel she had been to him. Maureen hadn't realized that he was shy, that she had embarrassed him. But she felt good then, to feel the sheets pulled taut over her, dreaming of how much there was ahead of them. She had only dipped her toe into the whole affair. All of the best parts were yet to come. The pain, too, but you don't think of that when you're eighteen.
That's the end of the beginning, which was technically the beginning of the end.
She alternately stumbled and floated through the next month. Mark and Maureen thought they had invented romance, as all lovers do. Maureen thought nobody else, other than Mark, could understand the unique joy in watching the Jiffy Pop crackle on the stove while holding each other's sweaty hands tightly. Clandestinely. Neither of them had told Roger, Benny or Collins that they were together. Mark was too embarrassed and Maureen, too happy to end what she would later think of as her honeymoon period with Mark. Surely, they would have to tell their room mates about each other. But not yet.
Roger brought his new girlfriend over, one evening. He told Maureen that she would have dinner with them while he shaved that morning, squinting at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. Half-empty hair products and toothpaste tubes cluttered the square of counter surrounding the basin. Maureen's eye shadow compact lay open, a dusty cloud of Twilight Blue sprinkled over the faux marble.
"The one with purple hair?" she asked. Maureen was sitting on the rim of the bathtub, swinging her foot out before her from underneath the oversized T-shirt she used as a nightgown.
"It's actually red now. But yeah."
"You met her at that movie."
"She's pretty cool. You'll like her."
"Maybe I won't," teased Maureen. "Maybe I'll hate her."
"Shut up," said Roger playfully. He scraped the razor across his face. "Her name's April."
"That's a hippie name. Do her parents smoke granola?"
He laughed gruffly. "Her parents aren't hippies. They do oil in Texas. Something like that."
"What's she doing in New York, then?"
"Her family has money."
Roger washed the foam off his face and dried it with a dirty, grey hand towel. "She likes it here."
Maureen groaned laughingly. "Probably in art school, then. She doesn't have any talent, does she?"
"She dropped out," Roger admitted. "She can paint okay."
Maureen pulled the t-shirt down over her stubbly knees—it was hard to wax your legs when you lived in a tiny apartment with four guys and one bathroom—and brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ears. "But you must have known for her for like, two months. Why do we get to meet her, all of a sudden?"
Roger ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know. I spent a lot of time at her place, but she just moved. She didn't want to live with her room mate anymore. The girl was, like, eighteen and a prostitute and she was always stumbling in at three in the morning, in tears. That's what April said."
She nodded. From what Maureen had heard from her high school friends, female room mates were a pain in the ass. She preferred to share her apartment with four boys, even if they all had inside jokes she didn't understand, favourite movies she couldn't bear to watch and some sort of similarity, a weird brotherhood that she would never be a part of.
April drifted in at seven o'clock wearing her short, red hair in two loose braids. Her lips were smeared unevenly with gold lipstick, and her zebra-striped top hung on her thin frame as if from a clothes hanger. Its hem just grazed her belly button. When she walked, her baggy skirt swung around her calves, which were adorned with emerald green, ripped leggings.
Roger kissed her openly on the mouth. The rest of his room mates greeted her awkwardly. April strutted over to Mark and said, in her teasing Texas accent, "You must be Mark!"
"Yeah," he blushed.
"The cute one!" she said enthusiastically. Maureen laughed; Roger slapped April playfully on the arm.
"Benny," he said. "The black one." An awkward moment. April looked at him hard, her head tilted, lips pursed and then giggled. Everyone else was silent. "Roger didn't say that. He told me you were a good cook."
"He's a good baker," said Collins. "He's an okay cook."
"Then I guess I won't be making you dinner tomorrow," said Benny, glancing toward Maureen, as if for approval of his joke. She shrugged.
Roger draped an arm casually over April's shoulders and led her to the aluminum table they did everything at; eat, read, write, argue, work out who could afford what share of the rent. They rarely cleaned it; crumbs usually just ended up swept onto the floor by an unknowing arm in the midst of clearing room for the newspaper. It was Collins' job to sweep the floor; other than that, he didn't do any chores around the general room.
They ate and chatted. April was lighthearted and cheery; she giggled at everything Roger said, sometimes taking his hand in hers and nibbling on his nails flirtatiously. Her sweaty bangs fell into her eyes. They finished a bottle of inexpensive wine and cracked open a few beers. Mark was silent for most of the meal, twiddling his fork and nervously catching Maureen's glances at him with a gentle smile.
"Tell me what you do, sweetie," said April. She fixed Mark with a sparkly-eyed gaze. "Roger told me you went to Brown."
"So did I," interjected Benny with a meaningful glance at her.
"He's a film maker," Maureen said.
Mark shook his head. "I'm sort of—I'm not really a film maker. I work for a stock film company."
"That's nice." April tipped a bottle of beer into her glass, sloshing some of the brassy gold liquid onto the table. Roger laughed and sopped it up with a napkin.
"Not really," he said sheepishly. "I just film what they tell me to. They usually use the film, well, the clips, for commercials and things like that. But they need a lot of stuff filmed in New York, so it's good…"
"Yeah." They cleaned their plates, except for Maureen. She hadn't been hungry that evening and so she felt especially woozy after drinking so much on an empty stomach. She and Collins volunteered to wash the dishes. Roger and April floated around, fingering each other's necks and laughing seductively at their lovely awkwardness together. Maureen hadn't seen him this entranced before. It was beautiful and nauseating at the same time.
Maureen cleaned the plates unevenly, letting water splash out of the sink. Steam turned her face red. A plate slipped from her hand and hit the metal basin with a loud clink, not breaking, but giving her a good scare. She didn't have great tolerance for alcohol but she enjoyed the vagueness, the almost unsettling lack of inhibitions it brought her.
"Collins, can I dry? I'm too sloshed to…"
"Yeah, sure," he said. "You shouldn't drink so much without eating."
"I know," Maureen giggled. "I know." She wiped a pot vigorously with Collins' already damp dishrag, leaving a wet spot in the middle and an extremely dry circle around it. Collins hummed a cheery theme song from a children's television as he washed, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet in time to the song. He was, perhaps, a bit sloshed too.
"Where's Mark?" she asked cautiously. There was no specific connection between them that could be articulated by their room mates; from Benny, Collins and Roger's point of view, she and Mark shared only a transitional language of prolonged eye contact and blushing, short moments together cleaning the windows or tidying the table when elbows and wrists brushed by each other accidentally on purpose. So she couldn't ask where Mark was in a possessive or mundane fashion, because she had neither a right nor a regular responsibility to know where he was.
"In his room, sulking" said Collins with a drunken chuckle. "Maybe cutting." She looked at him strangely, and Collins added, "Cutting film." They both smiled and Maureen giggled and looked down at her wet plates, her hand clenching the dirty, damp dishrag with white fingers and chipped lipstick-coloured nails. They washed and dried for a few more minutes, letting the hot steam rise from the sink and envelop them in their drunkenness like a cocoon.
"Hey," said Roger. "We're going out. We won't be back for a while."
April smiled at them. There was gold lipstick on her teeth. "C'mere for sec," she said to Maureen flirtatiously.
April pulled her arm unceremoniously into a corner and stage whispered into her ear, "Sweetie, it looks like you have your pick."
Maureen felt her face turn warm and anxiously patted down her hair. "What do you mean?"
April lowered her voice and said in her drawl, "They're smitten with you. You're a lucky girl."
"Oh," Maureen giggled. "Who is?"
"What're you guys whispering about?" boomed Roger. "Come on, we want to get going."
Pursing her lips, April mouthed one minute and leaned in close to Maureen. Her breath, a mixture of beer and sickly sweet maraschino cherries, tickled Maureen's cheekbone. "What's-his-name—Benny, and the other one. The quiet one."
"Mark?" Maureen drew in a breath.
"Yeah. Chocolate and vanilla. Whatever you like!" She giggled and hiccupped.
"April!" Roger tapped the floor with his foot, anxiously.
"Yeah, I'm coming, babe." She blew a kiss to Maureen and slipped her bare feet into plastic shoes easily. Roger held out her purple vinyl coat for her and she slipped it on, her back against his chest. He practically yanked her out the sliding metal door, and, after slamming it shut with a tinny thud, their hurried footsteps echoed against the linoleum outside until they reached the stairwell.
LOVED AND LOVED AND UNLOVED
She sat on top of a stack of textbooks, her jeans sticking to the unpeeled corners of laminating plastic. Mark leaned over and kissed her forehead. He was smiling. She pulled his cheeks back playfully and kissed him on the teeth, smearing her lipstick clownishly on his bottom lip. He swatted her genially and stepped into the books by accident. They toppled over and fell onto the floor with a loud clunk.
"Sorry," laughed Mark and she giggled. "I didn't mean to…" He offered a hand to help her off the ground, pulling her up just as the door to Benny's room swung open with a suspicious creak. They both glanced up, Mark's shining face turning decidedly deer-in-headlights.
Benny looked down gracefully and then looked back up at them. "Oh," he said. "I heard the loud noise and I thought I'd check it out."
"Yeah," Maureen responded too enthusiastically, "but it's nothing. Just, uh—"
"The books," said Benny. He looked meaningfully at Mark, who opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. She was suddenly very aware of the warmth in the room—Roger owned three grey plug-in fans, but they were all stored in his closet.
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Benny broke the silence again. "So. You guys, were, uh…"
"Benny," said Maureen gently.
"What?" He sounded just a touch too aggressive.
Mark said, "Look—" and then licked his lips. Becoming aware of the lipstick on his bottom lip, he wiped it off with his hand. "Look," he began. "It's not like, uh, we aren't…"
Benny smiled coldly. "I don't care, Mark. You're adults."
"But we're not really, like—"
Maureen looked hard at Mark, and then interrupted him. "I thought we were."
He turned to face her, sweat beads glistening at the top of his pinkish forehead, his collar a little damp. "Well," he murmured. "Maureen…" He gazed at her pursed lips, curly hair, the terse expression on her face. The strange trio of them, loved and loved and unloved. She could read his thoughts; he was lucky to be loved. And then he grinned nervously and said, "I guess we are. Together."
"Good for you," said Benny forcefully. He shrugged and retreated into his room. The door shut. Mark and Maureen looked at each other and laughed silently, tensely.
"I um," Mark spoke softly. "I like you a lot."
"You could have told me before." A few minutes ago, they were kissing and now they were going backwards.
"I'm telling you now," said Mark.
"I like you too."
"A lot?" He giggled.
"Yeah." He squeezed her hand and she felt a little burning in her, some good and some bad. It was going to hurt, she thought as they retreated into their separate rooms to think. It always hurts. Didn't she know that already? The hurt is part of it.
Mark, sunken into the desk chair in his room: He had already been hurt. He wanted some more. Please let it last.
It was almost summer, but Roger still seemed unnaturally sweaty when he returned home from a gig one night. Everyone was asleep except Collins, who sat on the floor in front of the open refrigerator, drinking a beer. His shirt collared shirt was unbuttoned and wrinkled; a stack of papers waiting to be graded sat next to him on the floor.
"Hey," said Roger as he slid the heavy door shut with ease. "Why's the fridge open?"
"It's hot in here."
"The fridge's going to get warm." Roger wiped the sweat off his forehead and set down his guitar case.
"You sound like Benny. Or Mark." Collins sighed. "It's always about the bill, isn't it?"
Roger laughed. The only light in the loft came from the refrigerator; it cast an ethereal fluorescent light onto the surrounding area. Collins and his papers cast long shadows.
"Hey. Come sit."
"Have you got anything to drink?" asked Roger.
Collins grinned in the dim light. "A twelve-pack."
"Then I'm in." He sat down next to Collins, his back against the cool aluminum shelves. A half-eaten apple wrapped clumsily in cellophane fell out. They both watched it roll away, lazily.
"So," said Collins. He sounded slightly drunk.
"You okay?" He touched Roger's warm hand and Roger jerked away, more out of surprise than disgust. "You feel hot."
"I'm fine," Roger assured him. "Really, you know…" He swallowed twice in a row. They fell into a long, sweet silence. The refrigerator hummed calmingly. Their legs, stretched out before them, seemed somehow to match: long, skinny, clothed in rumpled jeans. Collins pulled off his socks wordlessly. Roger's chin dropped. He was dazed and coming down from a high, obviously going to fall asleep.
Then Collins spoke. "Roger?"
"You know, your room mates are sleeping together."
"Oh." He perked up a bit and then relaxed. Nothing was changed, there was no tension. Not even a release. "I always knew Benny was into blonds."
Collins looked at him strangely and then they laughed in unison. Roger gave him a friendly punch and he pretended to fall over. The twelve-pack remained unopened, stored next to Styrofoam-clad noodles and a plastic cup of ketchup packets.
"When it ends…" said Roger carefully.
"Then it ends," Collins replied. They sat. They opened a bottle and drank. The night continued. It was obvious: they would come undone. It was not: they hadn't yet.