MyÂ wife Keith forgot to pay the rent again, and Hector is pissed off. Keith is a forgetful woman, and so am I. Keith is the only woman I’ll ever love besides myself. But today Hector hassles and pesters her, my Keith-wife, and I just watch unobtrusively from my mug, chair in hand. Hector blusters and tumbles out broken insults through his lisp. Keith doesn’t understand his sounds at all, but I can tell she wants to cry. Hector is a peculiarly shaped man. He is short, and wide. If you were to graph Hector, you would find his domain far more incredible than his range. His breadth could easily envelop the entirety of our moldy floor, but arms stretched vertically, Hector’s fingertips would barely brush the freckle just below Keith’s jaw. A wonderful freckle.
The rent for our distasteful hovel was due months ago. Keith has a job sometimes teaching third graders how to read and write and count while simultaneously depositing them into nifty, socially regulated gender roles. Her gorgeous blonde hair and melting blue eyes make her everyone’s favorite closet homosexual substitute third grade teacher. Aside from Mr. Howard.
Keith would probably make more money snipping hangnails off these kids’ tiny fingers, or raking leaves from their yards, but she becomes very cold and soggy whenever I bring up this point. Keith is emotionally available. My emotions are only available on alternate Sundays, and never to the general public. I make money, sure. But not enough to satisfy the admittedly small requirements of our landlord Hector. And not nearly enough to pay Keith to remember to pay the rent. Believe me, Iâ€™ve tried.
Hector is pointing his finger at Keith now and she glances at me and I glance down, see a spot on the floor, retrieve cleaning supplies from my secret shelf of cleaning supplies, begin to scrub. This floor is delicate and unfriendly, like the rest of our abode. The weight Keith and I lost due to our limited income and resulting cut back in daily caloric intake came to serve us well, because our floor has extremely tense, nervous shoulders and was not meant to bare very much weight. Beneath Hector’s figure-hugging white shirt, we can actually see a bit of his tattoo. This tattoo has been through hell. In its original conception, it was an uncomfortably large portrayal of the Virgin Mary across Hector’s then rather trim stomach, but since Hector’s substantial weight gain, the image now resembles a diseased Christmas tree. Hector thinks that once he takes up regular exercise again, Mary will be back the way she was before. He is wrong. Keith and I both know what Mary will look like after she’s been through Christmas tree hell and back, and it wont be pretty.
â€śThatâ€™s what you said two months ago.â€ť Hector spits when a talks. I navigate my sponge towards the spots where his saliva has sprinkled the ground. â€śI promise.â€ť Says Keith. Keith is wonderful at making promises. She could make weeks of promises, and keep them like the misfit keeps up with the nonconformist societyâ€™s violent attempts to not keep up with the rest of the world, like Hectorâ€™s nicotine wife keeps from smoking,Â like I keep scrubbing at this ancient stain, trying in vain to change history. Keith promises are, at best, aesthetically pleasing umbrellas.
Finally, Hector leaves, and Keith comes over to me. â€śIâ€™m tired.â€ť She says. â€śTalking about money makes me so tired.â€ť She winds blonde hair up in her fingers and touches her face a bit. â€śI just want to curl up in a ball and sleep.â€ť I stand up. Sentient rock. I meet Keithâ€™s lower back with my damp hand and gently touch it. I tell her she can sleep if she wants, and she smiles mildly as she winds her hair all the way into our bedroom. I put my cleaning supplies away and look at my reflection in the mirror. Looking in our mirror is like looking at yourself backwards and in Swedish. Itâ€™s like seeing the inverse of yourself squared, and with leprosy. With one hand I brush hair behind my ear. My hair is dark. Keith and I know that, with our starkly opposite hair colors, any child of ours would have hair that distorted color of burnt trees or sidewalk. And then we remember we canâ€™t procreate. As I use the moisture on my hands from the sponge to persuade my dark hair to lay sleek and smooth, I hear knocking. I move in carefully trained steps over the ill-tempered floor and stick my eye through the hole in the door that Keith and I cut out. There is Lisa. Lisa is our right-side neighbor, if youâ€™re looking at the front door, not the window, not to be confused with our left-side neighbor Melanie, who is nice, but not as nice as Lisa. Lisa is really, really nice. Whatâ€™s worse, is that Lisa is the kind of woman that makes you want to do nice things for other people. Let me make it clear that it is not in my nature to go out of my way to shower anyone with pleasantries of any kind. But when Lisa first moved in I was gripped with an uncontrollable altruism that I hated, but had no choice but to satisfy. I made 2,000 paper cranes, and distributed them among homeless children, along with a hand-written poem for each of them, all of which were seemingly belletristic, but had dark, political undertones. I thought Lisaâ€™s witchery had surely only befallen me, and kept it close, a secret thrill. But when one afternoon, I saw Keith filling her bag with Tylenol and cat litter, I knew Keith had been swept up too. Ever since then, Keith and I have been hopelessly infatuated with Lisa. Her easy brunette curls, the addictive envy provoked by her every garment, the way you felt your life casually being split with her first glance, and yet the way her second one seemed to glue it back together into a more beautiful shape than it was before. Keith and I both knew of Lisaâ€™s unspeakable potency, but could never talk about it.
Today Lisa looks lovely, and I instantly surge with annoyance at my hands, which smell of bad mud. â€śGood morning.â€ť Lisa says. It is two in the afternoon. But if Lisa refers to two in the afternoon as morning, the sun backtracks in the sky, birds crack their lungs with song, and I feel in my body a reflex to brew coffee. â€śGood morning.â€ť I reply. It really isnâ€™t the same when I say it. I just sound stupid. â€śI was wondering,â€ť Lisa begins. I am distracted by her exquisite neck and collarbones, and wrench my gaze upward to her mouth as she speaks, trying to translate the distorted music that escapes it into words. Lisa continues, â€śI was wondering if you needed anything from the grocery store. Iâ€™m headed there now. In fact,â€ť Heart stops. â€śYou could even join me if you like.â€ť Now is when I do the only thing I am really good at, and that is making split-second decisions. When you are married to a woman as content with being indecisive as Keith is, all of the decision-making responsibilities in the relationship are shifted to you, and your ability to discern the most logical choice within a time period as limited as 3 seconds, becomes damn near superhuman. Now Lisa offers to take me with her to the grocery store. I have infinite options, obviously, but only two are important: Go with Lisa to store, or stay home with sleeping Keith. There are several things to consider. I have only seconds before Lisa decides I am crazy, or perhaps just agoraphobic with an emphasis on grocery stores. Although, if this were the case, Lisa would understand. Sheâ€™s just that nice.
I consider: 1), An incident several weeks ago, one afternoon where I neglected to tell Keith that I was venturing over to Lisaâ€™s apartment to help her fix her washing machine, and Keithâ€™s rather irrational, un-Keith-like reaction. 2), The fact that we really do need groceries, because all we have in our kitchen is, quite literally, lime marmalade, and we are fast becoming aware of just how effective the lime marmalade diet is. 3), Keith is asleep, and Keith does sleep hard… 4) Lisa is really, really nice. And 5) The grocery store is just about 0.6 miles away, and if you account for the walk, round trip, the actual shopping if we only purchase items at from a maximum of 4 different aisles, the line, and the fact that itâ€™s Wednesday, which means it shouldnâ€™t exceed more than 3 people if we purchase 10 items or less and are able to pay at the express register… I wonâ€™t forget ice, but Lisa might. Iâ€™m just deciding on the 10 absolutely crucial grocery items we need, when Lisa says â€śNo pressure or anything. I just thought Iâ€™d offer.â€ť The pressure is like being buried alive. My brain regurgitates the conclusion it has come to: â€śThe lime marmalade is congealing. We should walk fast.â€ť
As Lisa and I walk to the grocery store, I try not to think about sleeping Keith at home. Before we left, I asked Lisa to wait just a moment, and used that moment to make sure that the heater (not that we can afford heat) was keeping the house at about 68 degrees, which is Keithâ€™s favorite sleeping temperature, and to snag the 7 dollars and 83 cents that I had saved inside one of Keithâ€™s Tony Hillerman novels. I felt the change tumbling around in my pocket as we walked, but I took little notice of this. Lisa was wearing boots, and incredibly appropriate jeans. Her curls were as easy as ever as they spilled over her shoulders, which were encased in thin, flowery material. Maybe bees would try to cross-pollinate with her, and find themselves growing faint with amazement at her radiance. â€śI hope I wasnâ€™t intruding.â€ť Lisa says. â€śNo.â€ť I say to her. â€śI was just cleaning the floor. As I said, we really need groceries anyway.â€ť Lisa smiles at me. â€śYou didnâ€™t say that.â€ť Sheâ€™s right. Sheâ€™s nice, and sheâ€™s right. â€śThe lime marmalade is congealing. We should walk fast.â€ť I speed up, wondering whether it may have been smarter to just eat myself to death on the rotten fruit preserves at home. As we enter the store, Lisa picks up a shopping basket and hangs it on her arm, pulls out a list. It has long been a dream of mine to catch a glimpse of Lisaâ€™s shopping list, and now I get to. I covertly look down at the paper in her hand, while grabbing a basket of my own. Milk. Eggs. Butter. The rest are things I donâ€™t understand because I never shop outside of the dairy, and bread aisles, and Lisa doesnâ€™t buy carbs. However, this does disprove some stupid argument that Keith once made about Lisa being vegan. I try not to think about Keith. As I walk with store through the Lisa, I pretend she is my girlfriend, and that we are shopping together for food we will put in our fridge at home. I know that I need ice, bread, cheese, and a specific brand of vegetable-based vitamins for Keith, but I forget the vitamins on purpose, because I donâ€™t want Lisa to think I am deficient. â€śDid Hector come to talk to you today?â€ť Her hand skims mine. I am incredibly cognizant of the time we are wasting. â€śWhat? Not to ask us for rent. All our payments are made. Keith teaches kids and I make money.â€ť Lisa laughs. â€śWell thatâ€™s good. I only ask because I thought I heard him earlier.â€ť The only infuriating thing about Lisa is the way she seems to be oblivious to herself. She doesnâ€™t notice the way objects step casually out of her path, she doesnâ€™t notice that the song crackling through the store speakers adjusts to play in the key in which she hums, she doesnâ€™t notice the jealous looks people give me, her escort, and neither do I, because I only notice Lisa. We near the express line, and I look down at my basket. The only thing in it are a few cans of chicken broth and some peanuts. You try keeping track of your hands, or any of your extremities, while shopping with Lisa.
Lisa continues to hum all the way home, a slow, salty, song that makes me cry. It starts to rain, and I thought maybe the rain would avoid Lisa, falling around her. But it wets her skin and hair just as it wets mine, though I know I canâ€™t possibly look as clean and excited as her. As she tilts her face upward just a little bit to greet the drops, I feel her fingertips on mine. I let a second pass,Â with thousands of raindrops in it, and the fingers are still there. It is not a mistake. It is a question. Decide between two possible answers. This one doesnâ€™t require any calculations. This one doesnâ€™t take even a second. The rain is all over Lisa and I.
Hours later, I open the door to our house. Lisa doesnâ€™t turn to leave, even though her eggs must surely be in need of refrigeration at this point. The house is warm, and silent. â€śWell,â€ť Lisa says. I look at her. Then she says something else. Whatever she says, is a pile of sand, from which I am able to extract only a few things. Rain. Tonight. Me. Visit. Me. Rain. Join. Tonight. My house. It doesnâ€™t matter how the sentence was intended to be constructed. The way I interpreted it was enough to make me explode, slowly. I turn around, drop groceries on the floor. I donâ€™t tread lightly on the fragile floor, I stomp, hoping that it will give up and let me fall, crashing through several floors. I open the door to our bedroom, and Keith is not there.
Lisa is my kitchen, holding sweaty eggs in a grocery bag.
My wife Keith is gone.
I am in my empty bedroom, 68 degrees, dirty clothes in a pile on the ground, sheets smelling like my wife Keith.
The tears I shed over Lisaâ€™s salty song are still on my face, but they now revolt me, so I change them into tears about something else. Anything else. Keith. The eggs Lisa had bought that inch closer to death with every minute they spend outside her refrigerator. The homeless children. The cat litter. Lisa enters the room and asks me what is wrong. She is nice. Lisa is really nice. But she is not Keith. I tell her Keith is gone, and she offers to call the police. I tell her to leave. â€śWhat?â€ť Lisa is surprised. â€śYou have to go home. Your eggs need to be refrigerated. They will go bad. Not to mention your milk.â€ť â€śBut what about Keith? Do you know where she is? Shouldnâ€™t I help you find her?â€ť No. I donâ€™t want Lisa to help me find anything. â€śJust go home Lisa.â€ť She does.
I walk to the mirror. The thing about this mirror, is that when, in real life, you actually do resemble the inverse of yourself squared, backwards, and in Swedish, with leprosy, in the mirror, you just look normal. So I look, and I see my normal self. Dark hair, birth mark on my left temple, stale makeup on indefinite, cluttered features. I look at myself and know for sure that Iâ€™ll never really see Lisa again. All I feel is a relief to be rid of the altruistic infection I suffered. Yuck. I hope that where ever Keith is, she feels the same relief.
A few weeks pass, and every morning the mirror shows me my normal self, telling me I still look crazy in real life. Those same tears are still on my face, the ones that I first shed for Lisa, then changed into Keith tears. They sting.
A few more weeks, and the groceries I dropped on the floor have died and decomposed. Flowers have bloomed in their place, and they make me feel like a funeral.
Hector comes to talk to me. He is worried about me, and about Keith. He really wants things to work out, but I tell him they never will, because of what happened. Because of Lisa. I tell him she left, because she knew. I should have known she would know. He understands. Hector maybe be blusterous and tumbling, but he understands. Lisa has long since moved out, and my new right-side neighbor is John, a writer. I never even see him because he is nocturnal and has his groceries delivered.
A few more weeks. I have been able to pay a fraction of the rent with the money under the bed, something I saved a long time ago, first with the intention of taking a vacation with Keith, then with the more practical intention of buying a new toaster. Those things are all I want now, but instead I am using that money to pay rent, because I havenâ€™t been to work in weeks and weeks. I become so sad and lonely that I can barely stand up. The mirror has no idea how to interpret my image and whenever I look in it I just see a pineapple. My parents call me and ask me if my marriage is failing, and I hang up. I try to drink alcohol and I just fall down some stairs. Itâ€™s been months since Iâ€™ve seen my Keith wife, and Iâ€™m losing my mind. I try not to wonder where she is or what sheâ€™s doing. Hector and his wife Jill begin to have me over for dinner a few nights a week. Their kids are Francisco, Diego, and Lola, and theyâ€™re great. They ask their mother why I donâ€™t really eat anything, and she says, in Spanish, â€śShe canâ€™t, because she has a broken heart. Her wife Keith left her.â€ť They understand. John and I become friends, and I go over to his house every night to write with him. I try to write a love song for Lisa and it sounds like paint. I try to write a love song for Keith and it sounds like nothing, but it makes me feel better. I want to show it to her someday. John is an interesting friend, and I soon spend every night at his house, and every day with Francisco, Diego and Lola, and I become fluent in Spanish. Iâ€™m too busy trying not to sleep to sleep.
Finally, I am so empty that I fall down. John comes to look for me, and smiles when he see me asleep in my bed. He wakes up the heater, which has been dozing forever. When I wake up, I am warm and I smell cinnamon, and lime marmalade.
Why does Keith come home?
Because it is time.
My wife Keith and I have a thing. We will not always know where the other is, or what she is doing, or who she is with, or what groceries she is buying. But we will probably always know how to find each other.