Right before it hit, I was at my most lucid. I had begun guessing with a 98.4% accuracy. I knew I was off about a couple of things but I felt secure in what I did know
1.The bugs that had descended the trees had all frozen so I didn’t have to worry about killing them.
2. The streetlights were out on almost every block.
3. I use intimidation as a tactic to seize opportunity.
I was in the center of Spruce hidden by a heavy snowfall. The ground was soft and white like powder. You could not hear the snow hit. You could not hear my steps.
I was in front of a house with two candles in the window and walking fast towards the knob. I’m sure if you could slow down time and cast the second of decisiveness like a projector onto a screen, you would see me praying under my breath. But what he and I will remember is the knowingness in which I swung the door open. I doubt I can recount the name I said with complete honesty but the feeling of being a wrecking ball, that never goes away.
“I am being followed,” I said putting my withered, gloveless right hand up, dropping the chewed plastic straw on the ground. “ I am sorry for the intrusion. I am being followed and I am almost out of food.” I closed the knob with the left,“I have no weapon or means to harm you.”
My hands hurt. My knuckles hurt.
We eyed each other like that in his foyer. He was no more than 5” 11’ and center to the door upon entry like he had been watching it. I made myself smaller in his presence. Where I may have stood 5” 8’ to someone else, I stood 5” 5’ and shrinking. Where I may have held my chin up at someone else, I lowered my head. Where I may have begun to pick the straw back up in a time of more comfort, I bowed and stayed there.
“Are you alone?”
“Where is your family?”
“My parents are dead.”
I looked up.
“I don’t have many and if they had intended to check on me, the storm made it harder. I just moved here.”
“I don’t have much,” he said.
“Sir, with all due respect, I can tell you have more than me.”
I did not budge.
“How did you get in?”
“The door was unlocked.”
“Fuck,” he turned his head to the left.
He was squarely in his forties, divorced, and might possibly have children. He was handsome, wearing a sweater, khakis, looked like he was still preparing to go to work. Like he hadn’t assumed his elderly parents dead like I had. Like he was living in a fantasy. He had great hair too, brown, thick, long.
“I went out earlier,” he said. “You shouldn’t be out at dark. It’s getting more dangerous out there.”
“Well,” I didn’t move any closer. “I have a cat. I need to return to her. The stores are barricaded and the gas stations have been cleaned out.”
“This area is being patrolled.”
“Well, they didn’t stop me from walking this far and I can’t leave empty handed.”
He shifted uncomfortably.
“What’s your cat’s name?”
“Genevieve,” I said without blinking. “She is all I have left.”
I hadn’t moved from the front door. He hadn’t invited me in. We stood squared liked that. Audibly, he sighed. Suddenly, I wished for something else. Like a bomb or my Gigi, my security blanket I slept with until I was fifteen. I knew it was a long shot but I asked.
“Do you have any cat food, at least?”
“You know they just cut the gas line?”
Forget about the bath.
We stayed like that, squared. Me, uncomfortable and cold in black combat boots and jeans. Him, dressed for dentist appointment. Looking past me, at the shrouded window, he cocked his head towards me again. A gesture of deliberation. Try not to gulp loudly. Ignore the straw. The silence was thick like the sky, maybe just as gray. But then he motioned with his hands to come to the dining room as he turned and walked away.
“Lock the door, please,” he tossed over his shoulder and I followed him to the dining room. “Have a seat.”
I sat. He returned quickly with two steaming mugs of water which he set on the table awkwardly, slowly, as if he was practicing being watched. Had been a while since he made conversation. Had been a while since he carried two mugs.
“I thought you said the gas was off.”
“I boiled this before it happened. I am sure you can use some.”
Nonchalantly, he tried to slide the mug nearest to me but it got stuck and sloshed a little over the top. I nodded and reached out to pick it up:. plain blue, no words written on it, no football team. This mug had no personal meaning to him. Towering over me, his eyes inspected me as he sipped his piping hot mug and I allowed it. Not just the obviousness of his gaze, but my sitting while he stood so he appeared six foot where he was just an inch shorter. I was a stranger in his house after all. There were no pictures in his dining room.
“Some people have back up generators,” I began.
“I don’t.” He contined to look at me.
I am going to die of pneumonia.
“Where is your family?” I asked him.
“They have gone. West.”
“This was years ago.”
Divorced. Two kids, both boys.
“I am divorced.”
I didn’t grin. I sipped my mug waited.
“You ever been married?”
I looked up with my eyelashes.
He sat down at the head of the table. I sat cordially. We sat there in his candlelit dining room lined with mirrors and no pictures and drank boiled water slowly.. It was hard to keep the conversation going. Moments passed before I moved again.. It was seven pm and I was trapped here.
“I miss my family,” I said.
He took a final sip of his water and then got up suddenly.
“You’re hungry?” he pointed at me.
He walked into the kitchen. I scooted my elbow across the table to crane my neck more easily without it being too apparent that I wanted to see what he was doing. From this distance, I saw two candles on an end table and the usual assortment of things: silver fridge, counters, trashcan, some papers, some cans stacked underneath the cabinet. He turned suddenly and I became preoccupied with my mug.
“A protein bar.”
He handed me a lemon thing with oats in a yellow wrapper and many exciting black fonts on the front.
“I was going to heat up soup until this happened.”
“We can eat it cold.”
He shrugged a bit, “You’re right. This is an unusual week.”
He brought out beefaroni. Meat.
“It’s been so cold, I doubt it’s bad.”
I stifled my urge to tell him but then he asked
“You’re not vegetarian are you?” he smiled.
He had a handsome smile. White teeth.
“Not anymore,” I smiled back.
He handed me a spoon.
“Bon appetit,” he winked.
How quickly we settle into routine and it wasn’t a petulant silence that wore us but a calm nothing in the room. You heard only the gentle scraping of two metals as we dipped our spoons into the cold cans. Not talking, as we scooped the uncooked, saucy dumplings into our mouth. I tended to wolf food down when hungry but in the company of men, I try to avoid this unseemly side of me so I began timidly each bite and in between chewing began to offer friendly conversation. I swallowed a tiny bite, a dainty bite. I was starving. I could not eat fast enough. I could not eat slow enough.
He smiled a little and stood up.
“I’m finished,” he reached his hand out to collect my can.
I looked up in surprise and waited, almost wanting to hand him the can instinctively.
“Oh, I am still eating.”
He nodded and walked to the kitchen, back turned, without suspicion. I heard metal clanging and assumed it was the trashcan opening or shutting. I peeked over again; thought I saw him stacking something on top of the trashcan. The freeze had brought in rodents. They were everywhere now and definitely in your pantry. I took the opportunity to swallow two of the beef dumplings whole and take a large gulp of water before he got back. My mouth was still full when he came out with some wrapped brownie thing.
“Oh,” he eyed me, mouth full.“I forgot to offer you a napkin.”
I could feel the sauce smeared across my face. Too much. He turned back again to grab one and I wiped my face with my sleeve, chewing as fast as I could. Back quicker, then I thought, I grinned without teeth to express appreciation.
“Take your time,” he handed me a paper napkin.
Chewing slowly and deliberately, I kept my chin down like the doctor told me.
“Take smaller bites, put your head down and make an effort to swallow and over time, you may find that it gets easier.”
She handed me a script.
“Take this too.”
I was not out of meds yet but would be and that was the least of my concerns. The brownie had nuts on top, sat plainly in front of me in its plastic wrap. One giant brownie, not like the kind I ate as a child; where two came in a package and I ate six a day. Don’t tell him this.
He was still standing when he said, “I don’t have any cat food.”
“It’s ok. Thanks for dinner.” I added, “And dessert.”
He stood over me a bit but I didn’t budge. Finished the cold Beefaroni in front of him. Wiped my mouth in front of him. He stood there. Stay calm. I hate men towering over and people watching me eat and if this was any normal day in spring, I would have commanded he sit or fled or threw my spoon at him but instead I took dainty bites like this was charm school. Like this was a normal day in spring. Like I was here for impression, twirling, bowing, c h a r m. I began to unwrap the plastic carefully knowing I was almost out of water.
“There’s a little bit of water left,” he said, peering down at me.
Nodding without facing him, I focused on unwrapping the paper. We were making each other nervous and I was scared anything I told him would make him uncomfortable. I regretted telling him anything. He carried the kettle to the table. It was that Target-brand bright teal.There was no originality here. Start a conversation. No, a normal conversation.
“Thanks SO much for the water.”
When I recount things, sometimes they are blurred by my filter; my emotion at the time of recall. I understand that the way to get an extra brownie is to walk in the room the grinning ingenue. I watch them breathe as we continue to talk. I watch their shoulders slag. I watch their faces change into suns and smiles and laughter. But I’m of bitten tongue recalcitrance. This is called “walking the tightrope.” When I recall things, I must remember if temper came into play, if anxiety was near, or if I was a gymnast doing cartwheels for the crowd. The confluence of each part of me is what creates the story. I must remember which part I played. What I will remember about this man is that when he poured the hot water, he smiled at me in a fatherly way, and that I was not the coquettish mouse trapping cats in the basement, but the helpless girl in the dark gripping horror films to stop her wailing.
He put the kettle on the table and sat back down. I was visibly nervous, fidgety. I kept placing my palms face down on the table and pressing them into the wood. Then, I would retract them and place my palms together and then place them on the top of my thighs. It’s hard to do this without being noticed. My straw was still at the door. I looked down at my hands on my thighs getting ready to start the cycle again. I opened them and flipped them over to study my palms, unsure of how to start a conversation or how to stop myself from moving involuntarily. Even in this cold, I felt light, ready to fly.
“Tell me more about yourself. Your name?”
“My cat is Genevieve. We live a few blocks from here, alone.”
“And you walked here?’
“Yes, I tried to go to the stores and they were already raided or locked. I started walking and then I got kind of turned around, lost, then scared.”
“And you came here?”
I dug my nails into my pants wishing my tips were longer or my layers were less.
“I panicked. Looked for light. The knob was unlocked. I was going to knock if it wasn’t. I may have been imagining the people. It’s cold and dark out there.”
“You don’t have any friends, you said?”
“I just moved here a couple months ago. I have one friend but we don’t know each other well and my dad is sick in Virginia.”
He nodded and stroked his beard. The habit seemed old. He probably didn’t realize he was doing it.
“My phone died.”
“Did you bring it with you?’
“No,” I shook my head, forlorn. “I wasn’t thinking. Is your phone working?”
“A little. I have been keeping in touch with my wife and kids. It’s a mess out there.”
“My dad is dead.”
“How do you know?”
He leaned forward.
“He’s on oxygen, lost power right away, no one to help him really. It’s a long shot. I would have driven but I don’t have a car.”
Let yourself sob. A tear formed in my eye and I studied his table. Red wood like mahogany, old, antique. His wife’s. Too big to take west.
“Where is your wife again?”
He didn’t answer and instead stared at me. I deserve consolation, true, but here comes the fit of rage. I was a spool of tumult and if you pull me right, you get what you get. Let yourself cry.
I looked up surprised. I wasn’t expecting that.
“Got a better job. Can’t complain now,” he shrugged. “My kids are safe. If the airports weren’t closed, I’d fly out.”
“You don’t drive?”
Don’t react to anything he says. I was done crying if that’s what that was. The rage had passed. The storm. I heard sirens.
“Curfew,” he plainly stated.
Don’t react to anything he says.
“Look, you can’t go back out there. It’s curfew and even if you tell them you are just walking home they may not believe you.”
“I thought curfew was at eleven.”
He waved his hands, “I don’t know but I just heard the sirens and the storm is getting bad. Probably precaution. Anyone out now won’t make it if they are far from home.”
And the thing that breaks you is the synthesis of all of it.
“Let’s move into the living room,” he began to stand up.
And the thing that stuns you is the words. The pragmatic formation of sentences meant to protect. Facts.
“I have a fireplace,” he extends his hand towards me.
And the hiss that you repress to remain cordial as your chest cracks in half. I take his hand. I grew up in a shack on the outskirts of Norfolk, Virginia that has been slowly weathered by hurricanes over time. My dad sits on the edge of my childhood bed and watches football and eats Hostess cupcakes. The floor is ruined from his cigarette smoke and uncleanliness. It resembles nothing now. Once, it was a shade of dark purple and the ceiling had glow in the dark stars all over that kept me safe in the dark. Any note I had hidden to myself has been found and discarded. My dad keeps mementos of me near, things I have written him or bought him. He calls me once a week and attends a methadone clinic daily. The whirr of the oxygen tank fills the house when he sleeps. Our house is full of crickets and cockroaches, spiders and sometimes snakes. My dad lives there alone and I know that sometimes he walks into my dead brother’s room to cry. I place my palm firmly in this stranger’s hand. I let him lead me to his fireplace. The first thread has been pulled. The spool has begun to unravel. Theater tonight is a longing and resentment.
But at least we are warm.
I let out a short laugh, like a cough.
“Hmm?” he asks in the doorway of the fancy living room.
“Oh, it will be good to be warm,” I say.
The second siren goes off and he’s right. It’s seven pm, twenty nine degrees and eight days without electricity in this town. Somewhere in Norfolk, an oxygen tank stops and someone pulls their breath from a deep resolve and I too march.