In the beginning came the tub. It came with two taps, and the one marked “hot” gleamed slightly. She climbed into the tub, and the water came on. A miracle. What was she doing? She was washing her feet. If she stayed long enough they’d be washing their feet every day.
“The water’s lovely,” she said. “Why don’t you join in? Don’t be such a grouch.”
She jerked at the bathrobe. The strap came off and fell on the tiles. The water splashed on her legs, and she cupped her hands and threw it over chest and face. She started to sing. It looked like she’d worn very tight shoes. High heels? He couldn’t remember. She was smiling as she sang. The water was filling up fast, and she reached for the green bath salts.
“Come on, Rudi, it’s wonderful,” she said, making a face.
It was short for Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer. His real name was something else. He began to shave. Menthol foam, then the new razor. She liked his antlers. He finished shaving and jumped into the tub.
“You’re so smooth now,” she whispered.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, marveling.
Her hair was soft with spurts of water, and she couldn’t see because of the bubbles. He would take her to the Bergman film that evening. She would like Bergman. And then through the snow to Lindy’s for cheesecake. The special for him, maybe the strawberry topping for her. The sign there said Lindy and Clara were Mr. and Mrs. Broadway. The room was filling up with steam. She pulled him under, and he forgot to close his eyes.
She rinsed them with water from the tap. Her fingers were smooth and very strong, a little knobbly at the knuckles.
“Knobbles,” he said into her ear. “Mind if I call you that?”
She didn’t mind. After all, he was only a grouch.
“Rudi,” she said, stroking his chin. “My Rudolph.”
Her body was pink and peachy and inviting, droplets clinging to her skin like rose petals.
“Tell me about yourself,” he asked afterwards, lying beside her in the tub, as the water began to cool on their skin.
“There’s nothing to me.”
“Oh yeah? How d’you spend your time, anyway, all by yourself in this lousy apartment?”
“I collect things, stamps and stuff. And write. And drink a bit. That’s it. Now it’s your turn.”
“What d’you wanna know?”
“When did you decide -- I mean -- what made you become --?”
“A hooker? Is that what you think of me? Just because I allowed you to buy me drinks in a bar?”
“Come on -- it was pretty obvious. Anyway, it’s your own business.”
“Right. I’ve been doing this, let’s see -- about five years. It was after I had the abortion, when I got depressed and started doing heroin.”
“Still using it?”
“Now and then.”
“An expensive habit, so you need the extra income?”
“Yes. I mean, I have a regular job and all that, but it doesn’t pay squat. It’s not just the drugs. I like to eat out, travel, enjoy life. I have friends who like to live it up. We went to Macchu Pichu last summer.”
“Must have been fun.”
“It was wild, really wild. The mountains get to you after a while. You don’t feel like coming back. Then we saw where they sacrificed virgins, up there on the slopes.” She grinned at him.
“Human sacrifice is always interesting. In some cultures -- I think it was the Incas -- they yanked out the victim’s heart while it was still alive.”
“My feelings exactly.”
She was now an underwater diver and she didn’t answer. The bathroom was filling with steam.
There was no answer. He wondered if she’d had a drug-induced seizure. Maybe he had used too much force while touching her face. Her face was so inviting, he hadn’t been able to resist.
The water was spilling over, and he turned off the tap.
Then she came up, spitting and spewing. She coughed, spat water, and dragged herself up onto her haunches.
“Why did you do that! Were you trying to kill me?”
“All I did was touch your face!”
“Who are you, anyway? You some kind of weirdo?”
“I’ll put on some breakfast.”
He went into the kitchen and began to crack eggs.
She screamed. “What’s this in your cupboard! A skull?”
“I told you I was a collector.”
“I’d better go. You’re so weird!”
“Wait till you’ve had breakfast.”
“I’m off!” she shouted, hopping into her shoes. “I’m calling the cops!”
“Be my guest. Anyway, I’ve locked the door, and the phone doesn’t work. You may as well enjoy the eggs. Over easy?”
And she did, loud and clear.
A jackhammer began operating just then, across the street near a pile of snow.
“OK, game over!” he shouted above the din.
She came up to him, nuzzling his ear. “You were very good.”
The jackhammer paused.
“You too.” He rubbed his little finger behind her ear. “Tickle?”
She dipped her finger into the pan, then stuck it, oozing and yellow, into her mouth. “Mmm.”
He kissed her, tasting the yolk.
“You need to be more careful next time,” she told him, between kisses. “You nearly drowned me.”
“I’m sorry. I got a bit carried away. Still, it’s not like we’re playing Russian roulette or anything.”
“Yeah, that roulette party was really wild. Remember Cassie?”
He smiled. “Lucky she came to. I got pretty worried when she passed out after the gun went off.”
“You were smart to put in blanks last time. But I wouldn’t trust you next time, my clever dear.”
“Oh no? Who’s the one who played Salome? Running the axe blade up and down my neck. I got nicked, remember?”
She laughed, slinging her arms around his neck, her fingers rubbing the scar. “Just a prank, my dear. As I recall, you thoroughly enjoyed the dirty dancing.”
“It was a whole lot of fun. Now, how about some more action after breakfast?”
“Nope. I’ve got stuff to do. Got to call Rodney.” Her voice had taken on a more resigned, business-day tone.
“The new guy at work. I told you about him. A marketing whiz -- I’m going over the November sales figures with him.”
He shrugged and looked out of the window. Two workers in padded orange jackets were standing near the jackhammer, arguing.
She left the kitchen and settled on a sofa in the living room, starting work on her laptop, her strong pink fingers clicking away methodically. As he watched her work, he found himself growing very bored. He could easily have spent the whole day in amusements, sex play, maybe even a trip to Lindy’s. But she had to go and spoil it with work! He wondered about Rodney -- was it just marketing? He watched her as she sat there absorbed in her interactions with the laptop screen, absent-mindedly squeezing her lips together Donald-Duck fashion.
Then she got on the phone to talk about sales figures. It sounded like gibberish to him.
“Mugglemish -- thirty seven point two. Breezalporkitty!”
“Slammadon. Fourth quarter.”
“Wow! Geezandgrit by volume, New York region.”
It went on like that. He couldn’t make any sense of it. What had become of her? Why was she talking nonsense like that, with her duck lips and her creased brows?
He stayed in the kitchen for a while, stabbing half-heartedly at the leftover eggs and looking out at the construction site. Eventually he attended to the dishes, plunging his fingers into greasy water, scraping off hardened cereal from a bowl, just as the jackhammer started to rev up again.
He had noticed this before, that when they were playing it was all a lot of fun, but the rest of the time it was pretty dreary going: they really had nothing to talk about. The world was like that; it brought people together, allowed their paths to crisscross, creating warm and happy feelings, but leaving them saddened afterwards back alone with their boring old selves, forced to listen to jackhammers thundering in the background.
The window vibrated slightly, and his hands began to shake, and a half-soaped china cup fell to the floor. Their times together had been great, he told himself, as he bent down to pick up the pieces. They had played some great games, on drugs and off drugs, in company and in private, indoors and underwater and al fresco, even on the heights of Macchu Pichu, testing their limits, their abilities to withstand pain and dangle near death. He had gotten hurt several times: those two trips to the emergency room when he couldn’t swallow, the sixteen stitches he’d needed after the game of Salome, the time she’d gotten that ugly contusion when they’d bungeed in the Poconos on coke.
He came up behind her, squinting at the spreadsheet on the laptop screen, where a row of red numerals stretched like a ribbon. The room’s black sofas and moth-eaten rugs suddenly seemed to swirl around him.
“Don’t stand behind me like that,” she said. “You’re making me nervous.” She tossed her hair, her eyes on the spreadsheet.
He leaned closer, tickling her neck.
“Really, darling? Did you really get nervous? Where exactly?”
“Rudi, stop it! I’ve got work to do.” She turned and bared her teeth slightly. “I can’t be like you, just hanging around waiting for my inheritance.”
He cleared his throat. “I don’t hang around. I hang out in your company.” He cupped her chin in his palm.
She pulled her head away, but he caught her hair.
“Let go, Rudi!”
But he wouldn’t, so she grabbed his hand and bit it -- hard.
“Ouch! Shit! Why did you do that?”
“You bastard, Rudi! I told you I had work to do.”
“You wanna fight? Play roughhouse?”
He reached out to her neck, but by then, she had caught his hands, her wrists were so strong, as if she were super-human. Her fingers hurt him; he could see red marks forming on his wrist, just like they had on his neck in their many games. He stuck out his elbows, catching her on the jaw. She stood up, very annoyed, and he thought of tripping her, but before he could do that, she had turned and jumped on him and pinned him down.
Suddenly, she was heavy. As she sat on him, he could feel his ribs getting squeezed down, her long, lustrous hair falling onto his face, over his lips. He reached out and tugged at it, and patches of hair came off in his hand. The rest of the hair was still attached, her duck lips smeared across in an insolent leer.
Then her lips began to change shape, at first thin and tightly pursed, as they had been when she’d blabbered on the phone about targets, volumes, regions; then sweet and pouting; then mothery, pushing down on his nipples; then blubbery and curling with how-dare-you petulance at his stomping in and turning down the volume of a televised sitcom just because he was unable to bear any longer its raucous laughter; and, finally, calm and pensive, Buddha-like, an occasional thought flickering across her closed eyelids as she slept exhausted beside him, her mouth forming a perfect O.
What exhaustion, what divine tiredness! Their games had brought them relief, endless diversion. But on the mornings after, he would stumble into the bathroom, hungover, his face not smooth with brown antlers, but thick and heavy-set, with jowls and worry lines on the brow, and the long webbed scar running from the edge of the cheek down the neck. He hated his mirror image: it was not him, and certainly not as he imagined himself to be; and now her face, which had just appeared, sleepy, was also not hers, but something plastic, shaped by others, her stuffy stockbroker dad nagging him to get a job -- he had tried but found no sustained pleasure in earning or spending -- and also her ugly, garrulous friends -- why couldn’t she get nice-looking ones? -- being all lovey-dovey with her while making snide comments about him, the so-and-so, he was so full of shit, a total loser, unable to face the real world, while it was in fact they who escaped daily into manufactured fantasy, it was all around, no escaping it, her fashion magazines stacked deep above the toilet, the voices of stars roaring from the living-room. But there she would be, leaning on his shoulder after spitting out some toothpaste, her teeth shining as she examined her gums, and it seemed that it was just her, her living, bleating soul right there beside him, and he knew that she needed him, and he her, they were drawn to each other, seeking warmth, even love, and that the games were good and had to go on.
He was finding it hard to breathe. He needed to push her away, to get her off -- now! He pushed and scratched at the face which was growing larger by the second -- it was scary -- what was wrong with her? Why was she growing like that? As he looked at the bloated face, he realized it was not her any more, not the woman who washed soap from his eyes, who stroked his chin and asked for bedroom tussles and hugs, not the laptop-adept companion, strong and adventurous and full of fun, clambering up in her sandals on the broken towers of Macchu Pichu, whom he had tried to love in his own way -- but how hard he had found it to love the world, without the games! -- not her but some other person who was much larger and heavier. How she had changed, her face bloated, her body naked and bulging with hundreds of fetuses, enormous egg-like eyes where her nipples should have been, blood seeping from her lips, and now she was pressing down on him, an ancient goddess crushing his soul with her weight.
He was getting aroused as her hot breath came down on him, and her leer, too, had turned to a laugh, she was enjoying it, the bitch, riding and squashing him like that! And he, too, would have liked to go on with the game, if only he could squirm out from under her and breathe, but that was impossible.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Game over!”
But there was no stopping this game, and now his lungs were exploding like popcorn. God, why was she so heavy? Then the air was gone, forced out from inside the pink balloon he had been living in, a balloon which had suddenly contracted and appeared right there beside him, pink and pulsating, as the sound of the jackhammer became quite deafening.
About the author:
Inderjeet Mani’s work has appeared in a variety of venues, including Wind (winner of the 2003 Short Fiction Prize), Kimera, Poetry and Story, The Reston Review, a poetry anthology, and several newspapers. He also won a Very Short Fiction Award from Glimmer Train. He lives in the Washington, DC area.
Inderjeet was born in India. After an uncertain time at a boarding school and college there, he made his way to England for further studies, before heading to the United States. He studied writing at the University of Pennsylvania with Carlos Fuentes; he also attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. After stints as a janitor, an architect’s assistant, a magazine salesman, and a guinea pig in medical experiments, he established a career in the high-tech industry, before 'retiring' to academia. He now earns a living as an Associate Professor in Computational Linguistics at Georgetown University, where he invents computer progams that can understand and summarize texts in different languages. He is also one of the people behind the lit-film web portal www.webdelsol.com/f-solpix.htm.
© 2011 Word Riot