Nancy, the only realist about love that I have ever known, lay slumped against the bathroom wall, her bare legs smooth and pale as the tile floor, as she flicked ants into the spider web in the corner. A few of the ants crawled around on her white, oversized t-shirt; one ventured down to the top of her small green running shorts. She hadn't heard me come in, and I stood in our bedroom doorway, staring across the hallway at her. Delighted by the unexpected generosity of the sky, the spider, a hulking Daddy Long-Legs, grabbed and pinched the ants into black protein balls, perfect for snacking on hikes up the wall or scenic walks around the toilet. When each ant was firmly entrenched in the spider's clutches, Nancy would giggle until it faded into a sigh, as if she were a stand-up comedian, nervously laughing at her own jokes while the audience remained silent.
"Nance, are you okay?"
Her head turned and her eyes lifted up about as high as my chest. "Hey—hey," she managed before more giggles fell out, like old, moth-eaten shoeboxes dropping from the top shelf of a closet packed too full.
I crouched down and put my arm around her, patting her shoulder blade in little circles. "Are you hungry? It's almost time for dinner. We were planning to go out, remember?"
"I think I'm drunk."
"That's a possibility." She was limp as I picked her up and helped her into bed, pausing to brush the remaining ants off her shirt before pulling the sheet up over her. It was too hot for blankets. "We can go out when you wake up."
Heavy air told me that rain was on the way. Through the bedroom window I could see the dark sky gathering together in a summer Minnesota storm. My tie cinched stubbornly as I pulled it off and threw it on our grey suede couch, handed down from Nancy's parents. I turned on the T.V. to hear news of the storm, and I saw our county flash across the bottom of the screen for a flood advisory. I sat for a while flipping channels, but nothing was distracting enough.
In the back yard, our silver maple shook slightly with the breeze. Around the pallid green leaves fireflies were beginning to float and flicker. I walked outside and sat on the porch to watch the sky. Once we tried to get sap from the tree to make maple syrup, but we proved ineffective bleeders, and gave up after a few unsuccessful drills.
I poured myself a Jack Daniels. If she could drink, I could drink more.
Before I met Nancy, the girls I dated could be satisfactorily divided into two groups: the Disney Princesses and the Gold-Diggers. The Disney Princesses had a physical need to be swept off their respective feet, without which they would follow Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and fall desperately into an interminable coma. They loved roses, scented candles picked especially to match their curtains, and fine dining establishments with waiters who faked a French accent. Any attempt at reasoned disagreement with the princesses was a sign that I just didn't care about them. In a happily-ever-after-world there was no room for arguments. Every day should be a celebration of our love, and if you don't understand that, I just can't see what kind of future we can have, they said as they stood in front of the mirror extending their eyebrows or curling their ravishing locks or straightening them, depending on which had been featured on the cover of the latest princess catalogue. It would end, inevitably, in tears and accusations that in essence amounted to, you are not Prince Charming, and in fact, you don't even own a horse or a suit of armor.
In some ways, the Gold-Diggers were much more practical. What made the Gold-Diggers gold-diggers was not that they actually dug gold. As a pure observation, had the Gold-Diggers been given shovels and a guaranteed location where they could find precious metal, they would not have piled two feet of dirt to recover the treasure. It was much easier and cleaner to persuade adoring males to give them presents. The Gold-Diggers primary goal in our relationship was to profit materially, which made them prostitutes in the broadest sense. Although, to be fair to actual prostitutes, survival is a much more accurate word to describe their jobs. I suppose the Gold-Diggers were just surviving as best they knew how, too. Much of the same attention that the princesses demanded was repeated with the gold-diggers, although the relationship was almost always shorter. Once they found out the actual contents of my bank account, which I felt compelled to lie about on several occasions, they were quick to find their scornful, whatever gazes and sashay out the door with their patent leather handbags and heels, their thin fingers already dialing the next guy's number on their even thinner cell phones.
I know this analysis makes me sound like a misogynistic bastard, for which I have no defense except to say that I made bad dating choices. Still, I can't be completely evil, can I? I mean, I'm with Nancy now and that proves something.
Brushing past my arm, Nancy walked over to the maple, a large, empty pickle jar held loosely between her right arm and her side.
"Hey," I said. "You ready to have dinner?"
"In a minute," she said, never even looking in my direction. With deft scooping motions, she caught several fireflies, which flew around with increasing speed until they bumped into a glass wall and fell to the bottom of the jar. She had had years of practice—one of the only positive skills she learned during childhood.
As evening claimed the horizon, so too did the storm. Thick drops of rain multiplied and fell as if the sky were trying to add another ten thousand lakes to our countryside. Even though I was still on the porch, the rain blew diagonally with the wind, and I was getting wet.
When I went into the kitchen Nancy hadn't poked holes in the lid of the jar, nor thrown in any rose petals, which she claimed the fireflies ate. Instead, she sat on the floor, leaning against the oven, her head intently bowed, feeding the beetles to our cats: two natural born killers that would eat anything that moved—an orange and white named Evil Garfield and a black tabby called Witch. They swallowed the fireflies like electric gumdrops, occasionally batting one around before devouring it whole. The insects would fly, shimmering, until the cats' mouths closed over their lights.
Nancy's giggle had evolved into a high-pitched hah, which she released with apparent mirth whenever the cats made a kill. "I like it when they go pop," she said, not addressing me as much as declaring it to the world.
The rain could be heard on the roof, pounding, thrashing, beating against the shingles and the drainpipe. It was a big storm.
When Nancy was sixteen she was raped in a van in the parking lot of The Mall of America by a parolee so anxious to get it over with that he didn't even drive out of the parking lot. She was raped while thousands of people shopped. She was lucky that one of those shoppers looked up from her bags long enough to hear her screaming and call the police. A month later, when she discovered she was pregnant, it was not hard for her to decide to end it.
I didn't meet Nancy until she was twenty-three, an obstetrics nurse in St. Paul with long brown hair and sad eyes who had already sworn off the possibility of having children of her own. The world's fucked up enough as it is, she would say, if anyone asked her. Following the princesses and the gold-diggers, I had given up on love and was trying to be an avant-garde performance artist, attacking the clichés of modern society with other aesthetes like Wallace, whom I met at college. We were the only two performance majors in a small department concerned with figurative painting and ceramics. While I was dating the princesses and the gold-diggers, he was searching for the one answer to every question he had ever asked. That one person just for him.
I knew he was a true artist when he talked about how his last relationship ended. His girlfriend had not only thrown his clothes off her second floor balcony in white plastic bags, but had also set the last one, containing his favorite shirts, on fire. Three months afterward he couldn't stop talking about it—called it the best performance piece he had ever witnessed. Tragic that he couldn't appreciate it at the time. I was convinced that his visual sensibility and my conceptual force would allow our art to change culture. Ours was an intense, dedicated vision. He had even been arrested once for a piece that involved an open flame and Monopoly money. My work was smaller, insidious. I started with fortune cookies.
On the night I met Nancy, Wallace and I went out for Chinese food. During the dinner rush, Wallace distracted the cashier while I replaced the fortune cookies on the front counter of Taiwan Express with my misfortune cookies. Instead of the encouraging platitudes, my cookies held pithy sayings like "Your mind is too small to expand," or "Keep waiting, this is all you're going to get," or "You are adored by none and loathed by many." After disposing of the real fortune cookies, we sat at a back table, slurping chow mein and waiting for someone to react to one of our cookies. Several people scowled as they read their fortunes, but Nancy was the first to ask the manager about it.
She sat in a corner booth with another nurse—both were still wearing their scrubs. Even in the tired uniform, her eyes expressed an inner disquiet and her delicate cheekbones and chin caught my attention. Wallace and I moved to a closer table when she approached the manager. Rather than complaining, she asked him where she could get more of these "real" fortunes. The manager was convinced it was a misprint. He apologized, bowed and offered her a coupon for a free entree. As the nurses walked out, we approached them to see which fortune she pulled, and it was "If the shoe fits, it will soon fall apart."
"I wrote that," I told her, and smiled slowly. "It's kind of a social experiment slash performance art piece."
"Do you have more?" she asked, giggling. Her friend just stood there, smirking.
Wallace and I read them some of the others. On the frontage road behind the restaurant, an ambulance screamed by. The wind picked up and the friend shivered.
"They're so real," Nancy said, as if seeing a truth about the world for the first time. "You should market these. Definitely. They should be in museums, in books—on license plate-holders."
We introduced ourselves, and met Nancy and her friend Valerie. They had just finished a twelve-hour shift, and were exhausted, but I managed to get her phone number. That was all it took to get her to go out with me. She, like me, had given up on love—and was trying to figure out what that meant on an everyday basis.
"It's no way to live life," I told her on our fourth date, holding out a dozen roses.
Her eyes tightened into stubborn angles, and her pointer finger twitched with conviction. "If you tell me you love me, it's over."
Instead of taking her to the Italian place with tiny round candles on the tables, we went to a vegetarian café, where we established the rules.
1. We don't make love; we have sex. (As if love could be created, out of nothing, by a purely physical act.)
2. We won't celebrate Valentine's Day. (As if love could be defined and held in a single box on a calendar.)
3. We will never get married. (As if a clichéd ceremony proved something.)
4. We believe that love doesn't exist. (But act like it does.)
5. We will attack the concept of love. (To reveal the truth to everyone.)
So we did. Later, with her help, I expanded from just misfortune cookies into Valentine's Day broken heart candies. They said things like "Get out of my life," or "I will never be yours," or "Love is dead." We sold them over the internet with the misfortune cookies and t-shirts and mugs with some of the messages printed on them, but I never made enough to support the rest of my art. Even though I took a part-time job at a silk-screening t-shirt place, her salary is still what we live on. To us, happiness itself was a cliché. Instead of celebrating Valentine's Day, we created our own day at the end of June, and called it the Day of Like, because love is too strong a word. Today was the Day of Like, and we were supposed to go out.
The pickle jar was empty and Nancy was staring at the floor. Lightning flashed outside, glinting through the window and off the polished cupboards. Evil Garfield and Witch had become bored and wandered away, probably to attack the Daddy Long-Legs in the bathroom.
My patience, like the sun, was gone. "What the hell is wrong with you?" I was standing over her, but, not wanting to feel threatening, I sat down on a stool.
"I made an apple pie today," she said. "But I left it on the windowsill in the bedroom. It's soaked by now." Hah came that ugly, high-pitched laugh again.
My arms were crossed across my chest. I was arguing. "Do you want to go out, or not? I'm hungry."
She was thinking of so many things and couldn't concentrate on anything else. "You know the gardeners came and fertilized the front yard today? It's all washed into the street by now." Hah.
"Look," I said. My arms closed tighter, stiff and defiant. "I'm leaving in two minutes unless you tell me what's going on."
She looked at me for the first time on the Day of Like, her eyes dark as the storming sky. "I'm pregnant." Hah, Hah.
It was useless to ask her how. We always took every precaution and we even had a blood pact against children. It was the official, unspoken rule. I poured vodka and drank it straight—I wanted to be drunker than she'd been all day.
"I can't end it," she said. "Every time I think about it, I just imagine what that person would do with life—so much more than me, maybe, but I can't keep it either. It's all just a big, fucking risk. Everything today is just a joke."
I went out to the porch. The rain was pouring down and I realized I hadn't cleaned out our gutters. They would probably overflow. I walked back inside, but Nancy was passed out on the couch, oblivious to my tie dangling next to her ear. I sat down on the floor, leaning against the washed-out gray suede and just started to talk. My voice was quiet and secure and convinced. My voice was the water pushing past the leaves and the dirt in the gutter, gaining momentum until it rushed over the sides. "I know you're confused. I know you think you might not want this baby. But underneath your skin—underneath your sad, beautiful eyes—I think you do want it. You don't ever have to tell it anything if you don't want to. You didn't have to tell me. But you did, and I appreciate that. I say let's do it. We can do it." I stopped because I was talking to a drunk, asleep person, and because I was a drunk, almost asleep person. Nonsense to no one.
I didn't hear the official flood watch until three in the morning, when I woke up thirsty and turned on the radio to break the oppressive silence. The radio was yelling to evacuate, and I went over to the front door, opening it onto a street gushing with water. I closed the door and walked over to the couch and shook Nancy until she sat up.
"We have to go to the shelter," I said. "The high school on the hill."
Her eyes opened and closed quickly, and she started to sit up. "Fuck it," she said, lying back down.
"No." I pulled her up and made her put on pants and a coat. We loaded the cats into their carrier, grabbed some food and got in the car.
The street had several inches of water flowing across it, and our headlights, instead of gleaming like guiding beacons, were only mirrored phantoms in the pavement. The ditches on the side of the road rushed fast with angry streams. Several times we had to turn around because floating branches blocked the roads, or because a bridge had washed out.
Nancy looked over at me. "I just feel like killing things," she said, and now she was crying.
I wanted to reclaim my confident, serene voice. The voice that could push things aside, but the storm was bigger than my voice now. It was threatening to drown everything.
"Stop the car," she said. "I'm sick."
I pulled off to the side of the road, and she opened her door, but before she could get all the way out she was vomiting, and it got all over her coat and pants.
"Shit," she said. Then she knelt in the hurried, rising water—maybe four or five inches of it—and scooped up as much as she could hold to pour over her clothes. Maybe it was two slow for her, I don't know, but she lay down on her back, and just let the water rush around her and over her.
As I watched, I thought how easy it would be to pull all the way off the road, into the ditch, and let the water fill the car. I turned off the engine and got out and lay down next to her. The water was cold and full of the street's residue. I didn't know if it was making me dirty or clean. At first I closed my eyes, to try and avoid getting hit by the drops, which were as big as I had ever seen, but after a minute or so I forced my eyes open and tried to watch a drop all the way from the dark cloud that generated it down and down until it buried itself in the pavement. I couldn't do it so I turned and looked at Nancy. She was opening and closing her left hand, watching the way the rivulets went wider and then narrower when she did it.
Inside the car and inside their carrier, the cats were fighting. Their hisses and yowls were so loud that we could hear them above the running of the flood.
"Maybe we should let one of them out," she said. "They might hurt each other."
"I don't think that's a good idea," I said. "If one of them ran off alone in this storm— let's just go to the shelter. Please. We can let them out at the shelter."
We got back in the car. I kept driving. We were racing the storm in the darkness.
About the author:
Brent Krammes has a couple of degrees, and has decided to keep collecting them, even though they never seem to help him earn any money. He is originally from Los Angeles, but currently lives in Knoxville.
© 2011 Word Riot