by Maria Hummer
He even took the hand towels. They were nothing special, a plain grassy green, the little care instructions tag frayed from so many cycles in the dryer. He took the hand towels and now I don’t have any and every time I wash my hands I turn the faucet off and reach for something that isn’t there.
He really wanted to clear himself out, no Mike pollution in my life. I just have his number in my phone and electricity bills sent in his name. And all these empty rooms.
Everything left is me, all me. And that’s not much. I see people take their trash out in the morning and I wonder, where did it all come from? Why don’t I generate that much trash? What am I doing wrong?
I buy too much fruit now. I buy enough fruit for two, and it gets wasted. Maybe that’s why everyone has so much trash—they’re heartbroken and buying food as if their lover still eats with them.
But I don’t want to waste. All that fruit I bought? I can make a pie. And a pie is a good excuse to talk to people. Just knock on your neighbor’s door and go, “Hey, I made all these pies,” and suddenly you’re talking. Easy.
I have to be pretty inventive with the pies, since there are no spoons or knives or anything. I measure sugar in handfuls. I stir the mixture with my finger, right in the pie tin itself because, guess what? He took the bowls too.
While everything bakes I try and practice what I’ll say when I bring round the pies. You’d think this would be easy. We’re made for talking. People do it everywhere. On the street walking the dog. At the bus stop. In line at the bank. They have so many things to figure out, they’ll never stop talking.
I have plenty to figure out, so it stands to reason I have plenty to talk about too. But there in the kitchen that used to be filled with our future, warm ovens together, shelves of funny cartoon mugs together, so indefinitely domestic, I can’t get myself past “hello.”
But it’s a start. Sometimes all you can do is start and let the rest happen.
A guy in dreadlocks answers the door.
I see him a lot with his bike, locking and unlocking it outside our building, and I suddenly think this is a bad idea, he’s a healthy guy with a bike who never eats sugar, but I’m already standing there and there’s too much silence between us and the only thing that can break it is my hello. But I can’t do it. For some reason hello seems wrong. We’re neighbors; we should be beyond hello.
So I just clear my throat and go, “Do you want a pie?”
He gives me a strange look.
“I’m Sarah. I live there.” I point across the hall at my door. There used to be a picture on it, a little yellow flower, but he took that too. Now my door looks like all the others.
“Maybe you remember Mike, my boyfriend Mike, well, ex-boyfriend, but it’s only been a week and when you start dating someone you don’t call them your boyfriend right away, so there’s no reason for the ending to be sudden either, you know, and plus I’m in denial, I mean it’s just a stage I have to go through, right? There’s no way around it so why pretend?”
He looks at me like he’s waiting for all the words I said to appear, to spell it all out so he doesn’t have to deal with me.
“Anyway, I had a lot of fruit, ‘cause I’m used to shopping for me and Mike, and, anyway, do you like blackberry pie?”
I lift the pie, proof that my words are true.
There is a voice from inside: “Dude, is that the Girl Scouts? Buy me some Samoas.”
The dreadlock guy shrugs. “Yeah, okay. I’ll take that pie off your hands.”
I pass it to him, the pie, and I pass him a smile too, the best neigh-bor smile I’ve got. He only takes the pie.
“Oh great, thanks, honestly you’re doing me a favor, my name is Sarah by the way...”
And he shuts the door.
I still have a raspberry pie, a blueberry pie, and a quiche.
The quiche goes with me to my neighbor upstairs. She’s in her sixties and owns a dog. They both have screechy voices that cut through my ceiling.
“Something wrong with it?” she asks. She folds her arms, like how dare I offer her a quiche.
“No,” I say, “I just had some extra food around the house.”
“And you don’t want it?”
She really doesn’t want to believe this is true.
“Well, it’s for you,” I say. “I wanted to share, you know, be neigh-borly...”
“I mean,” she says, “if you’re lookin’ to get rid of it...”
I hold it out. “It’s all yours.”
She takes it without really looking at the quiche at all.
I beam and step away. The door swings shut, but not before I see her put the quiche on the floor for her screechy dog to come and stick his nose inside.
Next, I take the raspberry pie to the other upstairs neighbor. I know this one because I like her. She moved into the building last week but I already know she is someone I could learn from. Everything about this girl is long: her skirts, her necklaces, her hair. You can tell her life is going to be long too—her skin and eyes have a Never Never Land look about them. Her name doesn’t even fit in the name slot on her ground-floor mailbox, so instead of her last name there’s just a letter. Monica J.
On the day Monica J moved in I opened the apartment door every now and then to see what she was dragging up the stairs next. It was never just a chair or a box of light bulbs; it was a gleaming Italian coffee pot, a hand-painted Chinese lantern, a coal-dark Indonesian wooden bench, a throw pillow woven with Indian elephants. It took her two days to carry everything in and probably two trips around the world to accumulate it.
I always know when it’s her coming up the stairs because she clomps her feet with each step, like the stairs were made just for her to stomp on. This is how she introduced herself to the building and, I imagine, the rest of the world (stomp, the jungle was made for me, stomp, same with the desert, stomp, same with Times Square and Stonehenge and the Acropolis and the street you learned to ride a bike on).
A girl like this probably doesn’t get excited about raspberry pie. Her tastes are honed. But simple and sweet is all I have to offer.
When I knock on the door of Monica J, I hear rustling inside. I imagine it’s one of her long skirts rustling as she walks, but there’s too much rustling—at least two people’s worth.
“Coming,” she calls.
I touch my ear to the door and hear her hiss, “Shit. That’s probably the landlord.”
Then a pause and something rustles up to the door, which opens. Monica J’s standing there in pajamas so baggy she must have stolen them from a basketball player boyfriend.
“Oh,” she says.
That’s it. Just, “Oh.”
The apartment behind her is a confusing tangle of things. All the benches and pillows and hanging wooden birds and spice racks I watched her carry up the stairs are there and there’s hardly any space for her to do the yoga I imagine she must do. I gape at it like I’m a tourist and it’s a famous monument.
Right behind her on the floor is a suitcase.
“Are you going somewhere?” I ask.
She closes the door a little so I can’t see the suitcase, making a tall narrow frame for her heart-shaped face.
“No,” she says.
“Someone visiting, then?”
“Do you want something?”
I show her the raspberry pie in my hands, perfect and crumbly and leaking raspberry ooze everywhere.
“Oh,” she says again, her favorite syllable.
She doesn’t seem to get it. I stretch the pie, my arms, my pie-arms, closer. “It’s for you,” I say.
Monica J hesitates, like she has a phobia of pies or something, but in the end she takes it. Then she looks at me, like what now?
“Make sure you share it with your roommate,” I say.
“I don’t have a roommate.”
And she closes the door.
One more pie. But I just don’t have it in me anymore. I don’t know. I bring it to their door and everything but can’t bring myself to knock. I pretend I do, though. I knock at the air. Then I leave the pie on the floor. I worry they might be the kind of person who looks straight ahead when they walk, never at the floor, and they’ll open the door and step right in the pie, blueberry squish all over their nice work shoes. But then I think, why worry? Some things you just can’t control.
I’d left the ugliest pie for myself, the cherry one, the one that got burnt on the top. I cut myself a big slice and eat it in silence down to every last blackened crumb.
Nights are a problem now that Mike is gone. Now that the books, TV, and computer are gone. What is there to do but lie on the floor with a dusty and outdated globe, left behind because it’s mine, it’s always been mine—while most kids get bears and dolls my first friend was a globe—and watch it spin, spin, spin?
For every place on earth, someone’s been there. Every gritty piece of dirt and sand and rock has seen the bottom of a person’s foot. I wonder if there’s any spot, some little grassy patch, that has seen my foot and nobody else’s. I kind of doubt it.
After a while, watching the globe makes me feel sick. Those red and purple countries swooning past, so like the color of the pie in my stomach. I roll on my side and moan.
Five minutes later I’m doing the same thing with my cheek on the toilet seat. I reach my shaky hand. Flush the red and purple and watch it all swirl away.
In the morning I carry the globe down to the garbage bin on the street. Look, everyone. I do have trash to get rid of.
It hits the bottom of the dumpster with an echoey thud. Something empty hitting the bottom of something empty.
On the way back in I see Monica J. She looks like an elegant bird in her skirt and feathery fringe shawl. She’s probably on her way to work at a meditation center or non-profit or something like that. The toes in her canvas sandals are brown. Lots of sun for this girl. Lots of mother nature.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” she says, and I’m aware it’s our first hi together. There were no hi’s yesterday. No hi’s, only pies.
It’s my turn to speak and she’s waiting, she’s waiting for me to say, “How was the pie?” because it’s the only reasonable thing to say next, but I’m not always reasonable so I say nothing and go inside. I can feel her eyes on my back like two ping-pong balls someone is about to serve and I probably won’t hit back. I’m terrible at ping-pong.
I go up the stairs to my apartment but instead of stopping at the normal floor, the floor where I live, floor two, my feet take me up one more flight and suddenly there I am staring at Monica J’s closed door. I don’t know the next step of the plan so I ask my feet, “What next?” since they’re the ones that brought me here, and the question is answered by my right hand. It starts knocking.
“Hello,” I say, but my voice is thick from not speaking since that hi with Monica J, so I say it again. “Hello.”
I listen. Small movements behind the door, but not necessarily hu-man. Maybe a cat.
Just in case, I start talking.
I talk to this person—or maybe this cat—about myself, about how I’m still trying to decide if I’m a city person or a town person or a travel the world person. About how my family’s back in Akron and I moved here after college all because of a boy who ended up leaving me anyway. How I haven’t heard music since Mike left, unless you count the cars that drive by with deadening bass, but I don’t. How Mike took everything except the globe and the sugar and the pie tins.
“The only things that were mine,” I say. “And I say ‘were’ because I threw away the globe, I used up the sugar, and you guys have all my pie tins.”
The door opens. I lose my balance because I’m leaning against it, whispering at the keyhole. I lose my balance and there’s a clatter and for a moment I think it’s me, I’m so empty I’m starting to clatter, but when I regain my balance I see my pie tin there on the floor, shivering from be-ing dropped, empty and clean. And Monica J’s door is closed again.
I work at an ice cream place. It’s not a long-term career but better than dunking baskets of fries in hot grease full-time, which I have done and which sticks to you for days after on your arms, trapped in those fine little hairs that have no business being exposed to salt and oily air. After eight hours at the ice cream parlor, I smell of milk and sugar. Much better. Mike used to not leave my side for twenty minutes after I came home, keeping his mouth on my neck and his nose in my creamy locks. Now, coming home isn’t the same. I don’t even have a pet to lick the sweetness from my fingers.
My manager’s name is Tammy and she no longer sees ice cream as fun, as childhood, as summertime and bright music. To her ice cream is a pay check for three spoiled kids and a gambling husband. You can tell from the way she says things like “cherries” and “waffle cones.” No sugar in her words. They must feel like dentist gloves in her mouth.
She’s tallying some important thing in the back when I arrive, some business thing with percentages and estimates. I don’t understand the connection between these dry and brittle numbers and the dripping cones we sell, but it’s not my business to understand.
“We’re over budget again,” she says, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out she blames me.
See, I’m the kind of worker Tammy hates and customers love because I believe in big scoops. I put my back into it, the scoops, like I’m digging a bed for daisies, like I’m digging a grave.
Tammy gives me a look, as in, What do you have to say for yourself? But I have nothing to say for myself. Absolutely nothing. Tammy sighs.
“Take the register,” she says. “Jess can make the orders.”
Jess is a squeaky little college freshman whose best friend Ashley always comes to the shop during Jess’ shift. Ashley says she’s here to do homework but all she does is talk with Jess about people they both know and I never see any books.
The two of them are going at it when I get to the front, tying my apron as I walk. This friend, that enemy, this hot teacher. Name after name and no repeats—these girls know so many names they’ll never have to mention the same one twice.
I don’t know any of these people so there’s nothing for me to talk about and I just stand there by the ice cream tubs getting sadder by the minute.
It occurs to me that the sadder I feel, the bigger I make the ice cream scoops. I know this because the cones I hand over get heavier every day since the emptying of Mike from my life. This is an important thought and I want someone to tell, but all I have so far is the closed door of Monica J.
When the next customer comes in, Ashley and Jess have moved outside for a break nobody told Jess she could have. So it’s up to me to serve him.
He wants double chocolate in a waffle cone. I give him triple.
He’s tall but working really hard to hide it. His scrunched neck and shoulders conceal inches of his natural height. I watch his eyes while I scoop, eyes that seem to want to look at everything but see nothing.
“You look familiar,” I say, and it sounds like a stupid lie, like I’m trying to pick this guy up, but honestly I’m just trying to figure something out there.
He shakes his head, denying it all. He doesn’t look at me once.
He’s so lost in this own little game of darting eyes and nervous shifting that he doesn’t realize when I’ve finished his ice cream, a beautiful triple-scoop chocolate tower shingled with golden sprinkles.
“Hello,” I go. I don’t know what else to say.
He looks at the ice cream, startled. I’ve never seen someone so startled to get their dessert.
“Is that mine?” he asks.
“Did I order sprinkles?”
I think for a second he’s being rhetorical. He’s not.
“I think so,” I say. And I wink.
The thing about winking is, when it happens and it’s not in a movie, it confuses people. And it makes managers nervous.
“Everything okay out there?” calls Tammy from behind some papers in the back room. The door is propped open today and she can see me.
He looks at Tammy. Then he takes the ice cream.
He gives me a credit card and I run it through the machine and when I pass it back I happen to see the name.
I look at him. He can see there’s a question on my face but he’s begging me not to ask it so I don’t.
He turns and walks outside. I watch him through the window as he begins to pinch off the sprinkles one by one, dropping them to the ground with each step.
When I leave work and go outside I find a trail of yellow sprinkles. Yellow like that road to the wizard. I follow these tiny bricks all the way to my apartment building. To the door of Monica J.
I press my ear to the door.
He’s singing. I don’t know the song but it sounds sad, which is strange because the words are about feeling good.
I knock. The singing stops.
“Hello,” I say.
So many years of my life spent dreaming. Real ones, and translucent ones dreamed with open eyes. In fact, most of my life is spent in one of these two ways. Maybe all of it. And maybe that’s why Mike rolled over in bed one day and looked at my eyes and decided to pack up everything. Did I dream him too much? Are people not built to sustain that?
“What are you doing?”
I fall back from whispering at Monica J’s door and look into the eyes of…Monica J.
She looks tired and confused. All she wants in the world is a shower, and how dare I stand between her and this one important goal. All I can think to say is the thing I should have asked earlier but didn’t.
“Did you like the pie?” I ask.
She looks surprised. “I didn’t eat it yet,” she says.
“But—your roommate gave me back the pie tin. It was empty.”
She doesn’t have time for this. She brushes past me, a living rustle, and unlocks her door.
I stand there and watch. But before she opens the door she turns to me and goes, “What?”
And not in a “what did you say?” way. In a “why are you still stand-ing there?” way.
So I have no choice but to walk away and pretend this never hap-pened because that’s what Monica J wants, I know. People always want you to pretend that things didn’t happen and, frankly, I’m getting sick of it.
When I return from Monica J’s door I lie down on my bedroom carpet. It’s a new thing to do, so I do it. I spread my arms like a child in the snow and my right hand, sweeping under the undressed double bed, touches something cold.
I turn my head and look. A metal spoon.
At first I think it’s something Mike forgot to take—see, he is like other people, he leaves traces too—but it’s not like any of the spoons we used together for soup, or stirring sugar into our tea.
The spoon is simple and plain except for the handle, which fans open gently into the head of a lily. I run my thumb over the pattern. I dig my nail into the petal carvings.
The next day before work I go to the agent we rent from. I rent from. The woman at the front desk is roundish like a bundt cake and the thin chains looping from her glasses shiver as she types.
I tell her my name.
“Your roommate paid the rent on the tenth,” the woman informs me—as if the only reason anyone has to see her in that office is to give her money. As if people only live together if they’re roommates.
“Do you keep records of tenants?” I ask.
“Yes, we do.”
“Can you tell me who had our place before we moved in?”
“I can’t, but I can contact them myself if it’s an emergency.”
“They left something behind.”
“I don’t know. Maybe antique.”
She shrugs and makes a note in a book. It’s one note of many. So many things to do.
“I’ll give them a jingle.”
Her knuckles go back to twitching over the keyboard. The printer behind her groans and pushes out a scratchy invoice.
The ice cream shop is slow today so I pass the time by rinsing.
First I rinse the cloudy silver scoops, then the topping spoons, shaking them free of drops and lining them up on the counter. Then my hands and my face. I shake these parts of me dry too and line them up on the counter, by which I mean I lay my head and hands at the end of the row of spoons. Like these things, I am an instrument. I can be cleaned and put back. I can sit there for hours on end.
The guy comes back to the ice cream parlor, the guy who didn’t want sprinkles. He orders chocolate again.
“Double,” he says, like yesterday. And then, just to clarify, he adds, “Two scoops.”
“Two scoops,” I say. “Okay.”
But when it’s time—you know, scooping time—I go for a third. I look to see if he’s watching. He is. I stick scoop number three on top and go over it with the scooper, giving it extra shape, making it the most beautiful scoop I’ve ever made.
When I feel he has fully appreciated the effort put into the scoops, I go for some toppings, some cookie crumbs.
He holds out a hand, showing me his palm. As in: stop.
“I don’t like toppings,” he says.
I lower the spoon of crumbs. They hadn’t made it to the scoops yet.
“You don’t like them, or you don’t like paying for them?”
“I don’t like the crunch.” He looks embarrassed by this.
But I want to give him something extra. Guys who are embarrassed by their own height and by disliking crunchy things deserve a little some-thing extra because they’re not going to give it to themselves.
I look at the glass jars of toppings lined up before me like kids lining up for recess.
“Coconut?” I say. “Not crunchy.”
“A little crunchy.”
There’s a guy behind him, a guy whose mother probably didn’t tell him enough times how important he is because he has to work really hard to prove it to himself. And here’s how he does it.
“Are you deaf?” this guy asks me. “He said he only wanted chocolate.”
The shy guy wavers, and not just his face—which is usually the only part of the body to waver. His whole body wavers and you can tell he’s not sure whose side he is on, mine or Mr. Important’s.
So the shy guy is wavering and Mr. Important is being important with his stance and his words, and I’m doing what lately I have become very good at: nothing.
Luckily, before it becomes too obvious that I have decided to stand here and do nothing, Tammy appears from the back, the latest food order receipt pinched between two candy red-nailed fingers. She sees what is happening.
“Everything alright?” she asks nobody, just the general air that surrounds us.
The chocolate cone is beginning to drip sugar ooze onto my knuckles.
I grab a red squeezy bottle.
“Fine,” I say. “I’m just adding strawberry syrup. Not crunchy.”
I say this last part looking at the shy guy.
Tammy and Mr. Important stare at the shy guy, hoping he’s going to join in on the incredulity, laugh at bizarre and hopeless me.
But he surprises everyone. “Not crunchy,” he agrees.
I wait for Tammy to look away before I start squeezing the glazey red syrup on top. The rule for syrups is two turns, two swirls around the cone. I go for five.
I give him the ice cream and he gives me Monica J’s card.
“Does she pay for all your ice cream?” I ask.
He blushes. “I don’t have a job.”
I look at him. “But what if you need to run away?”
He doesn’t know what to say to this. I’ve stumped him.
Mr. Important’s in the back rolling his eyes. He didn’t come here to listen to me ask some shy guy stupid questions. I wouldn’t care except Tammy is looking at me again and I don’t want to be like this shy guy, I don’t want to lose my job.
So he takes his ice cream and doesn’t answer the question and I serve Mr. Important next. Tammy would be thrilled because Mr. Important doesn’t get any extras. Thinking you deserve them isn’t enough to convince me.
The next time I go to Monica J’s door he is waiting. I can see the shadow of his stance through the crack in the door. I knock. The shadow shifts.
“Hello,” I say.
There is no answer, just a light sound, like an ear pressing to the door, like fingertips balancing.
“Hello’s a funny word,” I say.
My voice sounds strange, all alone in the hallway. I wish I could choose where it goes. I would send it in a thin string through the keyhole of Monica J’s door, but the reality is I have no control and my voice just goes all over the place. It blows everywhere, like dandelion seeds, like flour.
“It’s funny,” I say, and now I’m whispering because it’s the only way to control who hears my voice. That’s why whispers are so sweet and intimate, it’s like you’re saying I want you and only you to hear what I am about to say. I wonder if lovers who whisper more trust each other more, and if so, which causes which? Maybe that’s it. Maybe Mike and I didn’t whisper enough.
“It’s funny because it’s necessary,” I say. “You can’t just start talking to someone. Or a door,” which I add in case it makes him more comfort-able—he might not know I know he’s there. “You have to say hello first.”
There’s a sound. He’s shifting behind the door. I shift too.
“It’s like a relationship,” I say, and it’s weird to use that word again, but how else do you put it? What is a conversation if not a relationship? "The hello is like saying will you go out with me. And if you say hello back, it’s like you’re saying yes.”
“So then you talk. That’s the dating part. Back and forth, give and take. But after a while one of you gets bored, or selfish, or stops listening. And if that happens the conversation ends.”
All of my conversations have at one point needed to end.
“But it doesn’t always have to be that way,” I say. “I think it’s possible to… to keep going. To not have to stop the conversation.”
My breath is small—I’m probably taking in just enough oxygen for a mouse.
“Hello,” I say.
When I go back to my apartment it feels cluttered. It’s still empty as before but the rooms feel like my lungs, so small, there’s no place for the air to go. I try to stretch my arms but the clutter won’t let me. I try to say my name out loud but I just say Mike’s instead.
In the morning I wake to my phone ringing. It’s late. I don’t know this from a clock or a watch, but from the color of the sun.
My eyes feel swollen because last night I had to do something to banish the clutter from my lungs and for that we have tear ducts. Now I’m empty again and it’s strange how this is beginning to feel normal.
I pick up the phone.
“This is Gina Hamilton,” the voice says.
What do I say to that? “Okay.”
“What’s this about an antique?”
It takes a second.
“Uh...oh, the spoon?”
A confused pause.
“A spoon?” she says. “That’s what this is about—a spoon?”
“Yeah, I found it under my bed. It’s a beautiful spoon. Is it yours?”
Gina Hamilton laughs. She can’t believe she’s really having this conversation.
“How should I know? A spoon’s a spoon.”
“No, but it’s a really nice spoon. Do you want it?”
Another pause, more baffled.
“Why are you so worried about this spoon?” She sounds suspicious.
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, a person has more than one spoon. Even if I did leave it behind, it’s not my only spoon in the world, is it?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighs, like how dare I bother her about a spoon. She was hoping for a priceless chest of drawers, a hard-carved 18th century bird bath.
“Well...can you use it?” she asks.
I go to the corner of the kitchen where I put the spoon, a corner all to itself. I look at it. I look at my hand next to it.
“I think so,” I say.
“Of course you can,” she says. “Eat soup. Eat Jell-o. Eat ice cream, even. Eat all the ice cream you want. It’s your spoon now.”
I should have started buying stuff the day Mike left, but every time I thought of one thing I needed I’d think of twenty more. And more. Sitting in an empty apartment thinking of all the ways to fill it is possibly the closest a person can get to infinity.
Even essentials were overwhelming and for a time I went without a pillow in the house. Without a brush for my hair. But now that the spoon is in my life the apartment looks even emptier than before.
I drive to the store, one of those mammoth everything stores, and prepare to replenish the objects in my life. One cart isn’t enough. I take two.
Shoppers stare at me from their hand baskets of apples and cheese and bread. This girl must have sprung into existence today, because who can get so far in life without all this stuff she’s buying?
I spend three and a half hours debating over this or that microwave, this coffee maker for six cups or that for eight, this toothpaste, those towels, these slippers, that electric fan. In the picture frame aisle alone I spend twenty minutes wondering about mirrors. In the end I opt for none. I push my two carts to the front of the store, mirrorless.
The saleslady’s eyes pop when she sees me coming. She mumbles into a telephone and soon I’ve got three people helping me with my stuff, her and two guys, muscley, built to carry heavy boxes eight hours each day. I thank them a lot. Thank you for bagging my new life, for carrying it this far, for helping me cram it into the trunk of my car.
They stand there watching while I start the car, the saleslady and the muscley men. I look at them and they wave as I pull away, and it reminds me of family reunions—when everyone was ready to go home and my mom would line us up on the sidewalk, me and my brothers, one two three, and make us wave until our aunties’ and uncles’ cars turned the corner out of sight.
I wave back. It’s nice, like a homecoming but different. More like a homegoing.
It takes me a long time to move everything into the apartment. I try not to think about the length of the receipt in my pocket but it keeps crinkling as I walk up and down the stairs, a reminder that I bought these things alone, that I get no help from here on out.
I put it all in the kitchen—on the table, chairs, countertops. It towers. I stand there and look at it like someone in an art gallery. It’s a moment to remember.
I leave it like that for the first night, a tower of new stuff in the kitchen. My kitchen. I don’t want to move too fast. I want to take it in steps. Buy-ing it is one step, carrying it inside is another. Tearing into these boxes right now would be like tearing off someone’s clothes you barely know. It would be like moving in with someone way too fast and I hate to repeat my mistakes.
The next morning I organize the kitchen stuff. Pots, plates, oven mitts, egg timer, fruit bowls. It’s all there.
I’m ready to start on the bathroom. I pick up the soft hand towels, the blue ones I just bought brand new, and I can’t wait to wipe my hands on them so I get them wet and do just that.
And I hear a key in the door.
The only other person with a key to this particular door is Mike, my Mike, or rather used-to-be-my Mike and has finally realized he wants to again-be-my Mike.
My heart leaps at first because I’m so relieved it’s all over and has reached its reasonable conclusion. But then I look at this stuff. All this kitchen stuff, bathroom stuff, life stuff. So much stuff, do I have room for Mike now?
But room or not it doesn’t matter because the person who walks in is a woman with a stuffed manilla folder followed by two shy-eyed hand-holders, looking like they wish they could share a body because an apartment, a bed, a life could never be enough.
My first thought is, Did Mike and I ever look like that?
My next thoughts are, simultaneously, I hope we didn’t and I hope we did.
Then my surprise and common sense catch up to each other and I wonder what these people are doing in my place.
“Oh,” said the business-suited manilla envelope woman. “Uh.”
We stare at each other, trying to figure out who’s supposed to apolo-gize.
“How did you get in?” she asks.
“Keys,” I say, and then when it seems like that word holds no mean-ing for her, I go, “Mike.”
“Mike Riley,” she says after finding a page in her folder. “You’re his...”
“Used to be,” I say.
“Wow, uh.” The woman looks at the couple. “Sorry about this.” Back to me. “Mike handed in the keys last week. He cancelled the lease. He said the place was empty.”
Behind her is my beautiful kitchen, anything but empty. I’m still holding the new hand towels. I twist them around my fingers.
“It’s not empty,” I say. “I’m here.”
“He checked the other day,” she says. “He said he wasn’t sure if his roommate was—but then he checked. The other day.”
My chest suddenly feels icy and stale, like a freezer-burnt tub of for-gotten ice cream. “Mike was here?” I choke.
The couple are nudging and whispering to each other. The girl clears her throat.
“Can we still look around?” she asks. “Sure,” says the woman. “Go right ahead.”
The couple walk away, hand-holding their way through my home.
The woman steps up to me. She smiles, a sick sweet smile like too much caramel syrup on your sundae. Something I wouldn’t want to taste.
“If they decide to take the place,” she says, “you’ll have to be out today. In fact, you shouldn’t be here at all.”
So two hours later, I’m moving all my stuff into the car, all my new stuff, lots of things still wrapped or boxed or labeled or tagged. By the end of it my car is too full to see out any of the windows except the driver’s side. By the end of it the apartment is empty like Mike left me all over again.
I find myself thinking about the day Monica J moved in. I wonder what people would see if they opened their doors right now: me, lost in my own body, map-less in my own life. No globes or pies to lead the way, but desk lamps, hair dryers, unopened boxes of steak knives, fifteen of them, presumably for a party where I serve a lot of steak. But for a party like that you need a house, a yard, people you know. I have nothing. My car is full of things but I have nothing.
When I’m packing the last of my nothing into the car, the dreadlock guy rolls up on his bike. He locks it outside the building. He sees me.
“Hey,” he says, and for a moment I think he recognizes me, he might even become the first name on the guest list of my future steak party, but then he goes, “I’m Alex. Moving in?”
He extends a hand, the nice thing to do when you meet someone. Except we’re not meeting.
I shake my head. I back away.
The last thing I do in the building is this: I go up the stairs once more to the door of Monica J. I knock. I listen.
The spoon is in my hand.
“I know you’re there,” I say. “Unless you got a job. In which case, congratulations. But then I guess you wouldn’t be here to hear me say that.”
Not a creak, not even a rustle. This guy was getting good at silence.
“I’m going now,” I say. “You’re probably glad, you’re probably sick of me hanging around your door. Well, you won’t have to put up with that again.”
I let the spoon drop to the floor. Its sound isn’t a clatter, like empti-ness, but a clink, like a toast. Like cheers.
“Take care of Monica,” I say. “I hope she’s nice to you.”
And then I’m gone.
I have nowhere else to go so I drive to the ice cream shop. I sit in my over-packed car in the parking lot for an hour and a half until my shift starts. I read a book, sort of, except the words buzz like gnats and I can’t focus on them in the right order. I bought the book yesterday at the everything store not because I wanted to read it but because I just wanted a book. I wrote my name inside the cover and everything. But from what I can tell when the words settle long enough for me to see, it’s a stupid book about people who take turns saying important things to each other. They listen, they wait, and when they speak they don’t hesitate. Where in the real world do these people exist? I’d love to have a conversation with them.
When it’s almost time for my shift, I take a pen (also new) and scratch over my name until you can’t read it anymore. Under that I write, For you, from me. There’s a car parked next to mine and the window’s cracked open and when I get out I slip the book inside.
I feel a little better after giving the book away. Lighter, but not emptier. I celebrate this mystery by giving extras to everyone who comes in. I don’t serve any small sizes, or plain cones, or sundaes with fewer than five toppings. I get a lot of strange looks, but these disappear as soon as the customers double-check the price and there isn’t a single complaint.
Until Monica J enters the shop.
She orders double chocolate in a waffle cone.
“Is it for you?” I ask.
She looks around. There’s no one else in the store.
“Who else would it be for?” she goes.
“He likes strawberry syrup,” I say. “Right?”
I’m already done scooping, two enormous scoops crowning crisp waffle. My hand is poised with the syrup, ready.
“No syrup,” she says, “and I don’t know who you’re talking about. My name’s the only one on the lease. Alright?”
I didn’t say anything about leases. That was all her.
“I know you feel like you’re saving money,” I say. She looks suddenly angry so I add, “By not ordering syrup. But think about it.”
She folds her arms. Taps her feet. Doesn’t want to think about it, nope, not at all.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
“Come on, I just want some damn—”
“Is he happy?”
She gapes at me as I squeeze syrup on the cone. Strawberry, then chocolate.
“I don’t want syrup,” she says. “I specifically—”
“You need to be careful,” I say. “Really careful.”
Now I’m adding scoops. Three, four, five.
“These things…” Now more syrup. “Are more delicate…” Now whipped cream. “…than we think.”
“I’m not paying for that,” she snaps.
It’s getting way too tall, this cone. My arm aches with the weight of it. I find an empty ice cream tub and I drop it all in and keep on adding things.
“Don’t be afraid,” I say, “to step back. No one will call you a coward. And if they do, they’re an idiot. Or they haven’t thought through the situation.”
Cherries, peaches, whipped cream. More scoops. More, and more. Monica’s looking scared and my elbow’s starting to hurt, all this scooping, but I can’t stop.
“You have to be ready,” I say, “really really ready, because you’ve gone this far and if one of you backs out completely there’s going to be pain.”
I probably shouldn’t have said the word pain. It makes my words sound like a threat. Monica starts calling for help and, just like that, Tammy appears from the back.
“What’s going on?” asks Tammy. “Sarah?”
“Nothing,” I say. “It’s fine.”
I say this as I pour an entire bottle of white chocolate syrup into the ice cream tub I am almost done filling.
“I’m gonna go,” says Monica. “I’m going.”
“Don’t leave him,” I say. “If you leave him, he’ll have nothing.”
“He already has nothing,” she snaps. “Why do you think he’s crashing with me?”
And now Monica’s gone but I’m still going ahead with the ice cream and the candied fruit and the gummy bears and Tammy’s just watching.
“Why are you doing this?” she asks.
I say nothing.
She goes to my cash register and checks the last few orders. No one has ordered a tub of everything, and that’s what I’m putting together right now.
“Sarah,” says Tammy, and the way she says it I know she means stop.
But I’m finished now and there’s no going back. I carry the ice cream tub to the door. I’m about to leave but I pause to remove my apron and leave it on a table. Just so she knows. It’s better to leave something behind so people know.
In the car I pass Monica on the street. She’s walking. She sees me driving and her steps speed up in her little leather sandals. But I have the gas pedal on my side.
I turn the corner and I can’t believe it, my tires are actually squealing. I’ve never been in a situation where the tires needed to squeal. It makes things sound urgent, and when you think about it this is the least urgent thing that ever happened to me, but when you don’t think about it it makes perfect sense.
When I get there he’s standing on the front steps of the apartment building. There’s a woman high-heel-clicking her way to a car, the same manila envelope woman from earlier. He watches her go.
I park the car.
The suitcase is on the steps next to him, the same one I spied behind the back of Monica J on that fateful pie day. It looks tiny and light, like it wouldn’t take more than a lazy breeze to knock it over. Come to think of it, he looks exactly like that himself.
There’s something squeezed in his fist, something shiny. The spoon.
He watches me come up the walk, making my way from my car stuffed with everything needed to start a life. I carry the tub of ice cream in my arms.
I stop at the foot of the stairs. We look at each other. We notice what we have, what we don’t have. It’s all over our faces.
Maria Hummer was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. She earned a BFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University and went on to receive an MA in screenwriting from the London Film School. She is currently employed as American Proofreader for Cover Media in London, a job which mainly involves deleting a lot of u’s (i.e. colour/color). More information can be found at mariahummer.com.