Here’s What I Remember
That flicker of surprise when the front door opened effortlessly and I stepped into the dim hallway. The air conditioning was on and cool air smacked my face. Although it was late afternoon the house was dark. I made my way past the spotless kitchen. You could eat off these floors, I used to joke. She vacuums every day, scrubs every surface twice. Down the hallway I scuffled, past the kids’ rooms to the master bedroom. I don’t normally go back there except when they’re having a party and everyone throws coats on the bed. The master bath had been remodeled. It has faux marble tiles, a steam shower and a vanity that looks like a carved armoire from a castle.
Of course there was no medicine chest. Too old fashioned. I had to fling open each drawer in the stupid armoire and search. I remember a humming sound in my head like cicadas mating on telephone wires. My skin was clammy. My hands trembled. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly turned away.
Towels. Candles. Hair dryer. Cosmetics.
The pills were in the top drawer on the left side, next to some cough medicine and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
I read the labels quickly, my heart stalling in my chest. Ba ba bum. Ba ba bum. Vicodin. Percocet. Xanax. I took an envelope out of my pocket and poured the contents of each bottle in. Some of them spilled and I crawled around trying to scoop up tiny dots. Ba ba bum. The cicadas were screaming.
When the light went on it felt like someone had punched me in the eyes.
She was standing in the doorway, holding her three-year-old by the hand. Her daughter and mine are in the same preschool class. That’s how we became friends.
I watched her lips form a shocked pink O. “What are you doing in here?”
I was still on my hands and knees. Words spilled out of my mouth and she tried to catch them like fish in a net but they were too slippery and the drawer to the armoire was open and I was sweating so badly my bangs were plastered to my forehead.
What happened next is fragmented, like a badly glued collage. I remember choked sobs and everything being too bright, the way she gripped my arm, so tight it left marks, a pile of mail on the hall table, innocent and normal looking, before stumbling out into daylight.
I sat in my car, parked around the corner in a cul de sac and watched a woodpecker knock its beak against a tree. Her husband hurt his back playing softball. She’d told us about it at Starbucks, over vanilla chai lattes. Our weekly Mom’s Club gathering. The envelope was stuffed in my pocket. Extracting a white pill, I swallowed.
There are all kinds of pain in this world.
What it means to be Human
She woke in darkness to the sound of buses rumbling on the street below. The heat hissed on and off and the room smelled of disinfectant and beer. Her head hurt, her mouth was dry as wool. For a moment, she forgot where she was until she saw the outlines of his bulky form. She sat up in bed, then made her way to the window, nearly stumbling over her boots, and pulled the heavy drapes open. It was still snowing. White mounds had formed on the sidewalks, half burying the cars parked on either side of Sixth Avenue. She closed her eyes, pressing her forehead against the cool, hard glass.
“Jeez,” he said, his voice still coated with sleep. “What time is it?”
She looked at the clock on the nightstand. “Seven.”
“ My panel starts at 8:30 a.m. You’re coming, right?”
It was highlighted in yellow on the schedule she’d made for herself. Ecologies, Empires, and Island Speculations: British Colonization and the Transactional 19th Century Novel.
“Give me half an hour to shower and get dressed and I’ll meet you in the lobby,” he said, throwing off the covers and jumping out of bed.
She averted her eyes so she wouldn’t see his naked body as he eased back into the pants and button down shirt strewn on the beige carpeting. He was in his late-50s, still fit, because as he’d proudly told her, he worked out with a trainer four days a week. But like so many people, he looked better in his clothes than out of them.
“You know,” she said. “I don’t usually do this kind of thing.”
Not strictly true. She’d hooked up with two other men in the last year. One was a visiting poet. The other was the guy who changed the air conditioning filters at the college. Both times she’d sworn she’d never do it again.
“Neither do I,” he said. “Chalk it up to one too many vodka tonics and the blizzard. MLA madness, right?”
They bypassed the overpriced hotel café and went to a nearby diner for breakfast: coffee and buttered toast. The streets were slippery. On the walk over, she nearly fell on a patch of black ice and had to grab hold of his arm to steady herself.
“How far is your apartment from here?” she asked.
“It’s in Morningside Heights, up by the university. Do you know New York?”
“I’ve been here a couple of times.”
She didn’t tell him how much she loved the city, the way it shone like a crystal chandelier, how lovely it was to be anonymous in a city of strangers, how he was living the life she’d once envisioned for herself – a tenured professor of English at Columbia teaching literature to bright motivated students while she toiled at a Community College in the backwoods of Nebraska with a 4/4 course load and kids who couldn’t spell “their” correctly.
She picked at her toast, which was burnt around the edges. “Can you believe it’s the last day?” she asked.
“What time’s your flight?”
He sipped his coffee thoughtfully, not offering to accompany her to the airport or to let her stay at his place if La Guardia was still snowed in.
There was hardly anyone at his panel – a couple of graduate students, some colleagues from Columbia, a trio of women who she vaguely recognized as Victorianists but she’d never formally met. It had been the same at her panel on Thursday. She’d spoken in front of a nearly empty room because the snow had wreaked havoc with conference travel plans. Her talk was from a chapter on a book she was working on. Frankenstein: Defining Personhood, which considers what it means to be human. If the creature is technically just a collection of random body parts assembled from the local slaughter house and morgue, how is it that he’s able to feel anger, pain, humiliation, need?
“Mary Shelley describes Victor Frankenstein ‘bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,’” she’d told the handful of audience members. “But how exactly is this accomplished? What qualities or traits make us uniquely human?”
She’d taken way too long researching and writing her manuscript and missed cashing in on the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication. There were already half a dozen new scholarly books on Frankenstein poised to hit the market in the spring.
Is that why she’d slept with him? Because he’d said it didn’t matter? Because he’d appreciated her scholarship? Laughed in all the right places during her talk? Was it because he’d suggested she apply for a tenure track assistant professor job at Columbia even though they both knew she would never get it? Because it was snowing out and he’d said something funny, something about a polar bear and a nun walking into a bar.
“What did you think?” he said, coming up to her after the panel was over.
“I enjoyed it. Please email me a copy of your paper.”
“I certainly will.” His fingers brushed against her elbow as he turned to greet one of the Victorianists. Those hands had roamed all over her body not eight hours earlier. Yet now she was wondering if she was obligated to have lunch with him. Why couldn’t she ever feel anything the morning after? There was something wrong with her. She was missing a crucial trait that allowed her to experience emotions – good or bad. An empty socket where her heart should have been.
“I’ve got to run,” she told him, grabbing her tote bag and heading back to her room to pack.
Outside, snow kept falling, erasing the shape and color of the streets, turning the whole world blank.
Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Gloom Cupboard, Panoplyzine, Delmarva Review, 3Elements Review, Sinkhole, Rappahannock Review, Compose Journal and Sou’wester. She is also a Pushcart nominee and has written five mystery novels.