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This short story was a finalist in the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, and is featured in our new special project:
This was before Atos, before any of those private contractors. It probably wouldn’t happen like this now.
The lady was scheduled to arrive between four and five, a “decision maker” she was called in the letter. Eric only worked in St Paul’s but would have to leave early. “I’m sorry,” I had told him. “I can’t ask them to change it.”
“Yeah, OK,” he had said in a heavy way.
The letter was printed in a large font and had a calm, parental tone. “A benefits decision maker will now visit you to assess your living conditions and decide whether you are living together as a couple.” I had it on the kitchen counter with all the other paperwork and was tidying around it when the buzzer rang.
The decision maker’s name was Lorna. I liked her straight away. She had a green bucket handbag. Wheat-colored hair, greying, still long. She reminded me of a friend of my mother’s. She wiped her feet as she came in and made a little, exaggerated “hoot” as she caught her breath from the stairs.
“Is your flatmate home?”
The fiction of being flatmates was like the fiction of being a couple. It took belief to sustain.
“He just left work.”
“I will need to speak to him.”
“He’s on his way. He just texted.”
She asked to see the kitchen, then the bathroom. She had a stapled set of forms full of large empty boxes that she wrote in as she went.
I showed her into the bedroom.
“Which is yours?” she asked.
“This one.” I pointed to the single mattress on the floor covered by a blue-green duvet, made up top-to-toe alongside the double bed at the center of the room.
The duvet reminded me of the first night after we broke up. Getting the bedding down from the cupboard. We had agreed that I would begin to look for somewhere new. He said he would help me out as long as I needed. The last paid work I’d had was maternity cover and he’d been paying my side of the rent since that ran out.
You hear the word amicable. This wasn’t anything. It seemed to have already happened. He told me in a way that sounded prepared, not him. As soon as he started, I knew what was happening. I concentrated on the heat mark past his arm on the table as I listened, aware of what my face was doing.
I wanted to ask: When does it take effect? It seemed like something more should have to happen to mark a change so radical. That made everything certain into a question. Those things that you had relied on without thinking. That furniture of your life which you no longer own. Where do you even sleep?
I brought out the spare bedding while he was in the bathroom. He went into the bedroom without me, which wasn’t strange. I was usually up later than him.
It was summer, so it was still light outside. I wasn’t long out of university. The years of my life still ran September to September.
I lay there I don’t know how long. The grey light coming in around the scarf we had pinned up as a curtain, giving a silver edge to everything in the room. The table, the clothes horse, the remote controls—everything seeming larger. Mugs poised about the room like totems, their positions now seeming to correspond to some pagan order. Sleeping in your living room is something like camping.
After a while, he came out of the bedroom and turned on the big light. He appeared in the doorway and looked at me, blankly at first. Then something in his expression clicked.
“Oh, Jay. Don’t be stupid.” He came to the top of the settee and embraced me. Over his bare shoulder, the mugs, the chairs, the clothes horse were now lit yellow. “Come to bed.”
I slept in the bed with him for another four nights and then moved down to the floor.
I had lied on the form about the date we split up. Only by a few weeks. I don’t know why I did. I don’t think I stood to gain any money out of it.
• • •
Lorna and I sat together now. We had gone through the contents of the cupboards, the bottles around the edge of the bath, the shelves in the living room. The records and books. What was mine, what was his.
The books had all changed hands early on, lent between us and not returned until I eventually moved in and everything was collectivized. The records were mostly mine.
We had gone through the paperwork again, my pay slips and the lease. She was running out of things to check. I was talking nervously, trying to keep her there.
By the time Eric got home, I was in a blind alley. In the middle of some anecdote about his mother that I have no recollection of starting. His keys rattled in the lock and we heard him whistle a short questioning phrase—a kind of bird call which had become the customary way we had of saying we were home.
“Hey. We’re in here.” We heard him go into the kitchen and then the bedroom, drop his bag on the bed.
He came in and sat in the armchair, peeling an orange. His expression still lost in street traffic.
I had read that these visits could be forensic. That they could ask to see anything.
Lorna was now like some family friend that I had to introduce him to, hoping they would get along. The fiction of being flatmates was like the fiction of being a couple. It took belief to sustain. It was a confidence trick. Confidence was always a trick.
At first she asked him the same questions she had asked me. The objective being, presumably, to see if our answers were the same. He answered her half distractedly. I sat between them and listened.
“Do you have a system for housework?”
“For instance, do you take turns for certain tasks or have a schedule for cleaning?”
“We don’t have a schedule.”
“OK.” She drew a dash in one of the boxes on her form. “How many hours of housework would you say you do a week?”
“I have no idea.”
I had the feeling I got when he wasn’t taking something seriously. A frustration in my body, like an urge to shake him, that I had learned not to show.
“Do you have a kitty for shared expenses?”
He thought for a moment. “One of us will usually pay for something and the other will pay him back half.”
This was the answer I had given. Lorna wrote it out slowly, leaning on the arm of the chair.
“You still have a joint account together?”
“I think so. I still get the post for it,” he said.
I hadn’t told her about the joint account. We had opened one for paying bills, but it had sat empty for a while. I hadn’t mentioned it on any of the forms.
Then she asked, “On what date did the two of you separate?”
I hadn’t thought that they would compare our stories like this. I had read that these visits could be forensic. That they could ask to see anything; could go through your drawers and all your belongings. I had separated all our things and tidied away the traces of our life together—the photographs and all of the short, coded notes on the fridge and by the phone that suddenly seemed too intimate. Anything that made it look like we were still a couple. But for some reason, it had not occurred to me that they would just ask you outright. Ask each of you straight up so they could compare your stories and know whether you were lying.
He really had no reason to lie.
“I don’t remember,” he said.
“Jacob said it was around the end of July.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Have you been helping him out financially since then?”
“No,” he said. He didn’t blink.
“Even since he’s been out of work?”
He shook his head slowly. “Nope.”
This is how he talks. Letting every statement hang. It is jarring when you first hear it.
We had Modern Political Thought together in second year. A required course taught by some poor adjunct. It’s mostly a blur to me now, just one slew of time, but there is one class that I remember.
The reading is a photocopy of Marx’s Paris Manuscripts. We are in the middle of a section titled “Private Property and Communism.” Daniel is reading.
“The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive transcendence. . . .”
What is it about a grin that makes it ‘shit-eating’?
He stumbles a little on the words and then breaks off. “I’m sorry, but this is bollocks. Why do we have to read this? It’s not the eighteen hundreds. We know what this is about. It doesn’t work.”
The room stirs. There is a little ripple of laughter. Daniel is encouraged.
The tutor says, “What’s that Daniel?”
“Communism. It doesn’t work.”
There is something in the way he says this. What is it about a grin that makes it “shit-eating”?
Daniel, like us, is nineteen. His comments in class discussion are usually evasive or anecdotal. But about this, he has a certainty which I know I lack. I admire him for it.
The discussion opens up as people argue Daniel’s point and the real-world merits of the text.
I am still stuck on this word, “work.” What was it supposed to mean? Does communism work? Does Catholicism? Do humanities graduates?
My mind slips off as I try to picture the vision of failure that he has in mind. A breadline in Minsk, people huddled together, their faces painted in expressions of torpor.
But I realize the image I have is not Minsk. My mind is unable to conjure Minsk. I am picturing the precinct in Shadwell—betting shop, hairdressers. The queue is the queue at the post office. At the counter an old lady has just been served and takes a few moments to gather her things. The young man behind lets her finish before stepping forward.
He hands the female clerk a debit card under the glass. The clerk scoops it up. She is practiced at this. Goes through the same ritual with several of the people ahead of me while I am waiting. Each time, she looks at the screen and says an amount. Six-nineteen. Thirty-eight sixty.
The man nods.
The till opens and she counts it all, notes and change, into the metal well of the counter. They are all emptying their accounts, the pounds and pence. At the post office, unlike at an ATM, you can withdraw every last penny.
Something someone says brings me back to the room. “You can’t see it as a political program. It is an artifact of struggle. A blow against the social order of its day. Against a whole mindset that was retentive, guilt-ridden, self-denying. It was a call for fellow-feeling.”
And then, this: “‘Workers of the world unite’ is an erotic injunction.”
It is Eric, although I don’t yet know his name.
There is a pause after he says it while everyone catches up. No one wants to be the next to speak.
The tutor shifts a little in her seat, and then looks down at her attendance list.
‘“Workers of the world unite” is an erotic injunction.’
“Grace, do you want to carry on for us?” she says and the reading resumes.
That was when I first noticed him. It was six weeks later that we first spoke. And maybe a year after that that I found out that the line wasn’t his. I saw it in a book he loaned me. I was flicking through it, not really reading. Looking for the marks of his pen in the margins, the notes he had made. There it was, underlined. The same phrase, word for word. But by then it didn’t matter. You can’t unnotice something.
Later that semester, we went to the pub a couple of times after class. The conversation was terse at first. Each turn observed, as though we were laying down cards.
The pub was his idea. It reminded me of my grandmother’s living room. The patterned carpets and brown velour. But he seemed at home there. I remember being surprised by this. How old fashioned it seemed. He knew that you are not supposed to light your cigarette on a candle. That every time someone does, a sailor dies. And he knew how to deliver this fact. Offhand, but addressed to the general interest. The way people talk in pubs.
I remember struggling to hear over the noise, and the strange taste of the beer, like metal. Each swig made me wince slightly. I ended up drinking too fast and letting him talk. Watching him and wondering if the fact that we were meeting like this—for a drink after class—meant that this was just a social thing, that maybe he was not gay. Or worse, that he was, but that this was not a date.
The first sign that it was came during a lull in conversation. He had lost his train of thought mid-sentence. I saw something in that moment. A flicker of doubt on his part. The first sign of something else. He started to speak again and I leaned across and kissed him.
A kiss has no protocol. It is all action and reaction. The only solid things are the grip of it and the release.
That first foreign contact is like a tremor in which you forget who you are. Your mouth, your body is charged with new potential. You feel alert to your surroundings, everyday things. Willing to try things you had previously ignored.
Usually, a recommendation will kill your interest. “You should read this.” “You have to see this.” When people say these things to me, I nod, but something in my brain switches off.
But in those few months, we read everything the other had read. Watched every film the other had seen.
The truth was, we shared everything. There was nothing of his I didn’t feel I owned.
I brought my record player over and kept it at his place and on weekend mornings we would wake up late and play records.
A kiss has no protocol. It is all action and reaction.
Something about the activity suited that time of day. It permitted the right kind of votive attention. The music was physical. The act of playing it made you listen. The wieldy black discs that you had to tilt out of their cases. A thumb and forefinger’s distance between the edge and the navel. A physical object that was its sound.
Eric had no taste in music, then. I had to take him in hand, album by album. De Stijl by the White Stripes, Transformer by Lou Reed, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.
He liked songs that reminded him of something else, films or books. He liked one song because it reminded him of a kids’ television program. A song about a horse called Old Paint.
Goodbye, Old Paint,
I’m a-leavin’ Cheyenne.
“I like the sound of Cheyenne.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“I imagine it’s the sort of place where strangers call you ‘Sir’,” he said.
I liked this, without knowing what it meant.
The automatic function on my record player was broken, so we would let the side play through once and then return to the start and play it over again. We would hear the songs repeating in the other room as we slowly took off each other’s clothes, laughing when our jeans caught on our ankles. And then hear them repeat again while we lay quietly afterward, my ear pressed against his arm.
My horses ain’t hungry,
They won’t eat your hay
A crust of toast left on the plate. Cold air filtering in through the top sash of the window, left open for the smoke.
This is where we first learned to ignore one another. To be in the same room, but not talking. To sit still in the warm umber of his attention. On those long mornings that slid into the afternoon, divided between the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room.
When I moved in, I would go out during the day and come back with flowers for the flat, or something to watch that night.
The conversation was always the same. We each wanted to watch something that the other hadn’t seen, but that we already had. To expend something of our prior selves. This became one of the arguments we had, the question of what to watch. “Have you seen this?” “You would love this.” There is a comfort in what you already know.
The ritual continued after we broke up. Every night, side by side on the sofa. Like two draught horses yoked together.
My wagon is loaded
And rolling away
One night while we were watching a film, an old American film that I had seen but he hadn’t, I felt something like a déjà vu.
The ritual continued after we broke up. Every night, side by side on the sofa.
A man on screen was talking about a metal detector, explaining something about it to a person off-camera. I knew the next thing the man was going to say, and was waiting for him to say it, imagining I was Eric about to hear it for the first time.
When did this happen? From the tremor of attraction, to this. A tacit agreement to watch every film ever made. A financial arrangement between flatmates. In fact, just one flatmate and me, his charge.
Did this work, whatever it was?
• • •
Lorna had asked all her questions and was writing down one final thing. “Right,” she said, and closed her file.
“I’m afraid, technically, you do fit a lot of the criteria for living as a couple. You sleep in the same room and it does seem as though one person is paying for everything.”
I felt a heat rush to my face.
“Food, cleaning products, household bills. There’s only one bottle of milk in the fridge. One shampoo, one shaving foam. There is also the joint account.” She made a gesture with her hand that seemed to mean et cetera.
“These are the things we usually go on. But I do have a little bit of leeway. And it is obvious, to me at least, that you have, in fact, been living apart for a long time.”
Somehow, this was the worst thing she could have said.
She stood up. “I have to write this all up, but you should get your benefits turned back on in a fortnight.” Eric went into the bedroom. We could hear him switching on his computer as I showed her to the door.
When she got to the landing, she turned around. She looked as if she was about to say something.
I mouthed “thank you.”
She nodded, as though my gratitude were beside the point. “Try and find somewhere else to live,” she said.
If this worked it was because we made it work, against the rules. The three of us, thick as thieves. Stranger and estranged.
There is a document that I have kept from early on in my claim, before Eric and I broke up: “Request for evidence: Proof of income from your previous job.”
On the back, it says in his writing “Good bye Old Paint—I’m leaving Cheyenne x”. It is a note to me from one of those first mornings of unemployment when he would leave early for work and let me sleep in.
It is the feeling of having overslept, waking up alone. The white ceiling.
On these days, I would drift in and out of waking as he got ready to go. Feel his weight lift from the bed and hear him step into the hall. The bathroom fan coming on.
After a few minutes, he would come out of the bathroom, stand in the bedroom doorway, and look into the room. I pretended to be asleep. I could feel the solid shape of him, there, holding the door ajar. Time slowed down as he watched me. I felt my eyelids flicker but my breath stayed slow and regular.
He turned away, fooled—the witless sound of shoes on floorboards, walking toward the door.
After he left, I would wait until the bathroom fan turned itself off before I opened my eyes.
It is the feeling of having overslept, waking up alone. The white ceiling. The sound of a bus going past outside. The day having found a peaceable rhythm without you.
I approached looking for work as though the task itself were a job. Dressed, in front of the computer. Little lists.
Now and then, my thoughts would take me away from the desk and I would wander between rooms.
Tie my bones to his back,
Turn our faces to the west
I must talk to myself usually without really hearing it, because on those days, the flat seemed so quiet. I thought of the note from that morning.
“Where is Cheyenne?” I rolled the question around in my mind, until I was unsure whether I had said it out loud. All of the images I had were from music and films. I thought of a prairie town. Lines of red wagons. Candlelit letters home. The word “husbandry.”
We’ll ride the prairie
That we loved the best
Had I been thinking or speaking? I stopped in the middle of the rug.
“Cheyenne.” I said it once to test the silence, like a doctor summoning a patient. My voice was lost in the room.
I said it louder a second time. “Cheyenne.” Nothing.
The condition of being alone began to interest me.
Once, making tea, I lifted my head too quickly and caught it on the sharp corner of the oven hood. I flinched and stepped back, stunned. There were no hands to smother the pain. No kind murmurs of animal sympathy. Just the sound of my own seething gasp. And the pain itself, mounting and dispersing. Ringing in my ears.
On its own, the pain was not that bad. Just the same as any other feeling.
You can get used to almost anything. A day that has no given shape. Or which takes its shape from a simple sequence of tasks, undertaken voluntarily and in total seriousness. Searching and submitting.
Only occasionally, after hours of repetition, did this ever seem absurd. I would think: This work that you are looking for, do you even want it? I was looking for it as though I did. I knew that I should. And that this “should” was enough. The knowledge of it, firm and reassuring like a religion. Like a father’s hand.
There was another note of Eric’s that I had read in the margins of a book that he loaned me. “Religion = faith + ritual.”
My eyes are still drawn to his handwriting when I see it. I don’t know why. I think it is the prospect of finding some part of him that I do not know. The gilt edge of a secret.
I used to think about that note, even after I had lost the book that I found it in. I liked to picture him as he was about to write it, this half-formed thought. His pencil hovering above the page. That moment in his head, whatever it was before he committed it to this irretrievable shorthand.
And I used to try to fathom the thought out in full. Faith and ritual. Two black strands, laced together. The ritual is intended as a prompt to faith. You conduct the rites so that you see yourself as holy. And this works for a time, even after the faith has gone.
Now when I remember those first days applying for jobs, it is always almost four o’clock. The best work already done. Too late to start anything new. Still an hour until he gets out of work.
One evening when he had made plans to see his sister, I ordered pizza.
You can get used to almost anything. A day that has no given shape.
I remember the sweet, enabling way that we used to decide to order in as a couple. The phone call after work. Burying responsibility between us.
“I’ve had a fucking mental day.”
“What do you want to do for dinner?”
“Ugh, something simple.”
This time, when the delivery man arrived at the door, I felt a sudden wash of shame. I stood in the unlit hallway and looked at the shape of him through the dimpled glass. The man shifted his weight and knocked again. I thought about hiding. About letting him knock until he gave up and left.
I opened the door. The man looked relieved. He handed me the box. The warm cardboard slid over my hands. The bare transaction embarrassed me. I was flustered.
“Eric?” I called over my shoulder into the flat.
It was a habit. Like glancing at your wrist to tell the time on a day when you had forgotten your watch. The man obviously didn’t realize I was calling into an empty flat or didn’t give a shit. He handed me a can of Coke in a knotted plastic bag. “Thirteen nineteen.”
I gave him the money. He went to his pocket as if to make change.
• • •
I still know nothing about Cheyenne, the place. But when I imagine it now, I see something different. Not the painted wagons of that old song, but the wilds of it now. Low, tornado-proof housing. Foreclosure signs and blowing litter. Lost bears wandering into motel parking lots.
And the loose, gallant talk between strangers that decorates transactions. The company found while waiting.
Author’s Note: “‘Workers of the world unite’ is an erotic injunction” paraphrases a quote attributed to feminist author Susie Bright.
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