By Bobby Mattern
On Friday night, he handed her his old Rolling Stones t-shirt. For a moment, he held it close and remembered pushing his way to the front of the merch line with a fist full of crumpled money and yelling over the raucous crowd to buy it. But once that moment was gone, he straightened his arm in her direction, putting as much distance between himself and the folded thing as he could.
She snatched it from his hand, pulled it over her head of messy hair, and let it hang loose over her small body.
“It’s my favorite shirt,” he reminded her in a half, matter-of-fact whisper.
“I know,” she said. Her voice was flat and playfully condescending. “I know it’s your favorite shirt. It’s my favorite shirt. I could never forget it.”
He nodded and quietly closed the empty drawer before joining her in the bathroom to brush his teeth. They brushed together, crowding over the single sink in silence, a nightly ritual made more strained by the fact that he felt observed by her. But after a few moments, she knocked him in the shoulder and with a mouth full of toothpaste started singing Gimme Shelter into her toothbrush.
He smiled politely and spit.
Eventually, she stopped singing and slumped her shoulders. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, her Rs and Ds blocked by the foamy toothpaste.
“What?” he said.
It was her turn to spit. She grabbed the plastic cup they had bought from Disneyland years ago, took a quick swig of water from the tap, spat it out, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“I really wish you wouldn’t treat me like I was a goddamned ghost.”
“Sorry,” he said, taking his seat at the chair by the foot of the bed. He grabbed his book and put on his reading glasses, but just before losing himself, he made the mistake of looking at the Stones shirt. Though the look lasted no longer than three seconds, it had been a mournful one and he felt each individual millisecond of it.
“If you want it so badly, just take it.” She peeled it off and threw it at him.
He took the shirt, straightened it out and handed it back to her. “I don’t want it anymore.”
She rolled her eyes, threw it back on crookedly, and fell onto the bed, seething.
It was a weekend morning awhile back, and per usual routine, he was the first to wake up. He put a robe on, made coffee, and watched cartoons while he pretended to read the news. He opened a window to feel the cold air of the city. This was also a weekend ritual—an obligatory test to see if the weather was favorable enough for him to brave the world and be productive, or if circumstance was going to force him to deem it a lazy day. It was the middle of the morning and the sun was just bright enough through the gloom of the clouds to illuminate their apartment, but a slight chill found its way through the open window and touched his cheek. He closed the window. It was to be a lazy day, and he turned off the TV to grab a half-read thriller from his night stand.
She was still in bed, flat on her back, sleeping. The mark of something amiss was the flower dress she wore. It was mostly yellow, with a red flower print. The yellow and red were at such odds with each other that when they met, it was harsh and retina searing. But nevertheless, it was a very nice dress—one that evoked feelings of a lush, sunny countryside. It fit her like a blanket, with cloth flowing over her thin frame. This dress would much sooner belong to a woman with plump red cheeks and a ridiculously sunny disposition. Not the woman he knew—small and sarcastic.
He pushed her shoulder in a harsh shove. He shook her frantically until she was awake. And when her eyelids relented, she smiled a sleepy smile and yawned.
He pointed at her dress. A wordless and impatient question.
She seemed disinterested in her early morning mental fog as she lazily scratched her messy head. And then her hands found their way to the dress. As her fingers just barely grazed the cloth on her shoulders, her eyes went wide and she sat up in shock. She looked down at the dress, and then she looked up at him again, this time with a mixture of shock and betrayal.
“What?” she asked him, a near insinuation that he had put the dress on her.
They recounted the previous evening. They had gone to see a movie with couple-friends of theirs. He had liked it, but she hadn’t—though now, she mentioned, she was re-thinking her stance. Maybe it was good after all. But it wasn’t important. They had come home after the movie, hadn’t they? Yes, they had. No, they hadn’t. They had left their friends and had decided that they had had a taste for something sweet. After a quick dessert they came home and went to sleep. But details. He had sat down in bed and read his book while she had pulled on one of his old Beatles shirts and her white pajama pants with the blue stripes. At eleven-o-one, he came to bed where she was already rolled over on her side, sleeping.
“No,” she told him. “That can’t be right.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“I don’t ever sleep on my side.”
“What does that even matter?”
“You wanted details.” She licked the roof of her mouth. “I could really use some lemonade right now,” she said. “Is that weird?”
He tugged at the sides of her dress. “Where is my shirt?”
The alarm clock was rude, abrupt, and old. It jolted him awake and he had trained himself well enough by now that within seconds he could have a finger jammed into it, stopping hammer from hitting bell. When he checked, she was lying beside him, once more in the dress. She seemed immune to the alarm clock, which was lucky—but it was a luck he never wanted to test. The few hours of silence he could gather these mornings were something he held close to his heart. He quietly made his way to the living room for coffee and cartoons before stepping into the shower.
When he emerged from the shower, she was no longer in bed. He quickly got dressed and made his way to the kitchen. There she stood, the smug dress fit snugly on her figure. She had removed the contents of the refrigerator one by one and placed them on the kitchen table. There was kale, almond butter, a gallon of flax milk, and a half-eaten package of tofu contained in a Ziploc bag. A rogues gallery of her stuff staring him down in confusion.
“What is this?” he asked with astonishment when he saw what she had done.
“Darlin’,” she said. “I don’t understand. What sort of home are we running?”
“What?” he asked.
She smiled playfully, letting him know she thought he was being unreasonable, but she loved him all the same. “What kind of southern home doesn’t have a pitcher of fresh lemonade on hand?”
“Lots of them?” he offered, unsure of how to respond.
“How else are we expected to fight this dreadful heat?”
He noticed the cold air from outside chill a bead of sweat that was starting to form on his brow.”
Sometimes, she beat him out of bed.
He woke up to the wonderful, smoky smell of bacon wafting through the apartment. He yawned and smiled before sitting up in confusion.
He found her in the kitchen, which was a jungle of mixing pots and casserole dishes. She protected the hideous dress with an apron—his apron. It was a blue apron with white trim that he had earned after a summer spent in Idaho helping his grandmother bake. He had worn it for her once, simultaneously testing her and joking with her, and she had welcomed it with the same mean-spirited teasing that had banished it to the closet when he was nine. But here it was, making a return performance as she announced, “We’re having a party!”
“What?” he asked.
“You don’t have to do a thing,” she said. “I’ve got it all taken care of. Sit yourself down and have some breakfast. You must be workin’ up an appetite.”
He sat down and she shoved a plate of bacon in front of him, along with a side of white mush. He poked at it. “Did you make grits?”
“Honestly,” she sighed, shaking her head, “I just don’t know how someone sleeps so much of the gosh darned morning away.” She opened the window and stared out at the graying sky. “What a beautiful day the Lord has given us.”
“Yeah,” he said, taking a spoonful of grits. “I have a feeling the Big Guy has a lot of fun with his world. His great, big snow globe.”
“Honestly,” she gave him a disapproving frown. “Anyway, what I was saying is that I invited the Kellers from next door over tonight. It’s such a beautiful summer we’re going to waste away unless we do something about it!”
He enjoyed the grits for a moment, before his heart stopped and he asked her, “Have you called the Kellers already?” They had encountered the Kellers only once when Mr. Keller had knocked on their door to politely ask them to turn their music down.
“Why yes,” she said. “Mrs. Keller sounded quite excited. I am going to bake a ham and my famous pineapple upside down cake. And I figure we can enjoy it out on our patio with a nice pitcher of lemonade. Now darlin’, would you be the great man that you are and run into town to get some lemons?”
Unsure of where to tackle any part of the day, he grabbed his coat and left for the convenience store on the corner.
The Kellers arrived promptly at six. Mrs. Keller, assuming the invite had been a fabulous joke, arrived in a wide-brimmed hat and the best southern sundress she could muster, which was a stylish yellow city dress with a sash across the waist. Mr. Keller arrived wearing a polo shirt tucked into khaki pants and an uneasy demeanor.
She kissed Mrs. Keller on the cheek and Mrs. Keller, in turn, giggled relentlessly and said with an east-coast affectation, “Well, let me tell you—those biscuits you dropped off this morning were absolutely delicious, darling.”
The giggling had stopped, however, by the time they had all ventured out to their apartment balcony, watching the rain pour down on all sides of them and shielded only by the balcony above them.
She reclined on a deck chair sipping her lemonade. “What a great summer. What a beautiful life.” She smiled and toasted her neighbors who were bundled together in the same chair. “Wouldn’t you say so, Mrs. Keller?”
Mrs. Keller’s teeth chattered as she nodded frantically.
At the end of the night, while she was cleaning up the dishes, he walked his neighbors to the door.
When he came back to the kitchen, she was hunched over the counter, sobbing.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Why,” she sobbed, “they didn’t eat any of my pineapple upside down cake. There was that nonsense about dieting, but nobody would even try it. After I went to all that trouble.”
There was something immediately familiar about her and he brought his hands up so they almost touched her shoulders, and then he brought them back down, plastered to his sides by an unsure guilt. “I had some,” he said, “and it was fantastic. And the Kellers are a couple of assholes. So don’t you worry about them. Not for a second.”
“Honestly, you’re the worst,” she sobbed, but he wasn’t sure if she meant it.
Some days she didn’t wake up with the dress. She would wake up in his old shirts, and lumber around the apartment, a zombie looking for coffee. Her hair would stick out in improbable angles and when they would pass each other in the kitchen, she would look at him with droopy eyelids, manage a lazy “Hey,” and kiss him on the cheek. The morning after the first day with the dress, she emerged from bed blissful and unaware of the confusion from the previous day. When this happened, he cornered and accosted her. He demanded to know if it had all been a joke, but she was clueless and concerned.
“This is really some joke,” he scoffed. “You really have a taste for humor.”
There was bitter arguing followed by crying and a nap that resulted in her waking with the dress.
Early on, he tried to get her to part with the dress, but she stubbornly insisted on wearing it always—even to bed. “Be a gentleman,” she would lecture him. “Never rob a young woman of her dress.”
He had learned. When he found her in the kitchen pouring coffee on this particular morning, he hugged her and kissed her on the forehead.
“The dress again?” she asked.
Without letting her go, he nodded, his chin nudging the top of her head.
She looked up at him. “It’s yellow?”
He nodded again. “With red flowers.”
“Jesus christ,” she said. “How horrible.”
On these days, he would sit down with a legal pad and plan meticulously. The bistro only served breakfast for another hour. Could they be ready in an hour? After this, they could go to the lake. Or go shopping. Or they could check out the museum they had been saying constantly for years they would go to, but had never gone. But who were they kidding. They weren’t museum people.
They explored the city, every corner and every end. They walked, they drove, they ferried. At every moment’s opportunity, he would hand her coffee, a soda, tea. Anything.
“I know what you’re doing,” she said.
“I know.” he replied. She let her head rest on his shoulder.
At night, they had late reservations at a nice restaurant he couldn’t afford, followed by a show at a dirty venue in a hip part of town.
The music was loud and terrible, but they screamed, sang, and jumped in gleeful determination.
At the end of the night, he pushed the remote for his car, unlocking the doors. He opened the door on the driver side, got in, and started the car. “I can keep going if you can,” he said, but when he turned to his right, he saw that she was still standing outside, bundled up in her jacket, waiting beside her door.
He rolled the window down and called out to her. “What’s wrong?”
She looked at him smiling, but with little in her face to suggest humor otherwise. “I’m waiting,” she said.
“You’re waiting?” he asked.
She nodded. “What else would I be doing?”
When he finally understood what she meant, he got out of the car, left it running, and walked over to her side. He slowly opened the door and gestured into the car. “After you, my dear.”
She slipped into the car, grabbed the door by its inside handle, and slammed it shut.
There was no speaking until they left the parking lot. As he pulled away, she said coldly, “I don’t understand how you can purport to be so romantic, but you won’t do such a simple and necessary gesture as holding the door open for a lady.”
She said it in her voice, with her intonation. The same cold, angry voice she used when he told her he didn’t want to spend the weekend at her parents, or when he told her he wouldn’t ever want to own a dog. This was something he knew he could hold onto.
He reached over and brushed a hand through her hair, but she pushed him away and looked out her window.
When they arrived home, she had fallen asleep. He woke her up and guided her to the bedroom where she collapsed on the bed. He left her there as he got ready for bed. Just as he crawled under the covers, he noticed peeking out from under her jacket a flash of obtuse yellow and red fabric. He turned off the lights and rolled over.
He peeled the pack apart until the plastic thinned and stretched away from itself and the new shirts fell to the floor.
“There are only two shirts in this pack,” he said, excitedly. “You know what that means?”
“What does it mean?”
He kissed her on the cheek. “Higher quality,” he whispered. They high-fived. “No more four-packs for us!” he cried.
She jumped on the bed, chanting “Only the best!” until she was out of breath. She let herself fall onto the bed.
Coffee with a friend was a rare luxury. It seemed like most days he found himself the guardian of a strange woman and the days spent with the woman he knew were all but dissolving. The burden of anticipation became so great that he found himself less eager and more relived when he rolled over and she was there beside him. On these days he would kiss her on the cheek, let her know he was leaving, and on the way to the coffee shop, he would call his friend.
His friend was reliable—always at the café within minutes of notice and would always wear a small self-conscious grin that was the exact mid-point between depression and ecstasy. During their first meeting, it became clear that these meeting were to be tiny, verbal waltzes that just skirted but never landed on the issue of the dress. Each one began with aggressive slap-hugging, along with an overly-excited small talk. I can’t believe our team! It’s like they actually want to lose this season. or Work is gonna be the death of me, man. I just know it. The very brand of masculine conversation that he and his friend had never endured comfortably were now the staple of their meetings, and while he usually was grateful that his friend was happy to slog through every banal detail of his own life, there was an unbalance in their friendship that grew greater and greater. Something in the way that his friend flicked the crumbs off his scone before stuffing it in his mouth. Something hidden deep inside the way his friend could point at him, and with a mouth full of pastry could say “But you probably know all about that, don’t you?”
It was in those moments that he knew there was something lost in their friendship that could not be regained. When finally he decided to speak to his friend about the dress, it was a statement without context. An explosion built up over a dozen coffee meetings.
“I feel like I’m starting to get my hopes up over the smallest things. I started thinking that maybe the reason the shirts were disappearing was because they were old and newer, more expensive shirts would do the trick. I don’t think I ever really stopped to look at how absurd this all is.”
“Which part,” his friend said not so much as a question, but as a perfunctory statement.
“The part where she wakes up almost every morning in a strange dress as a different person.”
“Oh,” said his friend, staring at his scone. Flick, flick with the crumbs. “How…how are you feeling? Or doing? How are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it was buried in her this whole time? Maybe she was acting out some sort of repressed desire.”
“Does that make sense?”
“No,” he laughed. “Of course it doesn’t. You’ve known her as long as I have. When has she ever remotely repressed anything?” He rubbed his forehead with his thumb and index finger, as if feeling around for his hidden programming. “Sometimes it isn’t, you know? Sometimes it’s her. But more often she’s this girl in the sundress who drinks lemonade and likes throwing parties.”
His friend was breaking apart his scone with one hand, now. He wasn’t daring to chew, instead grinding his teeth while staring at the mesh wire table.
“What do I do?” he asked. “It’s great now. But what happens if she becomes this other woman completely and wants to go on vacation. Or refuses to talk to black people—do southerners still hate black people? I don’t know. I just—I have no idea.”
“Maybe this other woman is a person in her own right.” His friend nibbled on his scone lightly. “I don’t know. Maybe she’s got a job and a family. Maybe she’s someone you should consider knowing.”
He laughed. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. What happens to the girl who went to concerts with me way back when? What happens to her?”
There was a long, tortured silence, and his friend panicked over every second of it before finally speaking. It was abrupt and pointed, and he could tell his friend regretted it as soon as he said it, but also thought that his friend might have regretted anything he said or didn’t say. He said this: “Sometimes starting over isn’t the worst thing in the world. Sometimes it’s not even a bad thing. Right?”
Just before falling asleep, the two lay in bed staring at each other.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He gave her a small shrug. “It’s okay.”
“I don’t want to take your shirt. It’s obvious that it means a lot to you.”
She smiled and brushed her thumb against his cheek. “Thanks,” she said.
On Saturday morning, he awoke in the chair at the foot of the bed. His drawer was still empty and she was wearing the dress. Sometime in the night or morning, she had kicked the blankets off, and now she was flat on her back, exposed to the cold air. He reached over and started to drape the blankets over her, but caught himself and folded them over his half of the bed.
He put a robe on, made coffee, and watched cartoons while he opened the window to the cold air of the city. It was too cold a day to do anything.
He tiptoed quietly into the bedroom, grabbed his shoes, his jeans, and a jacket and changed in the living room to avoid waking her. He tensed his muscles before carefully opening the front door and closing it behind him.
Large, determined strides to the convenience store at the corner, where he judiciously selected his groceries before returning home and starting his work.
His task was tackled with measured silent diligence. When he was done, he put the sugar away, slid the lemon peels into the garbage, and dropped ice cubes into the pitcher before placing it in the refrigerator. When she woke, he would take it out of the refrigerator and place it on the counter and little beads of sweat would form on the glass.
Yes, soon she would be awake and he would be here. He would be waiting.