It’s funny. I see this tree, like, I see it almost every night, whenever I’m standing outside your window. I see it, but I don’t.
Here’s the thing, I don’t ever really SEE it. Does that make sense?
Like, it’s here, but it’s just a dumb fucking tree, right? I’m not interested in this tree when I’m standing outside your window. I’m interested in you. Why else. I mean. Why else would I be standing outside this window. It’s goddamn cold outside, right? And it’s late. I mean. Really late, and I have to work in the morning, and I have to get up early, too, to help my wife get the kids to school, and so, I mean, I’m not the kind of guy who would stand outside in the cold and the late, knowing he has to wake up in just a couple of hours, deal with kids and lunches and breakfast, all just to look at a tree. It’s a thing to stand under, usually, a thing to stand under in a way that I can look up at your window and if you were to get the feeling that I’m here looking up at you in your window, were to get this feeling so strongly that you felt the need to look out your window and down onto the street, you wouldn’t be able to see me, because I’m under this tree. I wish it were a bigger tree, of course. It’s a bit skimpy as far as trees offering cover go, but it’s the tree that’s outside your window, and I can’t blame it for that.
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I stand here under this tree and don’t even think about the tree. But tonight.
Because, I don’t think of it because I’m thinking of a lot of other things, right? You understand that?
But tonight, I looked up at the tree. I don’t know why. You weren’t there at the window, I guess. I got bored, maybe, staring at the empty window waiting for you to cross by it again. So I looked around. It happens some times. I’ll look at the other buildings on your street. Or I’ll watch the people waiting at the bus stop, except, this late at night, there aren’t usually that many people. Sometimes, the bus will come by and people will get off, but not very often.
There’s. What I’m saying is there’s not a lot to look at when you’re not crossing by your window, and so tonight, I looked up at that tree. And that tree, it was glowing. It was a red, glowing tree, and I’m sure it’s like this every night, you know. I’m sure there’s a light hitting it a weird way, and that it’s always the same light, but tonight, tonight I saw it, but really SAW it, and I just thought it was eery and beautiful and bathed in this light, I don’t know, I guess it was an orange light but the weird green color of the leaves turned that light into a haunting kind of red, but something deeper than red. Plum, I guess. I would call it plum. And this red made the leaves look almost blue, like maybe the tree was under water or we were all under water, and what I wanted to say, I guess, what I’m trying to say about this tree, this god damn tree and the light that hit it, is that it was beautiful and I wished I could tell you to come to your window right then and look down at this tree and see it, too.
What a curious thing to say. Nevertheless, Matthias stilled the trajectory of his arm. Reflexive obedience. His other hand (off-screen) damply gripped the homemade knife.
Had they been inside, the Mexican votive candle on the nightstand would have made a cave drawing of the hand he’d extended. The Big Bad Wolf, mouth slightly ajar, scarier as shadow. Tear you to fucking pieces, he’d have warned the boy, secretly delighting the way his bedtime stories sent the kid burrowing deeper into his downy nest.
But the kid had been years ago. And they’d shifted the party outside, to the garden. Goddamnit, it was a beautiful day! The communion with nature had been Matthias’ suggestion. Truth be told, he was improvising.
What do you mean? Matthias asked. The sleeve of his robe, in the harsh afternoon sun, throbbed whitely.
Have you ever seen one of those secret agent pictures where the secret agent has to defuse the bomb? she said. Like that. Don’t cut the wrong color wire, is all I am saying.
Matthias stared at the plant. How did you like that? He’d been just about ready to grab one of the leafiest green leaves, probably a trace instinct left over from some herbavoric genetic ancestor. Now he second-guessed.
You trying to get into my head, he said.
He could feel her shrugging somewhere behind him. The wooden grip of the stiletto, mummy-wrapped with a gauzy stretch tape, had a layered elasticity that Matthias found pleasant to squeeze.
Ingrate, he said. Try to pick you something nice. Still, neither hand moved.
Shoot the messenger, she said.
What, you gonna run, now? After all we been true?
Too late for funny accents.
Fine. I propose one final game. Then we can sleep.
One possibility (substance abuse), implied by the talk of daytime sleep. Had they been up for days? But that robe pointed to another scenario (cult religion, paranoia, isolation curdling into madness); unless it’s a simple bathrobe, in which case we circle back to the drugs. Or he’s an escaped mental patient, and the child and the father have already been butchered. (He’s only wearing the father’s bathrobe while his street clothes receive a thorough laundering in the basement.)
She might be a prisoner. Or she might be in on it.
None of this speculation matters, in the end, because we’ve skipped right to the final scene. What came before is impossible to know, and so irrelevant to our purposes.
Matthias hesitated, his fingers poised before one of the slender beanlike stalks. She’d definitely gotten into his head.
What kind of bomb? he said.
Big one, she told him. End of the world. Our world, at least.
A sweat raced along the inside track of his robed arm, cooling and tickling in tandem. In the sunlight, his own skin had assumed a grotesque, overripe fecundity even greater than the garden’s.
I’m doing it.
Do it, she said.
Are you ready?
Stop saying that.
I’m just trying to help.
You’re trying to get in my head.
Okay. I’m gonna do it.
It’s crazy how every decision.
One wrong move. The slightest.
Something so insignificant.
Forever. No turning back. We just accept this notion of time, irreversibility, water tumbling down the hill, never back up. We accept this horror.
Not all of us.
That’s what I’m saying. Grown-ups do. You have to choose, sometime. So choose your fucking petal.
He might be the victim. Hadn’t considered that one, had you?
He took a breath and, with a final and firm decisiveness, pinched the tiniest white petal between his thumb and index finger, snapping it free of the stalk.
The explosion was instantaneous. They were both consumed by a terrible fire.
“Listen,” Karen says, “it’ll be our place. Not yours or mine, but ours, and the furniture should be right.”
For once, I concur. Decor more than fills space; it acts as mutual agreement, ongoing contract and statement of purpose. Coffee makers, beds, bureaus, paintings, clocks and wine racks, beyond their utility, affirm the trust between people who choose to face those objects together again each day, to let things invade their lives anew every morning, in concert and without pause.
A little affirmation might go a long way, too, after our last few arguments, I think. Most relationships don’t last, and interior design remains so often ignored in the discussion of why and how. Feelings change faster than the objects around them – the right furniture can act as a trusted anchor tying us to the ideals we forget, standards we transgress and loves we abandon, drawing us back from our uncoiling humanity to the life we once promised we wanted.
Likewise, the wrong objects and arrangements can wedge themselves between us and who we think we are, driving a stake between now and the future. Materialism is not, as is the common understanding, a superficial fault, but instead the sum of all things. Love is the strongest force on Earth only when bolstered by the right array of throw-pillows and duvets, the correct mixology of rugs and ottomans.
So, before we move, I throw out my old couch and the broken dresser, I put my grandmother’s table in storage. Karen leaves her desk behind and tosses the stools. We move into the apartment hauling only eight garbage bags’ worth of clothes, ten boxes of books, a bottle of whiskey and some mismatched plates.
The first night, we stand under the ceiling fan and stare across the expanse of floorboard, hold hands and laugh, run through the rooms and hide in the darkness amidst our own echo. Busy with work, we go days without buying or adding a single piece of furniture, then weeks. We return home each night to find that same unfilled space. It’s fantastic and we are in love. We blast music from the tiny speakers on our phones, eat dinner off the floor and fall asleep heaped in each other’s arms – in the corner, a doorway, a windowsill. The rooms are empty but for us and what we want from each other, which is everything and nothing all at once, though no one is making claims or accounting for debts. Our life is shapeless and undetermined. I lose weight. Karen smokes less. Sex abounds. We are garden sprinklers on a hot afternoon. Our days spray formlessly in all directions, and the bare walls catch us like paint on blank canvass.
Then the furniture comes.
First, a microwave: its effect is immediate, though uncertain. I wake at 3AM, stumble from a room (the living room? the bedroom? we still don’t know). Getting water, I see the appliance at the counter’s edge, marring the pristine slice of marbled pressboard. I feel its gaze, its judgment, and my belly weighs on me, jutting over underwear. In a moment of weakness, I nuke leftover takeout, far too much. I consider Karen’s legs, splayed naked in the darkness beyond a door frame. My reverie is interrupted by a sneeze.
But whose sneeze?
“Karen?” I call. Her toes curl some, but no response. I swivel again toward the microwave, peer at it over my glass.
“Hello?” I whisper into the cup, too ashamed to raise my voice. “Microwave?”
In silence, I eat my burrito.
Then comes the couch.
We place it in one room, then another. Where the red bulbous thing lands doesn’t matter, though. Like a slow and steady fire, it changes everything. I find Karen smoking on it when I return from work. This is a surprise – her job usually persists well into the evening. She takes long drags and reads from a magazine. The couch wraps around her body, hugging thighs and pushing against ribs. Karen observes me and smiles.
“Sit,” she says, patting the fat cushion.
I do, and Karen tackles me within seconds, ripping at my shirt and pulling off my pants. We fuck like bricks falling from a third story walk-up. Things crack, dust flies, people scream. Within minutes, she comes four times and barely looks at me. Naked, out of breath, and gulping down water in the kitchen afterward, I find scratches on my chest and specks of cloth on my penis, little red fibers, some lint. The microwave does nothing, just watches me stare at my genitals like an idiot. I walk back to what has clearly become our living room, confused and beaten, then fall into Karen’s arms. I barely know where I am. She smokes another cigarette and rubs her hand along the soft red couch. A gentle purring lulls me to sleep.
When I wake, Karen is in running clothes, about to head out. “You should think about exercise, too,” she says before slipping on her headphones. She returns unannounced and continues to read on the couch. I order Chinese alone.
Besides a growing and unnamable distance between us, life moves forward. The furniture keeps coming, and the apartment takes shape. Shoe caddy on the door, towel hooks in the bathroom, umbrella stand in the hall, coat rack by the closet. Friends visit, gifts are exchanged, dirt accumulates. Infrequent sex continues to be raucous, inhuman and violent, but still pleasurable. The red fibers persist, sometimes in strings, otherwise in clumps. Though we purchase an ample bed, Karen sleeps frequently on the couch. We don’t fight, just fizzle, and I accept that maybe love, as it matures, is like the sea to fish: eventually, you don’t even know it’s there. Which is fine, really, and to be expected, I think, as I heat up a plate of nachos and old pizza at 2AM, mindlessly rubbing my cheek against the fridge, listening to Karen’s writhing moans pulse from the living room.
The other day I arrived home early to find her riding the couch like a horse amid candlelight. I’d never seen anything so erotic in my life.
“You have to accept the fact that Karen and the couch are not only fucking, but in love,” the microwave says. Of course.
“Yes,” I nod, dragging my food out of its face and into mine.
The next day, I take action. First, I pour over the technical specifications for the couch and read product reviews online, trying to discern what exactly makes the thing more desirable than me. I give up on this angle, though, conceding that the root of desire is personal and ultimately unknowable. And, besides that, I can’t hold a candle to the list of perks and innovations built into this couch, a true marvel of domestic ingenuity and industrial design magic. The couch, I know in my heart, is better than me. This is confirmed, of course, when Karen announces bitterly that the couch is leaving us, that it has found another apartment, another woman. It’s been good, the couch says, really, and wishes us luck before waddling awkwardly out the door.
Karen is devastated and spends her days prostrate in the living room, weeping and inconsolable. I too am sad, if not for the $400 couch then for her. Everything in this world is so short lived, even our couch affairs. I touch her arm but Karen brushes me away, needs to be alone on the floor. Dejected, I try to establish a relationship with any object in the house that will take me, but the microwave wants to remain platonic. The dresser needs space. The television is already involved. The ironing board says I’m too fat.
When I clear away the takeout containers and heave my naked body onto the coffee table, rubbing myself coyly along its length, I wonder what familiar ocean this anchor will finally draw me back to. I am moving my arms in great arcs through the air – as if I’m already swimming, as if I’m already at the bottom of that huge, empty ocean. And it feels just like nothing at all. Like I don’t even know it’s there.
As hard as I can, I am trying to imagine how wonderful it will be.
She wasn’t sure, exactly, why she was here, down at the river. The water was cold and she wasn’t dressed for a swim.
She didn’t know why she was back here—here, here; here at home—either.
Her brother seemed to have everything under control. He’d told her as much when he’d called her to tell her about their mother.
“I’ve got everything under control, Jennie.”
“I want to come, anyway,” she had told him, which was strange, because she hadn’t. She hadn’t wanted to come at all.
He didn’t sigh on the phone. He had become good at not sighing on the phone, or not so that she could hear him. But he paused. He paused and then he said, “I’ll set up your room, then.”
She came a day later than she said she would. When he opened the door for her, he took a quick look at her and raised his eyebrows in a way that told her that he wasn’t surprised, that he should’ve known that something—parties, drinking, some douche-bag asshole guy she knew—would make her late, would make him have to explain to their mother that, no, Jennie wasn’t back yet, and, yes, she did tell me she was going to be here by now, that he wasn’t surprised, no, but that he was disappointed because he’d hoped she would have made this a priority. That, or not come at all.
He’d always had very expressive eyebrows.
She didn’t deny it. She didn’t smirk or shrug or roll her eyes or tell him he was right or that he was wrong.
But he was wrong. She hadn’t gone out. She’d wanted to go out. She had plenty of places to go out to, plenty of people to go out with, but she had gotten off the phone with her brother, had looked through her things to find something to pack, and then had laid down on her bed to wait, and she waited and waited and waited. Through the night, through the next day, and into the next night, until her body felt sore from all the time she’d spent in the same spot on her bed, and then she got into her car and started driving home. She would have been here earlier—not early enough but earlier—except she had to stop halfway and nap in a Sears parking lot just off the highway after she feel asleep and shifted the car into the highway median for the second time.
She followed him inside. The house was neat, neater than it had ever been when it had been their parents’ house. Flattened moving boxes were stacked in the corner of the kitchen, on the floor waiting to be folded and taped. The kitchen was cleaned, everything wiped down, the sinks empty.
“Place looks really nice,” she said.
“You should have seen it before,” he said.
Then she said she wanted to go lay down for a minute and he raised his eyebrows at her again but she turned away before they could say what he wanted them to say.
“Well. I’m going to go see Mom,” he said. “You sure you don’t want to?”
“The drive, you know,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll be there a little later,” she said. The she went to her room and sat at the edge of her bed and waited until she heard her brother’s car pull away, and then she got into her own car and drove here, for no particular reason, though, except that she felt the urge to come here. She didn’t feel any strong connection to the river. It didn’t remind her of her mother or her childhood or some time in her past when her brother seemed more like a friend than he did now, which was never. Her mother had lived for so long next to this river that she didn’t think it registered to her at all anymore. But this is where she wanted to come. This had been what she’d thought of when she’d thrown her bag into the back seat of her car and what she’d thought of when she’d stopped to get gas and a coffee.
Now that she was here, though, she didn’t know what to do.
She was standing on the rocks watching the water slip by and for the life of her she didn’t know what to do.
I often find myself thinking back to a time when I worked for a summer walking the neighborhoods of Dallas, going door-to-door, asking concerned citizens to support a citywide curbside recycling program both with their signatures and a donation. I was good at the signatures, bad at the donations, and it’s a surprise that I held the job for the whole summer since I was paid based on the donations I received. I say I was bad at donations, which isn’t entirely correct. People gave, but instead of checks, they gave water or lemonade, or a few minutes inside their air-conditioned houses, though these small gifts had nothing to do with my salesmanship and everything to do with my health or what people perceived as my declining health. It was a brutally hot summer and I was required to wear a suit and tie, and I was not in the best shape of my life. Let me just say while not at the heaviest stage of my life, I was not far off it, either.
Most people, then, when they saw me at their door, sweat-stained and red-faced and hard-breathing, they invited me in before I even had a chance to say anything at all. They brought me inside and had me wait in their front hall while they poured me a glass of ice water or tea and judging by these quick glimpses inside these houses, no one in these neighborhoods could afford more than the bare essentials, and most were living just barely within their means, and while I could say that these signs of obvious scraping-by-ness made it difficult for me to really push these people for donations, or that they’re situation made them unwilling to give, the truth of the matter is my colleagues returned with packets full of checks and plainly I was and have always been a poor salesman.
One morning halfway through the summer, I found myself once again sweating in the middle of an elderly gentleman’s hallway. I say elderly. I was a young man in my early twenties, and no doubt he was maybe fifty, or just over, but even still, even now I can’t help but think of him as elderly. He had gone to the kitchen and then had come back with a cold can of beer in each hand. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock. I told him, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t, and he told me to come inside and have a seat, and not to worry since they were both for him. The rules were very clear on this point—not entering a person’s home even if invited, not engaging for lengthy conversations—but I had never been apt at rule-following, and the day ahead of me promised to be a brutal slog through a humid hi-90s day, so I followed him deeper into his house.
His living room was furnished with a patio chaise and two plastic lawnchairs. He took the chaise, laid himself out, took a large pull of one of the beers while he held the other one out. I took it, took a sip, sat uneasily in the plastic chair, unsure of its strength, my weight. He finished his beer in another large swallow and then stood up and padded into his kitchen and came back with two more, which he told me really were both for him, and which he finished before I’d finished my own. So far I hadn’t once mentioned anything about curbside recycling. I hadn’t said much of anything at all, in fact, but he didn’t seem to care and hadn’t said much either.
Half-finished with my beer and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I was about to excuse myself when he dove into a long, rambling story, the gist of which centered around a six-month stint he pulled in Mexico City, where he’d gone because he had theory about Mexican girls, which took him six months to disprove. Then he told me he had some weed too and that it was upstairs in the attic. He told me that when he was married he would go smoke up there, but now that he wasn’t married, he still couldn’t quite break that habit. I told him that I didn’t smoke weed and he told me, Suit yourself, and stood up and walked out of the room and for reasons I don’t quite remember, I followed him.
The attic was empty of normal attic junk. It had a floor, and there was a small mattress laid out on the floor next to a window. I saw the bed and thought distressing thoughts and was about to back my way back down the attic ladder when he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, not in a violent or difficult way, and pulled me the rest of the way in, then let go to slap me hard on the back, and then he plopped down on the mattress, pulled a tin box off a windowsill, pulled out papers and a baggie and rolled a joint.
The point to this story, I’ll tell you now, is this: I was waiting.
That was the time in my life when I was always waiting for something to happen.
He lit his joint and took a drag and coughed and took another drag. I waited for him to offer it to me, having decided I’d take it if he did, but he never did. Then he started talking about his ex-wife and how he used to play guitar and about how shitty it was to live in Dallas. He smoked his joint down to a roach and didn’t stop talking, until he started yawning and then he told he was going to take a nap and that it was nice of me to stop by. He laid down on the mattress. I walked back downstairs, grabbed my clip board, and then left.