Fiction Literature Rachel Charlene Lewis

From the Paint Stains

Rachel Charlene Lewis

 

I keep losing my colouring; I am a blob of human. I should probably see a therapist, but for now I’ll stick to drinking a lot of wine and baking. I’m baking now, combining ingredients for pie filling, but I can’t stop thinking. I think I need more wine.

Two weeks ago I was trying on blue wedges in the middle of the Nordstrom shoe section when June said, “Grey, I can’t wait anymore.” I looked up at her. She’d seemed so content sitting in her chair and watching me try on different shoes we couldn’t afford. I knew she liked the way my feet looked in heels. I was posing for her, flexing my calf when she said it.

“Sorry, babe, we can head out.” I slipped the blue wedge off of my left foot.

I looked at her, expecting her to be frowning, tired, maybe, but she was smiling. It kind of freaked me out and I didn’t know why.

“No,” June said. She was holding a little velvet box.

I swallowed, felt my tongue ring click against my teeth. “June,” I said.

“Grey,” June said, and before I could do or say or think anything else she was on one knee in front of me, and then all eyes were on us and I tried to swallow but my mouth was too dry. I thought maybe I’d choke.

And then there was a ring in that little velvet box, just staring at me, and June behind it, just staring at me.

“Are you high?” I stood in my flannel and my left foot on tiptoe to balance out the blue wedge on my right foot and for some reason all I could think about was how there was a little piece of hair sticking up over her ear and I’d probably need to give her a haircut soon, but if she was really doing this, if she was proposing, then we would never be able to get back to that place where I could call her into the bathroom when she got home from work and force her into the tub and scrub her scalp with my chipped nails.

“No, Grey.” June stared at me, and I stared at her, stared at the little silver ring in the box. I wanted her to get it. I wanted her to realize that she was talking to me, not to this person who she imagined wanted to get married.

Deep, deep, deep, deep down, a part of me was flattered. A part of me imagined myself being cruel to a wedding planner and flicking invisible pieces of lint off of a white dress. A part of me imagined kissing June in front of a crowd.

The rest of me was close to vomiting.

I wanted to shake her. June, what the fuck, I wanted to say, what the fuck, June.

“Why would you say that?” June said, but I wanted to punch her, wanted to tackle her down and bruise her so badly she’d never forget this moment because Are you high was exactly what I would say in this situation, and she was supposed to know that. For whatever reason I thought about her little fat dad and how kind he’d been to me, always, how he kept a picture of his wife in the pocket of his little blue work shirt, how every time I went to visit June in Virginia he would have dinner ready and sit us down and then pray, and when he prayed he would hold the picture of his wife in both hands like it was a tiny, baby newborn animal or his heart and say, and to Eliza, who made everything okay for every blessed second that she existed.

I have not made everything okay for every second that I’ve existed. In Nordstrom, I began to cry.

Thinking of this now, while I bake, I start to cry.

I never asked for this. June was supposed to know that. June was supposed to know. She was supposed to be okay with dating a fuck-up and never having anything normal. Didn’t I tell her that, the first night we met? I’m not going to be able to give you what you need, I’d said, but June was always so goddamn optimistic.

“Jesus Christ,” June said in Nordstrom, “Jesus Christ,” and my crying turned to sobbing and I crumbled into her arms, became surrounded by her vanilla-shampoo scent, comforted even in that moment by her squishy arms, and we had so many fucking eyes on us as we died, died, disappeared, became people who would never be able to go back to where we were fifteen minutes earlier, holding hands in a food court and shoving fries in each other’s mouths and laughing and saying, fuck yeah, let’s go try on expensive shit in Nordstrom, it’ll be fun.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

I’m basically done making the pie filling by the time I realize I don’t have any sugar. It will taste like shit without sugar. I down my glass of wine; I wipe it from my lips; I glance at myself in the mirror, decide my pyjamas don’t look too much like pyjamas, decide not to care about the smear of white on my hip from the flour, slip on a pair of boots from college days and grab my coat. As soon as I pull it over my shoulders, I smell June.

I know it doesn’t make any sense, but my immediate reaction is to open the front door. I expect her to be standing there. She isn’t.

I remember four seconds too late that she borrowed my coat when she went to walk Ms. Greenfield’s dog. For a moment I am jealous of that dog, would kill to have June put me on a leash and drag me across concrete.

I slam the door behind me. It shakes on the hinges.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

It’s cold outside. It smells like snow. I hate walking on my own. The city is one of my favourite places, but I have this fear of homeless people that I can’t explain. It’s fucked up and I know it. June was one of those people who always got half of her food to go when we went out. She would give it to the man who slept on a stoop a block down. She always made us walk the long way so she could see him. It made me feel mean. I think that’s why she did it, to teach me.

The most recent time that we saw him, he had a black eye. June asked over and over again, but he wouldn’t tell us what happened. June was convinced that he’d been beaten up by some neighbourhood kids. I was suspicious because I’m a horrible person. I’d figured it was drugs.

On the way to the store, I call my brother.

“I’m baking,” I say. “Pie. I’ll be over around seven.”

“Sweet. Nina and Hunter will be psyched.” I think about how my brother is twenty-seven, only two years older than me, and somehow has two kids and a wife he’s obsessed with and a real job, not some freelance bullshit that he hates. June hated her job, though I was the only one who ever complained.

I keep walking and I think about how much I miss seven o’clock on weekdays with June. Every day at seven June got home from work. At 6:58 I would spring from the chair where I edited articles about golf and I’d go stand by the peephole and wait. I liked getting glimpses of who she was when she couldn’t see me. I would stare through the peephole and watch her approach our apartment. She walked with her face angled down, like it was too heavy for the rest of her. Her hair would be up by then. She always left the apartment with it down, but I knew it got in the way when she was typing, always fell into her eyes and tangled with her glasses. Once June reached the door, she would sigh away any negativity, push her hands into her eyes, pause, unmoving. For a moment, we would exist through the door: me watching her hide her eyes. Me watching her preparing herself for me.

I couldn’t marry someone who has to prepare themself for me. So I said no.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

On the walk home from the grocery store, I call Sara. I hold the sugar under my arm and imagine I’m holding an infant, except no good parent would ever hold an infant like this, head shoved into my hip, legs flailing into the air. I call Sara because she’s the first person who ever put me on the spot and told me that I back down when I’m afraid; she called it greying out because she thought it was funny that my name signified such a subset of my existence.

“It’s been two weeks,” I say.

“Shit,” Sara says, “Really?”

“I still want to die.” I spent 90 percent of my time in the grocery store trying not to hyperventilate. Every aisle held a memory, or at least it felt like it.

“I know,” Sara says. I imagine her clipping her toenails and watching a sleazy reality show as she waits for her boyfriend to get home. “I knew it was bad when you wouldn’t call me back. I’m glad you’re not dead.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. Sara knows to ignore my apology.

“Have you been leaving the house?” Sara says. I step around a pile of dog shit. I think about how I am shit. I am shitty. Was shitty. All tenses: shit.

I take another bite of my Kit Kat.

“Got sugar.” The wind blows. My coat flaps in the wind. I imagine June’s scent encompassing me, suffocating me, leaving me to die alone on a city street surrounded by people who won’t even know that my emergency contact doesn’t live in the city anymore, moved back in with her dad when I told her I wouldn’t marry her. “I asked if she was high.”

“I fucking know, dude, I fucking know.”

“Why did I ask if she was high, June is never high,” I say, because this is the easiest part of that conversation to say out loud.

“I still don’t know why you didn’t marry her.”

“I didn’t want to get married,” I say. I think of the dozen times over the three years that I dated June that I got drunk while June went out for a wholesome evening with her friends and I ended up calling Sara, in tears, to tell her how badly I wanted June forever.

“You’re lying,” Sara says. I snap off a piece of Kit Kat from the irregularly shaped bar. My teeth marks in the chocolate bar look more like fingernails. Clawing for something.

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”

“Fuck.”

“We have so many peaches that no one is going to eat and they are just rotting in the fruit bowl, and it’s such a nice fruit bowl,” I say.

“It is such a nice bowl,” Sara says. June made the bowl in a pottery class we took last summer. I made a mug that exploded in the microwave when I was trying to make ramen. “Come visit me. This weekend.”

“Okay.” I don’t know if I’ll actually come. I don’t want her to stare at me all sad. I drop my Kit Kat bar to the ground. I want to leave my mark in the form of a bright red plastic wrapper. I want the street to remember the way I feel right now. I watch it, sitting there, alone. Crumpled. The wind blows. It takes the wrapper with it.

I hang up. I turn the corner to my street, passing the spot where June’s homeless man remains, huddled on the ground like a forgotten sock. He looks tired, and cold. He looks like he could use June.

And I know it’s fucked up, but so could I.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

I bake pie, and I drink too much wine, and I sing along with a whiney boy pop star and try not to hate the world or myself. I pour sugar into my mouth straight from the bag and only kind of make a mess. I try to balance on the border between drunk and alcoholic. I decide that I’m just temporarily sad and will move on really soon. I could fuck the girl from down the hall. Probably. I think about her naked.

I’m good at denial until I drop a spoon on the floor, right next to the kitchen mat in front of the sink. I stare at it. I’m crying.

On the first night in our apartment, June and I sat on the floor and she painted with watercolours on my legs, jokingly at first, and then more seriously, and as the blacks mixed with the pinks and blues and yellows and turned them dark, I realized that she was someone I would never not be in love with, and I had never been more afraid in my life.

I pretended not to see the look on June’s face when I jumped up and scrubbed the paint from my legs at the sink, claiming to be afraid of ink poisoning. The colours pooled at my feet and stained our brand-new white rug, but we never replaced it, never threw it out.

She should have believed then that I couldn’t be what she needed.

I think of this now, standing on the paint-stained rug. I dig my toenails into its fibres. I want to pull myself from the paint stains. Maybe I want to pull June from the paint stains. I don’t know.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

I stand in my brother’s doorway with two pies, one cherry, one pumpkin, both wrapped and labelled with sticky notes.

“Baby Grey,” Robby says, and I’m in his arms, holding the pies out to either side. Robby hugs me tight and doesn’t let go. He knows I’ll step away when I’m done. I do, and he looks at me; I nod, and then we walk into the house. He closes the door behind me.

“Pie, pie, pie,” is pounded out on my legs as soon as I step into the door. Hunter and Nina fight for who gets to beat me up.

“How are you, Grey?” Amber holds her hands out for the pies. She is a dollhouse wife. I imagine Amber’s perfect hair walking through the city and donating to the homeless. Pies. She’d donate pies. Perfect pies with the right amount of sugar.

“I’m good,” I say. Amber glances down at the pies, and then she exchanges a look with Robby. He shakes his head. “What?” I say, but Robby has already grabbed the pies from Amber and headed for the kitchen.

“Beer?”

“Yes.” I think about the empty bottle of wine in my sink, don’t revoke my response. Amber puts an arm around me and walks me to the living room as if I am a fragile being who has never entered a living room before and thus needs instruction. My ass meets a plaid couch cushion and I step on a Lego. It cracks beneath my boot. I kick it under the coffee table. It’s still visible through the glass.

“You’re freezing,” Amber says, rubbing her arm up and down my jacket sleeve. “Let me take this. I’ll grab you a sweater.”

“Thanks,” I say. The kids bop around the living room while puppets sing on the television. My jacket is exchanged for a sweater. My brother appears with slices of pie and beers shoved in his armpits. We drink together, and he doesn’t ask about the smeared makeup on my face or my pyjamas. Amber distracts herself from my dishevelled appearance by braiding Nina’s hair. Hunter whines about his hair not being done, and she braids his, too. It pokes around his head like an alien’s eartubes.

“You look like an alien, Hunt,” I say, and Hunter runs around the living room, his arms wiggling around.

“Beep beep beep beep,” he says, because in Hunter’s world, aliens sound like cars.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

Amber makes me take her sweater home. “Just wear it under your coat.”

“You’re sure you don’t want me to walk you?” Robby says, and I shake my head.

“I like the walk. Need to clear my head anyway. And my stomach.” I don’t know how many slices of pie I ate, or how much beer I drank. I’m no lightweight or I’d be on my ass. I have no idea if June would be a lightweight. She’s never had a drop in her life.

Of course she’s one of those people who are always high on life.

I feel myself getting bitter. “Time to go,” I say aloud, though I think I meant for that to be in my head.

“Come visit later in the week. I’ll make some steaks, potatoes.” Robby says.

“Carbs,” Amber says, and Robby pulls her into his side, kisses her hair. Amber shoves him off, laughing, and adjusts her hair, no stray allowed, no single moment of raw freedom.

“Peace,” I say. I stumble a bit on the stairs, but then I’m good.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

On the walk home, I can’t stop thinking. It’s silent and it’s dark and I’m buzzed and so full that my body doesn’t feel like a body anymore, feels more like a suitcase. There were just so many moments when June would share something with me and I would realize that, one day, all of that information would become irrelevant to me, to my life, to my existence. The little details that I clung to as she spoke would one day slip from my thoughts just like every other small detail—just as I forgot the experiences, the adventures, the theories of past lovers, I would forget those belonging to her.

One day, I will see a smeared windshield and remember how obsessed she was with keeping hers clean. I will think about how, every Thursday at 6 a.m., she would walk outside with a bucket and two sponges, humming along to her iPod. When we first started living together, I would go with her, sit on an upturned bucket, and watch her. I don’t think she realized that she was humming out loud. Sometimes she would start singing while she cleaned; she would be crouched to the ground and scrubbing a tire and she would be singing and she would turn back and look at me and smile so fucking huge. She had a terrible voice, but I loved it anyway.

I unlock my apartment, and it doesn’t smell like her anymore.

I go to the fridge for more wine. I almost vomit when I see the piece of pumpkin pie I set aside for June on autopilot. I take the piece of pie out of the fridge as if it’s a screaming child, but it’s silent. I stare at it. I think my organs are twisting in on themselves. I think I really might throw up. I don’t know how much I’ve had to drink today. I don’t know how much I’ve had to drink this week. I stop caring. I pick up the plate and I throw it at the wall. Glass shatters. The thick orange paste smears down the air conditioner.

I sink to the floor, but I don’t cry. I don’t get to cry. I fucked up I fucked up I fucked up and I think the steady stream of alcohol in my blood is starting to get sick of being in a body so poisonous to itself and to everyone else.

I throw up all over my kitchen floor, masking the colour-splattered rug by the sink.

As I vomit half a dozen beers and a bottle of wine, I think of June and I think of the way she looked at me when I asked her out and I think about how proud she was when I liked the restaurant she picked; I think of her face when she held out the box, and how I never even touched the ring, never even tried it on for size, never even tried to see if I would like being June’s wife, how instead I said, Are you high? and started bawling; I think about how, when the weather shifts from winter to warmth, I’ll need to turn on the air conditioner and the entire apartment will smell like pumpkin pie.

 

Rachel Charlene Lewis

Rachel Charlene Lewis

Rachel Charlene Lewis was born (and eventually raised) in Maryland. She writes almost exclusively about women who are/want to be/used to be in love. She is on Twitter as @RachelCharleneL.

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