[Continued from last week]
I strip the mattress and shove everything into the hamper. The second drawer sticks to the drawer above it, and suddenly I’m confronted with the top drawer’s contents. Cash in an envelope. A family photograph. A wedding band. The toilet flushes, I push the top drawer closed. Esther emerges and heads directly to the kitchen. I finish remaking the bed.
She returns with two glasses, sets one in my hand. Returns to the bed, sitting propped up against the wall. I join her in a first sip, expecting straight vodka over ice. Instead, it’s a soft floral elixir with a hint of sweetness. “Belvedere and St-Germain,” she says, reading my curiosity, “plus a few drops of orange flower water.”
“Fancy,” I say.
I sit beside her, she actually rests her head on my shoulder.
“Say, um. If we’re going to do that kind of thing, maybe we should have a safe word.”
“Safe word?” she asks, laughing up at me.
“Fine. My safe word is monosyllabic.”
I choke on my drink. “You mean, it’s one syllable?”
“No,” she says. “It’s monosyllabic.”
“Alright,” I say. “My safe word is banana hammock.”
“That would be safe words, plural.”
She sips, thinking. “Filibuster.”
She digs her fingers into my ribs. “That would get you kicked out of bed.” She fixes me with her eyes. “Shouldn’t someone like you be at work right now?”
“Honeymoon phase,” I say.
She takes a long drink. Stares into her glass. “I don’t miss going into an office,” she says, “and I don’t particularly miss the people. But looking at the same walls every day is bound to drive anyone insane.”
“You could go to a coffee shop. Do your editing there.”
“Ah, but here I have my music. I have my St-Germain…”
“… and I’m free from all interruptions.”
“Except me,” I say.
“You did disrupt an otherwise productive afternoon,” she says, running a finger over my nipple.
“You could at least try to sound sincere,” she says, pinching it.
I push her hand away, she resumes until I squirm.
Finally, I press my lips between her knuckles — her turn to squirm. “Don’t do that unless you’re ready to fuck me again.”
I continue down her long, thin fingers. “Interruptions aren’t all bad,” I say. “Speaking as someone who recently lost all interruptions on the home front.”
She takes back her hand. Separately, we drink our drinks.
“You never wanted all that?” I ask, trying to sound light. “Get married, start a family?”
She rests her glass on her knee. “That’s quite the non sequitur.”
“I didn’t mean it to be.”
“My novels are my children,” she says, in a clipped voice. Like an animal sensing a hunter, she cocks her head and flees the room.
“Where are you going?”
I hear the window to the fire escape slide open, a sharp mew, then the flutter of paws padding across the floor. Belvedere leaps up to the bed and climbs onto my chest. I set down my glass and try to pet behind the cat’s ears. He withdraws.
“He won’t let you pet him,” says Esther, from the door. “He’s never let any of the men I’ve had over pet him.”
“Is that supposed to make me run for the door?”
Belvedere claws at the bedsheet, I rub my fingertips together. He crooks his head, then climbs back on top of me, pushing his tiny nails into my stomach. I give him space but offer to pet him again all the same. He nuzzles his face into my hand.
“Sure this isn’t his apartment?” I ask. “He gives a warmer welcome than you.”
Esther visibly stiffens.
“Hey. I was joking.
“We don’t know each other well enough to joke.”
“We could,” I say, sitting taller. “You’re the first person I’ve been with since my wife.”
“Don’t tell me that,” she says.
“That’s not what this is.”
“So we’re not supposed to get to know each other?”
She retrieves her drink from beside the bed, keeps her distance. “It’s better that way.”
Belvedere plops onto his side, still on top of me, now demanding I pet his stomach. When I do, he spasms and claws at my wrist. I withdraw, he offers his stomach again.
“So,” I ask, “what can we talk about?”
“Books?” she says, tilting her glass.
“I’m afraid you’d have to do the heavy lifting.”
“So you can’t read, after all.” She sits on the edge of the bed and tugs on Belvedere’s ears. Resetting, she asks, “What was the last book that changed your life?”
“I’m not sure a book’s ever changed my life.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Music, maybe. First time I heard Willie Nelson.”
“Same could apply to Salinger,” she says. “Or Hemingway. I’m making the assumption, of course, that you’re not into female writers.”
“That’s not true.”
“Name five,” she says. “Name one.” Before I can answer, she scoops up my empty glass and heads for the kitchen. Belvedere trots after her.
Following them, I say, “Not for nothing, but I kind of take offense to that.”
“You know where the door is.”
“Stop,” I say, spinning her by the shoulders to face me. “I want to be here. I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t.”
A thousand thoughts I’ll never know pass through her eyes. She turns away to make the next round.
Suddenly aware of my nakedness, I gather my clothes from the floor, a wrinkled mess. I drown my body in high-thread-count fabrics, acrylic-cotton hybrids, colors and shapes that represent nothing. A gust of wind lifts the edge of Esther’s robe and she shivers. I slide the window shut. Spring is stumbling this year.
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group. He was commissioned by At Large magazine to publish his third novel in serialization — now available, with new chapters publishing weekly — titled My Life on Rye. And, as one half of the wife-and-husband team Grackle + Pigeon, he’ll be publishing a tome for modern living this fall — Blanket Fort: Growing Up Is Optional (William Morrow). You can find his work at nathanielkressen.com.