J. Rubino


He sat up as a panic exploded in center of his stomach and spread from within, tingling the skin across his back and making his shoulders curve forward. He fumbled out of bed, his hand switching on the lamp and his feet momentarily trapped in the sheets but kicking free. He rushed to the bedroom closet.

On the top shelf, an open shoe box shifted into his hands and then slipped, spilling pictures across his bare feet. He dropped to his knees; shaking fingers hastily picking through the photos. His eyes scanned them for details: her bottom row of teeth barely glimpsed in a smile, the smooth stretch of her neck, pale arms with hints of veins underneath, the barely noticeable specks of black in her blue eyes. These images built upon each other and her body once again formed, yet there were still so many pieces missing. He couldn’t remember how tall she was. Nor her hair’s exact shade of brown. The photos helped but became more and more insufficient.

And then there was her voice, so clear a minute ago in his dream, but now just another drifting memory. Her slight southern drawl – deliberately hidden but still emerging within certain words – came easiest. He remembered a piece of conversation about a television show. There was a single line from a poem she had read aloud for their fifth anniversary. He could hear her sarcastic answer during an argument. And there was the cascade of her giggle. But was that all? The millions of words she had spoken to him were now whispers of their original substance. Yet he knew that voice was somewhere in this house. Echoes trapped within the corner of the bedroom ceiling. The bureau positioned squarely between the two windows stood empty but he was certain the drawers carried bits of her words. Their closet was full of her sounds crammed together spanning years. Throughout the house her words existed, were still breathing their last bits of meaning, but inaccessible like the air surrounding, entering him as he moved.

He let the photos slip from his hands and back to the floor as he slumped against the closet door. In corner of the room bulging plastic garbage bags sat in a pile. He moved – not wanting to but knowing it could not be avoided – to the topmost bag and pulled out a piece of clothing. It was a t-shirt. Pressed to his face it smelled of dust, not her. He paused for a moment, listening to the soft compressed sound of the cotton squeezed tightly in his fist, then quickly released from his grasp. Wrapping his arms around the pile, his head sunk into the crinkle of plastic and he cried. Relentless, memorized tears. His senses imploded: the stickiness of the plastic against his bare arms, the wetness on his cheeks, no other sound but the staccato intake of his breath.

It was so easy to find a simple reward in complete surrender.

Yet even that could not last for her voice called out to him: “Alan.” He did not open his eyes for he knew she wasn’t there. But her voice lured him and … and then he felt a creeping sensation travel across him like a large insect crawling up his back, that same sickening feeling eighteen months old to this day.

He grabbed his clothes scattered from two days ago, and began getting dressed without rising from the floor. The zipper was cold against his skin. His t-shirt smelled of sweat. He knelt in the stark angled lamp light and groped for his shoes under the bed. His hand touched one sock. Then a book. Then a dish with crusted spaghetti stuck to its surface. He hadn’t worn shoes in over a month and now he had no idea where they were. Nor even why he had this sudden need to find them.

Words clenched in his throat as he spoke: “Is this what you wanted?” The was no one to answer and he began laughing softly, so softly that it could have been mistaken for continued sobs.

But he felt it again, that certain dread, and knew he had to keep moving.

Clinging to the edge of the mattress, he stood. Hesitating at the closed bedroom door, he thought about the unplugged phone sitting in the den and the unopened mail scattered across the kitchen table. Closed doors hid other rooms and their contents but there was no need to go there. That overwhelming sensation was leading him to a single location, that same location which drew him that early morning not so long ago.

As he exited the bedroom – as his bare foot soundlessly stepped on the beige hallway carpet and the weight of his body shifted forward – he froze. As he stared down the hallway, his heart surged in his chest beating wildly. It was hard to accept but there it was nonetheless. Bright yellow framed the closed bathroom door; the light was on where there should have only been darkness.

A nausea enveloped him. He placed his palm flat on the wall so not to fall and the coolness of the surface surprised him. He leaned his forehead against it. As before, what was to happen had already happened while he slept and to wait any longer was only to feed this sickness. It would consume him as before with the sudden sense of purging. He concentrated away from his fear, focusing on the slight tickle of sweat coursing down his side. He allowed his breathing to slow. It only took a minute, but he was ready and moved quickly to the bathroom.

Without hesitation, he opened the door. He winced as the sudden box of light flooded across him, but what he saw was not the indelible horror: no dab of blood conspicuously alone at the base of the tub, no envelope taped to the mirror, no small diamond pendant surrounded by crimson, nor the lure of her pale lips still slightly wet. Instead, Charmin and White Cloud filled the room.

Unraveled streams of white toilet paper piled three feet high on the floor, framed against the sky-blue tile, twisted in a seamless, endless weave. The solid blankness billowed. Light from the row of bulbs surrounding the mirror echoed within the folds like permanent flashes of lightning. Shades of pure whiteness deteriorated into murky, subtle grays. Their perfumed scent drifted towards him and his head tilted back breathing deeply; even if there had been an opportunity to enter farther, there was no desire. The initial impact of oneness now dissolved into a haphazard array of intricate details. Like a bubble, one touch could alter everything.

Four lines of toilet paper ran together over the sink, collided and lifted in a multi-helix towards the medicine cabinet. Their strands doubled in the mirror, crested at the top of the cabinet and then each line ended limply from the top of its arc in different directions like a noiseless fountain.

Lines of tissue twirled in the folds of the clear plastic shower curtain like funnels spiraling upwards. Reaching the top, they crisscrossed and fell downwards both in front and back. A single trail of paper shot up from the center pile on the floor and wrapped around the shower rod in a repeating slant. At the end, it traveled back downward to cut across the toilet (pausing only to wrap once around the handle) and then dove into the pile. There was no beginning or end to it. Simply a continual soft line. The ordered chaos was so like her. Each wrap on the rod was exactly spaced. And…

...they were driving home from a gala held by her architectural firm. Throughout the night his unanswered attempts at conversation had stalled between them while she stood in the corner of the ballroom and watched the huddled pockets sway and merge. Her associates laughed and drank, often approaching for quick conversation which she handled with an ease and coldness. In the light of the chandeliers high above them, her irises were barely discernible in a tight squint.

Finally, after most of the ballroom had long ago emptied and with a short word from her, they headed home. He expected the long ride to be filled with uncomfortable silence, but as they left the parking lot and turned onto Poplar Avenue – the only car on the six-lane road at two o’clock in the morning – her hand gently stroked the back of his neck. He touched her wrist. Earlier that afternoon the sun had slanted through a cloudless sky and cut an orange glow through the air and now a hint of that orange, hours after the sun had disappeared and the coldness of night began to take hold, still filtered through the branches and hung over the road reflected on the soft red of her lipstick.

“No,” she said as he began to turn onto Highland and then to the Beltway. “No. Take Walnut Grove.” So he did. Through the rich neighborhoods with houses lit from all sides and then past his old high school; they did not speak but enjoyed the steady melodic noise of the tires. His right hand was nestled by both of hers. The road twisted a short distance and then dipped into a small valley; there it cut through the empty fields of the Penal Farm and ran straight for several miles. A fog had settled into this area and suddenly there was just whiteness surrounding them. He glanced over to say something but her eyes were closed. The dashboard lights glowed her skin with green and instead of speaking, he listened. She was humming. It was so faint he could not complete the tune but watched as her head swayed slightly. Turning on the high beams, he began going faster. In a minute, the car was hitting eighty though the fog obscured everything past the front hood; it was something he had done often as a teenager and now that old excitement was welcomed. The roar of the engine caused her to open her eyes.

“Stop,” she said softly.

Seeing the fear in her eyes, he apologized and the car slowed, but she released his hand and repeated, “Stop,” but without any sense of urgency. He took his foot off the gas and gradually glided the car to a halt on the side of the road. “Come on,” she said and was out the door. He followed, leaving the motor idling roughly with headlights on. She grabbed his hands as they met in front of the car and began dragging him into the fog. Whirling around she hugged him, “It’s like walking in clouds.” Her black dress contrasted her white shoulders and hugged her waist and hips as it trailed to her ankles. The headlights fleetingly glinted off a small diamond on a slender chain nestled in the crease of her breasts which rose and fell with long breaths. She leaned towards him and they kissed deeply. The tip of her nose brushed icily against his cheek as she pulled away.

“You need your jacket,” he said, but she held him tightly not letting him leave.

“When I was about four or five,” she said, her lips close to his ear, “a fog thicker than this dropped over our neighborhood. I sat at my bedroom window so afraid. I thought it was swallowing everything, making the world dissolve. My mother caught me crying. I thought she would laugh when I told her why but she didn’t. She was quiet for a moment, following my gaze outside, and then explained that the fog was just the angels’ way of dancing on earth. They would lower the clouds till they touched the ground and then all the angels would run around laughing and singing. She opened the window then and told me to listen. At first there was nothing, just the white mist hiding our whole neighborhood. And then I heard them. Thin, drifting voices in song.”

She kissed him quickly just as she finished her last word and spun away letting her arms and hair twirl about her. Her feet were bare, she must have left her shoes in the car, and she moved in circles stopping suddenly between him and the headlights, creating only her silhouette. Coming closer she whispered, “Dance with me,” and so they did with her humming as the music.

“It’s nice to see you happy again,” he said.

She didn’t answer.

“I realize how much your firm has been a disappointment. And we haven’t exactly been …” his voice stopped. He didn’t know how to finish. “Well,” he said, needing to find a way to break through the distance he felt separating them for days at a time, but her fingers gently touched his lips. Her body pressed against his and they could see puffs of breath steaming from their mouths and noses. She began trembling.

“You’re cold,” he said. “Maybe we should get in the car.”

Her cheek was resting on his shoulder and he felt her head shake. She pulled back so she could look at his face. “No. I need this right now. I just need this one moment of not moving forward.”

His eyes narrowed as his head slightly tilted to the side, but before his question sounded she reached up and sharply tweaked the tip of his nose. She laughed with an excitement and ease he hadn’t heard since they were in high school. Her arms wrapped around him; her nails pressed through his jacket and shirt across his back.

“All these years and I still don’t understand you,” he said.

“Neither do I,” she answered in the midst of a sigh and…

…a single cardboard tube was balanced atop the shower head.

“Nikki, I miss you,” he found himself saying with words faded from overuse. His chest expanded as breath re-entered his body. A slight smile curled his lips as her answer whispered true and solid in his ears.

J.Rubino has been published in Apollo’s Lyre, The Travel Rag, Spillway Review, Buffalo Spree Magazine and Vegetarian Times magazine. He's a teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL) and have lived and worked overseas for the last 7 years. Currently, he is working on a novel and teaching English at Arab-American University in the West Bank. Rubino can be reached at john_rubino@yahoo.com.



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