To brush his teeth he went to Starbucks. He waited until closing time to finish his business. In the morning he went to Buffalo State’s Rec Center and showered, then retrieved messages from the phone number he rented for ten bucks a month.
In the spring he’d still rented a two-bedroom apartment in the house on Lancaster Avenue, but in late August he lived in the attic, which the renters used to store old TVs, couches, broken chairs, and race trophies. The landlord had agreed to let him move his belongings in a room off the main space, but he had no idea that Rutger spent his nights there by candlelight with an empty gallon jug by his mattress.
At night she might turn up in the unlit attic room, creaking stairs giving her away before she could pounce on him.
“I brought you chocolate,” she said, emptying her purse made from green glass beads. Or she carried a bottle of wine she’d stolen from her mother’s pantry. Rarely did she bother with underwear.
Ellen lived in her car. Days she spent driving to TJ Maxx and returning clothes she’d stolen the day before for store credit. If she behaved well, her mother might take her into her house in Orchard park for a few nights, but if Ellen refused or argued with her stepfather, screaming wildly at him for feeding the birds or begging him not to use pesticides in the garden, clutching his legs, clinging to him as he dragged her through flowerbeds; if Ellen behaved badly and couldn’t stay with her mom or her only friend from high school, whose son would hide from Aunt Ellen in the closet; then she wasn’t above sharing Rutger’s mattress. The entrance door downstairs was never locked, and Rutger arranged his belongings just the way he had when he lived on the first floor.
The attic had once been fully inhabitable – grand, flowered wallpaper, now yellow and brittle, and several dusty light fixtures made the rooms cozy, but electricity had been shut off. There was no running water.
Tonight Ellen wore her engagement ring she had made him buy her, a cheap second-hand item. Their marriage license had only expired the previous week.
“What are you celebrating?” she said. He’d lit fifteen tea lights.
“Your arrival,” he answered.
“Oh, you’re sweet. You’re sweet.” Her cheeks swelled in a smile, that opened sharply contoured lips. In a minute he had taken off her dress. Ellen had skin that no light could touch, even an exposed arm looked obscene. Her nose was small, her freckles procreating like bunny rabbits. Her posture was bad and whenever he saw her naked, his throat hurt.
When gussied up, she turned heads, when neglecting herself – which became more and more frequent -- she still didn’t leave him any room to think beyond her.
“I thought about us,” she said, guiding his cock inside her.
“Huh,” he whispered. He was certain that his former neighbors knew that he was spending his nights here, but he didn’t want to give them any reason to call the landlord.
“Listen to me,” she said, rocking above him.
“I thought about our future. I’m crazy and I can’t go back to college just now. My lawyer says it might take another six months or a year before the bankruptcy is through and they’ll let me off the hook.”
He nodded. Ellen still possessed every single paper she’d written in college – she’d never turned a single one in. After three semesters she’d dropped out of Columbia with $20,000 in debt. No university let her enroll again.
“So you shouldn’t get an art degree.”
“I paint,” Rutger said. “That’s what I got to do.”
“No.” She was exhaling, her face screwed up in angst. In her last year in New York Ellen had been raped while searching for an apartment. She carried the abuse like a bag of groceries; sometimes she offered him from her purchases. “You already have a degree. I have nothing. You should study computer science.”
Rutger laughed out loud. “I should do what?” He was still moving inside her.
“Don’t laugh!” she pleaded, her nipples looking accusingly back at him. “I’m serious.”
“That’s another four years.”
“Only three. You’ve already got many of the required credits. It’s only one year longer and you could find a job in no time afterwards. You could still paint. You could.”
In the dresser behind his bed, in the bottom drawer, lay her wedding dress wrapped in plastic. He’d bought the white prom dress in her favorite thrift store, right after getting the marriage license. Initially she’d wanted a black cocktail dress, but once she’d led him into the store to show him, she couldn’t decide any more. She had to try on more dresses to be sure. And with every new dress she grew more insecure and finally she made him decide.
It was the wrong choice; she mourned the black dress. And yet, she would not let him return it. From time to time she modeled it for him, usually after a fight. The medicine never failed.
“I have no desire to become a computer engineer,” he said.
Tonight was not a night she would treat him to her abandon. “I can’t count on you,” she said, sitting still.
“You can’t count on me?” He kept moving without conviction. “Who has the debt? Who takes the medication? Who doesn’t have a job? Who’s not in college?”
It was a low blow, especially coming from him on his mattress in the attic. Just the other day they had celebrated his acceptance into the Buffalo program, a last-ditch effort after Rutger had set out for Chicago and an acclaimed program, only to return to Ellen and Buffalo when the promised scholarship had not materialized.
In Chicago, he had started dating a girl who worked in the Art Institute’s book store, had moved into a small apartment near Wrigley Field, and a week before the semester was about to start, his credit card was maxed out, and the art department had not found him a teaching position. He’d returned to Buffalo without money, without an apartment and if not for the slow bureaucracy of the University at Buffalo, which had failed to cancel his former application, he would have been out of options.
Ellen lowered her head now and before he had figured out what she was up to, she sunk her teeth into his left nipple. He’d never been attacked by a dog, but even while he screamed and pulled her hair to force her to relent, he saw not Ellen but a canine jaw, heard high, excited yelps and sharp grunts. He reached for a tea light and poured hot wax on her back. She arched her back, gasped for air and jumped off the mattress.
He looked at his chest. The teeth marks surrounded his nipple, blood showed. The flesh was swollen and looked raw.
“You think I’m a loser,” she hissed. “You think it’s only me who is fucked-up. But it’s you too.” Then she pounced on him, sinking her nails into his shoulder, crying. “It’s not just me, it’s not just me.”
He threw her to the ground, jumped up and searched for his pants.
“Don’t go,” she said, panic entering her voice and eyes.
He grabbed her dress and tossed it through the open window.
“No,” she wailed, but he didn’t listen. Shirt in hand he ventured into the darkness beyond his small room, careful not to stub his toes. He made his way toward the stairs, where light finally greeted him. On the second floor a door opened and Ed, a 70-year-old house painter and runner, whose apartment was stuffed with trophies, walked out onto the landing.
“It’s you,” he said, shaking his head. “Is she still up there? This will ruin you both.”
Rutger had no time to be embarrassed or to answer. Ed just stared at him a second longer through his thick glasses, then walked back inside. The air smelled of whiskey.
Rutger hurried down the next flight of stairs and out onto the porch, the smell of bushes and flowers hitting him. His heart was racing and thumping in his ears, but porch and street lay quiet, and he wished to pull up a chair and sit down and stare into the darkness a little longer.
Looking left and right, he decided to run toward Elmwood and soon ducked behind a hedge in the Key Bank parking lot, from behind which he was still able to observe his porch. Blood dotted the front of his t-shirt, the wound was badly swollen and every heartbeat hurt. His bare feet felt warm and dry on the parking lot asphalt.
His breath calmed after a minute. Where was Ellen? Was she waiting for him upstairs? Had a neighbor decided to confront her? What took her so long?
When she finally stepped out onto the porch, his heart leapt and he laughed silently, shaking his head, out of breath all over again. She was wearing one of his shirts and a pair of his pants with the legs rolled up. These made her look as if she’d just spent a long night of sex, like a sleepy lover ready to make breakfast.
Ellen looked around, and even though he couldn’t make out her features well enough to be sure, she looked worried, unsteady. Slowly she walked down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. “Rutger,” she said loudly enough for him to hear. “Rutger.”
Behind him on Elmwood, groups of undergraduates made their way back from the bars to the dorms. Guys with short-sleeved plaid shirts and short, greasy hair. Girls with bare, round bellies and love handles. Their talk was as noisy and mindless and lovely as the sound of crickets.
Ellen waited in front of his house for minutes, then got into the little blue Honda her stepfather had given her, maybe in an attempt to get rid of her. Off she went, only to appear a minute later, coming toward the spot where Rutger was still hiding. He crawled behind an old Grand Am and watched Ellen’s car turn right onto Elmwood. Maybe she thought he’d run to the Great Wall, a Chinese restaurant that was open late, or to Starbucks, which had the closest public bathroom.
Five minutes later the Honda appeared again, slowly cruising down Elmwood, still searching. When it had passed the Key Bank and again disappeared from his sight, Rutger stood up and walked slowly back to his house. Before returning to the attic he went around the side of the building, and yes, there it hung on one of the lilac bushes. He pulled Ellen’s dress off the branches, her “fatty dress,” a gray cotton one, which stretched tightly over her figure.
Silently he made his way up to the top, prepared to face angry neighbors, ready to be confronted by the alarmed landlord. Yet nothing stirred.
A few candles were still flickering when he entered his room, and in their unsteady and fast-dying light he opened the bottom drawer of his dresser. Yes, the wedding dress was still there. A grin split his lips. he lay down on the mattress, Ellen’s gray dress serving as his pillow. She might not come tonight, but she would never give up on what belonged to her.
He fell asleep listening to his pulsing wound. Love, love, love, love, it said.