By S. Craig Renfroe, Jr.
She crawls onto my lap and curls up into a ball, her back up so she’s like a giant bug. I rub her shoulders, not sure where this is going. She stays like that for five minutes. “Are you asleep?” I ask. No reply. I have to go to work tomorrow. I want to go back to my own apartment, but I also want to have sex with her. Her German Shepherd hits my elbow. It nudges it again, so with my free hand I rub his head. I’m slightly afraid of the dog, so I keep an eye on him while I rub Quinn. I need some sleep, but I keep petting them both, Quinn and her mutt, until she finally looks up.
“So today, you won’t believe this guy . . .”
Fuck no. She’s working on her residency in the emergency room so every few days she brings home these horror stories. Last time it was a guy who came in looking fine but complaining about his feet. Sometimes I’m just too tired to take my shoes off so I sleep in them; that’s normal; I mean you do that sometimes, right? Turns out he hadn’t taken off his shoes or socks for months. The smell reminded her of a broken septic tank. When they cut the shoes away and peeled the socks back, they found one of his feet had gangrene, which had eaten through his flesh so that you could see bone.
I’m a bit of a hypochondriac but a lazy one. I might think about all the things slowly killing me—aluminum in lemon juice, ticks carrying Lyme Disease, the air—but I don’t usually bother doing anything, except maybe pretending everything’s all okay. Quinn motivates me. I took off my shoes right after that story and have taken them off the minute I get indoors since. She doesn’t seem to notice.
“Look,” I say, “I need to sleep.”
“Sleep’s important. I told you about that insomniac, didn’t I?”
“Yes, yes, you did.” No, no, she didn’t.
The German Shepherd growls at me because I stopped petting him.
“Albert likes you.”
“That was his friendship growl?” I ask.
“He likes everyone.”
Albert growls at me again.
“Can I get up?”
She stays on my lap and stares at me. “Why don’t we move in together?”
“We should talk about that.”
“Okay,” she says.
Albert nudges my elbow.
“I need to sleep.”
“Sleep’s important,” she says but doesn’t get up.
I love my boss, Vivian, like a dopy prince loves a sleeping maiden, like a bare-chested pirate loves a romance-novel vixen, etc. No matter the season or the lighting, she holds her long, free-flowing hair back with a pair of black sunglasses and will at no particular provocation pull the sunglasses off and hang her head so that the hair spills over her and then whip her head back, catching the cascading strands of blonde with the sunglasses. She does so now.
Hair restrained, she says, “Are you all right, George?”
“What? Yes, of course.”
She had called me into her office, a glass cube on the end of the fourth floor, with a view of another building, that building with glass and offices beyond.
“Good,” she says. “I have something important to tell you.”
“You’re firing me?” Okay, so honestly I don’t know what we do here at Spoark, Ltd. Though I know what papers to put where, what forms need filling out, where the printer cartridges are kept.
“No, I’m promoting you.”
“To my assistant.”
Even better. “How can I assist you?”
She laughs and takes off her glasses.
Loneliness. I have a married friend who keeps telling me how he envies the fact that I get to be alone. Fuck him. Alone. Says he wouldn’t ever get lonely, and I say, of course not because he always has the knowledge that his period of being alone will end. His wife will come home, his kid will need him. That I won’t be alone in the next hour, next day, next week is no forgone conclusion. It feels like some lurking deadline when I’m with someone, knowing they will leave me. It feels like death.
That’s why I pick up the phone and even consider calling Quinn. Why must all the women who periodically relieve this loneliness be worse than the sickness? Marcie from downstairs came originally from Jamaica, she’d been schooled in London, lived in Paris, and was so boring I could feel the minutes ticking off my life when I was with her. You don’t talk much about yourself; a lot of men talk about themselves; it gets hot here in the summer. What’s it like in Paris? I’d ask. Nice. Real nice. I liked it. Awful nice. We only went to bed once where she kept throwing her arms up into the air and giggling as if it were a stick-up and I were the tickle bandit. And here I’m left with only Quinn as an option. And what an option—her morbid tales of ways people mutilate themselves, her obsessive-compulsive German Shepherd, her irrational belief in the future of our relationship.
I call her.
“Come over?” she asks.
I think of Albert. I think of her medical books. “No, how about here.”
She agrees, but I instantly regret it. There is no escape now. No retreat position, and she’ll stay—she always stays. I used to clean up before she came over. Spraying all kinds of cleaners around, sweeping. I dusted once. Now, I pick up my shoes from in front of the door and my socks. I watch TV and think about being an assistant to the vice-president of a company I don’t understand. Mostly, I imagine Vivian in bra and panties dancing around her desk as if it were a beach bonfire.
I open the door and kiss Quinn. We hug. She has no bra on, but she’s flat-chested and rarely wears one. I run my hands down her back. It’s her back that I love, especially the small of her back, the way it’s so tight and curved inward onto the spine, leading down to the deepening crevice. Her back has held me to her and the memory of when we met. At the party, I didn’t really like her, talking about eighties music, but after those first few dates, I got a terrible flu. Unable to talk, filled with all sorts of mucus of varying viscosities, hacking throughout the night, I could not believe how she didn’t flinch, never shied away from me. She asked how soupy to make my noodles. When we frenched, my snot got all over face.
Quinn’s barely inside: “You won’t believe today. The EMTs brought in this woman. Three hundred pounds at least. She told them the year was 1927 and wouldn’t tell them who the current president was because it was a stupid question. She hadn’t gotten off the couch in three days. Three days.”
“What kind of couch?”
“For anything. She had urinated and defecated all over herself.”
“Why do all your stories end with someone urinating and defecating?” The bottom of my foot feels tender.
As Vivian’s assistant, I have so far moved into the little office adjacent to hers, filed lots of folders, and created a lively color-coded calendar. I have also got some idea of what we’re doing, juggling lots of subsidiary companies, like the one we’re to visit tomorrow. I’ve stopped wearing socks. Every time I go to put a pair on, I see the gangrene foot, which to me is actually a bright green with a bone sticking out. But since abandoning socks and just wearing the loafers, they’ve worn blisters on the backs of my heels, nasty ones that have popped and make it impossible to walk without pain or at times to just plain walk at all. I have my shoes off under the desk, my feet all but hidden by my extra long pants, but the shoes are at the ready in case someone comes in, in case Vivian comes in, in with her charcoal business suits and her trademark sunglasses. Are those her gimmick? Does she keep them on while having sex? I get sidetracked with that for a while until my phone rings. Quinn says she needs to see me tonight. She also tells me about a traffic accident victim that had a plastic straw stuck in her eye.
We’re in her apartment with Albert lying on the floor and Quinn on my lap, running her hands through my hair. I keep trying to get her to go to bed where we can get the show started or at least sleep, but she keeps rubbing my head. Albert raises his head if I wriggle too much.
“So let’s move in together,” she says.
I don’t wanna. “You have a lot of stuff.”
“We could get a new place.”
“I’m in the middle of a lease.”
She pulls my hair. “So what you’re saying is we shouldn’t.”
“No.” Yes. “No, not necessarily. Maybe we should just let our leases run out and then see where we are.”
“Mine’s out next month.” Her mouth, unattractively small and lined, contracts like she’s swallowing lemon slices.
“Okay.” It slips out, on its own, as if it made a prison break through the bars of my teeth. I’m not even sure what I’m okaying, but the transformation on her face is immediate and there’s no mistaking what she thinks I mean. She moves her hands from my head to my cheeks positioning my face and closing her lips over mine before there’s time to say anything else, to clarify. There is no going back.
We’re visiting the factory, a blocky building you forget about while you’re still looking at it. I’m not entirely sure if this is an inspection or a tour, but since I assume I should know, I don’t ask. Better to pretend. I hope we don’t have to walk—my feet are bleeding from some of the broken blisters.
“What do we do here?” I ask.
She takes her sunglasses off and puts one of the arms in her mouth to study me. Uh oh, should I have known that, too?
“We make glue,” she says.
“Glue’s nice.” Nice.
She whips her hair back and puts the glasses in place.
“They’re researching new glues,” she says. “New strengths, new qualities.”
“I thought glue had only one quality: sticky.”
She studies me again. “More sticky,” she says.
We go on a tour, or an inspection, from one of the high muckedy-muck-mucks. I can’t say I listen to any of it. Glue. Compounds. My feet hurt. Synthetic chemicals. Nothing about horses. We’re in a room with huge sheets of double-sided glue when our guide gets called away. You can wait here or go to the lounge. But leaves before telling us how to find the lounge. Glue emergency. We’re all being called off, rushing to our little events that we pretend are emergencies, are important enough to cause damage, but could go on and on without us.
“We’ll stay here,” Vivian says. She adjusts her glasses but doesn’t take them off.
The room has a high ceiling, like a small gymnasium, and seems bigger empty of anything but the tables holding sheets of experimental glues. We’re next to the longest one, where the guide had explained the principle of the glue sheets, like two-sided tape but more fluid.
I lift up my right foot to pull it off the blisters on my heel, and as I do, the pressure on the left sets off a pain like an electrical shock running through my body. I give a jump and lose my balance. Flailing around, I catch myself by putting my hand palm-down on the sheet of glue. Vivian grabs my other arm to steady me. I pull my hand up from the glue and still not stable I lock onto her arm and just as quick try to pull away. It’s too late—we’ve bonded. When I pull her arm, she comes with me, and as she loses her footing, we both tumble onto the table of glue. I roll around. She’s cursing and pushing and pulling against me. Her charcoal suit coat fused to my black tie, my yellow dress shirt. The more we move the more inextricably entangled we become. Her black sunglasses are stuck to my forehead.
Exhausted, we collapse on the glue table. She’s huffing, her lips inches from mine. I can smell her breath, a slight smell of coffee. Her eyes so brightly blue, I can’t look at them straight on. Her scent and the pressure of her body. “I love you,” I say. What the hell am I doing?
Her face twists into an angry puzzle.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“For loving me?” she asks.
“No. For bringing it up now. I guess it’s not a good time.”
“No better.” She tries to pull her arms upward, but they barely budge. She must have been going for her glasses. She puffs air at a stray bit of her hair hanging in her eyes. “I can’t date my employees.”
“You could fire me.”
“All right. Let’s get married.”
“No,” she says. “Let’s go to Las Vegas. We can go this weekend. We can go like this. We’ll get married by an Elvis impersonator.”
“Okay.” I pull away from her, as far as I can get without the pain of the glue tearing at my skin. “I get it.”
She turns her head away from me to stare at a patch of the ceiling, but she’s got little room to maneuver so she has to keep her eyeballs awkwardly rolled back in her head.
The numbing needles start in my arm and leg from staying in the same spot for so long. I shift a little. Tired of holding myself off of her, I just relax, letting some of my weight rest on her. She sort of hisses at me. We wait like that.
Our guide finds us there. “Don’t move,” he says.
“Very funny,” Vivian says.
He runs off for help.
The ambulance ride jostles us, bouncing up and down together, into each other. I try not to get too excited, but nature overrides me, the erection growing the more I try to distract it. Please god, don’t let it connect to any glue. When we’re pushed closer turning a curve, Vivian bites me on the cheek. This excites me even more. She squirms away, but she’s got nowhere to go. I don’t look at her. Think of bones showing through gangrene flesh. What is the closest hospital? I would ask, but the EMTs can’t help giggling when we try to talk to them. And knowing would be worse than pretending.
After more erection avoidance and neck pain from avoiding Vivian, we arrive at the hospital. I don’t ask which one. I know it well enough. Just as I know that by tomorrow we’ll have become Quinn’s latest quirky medical anecdote.
They pull us out on the stretcher.
Once we’re through the doors, I expect to see her, not that I can see much of anything other than Vivian’s glaring face. But why should Quinn be here right now? She surely can’t handle every patient that comes in. She’s probably with someone who broke his nose walking, or got struck by lightning while sitting by a window, or contracted Ebola from boloney.
They come up from behind me. I can hear the voices. Her voice. It’s so professional, so competent and soothing. She asks Vivian some short questions. When she comes around to the side where I can see her, she’s still writing on a clipboard. She looks up and freezes.
Should I lie? “You always said you wanted me to meet you at the hospital so we could have dinner together.”
“Why are you glued to this woman?”
“He loves me,” Vivian says. “We’re getting married.”
“It’s a work thing.”
“You’re a clerk,” Quinn says.
“Administrative assistant to the vice-president.” I have corrected her before. “This is the vice-president.”
“George.” Vivian leans into me as if she were going to kiss me. “You’re fired.”
Even five minutes ago, with her bite still fresh on my cheek, I would have wondered if that meant I could date her. Now, with Quinn, so serious and shaken above me, I want to stop her from seeing me. To unstick magically and run away from here, her. She returns to the clipboard, not asking me any of the questions she asked Vivian. We are moved to some kind of room. I wonder if Quinn has left, but soon she is asking for some help with us. She and a nurse begin taking off our clothes cutting them where they have melded together. They make clinical notes about where the glue has come in contact with the skin.
Quinn takes my shoes off. “Why do you have all these blisters?”
“Your foot story.”
She doesn’t respond, and I can’t see her for Vivian. Moments later, I feel her applying a cold salve to my heels. She rubs it on softly, taking time and carefully covering the infected areas. A sensation that throws me back to my sick bed and her rubbing my back.
Albert brushes up against my raw side, and I scream, again. Unfazed, he nudges my elbow until I mechanically run my fingers through his fur. His owner won’t be back for hours with more of the old liquor boxes that line my apartment walls. I have only to read the want ads.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At. His work has appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Pedestal Magazine, Monkeybicycle, The Potomac, and others. He teaches writing at Queens University of Charlotte and blogs at I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008.