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NUMBER THIRTY-TWO AND COUNTING

by

Felicia Sullivan



Her breath warmed me like a crocheted wool blanket -- short exhalations of air tickling the small blonde hairs of my inner ear through the holes of the blanket. Her fingers lingered, tracing small circles in the back of my neck, gently pushing my thick mass of curls aside and aside. Circles or zeroes, circles or zeroes.

"It's over," she whispered in my ear, the sharp hairs of her thin stubble scalp scratched my neck. I pulled away. She turned on her back and pulled at her lip, not really tugging or groping, just a slight massage. She licked her lips and I wondered if she could taste me -- the mixture of sweat and shampoo. She opened her mouth and I heard a slight gurgle in her throat and then silence. I shifted my body to a small corner of the edge of the bed and winced. Not again. This was the twenty-ninth, wait, no, thirty-second time she broke up with me.

Once it was the random, hairless cat I dragged home on a string – the eighteenth. Another, was the room I built within the living room using trash cans, cardboard boxes decorated with canned food labels and copies of her short story on troubled youth in that nameless, underground publication – the ninth. The tenth was a series of short-lived house warming parties to celebrate the addition of the new room -- attendees included stray animals (now with hair), Harry -- the guy downstairs that licked his pinky and her mother. She was not pleased. I thought our relationship was elevated to another level. She was not convinced. Her mother, however, was very optimistic. Harry and his pinky were unaffected.

"It's not personal," she offered. It never was. "It's not you," she said, uncomfortable with my silence. It never is.

My hair fell over my head and onto the floor covering my face --my worn, sullen expression matted on gaunt, paper-thin skin. I felt if I looked up, raised my eyes ever so slightly, she could see right through me. That this time, I was tired of being dumped. That this time she was tired of dumping me. I bit the edge of the bed, hard. I closed my eyes. Tight, tighter. I tried to tear the label from the mattress with my teeth, but only managed to chew on the plastic, manufacturer warnings and legal type staining my teeth black. I gnawed, hungrily. Saliva and plastic. Warm, wet, moist fabric. Her and I, cold, empty -- full of disdain.

"What are you doing?" she asked, sitting upright, annoyed with the incessant chewing. She stroked her unshaven leg with one hand while the other fell haphazardly off the mattress, cigarette filter burning her fingertips, ashes blending into the black carpet.

"Chewing," I replied. I continued to nibble. I remember the first time she broke it off -- number one. She grew nervous that she was never going to marry, never have what others perceived to be a normal life. She was going to leave me for an IKEA customer service rep, Gary. "My mother would want it this way," she said adamantly. "But your mother thinks I'm a guy!" I replied. "She'll catch on soon, give her time." Her mother was ninety-four and baked salt cakes -- I was far from concerned.

"Okay, it is you," she sighed.

”I see," I responded, nodding. What was there to see?

"You can't just run a business out of our home!"

She was referring to the small venture I created. I briefly ran a Chinese food take-out service out of our apartment. Flyers were printed on environment-friendly red paper, showcasing our $99 headshots, our limited, but quality menu selection and our complete ignorance as to what MSG was or what it actually stood for. That would be the selling piece. Our kitchen was littered with Chinese cookbooks (or answers to questions that I yelled over various authentic Chinese check-out counters -- "What, so what do you use in the sweet and sour sauce?" for a subtle example), Tupperware to store deliveries, soy sauce and flyers stained with a gooey, green lumpy sauce. I also took up ordering Chinese food from the Wong family in bulk to cover what orders I could not manage. I had never made Chinese food before, but the reason for break-up number thirty-one: I had no initiative. I was not at all prepared for the heavy local college business and a subsequent visit from the Wong family, which included incoherent conversation and swinging of baseball bats. After several bruised ribs, I quickly closed shop. Dreams of millions, several vacations in various islands whose names I could not pronounce and the escape of another break-up fell on my foot in a loud thump.

"Except for the Wong incident, I thought it was going fairly well," I replied; plastic stuck between the gaps of my teeth. I tried to plead my case, but just sat with the mattress. Perhaps I could make her laugh, remind her of the twenty-sixth on my twenty-sixth birthday -- I was too old, she had said. Twenty-seven: she would only date people that wore orange and green all year long. I strongly objected to number twenty-seven and ultimately won. But what I really wanted was some sort of semblance of a normal relationship that didn't involve me lobbying for my sanity every three months.

"I want you to move out next week," she said. The words, cold fell off her tongue onto my lap like an unwelcome gift.

"But this is MY apartment!" I rose, the mattress coming along for the ride. My foot managed to lodge itself in a styrofoam moo-shu take-out that was several weeks old.

"Details, details…Listen, I have people coming over to look at the apartment today so please try to clean up the kitchen and try to at least get some of your," she paused "whatever you own in that closet, packed."

""You can't just kick me out of my own apartment. It doesn't work that way." How could I possibly pack ten years into a few hours? How could I pack me, us in a suitcase? A duffle bag? A laundry tote?

"I spoke with Betty this week. We came to a mutual agreement that commercial business should not be conducted out of an apartment -- a small lease violation. A notice was sent to you, it's on the table," she replied, lazily dragging a limp arm to the air to point in the direction of the bathroom. Ashes followed.

I rose from the bed, dragging the mattress and in the process, she flew off the bed and landed on the floor. No "ouch", no movement, no remark. She simply rose, then sat on the boxspring and lit another cigarette -- her small bones shifting on the wood. The mattress stood by my side as I glanced at the letter on the table (if one would label two hand-written sentences and the misspelling of my name on a torn sheet of loose-leaf paper), addressed to me, stained with vodka sauce. The note simply said, "Get your shit packing . . . Good luck dear. Love, Betty" I was in utter disbelief.

"I signed the new lease yesterday," she shouted from the other room. Number thirty: she claimed I had a drinking problem. She planted two bottles of gin in my laundry basket and shook a shaky finger at me, commanding me to confess. She left AA pamphlets, self-help group flyers and Hindi meditation books on my bed. She stocked the refrigerator with Minute Maid and Diet Coke. Corkscrew in hand, I cracked open a bottle of wine and watched re-runs on TV adjusting the fuzzy rabbit ears every so often. Number nineteen; I didn't color coordinate my sock drawer. Number Twelve -- her friends (or the one person that called twice a year to ask for money in a desperate garbled voice at 3am) didn't like my voice on the answering machine. "You've got to be a lot perkier than that," she commented, frowning. Number Five – I got that part in the cereal commercial that she lobbied six weeks for. "You're too competitive," she snarled and locked herself in her room with her headshots for three days.

Numbers, numbers -- I was tired. Thirty-two months in this apartment. Thirty-two years old, dumped for the thirty-second time by a woman that claimed she was thirty-two but was really forty-five. In disgust, I dragged the mattress out of the door; it followed me down three flights of stairs, onto the street. I lay down on the mattress, plastic still lodged (nothing had really changed) in my mouth. I lay in my underwear staring at Harry chewing his thumb. Smiling that he had moved on and that I had moved on (sort of), I stared out to the street as my clothing was being thrown out the window. Several orange wine-stained shirts landed on my head.

"I thought you should be covered up, that is the least I can do," she yelled, closing the window.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Felicia Sullivan is a New York based writer and artist whose stories have appeared in EM Literary Review and Bent Spoon among other publications. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Columbia University (currently on a short leave) and is studying with author Ken Foster. She loves speaking about herself in the third person, her cat Ziti, laughing whenever possible, Michael Cunningham, non-pretentious people who don't rattle off summer book lists "for fun", yoga and the crazy bunch of girls that keep calling her (her friends).


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