I met Rocco the day I fell up the stairs and spilled Mom’s groceries onto the third floor of her building. A shift’s worth of wages at the coffee shop bruised and splayed all over a dusty linoleum floor. I yelled, Fuck me. Rocco poked his head out of 3A and said, If I help will you give me a banana? He was beautiful. Tall, olive-skinned, thick black hair, eyes that could swallow the world. All I could do was nod.
He didn’t actually help me. He grabbed a banana and ate it while I shoved heads of iceberg lettuce, processed cheese, wieners, and all their unsavoury peers into cloth bags.
You live here?
No, my mom does. 4A.
Her name’s not Sue.
I don’t say that to her face.
Sketchy Sue’s a better fit.
Shut up, I said, and smacked his shoulder like a giddy pre-teen addressing a boy who’d yanked her gro-bra strap.
Pleased to meet you, Sketch Junior. I’m Rocco.
You loopy like Sue?
Don’t call her loopy.
She can’t shop for herself?
She doesn’t leave her apartment a lot.
Lifeline? Rocco shot me with his finger gun.
Pretty much. I have a sister, but she’s—I fluttered my hand above my head.
No. Sort of. She took off when I was fourteen. Winnipeg, I think. To find our dad.
I nodded. After that, Rocco and I didn’t talk much. He periscoped his arm and threw his banana peel to an imaginary garbage. It smacked against the wall across from us and landed at our feet. He grabbed my hand and said, Girl, why they keep movin’ the trash can?
We sat there a while toeing a can of Chunky soup back and forth until it rolled too far away for either of us to reach.
If I pick that up will you give me a beej, he asked.
It would take more effort to blow you than to pick up that can.
Fine, he said. Sit on my bed with me.
I have a boyfriend.
Doesn’t seem like it, he said, and he got up and walked into his apartment. And I followed him. Even though Mom had texted me for Kraft Dinner and Corona an hour earlier, and a few blocks away Alex teetered off the edge of one of my kitchen chairs and flipped through my copy of BUST in order to keep abreast (no pun intended) of the issues pertaining to me in the least imposing manner possible.
I followed Rocco because he was right. I did have a boyfriend but it didn’t seem like it. Alex and I had been together nine months but we hadn’t boned since our sixth date. Tacos and a one-sided conversation about Baudrillard’s abolition of death concept followed by a one-sided missionary-style orgasm. When I suggested the meal between the sheets hadn’t satisfied and would he mind another taco, he rolled over and spent the rest of the night sobbing over his inadequacies. After that, he only wanted to cuddle. That word made me shudder. An hour and a half of spooning and guessing letters traced on the other’s back with no promise of an orgasm. Once, when I masturbated while he drew I LOVE YOU with his pinky between my shoulder blades, he told me I had sullied the intimacy of the act. After that, I had to conceal it—lie on my stomach, tell him I splayed my wrist under my crotch in order to stretch out my carpal tunnel, fake sneezing when I convulsed. I ached for a cock in me.
Rocco’s apartment was one room. Literally, one room. A lone toilet sat in the back right corner at an angle as though a giant had flicked it while playing dolls. A counter jutted from behind the apartment door, holding a sink, a crevassed bar of soap and a crumbly trail of ketchup chips. Black outlines of big-eyed women with small pointed breasts and crooked T-rex arms holding tubes of red lipstick and flutes of champagne were painted onto his walls.
You’re an artist?
Rocco sat on his bed, legs crossed, eyes closed. Sit with me, he said.
My roommate’s an artist. Clair Holmes? You know her?
Is she hot?
In a gaunt, big-nosed, velcro-haired sort of way.
Then probably not. Come here. Rocco held his arm out to me.
I took his hand and climbed into his lap, face to face. A bulb of his shoulder blade in each palm, I breathed. He fisted a clump of hair at my crown, clenched and released with each inhale and exhale. We didn’t speak. He didn’t ask questions. Where have you been? What are you doing? What aren’t you doing? Nothing.
Rocco’s long lean fingers squeezed my throat. I grabbed his wrist, my jaw dropped. His other palm fell to the small of my back, pressed me closer, winded me, my heels to his hip bones. His fingers, my fingers between my heels. He drove down on my throat, to the bed. He halved me head to tail with his finger tip. Exclamation point.
You like that, Darlin’, he said, his wrist twitching. You like it rough?
I nodded and pulled at his T-shirt, pulled him close, his mouth to my ear.
What’s your boyfriend like, he asked.
He’s hipper than all the plaid in a logging camp.
Hipper than a flat white?
Hipper than the barista who made it.
Hipper than the stylist who waxed his moustache?
Stop talking about him.
Rocco nosed my neck. What are you doing here, Darlin’? I could be a serial killer.
Maybe that’s why I’m here.
I will paint you, he said, in a way that meant not right now or tomorrow or the next day, but in an intended future he had no concept of, that only existed in the minds of people like me.
I pushed him off and said, I should go before you kill me.
I gathered Mom’s groceries and Rocco slid his torso up against the wall. He gazed at one of his two-dimensional girls with his arm overhead, posed for a fragrance ad. Irreverence, for men.
Will I see you again, I asked.
Probably, he said. Small building.
Ok, well. Ok. I stood at the foot of his bed and waited for things to turn slightly in my direction. I wanted a parting ceremony. An outstretched arm. A gesture of cling. After a full breath’s pause, I said, Later, but it came out as a high-pitched question, not the gravel-voiced indifference I was going for.
Mom was splayed in front of the TV upstairs in 4A. A lime-wedge sailboat drifted in a drying puddle of Corona on the carpet below. The week before, it was gin, again with limes. At least I protected her from scurvy. She switched her poison every few months. Made it seem more like a conscious choice. Connoisseur, not alcoholic. I shelved her groceries, poured a bowl of dry Cheerios and placed it in the nook behind her knees. On my way out I turned off the TV but this woke her. She wriggled, rattling the Cheerios, and said, Why did it get so lonely in here?
Do you want the TV back on, Mom?
Change it to CBC. Mr. Bean.
There’s a bowl of Cheerios behind you.
Mom ate a couple Cheerios and grabbed an empty bottle from the floor, shook it side to side. I pretended I didn’t see. Meg? she said, shaking her bottle.
I brought some food, Mom.
I’m running out.
She held the bottle above her head.
What are you running out of, Mom?
Pasta, I guess.
I brought Kraft Dinner.
Make me some?
Alex is waiting for me.
Cup of tea?
Mom rose from the couch and I could tell from the plaid imprints on her thighs she’d been there all night. I met a guy last night, she said.
Christian. His name, I think. Or maybe he was.
Nice to you?
I’m glad you got out.
I get out. Ellen dragged me.
I met someone too.
What about Alex?
3A. You know him?
The Paintbrush Cowboy?
I don’t like the way he looks at me. Penetrating.
I think I’m tired of Alex.
Kid is way too needy.
You’ve never met him.
You’re more sloped, past few months.
Didn’t realize you watched me.
Mom turned off the kettle and slopped boiling water into two mugs. Want milk, Meggie?
I always want milk.
He spent the night, you know.
Passed out on the floor, but still.
Rocco asked me onto his bed. There was no reason not to. Is that cheating?
What is cheating? What are rules?
I’d be pissed if Alex did that.
Maybe he has.
Did Dad cheat?
Mom stared at me, eyes glazed, cheeks drooped, lips sphinctered, then looked into her cup of tea. I can’t live on tea alone, Meg.
I filled your cupboards.
Christian might come over tonight. He might want a drink.
Then he might need to bring it.
Just like your sister. Your father.
Thanks for the cuppa.
Mom flicked her wrist and sloshed tea onto the wall beside her. She stared at it a few seconds. Damn it, Meg, she said.
I wet a cloth that had been curled around her kitchen tap, starched stiff with neglect, and handed it to her. She didn’t thank me. She silently scrubbed, her head bobbing with the effort like a DJ at a record.
I rested a hand on her shoulder. Take it easy, Mom. Don’t spend your whole cheque on him.
I returned home to Alex, his torso draped over my kitchen table next to two cups of Bengal Spice. It looked as though the tiger on the tea box stalked him. I told him to watch out.
The tiger. I held my hands, claw-shaped, above his forehead.
How’s your mom?
The same. Drinking Corona now.
I’m sorry to hear that.
That was all Alex ever said. I failed an exam. I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve run out of toilet paper. I’m sorry to hear that. The only soup they’re serving is carrot ginger. I’m sorry to hear that.
What does that even mean?
I’m sorry to hear that. It’s all about you.
You are so selfish, Meg.
My roommate, Clair walked in and sat next to Alex, in front of the second cup of Bengal Spice.
Oh, I said. I thought that was for me.
Sorry, Clair said. You were so late, Alexander made me some. Clair cradled the cup with her boney, claw-fingered hand and I swore she slid it an inch closer to Alex’s.
I didn’t know I was operating on a schedule.
Alex removed his glasses, looked at me with his myopic clove eyes and said, I’ll be right back doesn’t usually mean I’m going to take three hours to deliver groceries to my mother.
We had a conversation. A cup of tea.
Great progress, Meg. Clair smiled at me with that stupid sweet smile that made me regret telling her anything about anything. I had yet to pinpoint the inauthenticity behind that smile, but it lurked.
Clair and I went to high school together but were never friends. She was one of those cliqueless girls who did yearbook and cross-country running. I wore fishnets and shorty shorts and listened to screamy girl bands. She dressed in high-waisted pleated slacks and turtlenecks and was nice to everyone. You couldn’t dislike her, no matter how much you wanted to. She ended up in some of my art history courses in university. When she told me she was looking for a place to live I thought how imposing could a girl who plays Pictionary and dresses like a celibate archivist be? It started with my tea cupboard and her Bengal Spice and Fruit Zingers and whatnot. Then she started to call my boyfriend Alexander. Wore her most body-hugging turtlenecks when he came over. Listened sympathetically when he whined about death.
Progress? I said. I guess, but she threw tea at me.
Alex laughed, put his glasses back on and, in so doing, elbowed Clair in the nose. For this unconscious loyalty, I loved him.
Her actions say more about her than you, Clair said. She was always reading some floral-patterned, cursive-fonted self-help book, spouting a new set of rules for living with the completion of each volume.
Sorry for laughing. Alex sipped his tea, and in so doing, brushed his hand against Clair’s over-neighbourly hand. For this conscious betrayal, I hated him.
And I hung out with my mom’s neighbour. This artist, Rocco. You know him, Clair?
Clair nodded. By reputation only.
He’s a playboy.
That makes sense.
Alex jerked his head toward me. Excuse me?
He asked me to blow him.
Alex and Clair each choked a little. Asphyxiating themselves with the tea that should’ve been mine.
Did you, Alex asked.
Clair rose from the table in one impressive motion. No hands. I guess when you weigh eighty pounds you’re limber like that. She was bird-like, but not in a swallowish skittery way. Clair was more hawk. Hooked nose, deep-set eyes. Circling disposition. I’ll go to my room, she said.
Did you, Alex repeated.
Do you have to ask?
Alex removed his glasses. Does that mean yes or no?
You’re fucking Clair, aren’t you?
Alex meekly crumpled his glasses into the kitchen table. One of the arms broke off and slid across the floor until it came to a sludgey halt in a rancid, buttery wad of popcorn kernels collected near the fridge.
You think I’m cheating because you’re cheating, I said.
Alex shook his head. He looked up at me, separated his lips, inhaled in preparation for a proclamation, then changed his mind.
Why are you here, I asked.
To be with you.
But I wasn’t home.
I was waiting for you.
With Clair. All you need is a warm body. Open ears, open arms. It’s not about me.
Do you know what I did while you were out? I lay on your bed with my head on your pillow because it smelled like you.
But that’s the problem. I said this to my knees, folded against the edge of the kitchen table. You only love the ghost of me.
I wish you and your mother the best. Alex stood up and brushed his hands against one another, even though they were perfectly crumb free. Typical dramatic Alex gesture.
Are you coming back?
Not for you, he said. And Alex grabbed his glasses and walked out without a glance at their phantom limb. I felt like I’d left a meaningless conversation. Sad—not to be alone, but for the loss of what I’d hoped would feel less lonely. I trudged to my room and looked at my pillow, slathered in the pungent earthy smell of his hair I alternately loved and hated. I ripped off my pillowcase.
Clair knocked on my door ten minutes later, head tilted to the right and full of advice. She clawed at my shoulder in an attempt at reassuring and said, If it was meant to be, you’ll come back together.
I don’t think I ever liked him.
He cared for you a lot.
Like he cares for that drooling guy in the wheelchair on Government.
You can’t fault him his big heart.
He has a big head. No heart.
I invited him to this art party Friday. I didn’t know you would, you know.
I’m showing one of my nudes.
Clair was too square to deserve the title Artist. She’d had one show of horrifyingly modest nudes in some dingy tea house and she called herself an artist. I could only imagine what sort of hairless, scolio-backed creature, hunched into itself as though shipwrecked, creating fire, would be on display.
Who else is showing?
Some recent fine arts grads.
I looked out the window, nonchalant. If Clair understood me at all, she would’ve told me whether Rocco would be there. He didn’t seem like the recent graduate type. Creased lips, face heavy with silvering stubble. His were not the eyes that expected to make a living as an artist. He ran on luck, laziness, entitlement. Gifts of bananas and sexual favours. Potassium, fructose and ejaculate protein. Maybe he was a gigolo. Maybe he had a lower-middle class benefactor.
Maybe I’ll go too.
Friday night I played the sisterhood card, convinced Clair to uninvite Alex and take me to the party. She led me to an old house, big and haphazard as though it was built one room at a time. Inside, the air was thin, like everyone had inhaled more than their share, blew it out hot and self-aggrandizing. Clair showed me her friends’ work: paint-by-numbers puppies, geometric shapes in primary colours, collages of recycling bin items glue-gunned to cupboard doors found on the side of the road. Outside the laundry room hung Clair’s nude. A disembodied red cardigan, unravelled enough to reveal one boob. One small, peach-coloured nipple.
I peeked into the laundry room and saw Rocco fingering some fat chick against the washing machine. She had one pillowy leg draped over his shoulder and out the door. I could’ve tickled her foot. Rocco bent, head pressed into her armpit, legs in volleyball ready position, spasmodic twitching arm. We had definitely looked sexier. I heard him say, You like that, Lizzie? Fat girls were always a derivative of Elizabeth. Lizzie, Liz, Beth. Sometimes Pat. Darlin’ was more intimate. Maybe he’d forgotten my name.
In the kitchen, a trio of neo-hippies discussed sprouts and almond mylk. And to their left, on the living room floor atop a pile of meditation cushions, sat Alex, legs swizzled long and awkward in front, an unravelled lotus.
Meg. You’re here. Alex’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy. I would’ve liked to believe he’d been crying over me for the past two days but I knew he was allergic to contacts, which he rarely wore.
I thought you were uninvited. I turned to Clair.
Hand to mouth, Clair mumbled, I forgot, through her fingers.
Did you enjoy her nude?
Very much, Alex said.
Really, Alexander? While I was painting, you said it wasn’t provocative enough.
It’s plenty provocative, I said. What’s with Alexander, Clair?
It’s my name. Alex stood up in front of me, hands on hips, assertive.
I call you Alex.
What are you, three?
What are you, a Russian tsar?
You don’t need to say Russian. It’s redundant.
I guess Clair would know that.
We’ve never discussed pre-revolutionary Russia. Alex pushed his glasses up his nose. He was so bland, so even-toned he punctuated his statements with movement. Hand brushes, spectacle slides, foot stomps, door slams.
I stared at Alex. From behind I could hear the washer rock like it was imbalanced with a thick, dirty whore of a rug. I wanted to stop everything. I wanted Alex to come home with me and lie in my bed and talk about World of Warcraft so I could revel in the safety of his geekiness. Or tell me he wanted us to be cryogenically frozen until they found a cure for death and I’d hold him and run my lips along his stubble like I used to do with my Velcro sneakers as a kid. I’d write STAY on his back but by the time he guessed it right the sentiment would be gone. Then he’d gingerly tuck me in and stick to his side until morning. And I’d wish he’d steal the covers and drool into my hair instead.
I felt a hand on my waist. Rocco. Sketch Junior, he said.
What’re you doing later, he spat into my ear.
I saw you fingering a Rubens.
Was it porn worthy?
I shook my head. Like you were assembling IKEA furniture.
Alex pushed his glasses up, though they didn’t need another push and were therefore crushed into his nose and eyebrows. I don’t believe we’ve met, he said. I’m Meg’s boyfriend.
Hey, Meg’s boyfriend. I’m Rocco.
Boyfriend, I asked. I thought we broke up.
I said I wouldn’t come back for you. That’s not a break-up.
Pretty hard to date someone who only comes for your roommate.
You did the cardigan painting, Rocco asked Clair.
Your own tit?
Your nipples really that PG?
Clair looked at Rocco. She bopped her head like a pigeon, most likely sifting through a barrage of self-help catch-phrase matches to the situation. I prefer not to discuss the subject of my art, but I thank you for speaking your truth, she said.
Rocco wrapped his hand around my neck and pulled me toward him. Come over next time you visit your mom, eh?
He waved at all of us and walked off, fingers wiggling.
That’s the guy, Alex asked. How could you want him? He just strangled you.
But he let go.
Outside the party, the air smelled of wet leaves and rotting apples. Leaf piles big enough to house a family of rabbits lined the road. I wanted to be whimsical and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants zany, so I flopped down on one and rolled. It was fun. If I was actually whimsical, I wouldn’t think it was fun, I would do the fun. I would fun. And I wouldn’t think why did Alex witness Clair painting her nipple? When? How?
Since when does he like provocative?
The last time I felt close to Alex, months earlier, we drank tea in bed. The pot warm between my thighs, his middle finger dawdled along the arch of my foot. I told him to stop drinking. If we didn’t finish the pot of tea, the moment would last forever. He told me he lived beyond the moment, to its eventual demise, when the pot grew cold and his finger tired. I spent so much effort dragging him out of the black hole of his mortality, he never noticed the puddle I treaded.
Mom texted: fight with guy. no corona. help mom.
I dug myself deeper into the leaves, covered my face and wondered if I could die there. Would I allow myself the smothering. My phone buzzed again and I came out for air.
Mom texted: hello?????
I didn’t answer, but I did get up. I did go to the liquor store. I did knock on 3A. No answer.
In 4A Mom slept in her bed. Beer bottles lay scattered across the living room like bowling pins. Strike. A list on the fridge: Pasta / Corona / Meg. Mom’s life in three lines.
She looked like a toddler who’d collapsed after a tantrum. Maybe she had. Saggy underwear puckered at her butt cheeks like a withered balloon, bed sheets twisted around her wrists. I lay down behind her, rested a hand on her shoulder.
Mom lifted a hand to my hand on her shoulder. He came for you, she said.
Left an address where he’ll be tonight.
I’ll see him some other time. I lowered my arm to Mom’s waist, slim but squishy, like silly putty gaping toward the mattress. Ok if I sleep here, I asked.
Monster under my bed.
Mom laughed, and her breathing slowed. I matched my breath to hers and we slept. I didn’t even think about waking up.
Susan Sanford Blades lives in Victoria, BC, where she has just completed an MFA in fiction at the University of Victoria. Her short stories have recently been published in Numero Cinq, Grain, The New Quarterly, and Prairie Fire. “Big Spoon” is part of a manuscript of linked short stories.