THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Possessions

by Matthew Litman

Illustration by Charlotte Silverman

published October 11, 2019


All Al could talk about was how excited he was for dinner. He said his wife was cooking something special.

“I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s going to blow your mind.”

He laughed to himself, shook his head, and went to get a soda from the machine. When he came back, he patted me on the shoulder. “It’s gonna be great. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”

Al and I covered sports together my first year at the paper, and we’d shoot the shit over our cubicles, slouching on the dividers, talking about how bad the local teams were, gambling on the high school games. He showed me around my first day, took me out for lunch, gave me a tour of the town, with its Main Street facing the ocean and the stacks of pink and yellow homes behind it. It was a small town, and when Al noticed my watch, he made a joke that I was too rich for it, which was funny, because Elena and I were pretty poor.

We didn’t know too much about each other’s personal lives—we never really asked. He was married, had a grandkid, and that was about all I knew. I told him we decided to rent up here after Elena got laid off, and he said we picked a good spot and seemed like people who’d fit right in. A month or so later, Al invited me and Elena over for dinner, and before I knew it, I’d said yes.  We weren’t real friends with anyone in town yet, Elena didn’t think we ever would be, but the weather was changing, and I was caught off guard by the nicety of it all. Of course Elena and I fought about it when I got home, but I told her it would be rude to renege on him so soon like that. I’m not that kind of guy, I said. I work with him, for Christ’s sake.

 

+++

 

I went home early that day to get a run in. The trail I liked was right off of the grocery store’s lot, the only one in town, so I promised Elena I’d get a bottle of wine to bring over. Rain started just as I got on, a steady drizzle. A good rain, not too hard.

The trail took you to the town airport, which was where I liked running the most. The road beside it was flat and made for easy running. It was bordered by the airport on one side and a trailer park on the other. The runway was this huge piece of black pavement that stretched a half-mile long. Barely used, too. I think the town only had it for the summer people that owned planes. There was a washed out blue hangar with rotting iron at its sides, and the planes there were prop planes, like the toy kind I used to have as a kid. It looked like something from a film set, surrounded by shorn green grass and leafy pine, and when the sun hit just right, the field lit up all emerald-like.

The road winded into a little neighborhood, a scattering of one-story homes and empty trailer lots and mailboxes that showed off a family’s personality: an open lobster trap with overdue bills, a giant golf ball with a latch, and those regular mailboxes with red-colored flags because most people living there and anywhere didn't care that much. There was a wooden crate at the end of someone’s driveway selling firewood. The logs were tied together in fours with white string, and a sign read “One Bundle, $4.” On top of the crate was a Folgers container where the money went. Then I saw a bucket below with kindling. Another sign: “Take what you need (just not the bucket).” When I came to a certain evergreen, the final checkpoint before a near-vertical hill, I stopped and turned around. The road continued up and down for what seemed like miles, but I never figured out exactly where it ended, I never ran that far. It seemed aimless, and therefore endless, so I never bothered to try.

I enjoyed running but I got nervous sometimes. I always heard someone else’s footsteps along with mine, steps just a second out of tune with my own so as to create the illusion that they were in fact someone else’s. I would turn my head every couple minutes, just to be sure, but nothing was ever there.

I got back to my car and reached for my keys. I didn’t feel them. I turned out the waistband pocket. I looked where I was, down at the gravel, up the gentle hill I’d just come down on, but saw no shine or glimmer. It was about a mile and some change until home, and I figured I didn’t have any more time to look for them, so I left my car in the lot and ran home instead, licking the rain that fell on my lips.   

Elena was on the couch with her hair in a towel. She was looking at her face through a hand mirror. Unaccustomed to unemployment, to time spent not working, she began to work on herself. She had long kept a notebook that listed all of her FLAWS and THINGS TO WORK ON and THINGS WORTH KEEPING and was always looking for more things to write down. Recently it seemed like that was all she thought about. When I was sad, I browsed through the notebook to remind myself that she too had her problems.

She looked up when I walked in.

“Where were you?”

“I lost my keys. I had to run home.”

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know. I lost them. Somewhere along where I was running, I guess.”

She sighed and put her head in her hands. I sat down next to her and stroked her back.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t get the wine.”

“I didn’t. That’s true. I’m sorry.”

“We don’t have anything to bring.”

“We’ll think of something,” I said, not really knowing what. “We’ll bring ourselves, right?”

“That’s not enough.” she said, deflating in my arms.

“Well, yeah,” I said.

 

+++

 

Al lived in a Colonial. That’s what Elena said as we drove up towards it, coming out from a dirt road surrounded  by pine. It was painted green, with white paneling, and had a wraparound porch and a Jesus figurine above the doorbell.  Al opened the door graciously, just like his figurine would have, raising his eyebrows, the hairs of which were colored such a white they were almost see-through, as he let us in.

I introduced Elena in the doorway. Al took her hand and kissed it. I had never done that to Elena, at least not in public or in that formal kind of way, and looked at her to see if she thought it was nice. I saw her blush and felt a little outfaced. Al took us into the kitchen, where his wife was bent over a steaming pot. “This is Cheryl,” Al said, and for a moment I thought he meant the pot. I then looked at the actual Cheryl, a short woman with a large forehead and straw-colored curls. A paper bag squirmed beside her on the counter.

“Al has told me so much about you,” she said.

"Well I’m afraid I haven’t heard a thing about you,” I said, which made Al laugh so hard he slapped me hard on the back. Elena rolled her eyes. Cheryl smiled politely like she’d heard it before and knew it was true, which it was.

“What’s in the bag?” Elena asked.

“Great question!” Al said, plucking the paper bag off of the counter. Cheryl turned back to the pot. He opened it under our faces, like a magician revealing the bunny inside his hat. “They’re lobsters. Our neighbor works on a boat, he dropped them off today.”

The little crustaceans had rubber bands around their red and black marbled claws and looked quite cramped inside the paper bag. Their antennas folded onto themselves like thin licorice and their bodies twitched and rolled onto each other.

“Cheryl makes the best lobsters,” Al said. “You wait until you dip some of the meat into the garlic butter sauce she makes. I hate this word, but—”

“Alan, don’t.”

“It’s orgasmic.”

“Jesus, Alan.”

“Like real, pulsating sex.”

The paper bag rustled. The water bubbled.

 

+++

 

“Why don’t you all sit down by that table over there,” Al said, without looking at me, pointing to their living room. “I’ll make some drinks and be right over.”

We walked to a cocktail table with four chairs around it. In the middle of the table was a jarred butterfly, very elaborate-looking, with shiny red wings splattered with black specks, like camouflage, that turned orange at their ends. It was enclosed in a mason jar and stood upright as if it were floating. There was a needle glued to the base of the jar on which the butterfly’s body was skewered. Against the wall was a bookcase with six more jars of preserved butterflies, with more along the window sills, the arms of the sofa, and stacked on top of hard-to-reach places. All different colors, mish-mash like tie-dye, placed liberally around the room like lanterns or lawn gnomes. There was a monarch, its black veins tracing out small cells of tiger-orange, one with sea-blue wings clipped with white and red dots along its banding, and another with black wings flecked with green. I pictured Al in some humid forest wearing a bucket hat and khaki pants, armed with a net, his paunch sticking out from underneath his button-down shirt, trying to capture one as it flew away.

“Butterflies,” Elena said. “My mom says they symbolize the soul.”

Elena’s mother taught nature classes at a summer camp. She was also a classics major. I wondered if Elena liked them. She never mentioned butterflies before, so I assumed they meant nothing to her. But I overthink everything, so naturally I overthought the butterflies. There were too many of them. I took Elena’s hand in mine and squeezed it. She pulled away and took her seat.

Al came in with four drinks and an ice bucket on a tray and set them down on the table, moving the jarred butterfly carefully towards the far edge of the table. He brought in a couple of cans of seltzer too. Al sat across from me, next to Elena. The table seemed larger then, and they seemed farther away.

“Cheryl’s just waiting on the lobsters,” Al said.

The glasses were sweating, and Elena wiped her hand on her thigh after she took one and sipped it.

“Really good, Al,” she said.

“What’s with the butterflies?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, just a hobby. Monarchs. Red Admirals. Swallowtails. They light up the room. I like catching them. And I gotta do something else with my time, you know. Writing about sports sometimes makes me wish I never got into the paper at all.”

“What’s your favorite one?” Elena asked.

“Favorite sports team?” Al said.

“The Red Sox,” I said.

“Butterfly.” Elena said.

“Oh, that’s a good question,” Al said. “A much better question. You’ve got good questions.”

Al trailed off and Elena listened with her eyes. Everything seemed to pull away from me in that moment, which was good and bad. Good because I could only listen to Al for so long, and bad because I felt a bad thought coming on. I thought that maybe Elena didn’t love me anymore.

Before I worked at the paper, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t run, go grocery shopping, pay my own bills. Elena worked at a marketing firm in the city and I survived by her account. She didn’t hold that against me, at least didn’t show it, which I appreciated. I cooked for her when she came home, queued up movies the New Yorker told us to watch, booked tickets to shows the New Yorker told us to see. I felt bad, but I trust she knew that, because she never asked how I was doing.

The thing was, I had all these questions running through my head. Incessant questions. Insistent questions like What am I doing? What does that look mean? Am I taller than that guy? How could she love me? Do I love her? It got to the point where the questions became worse than the thing itself and made it impossible to do anything. I sat out on the fire escape all day long smoking, keeping track of the delivery trucks that loaded out on the side street below, watching people through adjacent windows as they walked across their lofts. I cried easily then too, especially when we went to hear the symphony. But one night, Elena confided to me that she also had these questions and showed me her notebook. I opened it, read a couple of pages, then asked her to marry me.

I’d gotten better at dodging the thoughts, the questions, but they came back sometimes: alone in the car, at night before I fall asleep, or in a coworker’s living room waiting for dinner.

When I came to, Al and Elena were laughing.

“What did I miss?” I asked.

“Weren’t you listening?” Al said. “Where’d you go? Is he like this with you too? Half the time I talk to him and he doesn’t seem to listen.” Al took his glass and twisted it in his hand.

“Sometimes,” Elena said.  “He lost his keys on a run today.”

“No kidding. Your keys, huh?” Al said. He took a drink and sucked in his lips. “Sometimes I look over the cubicle and he’s just staring at his computer, like this.”

Al put his drink down and raised his hands in the air, as if they were hovering over a make-believe keyboard. He slacked his jaw, widened his eyes, and sat there frozen. He kept still for a couple seconds, then started laughing, but he started choking and and broke into a fit.

“That’s karma,” I said, and Elena give me a sharp look.    

His coughing was really loud. Elena rubbed his back. I turned around and saw Cheryl emptying the pot of lobsters into the sink, the steam rising and making her face invisible.

I turned back and Al was wiping his face, apologizing.

“Getting old,” he said.

“It’s a bummer,” I said. “Maybe they’ll give you an intern.”

The lobsters slid across the metal sink, clinking and clanking as Cheryl tried to pick them up.  “Damn things are too hot,” she said.

Al got his breath back and started talking again.

“You guys fight a lot?” he said, pouring a can of seltzer into his glass.

“Here and there, I suppose. Who doesn’t fight?” I asked.

“I’m sure there are people who don’t,” Elena said. Color filled her cheeks.

I wanted to press her hand but she seemed so far away. I smiled, tried to convey the thought, but her eyes danced around my stare. I was feeling a little buzzed. We really never fought that much, at least not in the traditional way. We mostly fought with ourselves and took it out on each other.

“Me and Cheryl fight all the time,” Al said. “I say you aren’t married unless you’re fighting,” he said. “Christ, I’m too old to drink.”   

Al got up and took out a bottle of gin from a cabinet and set it on the table. He studied the back of it like it was some ancient artifact.

“Anyone want seconds?” Al said. “I’m out, myself.”

I poured some for Elena and myself and gave a splash to Al, who took it back in one swig.

“We’re like that story,” Al said, raising his empty glass.

“Which one?” Elena asked.

“I forget.”

 

There was an awful crack from the kitchen. It sounded like a bone being snapped in two, a clean break. I turned and saw Cheryl with a pair of metal clamps wedged between a lobster’s claw. There was another hellish crack, and with a fork she pulled out a long, white, red-veined piece of meat from the shell. I looked back at Elena and wondered whether we would be good parents.

Al yawned, his mouth opening egregiously wide, and placed his hand on Elena’s shoulder. He squeezed it gently, then placed his hand back in his lap. Another snap came from the kitchen.

“Lobster rolls,” Al said, his eyes barely half-open. He was blitzed. “She’s making lobster rolls.” Al said. “You like lobster rolls?”

He moved his hand onto Elena’s thigh. That’s what it looked like, anyway, with his arm stretched out in that direction. He didn’t seem to think twice about it.

“I like lobster rolls. All of that meat. The bad part is getting it out of the shell. Eliminates that whole step.”

He breathed in, closing his eyes, then opened them and looked into mine.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, his hand still on Elena’s thigh.

Another snap, another piece of meat leached from its shell.

I got dizzy, and I assume the color drained from my face. I looked at Elena but she was looking at Al. I wondered why she wasn’t looking at me and started spinning off reasons. My leg started to shake. Up and down and up and down like a heartbeat. Elena was wearing some kind of blouse, and she looked just like the day I met her, a memory that I made different each time so it was always like I was meeting her for the first time, or not meeting her at all. I looked down at my glass and realized I had finished it.

“Really,” Al said, laughing. “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I knew it I’d punched Al.

The impact crept all the way up my arm and along my chest, a snake trail of electric force. For a moment I thought I was having a heart attack. Al was splayed out in the chair, eyes closed, his head and neck craned upwards towards the ceiling, mouth open, slack and all like a stretched-out piece of chewed gum. I only heard my breathing. There was another snap from the kitchen, and Cheryl entered the room with a bowl of lobster meat. I sat back down and noticed a broken jar below me, the red and black butterfly impaled with a shard of glass.

Drool trickled down Al’s chin and he started to gurgle. Elena made a move towards him.

“No need,” Cheryl said, cradling the bowl with her hands. “This happens all the time. He’s fine.”

She set the bowl of meat down on the table and went back into the kitchen. I looked at Elena, and she said we should leave.

“I thought I saw his hand on your lap,” I said.

“You’re crazy,” she said.

I turned towards Al, who let out a hiccup, and mumbled an apology. Then two black lines suddenly appeared on the corner of his bottom lip, like the hands of a climber grasping for the top of a cliff.  I leaned in closer and watched  a butterfly crawl out of his mouth, walk up to the bulb of his nose, and unlatch its paper-thin wings towards us: a flush of blue from indigo to baby, with streaks of sunset-yellow shooting out towards its edges. They opened and closed rhythmically, like a song, and matched my breathing. I relaxed my hands. From the kitchen I heard butter frying, and I figured Elena was right.

 

+++

 

Elena fell asleep in her clothes that night, and when she did this, it usually meant that she wouldn’t wake up until noon the next day, so when I woke up I went on a run knowing I had time. I took the same route I did the day before and found my keys on the edge of the road. I was a bit hungover and my feet plodded against the pavement, everything feeling heavy, like I was running with concrete-filled shoes.

As I ran, I started to hear someone else’s footsteps behind me. These sounded different than usual, louder, and drastically out of step with my own, as if they were indeed someone else’s this time, and the farther I ran, the closer they seemed to get. I was too scared to turn around, I didn’t want to see, so I kept running: past the airport, past the evergreen, past the rundown houses and uncut lawns. I ran to see where the road would take me, where aimless and endless met their ends, and wondered if I’d even be able to notice.