And though most days they are leery and wary of one another, intoxicated – they know the measure of his manhood, they know all his idiosyncrasies… his stupid tricks, his weird fetishes and his gross habits.
Marten Melville Miller, known by his housemates, his three exes (and how lucky, say his friends, to live with three lovely women who love him – loved me, he corrects), alternately as 3M and by extension the nickname on the note that lies under a half-drunk glass of water still wet with condensation there on his wood kitchen table, stands slowly sipping his coffee with a splash of half-and-half and a spoon of sugar, reading Sage’s hurried scribble:
Hey Post-it® Boy,
Can you try to get home at an earlier time of night? I worry, it keeps me up, and then I can hear everything bumping and thumping around here, especially when you get home. It keeps me up all night, and if I don’t get enough sleep that messes up my yoga. And that messes up my whole day. So please, don’t stay out so late?
She even wrote in the little registered symbol, got it right, no TM or © on this thing. It’s not even really a Post-It Note she wrote on, though, it’s a random generic sticky note from a massive pack he bought at CVS or Rite-Aid a few years back. But the nickname, that was Ali’s idea following a very brief dalliance with calling him 3M. His other exes, they took a while to warm up to it, but now the name was stuck fast – and unlike the notes themselves, it wouldn’t come off. He’d gotten used to it, the boy who was stuck fast to his past three exes.
Marten settles into the chair, unsticking and re-applying the note to the arm of his shirt so he’ll remember it when he leaves the room; he picks up today’s copy of the Boston Globe and sorts through to the job ads, folds the paper back on itself and tosses all the unneeded sections of the paper over to the other end of the kitchen table. The house creaks and a few cars slowly pass by on the street outside, their low mmmm the loudest sound of the late morning. Marten sits in a pair of green flannel plaid pajama pants and a t-shirt picked up from his once-worn pile. He sits on a wooden chair at a wooden table, old and so heavily scratched and abraded that the paint looks like a fine, uneven dusting of blue eggshell powder, and when he shifts his chair back to reach for more coffee, its wood legs scrape at the hardwood floor – in sore need of a new finish – with a petulant grunt. The morning sun, no longer gold, defines every shadow and reflects sharply and starkly white off the painted surfaces of the counter and the cabinets. No need to turn on the kitchen light this morning.
He turns his attention back to the paper and scans the headings for something he wants to do. Job listings in the paper, a sort of antiquated concept but it gives him satisfaction to see the red marker circles tangible and bright on newsprint. And it’s an excuse for a morning ritual: check the kitchen for notes, have a bit of coffee and oatmeal, inspect the trash and take it out if he needs to, look for jobs in the paper. And then a hot shower, a shave and into his bedroom office to plug into that world he can’t touch, where he’ll keep looking for work in the modern ways, check email, try to write.
How long has it been since they laid him off? Almost 9 months. Long enough to conceive and bear a child. The phone chirps over in the corner, someone else answers it on the second ring. Ali must be awake. He’s been out of full-time work for longer than it took for his parents to make him. He thinks about that, his eyes still running unfocused over the narrow columns of microscopic text set in the classifieds. The first couple months his savings kept him afloat, but after that it was Kaylee who saved him, Kaylee with her editor’s job at a publishing office downtown – I’ll slip your first book into the rush pile, she’d joke, as if it were that easy – who with great maternal care offered to help pay his rent and bills in the interim until he found gainful employment. He tries to do the math in his head, the rent is easy, but the other bills: too many variables, and groceries, and transportation here and there. He gives up and swallows down his totally incorrect number with another swig of coffee. He circles another opening with his bright red Sharpie marker, nothing much, just a register boy at a thrift shop down the street.
It’s not running a company, certainly not the $100K he’d made just a few years ago as a tech wizard. He has a mind for that sort of thing: inquisitive, creative. He sees the big picture and memorizes only the strangest of strange details. They loved him for that sort of creativity, not just his colleagues, but his exes too. His world is all well-used, bumped and scraped, odd angles, long ways around and leaps of faith, but it is beautiful to him, and when he opens his mouth to share it, they fall in love with the world inside his head.
His coffee mug is nearly empty again. He smiles, you’re not enough, are you? I can make more, but is there ever enough?
Ali skids into the kitchen from the stairs in nothing but sandals and a turquoise thong, sliding right into a sunbeam. She stretches up into it like a cat. Her body. He watches her stretch and curl in, he watches her breasts pull back and flatten tight and tiny as she arches upward; he watches her breasts swell into the petite shape of ripe pears, as she relaxes forward and wraps herself around herself. She smiles askew at him through blonde hair that falls over her face like a veil, she knows he’s looking, likes that he’s looking, and then she walks over to the counter (slides over, really), and he watches her. He can’t help but watch her in that nothing but a thong that she’s wearing, which is his fault, because she used to bound out naked from head to toe, not a lick of clothing on, and he asked her to wear something when she was wandering around the house in the middle of the day. He wonders why her body, why she, in a thong or a short white tee, or in any amount of clothing, hypnotizes him while he can keep himself from staring when she enters a room au naturale.
She fills a mug with the last of the coffee and gulps half the mug – black – in one go. “See anything you like?” She motions toward the job listings, but she’s smirking like a cat caught playing in the chicken pen.
Marten shakes his head half-yes half-no, a sort of X-shaped motion that means maybe?, and Ali’s standing so closely next to him he can feel all that sunshine she just sucked up radiating off her body. It drives him crazy. She drives him crazy. He drives her crazy, and maybe that’s all crazy but that’s why he split it off with her, why he took her back in after the Big Fight and told her: we’re friends just friends and you’ll have to pay rent and please no other men in the house for a while. He notices in her other hand one of his Bukowski novels. Her fingers obscure the title but from the cover it looks like Women.
“Is that what you’re reading lately? Mine, isn’t it?”
She giggles and puts her hand on the back of Marten’s neck. “Yeah, not last night, though. I was busy,” she answers, “but you probably heard.”
She leans over beside him, her – oh with her they were either tits or boobs – her boobs pointing out and indicting Bukowski now resting half-on the table within reach of Marten’s right hand, half-off the corner and pressing its pages in a rectangle of thin lines into Ali’s thigh, and she reads the note from Sage. Ali growls. “She’s putting her own stuff on you again, huh?”
Marten laughs. This happens – every one of them with their occasional bristling protectiveness of him – an interim alliance between the two of them because he’s her ex. Marten says “I could be a little quieter when I get home. And you,” he teases, “could be a little quieter when you are home.”
It is too natural a thing, now, to reach around her waist and hug her, to feel the underside of her boobs mussing up his already morning-tousled hair and so he does. And it is almost too natural a thing to trace the gentle hollows on her pale olive skin with the very ends of his fingers, to turn her breath deep and hungry with the least brush as he had so often in the past – her weakness around him, his light and rakish touch – but he doesn’t, and she skips so-almost-naked back to the sink and sets her dirty mug on the counter where the dirty dishes go.
“I’m going to lay in the backyard for a bit.” she tells him, kissing the top of his head, and she grabs his Bukowski back off the kitchen table and is gone.
Marten sips the dregs of his coffee and circles another listing.
He can hear Ali singing happily in the backyard. An email from Kaylee has him in the kitchen again:
The tub in the 1st floor bathroom is a wreck. There’s a bunch of hair in the shower drain and it looks like yours. Can you clean it up before I get home? I could barely stand to take a shower this morning.
Also, can you make sure to wipe up the counter where the dirty dishes go more often? There’s something light brown that’s sticky on there and that’s so gross. Probably attracts flies and we’ll all get sick with salmonella. We just need to be better about keeping the kitchen sanitary. Please don’t let it get like that again.
With a little scrubbing and some bleach, Marten finishes cleaning the sticky residue (to which Ali’s morning mug had stubbornly stuck) and turns his attention to some of the glasses in the sink. Sunlight no longer pours in like a torrent from the east but now it peeks in past the southern eaves just far enough into the room to hold up a single glass in the light and watch it refract and reflect. A shard of sunlight bends through the glass, striking him in the eye; when the glass lands in the sink, by some miracle it doesn’t break. It just skitters around in the shallow dirty water. He wonders how many single glasses, washed by his hands, spotless and shining, would pay back Kaylee’s kindness, and he decides there’s a number that could erase his debt in dollars, but none that could actually repay her.
He’d told her he was leaving because he needed to do his own thing for a while, figure out who he was – certainly not an untruth, but not everything. She didn’t know he’d left her five years ago because of a water glass – so very much like this one. Because of a girl he’d worked with for a few years, because they were eating dinner at a fancy restaurant, laughing, because he felt alive and he wanted to touch her in ways he wasn’t allowed, he wanted to feel things that to feel around Kaylee were too rough and intimidating, because he was flushed and this girl made him want, but mostly because she reached for her water glass and he reached for her hand and when they touched – yes it was a dry winter day and they were both wearing wool – cliché struck unexpectedly and they felt a spark. A static shock, to be fair, but to him, so feverish with what seemed more than lust but no not quite love, it made the fantasy quite real. Her eyes locked with his and her mouth pouted so slightly, her cheeks flared red and he felt his cheeks flare red and warm with her gaze and all the blood in him raced to his hard-beating heart. He was awake, and alive, and so was the fact that he wanted to rush off into that fine establishment’s bathroom and do terrible and naughty and disallowed things with this girl that wasn’t his girl (although she was, right then and there, but she was not Kaylee).
And he pulled back his hand into his lap, looked down at his dinner, and he mumbled for a promise they’d built on a moment of erupting desire. He said, “I’m sorry,” and she nodded, not angry, just sad and slipping into the low, listless pool of her own unused endorphins, a doldrum, the dysmorphia of months of flirtation and mutually actuating attraction giving way to a shared recognition that it would come to nothing. He mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and after dinner, without dessert, he paid and they left and parted, and Marten went home to Kaylee, told her that he needed to move up to Boston alone, that he needed to be on his own for a little bit, because it’d been so long since he’d really lived on his own, in his own place, seeking himself.
He told her maybe she could come up after a few months. He told her many things, and she cried at him and yelled at him and hit him in her sadness and finally collapsed against him, but he didn’t tell her about the water glass. He couldn’t, because it just seemed hurtful then, and especially now, when they’d gone through the stages, now that he’d invited her to rent a room when she moved up here for that job, now that a few years had passed living here and they had settled down easily – there was love, yes, but now when she touched him, it wasn’t like Ali’s touch. It was warm and present and without ownership, without yearning, a mother’s touch, a friend’s touch: a sense they’d shared a foxhole together in a battle and survived somehow, a sense that yes we’ve been there, yes we won’t be there again but yes yes we’ll always have Paris. Was that maybe what they’d born and raised these last five years? Something better than what they’d left behind?
The last glass clean and sparkling and in the drying rack in the final rays of direct sunlight in the kitchen, Marten looks out at Ali half-asleep with a book over her face, butt-naked in the backyard and he wonders if they’ll end up that way too, if Ali’s touch will cease to burn his skin and someday fail to turn his thoughts into knots. He’s not sure he wants that with her. He’s not sure he ever wants the sort of love he feels for Ali to be easy.
Hair in the bathroom drain? – so not his fault.
Evening arrives at the House of Marten’s Exes; Ali dresses herself in black and flits off to the nightclub down near the Ritz where she’ll work until 2:30 a.m. before taking a cab home, still making a hefty untaxed profit for herself. Perhaps tonight she’ll bring home a boy, but it’s Wednesday, and he knows her rhythms.
Wednesday she’s high on the promise of the world and she loves and loves and loves. Thursday, she comes home with all her tips and a dim, dim view of the male of the species. Friday, she falls in lust and it lasts the whole night long, and by Saturday she’s found her freedom again. Sunday and Monday she sleeps in, so she’ll be awake for her weekly rebirth on Tuesday.
Kaylee returns shortly after six. She smiles, asks about Marten’s job search, inspects the kitchen – especially the counters – and the bathroom with the gruff demeanor of an officer. She doesn’t thank him, but she looks satisfied, makes herself a salad and absconds to her room, to her phone and to her long-distance love.
Sage comes in the door at nearly ten, her arms filled haphazardly with stacks of books and paper. Marten moves to help her but she – tall as he is and eye to eye – waves him off. “I got it,” she says, and shuffles into her room without dropping a single sheet. Back from the library, back from hours of hiding her head in back-room reading nooks and thickly bound old books. Marten knocks on her door gently and she responds, “yeah?” without opening it. She’s probably changing, he thinks, and briefly he remembers how often she used to change right in front of him. He remembers not with emotion or wistfulness but rather: oh yes, and that happened, and these are the ways we did things then versus these are the ways we do things now. Just noticing, noting, writing a mental note on a mental Post-It.
He apologizes for getting in so late last night and tells her he’ll try not to stay out so late in the future. He knows it’s a hybrid truth; that yes he will certainly try to get home sooner when he thinks of it and things are going in a way that makes that possible, but no he doesn’t always want to come home so early; no he sometimes has reasons to stay out as late as he does. He wishes the stairs to the second floor didn’t pass right up through her room, didn’t cut a sharp-angled creaky and thumping wedge out of Sage’s ceiling, right up above her bed, but it does.
She avoids him most of the time. If he’s home when she gets back, she makes as little small talk as she can and takes the fastest path to her room. He’s talking to her through the door, and her responses are muffled as if she’s pulling a sweatshirt up over her head. She leaves in the morning before he wakes up. Most of the time it’s those yellow sticky notes left on the table or on the fridge or if it’s something really important on the swung-open door at the bottom of the stairs to the second floor. That’s how she talks to him.
He doesn’t begrudge it. Sometimes he sees in her eyes that she’s scared. Not so much of him, maybe somewhat of him, somewhat of the depression and insecurity that tore them apart, somewhat of his uncharacteristic inability to communicate what he wanted, so all she understood is that he wanted time, time, time and reassurance and all these little things to settle in his mind that she loved him, that she wanted him, and all she could do was retreat into her work – hole herself up behind closed doors and computer keyboards and densely written books because her degree was the only sure thing in her world and it wanted to engulf her too, to swallow her up in a slavish devotion to her dissertation and doctoral doings, but she was more okay with that than being lost in her love for Marten, because she understood books, she understood what she needed to do to pass through the maw of her degree and emerge at the other side. She understood that she had set herself on a path she didn’t love but she felt more safe surrendering to what they expected of her than giving herself over to the unsure, to Marten, who loved her but was too much, far too much, and so finally she told him it was over and that she’d fallen out of love with him and none of it remained; and she’d sent him away.
He appreciated that, even if he understood it was a half-lie to help her sleep, because it was better than being told ‘I never loved you,’ which is what his first serious, long-term ex told him after four years, because that was a lie that hurt. It still hurt. It all hurts, the ones he’d let go, the ones who’d let him go. It hurts because he can’t help but assume the problem is him. It is his failing that led to the end of each of these relationships, and here, with these three, it’s a strange burden and an uneasy peace but it presents something of an opportunity to be the Marten he could have been – fucking should have been – his penance, of sorts, for all the mistakes and missteps he’s made.
And they don’t know that because he’s never going to telegraph himself. They act out their fantasies and hopes and fears and psychoses around him, and he watches it, he watches himself and sees when his heart seizes or he is caught on a thick line of melancholy. He turns his anger not outward, not inward, but sideways into his writing. He’s just as encrusted by the grime and grit of their pasts as they are, but he chooses instead to look at himself in their reflection, to give himself over for a while to the man they need him to be.
She says something through the door, from her place of safety, asking where he’d gone last night. I worry, she says, and that’s the only remaining evidence of her love that she’ll ever let on.
He’d gone out with a friend of a friend he’d met a few weeks ago at a party. He tells Sage that he and this girl hit it off pretty well, that they laughed over messy ribs at Redbones, headed over to Harvard Square for a few more beers and wandered around the campus until late in the evening. He doesn’t tell Sage much more than that, but there is more:
Despite the fact that Ali brings home new boys regularly and has an active and audible sex life even when she’s alone, and which he can hear because their rooms are at opposite ends of the second (and top) floor hall; despite Kaylee’s long, low phone conversations with a long-distance long-suffering boyfriend, and Sage’s on and off love affair with the awesome and time-saving efficiency of meeting new men and women off OKCupid (which she’s probably on right now, marking favorites and sending messages to would be lovers… Marten can hear the tapping of keys), Marten doesn’t feel right bringing home a girl. He’s not sure who he’s protecting.
His exes are hardly ever in one place all at the same time and all awake, and they’re natural enemies, all exes of the Post-It Boy, a man still stuck to them by fortune and circumstance, all competitive for his once-love (even if not his now-love) and over who held more of his heart, but when they’ve had enough to drink, there aren’t four armies crossed at an uneasy standoff, it’s the three of them, Axis powers, amassing their unified assault against his limited and unwillingly drafted defenses. And though most days they are leery and wary of one another, intoxicated – they know the measure of his manhood, they know all his idiosyncrasies (they know he always pees sitting down, they know he sometimes bops his head as if he’s listening to some music nobody else can hear, they know he brushes his teeth in the shower), his stupid tricks, his weird fetishes and his gross habits.
In short, they possess the power to wholly decimate the matter of his ego with frightening ease when they’re drunk or high together, so he avoids the house completely at these times, and when he returns to their hungover morning he can see in their eyes the wild hair of dangerous knowledge now held back only by a sober contract of domestic peace and throbbing headaches. He makes them each breakfast at the separate times they stumble into the kitchen, and that somehow keeps them content, and at bay.
He knows that for the most part they want to see him happy. Maybe he’s protecting everyone. He decides he can’t get himself into anything serious until he’s got a job and his own place someday down the line, and anyway he doesn’t think it’d be a good idea to get into a relationship until he gets to the bottom of himself.
So he ended up making out with this girl on a park bench hidden in the shadows of Cambridge Common underneath the old, red glow of the Sheraton Ambassador’s neon sign until it got to be too much for public consumption (and curiously enough, he thinks, propriety never stopped him when he was with Ali). They couldn’t go back to her place because her roommate’s parents were in town; he found some excuse why they couldn’t go back to his place, so they kissed and held hands for a bit on the sidewalk in front of her Cambridge brownstone apartment, and then he walked home alone.
Sage says something but it sounds like a nod to Marten, and he knows that’s a “good night.” He mounts the stairs to his room, taking one last look at the kitchen before he turns out the light for the evening, leaving the porch light on for Ali. He briefly tries to understand how she gets up the stairs without making a sound.
The lights are out. Post-It Boy is in his room, pausing in front of his bookshelf. Read? Or write? He sits at the computer and begins to write everything down, everything that comes out of his head, crazy and beautiful and odd and wholly without sense and somehow completely sane. He keeps writing until the pads of his fingers are numb and shiny from thousands, tens of thousands of keystrokes. He keeps writing because it’s still in him and it wants to get out.
It’s quiet enough: he hears Sage turn off her computer and climb into bed. He hears Kaylee’s voice coming out her window and around the back of the house to his, hears her wishing her boyfriend a good night and she loves him and hopes to see him soon, baby. He hears the telephone beep when she presses the CALL END button. He doesn’t hear Ali coming up the stairs (he ponders that yet again) but he hears her little feet on the landing. She sees the light still on, and she knows he’s writing, and she says, “good night, darling,” with such tremendous softness through his door and creaks halfway down the hall to their bathroom. Water running, the brushing of teeth, the flushing of feces, the bathroom door opening and quietly closing, the shuffling of feet and a rustle of clothes being yanked off and tossed across a tiny room. The creaks of a bedspring, one: Ali getting into bed. Two: Ali turning on her side. Three: Ali tossing the second pillow toward the wall and twisting onto her stomach where she falls asleep. He’s watched it happen a thousand times, and now he knows the ritual by sound: 1, 2, 3, and Ali sleeps.
The House of Marten’s Exes is quiet again.
He turns out his light, climbs out his window onto a small flat space of roof, not so much a balcony but a little sitting place barely big enough for his legs, crossed. The fall air in Cambridge is cool and nips at his bare feet. He’s dressed in a day-old tee, his green flannel plaid pajama pants and a brown corduroy smoking jacket he bought for $15 a few years back at the same thrift shop whose ad he circled today. He fishes in his jacket pocket for a pack of cigarettes – nine months old now – and picks one out of the remaining twelve. One a month. He lights it and inhales. The smoke tastes sour in his mouth and for the first two drags he doesn’t like it any more, he hates the taste, and then he stops hating the taste and a nice soft heaviness settles into his forehead.
Marten’s other hand holds the sticky note from Sage, a print of Kaylee’s email and the ripped side of an empty box of Ali’s condoms fished from the top of the trash bin in their second-floor half-bath. His breath, even between drags of his cigarette, eases out into the late night in little clouds of water vapor, white, catching the nearly full moon’s light. Crushing the paper and the note into little balls, he sets them with the box in an old, carbon-stained round cake tin and holds his lighter sideways over them, its flame bending out yellow-white in a slight upward arc, first charring the tops of everything black and then when just the right amount of heat is applied each piece catches alight: orange, red, and always yellow. They begin to burn and that border of black descends from burning tips slowly to the bottom of the tin. He sets the tin on the edge of his little sitting place, he takes a long drag from his cigarette and exhales it all into the noiseless and implicit night, everything, everything and everything at once.
The breeze catches little pieces of paper and flame pushed aloft by their own updraft of heat and he watches in silence as they climb their own small pillar of smoke into the blue dark, the dark blue sky, sparkling and burning and chasing each other in great spirals, finally ascending, invisible, into the great ceiling of diamonds held aloft by the dreams of those who can sleep.