The “Shop” in Shop and Save is flickering above my head as I stand on the curb, clutching a bag of Mint Oreos (the thin kind), two packages of beef-flavored ramen noodles (for Eli, not me), and a frozen pepperoni pizza (only 280 calories a slice). I hold the brown paper bag close to my body as if it will radiate any type of heat; I’m positive it must have dropped 20 degrees since I finished up my shopping. Either that or this hole-in-thejeans fad isn’t really worth the hype.
“C’mon, then,” Eli says, pulling his Jeep to the curb. Even in the dark I can see the paint chipping above the back left tire, a grayish-white hole where red should be.
“I wish you’d put some damn doors on this thing,” I mumble, hoisting myself into the car.
“It’s still October. Winter’s a long way away.”
“Eli, I’m freezing.”
“We’ll be back to the apartment in a minute. Chill.”
He speeds away a little too quickly from the curb; I tumble forward in my seat, a package of ramen suddenly on the floor. I quickly stuff it back into the bag to cover up the Oreos.
“Would you slow down?” I yell over the wind, pushing the hair out of my face.
“Can’t hear you,” he says, even though I know he can.
We pass underneath a streetlight, its murky yellow-orange glow showcasing his profile. I notice little buds of facial hair sprouting on his jawline, a few stray whiskers on his chin.
I also notice something in his eyes. They used to glint brown, like the oak coffee table in my family room when I was a little girl. Those were the eyes I fell in love with. Now they look deep and dark like mud.
“When was the last time you shaved?” I ask as he slows down at a red light, though I’m not sure why we’re stopping. No one else is on the road; it’s midnight on a Wednesday.
He turns to me, the scar under his right eye illuminated by the abrasive McDonald’s arch. “A few days. Why?”
I shrug. “I just didn’t know if you were growing it out, that’s all.”
“Nope,” he sighs, feigning interest in the street. He dangles his foot out of the Jeep and bumps it against the side of the car.
“What are you doing?”
Before he responds, the light changes to a sea monster hue and we’re off again. The silence between us, though filled with the screams of wind, is awkward and lethargic.
I can’t stop thinking about why the colors seem so off these days.
* * *
“I’m home!” Eli announces, charging through the front door with a six pack of lager in one hand and a plastic CVS bag in the other. “Give me a hand, Lace.” It’s more of a command than a question, but I pretend he asked me anyway.
I plop the bags onto the table and begin rifling through them. “Why the hell did you buy bird seed?”
He cracks open a bottle and tips nearly half down his throat before replying, “You like animals and stuff, right?”
“Since when have I ever said anything about wanting to feed birds?” I ask, plopping the earwax-yellow bag of bird food on the kitchen table. Its flecked inky and crimson pellets shift around the bag like rooting worms.
“It was a gesture, Lace,” he says, rolling his eyes. “It was just to be nice.”
I grab a Snickers bar burrowed in the bottom of the bag and toss it next to the bird food. “What’s this?”
“Another gift for you.” He takes a sip.
“I don’t want it.” I cross my arms, thumbing my bone through my skin, wishing I didn’t have to press so hard.
“It’s only one candy bar, Lace.”
“I don’t want it,” I repeat, feeling the twinge in my throat, a warning cry of tears on the horizon. I pinch the skin between my pointer finger and thumb to distract myself.
He sighs, trudging to the table and grabbing the chocolate. He looks at the wrapper for a moment before throwing it into the trashcan by the stove. “Happy?”
“You don’t have to be so dramatic, Eli.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what the hell I can do anymore,” he snaps. “Everything I do is wrong nowadays.”
I grip the metal folding chair at the table and avoid eye contact. “Did you get a chance to check out that AA meeting?”
I feel the pit of my stomach meet my feet in a muddy mix of tingling guilt and worrisome anger, a heatwave dissipating all the saliva on my tongue. It feels like someone is slopping cold water on my face from behind my eyes, splashes of regretful stings. I had convinced him that one glass of wine wouldn’t hurt. Just one glass.
“Do we have any food?” He sets the bottle down on the counter and begins scavenging through the cabinets. “What did you eat for lunch?”
“I’m going shopping tomorrow,” I say, feeling guilty relief for giving up so easily.
He looks at the clock on the stove. “It’s 11:15. Why don’t we just wait 45 minutes then go to the store? I’m craving ramen.” He doesn’t notice I’ve avoided his earlier question. “You can go if you want, but I was thinking about heading to bed.”
“I hate shopping by myself,” he says quietly. He looks like the sad child he was when his mother accidentally left him in the store 20 years ago: a bucktoothed, bed-headed toddler, clutching a Hot Wheels car with sticky fingers. He still hates going anywhere alone.
The air between us is thick, like the mucus from a cold lingering in the back of my throat; it’s annoying that I just can’t either hack it up quickly, or swallow it down. It’s a brick of resistance, demanding to be dealt with.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll go with you. Let me just change into some jeans.”
* * *
I’m staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, cupping my pink, waxen stomach underneath fluorescent lights, when Eli calls. I thrust my sweater down and answer.
“Hey, are you home right now?”
He clears his throat. “Can you do me a favor?”
I’m playing with my bristly hair, putting a finger over what I want chopped off, or maybe don’t. Short hair is in now, right? I tuck the ends behind my shoulders and stare at myself for a long time, posing to expose different angles of my new ’do.
“—at six. Can you do that?”
“Lace,” he says sharply. “Were you even listening to me?”
“I got distracted. Just repeat yourself.” I brush my finger over the rough bristles of his toothbrush. They’re frayed and curled where they shouldn’t be. It’s old, but he won’t get rid of it.
“I shouldn’t have to.”
“Do you want me to do the damn favor or not?”
I hear muffled sounds from his end of the line, and what sounds like the mumbling of my name. I can barely distinguish a “so help me, God” before he puts the phone back to his ear. “Are you ready now?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, saluting him with my speech.
“Lace, if you’re going to be a bit—” he stops himself, and I swear I can hear him counting to ten in his head.
He sighs. “Lace, when you ignore me, I feel aggravated.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“It makes me feel aggravated because—”
I hang up. I know he’s going to spew the same old theatrical monologue our therapist pounded into his malleable brain. I don’t want to hear rehearsed lines; I want a cold read.
I lift up my sweater again and stare at my belly button for the rest of the afternoon. Eli doesn’t call me back.
* * *
“Good morning,” Eli says, rolling over in bed, draping his arm around me. Although it isn’t morning—it’s the murky territory between when the sun rises and when it sets.
“Yep,” I mumble, pretending to still be half-asleep, as if I hadn’t been awake for hours already.
“What do you wanna do today, Lace?”
Lie in bed all day. Maybe eat some doughnuts. Or maybe not.
“Not sure.” I sit up, hoisting the comforter over my shoulders. It’s the middle of October, but it feels like January in our bedroom. The icy blast from the AC unit in the window sends chilly kisses down my spine. I’ve been telling Eli to turn on the heat.
“We could go see a movie?”
I shake my head. “I’m not really up for that.”
“The zoo?” he offers, playfully poking my side through the thick sheet. I flinch.
“Uh, maybe another day.”
He exhales slowly, and I watch as his shoulders collapse with him. “I give up,” he mumbles, tossing off the covers and sliding out of bed. His feet sound unusually heavy on the wooden floor as he trudges to the bathroom.
I sit motionlessly in bed while I hear the shower crank on, the flooding water pounding our tub. I bet the ring is still intact. It was there when we moved in a few months ago. We’ve tried all kinds of cleaning products: sprays, detergents, and a thick, bubbly overnight foam.
Nothing is working.
“You haven’t moved.” Suddenly, Eli is standing in the doorway, drying his brunet curls with a once-white towel. It looks more like a melted snowman now.
I know he’s just making an observation, but it feels more like an accusation.
“No, I haven’t.”
I notice the bags underneath his eyes; they’re hypothermia blue, mixed with choking purple. It’s like someone is strangling just that fleshy part of his skin.
“I’m going to eat something. What do you want?”
He raises an eyebrow. “You sure?”
He opens his mouth like he’s about to say something, but instead he just leaves the bedroom. I listen as he walks to the kitchen. The thud of our metal pots clanging against the cabinets echo through the bedroom.
I smell bacon frying a few moments later, followed by a salivating sizzle. I can almost see those thick-cut, maple strips wriggling in the heat. My mouth waters, but I swallow all that temptation away.
“Every day is a chance to start over new,” our therapist told us at our first session. “There’s always time for second chances.”
I thought that was a cliché when she said it and I still think so, but for a moment, just like a fleck of bacon grease stinging my cheek, I think maybe today could really be different. Maybe things would actually…
I hear the sst of a beer bottle from the kitchen.
Or maybe not.