by Tali Treece
I tie a bandana around my face and Johnny, that’s my husband, he swings me close and pinches my rear and tells me I’m Rosie the Riveter turned bandito. I’m allergic to dust, is all, and there’s dust everywhere because we’re moving day after tomorrow, and almost everything’s packed away. The furniture I inherited from roommates Freshman year of college, and which I carted from dorm to dorm, and finally lugged into our apartment when we got married our Senior year? We hauled it all to the dump, and you wouldn’t believe the dust bunnies and cobwebs under the green velvet chair and the old gold couch. And I thought I was tidy. My mother, she used to say what a good wife I’d make. “She can clean,” she’d say. “And cook!”
But we order pizza because every pan and plate — why did we already pack the plates? — is taped into the boxes I scavenged from the recycling center. I’m heaving a stack of books across the floor when Johnny circles his arms around my waist and twirls me to him and tugs down the bandana to kiss me. I sneeze. He laughs, happier than he’s been in months, ever since he graduated with the philosophy degree that flung him up and sent him spiraling down and out like a maple seed caught in the wind. He says, “We’re moving! A new start,” and I press my lips against his, my tongue in his mouth, and we’re sinking to the floor, right there amongst all the cardboard and cobwebs and dust mites, when someone knocks at the door.
“Surprise!” they say.
My mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Johnny makes a face at me like, What the hell? but we both smile as they bustle into our apartment. My sister-in-law pecks my cheek. She smells of lavender and soap, cool and fresh, even after a flight from Texas to Wyoming. “You’ve got dirt on your face,” she says as she pulls away. “And, oh dear, a cobweb in your hair.” She snatches the strand and lets it dangle there for a second before flicking it to the floor.
“How do you stand this heat?” my mother-in-law asks, digging her boarding pass from her purse, and fanning herself nonstop. “I’d die without air conditioning.”
Johnny hates it when she’s passive-aggressive like that, and he looks at me and flares his nostrils, but to her he says, “I’ll get you a glass of water.” He has to dig through three different containers to find a cup.
It is hot in here, and I tie the bandana over my hair and hope I really do resemble Rosie. My in-laws sip at the tap water while we all perch on cardboard boxes and shuffle our feet over the hardwood floor. That’s something about this apartment: it’s smaller than most couples find livable, and all the window sills are peeling, and the bathtub is so short I can’t stretch out my legs even when I’m sitting up, but it’s got these wonderful old heart of pine floors, and a ceiling that towers above us, and I’ve loved it here, very much.
I try to sweep some of the dust behind me while pretending to pay attention to my mother-in-law, who’s telling us about their flight, and the nasty stewardess who scowled at her when she asked for a bottle of Aquafina. “A paying customer!” she says.
I catch Johnny’s eye and he winks, like, We’re fine, we’ll get through this.
My sister-in-law bangs her heels against the box she’s sitting on, and I pray it’s not the china my grandma left me when she passed away last year. It’s very fragile. I try to peer around her sandals to see what’s written on the side, and she hops up and says, “I’m in the way, I’m so sorry!” and I have to say, “No, no, sit down, be comfortable, you’re fine, everything’s fine.” And she does, but holds her purse on her knees and shifts from one butt cheek to the other, back and forth, like she needs to pee. Johnny nods at his mother, smiles at his sister, and doesn’t wink at me again.
My mother-in-law launches into some saga about her cracked crown, and I say, “So why are you here?” and they all stare at me with their dark brown eyes, and Johnny says to me, his wife, “They’re here to help, of course.”
“I need to go lie down,” I say, and stretch out on the bare mattress on the bedroom floor. I tie the bandana over my eyes.
Through the thin, ancient door I hear my sister-in-law ask, “Is she all right?”
“Yeah,” Johnny says, and part of me hates myself for giving in so easy, and part of me wants to scream, No, I am not all right! I haven’t been for a long time, months now, ever since we finished college and Johnny started working at the lumber mill, because what good does a philosophy degree do in an old railroad town that’s dying? He hated that job, so they fired him, and he got worse than he’d ever been. All tired and confused, fading away like fireworks that hang in the air for just a second after they explode and then you blink and they aren’t there anymore. But I don’t scream, of course. I get off the mattress and go into the bathroom and scrub that dingy little tub, because I am just like Rosie the Riveter, and no matter what happens, no matter how sad and distant Johnny gets, I can take it. I’m the strong one. I’ve got to be.
A tap on the bathroom door, and my sister-in-law pokes her head in and says, “I’m so sorry, but I need to use the restroom.”
So I retreat to the bedroom, but Johnny and his mom are in there now, and she says the only way to truly get the walls clean is with a feather duster.
“Except that we don’t have one,” I say.
“I’d love to buy you one. Just a tiny gift.” She’s still holding her purse and she shifts it up her arm, like she’s about to whip out her wallet.
I look at Johnny, wait for him to grimace. He gets it, how crazy it is to give us more stuff when we’ve just packed up everything to move across the country. But he slings his arm around her shoulders and says, “Thanks, Ma, that’d be great.” And then he turns to me, finally. “Listen, they’re hungry, so I thought we’d take them out for a bite to eat,” he says, his arm still around her. His sister steps out of the bathroom and flanks his other side.
I say, “Go wherever you want.”
“Don’t you want to come?”
The sun is setting and a beam catches on a spiderweb dangling from the ceiling. I blink at Johnny. “No,” I say. I’m being ridiculous, resentful, I know that, but I shove my hands in my pockets and say again, “No, I don’t.”
“Suit yourself,” he says, and ushers his mom and sister out the door, without so much as a glance back at me.
I haven’t packed my clothes yet, and I still haven’t gone through the junk drawer, but nonetheless I sit on the floor and gaze out the window. There’s a fly stuck in the screen, wings broken, but shining in all that golden light, as if any second he might wake and fly away. Back in high school, my friend Nathan and I would sit on the roof of my old treehouse and watch the sunset, just like this. That was in Florida, and we’d be sweating and slapping at mosquitoes. It always seemed worth it, though, the way the oaks and the palms turned orange, and the rooftops shone copper. Sometimes I’d dance over the shingles, like I was commanding the sun, and he’d lean back on his elbows, lanky legs hanging off the edge, and whittle a stick with his teeth, laughing at me with just his eyes.
I haven’t told him we’re moving back to Florida, for Johnny’s new job teaching philosophy at the charter school where my uncle’s the principal. I think about texting him, but I can’t remember where I put my phone, and that feels all wrong, anyway. I wish I could send smoke signals.
I open the window and poke the fly back through the screen, and a wind catches it up.
By the time Johnny gets back, I’ve gone through the junk drawer, and packed up my clothes, and put on my pajamas, and gone to bed. The pine boards creak as he steps into the room. “Baby?” he says, but I pretend I’m asleep, and then I really am, and I dream about Nathan.
I want to say it’s never happened before, that I’ve never once thought of him since falling in love with Johnny, since getting married last year and starting this new bare and beautiful life. But, truth told, I do dream about him, sometimes. We’re usually on that treehouse rooftop, me and Nathan, just sitting there and watching the sky. Tonight we’re in the ocean, and he swims over and pulls me under the waves, and everything is warm and salty and wonderful, until I can’t breathe anymore, and I wake up all damp with sweat.
It’s dawn, pale light trickling through the blinds, Johnny’s face on the pillow next to mine. He hasn’t shaved in a few days. I love that, and the way his beard doesn’t grow where a scar squiggles along his jaw, and his slightly parted lips, and the whisper of breath from his nostrils. I roll close and he sighs in his sleep and drapes his arm over me, and I love the smell of him.
I must have fallen back asleep, because I wake up later that morning to Johnny squatting next to the mattress, tracing his finger down my nose. “You ok?” he asks. “Seemed kinda restless last night.”
I stare into his eyes and they’re brighter than they’ve been in a long time, and I don’t want to mess that up, so I don’t say anything about my dream. Or about all the little hurts that have added up to one great big ache in my chest after months of being so careful with him. Strong for him, always there for him as he tore himself up asking why he’d ever decided to go to college in some nowhere town in Wyoming. And why he’d studied philosophy, and why he’d let himself get to be twenty-four years old without a marketable skill to his name. And sometimes just sitting there questioning the meaning of life.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Just anxious about the move, I guess. We’ve got so much left to do.”
“Sure, but first…” and he kneels over me and kisses my cheeks, my eyes, my lips, his hands on me.
“Come on, Johnny,” I say, swatting him and rolling out of bed, even though I know rejection always makes him get quiet, kind of gone. But this morning he just hops to his feet and starts tossing shirts in a suitcase, humming the entire time, and I trudge into the living room, and pack up my Lit books. He sounds so cheerful I wish I hadn’t pushed him away.
“Knock, knock,” my mother-in-law says as she shoves the door open.
“We brought breakfast!” my sister-in-law chimes in, a tray of coffee cups in one hand, a bag of muffins in the other. “Cute pajamas,” she says, and I wish I’d gotten dressed before they came over.
“Tell us what to do,” my mother-in-law says, and I ask them to finish with the books while I work on the bedroom. Johnny takes the pictures off the living room walls and wraps them in plastic. “Oh, you’re taking all those?” his sister asks, and the way he’s humming I think maybe he’ll say something snappy and sharp, all smartass like he used to be, but he’s silent.
I brush my hair and change my clothes before I go back to the living room. It’s bare now, nothing but cardboard towers and cobwebbed corners, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law standing around, staring at the dust that shadows the floor in the exact shape of the couch. If they’d simply leave, Johnny and me, we could scrub and dust and shake it up to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald until every square foot is sparkling, gleaming. And then Johnny could take me to the floor, where there won’t be a speck of dust, and this time I’ll hold him for all I’m worth.
“I’m famished,” my sister-in-law says.
“I’ve got sandwich stuff,” I offer.
“Oh, no, no, we couldn’t trouble you,” my mother-in-law says. “I’d love to take you out. My treat.”
“That’s sweet,” I say, “but we’ve seriously got so much to do still. We have to leave the place spotless if we want our security deposit back.”
“It’ll take no time at all with us here to help,” my sister-in-law says, smiling so big I can see the pink flesh of her mouth.
“Johnny,” I say. “Really.”
“How about we make it a quick lunch,” he says. “And then we’ll tackle this together.”
“I’m not hungry,” I say, and they all protest, tell me a little muffin wasn’t nearly enough, and I hold up my hands and say, “Honestly. I’m fine. Please, just go.”
They all file out, Johnny in tow, and I tie the red bandanna over my face again, put on an old playlist, and take a rag to the walls. It’s all going well, I’m getting lots done, pissed off and cleaning fast, when “Hey There, Delilah” comes on. That was our song, mine and Nathan’s, one we used to listen to on road trips to the beach, and I dig around for my phone and dial his number.
“Nathan,” I say.
“Hey, what’s up!”
“Why didn’t we date?”
“In high school. Why didn’t you ever ask me out?”
He doesn’t say anything, and I could kill myself for calling and talking like this, but I can’t make myself stop. I blurt, “I would have said yes. If you’d asked.”
Still no response, though he was always like that, so quiet people’d forget he was in the room.
“It’s not like I’ve thought a lot about this or anything, but looking back it’s clear you did like me. Right? Something more than friends.”
I can hear him breathing. I say, “I think I was in love with you.”
He sighs, the sound of it like wind in the trees. “We were so different,” he says. “I knew it would never work out.”
“Of course it wouldn’t have worked,” I say. “Not for long, anyway. I mean, I definitely never would’ve married you.”
“I wish we had anyway,” he says.
He’s quiet for so long I think he might’ve hung up, but finally he says, “How’s Johnny?”
I’m not really sure how to answer. I could tell him he’s been depressed, not doing well at all, but somehow that feels like betrayal, so I just say, “He got a new job. In Florida. We both did, teaching at my uncle’s school. So we’re moving back.”
“Then I’ll see you.”
“I’m glad you called.”
After we hang up I stare for a long time at the blank screen of my phone, and I’m not thinking about Nathan anymore, I’m thinking how I wish Johnny was home. If I told him I talked to Nathan, he wouldn’t be mad. He’d understand, I know that, so why am I crying? I strip my clothes off, right there in the living room in the middle of all the windows, and the light pouring in so that the dust — why is there still dust? — dances in the beams of sunshine, and I walk to the bathroom, and sit in the tub, and let the discolored water run over my legs. I feel like that Van Gogh painting of the woman naked on the steps, her breasts wrinkled against her knees.
The door opens and Johnny enters and kneels beside me.
“Where’s your family?” I ask.
“The hotel. I told them it’d be better if just you and me tackled the rest.”
“I already did most of it.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“So am I,” I say. I don’t tell him what for, though maybe somehow he can feel it, because he takes up that rust-tinged bathwater in his cupped hands and pours it over my bowed head like a baptism. Sunshine streams through the bathroom window, and he raises his hand, and waves so that the dust flits and scatters, and I say, “We’re moving,” and he says, again, “A new start.”
We laugh, and stand together, his arms around my waist, my head against his chest, bathwater dripping from my body and purling around our bare feet as we shuffle over the tile, slow and sweet, in all that dancing dust.
About the Author:
Tali Rose Treece holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University, and is currently working on a collection of short stories, as well as a novel. Besides a handful of nonfiction publications, she has a short story in The Round, and another forthcoming in Bayou Magazine. She teaches first grade at a charter school, and lives in Texas with her husband and pup, and an ever increasing number of house plants and books.