Cal Setar

The World on my Shoulder

It all started with bird shit.

Well, I guess you could say it all ended with bird shit, but then what’s the difference, really? An end is just a beginning in disguise, after all.

I’d just gotten off the phone with Mom. She was worried that them not coming in to see Shawna’s apartment when they’d dropped us off after lunch at the ramen place out on Vanderbilt had caused Shawna some type of embarrassment.

Mom sounded only a little drunk, which was good, because otherwise she might’ve started to ramble and once she started there was no stopping her. Or it. Or whatever. I could hear Dad snoring in the background as she was saying she hoped that Shawna wasn’t upset with her because she really wanted to get things started off on the right foot and wasn’t it just so hot outside and she didn’t want me to tell my sister but she was concerned it was going to be a rough pregnancy and my father – your father, she made clear to me – wasn’t around enough, didn’t make enough of an effort to help out when we were kids and she was worried that Beau would do the same to my sister, but oh well, such is life, and Roman had done just wonderful at his training on Saturday and things were looking up for him becoming a hospice dog and oh no the fish was burning she would call me back, could definitely call me back, should she call me back, oh, yes of course, yes of course that’s fine, that’s just fine, well goodbye then, take care, tell Shawna we send our love, she seems just so sweet and nice and kind and I was lucky did I know that, so very, very, very lucky.

Shawna had come to by that point, groggily making her way down to the kitchen from the loft, rubbing at her eyes and making faces between her fingers.

“Was that your mom?”

I knew she knew it was. I knew she could only hear one side of the conversation, but I also knew that she knew that I only spoke in those short, yes’s and no’s, mixed in with the occasional sigh or feigned concern, forced interest, when I was talking to Mom.

My mom.

“Yeah. She wanted to make sure you weren’t upset that they didn’t come in when they dropped us off.”

Shawna’s face folds down in surprise but she laughs unconcern, the sound of sleep still heavy in her throat.

“What? Why?”

I move around the table to find the shadows between shafts of sunlight.

“She thought you were embarrassed or something, and she wanted you to know that they would have come in – they wanted to come in – she just didn’t think you really wanted them to.”

Which was right.

I’d offered the invitation as we were pulling up to the curb, realizing that my parents hadn’t seen her place yet, thinking they’d just pop in and out, oh how nice, and what’s that?, a loft, how cool, how hip, oh look at the time, we’d best get on the road before traffic gets too bad, got to check on the dog, you know how fussy he can be, Bill!, do you need to use the bathroom?, he always has to use the bathroom, go ahead and go we all know you need to go, the quicker you go the faster we can get on the road, the faster we can let the kids get back to living their lives.

But maybe not.

Her place. Not ours.

Shawna had hemmed and hawed and Mom finally caught the hint, making up some excuse about not wanting to watch Dad try to parallel park the truck again anyway. Dad – my dad, of course – sat stone-faced through all of it, apparently unconcerned either way.

“Well, I mean, I didn’t really want them to come in. But it was just because I hadn’t cleaned in a while. Did you tell her that?”

I look around at the apartment, the graying shadows of late afternoon, the half-empty laundry bag, clean clothes spilling out onto the floor, some shoes by the door, the roach in the ashtray by the back window, the cat box and the little constellations of litter scattered around, so I don’t have to look at her.

“No.”

Still, I see the way she rolls her eyes as she pulls open the cabinet next to the desk, changing quickly into a pair of denim shorts. Then she’s over to where I’m sitting, straddling my leg, some portion of her body weight leaned against my knee.

“How was the nap?”

“Good. It would have been better if you were with me.”

It hurts – my knee, my knee, my knee – and I can smell lunch – some kind of walnut salad from the Jamaican place down the street – on her breath. I tell her about the smell. She doesn’t blush, but covers her mouth, speaking through her fingers, the empty places where her eyes used to be.

“I know. It’s stinky right now. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. I’m sure I don’t smell great either.”

A light peck and the pressure disappears suddenly as she wanders to the bathroom.

I’m checking scores on her laptop, trying to get the feed for the Met game to work, when she plops down next to me on the couch. It’s a little thing, a green so faded it’s almost gray, especially in this light; gray, gray, everything gray. I’m remembering the trip I took with her to Goodwill to get it, wrestling it down from the bed of the truck by myself while she went inside to prop open doors with wads of cardboard and newspaper, when I realize she’s turned towards me, staring.

“What?”

The feed blinks once, twice, disappearing into a haze of pixels. I shut the laptop.

She kind of starts and stops and looks like she wants to just come right out with whatever it is but doesn’t know how to and so she bites her lip and looks down and looks up and looks everywhere but at me and suddenly I have a, if not bad, at least not very good feeling, but then she swallows something, maybe emotion or fear or the first draft of her thoughts, the truest version of them, and fixes me with a shimmery look I already hated.

“Why don’t you ever go down on me?”

I am both relieved and angry.

“Really?”

I try to look concerned, but bored. Caring, but pitying. Really? Really? That’s what you’re worried about?

“That’s what you looked so worried about?”

In my head, it hadn’t sounded so much like an accusation. She hesitates a moment, studying me like she’s trying to get a sense of me, swallowing that down too, seemingly unsatisfied with the flavor.

“Really. I just feel like – I feel taken advantage of.”

“What? How?”

“I just…I feel like I give so much – and I know you make your own effort in your own way – but I feel like I try so hard to give to you in that way-,” she makes an all-encompassing gesture towards my crotch, “-and I feel like you just don’t do, well, anything in return. It’s not fair, babe. It’s not right.”

That way. My way.

More frustration, more anger, still tinged by some kind of relief. This? This is it? This is what’s been bothering her, what’s been biting at the back of her neck the last few days, the niggling nuisance she just couldn’t shake, maybe just refused to shake? I mean, I knew something was up, the way she was moping around, not laughing as loud at my jokes, not asking me to stay over as often, begging off after only a couple of drinks, saying she doesn’t feel well and just wants to go home, home, my home.

My home. Her home. Not ours.

But this? This isn’t a big deal. This was nothing. This was stupid. This really was just some niggling nuisance that I already couldn’t wait to be rid of.

“Look, I gotta be honest; this all feels kind of stupid. You know I want to make you feel good. Maybe just don’t think about it so much? It’s been a couple long weeks at work and I’ve been tired, that’s all. It’ll happen.”

I open the laptop to a field of frozen whites and blacks and grays.

Gray, gray, everything gray.

I do a hard reset, waiting out the seconds peering out the big back window at the sun sliding into the thin space between the buildings surrounding the tiny backyard.

Her backyard.

Come to think of it; when was the last time I went home? When was the last time I slept in my bed? I try to remember, but then the computer trills like a bird as it boots and I look down to find her hand wrapped tight around mine. Something about it feels strange, like she’s not seeking or offering comfort, but holding tight to something she’s worried about losing, something she feels slipping away.

“What’s going on? Is there something else?”

Searching. Searching me, the wall, the window, me again. Finally, she throws her hands up, no more masking what she means.

“I just – I feel like you don’t want to. That’s the worst part. That’s what makes me feel so, I don’t know, bad.”

She’s chewing on her lower lip now, sucking it into her mouth and moving over it in a rhythmic seesawing pattern. I try to quell the rising anger but the confusion only makes it worse. Why is she pushing about this? This silly thing, this stupid thing, this thing simply not worth being so upset over – there almost has to be more to it, right?

I wonder.

I think, I imagine. What else could she be hiding? Maybe she’s easing her way into a breakup speech. Maybe she’s going to accuse me of something. Maybe she’d gotten bored and this was the excuse she was going to use to end the relationship. Maybe this was about how drunk I’d gotten at Tom and Zoe’s party, but no, that was stupid too, it was a party and that’s what you did at parties; you got drunk. You had a good time. Maybe you didn’t always black out and get sick in the cab on the way home or shout mean things at your girlfriend when she tries to help you into bed, but you let loose, right? Forgot about your problems – for a little while at least – and just had some fun, just let yourself be fat and foul and free and happy.

That’s what I was doing, right?

Right?

My girlfriend.

“Shawna. What the fuck?”

I regret it. Already, I regret raising my voice, regret ripping my arm away, regret not giving her what she wanted, whatever she wanted, again and again, immediately. The way her eyes widen. The way she pulls back, looking me over again like I’m making unwanted advances.

“Please don’t yell at me.”

“I’m not yelling, I just – I don’t – I’m not sure what to say. Why are you making problems? Why does it always feel like you’re making problems, building up some issue between us? Why can’t things just be ok? Why can’t we, why can’t this, be ok for five fucking minutes? Five minutes, that’s all I want. Five minutes of peace. Five minutes of you not crying and pawing at me and telling me there’s some fundamental issue in our relationship that we need to work on.”

I’m standing, I realize. And now I’m walking, and I’m leaned away from her reaching hand and I’m lifting my flannel shirt off the back of the chair and I’m throwing it around myself and shoving my hands down the arms, yanking open the door and shouting over my shoulder that I need some air, that I need to go for a walk, that maybe we both need a little space, that maybe I’d take my five minutes right fucking now.

***

I was in the park, the little one just down the street, like four or five streets from the apartment – her apartment – maybe a few more, it’s hard to keep track when your blood is up and you’re staring at your shoes as they move over the pavement thinking this isn’t how it’s supposed to feel, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

I was following the curve around the jungle gym, all full up with screaming kids and wary parents, a man on a bike, blasting music from a handlebar-mounted boom box, whizzing past, the soccer players in the rocky field shouting at one another in Spanish and English and whatever else, when I felt something hit my shoulder. Some part of me, I think, knew what it was right away, because what else could it be, because of course. But I didn’t look. I kept walking, maybe another 20 feet, maybe more, until I was almost to the edge of the park. I got to the light and finally looked down, saw the runny white and brown spackling the shoulder of my flannel and thought; Shawna loves this shirt.

And then; Bird shit is supposed to be lucky.

Lucky, lucky, lucky.

But I didn’t feel lucky. Not then. Maybe not ever. And I sure don’t feel lucky now.

I bought a six-pack at the bodega catty corner from the park on the way back, just something to help me loosen up, get a little free before whatever came next. Shawna was in the shower when I got in and I’m already on the second, thinking about the third, when she appears again, hair wrapped tightly in a towel this time, another tucked firmly under her arms and over her chest, hands at her side, but busy, plucking at the plush, eyes fixed on the table, maybe on the beer sweating sickly and sour-sweet in my hand.

My hand. My beer.

“You’re back.”

It’s not a question. I take another swallow in response.

“I didn’t think you’d be back.”

Another not-question, though she’s looking at me like she expects some kind of answer, some kind of solution. Some incontrovertible truth about us and the world and our place in it. A+B=C. The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. Bird shit is white because they don’t poop and pee separately. It’s all just one big mess. Like us.

“We’re a mess.”

I hear myself say it, though I hadn’t meant to.

“Just like my parents. We’re a mess.”

Just like her hair, her arms, the skin of her neck, her eyes are wet now, wet like before, and again I can feel the anger, the frustration, wanting to stand and shout and fueled by the buzz of the alcohol, scream why can’t you just be happy? If you weren’t sad I wouldn’t be sad and we wouldn’t be here, locked in this stupid place where everything is bad and nothing is good and your world and my world and my parent’s world, is a god damn mess.”

Not our world. Never our world. Our home. Our place.

I finish the beer, stalk past her into the kitchen for another.

As I pop the top, letting the fridge close with a bang, I look up to find she hasn’t turned around. Faced away from me, wrapped hair and body silhouetted by the big back window, I think she looks beautiful, even as her shoulders hitch, even as her hand swipes across her nose and mouth, even as the sinking feeling in my chest goes on dragging me down into the shadows filling the farthest corners of the loft.

And then I think; Is anyone really lucky?

No, I decide. Not forever, at least. Not always.

I take a long pull, breath heaving past a burp when I finally resurface. I slam the bottle down on the counter so hard she almost drops her towel.

In the bathroom, I pee with the door open and the light off, refusing to look in the mirror, and when I come out, she’s got her back to me again, only now she’s at the sink. I can’t tell what she’s doing over the rush of the faucet. I finish off the beer, yanking open the fridge again before I’m even done swallowing.

I glance at her nakedness, the towel puddled at her feet, wondering how much longer, wondering whether anything can be done at all, wondering at her strength, her resolve, her willingness to take and take and take, wondering whether it is good for her, good for anyone.

Good for me.

She shifts and a lock of hair falls free of the mound atop her head. I follow it to the middle of her back, her hips, beyond. She turns suddenly and I see it, see my shirt, my flannel, her favorite, the way it drapes across the counter, lifeless and limp, her red-raw hands as they scrub, scrub, scrub the fabric, whacking it against the counter once, twice, the soft slap of wet like she might be able to knock some emotion out of it, her body shaking with the effort, the way it seems to suck the life right out of her, everything stopping for a moment, maybe longer.

Maybe always.

I grab what’s left of the six-pack and go to the living room, park myself on the couch, determined not to think of her, not to think of bird shit, or luck, good or bad, determined not to think of Mom or Dad or lunch or the shirt or anything at all, really, anything at all, able only to think of those things, to think of the low-slanting sun, the voices in the park, the weight of all the shit in the world – my world – on my shoulder, the sound of Mom spitting out the word your your your again and again and again and again and again.

 

 

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