He would come home from bartending to his basement apartment and sit in his office chair and look out the window at the courtyard that was really three brick and mortar walls facing each other, a grimed-out, pointless nook carved into the backside of the building. It only got natural light in the mornings, according to Liz, and (also according to Liz) was spackled with the kind of standard city refuse that, under the right conditions, might be responsible for the deaths of certain shore birds and most species of lesser shelled reptiles. He would wake up around 12:30pm, when shadows accumulated faster than trash bags chucked from the roofs of adjacent buildings, and, making sure Liz wasn’t there, turn his slightly webbed feet back and forth and look at them.
He would say things to himself and laugh and sometimes tweet them and hope others would laugh.
He would bare his teeth, all faux-dramatic behind the window, at mongoloid pigeons bathing in Whole Foods wreckage and Tupperware streaked with non-hydrogenated soybean oil, at the pair of rats and an earless cat sipping from the same Dr. Pepper puddle in a grudging silence that befitted their larger African cousins, and at the condom wrappers – which always seemed to be Magnums – sowing metallic totems of fertility across the concrete’s murk-lit expanse. He would walk to the hardware store and buy half a dozen canisters of rat spray, maybe a commercial-grade dustpan or a vacuum-type apparatus, and bring the supplies back to the apartment. He would turn on the TV and watch people, who for the most part had non-weird extremities, and forget about the cleaning. He would go into the kitchen and look in the pantry for sunflower seeds, forgetting he had left the window in his room open and that it was still open.
Liz came over sometimes, usually from 11pm to 7am on the two or three nights a week he didn’t bartend. Or she’d cab it to the bar when she finished up at the museum where she worked as a conservator, restoring nineteenth-century lithographs by scalding them, gently, in alkaline solutions of varying pronounceability; her recent projects had been Audubons. He’d been introduced to her at a different bar by a mutual friend without first seeing a profile picture or even a group shot from a questionable angle, which made the after-hours grope-fest that first night – and the subsequent ones – seem pleasantly organic and early-2000s-retro.
She’d be sitting at a booth, drinking whichever brown spirits he served her, checking emails on her phone or whatever, or looking at a catalogue of art featuring romanticized wildlife, and after last call and after the barback went home he’d lock up and they’d engage in rushed, friction-y pre-sex acts in the employees lavatory. They’d cab it to his apartment.
He liked that her hair, under the saccharine glow of the reading lamp he’d jerry-rigged to the bed frame, burned with the auburn gauze of November leaves. He liked the panic dancing behind her Klonopin eyes when she talked about the Chinese retail boom “stupendously fucking up, like, all of our ecological footprints,” about the biohazard suit hanging in her closet just in case. Her sinewy scrubbed-naked nails digging under his clavicle, the non-webbed toes wriggling against his thighs when he slid in from behind. The pencil-wide wisp of impossibly manicured pubic hair pointing toward sleek lips that tasted like nothing.
Her ultra-pale whiskey cheeks flushed in pixel-light.
“Your skin is like, lunatic-beautiful,” he said to her one night, impersonating a character in a show where, according to her IMDb app, menopausal matriarchs balanced “envious social calendars, challenging careers and motherhood, with the hustle and bustle of the big city all around.” But also he meant it. He was staring at the courtyard.
She looked up from her iPhone 5 and laughed. “You’re ever going to start cleaning,” she said, “make sure you get the milk jugs and those gross seed bags somebody covered in shrink-wrap.” She sighed. “They’re primarily composed of polyethylene, which, oh god, has a half-life of like 50 years. And you left the TV on again.”
He looked at his feet. He looked at Liz. Her skin was beautiful.
One day he decided to call in sick and surprise her at the museum. He wasn’t sure what time her job normally ended so he sat on the front steps and looked at two vaguely Scandinavian guys fighting over a subway map folded over to reveal a blurry ad with the words JOIN THE RAINBOW PILGRIMAGE in a bold sans-serif. He bought a falafel. He balled the aluminum foil and was going to chuck it at a squirrel when he remembered Liz reading him a study proving that aluminum was crappy at disintegrating in non-landfill settings and caused Alzheimer’s in fur-bearing lab creatures. He walked to a trash can.
An obese woman and a kid were camped out on a nearby bench, interacting with a swarm of sparrows, pigeons, a trio of slack-winged gulls. The woman – ethnically ambiguous, dreadlocked, surrounded by a fortress of Baby Gap bags whose handles had seen several rounds of duct-tape reinforcement – cradled a Costco-size container of generic cheddar popcorn and was tossing kernels at snapping beaks, occasionally shoving a small fistful into her own mouth and wiping her hands on a greasy v-neck that might have once been a lighter shade of gray. The equally grubbed kid (her grand/son?) would snatch uneaten popcorn from the pavement, hold out his dirt-browned palm. One unlucky sparrow with a broken leg or some sort of avian degenerative condition limped too close and the kid snatched it up, squealed happily, and started petting it while it tried to peck itself free. The woman just sat there, perma-smiling, wiping yellow-orange residue on her shirt and the exposed part of her globular chest.
He was still kind of staring when Liz exited the museum, accompanied by a young-looking poster boy for gentrification in ball-squelching slacks and neon-rimmed sunglasses – a coworker? Friend? He’d met no one in either camp. Liz saw him wave and froze, unconsciously reached for the section of her purse where she kept her phone.
They embraced, an awkward cheek-kiss-hug thing, and her neck smelled of hydrogen peroxide. She calmed down when he apologized for the “pseudo-stalker routine” and she smiled and introduced him to Michael, an assistant director of institutional development with inverted shoulders and a chemo-smooth complexion. They shook hands, noodle-soft, and Michael shuddered when he noticed the bench and its cheese-dust menagerie.
“I, uh, forgot a file,” the wraith mumbled, wiping his shaken hand across his thigh. “I have to get it. You guys have…fun.” He sprinted back up the steps.
Liz shrugged, gestured toward the street and the crush of traffic. As they walked, he kept turning to look at the fat (or was it voluptuous?) woman who was now giggling loudly, tossing popcorn in a high arc toward where the kid was crouching on all fours, growling and competing with the biggest gull to see who could mouth-snatch more kernels out of the air; the kid was winning. The sparrow with the bum leg had stopped twitching.
“Did you drop something?” Liz asked as they got into a cab.
“Nada, baby,” he said, impersonating someone but he couldn’t remember who.
She mumbled something like “He’s gay anyways,” snickered, and stared at her phone for most of the ride uptown. Later they drank whiskeys while watching TV, got each other off, and went to sleep.
When he woke up, it was still early, the sunlight streaming in two parallel beams from cracks in the window shade. One of them snaked across Liz’s mostly uncovered assemblage: hair that looked dull and gnarled, impoverished breasts, perfectly asymmetrical fingers clutching shards of blanket. An ashen, hollow quality to the skin he’d never noticed, days-old linen that had been hand-smoothed and folded to hide the inevitable purchase of stains.
The lingering synthetic waft.
Outside, he thought he heard a familiar shrill. Suburban spring mornings in a brighter, mostly forgotten house, but he wasn’t sure if it was the same species or a bird at all. Then he heard a response. He crept to the window, slipped his hand under the shade and palmed the warm glass. He stood over the bed.
“I’m going outside,” he whispered. Liz mumbled something that sounded like Asperger-sandwich and rolled over. “I’m going to sit in the courtyard.” He twisted her ankle, gently. “When I get back, you need to not be here, okay?”
Chris Vola is the author of Monkeytown (S A M Publishing, 2012). His work appears or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.