by Caroline Greaser
Content warning: suicidal thoughts
She waits with a watchful eye, staring at the pasta. It doesn’t boil.
Pacing back and forth across the empty kitchen with the useless pots and pans still in the creaky cupboard, she adds another pinch of salt to the pasta. It still doesn’t boil.
She thinks about putting on a bit of music while she waits, but the downstairs neighbors hate when she does that, and she can’t remember where she last left her headphones. They might be in her coat pocket or they might not, perhaps she left them on top of the back bed in the room with the leftover textbooks. Or maybe she didn’t, maybe she left them hanging off the tiny coat rack, right next to her keys. Wherever she left them it’s too much work to run and find them, especially when the pot might boil soon.
As soon as it boils, she’ll put the pasta in. As soon as it boils.
The tiny apartment is only temporary, and the only burner fizzles on her. She coaxes it, fights it, begs it to make a bigger flame but it does not, settling proudly for the dull little spark that it is. Blowing on a flame coaxes a campfire; she wonders if it’ll help the stove. Probably not. She watches the blue flame dance and stares right through it.
Her phone lights up. She has a notification, another message she’s not going to read. Why bother, when she knows exactly what it will say? Still, she checks the name. She reads the first two letters and flips the phone over, wincing as it lands a bit too hard on the counter. Fortunately, it’s not cracked. Unfortunately, that part of the counter is still covered in uncleaned bacon grease from his disaster yesterday, and now her phone is too.
The television buzzes a commercial from the living area, or whatever passes as such. She cranes her neck to check the ad, but it’s not selling anything good, just some sort of medical plan for old people, the kind of thing she couldn’t afford even if she chopped off both arms and sold them. When she left home, she swore up and down she wasn’t ever going to be the kind of person who left the TV on. She wasn’t going to eat in front of it, didn’t even need a good model really, just something to use to occasionally watch old cartoons and maybe a new show if he wanted to. Now, the TV is always on, always buzzing, always saying something, just a little too quiet to hear.
The pot on the stove is still not boiling. She thinks she remembered to top the water off with cold water, but maybe she didn’t. She wonders if throwing in a tablespoon or two now will change anything. Probably not; her greasy phone buzzes again. She flips it over, checks the name, and turns it back down. He’s not going to write her. She knows that. Still, she checks, just in case.
Banana bread would probably be a smart thing to make, if they are going to have the conversation they need to have. But banana bread has to bake for a minimum of forty five minutes, plus the time it takes for the oven to heat up, longer than it should with the awful rattling noise anytime she requests a temperature above 250 degrees, and there’s the cooling time to consider too. Pasta would do, pasta would work, if only the water would boil. If only.
He’ll be home soon. Tiny bubbles begin to come up from the bottom of the pot, but not big enough, not hot enough. She waits, fidgeting with the coarse tips of her hair.
When he comes home, she’s going to break their little routine and meet him in the living room. She’ll meet him in the living room and look into his eyes and wait for him to break first. He will. She’ll make him.
She glances halfheartedly at the little plant on the windowsill while she waits. One of them picked up the plant, where or when she doesn’t know, but one of them did and it’s always been there. It’s a tiny succulent with little round leaves, the kind that doesn’t need too much water, and is perfect for a household where two people forget basic things. Last week they forgot to buy toilet paper, and the group chat blew up with their friends lecturing them both on the ethics of self-care. If it was a college course, they would’ve failed it long ago.
The tiny bubbles are a bit bigger now, and she adds a little dollop of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking. It falls into the pot in one big drop, then separates as the bubbles break it, into one spot, then two, then four, then more. She watches the oil dance and fight itself, making clouds and sheep and spots, and wonders if she can get away with adding the pasta to the water early.
Actually, she’s not sure if there’s any consequences in doing so. It’s pasta, she can’t possibly mess it up. If she does, she sure as heck doesn’t deserve to be amused by video clips of Hell’s Kitchen, which still pop up on her YouTube feed every now and again.
She doesn’t add the pasta, not yet. There’s no rolling boil, and the phantom hands of someone bigger grip her impatient toddler ones. It’s not time yet, the phantom whispers, and she nods. She knows.
Footsteps sound in the hallway, and she perks up, but she knows it’s not him, not yet. Those footsteps are too patterned, too heavy, too broken with intermittent pants. He walks like he plays basketball, dances his feet across the court, and even when he’s tired there’s still a light bounce to his step, as though he waits for a ball. The world won’t ever throw him a ball. Still, he bounces, and she waits in the kitchen for water to boil.
The pullout couch in the living room is his, thrown in when they ended up in an apartment together, stuck somewhere with nowhere else to go. He had a couch and she had some money, and together they make do. The couch is lumpy and old, and only a single step up from the kind of couches people leave forlorn on the side of the road, but at least it’s clean. She vacuumed it earlier, while she waited for him to come home.
Usually they barter over who’s turn it is to do chores. Sometimes things make sense. He’s the better cook, she hates dealing in the kitchen. He would rather die than clean a toilet; as long as it’s decent enough she doesn’t think it’s so bad. It’s just a toilet, the porcelain bowel still relatively clean, and neither of them spend enough time in the apartment for it to be stained, for it to get dirty. She scrubs it like she scrubs everything else, fleetingly, jumping from one thing to the next, while she daydreams of being in a relationship, daydreams of owning a house. Scrubbing the toilet makes her nostalgic, and sometimes she wonders if the decisions that led her here were the right ones.
The water finally comes to a boil that satisfies. She estimates with her fingers, then shakes the quarter box of leftover pasta into the pot. It’ll do, and if he’s still hungry there’s baby carrots in the mini fridge. Having a bigger fridge would be pointless. He only cooks once or twice a week, and the other days they thrive on lifting meals off of friends and fighting over which day serves which kind of takeout.
The key sounds in the front door, and only years of practice stop her from startling. He pushes open the door soundlessly, and she wonders when he stopped tapping beats on the doorknob.
“Are you cooking?” he asks, two backpacks balanced between his arms.
“Oh just sit down.”
He sits at the only table they own, under the other hanging plant that is definitely her fault. His fingers remain still, and he glances at the TV every now and then.
She pulls out one of five mismatched forks and tests the pasta. Still not done. It’s too firm, too hard, and she has to chew the gritty piece between her teeth. She catches him looking at her, and shakes her head before he even opens his mouth. She is cooking tonight. He is sitting down and doing nothing except for talking.
Finally, finally, the pasta finishes and four pieces come out clean and al dente. She dumps the whole pot into the strainer, and waits for the water to drain. It makes a horribly loud noise as it echoes down the sink pipes, and they both wince and imagine the face of their grumpy neighbor. She scoops it onto two plates and brings over the Parmesan cheese and some more olive oil, and dumps everything on the crooked table in front of him.
“I could’ve made sauce.”
“We don’t have any tomatoes, canned or otherwise, and you used the last of the pesto last week.”
She sits next to him and grabs her plate. He watches, slightly amused, as she dumps half of the container of cheese onto the noodles. It’s better with sauce, but alas.
They sit for a moment in silence, except for the horrible buzz of the TV in the background, and she wonders when words got so hard to say.
“I read the thing you told me to read.”
“Yeah? What’d you think?”
“It was pretty good. The one character sucked though.”
She chewed her pasta thoughtfully. “Well he was going through a lot of stuff.”
“Doesn’t give anyone an excuse to be an asshole.”
The silence would be awkward if it weren’t so well known. They sit and they eat and the television plays the same episodes, over and over and over. Then the pasta is gone, and she knows she has to ask. Still she hesitates over yet another thought.
“I know a good therapist, if you wanna give that a shot.”
He looks up abruptly and his eyebrows furrow all the way up in concern.
“It’s not horribly expensive, and insurance would cover most of it.”
She has his attention, that’s for sure. She has his attention, yet she can’t even look at his face. He continues to stare, and his left eye twitches at alarming speeds.
“I’ve been going for about a year now. It’s not perfect, but it helps.”
“What did you find?” he blurts out.
“I’ve taken the liberty of booking you an appointment next week, on Wednesday after your last class. You’re going, even if I have to drag you.”
“What. Did. You. Find?”
Finally she dares to look at him. His hands clench around the table and under it, his knee bounces into the cheap crooked plastic. She draws in a breath. “Your note. Clearly you didn’t go through but, well, you still have it. I can’t imagine that’s a mistake.”
He curses, once, twice, several more times, and brings his hands to wrap around his head and clench at his hair. On the stove, the pot of water cools down. She should put it in the dishwasher, before she forgets.
“That was just one bad day,” he says, gritted teeth muting the protest.
“I know what bad days are. It’s never just one.”
“Why do I live with you? Remind me?”
“You didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
He waits. His hands clench a little less awfully, but they still linger in his hair as he stares at the table.
“But we’re friends now, I think, whether you like it or not. Definitely not normal friends, but something along those lines. I’d hate to have to go roommate searching all over again.”
He laughs, but it holds something strangled inside. “Oh heaven forbid you having to try to replace me.”
She would chuckle, but she knows what he needs to hear. “Look at me.”
He doesn’t comply.
“Look at me.”
He finally lifts his head, and she can see the way his eyes puff up and his nose twitches, once, twice.
“As much as I joke about it, I do care about you. If you’ve got nothing else holding you back, let me do it.”
He still doesn’t cry. She knows he won’t. He should, but he’s been told not to by the ghost of society, and so he doesn’t cry. She reaches forward, around the table, and almost hugs him.
They sit in the kitchen for a while, sit in the almost hug, and watch the world outside the apartment get darker. The pot on the stove cools, and she forgets about it, pasta leaving her mind. A dog barks on the street, and something heavy sounding falls over in the upstairs neighbor’s apartment. The lights flutter and the world goes on.
She goes upstairs later, to take a shower, and realizes he’s cleaned the toilet.