After the Talk by TW Hayden
Competition: Short Story Challenge 2010, Final Round
Genre: Romance Subject: Blindness
Original Illustration by Esther Westwood
“H. I. M. ‘M’ as in man.”
Allie finished reading the chart. The optometrist pursed his lips and removed a pen light from his coat. He watched the dark circle of her pupil shrink to a pin point within the deep brown of her iris.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Miss Mita. Your eyes are perfect.”
Allie fished around in her purse. She was a petite woman. The size of the bag and the way her feet didn’t touch the floor made her look childish. She pulled out a wrinkled letter and passed it to the doctor. She strained for the right words.
“I can’t read this.”
The optometrist unfolded it with care. He moved his lips as he read, saying phrases like “I think of you…nuzzling your hair…never forget…” and “I’ll always regret” out loud with clinical precision before folding the paper back up. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with the ink, or the paper as far as I can see.”
The doctor asked Allie some questions and nodded and told her he had just the thing but it wouldn’t be ready until Monday.
“Can you read just a little more out loud? Please?”
Outside, Allie squinted in the sunlight. Ever since The Talk, she’d noticed the blurs, the absences where she knew things must be. It made driving terrifying and she watched her silver Corolla like it was a dangerous animal she didn’t want to wake up.
Redondo Beach spread out before her like a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces. Catalina cut into pieces, first by the Avenues and then by what Pete called glass gems, streets with names like Sapphire, Diamond, and Ruby until Torrance Boulevard cut through, pushing all the way out to the pier. Driving through the Riviera was the worst. As soon as she turned into it, holes filled her vision. When they’d been together, before The Talk, Allie and Pete had fallen in love here. The bench where he’d first kissed her was gone, and the bag lady sleeping on it seemed to be floating a foot above the ground. Erased patches of grass caught her eye as she drove, and every time someone walked over them her stomach tightened.
It was Saturday, and people were out en masse to enjoy the sunshine. She was happy she could see all of them at least. She drove slowly past the rows of restaurants and boutiques, the weekenders walking into gaping holes where their favorite restaurants were. People disappeared into the space where Pancho’s Tacos used to be. Still was. The invisible restaurant was open late, and she and Pete used to go there after sex, their faces still aglow. Further up, Allie couldn’t see the upscale restaurant where they’d celebrated over bottles of wine and candlelight. Instead, Rig-A-Tony’s employees opened shutters and set up tables like very dedicated mimes.
She was making a mental note to take a different route next time when she noticed the guys yelling at her. Assholes. Pete was always surprised Allie wasn’t used to it by now with her looks. She rolled her eyes and sped off as much as the crowds would allow.
From the pavement, Pete watched the Corolla drive away. He’d been patrolling their old haunts ever since The Talk. When he was sure it was her car, he stood in the middle of the road and waved. Pete waited until he could see her eyes, staring straight through him. He jumped out of the way just in time.
He thanked the guys who’d tried to stop her but they laughed him off. He couldn’t blame them. A beard was crawling up his face, he hadn’t changed his clothes or showered for days and he reeked of desperation. Of course she didn’t recognize him.
Allie hustled up the stairs to her apartment and quickly shut the door. For the last couple of weeks, she’d felt like someone was always just behind her and it made her nervous. Inside, the apartment was more barren than it had ever been. She’d had to take most of the photos down. Looking at herself, alone, on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite, her smiling into the camera at Venice Beach, her lips, kissing the air as the sun set behind her, her body leaning inward, toward empty space was just too creepy.
Even her bed was all wrong. Her sheets were smudged with blank spots, where acrylic paint should’ve been. They’d been painting in bed the night before The Talk. At least that’s how it’d started. Paint meant for the canvas got on her legs, then on his cheeks, then spread in streaks to her bed as the painting was abandoned for other pursuits. Allie left his other paintings on the walls, even if they were just geometric blurs of colors now. She looked at the pier through her window. It looked like someone had taken a saw to it and cleanly cut away chunks. Half of it was simply gone, pilings, bars and boardwalk missing. The ocean gave deference to the missing pieces, breaking as if everything was just fine.
A knock at the door sent Allie tip-toeing to the peep hole. She looked through it, happy to see her neighbor’s head, light bulb shaped through the warped glass. Mike and Pete had never gotten along, but Allie always had a good feeling about him. He worked out too much, was just a little too friendly, but these days Allie was relieved to see something familiar clearly and she let him in with a smile.
Mike was tall and his hair was always settled into a perfectly spaced bed of gelled spikes. Pete used to joke that he probably slept with his head hanging off the mattress, which also explained why Mike always had a hand on the back of his neck. It was there now, as he asked to borrow some milk. Allie paused and Mike apologized, his hand moving fast on his neck.
And then there was the fridge. It had started smelling after The Talk. Allie had taken everything out, wiped down the shelves, the drawers, and put everything back, and still the smell slapped her in the face every time she opened the door. She’d started eating out more, stopped bringing home leftovers, choosing instead to leave her food on the plate. She eyed the fridge warily.
“Sorry, but what is that smell?”
“I don’t know. It’s the weirdest thing, I’ve cleaned it like I don’t know how many times, but it just reeks and I don’t know what’s…”
Mike reached in and pulled out nothing. It sounded like aluminum and smelled like death. He held it like a dirty diaper and Allie could see the tips of his fingers pushing down on what must have been the edges of “The world’s oldest burrito? Seriously, this might be a record. How long have you had this?”
Allie smiled, her fingers over her nose. She looked at the emptiness in Mike’s hand, trying to remember the last time she and Pete had gone to Pancho’s. It was just before The Talk. Pete always got the juevos rancheros burrito. The pairing of eggs and beans had always mystified Allie. The silence went on too long, and Allie was glad when the phone rang. Her phone buzzed in her pockets and Mike took the smell away, not wanting to eaves drop.
Allie checked the display. As a rule, she never answered calls unless she recognized the number, but ever since The Talk, most of the numbers showed up as lines of fuzzy characters. She let her voicemail get it and then scrolled through her contacts. Everything was fine until she reached the place Pete’s number should be.
Pete watched Allie’s neighbor throw out his old leftovers. He almost called out to him, but he’d always hated the guy. Allie had a gravitational pull as strong as the sun’s, and she sucked guys like Mike into her orbit without meaning to. Mike had that deer in headlights look every time he saw her. Pete hated it. He called Allie’s phone knowing she wouldn’t pick up. She hadn’t answered his calls since The Talk. He remembered when he first heard her voice over the phone, the throatiness of it, the way she could fill a pause with so much. When their calls got dropped, they’d both try and call at the same time, and get the busy signal.
She knew exactly where to look on her phone, but it just wasn’t there. She’d tried driving to his apartment and waiting for him, but the route was always wrong. The last time she’d gone looking for it, she’d ended up in Watts. Mike came back for the milk, the smell of Pete’s leftovers still hanging on him. Allie had to shut the door on his smile to finally be rid of it. She dead bolted the door. The sun was setting over the broken pier.
She flopped onto the couch and tried to remember Pete’s face. She couldn’t. The night before The Talk, they’d walked down the pier, stopping at a compromise ice-creamery, which subsequently vanished. They’d switched off cones, her taking a lick of Pete’s rainbow sherbet, while he grimaced through her coffee ice cream. As soon as they got to her apartment, he pushed her against the door. She could feel his body against hers, but couldn’t imagine its dimensions, remembered his hands in her hair as he kissed her, the taste of his lips as they parted her own, but his mouth was completely gone.
They’d worked their way to the bed and begun painting. She couldn’t see the colors. The canvas just took on more white, and the brushes worked like erasers, smudging away even the hint of their brush strokes. Then it was on her leg, then his face, and she could almost imagine his clothes strewn about the room, but now she was filling in the blanks. There was only empty space where Pete should be in her brain. She grasped for images to fill it until she was done.
Pete stood in front of the door. He’d done it a few times since The Talk, but then she’d changed her code and he couldn’t get in anymore. He’d had to wait for Mike to go on his jog, and then slipped in as the door shut. Pete thought about what he would say, how he would frame his apology.
Right after they finished The Talk, as he was leaving to give her time to think about it, that’s when he knew. It was like seeing your keys still in the ignition while you locked the door to your car. You knew what you were doing was stupid, but by then it was too late. He gulped and tapped his knuckle on the door. He could hear movement inside.
Allie opened her eyes and cursed under her breath. She retied the drawstring to her sweatpants as she headed to the door and reached for the dead bolt but stopped. The wrapping became a knocking. She looked through the peephole. The carpet and the walls stretched forward through the glass. The door shook from blows on the other side.
Allie shouted through the door. “Just go away, okay? This isn’t funny.” But the door shook harder. She thought the lock might give, and almost hoped it would so at least she could see who it was and then the whole frame creaked. And then it stopped. Allie waited, her breath escaping in fits as she tried to hold it. She peeked through the door, keeping the chain on. The hallway was empty.
Allie wasn’t sure if the odor came from the optometrist or from the room itself. It was the smell of disinfectant, if the sound fluorescent lights make was turned into an odor.
The optometrist held a medicine bottle up and shook it like a maraca. A single pill ricocheted against the orange plastic.
“Now, you understand, while this is perfectly safe, there are some side effects.”
Allie thought about all the empty places, the pier standing like it was whole, even though half of it was gone. She thought about floating homeless people, blurry paintings and her empty hallway.
“Will it work?”
Allie got into her Corolla. She checked for blanks in her mirrors, but Redondo Beach looked like a post card again. She drove down Catalina. It was Monday, and most people were working, the kids were in school. She drove slowly past Pancho’s Tacos. She could see the customers inside, wolfing down burritos and chips. She passed Rig-A-Tony’s. The shutters were up early, and behind the glass, waiters wiped down checkered tablecloths.
She hurried up to her apartment. Inside her place, she saw everything for what felt like the first time. The walls were still mostly empty, except for some mediocre paintings; a pair of fish surrounded by blue, buildings crowding out each other in a cityscape. She wondered why she put them up. She noticed flecks of paint on her bed sheets and was bundling them up to toss out when her phone rang.
She checked the display and wracked her brain to put a face to the name. Nothing came up, but she answered anyway.
“Hi. Oh my god, I can’t believe you picked up.” The man’s voice on the other end was strained. Allie knew she was supposed to say something now, the pause on the other end was waiting for her to but she was at a loss.
“It’s just so great to hear your voice.” There was another pause, fat with possibility.
“I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.” She snapped the phone closed. She took out a large trash bag and stuffed the sheets in, then the paintings. She dumped her purse on the counter, and plucked junk from the pile; gum wrappers, nubby chap stick, a worn piece of paper. Her phone rang and she declined the call. She’d have to get that number blocked.
She carried the bag of trash downstairs, the edges of the canvases jutting through the plastic. A bum watched her open the dumpster. She lifted the bag, but the paintings tore through it. He watched, teary eyed, as she picked up the paintings, one by one, tossed them in and rush back into the apartment. She ran into Mike on the staircase and they chatted until they reached their respective doors. Mike watched Allie unlock hers and step in. She liked that, having someone looking after her.
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