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He appears out of the fog swaddled around my tiny house. I am waiting at the door, one eye pressed to the peek hole. His pace is quick and confident. He is younger than I expected, perhaps even younger than me. I step back into the foyer when he reaches the stoop. I take a deep breath.
He breezes through the door and shuts it behind himself. “You should really lock that,” he says, pushing back his hood. He is enormous standing in this space, his head small, protruding from a black boxy raincoat. Strange, like the head of a turtle.
I look down at my hands, folded in front of me. “I used to,” I say. “I forgot.” I shrug and spread my arms. “Can I get you anything?”
“Sure, I guess.” He stomps his shoes and chunks of wet earth loosen and dislodge from the thick soles, scattering over the floor. “Beer,” he says. “Or wine, if you prefer.”
I turn myself sideways to let him pass into kitchen and breathe in as he goes by. He smells of spices and moss. He shrugs off his coat and drops it on the floor. I pick it up and follow him into the kitchen, drape it over the back of a chair and smooth the damp fabric.
“Nice place,” he says, looking around, hands on his hips. The room is cramped. There is barely enough room for the table and two chairs. but a large window over the sink lets in the diffused light. A screen door leads to the back yard where the first tender blades of grass are starting to break through.
Without the coat, his proportions are correct, his stature relaxed but still imposing. I see that he is in fact young, He looks like the kind of person who whistles, someone from a movie in black and white, except he is in socks, one toe worn and transparent. I fetch a beer from the fridge and open it. The crisp hiss hangs between us like something losing air.
“You’re beautiful,” I say.
“Yes,” he says. He takes the beer, turns it in his hand, scanning the label, then takes a few quick sips. I’m close enough to hear the sound of him swallowing. See the blonde stubble catching light on his cheek.
I pull out a chair for him, and he sits down.
“So, what do you do?” I ask.
“Really?” he laughs. I try to think of another question, something surprising that will make me stand out. I search the floor. The linoleum disgusts me, its repeating diamond pattern in varied hues of green is too lighthearted. Domestic, mocking.
“Do you like soup?”
He rubs his knee and takes another swig. I study his movements, try to discern if I’ve pleased him. “Yes, I do. I fact, I hope to learn how to make it myself,” he says, settling back and smirking.
“Oh that’s marvelous,” I say. “What kind?”
“French onion, I think. I like the taste of meat. But not the texture.” He takes another glug. “Aren’t you going to have one? It’s nicer not to drink alone. You could probably use one.”
I finger my hair a bit, and search for my reflection in the grimy glass. A squirrel sits in the window box nibbling at the Italian parsley. The fog is thinning, and I think can see the red paint of the house next door.
“I don’t really drink.”
“You have beer.”
“Ah, come on, it doesn’t really matter now, does it?” His feet are on the table.
“Maybe some water.”
At the sink, I fill a glass and peer into the fog. Yes, I can see the neighbor’s house, the outline of the white windowpane. I could call out; if I opened the window, they might hear me. I close the tap and return to the table.
“You wouldn’t have any cheese, would you?” he asks.
“No, I’m sorry,” I say, and I find that I am. I have always tried to be hospitable.
“Fine. What’s your name, by the way?” he asks.
I wonder for a moment if I should tell him. “Mallory.” I like saying my name. Like a tongue around marble, smooth and small and cold.
“Huh,” he says. “Haven’t had a Mallory yet.” I’m not surprised. I like to think it’s an unusual name, now.
“You can call me Danny.”
“Danny,” I repeat with forced levity. It’s not too bad. He used to be a child. He likes soup. “Is that really your name?”
“Oh. Would you like to move into the lounge?” I ask. I take a dainty sip of my water, forming my lips into an O so as not to leave a distasteful mark on the rim.
“Actually, do you have any knives?” he says.
“Oh. Yes.” I lead him to the cutlery drawer, which is cluttered with things like can openers and rubber bands, a few stray chop sticks. A red pen that’s bled out in a puddle of sticky ink. I point to the knives.
“No something heavier, like a cleaver or a carving knife,” he says, pawing through the drawer.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, no of course not, I—”
“Razor? Puntilla? Bread knife?”
“Well, no, I—”
“Santo—sorry, I don’t know what that is.” I step back and watch him overturning the small bins that hold the forks and spoons.
“Japanese. You know, something to cut meat with.”
“I don’t eat meat, actually.”
“You must have a paring knife then. How do you cut up vegetables?” He looks around the room like he’s just realized he’s lost something.
“I mostly order out,” I say, embarrassed.
“Fine, it’s a butter knife then.” He holds it at his side. “Let’s go.” He gestures for me to lead the way. In the doorway, he places a hand on my shoulder, and I freeze. “I don’t suppose you have a hammer?” he asks.
I do have a hammer. I have many tools right there in the closet, just a meter away. I pretend to think. “A hammer?” I bring a finger to my lips and furrow my brow. “No, I don’t think so. I’ve borrowed the neighbor’s before, I think.” How can he be so unprepared?
“Fine,” he says, but I sense he wants to say more. Then he moves his hand to my neck and strokes the skin there with a finger. His palm is clammy and the fingertip a little bit hard, like a butt of bread. But still, it has its effect. I close my eyes to better absorb the sensation. “It’s so soft,” he says to himself. I lean against the wall, his breath on my neck melts me into it.
I am jolted upright by the coldness of the butter knife against my neck. He presses it hard into the soft spot under my jawbone where the skin has begun to sag and drags the blade a little. I turn to see his face studying the effect, biting his lip in concentration.
Danny sighs and pulls the blade away. He runs the serrated edge against the pad of his finger. “Are you sure you don’t have a hammer?” he asks again.
“Okay.” I lead him into the lounge and turn the lights to the dimmest setting. He sits in the center of the couch, large and plush, dark brown with green pillows. My Swedish ivy spills from the bookshelf. The air is humid and slightly stifling. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“Sit.” He pats the spot next to him. I sit down, and he drapes an arm around me. The scent of him here is different, sweet, like an already decaying thing. He sets the butter knife on the coffee table in front of us. His fingers curl around my upper arm and he pulls me close.
“Want to watch a movie first?” I ask him.
“Would you like to know about me?” I ask.
“If you want.” Everything here in the room suddenly feels very dear to me; it is filled with what I love. My eyes run over the cracked, colored spines of my many books, searching. With effort, I push myself up and take one from the shelf. It’s a slim volume of poetry. I open it, flip through, looking for a specific dogeared poem.
“Just a sec,” I tell him, and replace the volume. “It’s here, I’ll find it.” He tears at a hangnail with his teeth, both feet up on the cushions.
I pick another volume and carry it to the couch where I sit facing him, flipping through the pages that I hold close to my face. “It’s a poem. About two empty glasses. It’s so beautiful. You’ll see.”
“I don’t really understand poetry.”
I know he’s lying but close the book and look for the first time into his eyes. A swirl of blue and green in brown, the lashes heavy on upper and lower lids. His lips are thin but reddish, and there’s a spray of tiny raised bumps on one cheek.
“Rosacea,” he says covering it with his hand.
He takes the book from my hand and places it next to the butter knife.
“Before we go any further,” he says, “I need to ask some questions.”
“Yes?” I ask and find I can barely breathe. “Wait.” I put my hand up. “Danny.” Saying his name feels ridiculous. “Can you hold me? Just for a little while. Perhaps we can lay down here on the couch. Just five minutes.”
He isn’t bothered by the request and lies down, his back against the cushions. I lie down as well, and he is warm. He lets me rest my head on the soft part of his arm and smoothes the hair away from my face. He runs a fingertip along the rim of my ear, then his hands are on my body, petting me in long slow strokes like mine is the body of a dog. I seem to be sinking down into the couch, down beneath some heavy weight, and it’s dark, even when I open my eyes. I cannot locate my limbs. This does not disturb me.
I awake disoriented with the feeling of being roused many times over and over but never fully waking. My body is a foreigner’s, the feel of my skin like soil that’s been tilled, fresh but disturbed. There is humming coming from the kitchen.
“Hello?” I call, and the humming stops. I wait for him to appear, but no one comes, so I stand, falter, steady myself on the arm of the couch.
He is there in the kitchen, standing over the stove. Steam rises from the pot, a pot my mother gave me when I moved into this house years and years ago. His raincoat is still draped over the chair, but he has changed clothes. His feet are bare and make little suction noises as he crosses the room to take my hand. “What are you making?”
“Come,” he says, leading me. “Come and see.” I approach the stove. The smell is strong, wintery and musky. Through the steam I see a thin brown broth bubbling. He smiles proudly. “French onion,” he says. “But we don’t have any bread.”
I tell him that’s okay and sit down at the table. He brings me a glass of water then squats down in front of me, taking my hand.
“Mallory,” he says.
“Yes.” I’m so very tired.
“Are you ready?”
“What did you chop the onions with?”
He smiles and pulls a small paring knife from the back pocket of his jeans. “You were withholding, you minx. But it’s all you have, I’m afraid. It’s small but sharp. Better than the butter knife.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” I think about the fact of my body, the shit and the piss, the blood, the mess.
“You don’t have a better knife. Or a hammer. It would have been better,” he says and wipes away what must be a tear.
“I know,” I say. “It’s just… do you think we could do it in the backyard?”
He says that’s all right, and I go to stand, to follow him out, but my legs have stopped working, I feel a thousand years old and need him to carry me. He can see this without my asking, and though it isn’t easy for him, he manages, one arm under my knees, one under my back, his hand gripping my rib cage so as not to drop me as he carries me into our backyard and lays me in the grass.
“Ready?” he asks again. I turn to face the window for one last look into my home, but it is obscured by the steam of the soup. I breathe in the dark scent of the soil. The daffodils are just beginning to bloom, and I try to reach out to pick one but it’s too far away. And as it begins, sharp and difficult, my mouth falls open, slack and silent as an empty bell. At least I am home, I think through the pain. At least I will always be home.