THE ARTIFICIAL ALBATROSS, An excerpt from a short story
A text by the 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Erica Martz
The year we became minimalists was the same year we gave up meat. You decided these things were for one another, and so this is what we did. Some years previous, when we had decided to be two women in love, we were incredible disasters. I had sloppily painted the walls a burnt orange and draped silk scarves atop the lamps, rather than replacing their spent bulbs.
We survived only on food that could be delivered to our door, as late as we might want it. You liked Italian, but we learned early on spaghetti didn't travel well, so we stuck mostly to the Vietnamese place on Polk, the one that never seemed to close. We feasted in our unmade bed, passing back and forth the waxy cartons of lemongrass beef, sliced ginger pork, squid curried with vegetables, summer rolls we dipped again and again into tamarind sauce (always thick with sugar).
Later, when we were tired, we dropped the containers to either side of the bed and fell asleep, noses touching. In the mornings, and sometimes the afternoons, we coiled our limbs together, wilfully ignoring a succession of alarms. We were late for everything, and a mess getting there. After you mistook a dusty, shrivelled prawn beside the nightstand for your favorite missing earring, we agreed maybe there was a good reason or two against eating in bed.
Still, in that first year, it felt like something big and good, it felt like maybe the way we thought we had always wanted to live. We carried a great number of plants into our apartment, and while nearly all of them perished quickly of thirst (or wilted at slower speeds in sunless corners), we never doubted our green thumbs, the dead leaves trampled into the rugs with little concern. How certain we were that it was all taking root. But these things now had met a sudden and systematic disappearance: walls recoated white, scarves removed, potting soil tossed to the curbside.
You disposed of the furniture while I worked at the gallery. I didn't question it (you always had a plan), but I was baffled over rooms of inventory made desolate with such ease. A vintage and broken record player, four lamps, a sofa, two armchairs, a dining room table, trunks, bookshelves, and the half-formed figures of the small sculptures I'd not finished—all this evicted in mere hours from our third-story walk-up.
I circled the perimeter of each vacant room, marvelling. The emptiness rendered the ceilings impossibly high. You lounged calmly on the hard-wood floor, your eyes conducting a lazy study of my reaction. The boards gleamed around you; they had been polished and stunk of lemons.
"This is like a crime scene," I said.
"Where did it all go? How did you get it all out?"
You said, "Let's cook dinner."
You stir-fried tofu cubes with a teriyaki sauce and broccoli, serving the meal on brand new white dishes, which we carried to the living room. The careful movements of our forks against the fine porcelain produced an echo, amplifying the vacuity. This seemed to please you.
Within days you purchased a new sofa, delivered to us the following Saturday. It was a giant white slab, the backrest visible only in a small portion of the sofa’s middle, peeking out like a rectangular fin, the upholstery soft looking and rich, a single cut of finely woven cloth. As the movers struggled to wedge the sofa through our narrow front door, I thought of a dream I'd had a few months back, you and I standing in a room made entirely of raspberry Jell-O, red, gummy walls and a wobbling floor and ceiling, how in the dream I was sad because I wanted the house to be made instead of vanilla pudding, but there was simply no changing it. When I reported this to you the next morning, you shook your head, telling me I had better stop eating so late at night; digestion was making a mess of my REM cycles.
I signed for the beast while you inspected it for flaws. The sofa cost nine thousand dollars. I swallowed. We were becoming people who did not eat enough protein and who had a small number of very expensive things.
A postcard arrived for you. You had begun leaving during the days, rarely returning home before me in the late afternoon. The card, sent from within the city, contained only five words scribbled in blue ink, signed with a single initial.
I am hungry for you. A.
I left the rest of the mail in the letter box and climbed the stairs slowly to our flat, postcard in hand. The potential number of such notes, past and future, suppurated in my mind. The postcard as part of a series was not five words nor a single desire. It was a constitution.
I outlined the shape of each word with my finger nails, examined the image on the reverse, a photograph of Grant Street near the Chinatown entrance. Across the intersection from the Dragon Gates a grainy outline of the cramped bakery where I sometimes bought the delicate, expensive macarons you loved. I'd stopped there a few weeks ago to purchase a half dozen of the pastries, two among them brightly hued and flavored with bitter orange. As I flipped the postcard in my hands, I could not recall whether you had enjoyed the taste, and my stomach turned sour.
I went into the bathroom and sat down cross-legged in front of our toilet. The stench of thick bleach burned my nostrils, and so I breathed through my mouth as I ripped the card into smaller and smaller halves. I let each tiny piece flutter into the bowl, and auditioned names for the sender as they fell. Alana. Ashley. Andrew. Amy. Allison. Adam. I flushed. The soggy, colorful scraps funnelled downward.
"Goodbye, Ariel," I said, and that seemed to fit.
I brought my knees to my chest and stared at the slowly replenishing water, waiting for some paper evidence to be buoyed to the surface. The hollow purr of the water pump ceased and nothing came up. But still I waited, and when you unlocked the door nearly an hour later, I hadn't moved from in front of the toilet.
"In here," I called out when you said my name.
"What are you doing?" I shrugged and hid my face against the top of my knees.
You crouched down beside me and flattened your palm across the back of my neck. You'd been walking; I could smell the streets on your jacket sleeve, wet with late afternoon fog. The little pills of moisture beading at the curve leached through my shirt collar.
"Are you sick?" you asked.
"Very," I answered. Though right then I felt fine. It was just you and me and our toilet, and your firm hand at my neck.
I lifted my head. "Hey, guess what," I said. "I'm becoming a minimalist too."
You wrinkled your nose, and took your hand away. The air wafted cool and real against my skin. "Maybe some soup will help."
"I don't think soup has ever fixed anything."
"Some things," you told me.
"Some things it does."
Twenty minutes later, we sat together on the sofa, a tray with two bowls of vegetable broth between us. It was hot and salty and I didn't miss the chicken, which you promised I wouldn't. Our new bowls matched our square plates, built like squat pyramids, half finished and upside down, each of the four edges rimless. I picked up my bowl from the tray, sloshing over the sides. The broth seeped into my lap, steam rising up from the crotch of jeans.
You laughed. "God, you’re a hot mess."
"It's the bowl." I pressed my napkin into the denim, but it didn't do much. "Anyway, this wouldn't be a problem if we had a table."
You shook your head. "Was there mail?"
"Just bills," I answered. I spooned up the last of the broth from my dish.
"Feeling better?" you asked.
"Much," I said.
The man I worked for at the gallery had loved me for some time.
I told him, "We are now vegetarians."
Steffen said, "That’s terrible."
The gallery was fledgling and narrow in size, a section of a refurbished factory on the edge of North Beach, just before the city gave way to its taller structures. Our artists were mostly sculptors and photographers, a few painters too, and sometimes we hosted a name of notoriety, but not often. The large, high windows yielded good light.
A new sculpture would arrive in the morning, from an artist Steffen had met in Missoula years back, and after we had locked the doors, I helped him set up its platform. The piece was a version of an early French flying machine, and the sculptor, Steffen told me, had for years hand-carved horses for Montana's only carousel before trying his hand at these small, obscure replicas of aviation. As we finished the task, I lingered. You would not be home, and the thought of an isolated confrontation with the existing sofa and potential mail left me dense and stagnant.
"There's a great butcher shop by my apartment," Steffen said. "We could go there, pick something — I'll cook for you this week. Osso bucco — braised veal shanks — nothing like it in the entire world."
He asked if I'd ever eaten marrow, and I shook my head no. He stepped closer to me, and promised it would make me swear I'd found Jesus.
"I don't have much of an appetite lately," I told him.
"Well, when you do," he said.
I knew what women liked about you. Men too.
They liked your long legs, your protruding hip bones, the soft skin around them, lengthy fingers. They liked your upturned nose and the round face that was getting less round; your cheekbones were showing through.
You had a crooked smile — your left cheek was languid, they liked that too. You looked more like a woman than you had when I met you, but I knew you didn't want to hear that. They liked your feet, which were small, and your arms, which were willowy, and your freckles scattered like cinnamon across your breasts: full and not so low.
In our second year together, a woman sent a perfumed slip and photographs she'd taken of you nearly a decade before. Opening the small and neatly wrapped box, your delectation was evident. But you were kind, in your way, and so you drew your smile inward, telling me, "I can't understand why she would do that."
Your birthday fell in January, but the first man who loved you dispatched flowers each year during the second week of May. And housed in the top dresser drawer, amid your t-shirts: a letter describing sex, written in an uneven and childish script, epic, misspelled metaphors consuming four pages of yellowing loose-leaf paper. You insisted they were just things, just tokens, of course you had been loved.
But these effects were not lost with the rest. The letter remained folded beneath stacks of camisoles, a slender and tall white vase was set on the window seat in the living room, and the photographs and scented lingerie were yet burrowed somewhere I could not discover.
Erica Martz is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the winner of the Taylor-Chehak Merit Award for Emerging Fiction Writers. Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner.
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