Post Road Magazine #16

Slow Freeze

by Laurah Norton Raines

It was the same all summer long. We sat in our apartment because we couldn’t afford to go out. We didn't like to do the same things anyhow. You liked pot and video games, and I liked punk-rock shows. You wouldn't take me to see bands because you said the music was too loud. Really, you were afraid you'd get beaten up. So we stayed home.

Every evening you sat out on the deck with a case of PBR; the screen door yawned open so that Johnny Cash drifted out into the atmosphere. You were always cooking something, and it gave you an excuse to drink with impunity. Sometimes you barbecued chicken, mostly breasts because I was dieting. On other nights you charred eggplant; the skins split and seeped as I passed you tumblers of iced tea and whiskey. You smoked so many cigarettes, leaving the filters scattered like rat droppings over the stained concrete. Heat settled into everything.

After dinner, we watched horror movies with the volume turned down, playing records over them until everything muddled into one howling death. It wasn't like we needed dialogue—we’d seen them before. In June and July, I didn't bother shaving my legs. I saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre seven times, but I couldn't remember the weight of your body.

In August you got fired. You told me laid off, but I saw the termination papers crumpled up on your dashboard. You had been late too many times. Where were you? We always left our apartment at the same time, you in chef pants printed with chili peppers, me with students' papers and borrowed grown-up clothes. I held my face still when you told me, because of your temper. Our walls were pockmarked with holes. You sulked off anyway, to the bedroom, with your video games and the beer. I didn't know how I would pay the bills, if I would have to call my parents and beg for money. My father didn’t like you but was too far away to do anything about it. I was still in grad school; my tiny paycheck barely covered your essentials: marijuana, beer, cable.

I stood in the doorway, watching you watching the TV. Your blond hair had grown so thin. I had gotten fat. When I looked in the cheap mirror mounted on the bedroom door, I saw my body warped. I didn't mention the job again.

In the two weeks after you were fired, you cooked out every single night. You did your best with the tiny porch, with fans—but our furniture began to smell of ash. You made dozens of hamburgers, which sat on plastic plates in the refrigerator until I threw them out. I started paying for groceries with my credit card.

Late August. I came home from the store, still in my work clothes, thinking about whether my students could see my slip when I wrote on the blackboard. They had laughed, but I wasn't sure why. I was a pretend person in a long-sleeved blouse that covered my tattoos, arms laddered with grocery bags full of food I didn't eat. I found you in the bedroom, talking on the cell phone you hadn't consulted me about buying, and when I said hello, you ignored me. You turned your back and put your hand over the mouthpiece. Twenty minutes later I had changed into my Social Distortion T-shirt and tried playing with the dog; she just wanted to sleep. You came out and went out onto the porch to start the grill.

“Who was on the phone?”

“No one.”

“Then what? What were you talking about?”

You tell me, “Nothing. You don't have enough to do, that's why you ask me all these stupid questions. You need to do something. Why don't you write anymore?”

I opened my mouth but the words stayed in. You were right. I marked up my students' stories with red pen, wrote questions in the margins: “Where's the epiphany?” “Is there a defining moment?” “What does this character want?” I wanted answers from them. I required exactness. But I didn't write myself. I had tried; I had stared down blank Word documents, typed a sentence, backspaced. Nothing. So I went back to criticizing my students' use of adjectives, of time, of narrative collage. You wouldn't have read my stories anyway.

You grilled the hamburgers, and I fixed salad, cut up onions, toasted buns. We turned on The Prophecy, that movie about angels that kill one another and everything else. I pushed ketchup into pools of mustard until my plate was a mess. You reached for your beer, and I noticed you'd shaved off your sideburns. I was the only girlfriend you’d ever had that liked them.

I stacked the dinner dishes, carried them away, dropped them into the sink, and the crashing and the clanking was like a gunshot. I jumped despite myself.

In the unholy fluorescence, among the ruin of peppers and onions and everything, our kitchen was a massacre. The tile looked dirty even after I mopped. Your new cell phone was abandoned on our counter, a sleek and shining beast among the rubble. I didn't know what to do, so I hovered, uninvited, between the kitchen and living room.

I could see you on the couch. You'd put in another movie. I watched closely, but your eyes showed nothing. How many beers had you had? How many had I? I picked up the phone.

My father answered distractedly, and I knew he'd been working in his basement office, probably on his new book. He was successful. He’d paid for my college, my MFA. He had hopes.

“Hello? Hello?” He asked it over and over, like a person without spare time is apt to.

“Can you come and get me?” I said to him when he asked again. “Can you just come get me?”

If you heard me, you showed no sign. The heat rolled over us in waves. On TV, someone died.

 

Laurah Norton Raines teaches at Georgia State University, the same school that granted her MFA in creative writing. Laurah's work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Fringe and Night Train. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two dogs.

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