Post Road Magazine #9

A Couple of Polaroids by Alan Tinkler

Zoë drank beer from one of five English pint glasses she had stolen over the years. While three were counterfeit, two were authentic, having been pinched while visiting Great Britain. During her trip, she liked best the rolling confines of the Yorkshire moors. Had Zoë visited Spain as she had intended, she would also have complimentary wine glasses in her cupboard. Instead Zoë drank the inexpensive Chianti that she bought by the case in pint glasses. Zoë had to be careful, especially on the second pour, not to dole out too much.

For lunch, Zoë ate a small salad with six saltine crackers; for dinner, a salad with a cup of soup or a sandwich. Since Zoë was reluctant to use either of her two identically sized electric burners during the heat of the summer, she ate soup in winter, a sandwich in summer. On the back burner, a red whistle-less kettle. Even though she was fairly certain it made no difference, Zoë exchanged the blue kettle that she had been given for a red one. The blue kettle just did not seem right, she told a friend. “It seems to take longer to boil.” When her friend teased her, suggesting it was all in her mind, Zoë agreed, saying, “Exactly.”

Though she was more discerning than in years past, Zoë was still an avid trash-picker, though now she concentrated her efforts on plant paraphernalia. Two weeks after moving into her new apartment, Zoë found a prize: a three-tiered cast iron plant stand shaped like a wedding cake. The stand stood four feet tall; its lowest tier was three feet in diameter. On it Zoë situated twenty-six plants and eight candles. It took two hours to roll it home, and a neighbor had to help her grunt it up the stairs.

As much as Zoë loved the apartment's hardwood floor, she rented the efficiency because of the bathroom. Not only was the bathroom large, almost half the size of her one-room apartment, the bathroom housed an enormous cast-iron tub supported by monumental lion feet.

The bathroom's pedestal sink was as disproportionately small as the tub was large. On the sink, Zoë kept a bar of unscented glycerin soap and her fifth pint glass which held her toothbrush and paste. Had her apartment been confined within a grand, urban mansion, Zoë imagined that the master-of-the-house's favorite mistress would have stayed in the room. The tub was ideal for either a pre-or post- coital soak. At the very least, the tub was a sturdy platform.

Adjacent to the tub, Zoë positioned a small marble top table that supported a trio of lavender-scented candles. Her brass towel rack was only large enough to hold two medium-sized purple towels. One she used for her body; the other, a turban around her wet hair. In the medicine cabinet, her makeup. Attached to the door, a full-length mirror.

Since she had shared a room with her sister while growing up, Zoë decided against a traditional roommate; she simply wanted someone to take her apartment Monday through Friday from eight in the morning until eight at night. As if on a whim, she placed the unlikely advertisement in the paper, and following a brief telephone conversation, Zoë took London as a roommate.

London was as anxious as Zoë to establish the provisions for the sublet. Their first decision was easy; they decided never to meet. Zoë was to be out of the apartment by quarter of eight, and London was not to arrive until eight-fifteen. To monitor themselves, they kept track of arrivals and departures with notes tacked to the corkboard that Zoë glued beside the front door. Zoë originally considered a whiteboard until she found an adorable set of decorative push-pins.

Almost immediately, Zoë and London stopped using their names, London signing his notes with a typical smiley face; Zoë, a flower. While London's face rarely varied, Zoë changed her autograph to replicate seasonal flowers in bloom.

Once, Zoë and London just missed each other, as Zoë was running late, London early. “That was close,” London wrote on the note he posted that afternoon as he left for the evening.

Since the sublet did not cover weekends, London left Friday evening to return Monday morning. With him he took a small duffle, leaving his larger one tucked beside Zoë's dresser. One Monday London returned to find that Zoë had unpacked his bag. His side of each drawer, the left—the same side of the bed he slept on. As if in agreement, Zoë slept on the right side of the bed.

London's clothes, he discovered, were organized according to Zoë's system: top drawer, underwear; second, shirts; third, shorts and pants; bottom, miscellaneous, including tattered workout and cleaning clothes. As he checked her sorting, he only had to move one shirt from the bottom to the second drawer. It was a shirt he had picked up on a trip to the Florida Keys. The following morning, responding to a note tacked to the corkboard, London answered: “Yes.” Zoë also unpacked his extra toiletries. She tucked his stash of condoms under his socks.

London's script was meticulous. Zoë loved the way London penned his letters so much so that she started copying them, at first using onion paper. Before long, she had assembled templates for each letter. Wondering whether or not this tracing bothered him, she asked, explaining what she had been doing.

“Of course, not.”

By the time she started worrying about the potential vagueness of the reply, she had other trepidations, since London had been going through her things. Zoë was not sure whether to confront him, even after London started opening her mail, thoughtfully culling out superfluous fillers and throwing away junk mail. He tacked the sorted mail to the corkboard. Though it took some effort, Zoë convinced herself that London was genuinely being helpful.

About the time she calmed herself, London started to do her laundry. At first it was as if accidental—an errant pair of underwear that could have been trapped in the sheets or piled on the floor within the folds of a towel. After a couple of weeks, London simply took over. And, periodically, he would wash something Zoë had not worn recently as if to remind her to be more selective. More often than not, Zoë found herself wearing, and enjoying, the rediscovered item.

Without Zoë at first realizing it, London quietly removed pieces from her wardrobe, replacing dated or poorly fitting items with flattering ones. As if given a makeover, Zoë suddenly found herself stylish, and she found she liked having friends compliment his choices. Zoë was not too surprised when London traded out her drugstore cosmetics; she figured he had consulted photos to assess her skin.

Zoë woke one night, wondering whether or not the photo of her and her mother which sat on the bedside table had been altered. She allowed her paranoid feelings to grow for almost a week before checking. Even though she had suspected it, she was still astounded to find that her photo had been replaced with a computer-generated print.

She laughed as she examined other photos. In one, a Hawaiian beach shot, her breasts were sized up. She also discovered that she had a piercing, a post with delicate rubies on each end; the larger ruby snuggled comfortably within her bellybutton.

The day after Zoë pinned the altered prints to the corkboard, London left the two-ruby post in a small zip-locking bag. He also pinned a card for a piercing parlor just off Colfax. When Zoë took it to the parlor, she was pleased to discover the post was custom-made. Once the parlor owner got a closer look it, he whistled, before telling Zoë that it was made by a premier local designer. He whistled again when Zoë lifted her shirt, exposing her midriff; the post was perfect. “It doesn't get any better.”

He held the jewelry in place before explaining how he would pierce her, and a week later Zoë had the post set. When Zoë returned home, it did not surprise her to find on the counter a small bottle of rubbing alcohol, a bag of cotton balls, and a note: “Keep her clean.” Even as the sting took hold, she was pleased with her decision.

A week after placing the post, Zoë wore a shirt London bought her. London had left a note, offering choices. She selected jeans and a wide black belt with black sandals rather than the pair of khaki capri pants. After a promenade, Zoë returned to their apartment to post an addendum to their agreement; she suggested the perimeter be expanded three blocks in every direction, making secure the neighborhood bar, Scotty's, as well as the park she had just walked through. As Zoë circled the park, she found herself wondering whether London was perched, spying on her.

London became more and more brazen as he shuffled through Zoë's personal belongings, though he often surprised himself with seemingly arbitrary limitations. While he had no reservation sorting incoming mail and listening to phone messages, he did not read her journals or her stacks of previously received mail, though there was one three-inch stack London found intriguing, figuring the letters to be from an old boyfriend. London was particularly fascinated with a corresponding stack of letters from Zoë. She had obviously asked for their return. After dwelling on it, he decided to copy one randomly selected letter from the middle of the stack. The initial letters he considered corrupted by first love; the latter, love's demise. The middle would be honest.

Without reading the letter, London transcribed it. Later as he read his copy, he wondered how he had so completely ignored its content. It was a letter of fantasy; Zoë was an exhibitionist; she wanted to be photographed naked in public. As he walked through the city, he occasionally stopped to reread the letter and consider exhibitionist opportunities: pumping gas, riding an escalator, walking through a restaurant.

London called in sick and patrolled the streets until morning. At eight, he posted himself just beyond the perimeter. By the time he had convinced himself that it would not matter if he arrived early, it was nine minutes after eight. By eight-twelve he was rummaging through the closet, taking little notice of where things belonged. At the back, tucked into the pocket of a tennis racket cover, he found an envelope of photos. London shuffled through the Polaroids, settling on a couple of favorites.

After taking a shower, he attempted to return the closet to order. Realizing the futility, he retreated to the neighborhood hardware store to purchase a system for storage. He was delighted with the shoe rack he bought for the back of the door. Midway through pairing her shoes, he took a break and walked to the nearest fine shoe store where he bought her a pair, black, size seven, narrow. He slipped the shoes into the top row of the rack. He hoped they would be caught on film.

*

London liked working nights since the magazine's editors left him to his own devices. Each morning before he left and before the editors arrived, he pasted the current lay-out on the board that extended the length of the hallway. Throughout the day, the editors made alterations, and at night London attended to the changes. When the office held its annual Christmas party, London took the night off.

Zoë, London thought, had too few books for someone who worked in a bookstore. He liked that Zoë scribbled marginalia as she read; he enjoyed reading with an eye to her perspective, particularly since Zoë often referred to earlier comments as her marginalia developed over the course of a book, or an author's oeuvre. Though London tended to keep his books at the office since he read each evening after finishing the lay-out, he periodically brought one home, hoping that Zoë would read the book and offer a stream of marginalia. To set things in motion, he mimicked her marginalia in a book that he left on the windowsill beside the plant stand.

“Fine,” Zoë wrote, before reading it, pen in hand. Every once in a while, she wrote, using his script, in order to consider the book from his perspective.

“I would never,” he left posted one evening after reading some of her marginalia in his writing.

“Your turn,” she replied, leaving a book for him to write in. Since London found it difficult to replicate her script, his marginalia was limited to his own perspective.

Zoë surprised herself by worrying about a cryptic note. London had simply asked whether or not she was afraid. While the note did not include the reference, four women had been assaulted in the neighborhood, and while they all had escaped, the attacker was becoming more brazen. On Sunday a woman coming from Scotty's turned the corner to find herself accosted. She ran back into the bar, and by the time she was able to convince the bartender that she was serious, the street was clear.

On Monday, Zoë slept through her alarm clock, waking to the smell of coffee. Sitting beside the coffee were some fresh muffins and the Times. On the board, a note: “Morning.”

As Zoë ate a cranberry muffin and read the paper, a chill ran down her spine. Even though she considered herself a sound sleeper, she had always believed that she was instinctively aware of her surroundings. It bothered her to think that she was not able to sense London in their apartment. As she ate a second muffin, she tried to remember which direction she had been sleeping; she hoped toward the safety of the wall.

When Zoë called in sick, her manager told her that her brother had already called. “Brother?” she asked in a note.

“I thought roommate might be problematic,” London explained.

Zoë had not told anyone at work about her arrangement, and she was surprised to realize that it would be easier to explain a previously undisclosed brother than a roommate who rented her apartment by day. Yet, Zoë started to wonder whether or not she should tell someone. In the event something happened to her, she thought someone should know the truth. She decided she would write down the details and leave the disclosure in her locker at work. As she started to write, Zoë conceded to herself that she knew nothing about London. She could not even know for certain his name, as he never received any mail and always paid cash. Since the police would need something, she took a pair of his underwear from the laundry pile. She made sure there was a piece of pubic hair before securing the underwear in a zip-locking bag.

Zoë did not respond to his query: “Under-where?”

It was the first time that either one of them had not replied, prompting London to ask, “Why?” When she saw the note, she decided to surprise her parents with a visit. In route the following morning, she called in sick from a Denny's.

In her childhood room, a package. “It arrived this morning,” her mother explained, “by courier.” Before opening it, she knew it to be her evidence against London. She had sensed that something had been missing from her locker, but at the time she could not place what was missing. “Of all things to forget,” Zoë mumbled to herself. In the package, a second zip-locking bag containing a half-sheet of onion paper with dots that Zoë took to be blood. The following afternoon, Zoë drove back to the city, back to work.

“I thought you were sick,” her manager said, adding, “You should go home,” when she took off her sunglasses.

“I'm okay,” Zoë said, assuring him that she could make it through the rest of the day.

He put her in back where she spent the day unpacking boxes and labeling new inventory.

Zoë arrived home to dinner: a vegetarian lasagna and a side salad that was a little heavy on the feta cheese. She poured wine and placed the garlic bread under the broiler. She liked his garlic bread. London baked heads of garlic in olive oil before spreading the resulting paste on thickly cut pieces of French bread. As she ate, Zoë debated London's offer: “Scotty's 8:00 p.m.” Throughout dinner Zoë examined the note, hoping to intuitively sense the right course of action.

As Zoë walked into Scotty's, she hoped London's approach would be quick. She hated to think of him watching. Her anxiety was put to rest as the bartender placed wine in front of her, served in a pint glass.

“I never meant to scare you,” London said, approaching.

“But, you did.”

“Yes.”

“Why?” Zoë asked.

“My father killed himself,” London answered. “I was eight. The only memory I have is of my parents fighting. I always wondered whether or not I could live with someone.”

“We weren't living together.”

“I know—we never fought.”

“No, we never fought,” Zoë agreed. “And, we never lived together.”

“When I saw your ad,” London said. “I had to give it a shot.”

“My ad?”

“I would never have thought of it.”

“You went through my stuff,” Zoë said, though not to complain, rather simply as a statement of fact.

“And, you mine.”

“Yes,” Zoë admitted, “I was curious.”

“Yes.”

“Nothing weird, though,” Zoë said.

“As normal as the next,” London said.

“You watched me. Read my mail. Bought me jewelry.”

“It seemed like the right thing to do. I got caught up in the moment.”

“I'm just trying to understand.”

“Me too,” London said. “We never fought,” London repeated, as if only to himself.

“We never loved each other,” Zoë said.

When the bartender brought another round, London paid, giving a generous tip. They drank in silence, surrounded by thumping music.

London finished his drink, stood. “I'll be out in half an hour. I'll tack the key to the board.”

London had washed and dried the dishes before leaving. On the counter, Zo‘ found an envelope with three month's rent, a couple of Polaroids, and another post, this one with emeralds. Standing in front of the mirror, she switched out the posts; she liked the look of the emeralds against her skin •

Alan Tinkler is an assistant professor at Shepherd University in West Virginia and an associate editor at Conjunctions. His work has appeared in The Beloit Fiction Journal, Fiction International, and Rain Taxi. An essay on Janet Frame appears in the summer issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

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