He was seeing doubles: two yellowing trees, two empty park benches, two flowerbeds where there should only be one. Actually, he corrected himself, what he was seeing were echoes, the reverberations of light waves pulsed around his retina, and then mirrored into his brain. He thought that he could really feel each process slowly working its way through his head.
He’d definitely smoked too much weed.
He snuffed the joint, leaving it carelessly in the grass. It wasn’t the only joint discarded in this isolated corner of Riverside Park. Lying on his back, he turned his attention to the sky—which had seemed so mundane just twenty minutes ago—and thought of all intricacies of each cloud, like a painting where he could see the strokes of the brush, but without the finer details that sober vision afforded him. He stared at it for a long time, watched the sun of the late afternoon shift from white to gold to russet. Once he was seeing one of everything, he walked up the hill, leaving Riverside Park, towards 103rd and West end, heading home.
He always smoked in the park because Maddie hated pot in the house. Outside the front door, he sprayed himself vigorously with cologne, turned the key, and pushed it open. They would fight tonight, he knew that. They always had little lover’s quarrels before she left. Maddie had another big client in Connecticut interested in some art, and she would have to spend a day or two installing, making sure the client was happy, and rubbing elbows with rich folks. She loved art, but she hated schmozzing, so she hated half her job. And she hated that he got stoned so much after work everyday. You try teaching 8th grade in the Bronx without an herbal supplement, he thought, finally walking inside 5 B, their apartment.
“You know, the cologne only makes you smell more like pot.” Sitting on the couch, Maddie was a petite girl with her hair cut to her shoulders and cat-like green eyes.
“Pot? Me?” He smiled.
“What if it you ran into a student of yours in the park?”
“Where do you think I get the pot?” He winked, moving to join her on the sofa.
“Don’t joke like that. One day you’re going to get a laced batch, then you’ll be sorry. Uh, that colonge.” She got up, feigning disgust—or was it real?—and headed into the kitchen. “I’ll check on dinner.”
“You’re going to love it,” he called after her. “Pork roast in the slow cooker with apples. Started it this morning before I left for work.”
He got up to join her in the kitchen, stood by the small table for two in the corner they had set up when they first moved in four years ago. Normally, Maddie kept a vase on the table with seasonal flowers, but the vase was empty.
“I wish you didn’t have to go.” He stood behind her, put his arms around her waist, and kissed her neck.
“Pork looks ready,” she removed his hands so she could grab the tongs. “At least something smells good in here.” She grinned at him.
He began slicing the meat and putting it on plates while she set the table and filled two bowls with salad. Maddie always tried to help, but she wasn’t much of a cook.
“What should I dress the salads with?” she asked.
“Whatever you say, dear,” She dressed the salads and got them each a knife and fork at the table. He brought the plates over, sat down with him, and started playing the news on his phone, like they did every night.
“Well, the world’s gone to shit. Just like yesterday.” He grinned at her after the news finished. “No telling when it’ll end. You should probably skip going to Connecticut and work entirely.”
“Let’s not bank on apocalypse,” she said. They finished quietly, Maddie’s tension visible as she scrubbed dishes, but not directed at him. He dried dishes in just the perfect order so that she had enough room to add one more. She drained the sink while he gave the table one final wipe. “I have to pack.”
“I’ll shower.” They hadn’t fought. Maybe they would have sex tonight before she left, he hoped. He walked into the bathroom, stripped, and looked over himself in the mirror, popping a pimple on his back, deciding to shave. He started the water and climbed in quickly.
He heard her sighing as he toweled off. “What’s wrong?” he called through the door.
“You didn’t pick up the dry cleaning.”
Shit. “No. I forgot. Want me to go now?” An empty offer. He started lathering his face to shave.
“We’ve been over this. They close at 7, dammit.”
“Need your lucky pantsuit?”
“Fuck you. I gave you one thing to do to help me get ready. Now I don’t have enough clothes for the trip.”
“Okay, I love you,” he opened the door, “and you do too have enough clothes for the week. Have you seen the amount of Prada in your closet?”
“Not all of us can wear tucked in T-shirts to work.”
“Polo’s are not T-shirts,” he yelled to himself in the mirror as he shaved.
“Fuck. It’s not just the dry cleaning. You know that.”
He rinsed his face, patted it dry. “Can I make it up to you?”
“Yes. Pick the dry cleaning up tomorrow and bike over with my perfect Prada top. I’ll only be about 30 minutes away.”
He walked out of the bathroom with just a towel around his neck. “Not what I had in mind,” he winked, pointed.
“Oh, honey, that’s not big enough to wear out. Besides, I still need to shower and finish packing.”
“We’ll be waiting for you.”
“By we you better mean you and my perfect dry cleaned shirt.”
“Of course—but what I’ll be doing with it—that’s the real surprise,” he said. He left Maddie to pack and walked into the bedroom, closing the door.
He turned on the small bedside lamp by his side of the bed and crawled under the covers, just to get comfortable, listening to Maddie pack and resting his eyes for a minute. He thought of the few days without her—how would he fill his time? Maybe he would text some friends to see what they were up to. Jason at work had been asking to get a drink for a while. He closed his eyes in bed.
A window behind him opened, and he knew it had to be closed.
Everything was dark, something was outside the window, trying to get in.
Two birds with the same face were singing an ugly song.
(In the house? Where was he?)
He was in bed. He’d dozed off. Maddie wasn’t there. There was no window behind him. He got out of bed, slowly, the remnants of the dream lingering. It was like waking up after a night of heavy drinking; he felt buzzed and confused. Maybe it was some leftover weed in his system. The clock read 6:13.
“Maddie?” he called, opening the bedroom door.
The door creaked open and he looked into the dark living room. Maddie’s figure was outlined on the couch. “We?” His heart was pounding.
“My suitcase and I. I didn’t want to wake you, so I figured I’d wait out here until my cab gets here.”
“Oh, honey. Come to bed.” He walked over the couch, gently took her hand. “No funny business. Let’s just be together.”
“I’m fine here.” She pulled her hand away.
“Oh come on. Don’t be pissy about the dry cleaning.”
“My car will be here in 15 minutes.”
“I’ll wait with you. I’m up anyway.”
He put his arm around her and she slumped her head on his bare shoulder.
“This traveling sucks.” She lifted her head up, checked her phone, and sighed. “I want to leave this job, open a small gallery in some small town. Go somewhere it can be easier than this. I’m not cut out for the high client business. I’m fucking tired of this city.”
“We’ve been over this. I’m not ready to leave.”
“I feel like I can’t start over until you are. I’m on hold,” she said.
“This is a shitty time to bring this all up again. Let’s take it easy.”
“Easy?” Her phone buzzed. “My car is here.”
“Of course it is.”
She got up to leave, grabbing a small suitcase, her purse.
“Wait,” he put his arm around her, thinking to kiss her passionately, but got a closed-mouth peck from her instead.
“Think about it,” she said, closing the door behind her.
He retreated to the couch and fell asleep for another hour. He dreamed of windows opening and closing , of something scratching to get in.
He swam out of sleep a few minutes before his alarm went off. His back told him, asshole, you slept on the couch last night, so he walked over to the kitchen to take two exedrin. He held them in his hand, staring at the identical emerald green capsules before swallowing them at once, no water. He left for work a few moments after.
The subway was always empty this early, and the walk to the high school was lonely, but he liked that. The empty landscape cleared his head. At work, the first thing he saw on his desk was his contract for next year. They loved to give them out mid-February. He texted a picture of it to Maddie at 7:30 am.
Should I sign? Let’s talk more.
Olive branch, he thought.
The day blurred by, with the usual. Kids yelling in the halls. Kids complaining about the assignments. Kids butchering poor Shakespeare’s play. By the time the final bell rang, Maddie still hadn’t gotten back to him. He headed home from the Bronx, grading some mind-numbingly bad essays about Twelfth Night on the 2 train. It was his own fault for assigning the stupid things.
Getting off the train, he realized his left his stash of weed in the apartment. His phone read 6:13 pm, which meant about an hour left of light in the park to smoke. He walked down 103rd toward West End Avenue. He opened the door to his building and walked up to 5 B.
Something stopped him at the door. A noise—banging or clanging. Something falling? No. There was a rhythm to it. Someone was in the apartment. The super? A neighbor?
Hairs on the back of his neck prickling his polo, he carefully turned the lock and opened the door. The couch was just where it should be. The TV, laptop, all present. The side window was open, though he’d left it shut. The fluttering white curtains looked like a ghost in the corner of his eye.
“Hello?” he said. The sound continued from the kitchen. Someone was cooking?
“Hey,” he heard Maddie’s voice.
He walked into the kitchen, where it smelled like smokey paprika and wine and herbs. Maddie was standing there in a pair of cutoffs and a white tank top, her hair in bun.
“Chicken Provencal,” she said with a wink.
“Since when can you cook chicken Provencal?” he asked.
“Since forever,” she said. Maddie was happy to help in the kitchen, but couldn’t scramble an egg. He had once tried to teach her—unsuccessfully—many times and many dishes. There was something nice about a woman cooking for her man, he always thought.
“I’m confused,” he said.
“About the chicken?”
“About you. Being home. You had that big client in Connecticut. I didn’t hear from you all day.”
“Client cancelled. Left my phone at the office, I guess.”
“You guess? You once described your phone as the most important relationship in your life.”
“Ha. I’m taking it easy,” she said. She walked over to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of white wine, refilling her glass and pouring him one. Was she mocking him by echoing what he said earlier? No—she was actually taking it easy.
“Cheers to that,” he held up his glass.
“You relax on the couch. I’ll be done in about 15 minutes.”
“I’m not sure I trust you with this chicken. You wanna talk about earlier?”
“First, chicken Then, talk. Go, go, relax,” she ushered him out of the kitchen, squeezing his butt.
He sat on the couch. Maddie seemed like when they had first met. Her wit was entertaining rather than biting, and her attitude was light. She was smiling and she was cooking. He sipped his wine and contemplated going out for a smoke. What time was it? He reached for his phone.
He had a text message from Maddie.
Sorry I took so long to get back. You’re right it wasn’t the right time to bring it up. Let’s talk when I get home Sunday. The message had been sent at 6:35 pm.
“Hey, weird,” he called to her in the kitchen.
“What weird?” she called back.
“Just got a message from you saying you’d be home Sunday.”
“Hmmm. Must be a misfire from earlier.”
He wrote back: Thanks in advance for the chicken and the sex last night. Hope you’re still smiling this morning 🙂
He was surprised to see three dots indicating a response coming.
“Hey, Maddie, I think someone has your phone. They’re answering a text I just sent.”
“My assistant maybe? She knows my passcode. Sometimes I have text messages forwarded to email. Help me in here?”
He sent: Maddie’s home. Sorry—I think you’re in her messages!
If you’re Maddie’s assistant, you’re in the wrong folder or something. This is Maddie’s phone!
He left his phone of the coffee table while he went in the other room to help with dinner. Had he stayed just a minute longer, he would have received two more messages and a picture.
This is Maddie. What is going on?
And a picture of Maddie, in the bathroom of a client’s house in Conneticut, looking troubled and tired into the camera of her phone.
In the kitchen, he arranged the salad while Maddie pulled the chicken out of the oven. Smeared with the darkened paprika, the chicken looked bloody from where he was standing. He poured them both another glass of wine.
“We should wait for the chicken to rest,” he said, pulling her close to him. Normally, Maddie would pull away, but this time, she dug her hips into his and kissed him, squeezing his butt again, squeezing at his groin. She gripped him harder, kissed him harder, rubbed him harder.
“Wait,” he said.
But she gripped him harder and harder. He groaned, coming in his khakis like it was his first ever hand job. She burst out laughing, and so did he.
“I’ll change before dinner,” he said.
“Cold water rinse on those, bud,” she winked. “I’ll carve the chicken.”
He walked through the living room and heard his phone buzzing.
In the bedroom, he pulled off his khakis and slipped into a pair of dark jeans Maddie liked. Wow, he thought. Even early in their relationship, when sex is always electric and new, Maddie was never assertive. He felt himself grinning like a fool even as he walked over to the coffee table to grab his phone.
More messages from Maddie’s number. A picture of her. The last message read: Are you tripping? Should I come home? What is going on?
A picture of her was over the line. Was this her assistant’s idea of a fucking joke?
This isn’t funny. I think you and Maddie are going to have a long talk tomorrow.
Then who is this in the kitchen? He snapped a picture.
“Hey babe. You need to fire your assistant. She’s sending old pictures of you to my phone, claiming to be the real you in Connecticut.”
He walked into the kitchen, holding his phone to show her. “Fucked up, right?”
She stopped carving the chicken, wiped her hands to scroll down. “Seriously twisted. Her ass is clearly fired. What do you think? Am I the real Maddie?”
“In the flesh,” he said.
“Good answer,” she gave him a toothy grin and wrapped her arms around him, walked back over, picking up the carving knife.
“Here, I’ll know you hate that,” he said, gesturing for the knife.
“I’ve been watching some videos,” she said, cutting deftly through the wing joint and popping it out with ease, holding it at eye level with a happy grin. “We should let the rest of this sit for a bit to keep the juices.”
“True,” he said.
“Should we smoke?”
“Pot? In the house? We?”
“We can just open some windows,” she said.
“Is everything okay? Did you like quit your job or hit your head?”
“I didn’t do either of those things,” she pulled a lighter out of one of the kitchen drawers.
“Okay. You don’t have to do this. You have nothing to—make up for.”
“I know that. I want to. I thought you would enjoy this. I thought this was the girl you wanted.”
“I am. I do. It’s just not like you. Okay—let’s go the living room.” He walked through the kitchen, feeling so confused he didn’t think to pay attention to his phone buzzing. He opened the window with the lace curtains a little bit wider, and he started rolling a joint. Maybe something he had said really did make Maddie change her mind. He licked the joint closed. Maddie and he crouched by the window, using a coffee mug for an ashtray, blowing their smoke out the window. He closed his eyes, sat on the couch, and waited until he felt the distant waves of the high settling into him.
He was counting the buzzes on his phone—who was texting him?—when Maddie said something to him. It took him a minute to figure out what she wanted. He needed some water.
“Take off your pants.”
He felt Maddie’s hands slipping off his belt. When he opened his eyes, he was seeing doubles again, triples, and then it was like a harem of Maddies slipping him out of his clothes. Something about all of those fingernails as he watched her unbutton his pants made him think claws, claws, claws. She pulled his pants off and held him in her hands, with the same triumphant grin she had after detaching the chicken wing.
“No.” He hadn’t meant to yell.
“No need to scream. God.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m seeing doubles. It’s freaking me out.”
“Doubles?” she laughed for a long time. “I’ll go finish dinner. You just rest, Sebastian.”
He buttoned up his pants and closed his eyes, waited for everything to stop spinning. He heard his phone still buzzing as he drifted off. He was dreaming again and he knew it because everything was in flashes. He saw phones, windows, claws, but nothing distinct enough to be coherent.
When he woke up, Maddie was sitting across from him, watching. “I was worried. I would’ve thought you had more of a tolerance than that.”
“Pot always makes me sleepy. And hungry.”
“Well then. Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” she said. “Let’s eat.”
She grabbed his hand and pulled him off the sofa, leading him with a seductive samba of her hips into the kitchen. She sat him down at the table and started serving him a plate.
“Let me help.”
“No. I’ll serve you,” she winked, bringing him a plate, and starting to set one for herself.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You didn’t hit your head or something? I can’t remember you ever asking to serve me.”
“I think there’s something sexy about a woman serving her man.”
“Okay, we definitely need to have you checked by a doctor.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“The news?” He gestured to his phone in the living room. Faintly, he heard it buzz.
“No,” she grabbed his arm. “Let’s just enjoy the not-depressing evening we are having.”
“This is delicious,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
Maddie smiled, though she hadn’t really touched her chicken. Mostly she was pulling it apart with her hands, twisting the bones, leaving meat in long strips on her plate. “Wash your hands, dirty boy.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, walking over to the kitchen sink. He started filling the sink with hot water and soap, and then he dropped his dirty dishes into it. He took the stripped chicken bones from both their plates and put them into a plastic bag. When he turned around, Maddie was grinning at him with a smile the could only be called predatory. She took both of his hands in her
(claws) hands and led him out of the kitchen, back over to the couch, slowly undressing him again, smirking down at him as he sat on the couch, transfixed. It felt more like giving in than getting it on. The window was open, and the lace curtains danced victoriously in the night breeze in the corner of his eye. Maddie pulled his hips closer to her pelvis, gripping him firmly against her.
Just as he slid into her on the sofa, he heard a key turning in the door.
Michael Zimmerman is a writer of short stories and poetry, as well as a middle school writing teacher in East Brooklyn. His previous work has been published in Cutbankk, A & U Magazine, and The Painted Bride. He is the 2015 recipient of the Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press and a finalist for the Hewitt Award in 2016.