When the taped-up flyer highlighting the photo of gummy bears crushed into the carpeting appeared on the elevator wall with the caption—Revenge is sweeter unless you’re neater—Renee knew that Naoki’s frustration with not finding work had reached a new level of craziness. Her husband’s OCD habits had grown exponentially throughout the process of surviving one of the nation’s hardest art schools in Pasadena. Now without the marathon hours of homework post-graduation, Naoki’s attention to detail had shifted to the cleanliness of their apartment complex just off the 5 Freeway, a building with four hundred occupants, a mammoth parking garage, pool, gym, and, according to her husband, the least respectful tenants in Los Angeles.
“At least I did something artistic today,” Naoki explained when she arrived home. She hadn’t even had time to berate him for hanging up the artwork in a fucked-up attempt to make the perpetrator feel ashamed. He was cooking dinner in a stir-fry pan in the kitchenette. His long fingers flipped vegetables and chicken with an artist’s precision, his bony frame nearly skeletal with the long runs that semi-employment afforded.
“You’re obsessing about things you can’t control,” Renee said.
“I’m standing up for our neighbors who are sick of the lack of respect,” Naoki said. “People are talking about this now.”
“They’re talking about how crazy one of their neighbors are…and it isn’t the one you think!” Renee exploded, heading to their bedroom to change. Her feet were itchy and sore, and she decided, yet again, not to change into her workout attire. She was disappointed that she’d lashed out at Naoki. She felt guilty for how well he took care of the house and cooked in between freelance design assignments, mostly low paying favors for friends in bands or starting their own businesses. Her girlfriends assured her that her guilt was bullshit—the partner with more free time should always do the bulk of the work. She could see, though, the pride that her husband carried with him like a shield starting to wear away.
Renee slipped into her fat gray sweatpants and matching sweatshirt, an ensemble that told the world that she was tired, grumpy, and did not give a shit about her appearance. She scrubbed her face with the off-brand makeup remover that her husband confided made her smell like the wrong end of a mop. She’d changed brands, of course, to save money, and almost reveled that it made her less desirable somehow. She was the one who’d burnt herself out as a nurse at LA Children’s Hospital with as many shifts as she could manage while he went to grad school piling up debt. The effort had taken a toll on her body, her psyche, and their relationship, which according to her impossible mother should still be in the honeymoon phase.
Wah! Wah! Wah! Jesus Christ—Naoki had set the smoke alarm went off. Again. This set off a flurry of activity. They both ricocheted across the apartment, darting to open windows, flicking on central air and the stovetop fan, swinging magazines to push the smoke away from the living room alarm. They spun around each other, swiping at air, and it reminded Renee of how they used to dance together. She laughed, losing her balance, and set her arm around Naoki’s waist. Then she saw the flame on the stove dancing around and above the pan. He’d left the stir-fry on the burner with too much oil. She launched herself toward the burner and pulled the pan off. Of course, the sink was full of dishes. Why couldn’t he clean while he cooked? She placed the pan on a dining room chair and yanked open the front door.
Her mother stood there, perplexed, paused mid-knock and dressed for a dinner party. Beside her was Naoki’s father Hiroshi, in slacks and a suit coat, bathed in smoke and the klaxon of the alarm. Her left arm projected outward in a stopping motion like a traffic cop. Her right arm covered her braless chest. Her mouth dropped open and tears welled up.
“Should we call the fire department, dear?” her mother asked calmly.
“Naoki, why didn’t you tell me our parents were coming for dinner?” Renee called out curtly over her shoulder.
“I put it on the calendar two week ago,” Naoki replied even more curtly.
“Your chair’s on fire,” Hiroshi said matter-of-factly. He uncapped the screw-off top on a bottle of Pinot Noir, stepping inside to lift the pan and dousing the smoldering fabric on the chair with no wasted motion. His movements reminded her of Naoki: an exactness that somehow left her with an overwhelming feeling of messiness. Her mother kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear, “What are you wearing? No wonder Naoki has lost interest.”
The alarm turned off just as she responded in what she thought was a whisper, but decidedly was louder, “The sex isn’t that good, anyway.”
Naoki, a roll of paper towels in hand, had made his way to the front door, clutching the white cylinder, face crestfallen. “Luckily, dinner is,” he said.
By the time she changed into a sweater and skirt, Renee’s face had almost lost its flush of embarrassment. That is, until her mother passive-aggressively whispered to Hiroshi, “The food’s cold. I taught her better than this” just as she emerged from the bedroom. Renee soon found herself sinking down in the re-arranged living room chair because their cheap dining room set only had four chairs, and now one of them was scorched beyond recognition. Naoki had tossed it out on the balcony next to several now dead planters of spices (her contribution to the cooking) and a satellite TV dish they couldn’t afford pointing at the southern sky. Hiroshi poured the last of the Pinot into her mother’s wine glass, and Renee braced herself for a long evening. She’d never gotten along with Laura, the name her mother had insisted she call her growing up to give them the illusion of equality in a one-parent home. Of course, Renee never had. Her mother had been the administrator at one of the city’s top prep schools, and was always in teaching mode, an annoying trait that Naoki’s father, an engineer, shared.
“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to douse the fire out so easily,” Hiroshi said, screwing the top back on the bottle of wine. “We have engineers to thank for that.”
“And the artists who make the wine,” Naoki responded, their ongoing argument about career choices always at the forefront.
“You mean the scientists who make the wine. They were the ones who worked with engineers to determine that the wine tasted just as well with screw-on caps as corks,” Naoki said.
“Well, I for one like tradition. Like a woman being able to cook for her man,” her mother said.
“But you can’t cook worth a damn,” I complained, hurrying to serve myself so that everyone could begin.
“Don’t be so literal, honey. I said tradition ‘like’ cooking. I think so much change makes everything in a relationship harder.”
“Like the woman being the bread winner,” Hiroshi said, laughing at his own sense of humor, his son the constant butt of his jokes.
“Good one,” Naoki said good-naturedly. “Renee is the practical one.”
“She has me to thank for that,” her mother bragged. “I made sure that she could take care of herself.”
“I think what you told me was that I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor,” Renee said, swallowing her first bite, and feeling nauseous. She’d brought most of the sandwich she’d packed for lunch home, and was feeling under the weather. It had been tense enough trying to juggle one paycheck and debt without the addition of two demon parents looking for explosive reactions. Normally, the tension was between Hiroshi and her mother; they could never find anything to agree upon until now. At least she’d brought someone together in this apartment.
“Would you rather I’d lied to you like your father did to you every day of his life before—” Renee’s mother paused. Although half-lit from the wine, she looked around the table, trying to regain her composure, unsure whether she’d gone too far.
“He killed himself?” Renee asked. “Yes, we all lie to ourselves and each other. I’m not hungry.”
Renee excused herself and headed for the bathroom, the only room in the apartment where Naoki wouldn’t follow her. She lowered the toilet seat, sat down, and pulled up the news on her phone, the troubles of others her way of coping with her own. She took several deep breaths, repeating a silent mantra: Don’t kill mother. Love each other.
As though her words were an invocation, the door swung inward and Renee’s mother slid inside. “I’m drunk, dear, and need to use the bathroom. I’m also sorry you’re having a hard time with Naoki.”
“You’re the one I’m having a hard time with,” Renee said, moving over a few feet to sit on the edge of the tub while her mother got on the toilet.
“You’re comfortable with me peeing in front of you. That tells me you love me.”
“I think I might be pregnant,” Renee blurted, not sure why she’d chosen now of all times to share her secret.
“Well, I’m fucking Naoki’s father. That poor boy had no idea what he got into when he married into our family,” Renee’s mother said, carefully turning the toilet paper roll over so that it fed from the top before pulling off a few squares.
Naoki hadn’t spoken a word to her during the rest of the awkward dinner, cleanup when she washed the dishes and he dried, or their binge watching of a drama on Netflix, a habit that consumed hours of their time and kept them from heading to bed with energy for sex or conversation. The next morning when she woke to her usual multiple alarms, Naoki was already gone. He’d turned into a man who didn’t sleep from the late night marathons finishing assignments for art school, and hadn’t returned to normalcy. What did that concept even mean any more in the current state of their relationship?
Renee hurried through her morning activities, trying not to overthink things, the very act of doing so making her feel guilty for not being able to stew in her own juices. She breathed in and out deeply, and had almost cleared her mind when she discovered yet another flyer in the elevator next to the first, a photo of an onion slice on the hallway carpet with a caption: Onions make us all cry. Pick this up before you die. She was trying to think of the dual meanings of the last line, to give Naoki the benefit of the doubt, until she opened the door to the parking garage and saw the black Volkswagen Bug that someone parked in the unloading zone, a practice that drove Naoki insane and caused him to spit on the windows. She saw the splatters on driver’s window and door handle, and knew he must have passed by on his way out for a run into nearby Griffith Park.
Naoki’s sense of order, always present, had begun to escalate the longer he remained out of work. His rants about cleanliness and order, once humorous, now felt all encompassing. First of all, he was completely fine making generalizations about race, even his own, ranking likely suspects who could possibly have made a mess in the apartment complex. This had led him to a desire to abolish Christmas when pine needles appeared everywhere. His grumpiness extended to litterers and jaywalkers, with language that started to make him sound more like a crackpot than the sensitive man she’d married.
When she pulled out of the parking garage she glimpsed Naoki talking to Orlando, the onsite janitor and handyman, sweeping up garbage in front of the apartment building office. Looks like he had a captive audience. Renee thought about driving a half block out of her way, pulling over and giving him a kiss. The thought of leaving without saying I love you six months ago would have seemed unconscionable. Now, it seemed like too much could go wrong in the attempt.
Renee was an RN at the Children’s Hospital, one of the best facilities of its kind in the country, and was proud of what she did. The work was difficult, though, with dying kids, scarred kids, broken kids, hurt kids, and parents suffering beyond what words could describe. Whenever she needed a pick-me-up she stopped by the art program at the hospital, run by a poet named Pablo, a man ten years older and with a wicked sense of humor. The kids loved him, whether they were writing or drawing as the program focused on both. Pablo encouraged them to tap into places in their imaginations still untouched by tragedy.
Before starting her shift she stopped by and the kids were taping up their drawings and captions from one of their dreams. Most of the artwork was primitive, but was more honest because of it. Some kids hung scenes of houses, trees, and family members. Others portrayed monsters, aliens, and broken terrain. Pablo praised them all, one by one, on the wall. If Naoki was hanging a wall of shame on the elevators, this exercise was the opposite. Renee felt a surge of emotion and choked back tears.
“Oh, I see we have a visitor. Hi Renee!” Pablo said.
She waved back shyly and thought back to how he’d been setting up the room on her last visit a few weeks earlier. How she joined him in the art closet to help him get supplies. How she allowed him to kiss her. How she bit her tongue to keep from making a sound while he slipped his fingers into her hospital pants. How she was threatening to ruin everything that mattered to her.
Now she was trapped in a time loop, reliving the moment, the pleasure, the guilt, in bed, in the shower, on her morning commute. This was purgatory, an escape room that wasn’t safe. She slipped out of the art room without saying goodbye and found what she needed in a supply closet. There was an empty bathroom behind the nurse’s station. Renee urinated in a cup, placed the lid on top, and washed her hands. One full minute. Hot water. It never felt like enough time to rinse away the possibilities. She found Kara, their lab tech, in the break room, pulled her aside and asked her to run an HCG pregnancy test. Renee didn’t wait for a response. Just left the sample next to her friend’s coffee cup. Afraid of what she might say, she turned and walked out to start her rounds, face down, her tennis shoes following the blue line on the floor like a tightrope.
Renee wasn’t surprised Naoki wasn’t home when returned from work. Relief washed over her, the tension of the past day palpable in her arms, legs, and shoulders. She changed into workout clothes, hit the treadmill at their small apartment gym while listening to her jams, and leisurely showered. She prepared a mixed green salad with chicken that had composed most of her dinners before she’d met Naoki, at a friend’s party at a downtown loft, his good looks and charm apparent from the start. They were both just out of relationships and fell into each other’s arms after absinthe drinks cooked up by the party’s host had them collapsing in the same chair in the corner of the room. It was there they got to know each other, waiting for the affects of the drinks to wear off.
Naoki had painted this scene of them meeting during his first year in art school and it used to hang in his loft above his futon before they moved in together, alongside a pre-wedding painting of them in tux and gown, eerily similar to the photos later, unveiled three years ago as a non-verbal proposal. All in all, they’d spent five years together, or half of their adulthood. The energy was different, though, when they were both in school, before the crippling student loans and the inability to do much more than cover their bills.
Renee headed outside to the balcony and snuck one of the cigarettes she hid out there, along with a lighter, in the planter of dead cilantro. She lit up, breathed in the smoke, and felt instantly light-headed. Always a social smoker, this was one of the things she’d “given up” in the relationship, something that had always seemed to calm her down. The sun was still going strong, and it dawned on that today was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and the date of Naoki’s art show in Eagle Rock that she was now officially late for.
The sun was starting to set by the time Renee parked her car at a meter outside Pop-Arts in Eagle Rock. She didn’t look half bad, she thought, given how quickly she flung on a dress and flung herself out the door. She was greeted at the gallery entrance by what she assumed was the owner, a bald man with khaki cargo shorts and a Hulk T-shirt. She shook his hand and was handed a price list for the show. Naoki’s work took up half of the gallery. She was relieved, at first, to not see the paintings of their relationship for sale. However, it bothered her that she had not seen him working on any of the paintings on display. Mostly likely these were created on the nights he disappeared to his buddy Andy’s studio to hang out with grad school friends. His creative life was now divorced from his life with her.
Renee moved slowly from painting to painting, and marveled at how his artwork had progressed from the more realistic paintings of Los Angeles from their early days together to hybrid work, collage and found objects mixed with paint. The centerpiece of his collection was a triptych of three flyers surrounded by people suffering in what looked like a combination of a fire and brimstone apocalypse and a raucous Hollywood party. Two of the flyers Renee had already seen posted on their elevator wall. The third flyer contained a photo of dog shit smeared in the carpeting with the caption: We live with the smell. Now you go to hell.
Renee closed her eyes and tried to recall the arguments of adopting a rescue dog and his reluctance to take on more responsibility. Naoki had made it clear that it would be a burden, another step toward yuppie living. “I might as well be an architect like my dad wanted” is how he finished their conversation on the topic, pitting her in the same role as his father: the dream killer. She’d taken this hard, not because of the dog. Because she knew that it meant that he was nowhere ready to have a child, something he always discussed in a far off future, a sci-fi future when he was settled and successful. Now what the hell was she supposed to do about the baby forming in her belly?
There was a refreshment table in the yard behind the gallery, a cooler for beer, a small gathering of Naoki’s artist friends, most of whom she recognized. She stood in the doorway peeking out and saw him talking with a college-aged woman, in a short skirt and halter. She had her hand on her husband’s shoulder, laughing, her perfect ass jiggling in obvious flirtation. Her anger nearly got the better of her. She took off her wedding ring and pulled back her arm to throw it. Maybe if she’d had a father around she would have felt more confident of hitting Naoki in the face with it. The more likely scenario was that she’d miss him with the toss and spend many awkward minutes scrounging around the yellow grass. It was all too much. She turned, slipped her ring back on, and simply walked away.
When Renee parked her car, the black Volkswagen Bug was in the loading zone again next to the elevator. The obstacle only took her a step out of her way but the insult somehow felt larger. She paused at the doorway to the elevator and spit on the driver’s side windshield several times. She was now doing something Naoki would approve of. Finally. Not that it mattered. On her last attempt, her phlegm dried up and hung on her lips. She nearly dribbled spittle on her own dress. She no longer cared. If anyone was watching. If she was losing her mind.
She wiped her mouth with a tissue and headed into the elevator already waiting on her floor. She soon found herself staring at the trio of flyers highlighted in Naoki’s artwork and took in the wall of shame. There was so much she’d kept hidden the past few years. Her relationship was a tragedy ballooning around her. The signs of it failing were small, but snowballed one after the other, the first few acts of pulling back emotionally from her partner now clear signs, in retrospect, of darker days to come. The doors closed behind her and she felt calm, a sense of reason flooding over her. She needed to be free of her endless guilt.
She peeled up the tape and pulled all three flyers off the elevator wall, ripping them to shreds, folding the material in her hands until it felt as though she was ripping a phone book, pieces of paper falling like confetti. A man joined her from the first floor in swim trunks, fresh from the Jacuzzi, water dripping down his legs and onto the paper shreds below. He wore a blue terrycloth robe open to reveal a sunken chest and extended belly, a man in his sixties with a body slowly transforming back to that of a boy. Renee laughed as she continued to shred the paper, sharing her catharsis, hoping he understood. The man held onto one of the ties dangling along his legs like a man with a limp penis searching for courage. He shrunk himself into the corner until they reached the fourth floor and rushed out into the hallway. This was her stop, too, but she wasn’t finished. She continued tearing at the flyers, looking to make the shame disappear altogether.
The elevator door closed again and she found herself being carried back down toward the parking garage. Back to where she’d started. She understood now what Naoki had meant when he said that the residents of the apartment building needed to hold each other accountable. All relationships were based on this. It was time to face their fears before others got on board.
She knelt down and started to pick up the pieces.
Martin Ott is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, including Underdays (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), Sandeen Prize Winner and Forward Indies Finalist. His newest book Fake News Poems (BlazeVOX Books, 2019) takes the headline of a news story from each week as a jumping off point to explore political and personal turmoil in the first year of Trump’s presidency. His work has appeared in twenty anthologies and more than two hundred magazines, including Antioch Review, Epoch, Harvard Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Zyzzyva.