Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

— Virginia Woolf

Joe Portes

June 21, 2016

FICTION

 

 

Emily first got my attention the night she threw a tennis shoe at the shared wall in our apartment complex. We were both college students living in adjacent apartments, her in 3R and me in 3L. I had a few too many beers one night and was apparently listening to music too loudly. She tried ignoring it, listening to her own music with headphones, but ultimately ended up screaming for me to “turn the fucking music down!”

 

Finally, she picked up one of her sneakers and threw it as hard as she could. I, of course, reciprocated with a basketball. Then she returned with a metal waste basket. After several minutes of banging and throwing, we met in the stairwell to yell it out. It truly was love at first fight.

 

Since then I have spent nearly every day of the past three years with Emily. We moved into a new apartment together after two months of dating, adopted a kitten, and even named our future children. Then I got cancer. Bleak, I know, but that's the way of the world, and there's no point in sugar coating it. Terrible things happen to good people, and you can't help but begin to look at things differently. I'm not going to be negative, though. I'm too smart for that. Negative energy is bad for radiation therapy—I don't care if my doctor says “putting out good vibes” will in no way help the state of my illness—that's what my extensive internet research has taught me, and that's what I'm going to listen to. That is why I am turning this into a positive elevator ride and also why I'm wearing these pants. Corduroy helps insulate the radiation and will increase my chances of beating the cancer. I know these pants are going to eradicate the tumors in my testicles, and I know exactly what is going to happen when we get to the top floor.

 

We are going to walk into Dr. Wagner's office, past his cute secretary, into the exam room, and wait for about an hour. Then, while waiting, I'm going to steal a few handfuls of tongue depressors and cotton balls just because I can, and because I'm paying the Kraut so much damn money (and I say Kraut because I feel what happened to my ancestors gives me license to call any German a Kraut for at least a couple more decades). When Wagner finally shows up, Emily is going to squeeze my hand. While he looks through charts and X-rays with the kind of emotionally perplexing expression only a doctor can fake, he is going to tell me I've gone into remission.

 

After this, Emily and I will kiss and happily leave the office. We will get into the elevator and push the down button. Assuming that we are alone on the ride to the main floor, I am going to tell her that I want to see other people. It would be best to break this sort of news in a public setting so she can't make much of a scene. I will tell her she's been so great through my Chemotherapy, and I'll say something like “I've loved you since the day I first laid eyes on you, but. . . .” or the classic “it's not you, it's me,” and then that will be it. We'll exit the elevator, and then she will realize why I insisted on taking separate cars.

 

All of this depends, of course, on Dr. Wagner. If he says I'm losing “the battle,” then there's no way I'm going to kick Emily to the curb—I don't want to die alone. And Emily is not heartless, so she won't leave me. I just really need to beat this thing so I can go out and find a girl who’s more intellectually stimulating. You can only argue about the ending of Lost so many times with one person.

 

Emily and I have argued about everything from Lost to overrated bands, urban legends, the meaning of life, and the existence of God. Our relationship started with an argument, and it's arguing that has sustained us for three years. Sure, there has been lots of love in our relationship, but it's the fighting that keeps things vibrant and passionate. The problem is we've been running out of things to yell about and even losing the energy to disagree about, simple things, like which American Idol contestant we are going to use our one vote on.

 

Right now, though, there's something more immediate and pressing on my mind. I am standing with my back against the wall of the elevator, studying the pattern in the rubber floor mat. There are lopsided circles and slanting squares that all seem to form some larger image, but Emily's button-counting button is making it hard for me to put it all into perspective. She's counting in that soft, muttering voice that people involuntarily use when their thoughts become audible without their brain's permission. Unfortunately, Emily doesn't consult her brain often, but I love her, even if it is a constant source of embarrassment for me. Nobody wants to hear her counting elevator buttons just like nobody wants to hear her “clever” rendition of the “five-dollar foot-long” jingle every time we ride the subway.

 

The light above my head flashes 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . and then stops. Ding ding. The silver doors part, and a wiry man in a tweed sports jacket enters. He stands on the other side of Emily.

 

“How are ya?” he asks, fulfilling his end of the social commitment incited by accidental elevator eye contact. He coughs and turns away disinterested.

 

“Twenty-five,” Emily muses aloud.

 

“Huh?” I respond out of habit.

 

“Oh nothing . . .” she sighs and whispers “. . . you're not gonna answer him?”

 

“No. He obviously doesn't care.”

 

“Whatever,” she says under her breath.

 

The uninterested man rubs the right lapel of his jacket between a thumb and forefinger—a telling action of anxiousness I am quite familiar with—and coughs once more. He either does not hear our quiet debate about transient etiquette or simply does not care. Why should he? He is not required to do much more than herald his appropriation of elevator space with a simple greeting. Unless, of course, his stay would extend beyond the average two-minute ride, in which case, a statement concerning the weather followed by an appropriate destination related inquiry and/or public transportation joke would be acceptable. Ding-ding.

 

Thankfully, no small talk ensues as the man in the tweed sports jacket exits onto the fifth floor. Slouching a bit, I bend and plant my foot against the wall, supporting my back. This is how I always thought “cool” people stand. Looking cool is all about trying not to look cool. I'm not sure if I have ever achieved this look, especially now as there is an itch stuck between my khakis and my right knee that I can't quite relieve. It's too far down to scratch by going in through my waistline and too high to hike up my pants and reach from below. I'm trapped. While I struggle and squirm, I can see, out of the corner of my eye, that Emily is scrunching her freckled nose in that way she does when she's thinking about things that I never understand. I decide to break the silence to take my mind off the hopeless itch.

 

Six . . .

 

“Why take the elevator when you're only goin' up two floors?” I ask.

 

“I don't know . . . maybe he's got the gout or something. Maybe he can't use the stairs.”

 

“Nobody has gout anymore. What are you gonna say next, he’s got typhus? Or the Black Plague? Don’t be stupid, Emily.”

 

“Actually, Mark, people still die from typhus every day—over one thousand a year. And, for your information, two percent of our population still suffers from the gout.”

 

“Wow, one thousand? No way!” I've grown so tired of hearing random science facts. I’m not a loser because my girlfriend is going back to school and I never got a stupid piece of paper that proves I got a philosophy education. You don't graduate philosophy, you live it. It's like she thinks she’s better than me. So I didn’t finish my degree; I still know more than most people.

 

Emily sighs. I join her. Collective murmuring is, in my opinion, the appropriate response to a conversation where questioning the actions of a strange man turns into a debate about historic diseases. Our voices quickly rise as the conversation escalates into an argument about the pretentiousness of regurgitating college lectures and the rationality of Emily, a twenty-eight year old high school dropout, attempting an Associate’s degree in biology. To this Emily sighs again, but this time, alone, and it's taken the form of an angry exhalation instead of a futile gasp.

 

Ding-ding. The metal doors open once again, releasing some of the tense air and allowing another passenger to enter. The elevator is now on the ninth floor. A round woman in a blue pantsuit squeezes into the corner with the control panel. She bids us “good day” and presses sixteen.

 

Our conversation halts out of respect to our new guest. There is an odd feeling in the elevator; I'm sure Emily and the new woman can sense it. I imagine that my emotions are tangible entities that can bind themselves to molecular bodies, and that is why the carpeted walls of this elevator would be slathered with disdain. But, fortunately for everyone around me, this does not happen—I'm well-versed in cloaking my sentiments. Thank God people can only see what others allow, and the violent thought bubbles of strangers and mutual disdain of a young couple remain unseen. If it were as I imagined, and emotions did come alive, then the round woman would see my psyche manifest itself as a spectral janitor scraping my true feelings off the walls and into a dustpan. Nobody wants to see that—it's far too gooey. Gooey and sad.

 

Seven . . . Eight . . . Nine . . . Ten . . .

 

“So, what do you want to eat tonight?” I ask in an attempt to drum up some unloaded conversation.

 

“Whatever you want,” Emily answers.

 

Eleven . . . Twelve . . .

 

She never chooses. Usually, I get coaxed into picking a place, and then Emily eventually complains about my choice. “Just pick something,” I reply. “Anything.”

 

“I don't care.”

 

Thirteen . . . fourteen . . .

 

“’I don't care?’ Really?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“But we always eat at 'I don't care.' Don't get me wrong, Em, the food is fantastic, but the service isn't so great. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer my steak with a smile, not a side of apathy. Know what I mean?”

 

“You're such an asshole, Mark. Just give it a rest for once.”

 

Fifteen . . . sixteen . . . ding-ding. The round woman leaves. Before walking down the hall, she turns back to me and says: “Why don't you just cook a nice meal at home.” This pearl of wisdom floats into the elevator, swirls around the ghostly custodian, then tumbles to the floor. I certainly wasn't going to receive it, so there was nothing else for it to do but deflate.

 

As the woman turns around, the elevator doors close, framing her back and relationship advice with the kind of perfect, clichéd timing that only exists in romantic comedies.

 

“Yeah, how about that?” Emily snaps. The lift resumes its ascension.

 

“How about you get a job?” Seventeen . . .  “Then you can help pay for some groceries.”

 

“I tried.”

 

“You did?”

 

“Yeah, I did.”

 

“When?”

 

Eighteen . . .

 

“That curator job I applied for last week.”

 

“You didn't even get called back for an interview.”

 

“Yeah, well I tried.”

 

“Really, you tried? That's a lie.”

 

“No it's not!” she whines.

 

Nineteen . . .

 

“You call what you did trying? Em, you're not a fucking artist!” I say. It's true, she's not and she never was. If you asked her, though, she would say otherwise. “In the experience section of your resume you said you were a painter for thirty years. I mean come on, who wouldn't question that?”

 

Twenty . . .

 

“Why?”

 

“You're only twenty-eight!”

 

“Well, yeah, but I've already told you. . . .” she begins.

 

Twenty-one . . .

 

 “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You were a painter in a past life. I know.”

 

Ding-ding. The doors open, but there's nobody there.

 

“I'll take the stairs the rest of the way,” Emily says, stepping out of the elevator.

 

“Come on, don't be stupid. Get back in.”

 

“Why should I?”

 

I stick my arm out to stop the doors from closing. Ding-ding. Ding-ding. The doors stutter a bit, reopen, stutter again, and then stay open. Standing in the silver doorway to stop them closing, I reach inside to hold a finger on the “Door Open” button. I wonder what will happen if I keep the doors open too long? Is there even such a thing as “too long?” Will the doors close, slicing my body in half, producing a mush that trickles down into the elevator shaft and slops onto the gears twenty-one floors below? Ding-ding. Ding-ding.

 

“It's only four more floors. Come on, just get in.” I begin to get frustrated. “What, do you have the gout now? Are you sick or something?”

 

“Just sick of you, that's all.”

 

“Oh, babe, come on. I didn't mean it. Any of it.”

 

Ding-ding. Ding-ding.

 

Emily turns away from me. I can tell she's crinkling her nose. Maybe she is also wondering how long it will take before the doors crush me into viscera soup. She looks back over her shoulder and requests that I let the doors close. I say no and drop to my knees, forming my hands into what my mother always called a “holy sandwich.”

 

“Please, please, please get back in,” I say.

 

Emily sighs again, releasing the white flag of defeat along with her breath. Her sighs are like a second language—one I am almost fluent in—and while there isn't actually a flag hanging from her mouth, I recognize this little noise as a signal that I had won. Sure, I basically begged for her to stay, but nobody ever won a bickering match with pride. I win nearly sixty-seven percent of my arguments by begging.

 

She turns. Ding-ding. Ding-ding. Then she asks, “Why should I?” even though she has already mentally given in and decided to get back in the elevator.

 

“Because the stairwell is a dangerous place for a sexy, reincarnated painter,” I say, feeling clever despite the fact I haven’t found Emily too sexy in quite a while.

 

Emily stifles a laugh, gets back in the elevator, and presses the “Door Close” button. I finally let the doors close and the elevator resume its ascension. The disdain has mostly evaporated at this point; what's left is sliding down the walls on to the rubber floor. Neither of us can see this, of course, but she and I both know it's there. We go on living every day pretending all the emotional goo belongs solely to the other, but the truth is the goo is the only part of our relationship that we truly share.

 

“You're such a jerk sometimes,” Emily says, playfully pinching my arm. Ding-ding. Twenty-two . . .

 

“Yeah, I know, but you really get on my nerves.”

 

“What do you mean?” she asks.

 

Twenty-three . . .

 

“Well, I mean, ya know. . . .

 

“What?” she says, letting go of my arm.

 

Most of what I said was true. I'm not sure how to put it delicately though.

 

“Well, most of what I said is kinda true.”

 

Emily steps to the side. Now I know I really messed up, and this one is going take days to mend. She turns her head and meets my eyes with intensity. I look around nervously. The goo has stopped evaporating. It’s beginning to harden and turn from light green to something dark, resembling coal. Anxiety stalagmites sprout from the hardened goo, threatening to pierce us. Things are getting tight in this elevator. Emily would never be able to comprehend these emotions; she could not wrap her head around the idea of emotions being born into the physical world. This is part of the reason that I need to move on from her. I need someone who truly sees the world for what it is, someone who sees things on a deeper level. Someone like Miss Cleo, like Miss Cleo but way younger and a lot more attractive.

 

“Mark,” she says sternly, to commandeer eye-contact.

 

Then, after a long dramatic pause, without blinking once, she tells me that she is moving out when we get home.

 

Twenty-four . . .

 

The elevator stalls at the twenty-fourth floor. The lights flicker and I wonder if the lift is broken. Emily is still looking at me, and I at her, and in those few seconds I realize she doesn't really mean it—and I feel sorry for her. Ding-ding.

 

The flickering stops. The motors start up, and the elevator continues moving. I’m not sure what floor I'm on anymore—the lights must have shorted out. I think the elevator is almost to the top floor; I'm almost certain. Ding-Ding. The silver doors part and a man in a tweed sports jacket enters. Something about the jacket, that tweed pattern, looks familiar, like I've seen it before. I know a pattern when I see it; metaphysical signs from the universe do not go unnoticed by me. In fact, hardly anything gets past me on a good day. The man pushes a button and the elevator jolts back to life.

 

Emily seems to be gone. I guess I missed that. Also, we're going down somehow. Guess I missed that too. I lean back against the wall and study the pattern in the rubber floor mat.

 

“How are ya?” the man in the tweed jacket asks.

 

“Actually, my leg itches, I feel trapped, and I might vomit.”

 

“Oh. Okay,” he responds, confused by an actual answer to a rhetorical pleasantry. “So, where ya headed?”

 

“Doctor Wagner's office,” I answer. “You?”

 

 “Same. I hate that Kraut. I always steal a handful of tongue depressors whenever he leaves the room. Just to get even.”

 

“Heh . . . yeah . . . me too. But should you really go around using that word? Isn't it like kinda, ya know, insensitive?”

 

“Nah, it's okay. I'm Jewish and I feel history gives me license to call any German a Kraut. At least for the next couple of decades.”

 

Ding-ding. The elevator doors open and the man gets off on the main floor. I press the “Door Close” button, but the doors won't budge. I press it again. Ding-ding. A third time. Ding-ding. A tennis shoe comes flying into the elevator and smacks the wall beside my head.

 

A young, out-of-breath woman comes running into the elevator.

 

“Sorry, I just wanted to get your attention before you closed the doors.”

 

“Oh, heh, guess I zoned out for a minute there.”

 

“Yeah, I was screaming 'hold the door! hold the door!' but you were just standing there scratching your leg.”

 

The young woman presses a button and the lights above our heads flash 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .

 

“So your reaction to non-responsiveness is to take off your shoe and throw it?”

 

“Ha, yeah. I don't know why. I just felt compelled to do it and thought it might be kind of funny. I was hoping the ridiculousness of what I did would keep you from hating me.”

 

Four . . .

 

She began counting the buttons silently in her head; I could tell, because she was muttering between talking to me. I thought it was sort of cute, but also rather annoying. This girl was attractive, and unusual, but didn't seem to be all that bright.

 

Five . . .

 

“Well, I suppose I don't hate you. My name's Mark, by the way.”

 

Six . . . “I'm Emily.” Seven . . .  “So, Mark, what'd you think of the season finale of Lost the other night?”

 

Eight . . . Nine . . . Ten . . . Eleven . . . Twelve . . . Thirteen . . . Fourteen . . . Fifteen . . . Sixteen . . . Seventeen . . . Eighteen . . . Nineteen . . . Twenty . . . Twenty-one . . . Twenty-two . . . Twenty-three . . . Twenty-four . . . One . . . Two . . . Three. . . .

 

 

Joe Portes studied Creative Writing at Goddard College and received his M.F.A in 2013. Since then, he has taught writing at Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, NY, served several editor positions at the Pitkin Review and Saranac Review, and wrote and edited for The Free George Magazine. Currently, he writes for popculturebeast.com & gamesandjunk.net and teaches at SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury, NY while trying to write as much as possible."

 

The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote

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