Lorna’s voice is distorted through the caved-in metal grid of the intercom but I can hear feathery panic in it: She has forgotten that we have plans. There is a pause and then a nagging broken whine sounds. I push open the door and climb up the warped stairs.
When her door opens I can tell that I’m in for it. Lorna’s eyes are smudged with mascara and ashen shadow. Lipstick is worn off all but the corners of her mouth. Her hair hangs in limp greasy strands. She looks at me like I’m a poorly tuned hologram until incomprehension slides into focus.
She turns and leaves me to close the door and reconfigure the locks and chains. Behind the door, blocking it from opening all the way are two plump trash bags.
Lorna shoos two cats back into the other room. The three-legged one with a filthy matted coat hobbles off, slithering under the sofa, which is heaped with papers and books and piles of clothes. Laid out on the coffee table are overhandled photographs with curled edges. I recognize the faces: Lorna and Beckman. These are the souvenirs of their failed relationship.
Lorna slumps heavily amidst the mess on the sofa cushions and leans forward, staring at the photos as if she’s reading tarot cards rather than revisiting a past excavated into meaninglessness.
And the Beckman rap begins: The lies––“Not one true word.”––the cheating––“Disgusting whores.”––the lost years––“And now I’m too old and I can’t have children. He robbed me of that.”
Beckman strung Lorna along siphoning off the vapor trails of her meager trust fund, leeching her strained social connections, and slutting around extravagantly. When he finally vanished without a farewell I was relieved but I knew that he’d never be truly gone. She has remained true to my prediction, replaying their affair every few months. When his name has cooled on her tongue, something happens and she falls into blackness and hauls out the letters and photos to begin the whole taunting nightmare again.
The thread of a particular night’s betrayal by Beckman has been picked up and slid into the eye of the angry needle. “And I believed him,” she says. “He lied right to my face.”
I don’t have the stamina today. I feel trapped in my clothes and the room and the chair across from her.
Lorna fondles a dog-eared Polaroid. “How can someone be part of your life so intensely and then suddenly be gone?” Her face is a shaken blur, near tears. Her smeary mouth has clowned into a twist of anguish. I fear that she will begin to cry and that it will take too long to get her back around to a place where I can ask my favor.
“I know what you’re feeling,” I say, exhaling and leaning back, my legs splaying hip-wide. “It’s what I’m going through with my mom.”
A cheap shot but it registers in her startled eyes. I’ve broken her wallowing trance and trumped her one-downsmanship by resurrecting my Lazarus. She brushes hair from her face. “Oh honey,” she says. “How are you doing?”
“Not good,” I say, surprised at how true the words are. Mourning scares me and it feels somehow unearned.
“You can always call me.” Lorna straightens. She is playing the role of the concerned friend. I’ve given her the upperhand, lent her dignity and sanity that belies her appearance and every corner of the apartment.
“Thanks, you’re a good friend,” I say. I know this is my window and I must ask. “I think I need to get out of the city for a little bit, like a week, and clear my head.” The leap: “I was wondering if maybe I could go to your place on the beach.” My mouth dries up.
I’m asking in person because I think she is more likely to say yes if she’s looking at me. I look like a man who could use a week away at the beach or maybe a sanitarium. A rest. Surely, she understands that.
“I don’t know if it’s even habitable,” she says.
The three-legged cat crawls from beneath the sofa, and Lorna scoops him into her lap. His nub leg twitches as he stretches out. Was he born that way or did he lose it to an accident or disease? I can see now as the light falls across his elongated body how thin and dirty he is. I stare at what’s missing.
“I can check up on things for you,” I say.
“I should get out there,” she says.
A tiny terror flashes that she may, perversely, decide to join me, and then I will have to accept her generosity and her presence.
“I need some quiet time,” I say. I’ve loaded the deck now. I’m an asshole.
“No, of course, I’d love to have you there,” Lorna says, suddenly warm and welcoming. Her tone is self-convincing, something akin to hypnosis. “You deserve a break.”
Lorna looks at the misery collage of photos and I know I must talk through the Beckman tale with her again, for as long as it takes. I move to her side of the table and position myself for the story––my penance.
Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook MINCE (Bridge Productions, 2016). His writing has appeared in Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Five:2:One Magazine, fluland, (b)OINK, and SAND Journal.