WHAT IS TRUE, WHAT IS NOT TRUE
KATHERYN KROTZER LABORDE
It was a hot, hot July evening — early evening but looking and feeling far more like late afternoon — and Kathy could hear Steve singing, and although she did not want to hear him singing – really, she was beginning to lose patience – and had asked twice already that he not sing with the bathroom door open, she knew better than to go close the bathroom door. He would simply step out of the shower (her shower), open the door (in her apartment), and make a comment about how he didn’t want the bathroom mirror to get steamed up because he wanted to shave after his shower. He wanted to look nice for her.
He wanted to smell nice for her, he said, since she already had taken a bath and was smelling so fresh.
Sailing, takes me away to where I’m going….
Steve was the type of guy who had a nice voice and assumed that made it OK to burst out in song and make the world a better place.
The couple next door, of course, would hear his serenade. How could they not? Kathy could make out much of their conversations through the thin walls; unfortunately, she also could hear the occasional morning vomit session. She also could hear the guy who lived above her sneeze. She knew when her neighbors were taking a shower, so she figured they could hear the rumble of water as she drew a bath, which she had done before Steve was due to arrive.
But Steve had arrived early. He opened a bottle of wine and sat on the closed toilet lid to talk to her.
“I had a dream, baby,” he told her, “where you and I are very old. We are in Paris, I think, or maybe it’s Montreal…but wherever we are, we are talking.”
She rubbed cheap hair conditioner on her legs. She grabbed the pink razor. She plowed straight lines from ankle to kneecap. With Steve sitting there and watching, she was not about to lean back, raise her leg, and finish the job. She had never thought she would shave her legs in front of a man, but there she was, mowing down hairs with a vengeance.
“We are talking and talking,” Steve said.
“Uh-huh.” Luckily for her, Steve had thought to bring her a glass of wine, and she took a sip.
“I can’t even tell you what we are talking about,” he continued. “But I know you are dressed in blue, baby, and your hair is silver, wound tight in a bun on the top of your head.”
She dipped the razor into the water.
“And we are talking and talking.”
He was talking and talking. Always, talking and talking. Standing behind Kathy as she brushed her teeth, talking, standing beside her as she chopped onions into tiny opaque teeth, talking, talking, and rising, rising in volume as he became more involved in his tale.
“The neighbors…” she would say, her hands in the air, palms pushing down.
The neighbors….nameless faces she passed on the walkway, by the mailboxes, by the pool, all thinking (she supposed): It’s HER. The one with the goofy boyfriend who sings in the shower.
The one with the boyfriend who talks too loudly in bed.
The one with the boyfriend who storms on to the patio. The roar of the opening sliding door, the slam of the vibrating glass, the accompanying, shouted tirade over some little point that was not so little to him. Had they all been home the night he dropped the wine glass (her wine glass) on the hard concrete patio floor, yelling that perhaps her friends didn’t mind signing the Amnesty International petition he had handed them, unexpectedly, over dessert?
Kathy was the one with the boyfriend who always walked over to her place from the bus stop, carrying a large paper gift bag that held a change of clothes. The boyfriend with no car because he had no money. One job, then another. There were reasons. She was not sure that he had a bank account anymore – she didn’t dare ask.
Kathy had been the one with a boyfriend she hadn’t been ready to call a boyfriend just yet, but he was insistent, and was cute in an odd way, and it all seemed harmless and frivolous enough at the time. It was nice to have a boyfriend who liked to play Scrabble. Liked to dance. Had done a lot of interesting things. Was a good cook and knew his way around a wine rack.
He was a boyfriend who used to work in kitchens until he realized the stress was not good for him. He was a boyfriend who now waited tables but that was now aggravating the growing arthritis.
He was a boyfriend who used to be, as he said, a local rock star. He told her the names of the bands he had sung with. “Sorry, I don’t recognize those band names,” she said.
“Well, that’s you,” he said. “Others do. And I can show you pictures of the band. Of me.”
“I’d love to see pictures,” she said.
“I’ve got pictures,” he said. “Me with big black hair. Eyeliner, black nail polish. Dressed all in black.”
She figured that maybe this was when he was a drug dealer, too. Back in the day. Grass and pills. She didn’t ask, but said “I’d love to see pictures of you like that.”
“My hair was black, baby, jet blue black, with lacquer all through it. Not brown, like it is now. Not gray, like it’s getting now.”
“The gray is nice,” she said. Her own hair was starting to pop with silver.
“And I’d wear these red leather pants. Eel skin boots. You should’ve seen me. I’ve got pictures.”
“I’d love to see them,” she said. The one photo she had seen of his younger self had left her mesmerized. She had seen it one late and sunny Sunday afternoon, in the living room of the house he lived in, roommates nowhere to be seen. He had excused himself and slipped into his room, the door opening but a crack, and when he came back he handed her a framed photo of a twelve-year-old Steve, out in the woods, wearing pants that seemed a little too short and a long sleeve shirt that swallowed him. Looking straight into the camera with a sweet smile and trusting eyes, his hands clasped together.
He took the photo from her and slipped back through the crack once more. She waited for his return. She was not allowed in his room. He had stuffed his life into that room. So much of what was his was hidden away in boxes, boxes stacked one on the other, still unopened from the last move ten months prior.
Still in boxes.
In his room.
So strange to hear a forty-year-old man talk about his room, talk about cleaning his room, talk about going to his room.
He told her about the boxes, the boxes and boxes, as though they contained priceless treasure. In truth, all he seemed to have stored were pictures and prom favors. Prom favors. Kathy had no idea as to how old she had been when she had gathered her own favors – brandy snifters, champagne glasses, goblets for wine, all etched with sappy themes and symbolic crests — and thrown them away.
“Do you remember which box those band pictures are in?” she asked.
He stopped. “The photos were in the zebra-striped album. But that’s gone,” he said.
And he got that look. And he was somewhere else. And then he was back.
“Yes,” he said. “Five years ago. Stolen.”
Bad things happen to him, he said. He had said it more than once.
His mother took his dog away from him. (“Long story,” he added, foot tapping.)
His band broke up when the record deal fell through, and the record deal fell through because the rhythm guitarist was too stoned to play the night the record reps came.
Another time he said the record deal fell through because the record reps saw Steve smash his guitar against the head of the stoned rhythm guitarist.
Another time he explained that his mother not so much took the dog away from him but from his apartment after she brought Steve home from getting his stomach pumped.
Shards of broken glass needed to be removed from the dog’s paw. That was the long story.
Then there was that time that his fiancée left him at the altar. “There we were,” he said, “standing at the altar, out there in Vegas, there with a couple of friends, and she turns and says in front of everybody that no, no, she ‘can’t take this man.’”
Another time, he explained that the woman hadn’t left him at the altar. She had left his friend there.
But it was a true story. She had left someone. It had happened.
The shower stopped. Steve moved on to the soundtrack of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He had played Dr. Frank N. Furter at the local theater, back in the day.
Back in the day, she used to go. She had not seen him.
There were pictures.
But they had been stolen.
She turned off the burner and left the kitchen to clear her stuff from the table. She was on a deadline; she was writing a travel guide and the table was piled with notes and brochures. The week before Steve had said how he hated that he was adding to her stress now. He was tired of being the burden.
“You’re not a burden,” she had said, rolling away from him. She was just starting to realize that the line he had given her when they first met — that he and his psychiatrist were seeing how he fared minus medication and sans caffeine — had turned out to be not a line but a lie. It is kind of hard to tell someone is lying, though, when the person believes what he says is true. “You’re not a burden,” Kathy said, and she pulled the covers up to her chin and Steve wrapped his arms around her waist. In the beginning, they could share a bed – her bed – and it was as though he wasn’t there. Their bodies fit together in such a way that sleeping was effortless.
“You sleep, I don’t,” he said. “I lie here for hours. I can’t sleep. You should let me move the TV into the bedroom,” he said.
“I don’t want a TV in my bedroom,” she said. “There’s no room.”
“It wouldn’t fit in here the way you’ve got it now,” he said, “but I could move things around for you. You could move that to the other room.”
That was her desk. “No, I like it in here,” she said.
He spoke to her back. “You won’t move a TV into the bedroom because you say a bedroom is only for sleep, but you keep a desk in here? Isn’t a desk for work?”
The desk was for work. It was where she worked on her short stories. She worked on the freelance writing at the table. Steve thought this arrangement was amusing.
Steve also thought it was unnecessary.
“I have a 100-inch TV in my room,” he said. “I have Surround Sound. I have more DVDs than I even know what to do with. You need a DVD player,” he said. “You don’t even have cable.”
“I don’t want a DVD player,” she said. “I don’t want cable.”
“You should let me set you up with a DVD player,” he said. “I can get you one for free. I’ll take care of it.”
He said he was the underground mayor of this town.
Kathy looked for a CD she knew he wouldn’t know; soon, the room was filled with the sounds of the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir. She moved her pile of work from the table to a space on the counter between the kitchenette and the rest of the dining room/living room. Through it all Steve was still singing in the bathroom. She wondered if he would announce that evening that he did not like her bathroom. As it was, he had told her that he did not like her kitchen because it was small and because it had an electric stove.
The kitchen in the old house where he had a room had an old gas stove.
“I don’t care about gas stoves,” she said. “I’m a writer, not a cook.” She pictured all that paper – the short stories, the articles, the notes, the brochures – catching the spark of a blue flame. She pictured her life’s work in a blaze. She said as much.
“Hey, my life blew up in my face,” he said. Bad things happen to him.
But they were going to get better.
You are so good for me, baby.
You make me feel like a man.
You talk to me like I’m an adult.
Everyone at work is so tired of hearing me talk about you.
They didn’t think you were for real until you came in to pick me up the other day.
Didn’t you notice the way they were looking at you?
She had noticed the way they were looking at her.
She had noticed how his thoughts poured out of his head when he was with her. His thoughts poured out of his head when he was not with her. He called her voicemail to tell her so.
Just because I’m not with you doesn’t mean you’re not on my mind.
It didn’t matter that it was three in the morning.
If you don’t want my phone calls to wake you up, turn your ringer off.
He texted her to tell her he was thinking of her. Her cellphone filled with that thinking.
Hey, if I can take the time between tables to send you a text message – what’s wrong with that?
He texted her jokes he heard at work. She told him she hated jokes.
You don’t have to listen to them. Just erase the message.
He called her to tell her the details of everything that happened. First thing in the morning. When he was walking to work. After the lunch crowd cleared. At the end of his shift. Later, after his dinner.
Later, when the news was on.
Much later, when he could not sleep.
He bought her clothes. She said she didn’t even allow her own mother to do that.
Hey, if I’m at the thrift store and I see a skirt that I know you’d like, I’m going to buy it. You don’t have the right to tell me I can’t buy it.
You just don’t have to wear it.
Kathy was scooping rice out of the pot and onto the plates when Steve came into the kitchenette, cleaning his ears with a Q-tip.
She shuddered with disgust.
“Hey, baby, I’m all clean now. I don’t smell like work anymore.”
He stood there and looked at her, twiddling away. She turned about and grabbed the mango salsa from the fridge. She stepped past him to grab a can of black beans from the cabinet.
She opened the can. Dug a spoon into the can to release the beans. There was a slight sucking sound as the beans fell into the small pot. She turned on the burner.
“Hey, everything looks edible!” he joked.
“Dinner‘ll be ready in five minutes.” She couldn’t look at him. Damn Q-tip.
He leaned in. “Gimme a smooch.”
“NOT NOW.” She pushed him away. She didn’t mean to, she didn’t want to. She knew that if she looked at him, looked past his skinny bare chest, past his cobalt blue boxer shorts, she’d see the hurt in his eyes. “It’s not you, it’s me,” she had tried to say the week before, sitting in the car, her car, but he had cut her off before the words were fully out of her mouth.
“That’s what they all say,” he had choked.
She didn’t break it off that night in the car; she was afraid to. And she didn’t break it off as the beans bubbled in the pot, though she had wanted to. But she had to wait. She had to be patient. As for that evening, she had already made it clear that he would not be spending the night (“The deadline…” she had said, her hands in the air, palms facing up.)
He would be seeing the new doctor soon. He’d be back on medication. It wouldn’t make any difference, though. She could not be with one who could not make clear what is true, what is not true, one who didn’t seem to grasp the concept himself.
“Tell me about work,” she said, stirring the beans.
“You’re so good to me,” he said. He slipped his arms around her. She wished she had told him to get dressed. She wished she had cancelled the dinner. She wished he were not there, that she had not let this start, that she had realized how this would go, or rather that she had listened to that part of her that realized it all along.
Maybe the meds would work this time, he had told her, earlier, as the bathwater grew tepid around her chilling body. In two weeks, the seas would stop rolling, he said, as she sipped her wine and closed her eyes, even as his eyes were on her goosepimpling flesh. Sure, maybe the pills would make him want to stay in bed, sleep his life away but, baby, even if they made him feel like that again he was going to stay on them this time because, baby, he understood how important it was to stay on the drugs this time, that he would have to accept that his illness is real and, with her love, he could make it, if only because he knew she believed in him the way no one else ever, ever had.