LEAH SOPHIA DWORKIN
You can’t catch the cockroach. I can’t catch the cockroach. When I can’t catch that cockroach I say I’m going to set the apartment on fire. When you ask why, I tell you it’s how I feel and you say feelings are not good reasons to make decisions. Feelings are not good reasons to set things on fire. I tell you that we are living in the future and the facts are based on something else here. You are watching a commercial and you put a cigarette out in the ashtray and light another cigarette and all you say back is nothing, because you are watching a commercial.
The city is sinking and about to go underwater. You don’t understand that the city is sinking and about to go underwater. I can smell the trash outside getting wet with anticipation. Hovering about, the fruit flies are going at it, they’re laying their eggs even faster now, readying for the baby boom, guzzling rot from their champagne flutes and pumping out egg after egg after egg after egg after egg after egg after egg after egg after egg after egg until everything is covered in eggs.
On Saturday morning I pick up your dry cleaning for the last time. I get a green juice from my juice place for the last time. When juice-guy’s rubber gloved hands throw in the parsley the whole place smells like someone’s mowed the lawn. I smell what it smells like after someone’s mowed the lawn for the last time. Swallowing, I wonder if this will be the last time I use a straw. I suck for the last time. I walk around the block and other people are walking around the block just for the sake of walking around the block for the first time for the last time. The stores that always close first have already shut down. No one is going to be needing salt scrub from the dead sea, for instance. No one is going to be buying reproduction Danish Modern coffee tables, for instance. No one is going to be thrifting for Prada handbags, for instance. The Chinese restaurant is open and the Jews are inside, right where they’re meant to be, their faces veiled in steam over spicy hotpots of Chinese lobster. I order to-go for the last time, chicken and broccoli off the American side of the menu for you, and from other side of the menu, a pickled fish soup for myself. While waiting, I make eye contact with a curly little boy who is crying at his noodles while the rest of his family is slurping them up. He hasn’t figured out how to use chopsticks yet. Fingers struggle with sticks. I could put his chopstick training wheels on with a hair tie, if I wanted to, I could help him with the noodles in the way his family isn’t. My chopstick training wheels could turn his last time into a happy first, but our eyes are interrupted by glaring dad eyes from under a yarmulke and the boy looks back down at his frustrated noodles and now our to-go is ready. On my way out I grab you some extra duck sauce packets-in case. I see the nest of fortune cookies, but pass.
On my way back in my feet squish on the wet carpet in the downstairs lobby as I come through the front door and check the mailbox for the last time: Time Warner bills, repeat IRS notifications that I’ve been ignoring, and a discount coupon from Sephora. The coupon lets me know that it will be my birthday soon, if I come in next week I’ll get a complimentary bath oil that smells like cupcakes plus 15% off of whatever else my skin might need. I am a valued customer and so they thank me for that. A glossy girl smiles under her party hat holding a photographic replica of my free gift. I fold her in half. I walk up two flights of stairs, unlock the apartment door and throw the half-girl on the countertop along with the rest of the mail and my keys. As I’m shuffling through the kitchen drawer I tell you how before you know it, we’ll have to swim everywhere; a pair of scissors, some tea-stained envelopes, postage stamps and two balls of rubber bands, until I finally find it, the old little red travel clock. I can’t remember the last time we needed a clock, it still ticks. I put it on the bedside table. There is no present like the time I say, just because. I wait for you to react but you’re somewhere in between me and the screen. In its light, your face is blue. In your hand, the remote nods. The ground floors are expected to be fully submerged by Monday.
I can’t make eye contact with the downstairs neighbors on Sunday morning. No one asks if they can move up a floor because everyone knows the answer. What matters about real estate now is the waterline. Jose in 1B has sealed off his doorway with duct tape in the shape of a gigantic cross. I feel his eyes through the peephole where they have always been- spying on the lobby in order to reveal his findings at the next annual co-op board meeting. Last year, he proposed the idea that we should purchase security cameras to pinpoint who’s been roughing through the trash. I know this because I’m on the board, I was at that meeting. I’m not sure why I’m on the board, years ago my mother made me volunteer to be on the board. Since then, I’ve always been on the board. Jose also brought to our attention that someone in the building is hiding an unapproved puppy. Pets are allowed only if they are approved by the board. We are that kind of building, and it says so right on the lease. Multiple times he’s said he discovered evidence of puppy on hallway carpet. I know, but don’t say: it’s the British model on the top floor, the one who always seems to have a new cleaning lady to take out her rubbish. I’ve seen it’s ears sticking out of her black Longchamp, I’ve seen it’s little legs struggle up the stairs. Lease approved or not, her penthouse Cheweenie will likely outlive us all. The purchasing of trash security cameras is still up for debate in the co-op board email chain. Looking at the door now, I realize that his view out is blocked by the sticky side of the tape.
I walk up the stairs with takeout for the last time. I walk up the stairs for the last time. You are glad we live on the third floor but I wish we lived in the basement. I’m the eldest child so I was born knowing that it’s always easiest to go first. I tell you that the Wirner family in 1A have finally removed the stroller from the hallway. I feel victorious when the stroller is gone, but then I more think what the fuck is my obsession with hating people who leave their strollers in places. I wonder if the baby will float. I’ve heard that babies can do that if you throw them into a swimming pool. I tell you I wish we lived in the basement and you roll your eyes and sigh and light a cigarette.
On Sunday night the sidewalks begin leaking. While you’re in the shower, humming god-knows-what, I watch out the window. The water has started to pool around the bases of the street lamps. Eventually, sloshes up against the stoop. This takes a while, it rises slowly. But you’re still showering, still humming that same hum. I don’t know why your showers border on forever, but it’s something I’ve gotten used to. I used to like to imagine you were creating a new language, or writing a script in your head, but now I know what you do, and it isn’t any of that, it’s just you and your yellow washcloth, scrubbing. Credits have rolled before you’re done showering. So many dinners have been prepped, cooked, served, and gotten cold while still been washing your hair, pumicing your calluses. My aunt Maud died once while you were in there sudsing, humming obliviously. You’ve almost always missed four or five calls from your mother, before you’ve gotten out. This says something about you, but more something about your mother. She calls you so much. I’m not sure what else you would have had the potential to grow into with a mother who calls so much.
Finally, the shhhhhh of the shower water stops. There is one footstep, then a second one, the muted thud of the glass door carelessly coming to a close, the silent nothing of a sound that can only mean a naked body is pausing, is wrapping itself in a towel. The clocks tick is steady, marking time just like it did in history. Out the window, a few drunken stragglers peruse by, doing a syncopated puddle-shuffle. Occasionally, one yelps.
When you finally come out from the bathroom you’ve misted yourself with my rosewater spray. What? I ask, because you are looking at me like you are looking at something. I smell like you you say smiling, pushing your cheek close to my face, as if allowing me to smell myself. You finish drying off and we get into bed. I let you be baby spoon and you tell me that you love the rain as we both listen to the wet sounds outside. Like parentheses, you say, as you nestle your crook into mine. I don’t tell you how a functional pair of parentheses are designed to hold something else in between them. I clamp my arm around your chicken-filled gut. The birds being digested are warm. What we are is two ends going the same way.
Before too long, you’re snoring. You’ve told me I love the rain so many times; though you are always dry, inside, in front of a screen, or maybe playing pre-recorded rain storms on the surround sound. Anyway, this isn’t rain. The seams of the sidewalk are being torn apart. The air is heavy with something else. I know the part you like about the rain; this isn’t it. This isn’t some tap dance choreography with SoHo umbrellas. This isn’t an excuse to sleep in. I don’t look out the window again until morning, when the clock makes the sound that tells me it’s time.
You never learned how to swim so you’ll have to stay in the apartment. You’re glad I know how to swim so well. I don’t have a choice, it’s impossible to unlearn how to swim.
I say I’m hungry and you say, you’re the swimmer and we both know that I’m the one that has to go out again. You stare at the black television screen. All the shows have been cancelled. Wi-Fi is something that existed in history. Sometimes I draw emojis on paper to try and tell you what I’m feeling because I don’t have the words to say it and you don’t have the ears.
Hopefully there are still cans of soup at the bodega, and you ask for cigarettes, which I knew you’d ask for before you said the word cigarettes. I decide I’m going to start drinking soda because that’s how little anything matters. I put on my parka to protect myself from the things in the water. I saran wrap my face, and poke holes where my mouth is; pull my hood up over my ears. I jump out the window and swim to the bodega. I don’t want to think about what the things in the water are but it’s hard to not think about what you are in when you are in it. The water is a complicated liquid and the oil floats on top, like a salad dressing of whatever was leftover on the streets. I try to ignore the dead hair that weaves itself between my gloved hands as I make strokes. Every once in a while another hood swims by. Every once in a while there’s a floater. Old receipts and plastic bags from Duane Reade stick to my legs as I kick. A frayed piece of blue tarp wraps itself around my sleeve so I tear it away and reveal the word Patagonia. The letters of Patagonia are hard to make out through the dirty water.
I take a long time to get there and try to keep my head above the water. My grandma used to swim like that after she’d had her hair done. She’d always just had her hair done, without her hair done she wouldn’t have been herself. Without her hair done she would have been someone else entirely. Women have been working to keep their hair dry since the beginning of time. I can swim this way because of evolution.
The bodega guy is treading water in front of the diving entrance. I know the drill, but he reminds me that I need to check out with him on my way back up, show him what I’ve looted, pay. I hold my breath and dive. Inside the bodega, there are others.
(I’m not going to talk about what goes on in the bodega.)
I come back wet and smell worse. I smell worse every time I leave the house. You say you smell bad and I hate you for not knowing how to swim as I unwrap your cigarettes from the protective plastic bag and hand them over. My filthy cuticles pass the pack to your fingers which are still pretty clean considering what kind of a week it’s been; your nails are still clear enough that I can see the same little white moons that have always been there, calcium deposits or something. My nails are going gray. My parka sleeve is dripping. I look at you and think that with all that fat you should at least be able to float but I don’t say it out loud because it feels like a mean thing to say. I wonder about the baby downstairs, if it’s still downstairs, if it’s true that babies can float or not. I’ve thought a lot about using a baby as a flotation device, but never quite so literally.
(I’m not going to talk about the time I tried to use a baby as a flotation device.)
I unzip my coat and the skin underneath is a darker gray than it was when I left. I click open the soda tab and the tab still makes the reliable tsssss sound that it was designed to make.
I just don’t believe they’re out of cool ranch, this comes out of your mouth first thing, so I get out of bed and start getting ready to go out again. I shove an arm in a sleeve. No you don’t have to…, you start from the pillow, retracting in the way that needy people often do to reinforce that they’re easy going. I zip up my hood to protect myself from the things in the water. I go out. I come back. The trip to the bodega feels as uneventful as it used to once upon a time when I used to walk there. Sometimes, when we were good, when the weather was good, we’d walk there together. Sometimes I’d even go and you’d want to come with me, just for the sake of being together, just because of walking. To hear the birds, you’d say, surrounded by silent pigeons and their shit, to smoke a cigarette outside in nature like god intended. Sometimes, you’d go alone, like if there were dishes that were about to be washed by me, you’d throw on flip flops, dash out the door, come back with dish soap. I try to tell you how the scene has really changed since the olden days when you used to get the dish soap. There are differences in the streets, it has changed down under in the aisles. There are less viable options. When it comes to dish soap, we don’t have a choice between lavender and citrus, for instance. It’s hard to distinguish the flavors through the murky water, it’s hard to grasp a soldier that’s fallen in the back of the rack. It’s hard not to kick other people in the face. It’s hard not to get kicked in the face. Then there’s the floaters, the checkpoints, the messages trailing behind the low flying planes and humming ‘copters. Whatever novelty this new world once had is already gone. They are, in fact, out of cool ranch. When I come back with a can of lentils instead, you whine cool ranch? like a brat. I tell you it’s sustenance. Pleasureless, you say with a little frown and a dismissive wave of your fat fingers, pointing out that the only ingredients listed are lentils, salt.
Nacho cheese, you say the next morning when the sun yawns open our eyes. I know you are referring to the flavor, not the cheese, because I know you. There are no Doritos I say it like I mean it because I mean it. It is a fact. They are not restocking the Doritos. There weren’t any yesterday and there won’t be any of them today. I ask if you could start writing shopping lists. The idea of making lists ahead of time bums you out, and you make this apparent by squinting your face. It isn’t as convenient as it used to be, I say, referring to the bodega. I want less trips. I want less dives. I’m tired. Conditions are only getting worse and I know it without needing a report. I don’t think in lists, you say, resistant. But you’re a writer I say. I’m not sure what your resistance is to writing things down since what you are supposed to be is a person who writes things down. You are good at writing things down; I fell in love with you because you are so good at writing things down. I’m a poet, you say, adding that poets don’t think in lists. I think lists can be poems but there is no good reason to argue with a poet.
Cigarettes, you say, so I get up off the couch and get ready to go out again. There is nothing more exhausting than fighting a poet.
Gummy worms, is the request one evening and I say no. I’m putting my foot down. Gummy worms are not sustenance and I will not swim to the bodega anymore once it’s gotten dark out, not after what happened the last time. You don’t know what it’s like out there. Even though I’ve tried to tell you again and again. I’ve told you how bad it looks. I’ve done by best to illustrate how it feels. I guess a non-swimmer could never understand. What good were all those beta carotene pills? you taunt, referring to my vitamin phase, when I’d told you the orange capsules had such strong carrot essence that I’d someday be able to see in the dark if I ingested them on a daily basis and for a long time kept up with the routine. I haven’t taken the beta-carotene pills in over two years. It was a short phase. With my average vision I study your face, which stays neutral and unimpressed. I thought you were a strong swimmer, you say, and I lazily say nope, though what I mean is no more night swimming.
You don’t understand the dark. I start to tell you about my Grandmother’s stories hoping they might help you be able to understand. Every time she told a story from when she was young it ended with her rushing to get home before the sun went down. You are bored so you paw at my nipple. I swat you away. Before this I never understood her endings, I go on, I never got what the fuck the sun had to do with it. I always thought her parents must have kept a strict curfew, stern immigrants with early bedtimes. Perhaps the local paper had drilled this fear into her, maybe her co-workers, the women at the gas company who, like her, went from door to door giving wives demonstrations on how to use their new stoves, had warned her about the night. Maybe one of the young women hadn’t shown up one pay day, let’s call her Mildred Platz, and Ms. Platz only resurfaced as part of a headline a few days later, next to a picture of her smiling face in a company apron, besides the words out!, late!, dead!. I tell your rolling eyes how after years of these endings I finally just asked what was the rush when it came to the sun. Her answer was simple. “Well,” she said, putting down her Lipton, “I had no choice. There wasn’t any light.” Before then I’d never considered the streets without street lamps. What she was trying to tell me is what I’m trying to tell you, without electricity the dark is real. Blue evening streets nightly fade to indefinite, abysmal pathways. Memory and familiarity are the only navigation. The grid is gone. The mover can only stagger in unsureness, repeatedly running into unidentifiable objects, self-doubt, hands desperately palming against expansive never ending walls. Underwater or in the past, the streets at night are no longer streets in absolute darkness.
When the back stock guy at the bodega pulls the bodies out in the morning, he says that every day more bodies are drowning from the night dives. The water is getting murkier, that’s one thing. Many of the swimmers are getting tired, lose too much air swimming around in the aisles, get it kicked out of them accidentally or on purpose. Apparently one night there was just one six-pack of tomato soup left and one swimmer hit another swimmer on the head with it and the whole bodega filled up with blood. At least now I know there aren’t sharks, the bodega guy says, treading, chewing on a piece of gum.
On the bright side, the meatpacking has gone under and the clubs have shut down. Nights are so quiet; we’ve both been sleeping so soundly.
Food, you eventually start saying.
Water, you begin to say after more time passes, so I get up off the couch and get ready to go out again. The ritualistic No you don’t have to’s have stopped. I zip up my hood. I go out. I come back. Just as I’m pulling myself up out of the water and onto our window sill I see that the windows been marked. Taped to the window is a piece of government paper, the only thing on the paper is a red A. I don’t know what this is, I don’t know what this means. When I come in through the window with the can of black beans and a damp floppy packet of Kraft singles you aren’t in the room. You aren’t in the bathroom. You aren’t in the bed. You aren’t in the kitchen. You aren’t masturbating in the closet with my underwear. Though you aren’t in front of a single one of them, the screens are still there.
I walk up a floor to ask the neighbors, who won’t open their doors but compromise by talking back at me through their peepholes. The voice in 4A hasn’t seen you. 4B doesn’t answer, 4C isn’t sure because they don’t know who you are, our fault for never introducing ourselves to the new neighbors, who don’t know who I am either, nervously ask where I live. The model up in 5 also shuts me out, but her British accent tells me that maybe she’ll see me at fashion week. Fashion week is still happening? I ask, of course she says casually, as the paws of her tiny cheweenie scratch rodent-like on her side of the door. They sound like paws that want to go for a walk. I go back down the flights, into our apartment, double lock the door behind me. There is nothing to do but wait and see. I don’t know if it is good or bad to be taken, better or worse. I don’t know who takes, where they would take you to. The part of me that still has faith believes that once they get to know you, you’ll be returned. I hope that wherever you are, it’s not in the water. Even though the club-less streets run quiet as rivers, tonight I won’t sleep well. It’s my first night sleeping in the apartment alone.
I have less demands than you so in some ways it gets easier. I’m fine just eating the jar of sprouted almonds, for example, I’m fine with eating the cold contents of canned tomatoes. I eat can after can of cold tomatoes.