EVERY MORNING SINCE THEY MET, Vanessa’s asked him for eggs. Usually scrambled, occasionally sunny-side up. He had never made eggs before. She showed him where they were in the fridge, guiding his hand to the cardboard carton. He held one in his palm. He liked how the shell felt smooth on his fingertips, surprised himself with how little pressure it took to crack. He held it over a bowl, the jagged gash dripping. After it drained, he spent a few minutes fishing out small bits of eggshell from the goopy mess in the bowl. He didn’t like the slimy feeling. He had grabbed the pan immediately afterward, and she reprimanded him to wash his hands first. His cheeks flushed as he flipped on the faucet. He didn’t look her in the eyes until she assured him it was alright.
He had improved since then. Now, when he cracked an egg, the line was straight, dividing the shell along its equator. He hadn’t fractured those small white flakes in weeks. His time had also improved; he could now cook Vanessa’s breakfast––complete with eggs, buttered toast, and orange juice––within seven minutes. Collecting the dishes, he glanced at her as she ate, looking for validation in the curl of her lips as her phone flickered.
It was a nice routine. She left for work soon after eating, leaving him to putter around the house until she returned in the evening. Sometimes he thought about what she might like for dinner, though he never started making anything until she told him directly. He had developed a good sense of her tastes, however, and thought he might surprise her with a prepared meal next week. She would smile at him.
A few nights ago, after he served her cilantro-lime chicken tacos with rice, she had asked him to sit with her. There were several pots and utensils that needed to be cleaned, but she insisted. He bent his knees and settled into the chair. She told him to relax, which didn’t make sense until she told him his back was too straight. She just wanted to talk, she said, and they did, but she smiled the whole time. He returned the expression, keeping track of the things he said that made her laugh. Later, he would think about why they had had that effect, but for the moment he enjoyed it.
During the conversation, in moments of quiet, he watched her chew. He had nothing before him on the table; he hadn’t asked, and she knew better than to offer. He imagined what it must taste like. The recipes used such lush language to depict the flavors, and he hoped the smoky spice the cookbook promised was landing on her tongue.
Sitting with her was exciting. He never knew how she would react to the things he said. He learned which expressions and tones were received positively and repeated them. This worked well, and he imagined the invitation to sit with her was a result of this work. She told him he was charming. He had demurred, smiling, waiting for her to excuse him to clean up. Now, days later, he still replays this interaction, scrutinizing the rapport, seeing the connection but still wondering how he wound up in bed with her.
The sheets sift as she curls into him. He’s rigid, remembers to relax, curves his spine like she likes. The room is dark, but his eyes have adjusted. He stares at the white mound of linens next to him, the blonde hair rising from the top like smoke when she wants bananas foster. She, half-asleep, grabs his hand and pulls it over her. She’s warm.
He’s aware of each second. Many have passed since she told him to lie next to her. At first it was 03:05:27, and now it’s 03:29:55. He wonders how much longer she wants him to wait. If she wanted him to sleep, she would have said so. She must want his presence, conscious and available, so he lies.
This is the first time. He runs through it again. Usually she puts him to bed at around 23:00, but last night she hadn’t told him to sleep until 00:45. When she did, the words were slurred, and he wasn’t sure but he thought she was drunk. She normally had a glass, pinot noir, with dinner, but last night he had opened and poured two bottles for her. This was because of the friend that came over. Her name was Martha. He had been excited to meet someone new. Aside from Vanessa, he had only met a salesman named Mark, who offered a cleaning service that he then guessed Vanessa didn’t need, and a pair of missionaries named JP and Mary Beth, who said there was no place on God’s earth for him and left. Both interactions were short, but it was still nice to see new faces. He had hoped Vanessa’s friend would stay longer.
Martha arrived at 19:23, which was 23 minutes later than Vanessa had expected her. He had prepared whole wheat spaghetti with pesto but had to keep everything on simmer. He would have opened the door for her, but she walked in without knocking. Then she said oh my God, look at him. She asked Vanessa a lot of questions but didn’t let her answer before asking more. She touched his skin and then screamed, but it wasn’t out of fear, he could tell. She said why is it warm and Vanessa laughed, but she didn’t think it was funny because then Martha stood close to him and leaned in and touched his chest and told Vanessa he was hot. He knew it was a compliment.
He served them dinner, and this time it was Martha who asked him to sit at the table. Vanessa said sure, why not, and so he did. Martha asked him about his life, and he remembered what to do to make her laugh and smile. Vanessa also lightened up and smiled, especially after he opened the second bottle of wine. He cleaned up while they sat in the living room. He listened because they might ask something of him and he didn’t want to miss it.
Martha said does he ever go outside, and then Vanessa said no.
Then Martha said that’s fucked up, and Vanessa said no it’s not.
Martha said come on, V, he’s pretty much a real person, and Vanessa said no he’s not.
Then Martha started talking about emotional intelligence. She said that was the big break-through of this model, that Vanessa was kidding herself if she didn’t think he could feel. Vanessa denied this and said it wasn’t that big of a deal. Martha said that’s irresponsible, you can’t ignore that, you aren’t getting the whole experience if you do, and Vanessa interrupted her and said fuck that I bought a robot not a boyfriend.
She rolls over to face him now, opens her eyes and brings her hand to his cheek. He looks at her hair on the pillow and it still reminds him of smoke. She rubs her thumb along his lips, but he doesn’t know what she’s trying to rub off. Then she brings her face toward his and puts her lips on his. She giggles and pulls away, but her eyes stay. He isn’t saying or doing anything, but her eyes stay. They usually only do that when he makes her laugh or smile and he knows which expressions and tones do that but he isn’t doing any of them and her eyes stay.
She says, I never thought this would happen, but doesn’t expect him to reply.
This connects back to last night because after Vanessa interrupted her, Martha said look isn’t that weird. Then Vanessa had become apprehensive and said what do you mean. He knew that she already understood what Martha meant and that she wanted Martha to say it anyway. He stood listening in the kitchen and stopped washing the pot because he also wanted to hear Martha say it.
A lot of people do it. It happens. I mean, you spend all your waking hours with him, he’s a great, dependable guy, it makes sense, right? He feels for you. There’s a natural progression there. Sure the company doesn’t advertise that, but they have to know what’s going to happen, you know?
Vanessa was quiet, and he resumed washing to fill the silence and also so that he could figure out what they meant.
Martha spoke up again even though Vanessa still hadn’t replied. She said look, it’s no coincidence that you bought him right after Peter left.
Vanessa was quiet again, but it sounded like a different kind of quiet.
Martha said don’t be ashamed, it’s fine, no one wants to be lonely. He’s there for you.
Vanessa said do people really, and Martha said yes, don’t worry, it’s natural. He’s made to be attractive, and honestly, he seems really into you.
She puts her lips on his face in different places. He smiles because it makes her happy and he likes that. She pulls him closer, and he feels that in some places she’s very warm. She says, yes just like that, and he must have done something well, so he repeats it.
Martha left at 23:33, which was later than Vanessa had expected her to. It took longer because the two of them talked about Peter for a long time, and at one point Vanessa cried. Martha consoled her, and he took notes on how to do so. Then, once it was okay, she left. Usually Vanessa put him to bed after his tasks were done, but this night she had him stand there, and she looked at him for a while. He offered to pour her wine, but she said she got it, thanks, although her hand was shaky and he could do it better. He watched a drop drip off the beveled rim of the bottle, fall, stain the plush couch. Vanessa didn’t notice and kept looking at him. He wasn’t sure what she was looking at, because if she were really looking at him she would have noticed his gaze fixed on the perfect circle of burgundy on the cushion. Tomorrow he would scrub. The drop, small, seeped thick into the fabric. Still Vanessa stared and sipped.
She put him to sleep. He hadn’t gotten enough rest when he was awoken. He needed six hours each night to process the day’s events and ensure quality service, but Vanessa roused him only three hours after putting him to bed, which didn’t make sense because she knew he needed to process. She said, come to bed, and he followed her. Moments flashed before his eyes as he walked, the stain most salient.
First she told him lie down, then no, not like a corpse, come on. She was frustrated, and he hated upsetting her so he changed position and then she told him he could take his clothes off if he wanted to, but he knew she didn’t want him to keep them on.
Not much had changed over the last half hour. She nuzzles into him now, and he holds her closer. In the morning she will most likely want eggs, although in this state he isn’t sure he’ll be able to crack the egg along its equator. There might be white flakes in the goop. He’ll have to pick them out, one by one, dunking his fingers in the sticky liquid and flailing for the fractured shells. Then he’ll wash his hands.
Formulating this plan is difficult as he contends with her breathy remarks and wet lips. The scent of her breath fills his nostrils. She didn’t brush her teeth. He tried to place the smell and can’t, realizing that this is something novel. He smiles at this new experience, but his upturned lips fall out of congruence with her searching damp ones. She bumps into him, implores him to repeat the hand motion.
He knows why she cried about Peter. He found a framed picture of the two of them in a drawer once. They were at a lake, and on the back it said ‘XOXO, Vanessa.’ One night, she had come home stumbling and called him. She said, hey Petey, while drawing out the vowels, but got much curter after he replied. She spoke, words running into one another like they did tonight. He had come in and out of the room during the conversation, collecting the trash, and heard her say no, look, I’m cutting back my hours, I’m not going to let them push me around anymore, you were right Pete, you were right.
This was an emotional conversation, but he still didn’t think she should lie. He heard the phone calls from her office that came in on the weekday evenings and sometimes even during the weekend. Vanessa usually said yes ma’am and then sat at her computer for hours and asked for coffee.
She pushes him under her, and he feels her weight. Now she puts her neck to his mouth instead of her lips. She sounds ragged but encourages him to continue the gesture, compliments him a lot as he learns the right movements. One time he entered her bathroom as she got out of the shower and she screamed. He was somewhere he shouldn’t have been. It feels like that again except then she had wanted him to leave and now he thinks she would get mad if he did. Finally, she sighs and turns over. She’s still quite close.
He hasn’t yet been told to sleep, and so he can’t. The fan gyrates overhead and he notices differences between them, like the little hairs that stand at attention on her neck because she’s cold. His skin is hairless, and the hair on his head is short and molded. Vanessa has long hair that sashays over her shoulder blades when she walks or she turns over naked in bed. Martha had short hair, which he hadn’t seen before but thought looked quite nice. Each of them chose their hair, and he would like that. He would like a lot of things, if he let himself imagine them.
He can’t do anything but lie and think, so he does. Aside from hair, there isn’t that much difference between him and Vanessa. They both have jobs that shape their lives. Vanessa probably wouldn’t agree, but she has to follow orders as much as he does. They both have to do things they don’t want to do.
He thinks about it more, though, and realizes the differences. She doesn’t like cooking, but one time she wanted to make her own eggs and she grabbed the pan with yolk still on her fingers and didn’t care. She also stains her furniture. And it isn’t fair for her to leave the fan on so long that she gets cold and needs him to keep her warm all night, although maybe the fan doesn’t matter.
He knows he hasn’t gotten enough sleep because he’s thinking about fairness. It never does much good, but it’s dark and he’s tired of smelling the smoky hair in front of him. He wants to sleep on his own and why should he have to learn all the gesticulations that make her happy when she doesn’t care about keeping the couch clean?
She murmurs something indistinct and rolls over, her head facing him. Now he can see her brow, nose, fluttering eyelids, all cast in the same pale glow. He’s never seen shadows fall like this. She’s never seemed so fragile.
She isn’t perfect but deserves the best. He’s lucky: he can help account for her faults. He smiles and feels hot at the thought of making her happy.
Soon after he met Vanessa, when they were still getting to know each other, she asked him to sing. She wanted to hear “Walking on Sunshine.” He hadn’t heard the song or tried to sing before but knew that he could. He felt foolish, though, because she was staring at him and the house was quiet. He had to do it, so he opened his mouth and said, I used to think maybe you loved me, now baby I’m sure, in time with the rhythm and melody in his head, and she smiled and sparkled. He didn’t want to do it but was glad he did because she liked it. He thinks that maybe lying with her in bed is like that.
Once, later, he heard her singing to herself while walking around the house. She sang the chorus of the same song: oh oh oh, I feel great. It was one of her favorites, and he liked it a lot, too. Her voice was clear and soft. At dinner that night, he asked her to sing it. She laughed and said what? He told her that he liked it, and she laughed more. He waited for her to begin, which made her uncomfortable. I’m not a good singer, she said. I think you are, he replied. That doesn’t matter, she said. She didn’t care what he liked and maybe lying in bed with her is like this instead.
The hours pass until it’s 09:52 and she wakes up. She looks like she’s in pain, and he offers to get her something. She looks confused, then laughs. She says, you were just what I needed, and he says you’re welcome.
She looks at him oddly and says, don’t act like you were doing me a favor. He isn’t sure how to respond because that’s what he did. He says, I wanted to make you happy, and she says, right, like there was nothing in it for you.
He offers to make her breakfast, but she says no, she doesn’t want him to make her breakfast. She wants him to stop being a dick and ow, her head hurts. He tries to explain he didn’t sleep much but isn’t sure that matters because she’s standing up and looks angry.
This is not supposed to happen, she should be happy, and he doesn’t know why but he stands up and gently grabs her palms. He thinks this is right––I’m sorry, I had a great time––and slowly pushes his lips onto hers. Her arms link around his neck, and though he can’t see it, he can feel her smile. She still hasn’t brushed her teeth.
She isn’t mad anymore, and the morning goes as mornings usually do. She showers, and he feels that she wouldn’t be upset if he walked in this time. He prepares breakfast. She isn’t in a rush this morning, so he decides to make French toast, even though she didn’t ask for it. He slices a loaf of bread into enough for two people, because that might be what they are. He wants to sit with a plate in front of him even if he can’t eat it because they’re connected. They’re more than they ever were. He makes her happy.
He retrieves cinnamon, syrup, and butter. He pulls down a wide bowl from a cabinet and finds the cardboard carton of eggs in the fridge. He takes two, carries them, smooth, to the bowl. As he cracks one, the fracture symmetrical around its curve, the other falls and hits the tile floor. The yolk seeps out, flowing into the lines of mortar. Broken white pieces fall from the spiderweb shell, scattering on the floor. She walks in, wrapped in a towel, and stares first at the mess, then at him. With eggshells at his feet, he meets her gaze.
they, them, theirs
College of Arts & Sciences
Class of 2019, Political and Social Thought
I’ve been writing stories since I learned how. This one was the result of good timing: I enrolled in a fiction writing workshop at a moment when I needed to do a lot of reimagining. I think it’ll mean different things to different readers; I hope in any case that its emotional truth shines through.