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Issue #4 |

Housescape

Both issues were tabled and solved in the same conversation: Geri and Jim would date one another, and they would rent out their basement. It was a ranging, hour-long discussion that took into account their finances and career prospects, as well as their mental health and fitness. Geri wrote notes on legal paper and, after, laid them out in order of tentative importance along the kitchen counter. Then Jim dumped the coffee. Three years ago, the two out-of-towners had been thrown together into their ivy-stricken DC rowhouse by an online ad. Geri had thought Jim was a lunk, and Jim, that Geri was a mouse. But they got along. They fumbled, and helped one another cope with the daily inconvenience of living. It took all three years for them to develop the idea that a different attitude might improve the situation, and that was when they started dating with a view to get married and have a child.

DC was a city known for its psychopaths. People there didn’t mind living in a cramped and inhumane way. Geri saw the correlation. There were three closet-less rooms in the upstairs, and each could fit a full mattress and a piss pot—the realtor’s phrase. Geri, a painter, used one as a studio. Since the two started dating, they had been calling Jim’s room—by far the largest, with the necessary space to lunge and stride—their room. In Geri’s room, former residents had left a pillowed leather headboard that reached to the ceiling. The leather was red and cracked. The thing was impossible to move, and so was the series of thin-mirrored shelves screwed and shellacked down the length of one wall in a staircase pattern. The other walls were wood panel painted faint-of-heart yellow. It was nothing Geri would have chosen. It announced and revealed too wholly. Still, it was her only escape. She often lay on her comforter with soft music playing, trying to catch her breath and watching through window blinds the mid-afternoon sun set over the houses behind theirs. Geri took life seriously, and it seemed to brutalize and shame her. Life was one bad relationship that she meant to carry on in private.

They held interviews for the basement—a long space that held the washing machine and a shower stall whose drain Geri had once plunged with great expectations during a flood—via Skype. She and Jim kept a dehumidifier in the middle of the concrete floor, and the cockroaches lazily came and went when Geri emptied the bucket. In the ad, they had not disguised these truths, and still three people applied. One played the tuba, and so it was down to either a personal trainer or someone in business. The personal trainer said he would use the basement to work on a series of athletic inventions.

That was how they landed on Ray Dulvany, the businessman. Ray had dark hair that he wore slicked to the side and a beard that masked much of his face—high on his cheekbones and low on his neck, but kept trim. He was moving from Utah. During the interview, his eyes moved so that he seemed to be scrolling through spreadsheets in another open window on his computer screen while chatting with them, and Geri was glad that she and Jim did not seem to interest him much. It bodes well for living together in the same house. Strangers were the best company in close quarters. They would be sharing a kitchen, after all. He would be placing his stocking feet on her couch, or doing yoga on their area rug in the morning’s dark hours.

There were moments in the interview when Geri or Jim would land on a monthly rent that the other didn’t think was right, or when they disagreed regarding some complication Ray might face in moving—the dates, what furniture the basement would fit and so on. During those moments, Ray would interrupt. His voice, then, was high and his eyes began to dart from side to side. It was clear he believed his solutions were obvious.

The interview ran long. There were times when Ray asked a question and Geri found she lost track of herself, giving a long and winding answer, talking about nearby wine country or the peaches sold outside Shenandoah. Ray would rest his bearded face on his fist and smile at her. It was startling, and had to be a trick of the camera. Skype was not built to convey that type of look.
Once the interviews were over, Geri said that Ray seemed just a little whiney, a bit preachy—like he could snap at any moment.

“I thought he was gay, too,” Jim said.

Geri did not feel her relationship with Jim was off to a good start. He did not seem to understand a word she said, and she often told him so, as she wrapped her arm around his after pillow talk. When she fell asleep, she escorted Jim through her dreamscape, offering him a way to make sense of her, appealing to the Jim she was sure existed beneath.

*

Geri was a self-portraitist, and over the last few years she’d built some critical acclaim within local academic circles. A Washingtonian review said she left it all on the canvas. Translated, this meant that Geri was considered lowbrow and inarticulate—a disappointment in person. She thought of her work as the clay brick of the art world, useful for what she enabled critics and others to do and say—not art of its own accord.

In backalley galleries and university libraries, Jim couldn’t separate one painting from the other. He thought they were all about depression or various cancers or “the rivers of life”—a phrase Jim often used as though its meaning were obvious—and would tell his friends so, loudly, when they attended her shows.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Geri would say. She could spend hours at work, in awe of this disconnect. There was no apparent remedy, but she tried. She felt her way in. Jim was the best thing that had happened to her portraits, which had once relied on subtlety and nuance.

“They’re not happy pictures, are they?” he would ask his audience. Jim often brought a group of electrical engineers from work along to these events. He felt the gatherings lacked cheer. In the gallery, he saw a space that was open, in the same way that an invasive alien tribe might descend on a planet for the resources—or teenagers, a house where the parents weren’t home. Things slid from Jim’s mouth and there was nowhere in the gallery to hide them. He didn’t think there was a reason to hide them.

Geri sometimes thought he did the same to her—thrust himself, views and all, into a space he believed unoccupied. She imagined there was shrubbery that bordered the edges of her mind, and from there she watched his advances—she decided when to retreat and when move forward. She sensed there was an undiscovered sniper in the murkier regions of her thought who waited for him to go a step too far.

Lately, when she had finished a painting, she would lead Jim into her studio and articulate her portraits with frank detail, as though she were an undergraduate reciting a term paper. She told him why she had done what she did—the method, the medium, and acknowledged ambiguity while explaining its purpose within the work.

He would kiss her forehead and ask whether she felt better now, and wait for some affirmation before he would begin to discuss something else—spoiled yogurt, traffic. Geri would sit, nodding and not listening, feeling invisible and comfortable and frustrated that he had decided, again, not to know her. She wondered when he would say something to which she could respond. If she kept performing her self for Jim, if she kept seeking intimacy, eventually she would run out of mental, spiritual, physical self to convey. In other words, if they kept talking, they might find each other. In other words, if Jim kept talking, they could find each other. She would imagine summoning forward the folds of his thought, their foreheads bound together, and flipping through the contents as she would a kaleidoscope’s slides. Geri would scan Jim’s body up and down before she pressed herself to him—he, flat on a bed, and she not allowing any bend or nook unfilled by the other. He got a kick out of that.

*

Ray Dulvany showed up with a U-Haul trailer hitched to his station wagon. The wagon was black and boxy, and Geri sat staring from the porch for a long time, thinking that an undertaker was moving in next door. It was afternoon, and her feet were resting on the railing so her legs could catch the sun. Ray wasn’t due until evening. She was drinking wine out of a coffee cup, which was her habit: it helped people mind their own business. She was thinking of what she would tell Jim about the undertaker’s odd arrival, and was thinking the undertaker would make for good conversation while helping Ray move in.

Ray got out of the wagon and walked around toward the bottom of the stairs and stood facing Geri. They stared at one another without any acknowledgement—the price paid, Geri thought, for sitting on a porch in DC. He wore shorts with a pattern of crisscrossed golf clubs and a white long-sleeved shirt that was buttoned tightly at the collar and fastened around his wrists. Geri was pitying this man for his shorts, and thinking about the shirt, creeping both up and down this man’s upper half and how it was like Ray’s beard, growing up and down his face like a mask, before she looked up again and saw that very beard.

He was smiling. Both her mind and her bare legs were exposed and it seemed to bring him joy. Geri wanted him jailed.

She smiled widely at Ray Dulvany and called for Jim.

*

Geri and Jim helped him unload the trailer. For people their age—lost in the rear end of a third decade, fumbling to remember where the fourth started—they could still muster exuberant energy when there was a payoff: a peaceful home, new monthly income. They gasped at an ottoman and roundly complimented, expressed jealousy over, a wooden trunk. Ray owned several things that a graduated frat boy might also own, and much of it was blue—the color of a young man asserting himself as a man and nothing else quite yet. There was a crystal-bottomed drink cart that would hold seven different whiskey bottles once it was set up, along with broad-bottomed etched tumblers that stacked neatly into one another. Ray kept the cart in the basement corner, near the staircase. Over the weeks that followed, Geri noticed that the whiskey bottles were never opened. Crates of wine were delivered and the bottles ran a foot deep, displayed on bookshelves. A gallon jug of gin sat on the bottom basement step. Geri found it embarrassing. She would turn her eyes away from the jug whenever she went downstairs to do laundry.

Most of Ray Dulvany’s visitors were female. It seemed he had known them for a long time, attended high school with them, traveled great distances for them, comforted them over long phone calls. Geri did not know people who kept in touch with friends for that long, but she supposed it was not so long for Ray. He was over a decade younger than she was, and almost two decades younger than Jim. Ray often pointed out that Geri was closer in age to him than to Jim, and Geri would correct him. Over time, Jim began to lose patience with Ray’s point, as though proximate age were land worth the battle.

The young women who came to visit Ray were polite and confident, in the way, Geri thought, some teenagers will behave when their friend’s parents are home. They tossed salads in the kitchen using wooden spoons Geri had forgotten she owned. When she would try to leave them be, to give them some privacy, they poured her glasses of red wine. Each had hair that was long and full and soft down to her waist and it set off their pale faces in a way that filled Geri with awe. It seemed knowing Ray was a vitamin, a serum for radiance. The women were finding success in their fields, and the fields struck Geri as being obscure—they were technical specialists or co-directors of automation at a startup. When Geri was young, people became doctors or lawyers or farmers, and it was clear what that meant. It saddened Geri to think there were broad swaths of life she didn’t understand. She imagined her paintings growing dark, and felt certain her work would be deemed irrelevant as soon as she turned fifty. When Jim was alone with Geri, he called them all Mormons. He called Ray’s gatherings hostile Mormon takeovers.

*

Some nights, Ray would linger on the main floor. He would pour a beer and sit in the living-room corner, on a straight-backed chair upholstered with velvet studded on the seat and back. Jim and Geri had always called it the Queen’s Chair for its ornate wooden spindles and the way it seemed the occupier could be ejected at any moment for a beheading. While he drank, Ray read dense books on obscure topics, such as early ranching etiquette or mysticism in music. He swirled his glass, observed the foam, and turned the page. It was all to kill time: Ray checked his phone at intervals to text and nudge his evening plans into place until the plans pleased him enough to leave. Then, he would get up suddenly, and say he needed to go to meet a friend.

Geri and Jim came in from dinner one winter night and caught him like this, paused, en route to another mysterious evening. They chatted in the warmth of the front hallway and accepted glasses of his wine and sat on their own separate couches with their jackets melting snow in their laps—like strangers. Geri wore a silk cream blouse that ruffled to a V that she had also worn twenty years ago, and felt very much that any man would say she was in her last bloom. Ray and Jim were having a robust conversation about the business of electricity, one area where—after a drink, on many occasions—they found overlapping interests, and Geri was thinking life might improve after she was put to pasture. Then she would be free to drift into another room, away from them.

Ray Dulvany refilled their glasses. He silenced his phone. They had drifted into discussing the love life of one of his female friends, a date she was trying to arrange to great success that night.

Jim asked Ray what he looked for in a partner. A power move, a cornering, an attempt to discover who Ray was. But Ray answered broadly and on-trend: a love of travel, uncertainty regarding children. It was a question he was prepared to answer. Romance was business, another form of electricity. Above his beard, Ray’s cheeks were ruddy with heat and drink. His eyes glittered in the dim light. His feet were planted on the hardwood—his whole body, taut in the chair, ready to fire.

From his corner, Ray looked from Geri to Jim on their separate couches and asked them the same question: “What are you looking for in a partner?” The asking was not a reflex. It was a wedge, driven.

While Geri felt herself hurtling away from the two men in the living room, she heard Jim listing qualities. Before tonight, Jim had defined their relationship primarily by the things they would repeatedly do: take the quilt from the attic each fall, go to a county fair each summer. What he was telling Ray was both more specific and more general than she had expected, frighteningly earnest, and she began to think that the activities he had provided her were nothing but a series of compromises—things that he associated with her, activities for the bumpkin he believed her to be.

When the men turned to look at her, she said only, “What more could I ask for?” The drinks were catching up to her, and she saw that she had landed on an island, miles away from the concerns of anyone else. Jim could have said anything, and it would neither include nor exclude her. It had nothing to do with her. She was about to ask Ray about his evening’s plans, to keep the men where they were, off her island, when Ray said he had seen one of her shows.

One of his friends, Ray said, had to tell him who he was living with. This friend took him to the show, which had been set up in a coffeehouse.

“Why do you keep yourself from us?” he asked.

“I just dabble.” When Geri said this at her art shows, the person advancing would stop, and begin talking about himself, his various creative knacks and theories.

“It’s your life,” he said. Not livelihood, not living.

“I teach some night classes,” Geri said, and began to tell stories about her students. She knew Ray would not interrupt her, and so she kept talking. Her talking held him off. Gradually, she collected the glasses, hung the coats, and soothed the evening to a close.

*

Jim thought Ray Dulvany was a heliotropic flower—Jim described the movement and Geri provided the adjective. Everywhere Geri went, Ray Dulvany was looking at her, asking about her. Ray began to drink upstairs the whiskey he kept downstairs. When he came into the galley kitchen for ice, he would happen into long conversations with Geri. Jim would come home, the door would bang shut, and he would push his way between them, grocery bag first, to slap a skillet on the stovetop. He took a bag of frozen vegetables from his bag and poured them into the skillet. He stared at them. At him.

In their bedroom, Geri told Jim that Ray asked her questions and listened to her answers. Ray didn’t contest the things she said—didn’t correct or doubt. “I’m not used to it,” she said. “Are you ever curious about me?”

Jim said that she’d given him a lot to think about.

In their early days of living together, Geri and Jim had learned not to ask questions of one another, out of respect. It was a way of being. Now, each night, Geri would take her pillow and her glass of water into their room, and each morning she would move them out in a motion that came as naturally as flipping the bedspread back over the place where she’d been sleeping. Jim could wake an hour later, in solitude. It was as though no one had been there at all.

Geri knew that couples could go on a long time, one believing he deserved better and the other feeling she was too good, and so on, loathing one another in silence, until someone came along to dismantle the ego. Ray Dulvany was close to doing just that. His questions ate away at her sense of self, critiqued her way of life without accusation. He invited himself on her errands, and on Friday afternoons, when she left the house to do paperwork at the loneliest bar she knew, he came along to drink a beer. It was impossible to get away from him.

*

One Friday, Jim was on his way home early. They had plans. The sun had not properly risen that day, but had lingered behind fog and snow flurries. The windows were steamed on one side, sheeted with ice on the other. The light inside the house was dark and opalescent, and Geri imagined this was how it would feel being inside a pearl—muted, dull, slow, and nonsensical. Geri spent some time wiping lipstick from her cracked lips, and then oiling them and trying again, as though they had been only rusty. She dabbed a sample of perfume behind her ears, and then carefully emptied the rest of the vial in a line along the top of her painting. She watched some of it run, and considered nothing would look different in the morning.

When she went downstairs, Ray was in the kitchen. A single light was on over the stove.

He told her she smelled delicious. He was making coffee: a late meeting. Work or pleasure—it was never clear with him. Little was. He diligently obscured. Just the other night, Geri met a young man who had escorted her housemate home. The man had leaned in to kiss Ray goodnight, and Ray had dodged the man’s entire movement. This young man had used the royal we when he was introduced to Geri: Ray and I ate here and we loved it, just like we love these books, this cocktail.

Ray asked, and so Geri told him that she and Jim were going to a Christmas market a mile away. They were going to get a tree, drag it home, and then decorate the tree and the house until it all looked like the trees and the houses in the jigsaw puzzle Jim had selected for the evening. Jim took the holidays seriously if they were stripped of their religious context. It was an evening that had been gradually coalescing into an orchestrated event throughout the last few years.

Did she really like that kind of thing, he asked. She didn’t need to answer.

He pulled down an espresso cup for her and poured some of his coffee into it and handed it to her. It was now his habit. He knew she wanted only a taste.

Jim came home. Snow had spilled over his boot tops and melted instantly against his pant legs. Ray gathered his keys, said his goodbyes, and left. Because it was cold, Geri and Jim dawdled, looking for an excuse to stay in. Jim unboxed the jigsaw puzzle and spread the pieces over the dining room table. Across the table, cut apart and out of place: the milliner’s storefront, the ham house, the many angelic ribboned garlands adorning the rooftops. Jim held a piece under the light. “This detailing,” he said, “is impeccable.” They completed the frame at Jim’s insistence, ate a bowl of macaroni, and bundled out into the night.

*

The Christmas trees were gone. The remaining offerings were overpriced and stupidly useless. No steam rose from the cocoa. The lines were long. Teenagers, the middle-aged, stood, stamping their feet against the cold while they waited for Santa. Children held their parents’ hands for lack of mittens, or sobbed quietly while holding onto the velvet rope that kept them, eternally, away from being satisfied. There was an electric tension in the air that Geri believed was native to DC. Rarely had she seen joy go wrong so often in any other area. Geri and Jim walked quickly through the market’s stands, one shaking a head when the other gestured to pause. They stopped for nothing until they bought a churro neither wanted at the end stall.

Back at the house, they drank wine and planned their investments while piecing together the puzzle’s buildings by brick and shutter and signage. Above the houses, holiday meaning swirled around the stars in thick black circles. Lazily, they ate another bowl of macaroni, and took turns stirring when it had congealed. The scene was nearly a third of the way finished when there was a commotion at the front door.

“It’s Ray Dulvany,” Geri said. The screen slammed shut then stuttered open and fell closed. She paused and listened to the rustling. “He’s being burgled.” She ran to the door and when she opened it, Ray was spread across the concrete stairs. A taxi driver was getting back into his car. Wind blew the exhaust all around him. The driver yelled at her, “Take care of him!” Then he sped off.

Ray reached out to her. He said, “Help me, Geri—he’s angry at me—he’s so angry.” His voice was high-pitched. Geri thought he was about to cry. When he stood, he bent backwards with laughter and fell, landing with his back propped on the neighbor’s wrought-iron fence. For a moment, he rested silently. Geri imagined the spikes had gone straight through him and punctured his lungs. But he reached his arms out toward her.

“Help me, Geri. You have to help me.”

Geri stared at him until Jim joined her at the door. “He’s drunk,” she said.

Ray looked like a cockroach turned on his back, his long bearded neck curved toward her, the arms trembling outward. Geri held the railing and eased herself down the snow-packed stairs. She put his arm around her neck and hoisted him from the fence, which had left small tears in his leather jacket that Geri could wiggle her finger into.

“Geri, you’re the best. You’re mine, my best, Geri. You know me.” He pleaded with her up the stairs, and patted her hand until he saw Jim at the doorway.

“You’re better than him.” He shouted him into her ear.

In the house, he collapsed against the kitchen cabinets while vomiting into the blender. Geri crouched to untie his shoes, which left waffles of mud and slush in his wake. Jim held him still. He pushed Ray’s arms down and pressed him against the counter. Ray’s eyes wouldn’t stay open.

“You’re second, Jim. Who even thinks of you? Who are you?”

Ray slouched to the floor and called for Geri. Jim left him there with the blender. He sat at the table and continued with the puzzle. The homes were linking together and the trees and sky were assuming some order. Ray continued to call out his ratings from the kitchen floor. They came as though timed with a metronome—frantic and rhythmic. Best, first, love, second, who, no one. No one. Nobody. He sobbed quietly after vomiting before he would start the cycle again. Geri paced the rooms and watched Ray from a distance. She was afraid he might die.

The blender clunked onto the kitchen rug, and slowly began to spill out. Ray crawled to the dining room doorway and climbed up to standing using the woodwork. He stumbled to the table where Jim sat, ignoring Ray. “What is this?” he asked Jim. “A fucking housescape?” The dining room opened into the living room. Ray turned to walk toward the couch, but fell backwards into the Queen’s Chair and hit his head on the wall. He bent and tried to vomit but spent a long, slow time spitting bile onto the floor. When Geri bent to clean it with a rag, he held her face in his hands and tried to move it towards his own, as though he were holding a cameo broach or a Greek icon or an opened locket, or any other thing lacking dimension, but full of meaning.

Geri pulled away. Ray told Jim that he was nothing. That Jim didn’t deserve anything at all. Jim kept his head down. He seemed to have entered, more fully, his own world.

At three, Geri and Jim left Ray on the living room carpet with a bucket. They went to bed and stared at the ceiling, listening to Ray move about the downstairs, destroying, for all they knew, everything they had outside that bedroom.

Geri told Jim that she thought Ray had tried to kiss her. Jim told Geri that Ray had fucked his mind. His brain was raped.

*

The next morning, Ray was gone. The carpets and couch were freshly cleaned—everything but the blender, which they found under the kitchen table. Geri could not imagine using it. The blender had once been a beacon of health, and it could never again be that, though Jim had spent half a paycheck on it. When she took it out to the trash, she found Ray’s blue-cased pillows in the bin, and a mess of sheets frozen and stuck to the side of it. Geri thought a long time about what to do with the sheets, and decided to let the rats eat what vomit they could from them.

The next day Geri saw Ray’s black station wagon near a fenced park where the cops lingered to give hard talks to teenagers. The back window was bashed in and there was a thick red quilt rolled and curled, as if to serve as both pillow and blanket. The destruction, the blanket, meant nothing. Ray could have parked his car there the day he arrived and forgotten to move it. None of this was uncommon. Every other block had a car like that. There were tickets gathering underneath his wiper blade.

Ray returned on Monday, upbeat. He referred vaguely to a weekend trip. Neither Geri nor Jim mentioned that night to one another beyond the following: As Saturday wore on, Jim replayed the evening with Geri many times over, with more complexity each time: the things Ray said, the way what he had said snaked its way into his head, and he couldn’t shake the sense he’d been violated. It was a sad intimacy to share with Jim—it was one of their first and deepest, and it was short-lived. By Sunday, he had met his friends to watch the game and, over drinks, asked them what he should do if the new roommate had made a move on Geri. Whether they thought she was in danger, whether they thought Ray might be violent.

One day, not long after Ray returned, Geri went to do laundry downstairs. No one else was home. She saw the gallon of gin, the fresh blue sheets, and, above his bed, one of her paintings. There was his blue-sheeted bed, the bookcase that displayed wine a foot deep, the nightstand where The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was displayed, and a gallon of gin near the drink cart at the bottom of the stairs—disposable, fumbling youth. And then Geri, one of her self-portraits, above his bed, communicating itself: long as a landscape, blue, like something seen from a train at night. Her many years, the talk, the teaching about creating intimacy—she had not known someone could simply take it. All she did that day was drop the laundry basket. She bent to gather her slacks, her towels, her underthings, and did so while looking around Ray’s space, to see if there was any visible camera, any way for her faltering self to be caught. She imagined his smile, if he saw what he’d done to her.

Geri struggled to tell Jim what Ray’s buying her painting had done to her. Jim thought the purchase was a peace offering.

She said that Ray had plucked something intimate in her and claimed it for his own. She didn’t know why Ray kept insisting. She didn’t know what he wanted from her. She said, “Imagine him down there, his masked face, sipping whiskey and staring at it. Imagine him doing that for hours, years, anytime he wants.”

The two began to contemplate how to evict Ray Dulvany. They wondered whether they could, what the law was, how he might retaliate.

Ray began to bake cookies for them. He gave them small presents at Christmas—bottles of cordial, candles. When his plain-faced visitors came, he offered Geri and Jim plates of pasta, broken bread.

Geri could not tell whether he was penitent or persistent. In the new year, a bar Ray frequented displayed a grouping of her portraits and Ray would try to stop Geri as she passed through the door, or paused at the refrigerator for a glass of water. He wanted to talk about the paintings. She did not know how to tell him to stop.

Geri began to spend more time working in her studio upstairs. Sometimes, she spread herself across her bed and looked at her reflection in the mirrored shelves that descended her bedroom wall, and didn’t consider approaching her art. She wondered why she bothered. Each of her portraits began to feel like small windows parted, as though there was a breeze blowing through her.

Geri paced back and forth across the upstairs. In Jim’s room, they spoke of children and credit cards. In her room, she listened as Ray walked the staircase from one floor to the next. She heard him make coffee and take business calls. Ray Dulvany and Jim carried on as though they had always known each other, and Geri knew she would always be somewhere else entirely, keeping watch.

Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes. View more of his work on Flickr.

Katherine Zlabek, a native of rural Wisconsin, earned her MFA from Western Michigan University, and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Dissertation Fellow and a recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award. Her story collection, WHEN, winner of The Journal’s 2018 Non/Fiction Collection Prize, is now available from the Ohio …

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