I had dreamt about murder, which was rare but not as rare as I'd perhaps have liked, and now the caller ID on my cell blazed Judith's name at me. My eyes burned. From the ringing or the light or the whiskey or the dream. Who knew.
I let it ring, let it ring, then ground my teeth and changed my mind.
"Hello," I meant to say. What came out was mucusy rasping from the back of my throat, the dry-damp sound of my lips smacking apart.
I cleared my throat as quietly as I could but it caught, set me to coughing. I dragged in a wheezy breath and heaved onto my side. The phone flopped to the carpet.
"Damien." This as I blindly scraped it off the floor.
I took a tentative breath and my lungs only spasmed a little. "Sure. Yeah."
"Christ. Have a good night?"
"I killed a man."
"Don't worry. I don't think you know him."
"He looks, or rather, looked, actually remarkably like William Shatner. Name's Bogart."
"I didn't," she said, serious as stand-up, "wake you, I hope."
"No, I'm sure I'll be fine. The body's in a bag."
"And the bag's in the swamp."
"And really, I mean, fellows like Bogart never really rate dragging the goddamned swamp, right?"
She set about trying to break the record for world's longest sigh, just blasting telephone static from her diaphragm. She'd've taken the title, too, except I once told her mother that I'd majored in art history.
"Anyway, don't worry." I groaned my way all the way up to half-sitting. "My secret's safe with me."
"We need to talk."
"That," I said, thinking rather seriously about maybe sitting all the way up in the very near future, "that is not so good a plan as you think it is."
"Over coffee. Bloody Marys, maybe."
"If I can drink mine in complete silence, perhaps."
"Did I tell you I killed a man?"
"Look, I know that things have gotten…weird."
"Weird?" I was getting a little wherewithal, maybe just from the word coffee. "Nah, status quo. Been a regular pussy parade."
I briefly entertained the notion that I'd won, hurt her first.
"Yeah. You know. In my apartment."
"Well. I forgive you."
I sat bolt upright. It wasn't so bad. I only felt like vomiting up my kidneys for a few seconds.
"You what me?"
The silence here, it was a cocktail of smug triumph oozing over the line.
"I'll be over in an hour. We can whatever."
Cold click of the line going dead, merry little jingle of my cell letting me know it.
I worked my way up to standing, then walking. My stomach was settling, my lungs relaxing. Eyes still burned if I opened them too wide. Maybe coffee wasn't such a bad idea.
I got the grounds and water into the machine and hit the button. Saturday morning had teeth but I was only about as nauseated as a post-nightshade Socrates and I figured my headache would go away if I slept until Wednesday. I started to run the numbers on how much sleep I'd gotten, total, and gave up fast. It was a sad enterprise. The smell of the coffee settled my stomach some, though. I leaned my forehead on the machine and breathed deep, started feeling altogether okay.
Then I looked behind me, at the kitchen and living room, at the take-out containers piled on the kitchen table and the clothing I'd somehow not really noticed strewn across the couch. More than a couple bottles on the coffee table, and my work apron dangling from the ceiling fan. I frowned and thought on that last one, figured I must have yanked and tossed it after a particularly dreary shift. It made for a rather less-than-festive curtain.
I plucked the apron down and got it folded and had gathered all the bottles in my arms before I decided to hell with it and replaced every item exactly where it was. If Judith wanted to catch me off my guard, this is what she was going to get.
I answered the door feeling more human than not but Judith's eyes still up-and-downed me. She opened her mouth and closed it. I leaned against the doorframe. She edged past me into the house.
"No, please, come in. Make yourself at home."
"You invited me."
"I certainly did not."
"You didn't have to answer your phone."
I smirked in a way that said I had something to say, a crippling rejoinder, but was keeping it to myself out of courtesy. I was lying with my teeth. And the idea that we could keep each other out of our apartments with turns of etiquette was an adorable kitten of a concept.
Her hair looked different. I wanted to comment on it to demonstrate my keen attention to detail, but damned if I could figure out how it was different. I flourished her chair out from the table for her instead.
I poured the coffee. Judith took hers black. I got milk and sugar and started doctoring.
She grinned with her eyes. "Philistine." A peace offering.
I couldn't not. "Phil, to my friends."
My spoon clinked on my mug like crickets chirping. I'd thought our sides would be pretty clearly demarcated, but I'd met her halfway, there, and I guess we were both thinking about it. Old jokes can be sad, too. This one, I didn't quite know what it was.
She licked her lips by flicking her tongue out straight. I got a pang of something not entirely irritation. I thought about calling her Python but that was maybe dredging a bit too far back. We may have had a fight about that at some point, who can remember, and my boisterous inner provocateur was suddenly more tired than I was.
We finished our coffee, talking about the weather and the mayor and the local basketball team, all the things we only knew from talk-radio commutes. A pause like the world holding its breath.
Judith looked down into her empty mug. "Hey. It's good to see you."
I nodded. That felt wrong, so I went to shake my head, but that would be worse. I got a half-turn in and did a vague circling thing that landed in a tilt.
"Yeah. I'm a pleasure to be around."
That felt like too much, so I reached over and flicked a take-out box off the pile and onto the floor, making it a different joke.
Judith watched my snowballing gesticulation with a fairly blank and possibly sympathetic look. I met her eyes and we sat there awhile.
Two weeks later and the thing we weren't discussing was how we were staying nights at each other's place. The sun set and she came over. I'd done a little cleaning, the kind where there's never enough trash bags and you wind up winded, so there was plenty of space in my living room for the overnight bag I politely ignored.
The game was to pretend that everything was incredibly normal, that nothing strange was going on here. She just happened to come over. I just happened to be in the neighborhood. Oh, my, isn't it late. Really it's best to just stay here. Oh, no, you don't need to crash on the couch. Bed's plenty big.
I thought of this in my daffier moments as couple's counseling. Trial un-separation.
I watched through the peephole before opening the door for her and her bag. She had her head tilted down, the way she held it when she had to walk down a street or stand in a crowd. Face tilted to defer eye contact, but not far enough to really limit her field of vision. I was psyching myself up to be nonchalant. Watching someone who doesn't know you're watching is its own private power, but her eyes jerked to the side every couple seconds without moving her head, like there was maybe a gaggle of social interactions waiting around the corner to ambush her and she didn't want to be caught off guard.
I felt dirty. The more she looked around the more I felt like apologizing not for spying on her but for something. If I'd cared to think about it, this would have been a moment that invited some soul-searching.
I didn't care to. Such was my hurry to get the door open that I clunked it against the deadbolt before remembering to unlatch it. I found Judith standing wide-eyed, startled by the sudden violent noise.
She smiled real composed-like, but got through that doorway pronto. We went to the living room. The bag took a seat next the sofa upon which Judith deposited herself, legs curled under her and something behind her eyes.
"So," she said. "I don't know. Maybe let's talk?"
I nodded fast so as not to betray trepidation. Judith's foot bobbed up and down. Her whole body jittered with the motion. It was hot. I walked to the window unit air conditioner and twisted the dial and got a sound like broken glass in a blender. Judith flinched. I yanked the power cord out of the wall too hard. The unit skidded against the base of the window but didn't fall.
Judith looked not quite in my direction from the couch. I went and sat a body's width from her. She keened over and laid down, head braced at a frightening angle against my elbow. I looked around. This wasn't how tonight was supposed to go. Too intimate, too early. My jaw ached. I'd been clenching my teeth.
"Well." I said. "I think I'm going to go lie down."
I slid out from under her. Her head flopped into the cushion. I strolled as casually as could be down the hall to my bedroom and lay down with my hands behind my head. After a while the ceiling fan got boring so I turned on the television and cycled through the channels, down at first then up, changing directions like I was chasing something through the stations and trying to catch it unawares by switching back on it.
Judith came down the hall carrying her bag and lay down next to me at a safe distance. I looked over. She was watching the television cycle.
I clicked around for a bit and eventually settled on a quiet show about cheetahs. They cannot growl but will chirp and hiss.
Judith cleared her throat. "Do you have any paper?"
"Uh, probably. A legal pad somewhere. Why?"
"I left my journal at home."
She had always been adamant about that. It's a journal, damn you, not a diary. I didn't really get the linguistic distinction but damned if I'd ever sunk quite so low as to pick a fight over what she called her notebooks. Except maybe one time.
I leaned over to my nightstand and rifled around. It was wedged back between the stand and the wall. I yanked it out, tore off a couple sheets of paper, and handed them to her.
"I need the pad, too."
She flipped over onto her stomach and poked at the pillow. "Writing surface."
I passed her the pad. She pulled a pen from her bag and started scribbling. I learned that the cheetah hunts by sight, not smell, early in the morning or in the evening, to strike a balance between heat and light, and tried not to sense the glances from Judith every couple of sentences.
She capped her pen. I carefully did not look over to her, did not try to angle my eyes over her shoulder. She folded the paper twice and tucked it under her pillow and edged across the bed closer to me. We paused there a moment and then she put her hand on my arm and we leaned inward.
The cheetahs ran around and killed gazelles and hid in the tall grass. Judith took a deep breath. My whole body tensed but it was just a deep breath. No words formed from it. We did that dance the rest of the night, me trying to feel when she was starting to talk, bracing myself for it, and easing so very cautiously back into the silence.
I slept little and poorly and awoke to Judith snoring into my chest. I ground my head into the pillow to force sleep. No dice. With the air conditioning shot we could just about have grown orchids in the carpet. My breath started coming a little shallow and I got that twitching compulsion to move in my chest that only ever comes when you ought to stay in bed.
Judith stirred and I went still, hoping she'd slide off me. She didn't. I took her shoulder and tried to lift her away. Her weight just went to the other shoulder. I slid one hand under her forehead, peeling her face from my shirt where it had found itself glued, and used that space to peel myself the rest of the way loose.
I had a wet little silhouette of Judith on my chest. Her August shadow.
I stood at the foot of the bed and watched her. Later I would pretend to myself that I was thinking something profound, putting everything into its proper context, but really I was just wondering what she'd put on those legal pad pages, so I crept to her side and slid them out from underneath her pillow. I lifted them up to the scant light creeping in from the window at the end of the hallway. Both sides of two sheets were covered with skinny slanting scrawl. It was a little too dark to really read. I scanned through, looking for capital letters. A couple capital Ds at the beginning gave me hope, then nothing for lines and lines until another cluster at the end.
I squinted at the script, turning it every which way, but in the best conditions she has handwriting that might make a fellow dizzy. I set the pages on the nightstand and stripped off my damp shirt and boxers. I held up the shirt, admiring the profile of Judith there.
My secondhand copier sat in the corner of the room. I put the pages on top and got my hands under it as gently as I could and lifted it out into the hallway, the living room. That I didn't trip over anything is a minor miracle. But light might wake Judith, so I crept behind the couch carrying the bulky machine.
I plugged it into a wall outlet and opened the cover. Sparkling blue light flooded the space between the back of the couch and the wall. I ran off two copies per side and folded them into separate packets, to hide in separate places.
The capital Ds for Damien seemed less plentiful now. And really, what did I stand to learn from the writing of one night, when there were boxes of notebooks under Judith's bed at her place, dating back to before we met. If I wanted the story, wanted to see myself reflected in her handwriting, I'd have to find a way to get a hold of them. Perhaps I'd happen to be in her neighborhood tomorrow night.
I was afraid all my movement and the blue light of the copier had woken Judith, but she was in the same position I left her in, breathing steadily, mostly not on top of the pillow. I crept around to replace the papers and stood there, holding Judith's makeshift journal and watching her sleep with a rush of transgressive thrill like opening your eyes while the family is saying grace, watching everybody looking down with their eyes closed, getting to know exactly what they looked like when they'd pray.
Mark Jaskowski grew up in the swamp and now lives in the mountains. He teaches and studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He's got a few stories around, including in Warmed and Bound: A Velvet Anthology and the forthcoming Exigencies anthology from Dark House Press.