I’m going to prepare the dinner myself, I told him doing my best not to sound apathetic, pressing stubbornly against that last word of the sentence. We’ll have some people over, you’ll see, it will be nice.
I awaited some sort of reaction, but none came, or roughly none. What I got instead was his head turning unhurriedly upwards from where it had been standing, resting unnaturally on his right shoulder, in a failed attempt to appear affectionate? Had he moved it sooner or faster I would have read more into it, sensed some eagerness at least. But no, the head moved with the taciturnity and intent of a door opening and closing somewhere on the upper floors of a deserted office building, the yawn of workers on the night shift. The head climbed through the smoke of the cigarette leaning miserably against the ashtray full of crushed butts and fossilized ashes. His cigarettes, I thought the instant I became aware of the chocking smell of smoke, the ones he had once sworn to let go of (for my sake?) in a moment of utter felicity we had both shared at one point.
Occasionally, the chockfull ashtray had to be gyrated and the room spun with it. We took turns at turning it because apparently none of us had the courage or the will to empty it. There was nothing else left to do anyway, our well of desire depleted, our love vocabulary scarce. The evening sun spoke patronizingly through the dusty blinds, its speech muffled, punctuated by passing cars and the singing voice coming from the bedroom. Nothing’s even right or wrong, the singing voice came and went in waves, elephant in the room goes boom.
I tried to imagine the scene, observed by a quiet audience who had previously paid to swallow the thickness of our kitchen scene dissolution, our skin darkened, once, by the lack of lighting, and then again, by their desire to smear us with their expectations. What could two men like us do within the confines of this sanctimonious kitchen except grow gills and play fish? Surely, we couldn’t enact their fetish for submissive wives and dominant husbands whose mental breakdowns constituted a shared family value.
Our knees caressed each other shyly underneath the table as if on their own volition, following a script over which we had no control. I felt as if we were being watched, not only by that voyeuristic audience, but also by a presence I sometimes sensed lurking deep within you, one that could detach itself from you and slide just far enough to observe the scene from a critical distance. A row of grimy coffee mugs stood in between us, an imaginary frontier erected out of a familiar xenophobia, brown testimonies penned on their innards, their inherited grief replicated infinitely downwards into the shiny celestial black of the table top. Their long white shadows like the feet of Dali’s sumptuous elephants caught in gracious expectation.
Sitting around the kitchen table, we were like mourners on the rim of a hole in the ground throwing one last look at the coffin being gradually eclipsed by mud and thoughts alike, and the fear that we were going to be next.
We had been at it for a while, our tenuous relationship, and splayed there, on the table, in blunt contrast to me but most likely indiscernible to him, stood, unsheathed, my attempts at reviving it.
The mugs, as the fossilized ashes in the tacky ashtray, had been there for a while, weeks maybe, I couldn’t recall. They, too, seemed possessed by significant amounts of volition. Mugs like cupped hands that had once held something, carried something to the mouth, an offering of food and unguarded indulgence, and with it the guilt of having gulped something foul, pleasurable to the tongue but foul for the rest, the portentous sign of an abundance of clutter piling up inside the guts and the mind. There was no place for them in the kitchen sink since that space too had been saturated with unwashed dishes, and not even on top of the washing machine that stood next to sink. I had developed the habit of washing only those on the top when I ran out of dishes while those on the bottom lingered there for weeks on end to the point where they seemed to clean themselves. Bread crumbs would vanish on the spot, mayonnaise and other sauces in the same grouping would put up a fight at first and then dilute resolutely, admitting defeat.
A dinner party, having some friends come over to that place I had come to see as our place even though he, gracious boyfriend, didn’t spend too much time in it, was the ultimate comeback I presumed. Scrawled on the stonewashed fabric of that week’s impending dull routine the idea of a dinner party shined with the promise of finally having something to think and fuss about for the following few days. The subdued excitement it brought resembled that of Broadway revivals, and it went in hand in hand with the kind of last resort actions suggested by the newlywed’s guide to a happy marriage. Except there was no such guide for us. It was up to us to write one, and there I was, preparing the way.
The things I would do for him, you couldn’t even imagine, as I can’t imagine him doing the same things for me. Were we ever going to be as good for each other as we were in each other’s fantasies, in the books we read before falling asleep? We lacked the grace of admitting it but we were more in love with the people we were reading about than with each other. And the people we were reading about sometimes happened to be the same. That parallelism, I believe, gave us a sense of participation in building a world that pertained to none of us individually, but which belonged to the both of us as a couple. It was our way of coming together. There, at least, we smiled at each other.
No smile here, imagine, not even the idea of a smile took shape on his face, no compromise, and with this lack came the thought that we’re going to go through this misery together, that long ago we had accepted it, armed ourselves against it. No reach of hands across the table, no patting on the shoulder, just the filmy veneer of that smoke coming out of his nostrils and mouth, turning him into a magical creature consumed by the overuse of his powers. Heaped on the chair, the smoke being the only thing that moved, he resembled a steam engine in recess after a long journey, the clatter of jagged wheels finally over, the cargo finally unloaded. He smoked his cigarettes with such elegance that for a very long period after we had met Ithought the spectacle was intended for me to savor. And I did, most ardently.
Who are we going to invite?
The smoke danced above our heads, a poisonous aurora borealis.
Then, finally, a reach across the table, not to hold hands or touch in any way, but simply to poke at the dying cigarette, affect a ripple in the thin vertical smoke. The elephant in the room goes boom.
I’m going to prepare something fancy, you’ll see, I told him, something extravagant. I was so enthralled by the promise of that fantasy that I couldn’t even look at him anymore. Even so, I knew that for a brief moment he smiled the way people smile when they see a glimpse of happiness being enacted, or at least the desire to attain or revive it. I felt the chill of that smile growing like fern frost on a cold December morning.