The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Heather Michele Genovese

      "The reservation’s under Will Marcus."
      The host runs a leisurely finger down the reservation book in front of him.
      “Ah, Marcus, yes. Table for three. Mr. Marcus has already been seated. May I take your coat?”
      The host looks up at me and smiles in a way that makes me feel like a five-year-old in an oversized frilly pink dress, late for the grown-ups’ party. My long scarf trails in fragile frayed tendrils of yarn toward my knees, exaggerating my feeling of smallness. “No, thank you.” I begin un-swaddling my head, carefully looping the scarf’s growing arm over my hair and ears. On the first truly cold day this winter, I’d put on this scarf and been bombarded by Will’s smell lingering on it, crouching in the fibers, springing itself on my unsuspecting nostrils. Leftover from last winter. It had struck me as sad, the way time stops for clothes when they’re not being worn. Today, I’d been prepared and had chosen to bathe in his scent, the closeness of him on my cheeks and lips, wrapped warmly around my neck. It’s not something I’m ready to hand over.
      “All right then.”
      I detect a slight tone of disapproval for my attachment to my garments in the host’s voice. He signals a nearby waiter.
      “James, please take this young lady to Table 15. Mr. William Marcus.”
      “Follow me, Miss.”
      Once we’re out of earshot of the host, James The Waiter whispers under his breath, seemingly into the air and not directed at anyone, “Never trust a man with two first names.”
      “What? Oh, sorry, Miss. My apologies. I didn’t mean any offense. Didn’t realize you’d heard. I don’t know, actually. It’s just something my mother used to say, about men with two first names.”
      As we cross the threshold of the dining room, everything feels extravagant and false. It’s an assault of overdone etiquette. The plush carpeted floors are too clean, so much so that it makes me almost certain there must be crumbs, napkins, and other leftovers, swept hastily out of view, lurking beneath the long white tablecloths. The tables are spaced in very precise distances from each other, the lighting meticulously dimmed, and the wait and bus staff scarce, though attentive, I’m sure, lurking somewhere just out of sight.
      When we reach the table, James nods at me as he pulls out my chair, before retreating to the anonymous place waiters go when they’re not actually serving.
      “Hey, darlin’.”
      “Will.” He’s always addressed me like an affectionate cowboy, even though he grew up on the east coast, same as me. His smile is a wide crack in his face. I sit across from him with two empty chairs between us, one on each side. Aside from the overhead lamps skulking above each setting, the only other illumination at the table is provided by two small flames of flickering candlelight in glass cups. The effect on the tables is one of isolated islands of semi-shadow. I can distinguish the outlines of the other patrons, sitting around us in various stages of eating and conversing, but I can’t quite see their faces, can’t tell if they’re smiling or frowning, interested or bored. It’s as if they’re there, but only as placeholders, as if they’re not real. Filtering through the multi-faceted glass, the light from the candles cuts angled diamonds and streaks into the tabletop around it.
      “I’m really glad you could make it tonight. I think you’re going to like Persephone once you get to know her.”
      His hands are working a sugar packet, curling it into a half moon around his index finger, then letting it go. During its intermittent releases, the bottom-heavy pouch sags its granule-filled belly toward the table. I find the slight rustling noise of the paper, the twisted contortions the packet’s being pulled into around Will’s fingers, unsettling. I want to grab it from him, set it free, lay it gently on the table, and carefully flatten it back to its original shape, but I resist the urge.
      “I’m sure I will.”
      Persephone. I thought I’d misheard when he first said her name. I thought he’d said Stephanie. What kind of parents would name their daughter Persephone? But Persephone it was. That was how he’d introduced me to her, at a work function he’d asked me to drop in on as a favor to him a few weeks ago. I’d quipped, in my nervousness, whether he’d met her on her way to hell or on the return trip. He had laughed good-naturedly, believing I’m sure, that we were simply playing, as always.
      Like some homage to her namesake, Persephone was tall, blonde, thin, beautiful, wearing dangling coral earrings and a single-shouldered Greek-inspired dress that night.
      She’d hardly spoken. She seemed shy, leaning into Will for reassurance whenever she said anything to me in that hot, crowded five-minute conversation we’d had, hardly able to hear each other over the mass of voices clawing at our eardrums in the room.
      I’d disliked her immediately. Disliked her femininity, how she played it up, touching Will’s arm, leaning into him, casting down her eyes, and always laughing under her breath in a way that forced people to lean into her to catch the sound. Most of all I hated how she changed Will, my Will. For her, he made all sorts of allowances, indulged her flirtation, stepped up with pride in his eyes, to reassure her, throw us together, help her talk to me. He’d become new to me, the way he was with her.
      “I’m happy you came.”
      He reaches out and squeezes my hand, not quite like he used to, but it’s very close.
      “No problem.” I smile weakly at him. I hate myself for coming here. I can’t quite fathom why I’ve given into this, given into him, once again. There’s just something about him that has been irresistible to me since the first moment we met. “So you two are officially dating now?”
      “Officially? No. Officially, we’re not doing anything. At this point I’d say we’re whatevering.”
      “Whatevering, huh? I guess non-definition has always been something you’ve enjoyed.”
      He smiles at me with what I think is the tiniest bit of familiar appreciation in his eyes. It’s a look I recognize. Intrigued, but slightly skeptical. A look he sometimes used to give me right after we’d slept together. His face hovering above me, backlit by the sun, our naked chests pressed against each other, the slightly tobacco-y scent of his dark, rust-tinged hair, his arm around me, in his bed. After we were just friends, which we’d been for a long time, before we became what we became and what we are now.
      Even in our best moments, it was like some part of each of us was always resisting the other. We talked and talked, skimming surfaces, flitting from point to point like agile water bugs, but we never dove, never dared to swim. Instead, we relied on what was unsaid. What we couldn’t somehow bring ourselves to say.
      And then one day, it was just gone. Disappeared. Evaporated. Like something in the air between us suddenly went stale, the way moisture dissipates, leaving nothing but a vague sense that something substantial has passed. From then on, everything between Will and me became sporadic. It was as if one of us would somehow recall the memory of what we almost had—a cord that seemed to connect us, but that had been severed at both ends, so that we each held a separate beginning that didn’t lead anywhere. Not knowing how it had gone, or where, we would reach out to each other, looking to be told how to bring it back, but we’d never really understood what it was.
      Hijacked by memory, I push my hair back off of my forehead and lick my lips, slamming back into reality as I focus on Will’s face. “I’m hungry.” The candlelight scampers over my right hand, still lying across the center of the table, distorting its bulges and indentations, warping the depths of shadows and light. The knuckle of my index finger looks huge, like a giant ridged dune rising out of the desert of darkness pooled in the space between my thumb and the webbing that clings to the side of my palm. I remove my hand from the table and drop it into my lap.
      “Persephone should be here soon. I asked her to come a little bit later. I wanted some time to talk to you first.”
      “What about?”
      “Look, I’m sorry for the way I sort of sprung her on you the other night. I know that we, well, we’re—we have this…thing, you and I. I just don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what I’m doing. Ever. Do you know what I mean? Do you feel like that?”
      “Maybe. Sometimes.” My stomach makes a gurgling noise, like some gassy beast clearing its throat. Will doesn’t appear to notice.
      “I just wish it were easier. You’re a good person, Helena. I really mean that in every sense. You’re…kind. I’m increasingly convinced that there are very, very few good people in the world. When you find one, you’ve got to hang on to them, somehow, no matter what. Which is why I don’t want this, what I’m doing, to get in the way of, well, of who we were or are to each other.”
      “And who, exactly, are we to each other, Will?” I don’t look at him as I ask this. Instead, I look at my lap. My arms, folded in it, are like bony birds, with the wrists for broken necks laid limply over each other at an unnatural angle. They’re ugly, but I can’t look away from them.
      “Helena, you’re one of the most important people in my life. I feel like you really know me, like I can be honest with you. You’re the person I’d least like to lose in this whole city. I just—I have to…”
      I look up from my lap to see his face. But he’s no longer looking at me. Instead, his attention is now focused slightly above and behind my left shoulder. I twist uncomfortably against my chair’s back in an effort to see what he now sees, but I can’t crane my neck far enough, and I don’t catch it in time. Not until Persephone has arrived at our table, swept around my left side to lean into Will and present a kiss to his awaiting cheek, do I see her. After beaming beatifically at Will for too many seconds, she whirls around to face me. “Hello, Helena.”
      I’m struck by the harshness of my name. While Persephone flows lightly, mostly out of the front of the mouth, soft caresses of air against teeth and tongue, Helena forces its way out of the mouth from the back of the throat. Rough, half-swallowed sounds, the huskiness and force of the letter ‘H,’ the gulping, phlegmatic ‘L,’ and the final nasal ‘NA,’ like a schoolyard taunt. “Persephone.”
      I hate myself for hating the way her dress clings to her miniscule waist. I momentarily consider a strict pomegranate diet.
      “It’s so dark over here.”
      Reaching up inside the lamp above our table, she probes with her hand under the skirt of the shade and twists. There’s something grotesque about the motion, about what she is doing. The illumination at the table suddenly increases.
      “There, that’s better, isn’t it? Not so dark. It felt so conspiratorial before, didn’t it, like we should be plotting some sort of treason? That bulb was hot, though.”
      She dips her fingers into her mouth. They’re wet when she pulls them out, but she seems not to notice and leaves them to dry in the air.
      “So did you two get a chance to chat?”
      She winks at Will in a knowing way that forces me to repress the urge to literally squirm as she descends to her seat between us.
      “Yes, we did.”
      “We did?”
      “Didn’t we?”
      “Did you say everything you wanted to say?”
      “Sure. Listen, Helena, don’t worry about it. I think we covered what was important, right?”
      I nod at him and offer a feeble smile, bending over slightly to crush the broken birds in my lap hard against my abdomen. The waiter, James, returns and we all order. Persephone requests only a modest salad insisting that, yes, that is what she wants for her main course. I order a steak, rare. Will asks for veal.
      “You want to eat baby cow?”
      “It’s just meat, Persephone.”
      “But they’re babies.”
      “Yes, yes, yes. They’re babies. But they’ve already been slaughtered, sacrificed. There’s no point in not eating them now, is there?”
      Persephone looks wounded, rather like a baby cow herself, big brown eyes threatening to gush.
      “What if I don’t eat it in front of you anymore, after tonight? Deal? The veal deal?”
      He winks at her, and she smiles, argument ended.
      “Will’s always loved veal,” I say. He gives me an annoyed look, perhaps afraid that my return to this sore spot between them will spawn further unpleasantness, but it doesn’t. Instead, Persephone comments to him, lowly, something I can’t hear.
      James delivers our meals, and we eat slowly. Every lump of undercooked meat I swallow lodges in my stomach, clinging to the walls of my protesting gut, forming a ball that grows heavier with each mouthful I force down my esophagus.
      Persephone and Will mostly speak to each other. They throw me the occasional polite conversational line, try to draw me in, but I’m feeling too ill by the end of the meal to really keep pace with them. Instead, I sink into silence.
      After our plates have been cleared, Will orders dessert, and Persephone orders coffee. I ask for water.
      “I think I may have been infested,” I say. I glance quickly up at Will, but both his and Persephone’s faces go blank, as if I’d slapped them, and they stare at me.
      “Infested? What do you mean?”
      Will smiles encouragingly, and Persephone follows his cue.
      “I’ve been finding things. Cockroaches. In my apartment. Funny thing is, though, they’re all babies. Tiny, tiny cockroaches, so small I didn’t recognize them for what they were at first.”
      “Cockroaches, ugh! Have you called an exterminator?”
      Persephone has a look of utter disgust on her face. I can feel her entire body recoiling, pulling away from me, as if she’s afraid I’ll somehow contaminate her.
      “That’s just it, though. They’re all dead. I’ve never found a live one. They’re all always dead.”
      “Maybe someone else put down traps or spray somewhere? If they’re dead, though, problem solved, right?” Will asks. His eyes narrow for just a second, as if trying to make out something behind me that is very far away.
      He’s gripping Persephone’s hand, looking at me with the kind of concern he would give an injured puppy, genuine emotion, but with the knowledge that the thing he’s projecting it on to is not the same kind of animal he is.
      “Yes, problem solved,” I echo. “I should get going. I’m not feeling well.”
      “Oh, really, so soon?”
      Persephone’s voice is light and high. I absolutely cannot tell if she’s being false or genuine. Her body’s still tilted away from me, leaning into Will.
      “Are you sure you don’t want to stay for coffee?” she asks.
      “No, thank you. I’ll be fine, really. It was nice to see you again, Persephone. You two have a good evening.”
      “Are you sure you don’t want to stay? At least a little while longer?”
      Persephone still has hold of one of Will’s hands, but as he speaks, he gestures to me with the other, almost holds it out, then drops it to the table.
      “No, I should go. Thank you both for the invitation to dinner, though. It was good of you.” I forcibly suppress the urge to vomit all over the table. I can see it, my vomit glistening in pink slicks across that pristine white tablecloth. Will and Persephone commenting with interest about it, Ah, look, there’s some spinach. Had a nice salad for lunch today, did you? Poor thing, she’s overwhelmed, too much excitement. Guess someone’s eyes were bigger than her stomach. I hate the idea of them looking at it, of my laying this gastrointestinal record of myself on the table for their examination. I swallow hard, willing the bile back down into the darkness of my body.
      “We’ll have to do it again sometime,” Persephone says.
      “Yes. We will.” I’m standing now, wrapping myself in my coat and twining my scarf tightly around my neck like a dark woolen noose.
      “Well, have a good night and a safe trip home.”
      Will has wrested himself from Persephone’s grasp and, for a second, he hugs me the way I used to expect him to, like we’re the only two people in the world. Persephone watches us in my peripheral vision, but I don’t care. I close my eyes against her and hold onto him, hugging him back.
      When he lets go, my scarf gets tangled on one of his arms, and it pulls uncomfortably tightly around my neck. I swallow hard against it, but don’t bother to loosen it. It feels somehow right that way, scratching roughly at my skin, separating my head from the rest of my body, choking me slightly but keeping me warm and safe. I know I should loosen it, let it go and release the tension clutching my neck, but, as I walk out of the restaurant, all I want to do is wrap it tighter.
      When I get home, there’s a rectangular piece of paper jammed into the crack of my apartment door. There’s a sulking cartoon cockroach in the center of the paper with a giant “X” superimposed over it and a Pete’s Exterminator’s logo in large block letters hovering above its head like a heavy shoe ready to be dropped. Beneath the roach, the card reads “Sorry we missed you,” and someone has hand written, “Was here at 7:00. Will try again next Thursday after 5:00.” There are some glue traps on the floor beneath the note, which makes me wonder if the exterminator had been here for mice or roaches, or if his intentions were non-discriminating. I bring the glue traps and the card inside.
      In the kitchen, I throw my coat and gloves over the back of one of the three chairs at my kitchen table that I never use. I drop heavily into the fourth, the one I always sit in, and stare at the pale tile of the floor between my feet.
      There, just above the big toe of my left foot, is a small black shadow. I wait to see if it will move, but it doesn’t, so I stand up and bend over it to get a closer look. It’s a baby roach, dead like all of the others I’ve found recently. Though I’d never let them in my apartment, other people in the building must be using Pete’s Exterminator’s services. Even here in my kitchen, which has never been sprayed, there’s no haven for the tiny cockroaches. Fleeing the exterminator’s chemicals, which are now inundating the former safety of their secret dark corners and hiding places, they simply die in the open, exposed and alone.
      Carefully, with a tissue, I pick up the cockroach and roll it over, so that its feet are under it. In the bright light of the kitchen, I can make out every detail of its body, so tiny and utterly perfect. If I didn’t know otherwise and just looked at it, I wouldn’t think it was dead. If I don’t gaze at it too long, don’t let my eyes linger, it’s more like it’s paused, resting, waiting.
      Last summer, Will had had messy neighbors, and his apartment had become collateral damage to their poor housekeeping. A few roaches found their way to Will’s from the other side of his neighbors’ wall. He had called them The Invaders, elevating them from simple insects seeking the necessities of survival to a willful occupying force. Will had been disgusted, killing them with the exuberance and vigor of a true hunter, putting down traps, squirting gel into every dark corner he could find, scouring cracks with spray and caulk, having an exterminator spray once a week.
      But there was one that managed somehow to survive, to sniff out all of Will’s carefully laid traps and avoid them. He was a big fat roach with a glistening chestnut-colored back, long jagged legs, and only half an antenna on his right side. I’d see him every now and then, crawling out of some nearly invisible hole in the wall or crack in the floor boards. He moved slowly, carefully, and I liked to think that he knew he was safe with me, that there wasn’t any danger. He’d take his time, poking his head into corners, moving in and out of shadows, before disappearing, and it might be days before I’d see him again.
      Once, when I knew Will had glimpsed him earlier in the day and was particularly anxious to track him down, the roach showed himself to me in the bathroom. I was just about to step into the shower, and I sensed something moving. He crawled out from beneath the soap dish, his antennae waving rapidly in my direction, as he made his way, more quickly than usual, from the soap dish to the front corner of the bath tub. Then, without looking back, he scrambled into a small gap in the molding and was gone.
      I never saw him again. I don’t think Will killed him. If he had, he would have told me. That roach had become his nemesis. I like to think that he found his way back to the neighbors’ and feasted on their garbage until the day they moved out, and that, after they left he crawled out their south window and found the building’s dumpster. I envision him happy and flourishing there, thriving.
      I place the dead baby cockroach delicately on the top of my trash. Next to it, I put the glue traps and the exterminator’s card, which I know I’ll never use.

      Heather Genovese received her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her first novel, “A Safe Place,” is being represented by Peter Miller Literary and Film Management in New York City. Heather’s short story, “A Cold Night,” appeared in The Red Wheelbarrow. She has taught undergraduate creative writing, both poetry and fiction, at New York University, and continues to tutor English and Writing at New York University, the New School University, and Kaplan.



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