Imogen opened a new browser window. The cat jumped onto her lap and settled into a warm loop. She had less than four minutes until Steve finished his exercises (if you could call them that) and came in from the yard. With swift keystrokes, she brought up the first profile, then the second, toggling between tabs to absorb the afternoon’s updates. She clicked through three new photographs, feeling her nervous system lift and settle as each image slid into place. The last picture showed the other couple’s baby, scrunching its red face. The cat lifted his head and started purring before her hand even landed on his fur.
It started casually, something to do while eating lunch, a quick surf through the social networking site during the long afternoons of underemployment in the last year of living off student loans. From time to time, Imogen would catch glimpses of the other couple going about their lives, online—posting links for demonstrations, uploading photos from a rally for the local candidate, looking into each other’s eyes over a handmade banner.
Soon, though, glints of an appealing story emerged from the detritus that streamed across the site, and Imogen began to hone in, specifically, on the other couple’s updates. It was a little break, she told herself, from grading, or applying for things, or searching for more things to apply for. But when did it become a habit? After a fight with Steve, logging on—the other couple. First thing in the morning, reading their latest posts over dry cereal—whose turn was it to buy milk?— minimizing the window when Steve walked in.
An adjunct position awaited her at the state college in September, but it was May, and the fumes left over in her bank account would soon evaporate. She was aware that constantly filling out applications only held back a larger terror that she could not face, and at the end of each online form, Imogen was beginning to feel, how to put it—subtracted from.
Other factors compounded the growing sense of becoming, somehow, less there. Through the window, she caught a glimpse of Steve, standing stock still in the paved yard. Her thoughts made a worried zigzag to her loan interest, which formed a personalized black hole that expanded by the day. No one else knew how big the hole was. Not her parents, not Steve. She felt herself becoming lighter, body mass siphoning away—into the hole—via a channel carved by worry and deepened by the steady lack of money. One day soon her final particle would vanish.
Meanwhile, the other couple formed a vivid story unfolding in her browser window, with—flesh consequences.
Albums proliferated: The laughing, crying video of the pregnancy montage. The photos of the commitment ceremony, to which Imogen and Steve had not been invited.
In the yard, slowly, Steve stretched out his arm, the final (and only) gesture of his stillness exercise. He explained his recent exertions as a series of thought experiments having to do with music, but in secret, Steve nourished hopes of befriending a pigeon. Dozens of pigeons, in fact.
From the vantage point of his new position—perched on the couch, facing the back alley, connected to his new video game console for hours—Steve watched the pigeons rise and wheel, moving above the alley in unison. For reasons he intended not to confide, he felt compelled to join the birds.
In silence, Steve stood as still as he could, counting from one to sixty, four times, in his head, at the end of which duration he would extend his left hand in a gesture so gradual and, he hoped, non-threatening, that the birds, he was sure, would come to look upon his arm as an inanimate object—or better yet: a friend.
When Steve was little, his stepfather had driven him and his sister to some old church, a mission, where flocks of pearly grey birds gathered, like pigeons but a little more elegant. His older sister quickly grew bored and wandered away, but Steve was transfixed. Hold still, the stepfather said, placing seeds from a small paper sack along Steve’s shoulders. In no time, birds were walking all over his arms and head.
Steve could feel a dozen hearts pumping through air-shot feathers and ribs. The birds were electrical, the nerves of a single muscle firing out of unison, but he could tell how strong they were, he could tell they were on the verge of a unified movement, they were just about to sink their claws in and rise up, pulling him with them, and he had filled his lungs, slowly, in preparation, with a big, buoyant breath, but then his sister came from nowhere, stomping, waving her arms, and the birds flew off in every direction, leaving Steve alone, on earth.
He was so mad that he refused to talk for the rest of trip. He went without dessert. He would not be bribed into pretending to have a good time so that his mother could take another photograph. He had to remain inside himself. He cultivated a method: if he didn’t talk, he could remember and remember until he’d carved the sensation so deeply into his mind that he couldn’t lose track of, or forget, about the pinpoints of the claws, about to flex, about to lift. Other things he only had pictures of, with no feelings to accompany the images. The apartment they lived in when he was a baby. His father when he was still alive.
Ever since purchasing the video game console, Steve had been seized by the old urge to be clawed by a flock, on the verge of liftoff. He knew the birds hadn’t been pigeons, but you had to use whatever was available. Steve would not resort to bird seed. He was not like the stepfather, with his cheap tricks that usually involved money or desserts. Some things you could not pay for. Or if you paid for them, they weren’t real. For example, the trust and friendship of an animal. Besides, Steve’s slow method was working. The pigeons came closer every day, closing the radius.
Was he finished out there? Imogen tried to hold onto the cat, but he leapt to the floor. The stairs creaked.
Steve opened the back door, and the cat shot outside. “Bootie!” Steve yelled.
Bootie darted toward the back gate.
“Don’t chase him,” Imogen said. “He runs away when you do that.”
She slammed her laptop shut and fixed her gaze on Steve, who teetered in the doorway, watching Bootie’s tail vanish around the garage. Peripherally, he eyed Imogen, attempting to gauge the nature of her stare without having to meet it.
He wanted to play Castle: Yes!, the video game that had arrived in the mail that day. But he couldn’t tell, in the current environment of the living room, whether this course of action was advisable. He stepped in backwards, then made a casual lunge toward the couch, making a friendly oof sound to indicate benign intent. If he could make it to the console without initiating eye contact, perhaps he could dock peacefully into the welcoming narrative berth of Castle: Yes! Imogen might huff around, but sooner or later the tension in the living room would yield and shift, for example if she shut the door to the bedroom in order to phone her sister, or left the apartment for some obscure reason.
Once or twice a week (he couldn’t keep track) Imogen went out to deal with what Steve thought of as real world situations, such as teaching, or going to her class. More frequently, though, on days when the laptop typing reached an especially anxious pitch, she would walk over the nearby hill to a poorly lit basement where strangers gathered to talk and weep.
It was fine with him. She would confide many secrets to the general room, and then hustle out at the end in order to avoid speaking with anyone in particular. She had told him as much. At home, after the gatherings, she issued gently meaningful glances that filled Steve with terror. Still, these soft and creepy looks were better than her menacing stares, such as the one she gave him now.
Sometimes Imogen was amenable to gestures, such as a stroke or squeeze of the hand. If he tried one of these moves after she’d attended a gathering, her tear streaked face might flush and open, and she’d shift to wanting to have sex. Infinitesimally, he darted his eyes in her direction. She was looking out the window—“Bootie!”—scanning for the cat.
Steve darted his hand forward, aiming for the power button that throbbed on the video deck, but before he could punch it, there was an orange bound of fur, and then the cat was in the living room, wrestling down a pigeon that looked bigger than himself. His jaw was clamped around the bird’s neck. For a moment the pigeon went limp. Was it dead? A wilderness of sorrow exposed itself within Steve. Imogen lunged toward the animals. The pigeon twisted free and flapped around the living room. Steve crouched behind the couch, looking around for something he could use to trap the bird—without harming it—so that he could release it back into the alley. To its friends! Would a pot work? A blanket? A sound was coming out of the cat’s throat. A sort of growly rat-a-tat. “Imogen,” Steve cried.
Imogen nudged the screen open with one hand, covering her face with the other. The pigeon whooshed out. Somehow she grabbed Bootie. Steve stood up slowly. “Crisis averted!” he chirped.
“If his box was clean he wouldn’t run outside as much,” Imogen said.
“If his box were clean,” Steve corrected, as she walked past, shaking her head.
Were they fighting, or was everything fine? She went into the hallway, where the ammonia smell of litter stung.
From the living room came the theme music of Castle: Yes!, bouncing through the apartment with promise and bright menace. A friendly mushroom might come bonking through the window. Imogen could gobble it up and refresh her diminishing life points. Or just as likely a predator would zap across the living room and it would be up to her to swat it out of there, if Steve was locked in a screen trance. If Steve were locked in a screen trance, she corrected herself.
The phone in her back pocket brilled: message coming in! A blaze of greed lit up her brain. She tapped the screen to open the email. Dear Instructor, she skimmed, regret to inform you… system wide budget cuts…unfortunately our most recent hires…likely impact the department for the next five years…wish you luck…
But she had already told her parents about the job, who had in turn told who knew who. Plus the money. Her black hole fluxed into a precipice. She threw the phone down on the floor and pieces of it flew here and there. The battery, the case.
Suddenly nowhere in the apartment seemed safe. The bedroom unsafe, the doorway unsafe, the inside of her own mouth and her internal organs, all rubble, décollage, full of sharp things that didn’t belong in the same space.
She opened the front door. Two men standing together on the corner cried out in unison: Alcohol! Were they hailing her?
“For a while people were spending a lot of money,” one of the men said.
“The news in the newspaper,” said the other.
“Something something toxic assets,” answered the first.
Imogen remembered about Bootie and carefully shut the door. Toxic plus asset. The phrase implied something dynamic, or maybe just entropic, a system caving in on itself. Before the toxic part obtained, had there been a good thing, a thing of value that had somehow turned into the opposite of itself?
The opposite of lesbian is you dating Steve, her most recent ex-girlfriend had shouted, years ago, when Imogen revealed that she was dating someone new, a boy, although boy hardly seemed like the right word to apply to Steve’s worn pouches of eye skin, his less than robust hairline. The opposite of Imogen and Steve was the other couple, but what was an opposite when you got right down to it?
A rubbing, fleshy creaking erupted from down the hall. Imogen ran into the living room and gasped when she saw Steve.
He had grown a taproot, and several side root hairs as well. The taproot was breathtaking, trunking powerfully down from each of Steve’s large feet to conjoin in a thick, green twist with a light scaling of bark. Steve looked secretive.
“Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Imogen formed the words with careful nonviolence, just as her therapist had instructed. It was, she felt, the most gorgeously neutral question she had ever posed to Steve.
His taproot surged and lengthened, bursting through the floorboards. He gazed at Imogen with so much love that she felt a tunnel open up all the way to their first month together, five years before, when she had felt basted with amazement every waking second. “I think we should break up,” Steve uttered tenderly. Vines came out of his palms and fingers, twining with the cables that ran from video game controller.
Imogen said, “I agree.” Her heart shot out of her body for one beat and then reeled back in. It happened so quickly that all Steve could see was a red whiz.
Steve said, “Zip a dee do dah!” A branch sprouted from his head. They both laughed. It felt good to make a noise in unison. She felt dizzy. Her heart’s rhythm was off. Did it want to get out again? Because she would let it, she would let it.
She looked out the window and saw the neighbor totter through the yard. But hadn’t he moved out months ago? What was he doing back? He wore his orange crossing guard vest and carried a plate of spaghetti, which he laid on the concrete.
“Steve,” Imogen hissed. “What are you going to do?”
A leaf unfurled from Steve’s mouth, and he shrugged. His eyes looked like two bright Petri dishes, each filled with millions of sperm. Steve used to love giving out futures to Imogen. I’ll move anywhere with you, he’d say, nuzzling her hair. Or, we can have a baby, baby. Each future cost him almost nothing but a pleasant release, a warm flood of present happiness that contained the promise of a long perpetuation. Sometimes, in these moments, the word marriage had risen in him, starting as a thrill of heat around his anus, rising vertically through his torso in warm, intestinal waves, and finally issuing from his head area in the form of a shy suggestion.
Now his leaves rustled against each other. What would he do? Ask a mountain. Ask a riverbed. He would stay right where he was. He would grow another ring.
Bootie shot past Imogen’s leg and into the backyard again. He began gobbling down the plate of spaghetti the neighbor left on the ground.
Imogen went out to get him, walking slowly so Bootie wouldn’t run away. The gate to the alley was open. She moved toward it. Clouds rolled by in slow motion. The neighbor was nowhere to be seen.
A bicyclist with a tiny rearview mirror attached to her helmet rode by. Imogen caught a glimpse of herself in the dentist-sized circle, her reflection a tiny blur that disappeared into blazing, sunny streaks. There she was, a woman alone, childless, her life on fire, her arms on fire, roaring down out of the hemisphere, in flames.
At the end of the alley, her former neighbor reappeared, standing proudly in his orange vest. The cat’s tongue made dry licking sounds against the plate.
Come here my sweet one, she said to Bootie.
The cat went over to her with his flat, orange face upturned. She caught him up and squeezed him fiercely and took a deep smell of his fur. He tolerated this, then caught her head in his paws and began to lick her hair. The leaves on the tree outside moved in every direction possible.