Chipped Polish and Hidden Cigarettes
There was a knock at the door: two loud thuds and after a pause, three small consecutive hits. John opened the door to discover Prudence. His ex was anything but. Today her constantly-changing hair was a shade of aubergine that reminded him of her old vegetable garden. Her stockings looked new but were still (slightly) ripped like the strong muscles beneath the fabric. He thought about how she kicked a hole in the apartment wall with her Doc Martens during their last fight.
But today, today she stood there, eggplant hair and cardigan-clad, with a loaf of French bread underneath one arm and a bottle of wine in the other.
“Bonjour, mon ami!” she exclaimed amicably. She drew in closer with strawberry lips and left the juices on both of his cheeks.
“Hey…it’s such a surprise,” he said, rubbing the lipstick off his stubble with the back of his hand.
“I know, right? Who would have thought you’d see me again?” She paused and waited for a response. There was none. “Anyways, I brought libations.” She walked past him into the apartment calling out in the other room, “Where’s the corkscrew?”
This is it, he thought. I’m going to die. Prudence is going to get me drunk, break the empty bottle of cabernet—or was it pinot…
“Found it!” The sound of the cork blasting off sounded like a gun. Her singing voice was so flat that even “Frere Jacques” changed to a menacing minor tone as it wafted through the apartment. John watched her hips swing as she strode into the kitchen. He contemplated leaving his own apartment but he thought about how he couldn’t very well leave Prudence here by herself, especially if Jill came home sooner than anticipated. He watched her lean over the sink to wash her hands, remembering the last time she was bent over in that spot. He turned around and shook the thought from his head.
“Hey, Jack,” she said, popping up behind him holding two full glasses. He jumped. “Why are you still standing there?” She tilted her head to the side.
He gathered courage and asked, “Why are you here?”
She opened her mouth but before she could reply, he stalked away to the bathroom. In the re-designed sea scape room, he lifted the window. Searching behind the towels in the closet, he found his pack of cigarettes and lighter. It had been six months since his last drag. As he flicked off the smoldering ash off of the second floor, he knew that if Jill caught him, she would bitch because she was allergic to the smoke and could smell “everything, Johnny.”
But, these were desperate times. He hadn’t seen Prudence in a little over than a year when he broke up with her and felt this constant aimless feeling. What was he doing with his life? Four years out of college degree and wasn’t even remotely working in his field. His student loan debt weighed down on his wallet. He needed to pay the bills but in order to do that without having a steady career, John accrued multiple part-time jobs: bartender, cashier, toll booth guy, custodian, etc. During one point in their relationship, he held three jobs down at once, never saw Prudence, and the void he felt only grew larger.
John figured that if Prudence could just get her shit together, maybe he could too. Maybe they could move in together, save money on rent, search for ‘real’ jobs, eventually get married—just do anything that would stop him from feeling so confused. And he had tried to tell Prudence in so many words what he felt. During their last fight, he only broached her part first—how he wanted her to be more serious. She started crying and said that John sounded like her parents. What was he going to say next? That she was wasting her potential too? She wouldn’t stop talking to let John tell her why he felt that way, why he needed to feel grounded, so in the middle of her hysterics, he said, “Prudence, I can’t do this anymore.” In response, she kicked the hole in his wall.
He took one last drag after he thought about her leaving that last time, threw the cigarette out of the window, and put his pack and lighter back in their hiding spots. Then he sprayed the room with Jill’s air-compressed lavender and gardenias.
He found Prudence looking out of place sitting on his new, solid couch, looking at a photo album of a picnic in Central Park. Last time she was at the apartment, the only furniture in the living room was a beaten-up orange-plaid couch from the ‘70s with broken springs and mysterious green stains, a couple of TV-tables, and a 16-inch television on top of a bookshelf (both were found on the curb to be thrown out). Now there was IKEA furniture, a new paint job (“Sun Shower” to be specific), and equally-spaced out paintings of giraffes. Prudence’s hand lingered next to the photograph that showed a couple clinking their water bottles together like champagne. She didn’t notice him nearby but he saw the muscles in hand tense up on the page. He cleared his throat and she looked up.
“Why are you here?” he repeated. “What do you want? Okay, last time I saw you, you told me—let me quote you—to ‘fuck yourself, you fucking fuck-face.’”
Prudence took a sip of her wine. “Hm. I think I do remember that. I probably could have come up with better insults—stuff about goblin toenails, unsightly back hair, and that stupid expression you make when you’re insulted. Yeah, that face you’re making right now. I just want to put a Popsicle in there or something.” She laughed to herself.
“You need to leave.” John closed the photo-album on the table.
“God, it’s just a joke. And no. Not until we clear the air,” she said as she waved the air with her hand. John realized it wouldn’t be easy to make her leave. “I want to move on. Clearly, you have based on the picture of you and that tiny, tan blonde holding the Evian. First thing first—when did you start drinking water out of plastic bottles? Your eyes almost literally shot daggers at me when I brought in a Dasani one day. And second, what’s her name?”
Ignoring the first part of her question, he said, “Jill.”
“How cute. Jack and Jill. Aren’t they brother and sister though? Creepy.”
“I think you mean Hansel and Gretel,” he said.
“No, I mean Jack and Jill. I know Hansel and Gretel are siblings.”
“Please, Prudence. Stop with the jokes. I go by John now anyways. You’re the only one who called me Jack.” He straightened his shirt, and she picked at the dirt underneath her fingernails. He sat down on the cushion next to her, unsure of where to look. He bit down on one of his hangnails and looked at the floor, noticing for the first time that there were carpet lines from Jill’s vacuuming. He felt uneasy seeing the neat carpet against Prudence’s scuffed shoes so instead he looked at Prudence’s hands. Once upon a time he had them memorized—the mole on the side of her middle finger when she flipped him off, the callouses from gripping her pen too tight, the small curve in her pinky finger (“It’s artistic!”), the constantly-chipped clear polish on her nails that created depth even in shallow nails beds. But now, he looked for the mole and he couldn’t find it in her fidgeting hands. Today there was light purple nail polish on her fingers.
“You’re different,” he said.
She looked up and slightly smiled. “Aren’t we all now? I don’t remember you ever wearing those stuffy button-downs before.” She pointed to his pressed shirt and then raised her hands.
“Or drinking out of plastic water bottles! Crazy! I guess you did get more serious.”
“Yeah, work clothes. I’m actually doing some ad-design work with an agency.” He half-smiled, unsure if Prudence would judge him and think he sold out to corporate. Well, she’s probably already thinking that just from the looks of this place.
Prudence rested one hand on her chin and said, “Well, I’ve got this job as a secretary—excuse me, an ‘administrative assistant,’ at this up-scale tattoo parlor.” John’s eyes widened and she smiled. She touched his forearm. “It’s pretty great. I take client appointments and write down what sort of tattoo they want. The guy’s a genius. You should see his work,” she pulled up her sleeve to reveal a small but intricate willow tree on her forearm. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
John looked up at Prudence who was looking at her arm. He nodded even though she couldn’t really see it.
“Jack, you said I’m different. So what did you think was different about me?” she asked as she rolled down her sleeve.
“Where’s the mole?”
“I thought you were going to say my bangs. What mole?”
“Yeah, I guess the purple hair. The mole on your finger.”
“Oh, that.” She swatted the air and her hand landed on John’s hand. “Fate decided to slice it off.” She gulped her wine. “I’ll be right back,” she said and patted her stomach.
His hands started to itch. The memory of his body touching hers made his muscles ache for her contact. He pictured his fingers laced with hers back on his old couch and how it led him to think what they looked like laced above her head in his bed…. The toilet flushed and he shook those thoughts aside by stretching his hand. He closed his eyes and sighed. When he opened his eyes, Prudence stood with a cigarette dangling from her mouth as casual as a kid with a cherry Blowpop.