You consider that stupid quote about the definition of insanity. Suddenly everyone’s an expert on insanity. Must be true considering you know more people who take Lithium than vitamins. Everyone in this town is expertly insane. Everyone in this room, for sure.
Lenny brings the ashtray just in time to keep you from setting yourself on fire. The flame is burning dangerously close. He sits back down, waiting for you to look up.
“You know, before, when we first, you know, met,” his tone is low, serious, one you’re not used to hearing. “I was confused back then. You scared the shit out of me, kind of.” You examine a small stain on the rug nearby. Pick at the stain, anything to keep from looking at him, anything to keep him from knowing you might still feel it. He goes on, regardless. “I didn’t trust you. I told you things that, you knew things, I mean, you could see inside me and I wasn’t cool with it.” He lights another cigarette. “But you’ve been here for years now, you know my all issues and shit and you’re still, here.”
The way he says it right then, the word isn’t a location, it’s something else. You’re not really sure what it is, but you know that, presently, it’s a word you don’t know. Every word seems somewhat foreign at this moment; he’s saying one thing but he’s asking another. Could you love him like that again? Have you ever stopped? And then, can you trust him? You know how fickle and impulsive he is. And he’s been having a dry spell lately; you don’t want to be anyone’s dry spell relief. You know what he’s asking you. You just don’t know the answer.
Take a deep breath of your own. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” is all you manage.
“Nothing. I don’t know.” He gets up, walks to the kitchen. “I just wanted to explain myself and apologize. I mean it’s not like I’m trying to start something. I wasn’t saying we should give it another shot or anything. I don’t know what I was thinking. I just, you know me, crazy.” He points at his ear and stirs the air—the international symbol for loony tunes.
You open your mouth to stop him from doing whatever it is he’s doing, from taking it all back. But just as you stand up, Shawn walks in, drawing the air out of you before shutting the door. Shawn has her own air about her—the air of a bull in a china shop, in a tsunami. She throws her coat on the floor, kicks her boots into the corner of the room, and holds up a bottle of tequila like she’s the goddamn Statue of Patrón-ity.
“What up, bitches?” She announces. Then, as she notices the empty room, “What the—were you robbed, Lenny?” No one answers.
“Limes in the kitchen,” You direct. You won’t, don’t return to the previous conversation.
You won’t return to it all night, in fact. You will eat too much and drink too much and smoke too many cigarettes, in typical self-punishing fashion. The night begins to blur. At some point you enter the bathroom, only to be greeted by the quick hiss and sudden blackness of a burned-out light bulb. Pee with the door open, your virtue protected by the darkness. When you’re finished, walk straight to the kitchen. Len keeps his 60-watts in the cereal cabinet, next to his favorite paperbacks. Maybe he’s right, maybe you already know where he keeps everything.
Shawn is lying on the floor, wearing a pair of mirrored Aviators for no reason. Probably has something to do with the fact that she supposedly gets her weed from the same guy as Snoop and her pupils are pretty dilated by now. You hand Lenny the bulb and tell him you’re borrowing the Basquiat biography.
When he’s barely around the corner, Shawn leans forward and sort of whispers, “What’s the deal with you two?” You imagine her eyebrows arching in punctuation of the question, but her sunglasses are so big, all you can see is yourself. You wonder what Len sees when he looks at her. “Are you guys really just—”
“Friends,” you interrupt. Your sudden insistence is simply an attempt to cut her off. You’re afraid he might hear her, then you’re more afraid he heard you. Your eyes send secret signals to Shawn, but the sunglasses deflect your reflection. Your meaning is distorted and misconstrued. Lenny is back.
“And The Lord said, ‘Let there be light,’” he announces to Shawn. She walks to the bathroom, closes the door. He slinks in beside you on the floor. More whispering, “The chair works, I tell ya.”
“We’ll see.” Suddenly you need to move, do something with your hands, look somewhere other than his face. Light a cigarette. Point to the chair. “Did you tell her your theory?”
“Nope. Gonna just wait and see.”
You look at him and think, me too.
When Shawn gets back she takes the chair. The night wears on with more stories, shots, smokes, smoke signals. Beer. Lenny opens your bottles because he knows how they hurt your hands. You’d rather walk around with a bloody-palmed stigmata than ask him for help with anything, so he takes the beer from your hands and opens it without asking, without stopping whatever story he’s telling, then hands it back without looking at you. And you both pretend it never happened. Maybe he knows your location, too.
Then, when you’ve just about figured it out, Shawn pushes the sunglasses further up onto her nose and leans back, settling deep into the chair. She starts to tell the two of you about her father. He’s a cop in Long Island. She tells you about how he wants her to fly back for a few days next week, to stand there and smile, clap while they give him some kind of award, some special honor. She tells you she can’t, and then she tells you why.
She tells you things that almost make you wish Lenny was right about the goddamn chair. Because if he’s right, and this stupid chair makes people tell the truth, then maybe there could also be some other kind of chair that can make things less true. You want it to be possible to undo things, things done a lifetime ago that still burn for her like yesterday. Things that forever alter the people you are and shape the people you try so hard not to be. Things a father should never do to his daughter. You watch the tears fall from behind her sunglasses, run down her cheeks. You wonder why Len couldn’t have brought home that other chair.
You listen to Shawn, nod in all the right places. Shake from the inside out. Try to picture Shawn’s father—Shawn’s face on a man in some kind of impressive uniform, thanking the mayor or the governor or somebody for some kind of medal. Some kind of honor, you think.
You will tell her not to go. You will tell her she’s safe now, here. You will tell her whatever you can to make it go away. But she won’t hear you. She will go anyway.
“Let me know if you need a ride to LAX. Supershuttle’s a bitch,” is the only thing you really tell her. With words, anyway.
Len offers to throw a fancy martini dinner party when she gets back. He promises rack of lamb.
“She doesn’t eat meat,” you say.
“Perfect. More for us.” He winks at Shawn, and you wonder if his winks are as powerful for her as they are, were, are for you. The room exhales. She raises her glass, you both raise yours. The three of you clink together with just enough restraint to keep from breaking. Just as powerful, you realize.
Many more expensive shots and cheap jokes are ingested, and somewhere along the night you fall asleep on the floor. You open your eyes to the window and an outside that’s not dark but not quite light—some smoggy shade of purple that hasn’t been named yet—beautiful but toxic. You roll over and see that you’re alone. Shawn’s boots are still in the corner, and the door to Lenny’s bedroom is closed.
You’re nauseous and your head hurts. More than the alcohol is to blame for your hangover; you’re ready to go home. The switch flips up without a sizzle this time—there is light. The bathroom tile is cool, and feels wet beneath your hot dry soles. Fill your hands from the faucet, the water sweet and thick in your mouth. You drink with your whole face submerged. The bathroom rumbles beneath your feet as you lift your head. You sit down. Stand up. Open the cabinet for aspirin. Turn the labels toward you. From the looks of things, he hasn’t taken any of these for weeks, but you have no say. It’s not the first and it won’t be the last time he goes off his meds, so don’t bother feigning surprise. Close the cabinet door. Look in the mirror. Watch the water drip down your face. Remind yourself that it doesn’t affect you. Recite the mantra, try to believe it works. Fake it till you make it. Fake it. Fake it.
Shawn is standing behind you in the mirror.
“You okay?” one of you asks—you’re not sure which. You smile, reach back in, grab the aspirin, toss her the bottle.
You’re putting on your shoes when she reemerges. Lenny is still sleeping. (Or faking it to avoid the scene.)
“Need a ride?” Shawn asks.
“Fuck yes.” Relief settles between you as she laces her boots.
Lenny emerges sheepishly. He looks at you, and then doesn’t. He shrugs. You kiss his cheek, letting him know you’re not mad. You’d be an idiot to be angry, because if you love him though you know he’s crazy, you can’t get pissed when he proves you right. Maybe you’re hurt, but you’ll be damned if you’re going to let him have that.
“I’ll wait downstairs,” is all you’ll give. Smile, even if you have to fake it for now.
Outside the air is finally crisp and cool and it feels good to move. Sit down on the step. Trace your finger along the engraved heart that encircles a set of random initials in the cement. Your finger slides into the words “4” and “ever.” Wonder if the words outlasted the sentiment. When you look up notice that most of Lenny’s furniture is still there, but the Eames chair is gone. Relief fills your lungs like it’s own element, binding to hemoglobin, swimming inside you until you exhale.
Yeah, you don’t need another chair.
A shiny black XJS blows by and rattles the crinkled and dirty sign in the gutter; discarded, free.
Pam Howe is a senior English/creative writing major at SUNY Geneseo. Originally from Rochester, she’s lived in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Oakland, California. Her work has been published in Opus, Mint Magazine, as well as the League of Innovation’s annual national publication. If given the opportunity to have tea with any writer it would be Woody Allen, only she’d make it whiskey and clarinet instead of tea and cookies.
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