That Thing Some Might Call "Married Life"
In the middle of July, when the summer heat wavers thick above the blacktop and even the most vicious dogs pant feebly in the shade, a man walks down a barren road with a bulging plastic grocery bag in each hand.
Sweat soaked his dark green t-shirt, and dripped with each step from his disheveled black hair. He trudged through the sweltering heat just fast enough that his sandals didn’t melt to the blacktopped road, and ducked into a fenced-in, burned-out lot partly shaded from the sun by a tall, gray apartment complex.
“Good morning, Trish,” he said to a woman watering a droopy pot of slightly brown herbs set out on her windowsill in the full sun. Her bright red fingernails stood out against the blue-tinted Fuji water bottle. She spilled some water on herself at the sound of a male voice calling her, but her panicking eyes softened when she saw the man approaching.
“It’s you, Sam,” Trish exhaled in relief. With her hands on the windowsill she leaned slightly out, beaming away at Sam but unable to keep herself from glancing up and down the long, straight, barren black street.
No one would blame her for being a little on edge. This was the time of the month when her ex would usually show up on her doorstep asking for money, after all. She nodded her head toward the second floor.
“Maria’s been up there a good three days,” Trish said. She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. The half-dead plants rustled impatiently against the platinum-blonde tips of her nearly grown-out brown hair.
Sam nodded to her as he passed, flashing her one of the smiles forbidden to him for the past several weeks.
Sam’s sweat-soaked sandals squeaked against the old metal stairs as he tromped up to the second floor apartments. Shimmering footprints lingered for only a second before wicking away into the already sopping air. Traces of arsenic-blue paint edged the rust-colored path worn into the center of the steps by countless comings and goings – more of them sad than happy.
His destination: room 2-D.
“Maria,” Sam called. He set one of the bags down at the door. The receipt from the local chain grocery store, Lorenz Quality Foods, popped out of the top of the bag like tissue paper concealing a birthday present. Sam pulled out a set of keys from his pocket. They chimed dully in turn until he arrived at the right one. The grimy key was caked in a mix of sweat and dust . Finding its match in the lock, it turned easily. “I’m coming in!”
Once inside the four-room apartment complete with a full bathroom – an uncommon amenity in this complex – a wave of heat and humidity that put the sweltering world outside to shame hit Sam like a high-pressure wall. He propped the door open, a standard practice in this particular women-only complex.
“Thank God you’re here,” moaned a heavy female voice. Slinking down the five-foot hallway was a gangly woman with tied-up, curly red hair and light brown freckles visible on every inch of her body not covered by her low-cut shorts and tank top.
Seeing one thing and one thing only after suffering for nearly three days with a busted AC in record-breaking heat, she dove straight for the bags in Sam’s hands.
“Come to mama, babies,” she cheered as she took a brightly colored box out of one of the bags. It dripped wet in the humid air. “Dr. Chomper’s (Artifically Flavored) Grape Rocket Pops!”
Tearing into the soggy cardboard box, the woman ripped one of the popsicles from its protective plastic packaging decorated with unnaturally violet-colored images of smiling, human-faced grapes. Cold zinging through her teeth, she devoured the purple popsicle. Her entire body jolted with each bite. Sam followed the woman hugging the box of half-melted popsicles to her chest and they made their way into the apartment.
Though the walls and hall were generally bare, Sam glimpsed a room full of large canvas paintings, the largest of them being of an old man and woman holding hands and looking out on a lush vista of rolling green hills and tall blue mountains. The painting was propped against the far wall of the largest room in the apartment. It was nearly as tall as the wall itself and sat in full view of the sweltering sun. The entire place smelled of melted wax crayons and drying paint, and thickened in the dense air as Sam and Maria arrived at the kitchen.
The woman tossed the bare, purple-tinted stick into the yellowed porcelain sink. She tore into another popsicle. The propped-open window over the sink let in the excited chrrrrrrr-ing of cicadas – a creature whose years of harsh life underground were not about to be dampened by the heat now that it finally had its short chance in the sun. Sam set the now unevenly-packed bags on the counter and began stocking the nearly-bare cabinets and fridge.
“You have access to the account my paycheck goes into,” Sam said. “So you can always go out and buy this stuff yourself.” Sam shook his head, smiling, but his face contorted when his fingers grazed something soft and fuzzy in the back corner of the dark cabinet. He tentatively pulled it out… and threw it in the trash without looking at it any closer.
“I’ve been busy keeping up with my deadlines,” Maria responded. She eyed the second half purple, half light-brown wooden stick before tossing it into the sink.
“I saw a story on the news talking about the exhibit,” Sam said. Taking the sticks from the sink, Sam threw them into the garbage bin and tied off the top of the full bag. It had the logo for the local MacDonnie’s emblazoned in orange on the side. He tossed one of the two bags decorated with the yellow LQF logo into the empty gunmetal can and used the other as a new liner.
Maria didn’t like buying garbage bags – the free ones you get from the store were just as good as those 25-pack bags that sold for $8.99 and made the kitchen smell like a vomit-inducing mix of rotting food and fresh lavender.
“Did you tell your mom and dad?” Sam asked.
“They didn’t want to support me then, why should I let them gloat about their “brilliant artist daughter” now?” Maria ripped open another popsicle so sharply it popped out and slopped half-melted onto the cracked and dirty linoleum floor. She picked up the whole popsicle and ran it under water – but it was too far gone, and melted quickly under the blistering hot water that came out when she turned on the cold tap.
“Come on, they’re your parents,” Sam shuffled up next to Maria and grabbed a wet washcloth to wipe up the remaining ultraviolet ooze from the floor before it seeped between the cracks.
“Parents that would’ve let their own daughter starve on the streets just so they could say ‘I told you so’ aren’t parents,” Maria gripped the porcelain sink. “The things I did just for a bite of a raunchy cheeseburger…” she whispered.
Sam reached past Maria, rinsed the washcloth, and wringed it out without ever coming close to touching her.
“I don’t know about everyone else, but when I saw your sketches in Junior High I knew someday the whole world would recognize you and your talent, Maria,” Sam said. He left the washcloth dangling over the faucet, took the purple stick from the sink and tossed it in the garbage. He stretched his liberated arms like a professional trainer, first in front, then to the side, then over his head and behind.
“I still can’t believe you proposed to me in that stinking alley,” Maria laughed, shaking her head. She slipped the box of popsicles into the freezer and took out a soft ice-pack. “I didn’t even remember you, much less recognize you in your cameo and with that buzz-cut.”
Sam leaned against the wall beside the hallway where he stashed the bulging bag of garbage to take with him when he left. With his eyes shut Sam fanned his face with the collar of his soaked shirt. Maria snuck over to him and slapped Sam on the side of his neck with the cold, even if not completely frozen solid, pack. Sam bristled before leaning some of his weight on the pack still in Maria’s hand.
Maria rested on the wall next to Sam. She slumped down, holding her eyes at the same level as his as she gazed in the direction of the window.
“So… how was training,” Maria asked. It had been 12 weeks since she last saw Sam, but nothing was any different between them, even if Sam’s jaw had become sharper, and his muscles had become even bigger than she remembered. She stared at the blurry, gray city that rose like a mountain covering the horizon. “You’re Special Forces now, right?”
“Top of the unit,” Sam grinned. Sam may have been lauded by his superiors as one of the best soldiers of his generation, but it wasn’t from some excess of fidelity or pride in his country. There were those who would prefer it otherwise, but to him, it was just a job like any other. A job he was great at. “I’ve got a few weeks before deployment on my first assignment, so I can see your exhibit when it opens up.”
“Your apartment must be a mess,” Maria laughed. She glanced in Sam’s direction. “You’re only around a few weeks of the year, so it wouldn’t totally put me out moving to a bigger place and keeping a room for you.”
Sam shook his head.
“It might be time if you want a bigger place with enough room for a studio, though I think you would be more comfortable here since the other tenants know you so well now,” Sam scratched the wet stubble on his face, “besides, I would hate to come barging in and get in the way of anything, especially if it would be only once in a while.” Sam opened his eyes just as Maria looked away. “That reminds me,” he pushed away from the wall and Maria stumbled. “Since I don’t know if I’ll see you again personally before I go…”
Sam dug into his back pocket and pulled out a thin wallet with his oversized military ID on display in the clear front. Samuel Connor. 28 years old. 5’11”. Black Hair. Green Eyes…. Some of the information was out of date now.
Sam unfolded a single sheet of damp paper and handed it to Maria.
Maria’s mind went completely, utterly blank. Blanker than a new canvas, but infinitely darker too – the kind of blank that nothing can impress on.
“I thought I’d let you know I put everything in your name, so if something happens to me out there you don’t have to worry. I opted for DNR too, so you won’t get hit with any medical bills or paperwork either –”
“You idiot!” Maria yelled. She jumped just as much as Sam – she didn’t know her voice could even make a sound like that. Maria balled up the single-page will and threw it at Sam before punching him in the gut – but her wispy, paint-stained fingers were no match for his trained body that could withstand everything from iceberg-toting oceans to scorching deserts.
“Maria, what’s wrong,” Sam asked. His usually composed face was unused to smiling, but even more was it unused to the expression it was now displaying.
“Would it kill you to be a little more selfish,” Maria sobbed. “You pay for my food, my apartment… I don’t even need to get a job or my own health insurance.” She strangled the lukewarm ice pack in her clenched fist. “But you never ask me for anything!”
A spark went off in Sam’s brain.
“If you’ve found someone else, it’s easy filling out the paperwork for a divorce,” Sam suggested. But Maria’s voice only got louder.
“What the hell makes you think I want to be twenty-five and divorced any more than I want to be twenty-five and a widow?
Even though he wanted to, Sam couldn’t look away.
Maria headbutted Sam’s chest and stayed there, hunched and flailing like a turned-over turtle. Despite being muted by his soggy shirt, Sam still heard Maria’s voice loud and clear.
“I would be lying if I said the money’s not important, but even if you were a normal lackey flipping burgers all day for minimum wage at MacDonnie’s….”
A slight breeze blew in the kitchen window and out the still-open front door.
Maria seemed different to Sam somehow. This would be the second time today, the second time ever Sam had seen the top of Maria’s head, the curve of shoulders and back from above. He had sisters, but he didn’t feel this way for them. He’d had his share of girlfriends in the past like anyone else, but even that didn’t come close.
Maria backed away. “God, but you’re gross,” she laughed as she uselessly tried to wipe her hands and face dry in her soaked tank-top that was drenched even before Sam arrived. When she poked her head out of her tank, Sam was looking back at her, silent, and unmoving.
A Fuji water bottle popped around the corner of the open front door, tentatively outstretched in a crimson-fingernailed hand.
“I have 9-1-1 on speed-dial,” Trish said, her voice wavering; but she clenched her water-bottle in one hand like a bat set to swing, and held her phone at the ready in the other.
Trish peeked around the corner into the apartment, straight down the hall into the kitchen where Sam and Maria stood, Sam on his toes with his hands on Maria’s waist, and Maria bending slightly so her face was hidden behind the back of Sam’s head, with her hands on Sam’s shoulders.
Trish nudged the rickety door jamb loose, and shut the door. It was the only time her feet would ever step lightly down those arsenic and copper-red stairs, aside from when a week later, on a similarly sultry and humid July day, the tenants all pitched in and loaded 64 painted, oiled, and pastel-smeared canvases onto a truck commissioned by the Izadorre Art Gallery, and two dozen cardboard boxes into a black pickup truck.