by Geoff Schutt
You are in your room at The Melrose. The bottles of California champagne are lined up along the windowsill. The drapes are closed, except for the very middle, a crooked spot where the drapes meet, allowing enough of an opening for the night light to come in. Maybe the moon’s full, and that’s why it’s so bright outside. You don’t know. Maybe it’s lights from the street, or a light from the office that finds its way in. You’ve kept the light inside off because it makes you feel safer somehow, as though nobody can see you, that you are hiding and have some time to think, even if you aren’t thinking about much right now. Well, you are thinking about ice. The California champagne (and you love thinking those two words together, because they don’t go together at all – together, they sound pretentious and cheap) is warm, and there’s no working ice machine at The Melrose, and you’d probably have to go back to the gas station for a bag of ice if you really wanted to chill one of these bottles. It doesn’t really matter, though does it, warm or cold. You take one of the bottles and give it a good shake. Warmer, it’s bound to give a bigger boom when the cork comes out, and the liquid bubbles all over. You tear off the gold foil with your fingernails, twist off the protective wire holding the cork in place, and begin to turn. But before you can even really get a good twist on the cork, there’s a knock at the door. You put your thumb over the cork in case it decides to explode without your okay and hold the bottle close to your body as you press yourself against the door and say, Who is it?
Greta, of course.
You let her in.
She sees the bottles of champagne, which are visible while the door is open. Then the darkness envelops the two of you, except for the slit between the drapes.
Greta doesn’t try to turn on the light, and she doesn’t ask you to turn on the light either. You are sitting next to each other on the bed.
She is looking at the bottle you are so carefully holding, your thumb pressed down so hard it begins to hurt.
Open it, she says.
So you begin to twist and it doesn’t take long and the cork indeed pops and hits the ceiling, straight up, and the California champagne is flowing over the bottle like a volcano has erupted. Greta leans forward to lick the side of the bottle.
It’s warm, she says.
I know. I’m sorry.
Do you have any ice? you say after a brief pause.
I don’t mind, Greta says. She takes the bottle from you and drinks, even as the remnants of the eruption of bubbles and liquid drip onto her blouse.
It’s probably about the same if we did have ice, you say.
Greta says, It tastes wonderful, and she hands you the bottle, and you drink from it just as she did, feeling liquid stain your shirt.
You pass the bottle back and forth until it’s nearly empty. The stuff goes down incredibly smooth. You are amazed, and feeling a distance, weird sort of buzz at the same time.
I was going to be the next big thing, you say quietly.
What stopped you? Greta says.
You take another drink. There are perhaps a couple of long swallows each left. You look at her, seeing the shadow side of her face, her outline, a silhouette of a female you are attracted to, and yet you cannot allow yourself to be attracted to, but rules be rules, and rules are meant to be broken, and you can’t help how you feel, and you are attracted to her, and the only thing you can say to Greta is something to answer her question, and then you can turn your face away and not be so entranced by her, when you just wish she would love you, just love you like nobody else ever has, with no questions, no holding back, existing right now in the present, just the two of you, and warm California champagne gone straight to your heads and sitting even warmer in your stomachs and you want her so much but you have to slow down your breathing and try to answer, don’t you. just try to answer so you can turn your face away and not succumb to her even if she is not asking for one damn thing from you.
What stopped me, you say – and then take on the remaining swallows – was me.
That would’ve, should’ve, been the end of it. Go on to another subject. Or don’t talk at all. But this is Greta and she is beginning to get to know you, or wanting to know you, and she says, You’re here, and I don’t see you doing anything to stop yourself.
Odd, isn’t it, how your face hasn’t turned away, how even as you answered her in the first place, you kept looking at her, as much as you can see of her. Odd isn’t it, you are thinking, handing her the bottle, watching her head and neck arch back to take in the California champagne and marveling at her outline, as if you were at a museum, admiring a great work of sculpture, and even though there are signs everywhere telling you not to touch the artwork, you cannot resist and you touch. You need to feel what a work of art feels like. Feel it beyond the buzz of the alcohol. Feel it inside yourself like you are reopening a scarred love.
God, she is so soft.
When will your husband be home? you ask. I heard you fighting. You know how thin these walls are. I can’t help it if I hear things.
Tonight’s different, Greta says.
If he ever did anything to you, and I heard it happening, I would be breaking down your door in a second to help you. You know this, yes?
She looks at you, and then at the draped windows. I know, she says. I trust you.
Maybe it’s the cheap California champagne, or maybe it’s just built-up emotion, but her words hurt you somehow.
But how can you trust me? you say.
Greta keeps her gaze straight ahead. I have this sense about people, she says.
Open another bottle, Greta says.
Bottle number three. You don’t shake it this time. Still, warm cheap champagne bubbles over and you lose a portion of the liquid. Doesn’t much make a difference. There are seven bottles left. You could drink yourself to death, though you don’t recall any stories about a person dying from drinking too much cheap champagne.
You’re suddenly self-conscious. You’ve been sharing the bottle, but now you wish you had real champagne glasses. Even plastic ones would do. There are the two plastic cups in the bathroom you haven’t used yet. You go and get those and return, and pour Greta’s full, and then your own.
Here’s a toast, you say, holding up your plastic cup.
Okay, Greta says, and she lifts hers.
But fuck if you know what to say next. Greta’s eyes are so beautiful, looking at you, waiting, trusting you without any reason to trust you.
Here’s to tonight, you say, and the two of you click plastic cups and take a sip. The more you drink, the easier it goes down. The room temperature bubbles sting your throat, but you like the sting, the small amount of pain, because you feel you should be experiencing more pain than this, though you’re not sure why, and any pain or discomfort is better than none. It’s insane to think this way, of course. You even know it’s insane to think this way. It’s amazing, you think, how aware of some things you can be when you’re on a buzz that at any other time you would just be oblivious. That said, you wonder about what things you are oblivious to when you aren’t on a buzz, when you are sober.
You have a thought, brought on by the buzz. You have a pocketknife that belonged to your grandfather. You father gave this to you after your grandfather died. It was one of those belongings that was precious enough to take with you, to this place, where you’ve ended up, in the middle of nowhere or at the end of everywhere. And you’ve protected it during this journey, away from home, away from everything you could call a normal life – or at least, your normal life. So you have this thought, this abrupt through, that maybe you and Greta are in the same boat, like a raft or something, as if the larger ship you were aboard has sunk and now you are drifting in the sea, waiting to be rescued and there’s no guarantee that anyone will ever find you. You need to make amends while you’re still alive, still breathing, even if your amends are made to a person who was a complete stranger just days before.
You find the pocketknife, even in the dark. Your eyes have adjusted enough to the shadows.
You pull open one of the blades. You hand this to Greta.
I want you to cut me, you say. We’re in this together now, both of our lives, you say. I want you to cut me and then I’ll cut you. And then we’re family, and once we’re family we can look out for one another. Not just now, tonight, I mean, but after tonight. For the rest of our lives.
You keep going on, a rambling you just talking and talking.
If you don’t want me to cut you, that’s okay, you say. I can’t even tell you exactly why. Like you can’t tell me why tonight is so different with your husband being gone. He’ll come back, I know he will, but until then, you’re welcome here, and I’m glad you’re here with me, and I am asking you a big favor, I know.
Greta laughs. Not a big laugh, but a tiny one, half of it kept inside, and she’s smiling too.
We did this as kids, she says. Me and my friend, I mean. Blood sisters.
You hand her the knife. You roll up the sleeve on your shirt. You place your finger on the inside of your elbow.
That’s not how we did it, Greta says. We used our thumbs.
I want you to make a cut right here, you say. I want you to make it deep, so I bleed. I want to bleed. I need to bleed.
And Greta, she could be making all kinds of excuses as to why she will not cut you, how this is wrong, how it’s crazy to be slicing into each other, or at least, into you, but she doesn’t, and now she is completely serious, no laughing, or smiling. Just to the task. You made a request, and she is completing it. She places the blade against your skin. You close your eyes and wait. You hold your drink with the other hand. You cannot watch her cut you, though a perverse side of you wants to – a perverse sexual side of you that finds this activity somehow stimulating.
No, no – pain – pain is what you want. You know how dull the blades are, really. You know. You know she will have to dig deep to break skin. She may not know how deep she needs to dig, but you know, because you have tried this already, by yourself. Trying to feel the hurt you have caused people you love, and in doing so, trying to call up your grandfather’s ghost so you can speak to him, and ask him for his wise words, as in, here I am, but what do I do next? How do I get back? How do I find home?
Greta has placed her plastic cup on the worn carpeting. She is holding your skin taught with one hand, and has the blade against your skin with the other. You can feel her struggle with it. You can feel the cold metal on your skin, even this thin blade of the pocketknife, how cold it is, you can feel this, and you can feel his trying to make you bleed, and you feel her life the blade when she is not successful at drawing blood, and now you are ready to open your eyes and tell her that it’s okay, it’s a dull blade and this was a bad idea, that you didn’t know what it was going to accomplish anyway, and that she shouldn’t feel bad and that you’re going to put the knife away and that the two of you can continue to drink until you pass out, if that’s what she wants, or talk, or both, or stop drinking the cheap California champagne that’s giving you such a weird kind of buzz and maybe go out somewhere for a cup of coffee – yes, actually leave The Melrose, this dump of a motel, together, and go out, together, and forget about husbands and wives and have a conversation as two people who have been very hurt by their circumstances, no sense to place blame anywhere, just to talk about things, and get everything out into the open.
You don’t open your eyes though. And Greta does not give in to a dull blade. You can only imagine what she does by the way it feels. You can only imagine that she has lifted the blade a couple of inches into the air and now stabs your arm with a surprising amount of force, and you feel the emotion of bleeding instead of the pain, but there’s no such thing is there? To feel bleeding the same way you might feel happiness or sorrow.
Now do it to me, Greta says.
You open your eyes. Your arm is bleeding – not a lot really, but it is bleeding, and Greta has her own arm waiting for you, and she presses the pocketknife into your hands, and she closes her eyes.
Please do it quickly, she says.
I’m ready, she says.
What are you waiting for? she says. I’m ready.
an excerpt from a novel-in-progress
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Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com
Artist: Jane Gilday
Hero Fool Beast
Acrylic on panel