The streetlights outside were flickering, coming on. They spilled through the guard rail above the steps and cast the palest of light onto the basement apartment’s floor. Paris was drawn to it. At first, it was just the streaks on the floor that drew his attention. But soon he had abandoned the canvas to follow the light to its source from the street above. From his window he watched the flickering lamp glow purposelessly like a morning moon. He stood there imagining showing Tatum the painting he had not painted.
Piece by piece, the moment broke up like a cloud. Want. It had contaminated the moment. Dissolved it. Paris wanted to paint. He wanted Tatum. But all he did was stand there in what he did not and had not. A pocket full of quarters and a new box of Lemonheads. Just minutes ago, he had had it all.
She recalled the cool bathroom linoleum and porcelain bowl, the sweating and the not knowing whether she had failed or whether this was what dying was. Her stomach had rung itself out over hours, twisting, it seemed, like a towel, the pressure throwing everything upward, vomiting the vapors of bile when there was nothing else left.
By 4:00 a.m., Tatum had pegged herself for spared. Exhausted. Dehydrated. But not dead. She managed to crawl out of the bathroom and find her way to the bed. She sat on the floor leaning against the drab, olive-colored spread. Her skin felt stretched tight over her bones. Her own wrists looked to her bird-frail. She had no fat, no fuel. No source from which to draw. Pared down to organs, bones, and a layer of muscle as thin as a sheet, she could feel her heart, a clear vessel that was perfectly empty. It felt transparent. Made of glass. She had struggled up from the floor.
Tatum had left her motel room to find coffee. All she could find, though, was a drop-and-fill vending machine in the hall near the lobby. It was a wonder, she had thought, dropping dimes through the slot, that in a world of lattes, cappuccinos, and breves that such a machine still existed. It was like finding a rack or shackle on a prison wall. A thing we’d decided as a society was no longer humane.
She had eyed her reflection in the mirror behind the bar over the past two weeks. At sixty-two years old, she knew, time was not on her side. She could pass for fifty on a good day, she thought, but nonetheless, she knew her good days were numbered just as she had known at twenty-six that her smooth skin and gravity defying features were on loan. While still in her youth and prime, she had chosen to let go of her looks before they left on their own. It’s not that she ceased the grooming and upkeep on what God gave her. She was just careful not to count on it.
She intended to be ready for the next stage, too, the next round of loss. When she became an elderly woman, white-haired, shrunken, she knew she would lose more status, more attention, more “can I help you’s” from store clerks. One doesn’t become a ghost overnight. It is a gradual path to a gray blur. Not a potential sex partner. Not a danger. Not likely wearing an enviable pair of boots. People’s eyes move on to find something more interesting. There was no one to blame. Geneva thought it might even be biological. We notice what we need to notice--opportunities, threats.