He watches as she discreetly tips whiskey from her flask into a pint glass full of Coke. She sees him looking and blushes. Raises a violent red fingernail, nibbled at the tip, to her lips.
He nods. Feels his heart rise up to claw at his throat. Let me out, it says. For Christ’s sake.
Her stomach rumbles loudly. When she catches him staring again, she fakes a cough. Why, he doesn’t know.
He slides his plate of fries over on the bar.
“I can’t finish these. Couldn’t help me out, could you?”
“I barely know you,” she says.
“Well, I have the space. It’s up to you. I’d hate to see you with no place to go, but you have to feel comfortable.”
They carry her three battered suitcases up to his fourth-floor walk-up, into the closet that passes for a spare room. She never sleeps there. Not once.
They whisper urgently into the purple night, their childhood stories punctuated by laughter and car horns in the street below.
He tries to be gentle when he wakes her from the nightmares.
She starts taking his hand in hers when they go out together.
He never asks for rent, but together they drink her tiny paychecks. On the rocks at first, and later, neat. Then from the bottle.
“Do you have anything?” Her mouth is less than a breath away from his. Her breasts are a pale glow, like matching moons. He can feel her soft, hungry belly pressed to his.
He doesn’t have a thing. He doesn’t know anything about having. Only needing.
He clenches his jaw and watches her, trying to read the furrows on her forehead.
She’s not happy about it.
“You might feel some pressure,” the doctor says. “But it shouldn’t hurt.”
They meet each other’s eyes, both wondering the same thing.
Was that supposed to be a fucking joke?
She sleeps with her back to him. The long line of her vertebrae like a favourite story. One he usually reads in braille, but which he now finds himself staring at all night, his eyes unable to make any sense of it at all.
She begins to speak of home. Home, like it’s some kind of faraway place, and not here, with him.
He walks her to the train station.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“No,” she says. But she gets on the train anyway, with all three of her suitcases.
There is no resolution.
He stacks clean plates in the cabinet. Everything in his apartment is squeaky clean now. Too clean. Including him.
His phone rings. Jenny from Work. She’s clean too. But the kind of clean he hopes to be one day. She has big white teeth and shiny hair that smells like green apples.
He answers her call, his heart thrumming in his throat for the first time in years.
Rachel O’Cleary studied creative writing at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. After several years teaching English in Poland and France, she now lives in Ireland with her husband and three children, writing mostly very short fiction in between school runs. She occasionally tweets @RachelOCleary1.