Soma Mei Sheng Frazier
“Don’t come in,” she said. He heard her locking the door. “Go away.”
“Lupe, I need some help. I can’t find a couple things in the kitchen.”
“Don’t try to get me out, Dan,” she said softly. “I need to collect my thoughts.”
“Well I need to collect my wife.” He chuckled to indicate that nothing was really wrong. “Have you seen her?”
There was a pause. “I’m looking right at her.” As soon as she said this, he realized his mistake. “She’s fucking ugly, and fucking old.” There was a hard slap.
He looked down at the ornamental glass doorknob that they’d found together at a sprawling Los Angeles flea market. It had moved to London with them, then to Chicago and two smaller Midwestern towns, making their rented loos and johns unique. Now the knob lived with them in their Brooklyn apartment. This knob, he thought, is more worldly than my family.
He’d grown up in Amboy, Indiana: high school bonfires, ponytails and pot roasts, First Farmers Bank and Trust. She was a Brooklyn girl – incense wafting from brownstones, winter-cracked sidewalks, djembes in the park – though whenever he said as much, she protested. “I’m a senior citizen,” she liked to remind him, “and don’t you think ‘girl’ is a reductive label?” Because they were different, they got along.
“Let me in, Lupe.” When all he got was silence, he went quickly to the kitchen and counted the knives. One was missing: a serrated steak knife. His breath caught in his chest until he found it in the dishwasher.
The kitchen was narrow and quaint, with vintage floor tiles, a little West-facing window and an antique gas stove. They loved the apartment’s oldness. They hid their liquor in the built-in, wooden ice box, and slept on a refurbished Murphy bed. He turned around a few times in front of the sink, stopped, put his hands on the counter and pushed his face toward the window.
The setting sun’s sharp barbs pierced the soft white curtains. Pulling the gauzy fabric aside to stare into the orange Autumn glare, he noticed a brown smear on the windowpane. On a good day he would have erased it with a dishtowel. Today he simply noted that it was shaped like a banana.
“When people think of a cutter, they picture an emo high school girl,” she’d said once. He had nodded slowly and she’d smiled over the table. Then she’d returned to her newspaper, leaving him to wonder about what “emo” meant.
When she was happy he didn’t ask questions. He simply appreciated everything: the ease in her movements, the wrinkles that appeared around her smiling brown eyes and the warbling, made-up songs she sang as she folded the laundry. Listening, one would never guess that she had been a professional vocalist—toured half the world singing back-up for a celebrity. He privately wondered why she didn’t use her real voice in their living room; or maybe this was the real voice, and the fake one was the voice that had bought them this elegant Park Slope apartment.
When she was happy, she read him book reviews and laughed at his simple responses—“sounds good” or “sounds bad.” She chided him for being an Amboy man; a one bridge, one tower man; a stroll down North Main Street man; a dinner and a movie man; a never been to the museum until he met her man. Nor had he dated a Boricua, an artist or a cutter before. Their first few dates had consisted of him staring sheepishly at her from the audience while she gigged all over Los Angeles, performing for young, hip crowds. The other men who attended her concerts were cocky and sharply-dressed; familiar with the city’s Latino arts scene. At first he’d thought his provincial nature put him at a disadvantage, but it had turned out to be the glue that held them together.
He shook his head and glanced at his watch: no time to waste. She’d been in the bathroom for about twelve minutes. If he could make her laugh in the next eight, he calculated, they’d be in the clear.
He galumphed back down the hall. “Lupe,” he called, placing his hand lightly on the glass doorknob. Silence. “Lupe, did I ever tell you about the time me and Mary put our cat in the freezer?” Nothing. He couldn’t tell whether she was listening. “She was an annoying cat. She had this aggravating meow that sounded like a kazoo dying. I was five and Mary was seven. Do you think that means I can blame the whole thing on her?” The smooth antique glass was cool under his fingers, but his palms felt hot. “The freezer was in our basement. We left Fritter there and went off to play. We forgot all about her. Then, when Mom and Dad were about to come home, Mary remembered.” He glanced down the hall at the shiny 1920’s pan chandelier and crown molding that had helped sell them on the apartment. The hallway still held the scent of the early dinner he’d fixed: pork chops with a mushroom glaze. He heard her stirring behind the door and hoped this meant she was interested.
“We tripped all over ourselves getting down to that basement, but when we pulled Fritter out she was acting strange. Her eyes were lethargic and her meow was deeper and slower. We…”
“Dan. I know. You put gasoline on her tongue to startle her awake and warm her up. She wigged out, zoomed around the basement and fell over, and you and your sister were freaked until you realized that, drum roll, the cat had run out of gas.” He heard her sigh and knew that she was shaking her head back and forth slowly, eyes on the black and white tile floor.
“This isn’t helping, Dan. Please leave me alone. You’re making me feel worse. You should be out there enjoying your evening, flirting with Fast Daughter on the stoop.” Fast Daughter was their neighbor’s teenage hellion. As ridiculously sexy as she was, Dan would never have flirted with her—even in his twenties and thirties, when he’d been governed by a wandering eye. She was exactly the type of girl who could wreck his life, and she lived right next door. Sometimes it amazed him how well, and simultaneously how little, Lupe knew him.
Once she’d come upon Dan and Fast Daughter chatting in the hallway between their apartments. Fast Daughter had noticed the toy pistol on Dan’s keychain—a gift from one of the boys he mentored at the public library on DeKalb. “I want your keys,” she’d cooed as Lupe opened the door and poked her head out.
“I thought I heard your voice.” Lupe had smiled at Dan. “How are you, Vanessa? I like your boots – I’d fall over if I ever tried to wear them, but on you they’re perfect. How are your mom and pops?”
Fast Daughter probably thought of Lupe as the mild-mannered aging hippie type, but when she got Dan alone in the apartment again she lit into him, starting with “She wants your KEYS?” segueing into “It takes half an hour to go collect the damn mail?” and ending with “Well fuck you then, you small-town symp. Go on and fawn all over that manipulative bitch! Just remember your father died a drunk after your mother caught him stepping out on her.” Three hours later, having let him explain about the pistol at last, she’d locked herself in the bathroom with the paring knife and cut eight deep slashes in her arm. “It let the guilt out,” she said later, “like leeching in the early nineteenth century. I can’t explain.” She shook her still-glossy, still-dark hair. “You didn’t deserve my anger.”
“Well your arm didn’t either,” he’d replied, pulling her into him and kissing the top of her head.
Now Dan shook the doorknob gently. Lupita, please come out. Don’t make me worry, he thought, but did not say. At these moments tenderness only made her more fearful. Steeling himself, he gave the door a few quick raps with his knuckles. He turned into the brusque man whom she needed sometimes; who reminded her of Hector, the beloved older brother who ran a bodega in Queens. “I guess I should leave you in there and go polish off that cake myself,” he said. Nothing. “It’s your birthday. You can cry if you want to, right?”
She gave a small snort. His heart lifted in tenuous hope. He shuffled his feet on the hardwood, thinking quickly. “If I’d known you had this damn cutting quirk when we met…if I only could have predicted that you’d go nuts on me and lock yourself in the bathroom over and over—” He forced himself to shut his mouth and let her imagine the worst. At these times, he knew, she imagined that he did not love her; wanted out; regretted all these long years together. All these years, he thought, and I still have her. His chest clenched with gratefulness.
The bathroom was quiet. He drew in a long breath, and could feel her focusing intently upon him at last. “—I would’ve insisted on a two-bathroom apartment!”
There was a startled silence, and then “Pshht.”
“Hell, I would’ve bought a spare knife set too. Can’t have you hogging all the blades.”
“Dan…” her voice was reprimanding, but he thought he heard a smile.
“Well it’s true, isn’t it?” His mind raced, excited and panicked. “You’ve got more cuts than Paramount Studios. You’ve got more cuts…” He forced a low laugh. “…than the Staubitz Market butchers.” He fiddled with the doorknob in his hand, running his thumb over its mirrored starburst center. Upstairs, either Miss Libitzky or Miss Waddell was pulling a heavy oak chair from the dining room into the living room, probably as an extra seat for company. He’d sat up there in those chairs before and watched them fuss over Lupe, whom they treated like a star. The apartment manager knew that the ladies’ place did not comply with his requirements. They refused to cover the hardwood with rugs to muffle their noise, and their porky bulldog—Matisse Libitzky-Waddell—was well over the twenty-pound limit; but who could stay mad at little lesbian grandmas with sparkling eyes? Neither was even five feet tall, and while one was Jewish and one was Black, age and proximity had melted their faces into nearly identical features. Every December, they baked cookies for all fourteen residents in the Brownstone.
Dan glanced at the ceiling and smiled. He felt that the ladies were rooting for him. “Yup,” he continued, nodding at the bathroom door: “If I’d known about the cutting I could’ve saved the money I wasted on those rocks on your finger…” He counted five beats. “…and gotten you a straight razor instead.”
“Ha!” She tried to sound offended, but he knew that she was smiling now. He also knew that she adored her platinum wedding band, which he’d had custom-fitted with cognac diamonds in yellow gold bezels. He imagined her seated on the side of the bathtub, black spirals heavy down her back, staring down at the ring. Once a month she would sit there for twenty minutes at a time, while he squinted in the bright bathroom light and plucked her (surprisingly few) silver hairs out with tweezers.
“Lupe,” he entreated, “come out.” His heart beat erratically in his throat.
Too early: a strained silence fell between them, and he suddenly noticed how dark the hallway had grown. Without the lights on, it would be even darker now in the windowless little bathroom. He peered down at his feet. No glow spilled from under the door. She was sitting in utter blackness on her sixtieth birthday.
Usually he could sense her mood plummeting and intervene before it got to this point, but sometimes she managed to lock herself away first. Once, thirty years ago, she’d sequestered herself in the bedroom of their hotel suite and he’d called the cops when he heard her start banging her head against the wall. This was after she’d come down with laryngitis in the middle of a tour, and it had turned into a bad scene involving handcuffs—not to restrain her from attacking him, but to stop her from hurting herself. It was best to catch her early, but tonight she’d given him no warning; just slipped away after dinner, while he was baking her cake, muttering “Don’t light us on fire with all those candles.” Aging had been hard on him too, but he understood that women were held to a different standard, and that as a performing artist she had relied upon her youth. Now her voice and her looks were fading. He blinked at the closed bathroom door.
“You know you were right about that Fast Daughter,” he said suddenly, not quite knowing where he was going with this. “The other day, I was wearing my sexy sweatpants—the purple ones that Hector brought me from Puerto Rico as a joke—and I bumped into her taking out the trash.” He scratched at his wrist, trying to intuit what she was doing; whether she’d picked up the razor yet. These days they only kept disposables in the house, but disposables could still do damage. “I hadn’t showered yet, either. Maybe she was impressed by the man-scent and the sweats.” No snort this time, but he felt Lupe focusing on him again. He raised his voice slightly. “I said ‘Hi Vanessa,’ just to be polite, and she started batting those fake eyelashes at me.”
“Those eyelashes are real, Dan. She’s genetically blessed.” This was an ongoing argument between them. He knew that the eyelashes were real, as were Fast Daughter’s enormous breasts, but for Lupe he pretended that he didn’t.
“Whatever,” he said. “When that girl gets out of bed her pillow looks like abstract art. She wears more makeup than a corpse at a three-day wake.” Lupe snorted again. “Anyway she put on this sassy smile and laid her hand on my shoulder.” He could feel Lupe’s anger, and his forehead went clammy. This was a new, guerrilla tactic that he had never tried before. “She let one of her breasts sort of rub up against me, maybe by accident…”
“You know that was no accident!”
“…and then finally, finally Lupita, finally she hit on me, after all this time flirting. You were right! I was oblivious.”
“I knew it!” he heard the toilet seat complain as Lupe shifted her small body left and right. So she wasn’t sitting on the edge of the tub. He revised his mental image.
“Yep. She was all over me, and then—then she made a fool out of both of us there on the stoop, in front of nosy Mrs. Wright!”
“That heifer. That little heifer.” Lupe shifted again. “What did that heifer say?”
“It wasn’t exactly what she said. At first she tried to be subtle.” He paused, earning another loud snort. “But when I pretended not to get her innuendos…”
“She got crazy—almost crazier than you,” he added with a flourish, “but not quite.”
The hallway creaked as he switched his weight from foot to foot. He could picture the curve of his wife’s frown; the jut of her proud chin. “What did she do, Dan?”
“She dropped down and sat on the top step, with her head right near my package.”
“And looked up at me with a downright pornographic face.”
“That heifer…she always wears a porno face…” He heard her slam something down on the countertop: the razor, he hoped.
“When I tried to leave, she asked me what you had that she didn’t have! I told her that you weren’t just beautiful, but also accomplished—had toured the world, sung on countless albums—and smart. I told her I had to have a woman I could talk to, who didn’t think Beethoven’s final movement was a German tourist’s last shit before dying.” He paused for air. “But she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Lupe was silent. They stayed that way for a few moments: she fuming silently behind the door, he swaying a little in the hallway, both listening. Laughter sifted down through the ceiling and he pictured little Miss Waddell offering her guests a platter of arugula cookies baked by Miss Libitzky. In the dim light, he glanced at his watch.
Eight minutes were almost up. He replaced his hand on the glass doorknob. This, he knew, was his moment. This was the moment that he could rescue his wife from herself again, so there would be no new scars to avoid looking at.
“Well?” The word had an edge to it. Lupe knew that it was his moment, too.
“Well believe it or not, she actually put her hand on my thigh.” He scratched at his wrist again, thinking quickly. “She kept moving her fingers around, and I remember fearing those scratchy fake talons of hers might put a hole in our favorite sexy sweats.” There was another round of laughter from above. He let it die down.
“I tried to walk away,” he ventured on, pausing to let Lupe imagine the scene, “but she wrapped her other arm around my leg. ‘I want you,’ she mouthed up at me, and I was trying to get out of her grip but she kept pulling and pulling at the damn sweats.”
There was no sound from the bathroom. He took a deep, shaky breath, opened his mouth and exhaled. His fingertips brushed at the carved brass base of the doorknob. On the afternoon that he had taken her to the flea market for their first post-coital date, he’d noticed a grid of crisscrossing white lines in the warm brown skin of her right upper arm. Despite L.A.’s perpetual summer, it was the first time, he realized, that he had ever seen Lupe in short sleeves.
He’d glanced at her arm several times as they navigated the sprawling maze of tables—trying to be inconspicuous. The scars, in their small square pattern, were unmistakably intentional. He’d stopped them at the table of antique doorknobs in order to move, casually, to her other side for a look at her left arm.
Yellow Californian sun had slanted across Lupe’s face as she examined asymmetric, oval and hexagonal metal knobs; painted ceramic knobs with delicate golden swirls against light blue and white backgrounds; carved, turned and pressed wooden knobs; and finally, while he stared hard at the grid of scars on her left arm, their round glass doorknob. “I like this,” she’d said, holding it out to him, and he had known then what it would mean if he bought it for her. It would mean this—all of this that he was going through now; that he had gone through for thirty years. He had known and accepted it.
“What, Dan? What did you do? Did you push her off you or what?”
He smiled, still warm with memory, and leaned his forehead against the door. “I tried, Lupe, but she wasn’t about to let go! Finally I did the only thing I could. I stepped out of the sweats.”
He heard her stand up and move toward him. “You what?”
“I worked my leg out of the sweats, then hopped around and worked the other leg free too. She still has the sweatpants, though. One of us is going to have to…”
“You did this in front of Mrs. Wright and the whole neighborhood? In your boxer shorts?” she interrupted. His hand slipped from the glass doorknob as, finally, she opened the door.
She was rumpled, her loose sleeves rolled to the elbows, but there was no blood. Pulling her slight form into a tight hug, he stared over her shoulder at the razor on the counter. I win this time, my old friend. “Sure did, Honey,” he breathed into his wife’s ear.
She pushed him off and narrowed her eyes. “Well what—what did she do?”
He grinned at her. “You’re not going to believe this, but she grabbed hold of my naked calf!”
“What?” Lupe’s eyes widened the same way they had, years ago, when he would slap her on the butt or whisper something dirty.
“Yes. I was trying to walk away and she just kept pulling my leg and pulling my leg…”
In the dusky hall, they faced one another. He was still grinning. After a few moments, the corners of her lips twitched. “Dan!” She pushed her fist into his sternum and shoved gently. “You are so corny. You are so, so corny.”
“…like I’m pulling yours right now.” His grin relaxed into a smug smile. Safe for now.
“That is worse than your cat joke,” she complained, and it was clearly true. More laughter floated down from the ladies’ apartment, and he watched small wrinkles fan out from the corners of her eyes. She smiled at him, a happy woman with a homemade birthday cake waiting for her in the kitchen. He had baked it from scratch, and written Lupita, 60 across the top in wobbly purple frosting. She was right: he was a cornball. He was an Amboy man; a bob for apples at the fair man; a low white picket fence man; a macaroni salad man. He was a corny, corny man.
“Antique” was a finalist in the 2010 Asian American Short Story Contest, hosted by Hyphen magazine and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and judged by Alexander Chee and Jaed Coffin.
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart, and earned a nod from Nikki Giovanni. Her fiction’s been recognized by Robert Olen Butler, Jim Shepard and publications including Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, Carve Magazine and The Mississippi Review – the first journal to publish her fiction (MR Prize 2009).