Content warning: suicidal thoughts
She waits with a watchful eye, staring at the pasta. It doesn’t boil.
Pacing back and forth across the empty kitchen with the useless pots and pans still in the creaky cupboard, she adds another pinch of salt to the pasta. It still doesn’t boil.
She thinks about putting on a bit of music while she waits, but the downstairs neighbors hate when she does that, and she can’t remember where she last left her headphones. They might be in her coat pocket or they might not, perhaps she left them on top of the back bed in the room with the leftover textbooks. Or maybe she didn’t, maybe she left them hanging off the tiny coat rack, right next to her keys. Wherever she left them it’s too much work to run and find them, especially when the pot might boil soon.
As soon as it boils, she’ll put the pasta in. As soon as it boils.
The tiny apartment is only temporary, and the only burner fizzles on her. She coaxes it, fights it, begs it to make a bigger flame but it does not, settling proudly for the dull little spark that it is. Blowing on a flame coaxes a campfire; she wonders if it’ll help the stove. Probably not. She watches the blue flame dance and stares right through it.
Her phone lights up. She has a notification, another message she’s not going to read. Why bother, when she knows exactly what it will say? Still, she checks the name. She reads the first two letters and flips the phone over, wincing as it lands a bit too hard on the counter. Fortunately, it’s not cracked. Unfortunately, that part of the counter is still covered in uncleaned bacon grease from his disaster yesterday, and now her phone is too.
The television buzzes a commercial from the living area, or whatever passes as such. She cranes her neck to check the ad, but it's not selling anything good, just some sort of medical plan for old people, the kind of thing she couldn't afford even if she chopped off both arms and sold them. When she left home, she swore up and down she wasn’t ever going to be the kind of person who left the TV on. She wasn’t going to eat in front of it, didn’t even need a good model really, just something to use to occasionally watch old cartoons and maybe a new show if he wanted to. Now, the TV is always on, always buzzing, always saying something, just a little too quiet to hear.
The pot on the stove is still not boiling. She thinks she remembered to top the water off with cold water, but maybe she didn’t. She wonders if throwing in a tablespoon or two now will change anything. Probably not; her greasy phone buzzes again. She flips it over, checks the name, and turns it back down. He’s not going to write her. She knows that. Still, she checks, just in case.
Banana bread would probably be a smart thing to make, if they are going to have the conversation they need to have. But banana bread has to bake for a minimum of forty five minutes, plus the time it takes for the oven to heat up, longer than it should with the awful rattling noise anytime she requests a temperature above 250 degrees, and there’s the cooling time to consider too. Pasta would do, pasta would work, if only the water would boil. If only.
He’ll be home soon. Tiny bubbles begin to come up from the bottom of the pot, but not big enough, not hot enough. She waits, fidgeting with the coarse tips of her hair.
When he comes home, she’s going to break their little routine and meet him in the living room. She’ll meet him in the living room and look into his eyes and wait for him to break first. He will. She'll make him.
She glances halfheartedly at the little plant on the windowsill while she waits. One of them picked up the plant, where or when she doesn’t know, but one of them did and it’s always been there. It’s a tiny succulent with little round leaves, the kind that doesn’t need too much water, and is perfect for a household where two people forget basic things. Last week they forgot to buy toilet paper, and the group chat blew up with their friends lecturing them both on the ethics of self-care. If it was a college course, they would've failed it long ago.
The tiny bubbles are a bit bigger now, and she adds a little dollop of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking. It falls into the pot in one big drop, then separates as the bubbles break it, into one spot, then two, then four, then more. She watches the oil dance and fight itself, making clouds and sheep and spots, and wonders if she can get away with adding the pasta to the water early.
Actually, she’s not sure if there’s any consequences in doing so. It’s pasta, she can’t possibly mess it up. If she does, she sure as heck doesn’t deserve to be amused by video clips of Hell’s Kitchen, which still pop up on her YouTube feed every now and again.
She doesn’t add the pasta, not yet. There’s no rolling boil, and the phantom hands of someone bigger grip her impatient toddler ones. It’s not time yet, the phantom whispers, and she nods. She knows.
Footsteps sound in the hallway, and she perks up, but she knows it’s not him, not yet. Those footsteps are too patterned, too heavy, too broken with intermittent pants. He walks like he plays basketball, dances his feet across the court, and even when he’s tired there’s still a light bounce to his step, as though he waits for a ball. The world won’t ever throw him a ball. Still, he bounces, and she waits in the kitchen for water to boil.
The pullout couch in the living room is his, thrown in when they ended up in an apartment together, stuck somewhere with nowhere else to go. He had a couch and she had some money, and together they make do. The couch is lumpy and old, and only a single step up from the kind of couches people leave forlorn on the side of the road, but at least it's clean. She vacuumed it earlier, while she waited for him to come home.
Usually they barter over who’s turn it is to do chores. Sometimes things make sense. He’s the better cook, she hates dealing in the kitchen. He would rather die than clean a toilet; as long as it’s decent enough she doesn’t think it’s so bad. It’s just a toilet, the porcelain bowel still relatively clean, and neither of them spend enough time in the apartment for it to be stained, for it to get dirty. She scrubs it like she scrubs everything else, fleetingly, jumping from one thing to the next, while she daydreams of being in a relationship, daydreams of owning a house. Scrubbing the toilet makes her nostalgic, and sometimes she wonders if the decisions that led her here were the right ones.
The water finally comes to a boil that satisfies. She estimates with her fingers, then shakes the quarter box of leftover pasta into the pot. It’ll do, and if he’s still hungry there’s baby carrots in the mini fridge. Having a bigger fridge would be pointless. He only cooks once or twice a week, and the other days they thrive on lifting meals off of friends and fighting over which day serves which kind of takeout.
The key sounds in the front door, and only years of practice stop her from startling. He pushes open the door soundlessly, and she wonders when he stopped tapping beats on the doorknob.
“Are you cooking?” he asks, two backpacks balanced between his arms.
“Oh just sit down.”
He sits at the only table they own, under the other hanging plant that is definitely her fault. His fingers remain still, and he glances at the TV every now and then.
She pulls out one of five mismatched forks and tests the pasta. Still not done. It’s too firm, too hard, and she has to chew the gritty piece between her teeth. She catches him looking at her, and shakes her head before he even opens his mouth. She is cooking tonight. He is sitting down and doing nothing except for talking.
Finally, finally, the pasta finishes and four pieces come out clean and al dente. She dumps the whole pot into the strainer, and waits for the water to drain. It makes a horribly loud noise as it echoes down the sink pipes, and they both wince and imagine the face of their grumpy neighbor. She scoops it onto two plates and brings over the Parmesan cheese and some more olive oil, and dumps everything on the crooked table in front of him.
“I could’ve made sauce.”
“We don’t have any tomatoes, canned or otherwise, and you used the last of the pesto last week.”
She sits next to him and grabs her plate. He watches, slightly amused, as she dumps half of the container of cheese onto the noodles. It’s better with sauce, but alas.
They sit for a moment in silence, except for the horrible buzz of the TV in the background, and she wonders when words got so hard to say.
“I read the thing you told me to read.”
“Yeah? What’d you think?”
“It was pretty good. The one character sucked though.”
She chewed her pasta thoughtfully. “Well he was going through a lot of stuff.”
“Doesn’t give anyone an excuse to be an asshole.”
The silence would be awkward if it weren't so well known. They sit and they eat and the television plays the same episodes, over and over and over. Then the pasta is gone, and she knows she has to ask. Still she hesitates over yet another thought.
“I know a good therapist, if you wanna give that a shot.”
He looks up abruptly and his eyebrows furrow all the way up in concern.
“It’s not horribly expensive, and insurance would cover most of it.”
She has his attention, that’s for sure. She has his attention, yet she can’t even look at his face. He continues to stare, and his left eye twitches at alarming speeds.
“I’ve been going for about a year now. It’s not perfect, but it helps.”
“What did you find?” he blurts out.
“I’ve taken the liberty of booking you an appointment next week, on Wednesday after your last class. You’re going, even if I have to drag you.”
“What. Did. You. Find?”
Finally she dares to look at him. His hands clench around the table and under it, his knee bounces into the cheap crooked plastic. She draws in a breath. “Your note. Clearly you didn’t go through but, well, you still have it. I can’t imagine that’s a mistake.”
He curses, once, twice, several more times, and brings his hands to wrap around his head and clench at his hair. On the stove, the pot of water cools down. She should put it in the dishwasher, before she forgets.
“That was just one bad day,” he says, gritted teeth muting the protest.
“I know what bad days are. It’s never just one.”
“Why do I live with you? Remind me?”
“You didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
He waits. His hands clench a little less awfully, but they still linger in his hair as he stares at the table.
“But we’re friends now, I think, whether you like it or not. Definitely not normal friends, but something along those lines. I’d hate to have to go roommate searching all over again.”
He laughs, but it holds something strangled inside. “Oh heaven forbid you having to try to replace me.”
She would chuckle, but she knows what he needs to hear. “Look at me.”
He doesn’t comply.
“Look at me.”
He finally lifts his head, and she can see the way his eyes puff up and his nose twitches, once, twice.
“As much as I joke about it, I do care about you. If you’ve got nothing else holding you back, let me do it.”
He still doesn’t cry. She knows he won’t. He should, but he’s been told not to by the ghost of society, and so he doesn’t cry. She reaches forward, around the table, and almost hugs him.
They sit in the kitchen for a while, sit in the almost hug, and watch the world outside the apartment get darker. The pot on the stove cools, and she forgets about it, pasta leaving her mind. A dog barks on the street, and something heavy sounding falls over in the upstairs neighbor’s apartment. The lights flutter and the world goes on.
She goes upstairs later, to take a shower, and realizes he’s cleaned the toilet.
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Caroline this is the first of your stories that I've had the pleasure of reading. So first off- Congratulations on your very well deserved win! I love how you turned something as mundane as boiling pasta as imagery here. I felt like the girl/woman in the story was going to be the one who might be the suicidal person. Then you did the ole switcharoo on us, and I liked that so much. The irritating things that happen to the character in the story really layered in how sometimes things just build and build and build on top of each other until...
Omg thanks so much!!!! I haven’t read those short stories, but I’ll add them to my list!!! Personally I love working with imagery a little more on the mundane side because I feel like you can really do anything you want with it. Thanks for reading!!!!!
I think the mundane can sound extraordinary when it's written well. You certainly achieved that.
''he'd rather die than clean the toilet'' and then that end. super good, loved it.
Thanks!!! Ending lines are my fav thing to write lol.
Wow! Well deserved win, congrats!
Thanks so much!!!
I loved how the narrative takes place only in the time it takes for the pasta to boil. You were able to keep me in suspense just the perfect amount of time before you let me in on what was going on. Bravo. Great story and a deserved win.
Omg thanks so much!!!!!! Glad I was able to hold you in suspense for the duration of the boil!!! Thanks for commenting and reading!!!
Just add butter and a bit of pasta water and you can have a nice traditional-style alfredo! I lived off of that shit in uni What I find most interesting about this story is that the main character comes off as the victim at first (especially when she almost flinches at the sound of keys in the lock) but by the end it’s clear who’s in control. The last line is great because it’s open to interpretation: did he clean the toilet because he finally decided life is worth living enough to do something he hates, or because he wanted to do one las...
Ooh now I wanna try to make some Alfredo, sounds interesting! Thanks for the comment! I do like to try and leave my stories up to the interpretation of the reader because then it means something a little different to everyone who reads it, and I think that’s pretty cool. Thanks for reading!!
It’s literally the easiest pasta dish to make (probably besides cacio e pepe), go for it! Yes, isn’t it so much better when your stories are ripe for discussion? And no worries!! 😙
Congrats on the win, Caroline! It’s a really excellent submission and you’ve captured so much in your subtext and characters. I love the slow burn (or boil haha) into the real heart of the story, the unwritten tension leading up to their conversation, and that brilliant ending. Beautifully done!
Lololol slow boil, love that. Thanks so much for commenting!!!!!!! I’m glad you liked the story and that the tension buildup was executed right. There’s always that brief hesitation of ‘am I dragging this out too long?’ But I’m glad you liked it!! Thanks for reading!!!
I absolutely love this story it is so realistic and detailed. Thank you for such an honest story.
Thanks so much for reading an commenting!!! And I’m glad you liked the story!!
it's very beautifully written. A great story, no doubt!
Thanks so much!!!
This was an amazing story. So beautifully written. A well deserved win!
It's beautifully written, and love how you explained even the smallest details. At first to be honest whenever you would mention 'he' I thought the girl was scared of him but it was nice to see that, that was not the case. The ending was simple yet awesome and the last line - love it! Congratulations on the win!
Congratulations! I enjoyed how we were taken through the story by way of her thoughts. The pondering and consideration of baking banana bread then dismissing it as time is drawing closer for her roommate to return. The way he demonstrated how much her concern meant to him. She even took the difficult first step of making an appointment for him, dragging him there if need be. He did one of the least pleasant household chores, the bathroom toilet.
I know what it’s like to be there for someone who has serious thoughts of suicide and severe depression. This story really hits home. Thank you for writing it.
Glad it hit home for you! I grew up in a place where suicide was kinda a taboo topic but was definitely a very real thing, so I try to embrace it in writing. Thanks so much for the comment!!
Very well written. There is enough humour to lighten the load, enough description of pasta to make me hungry, enough subtlety so that the reader gets the message without getting emotionally involved and a perfect climax. Caroline a most deserving win. Congratulations
Thank you so much!!! And thanks for the comment!!!
A well-deserved win. Congratulations!
Congrats on your well deserved win. I loved the story. It is filled with imagery, adjectives, vivid vocab etc. The perfect story for anyone to get inspired to write.
Congrates ! Nice story , U deserve it .
Congratulations! That was written so beautifully.
Beautiful story. Loved the ending!
Enjoyed the story and the tension the characters had. Bravo