You’ve been craving that tuna salad sandwich, the watery mayo dripping down your wrists. Green beans and cob corn, butter and chives. You’ll convince yourself that it is not too cold to barbecue in January. You’ll take off your skirt, put on some sweats, and stand in front of the grill as water begins to pool in a ring right down your feet.
You can convince yourself to do these things while you drive back home on your regular commute when the world has gone to ashes and your boyfriend is packing his bags in the living room. Reeling into the driveway, you get out of the car and wave to your next-door neighbour, Murphy, but he’s knees deep down in the snow.
“Beneath the basement, underground,” he yells over the hollow, thick breath, his white knuckles stiff against the shovel. “I’ve been seeing on the news, and experts say underground is our best bet.”
When you close the front door, David packs his carry-on while boxer briefs hang over the zipper. He’s already packed a corduroy duffle bag, and it seems as though the house is in disarray: the news channel is on mute, the tea kettle cold.
David stops. He looks right through you, his hand palms through his dark oily hair.
“Babe… I’ve been thinking, with the world ending and all, why aren’t we honest? Look, I’ve found someone else.”
The muscles hinge in your face; a grin steepens. You laugh and wait for the serious expression on his face to dissolve and break character.
“Might as well be honest, right? That’s what matters in the end, isn’t it?” He says as though he is trying to convince himself, still not meeting your eye.
You tied your snow boots too tight, and your ankle socks peeled from your ankles. You can feel the pulse in your feet, blood thumping as it squeezes its way through your veins. There are a million questions circling your head, but you ask one: “Who is she?”
“We met online,” David says, stuffing the briefs back into the bag and zipping it up. “Her name is Karen, she’s a geologist.”
“Hm,” you say, knowing he is lying. Trying to lessen the blow. “The world’s really ending?”
He suddenly drags you outside, the coldness of the wind crusting your face. He grabs your chin, tilts your head towards the east and points a finger. A lead: a grey spin-like peck in the middle of the sky, charred black. You think it’s just a smudge on your glasses. You know he’s gone insane. You turn to David, but he’s gone to the car, fumbling his belongings into the backseat.
“Wait, so that’s it then? Is this what romance is?” you yell, the cold air making your eyes tear. “I don’t understand!”
You watch as his car crumbles from the salt, and strips from the driveway. He cranks down the window only to stick his head out and say “Sorry,” and then he’s gone.
You think of yourself as mostly alone, still adulting. In the morning, your teeth feel furry. You forgot to brush your teeth. You realize you’ve spent the past two days balled in a fetus position on the living room rug watching the news, making up for lost time, acquitting yourself with the new world. Digging your finger from your itchy ear, knocking the ear wax from your fingernails. David used to joke about it during dinner: “the math doesn’t add up,” he’d say over asparagus. The improbability helped you sleep at night, holding him close.
Your neck is cramped, so you roll into a camel pose, squashing a box of Triscuits beneath your leg. You never were good at yoga, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. All your friends were into it: Vinyasa, Kundalini, Bikram. But you’re too antsy: always losing your rhythm. You’d rather go for a run and feel your kneecaps burn. Plug up your ears with punk music and get it over with. You don’t like noticing your thoughts or feeling your breath expand in your ribcage. When the blood rushes back to your head, you fall back onto the rug and close your eyes.
You envision everything all at once: David’s slow, raucous laugh, the Dodgers tickets on the fridge, the last glance he gave you before speeding away: full of pity and something that cut soothingly, like remorse. Surely he was kidding. Soon enough, he’ll be back in a few days. You dial his number and hum the Jeopardy theme song while you wait to get through, but you don’t. You think of your mother in New Jersey, and father in Des Moines. You wonder if they have an exit plan—if their meteors shifted course and they’ve been trying to reach you and decided to play bumper cars with your planets.
You decide to go outside to get some fresh air since nothing is doing you better than sitting on a bag of Triscuits. Grabbing the puffer hanging on the closet doorknob, you grab your earbuds and plug them in. Heading out, you notice Murphy still getting at it with the snow. You start running—not because you’re actually trying to exercise, but you realize that you’re bare-branched and can’t confront anyone without that look in your eyes.
David is probably halfway there to Tennessee, out where she lives. His hands are probably shaking from the three cans of Red Bull that litter the car floor because you got him into it back when you were in college. You knew he was lying, the dumbass; they never met online, and her name is Kara, not Karen. They were high school sweethearts until you came around and gave him a reason to cheat. Biology at Tulane, when you copied off of his tests and spent the afternoon in his dorm watching reruns of Gilmore Girls. He never got over her, after all, and you knew that—the way they would keenly look over at each other in the lecture halls. You convince that his lie is the truth, that you’re better off, one less person to worry about when the sun blots out and the flash floods begin. You tell yourself these things, but start to cry when you find his house slippers in the mudroom or a half-eaten jam sandwich in the fridge.
Realizing you ran a few blocks into circles your feet have become numb and your ankle socks have fallen off again. Walking up to the porch, the crunching of salt through each step, you hear the cracking shovel going down at the snow—Murphy still digging halfway through the night, freezing down there, still at it. With the yellow light grazing, the dark counter and the metallic grating, you eye him carefully but he doesn’t notice you. You brew two mugs and go outside, cut through the hollow, stand at the hedge, and call him up. He pokes his rosy head—breath fuming like smoke and asks for a hand.
You were a child once: eight or nine about. In a grass field the sky was plum-like poisoned with dark clouds and damp with rain. They were so tall and limber like your cruel uncle. It was that day when you followed them into a dark cave—watched as their flashing teeth obscured in the dusk. You cried when the bats flew out in hundred packs, closed your eyes and covered your ears. You scrunched close to the ground when you heard the baseball bats as the animals fell from the sky, battered and bleeding. You don’t remember what they look like, but you remember the citrusy smell of the earth, damp in your lungs. In that field, you find David taking logistics, weight distribution, and the law of diminishing returns. He’s black, covered in dirt and about ten or fifteen years older than you are, with a gravelly voice that makes you want to clear your throat. You sit on an overturned bucket and listen to his theories. The den is huge: flame-resistant metal along the walls, wooden beams preventing collapse and spongy wall insulation. He has a cot on a wooden frame, shelves stocked with canned tuna and kalamata olives and a two-way radio. Maps plaster the walls and clear thumbtacks spill on the ground, blankets piled high like a fortress, sandbags corral the back door. You envy his resourcefulness. His focused mind. You want to stay in this hole forever but instead, head for the ladder. Murphy pulls you into a warm hug, “what kind of man is David anyway?” You then realize that he knew (of course), the predicament that took place in the yard where he saw everything. You want to feel some camaraderie. You want to feel some kind of despair. But all you feel is the boner against your leg.
You decide to get ready for work because that is what normal people do. You take a lukewarm shower, comb your hair, and put on your nicest dress that you bought as a bridesmaid for your friend's luau-themed wedding. It’s tight around the hips and a little too short, but you inhale deeply and zip it up the rest of the way. You pack a lunch like you never do: summer sausage, Wensleydale cheese, arugula salad with strawberries and smother it with vegan mayonnaise.
You’re the only person in the office, typing away at the monitor on the fifth floor of the brick building where you’ve spent five years of your twenties trying to get promoted. You work at The Garlic Dill selling spicy pickles for a living. Dill, Kosher, Hot Mama’s—you’re the publicity girl who shows up at angry corporate men, shoving samples in millennials’ faces and bearded men who smell like shea butter. Who complain about biodegradable utensils and have bags of compost in their backyards. Who drink five-dollar coffees to get through the day. Oh, the hypocrisy infuriates you.
On your lunch break you blast N’Sync down the cubicle aisles and jump onto Rhonda’s desk, kicking the Green Goddess and cactus off her desk hoping to really mess up her feng shui. Passive-aggressive is your middle name.
You decide to head home early as the silence eats up at your nerves. You press the elevator button a little too hard. What if it gets stuck, you wonder? There will be nobody to hear your screams, no fire trucks or maintenance crews. No jaws of life to realign your faulted asteroids.
You find your coworker, Asher, slumped down the hallway and crying. He’s been here the entire time, through your singing of The Slits 1979 discography. He must have caught you in the break room: spraying the walls with the fire extinguisher, dousing the room in white fluff. You always had a thing for him: the freckles on his arms, the southern twang like honey in your ears, blond hair strikingly falling into his eyes.
“Thought you were robbing the place,” he says, smoothing his wrinkled chemise. There are dark purple bags under his eyes, and you want to ask if he’s always slept here.
“Interns don’t work on Fridays,” you mention as you hassle down the stairs. “Don’t you know?” In the underground parking lot, it’s too warm for your winter jacket, so you take it off.
You don’t ask why he doesn’t have a car, or why he’s wearing slippers with Nike socks. And when he gets to the passenger seat, you let him. You drive to the nearest grocery store, scanning the empty aisles, making Asher push the empty cart. Dead silence gave way for the whine of the freezer, the old man slicing a lump of turkey and Swiss into thin paper sheets. The canned goods are gone, even the spam. Everyone is so prepared; you wonder where all the procrastinators are. In lieu of baked beans and SpaghettiOs, you pack up on perishables. Fresh sourdough, Greek yogurt, cherries. You buy a pack of Juicy Fruit just to feel the weight in your cardigan.
On your commute back home, you peel into the driveway and find Murphy who stands knee-deep in the icy slush and installed a pump in his cavern.
At this point, you don’t bother sleeping. You don’t even do the dishes—that pile in grimy moulds, encrusted in melted cheese and banana peels, swarming with flies. You appoint Asher to the couch, but he crawls into your bed late at night.
Instead, you head to the library with the antiquated and busted leather furniture. Opening the desk lies a fountain pen you bought from the farmer’s market a few years back and pieces of lined paper, becoming more scarce by the minute. You sit yourself down and write whatever comes to mind in esoteric drawings: male protagonists like adonizes and Sisyphus fanfiction. But you also think of Karen—drawing in the lines of what you believe. You give her red hair, khakis and headlamps to illuminate the stalagmites in the cave. You bet she looks great in khakis. Nobody does. You think she and David have already settled somewhere private, in a lair with nice foliage and the smell of petrichor as humid breeze streams through the crevasses of weathered rock. It’s too late to ask Murphy for help—he’s bunkered down for good. The grass outside has died a dry mustard yellow, shrivelled in humidity and ice.
There was a time when you wished you were dead. You were sixteen with the love of your life, Reid, who had just broken up with you. The next day you woke up, January 1, 2000, alive, hungry, and disappointed. You expected something different from this: a collapse of the world, ruptured and invading with rabid beasts bearing and tearing down your house. You weren’t religious but had factored this just in case the moon turned red or ended up in the presence of divinity on a throne. On your nightstand, you amassed all the religious texts from the local library: the Quran, the Bible, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, Tao Te Ching, the Tanakh. You burned incense in your dresser, walked stark naked in your room, fasted for three days straight, then only ate konjac rice. Your parents told you to stop stinking the house, but you ignored them anyway. You bowed five times in the direction of Mecca. And you’re still waiting.
You feel like crying now, weeping over Reid, or Asher, or David. Believe this is only a fire alarm that hasn’t gone off, your mother pounding the door before you miss the bus.
“It’s romance, nonetheless,” Asher says, his uncut emerald eyes in the half-light.
“Is it really?”
You don’t want to think about that. Instead, you close your eyes and observe the calamity as you did in BIO101 under the microscope. Tens and thousands of romances in each little window: lonely, out of gas, not a soul in sight, yet still shimmering like spilled mercury in the stilted light.