When No One’s Looking
The flour weighed her down as she hauled groceries through the alley and up the wooden stairs to his duplex. It was freezing. She set her bags on the stoop next to a bag of ice melt and looked for his key. It wasn’t on her ring. It had the same brass teeth as the one for the studio next to the Brown Line, where she shared a mattress with her mom.
The door opened before she found anything. Her boyfriend peered out, like he’d been waiting. Doug was patient, but his patience was passionate, directed. He’d been that kind of boss, too: pausing at the pastry station, then hurried, purposed, sure as a bell pealing twelve. They’d met at the restaurant.
“You’re here,” she blurted.
“Kobe and the EuroTrash take my Celtics. Still beautiful basketball, ten years later.”
“You’re never home on Wednesdays.”
He coughed. “Even The Truth—Paul Pierce—needs the bench. Is this how you’re going to move in on Sunday? Sneaking your stuff, under cloak of moonlight—”
She gave him a bag and followed him to the kitchen. It smelled like stock—not bones roasting, but parts boiling. There was a copper pot on the stove with a spill down one side. A box of soup mix lay on the counter next to a plate of Ripples and Doug’s one mug, capable of holding an entire press of coffee. How would it feel to live with him?
“I thought you were a raccoon. Or Julian,” he said. “You should use my car.”
She took off her coat and her backpack and started removing supplies. Round cake pans, a hand mixer. She gave Doug a spatula printed with blue tigers and he tapped her ass. She ignored it.
“Brobdingnagian,” he said. “I think that should be our code for ‘I’m infinitely glad to see you and I love how it feels that you are the lady-girl-person I’ll get to come home to.’”
“Why do we need that?”
“You’ve made it when you get a nickname in the NBA, Paul Pierce says. You’ve made it as a couple when you have codes. Or pseudo-German words.”
One by one, Doug put her groceries on the counter. Sugar, butter, a bag of good flour she’d found on the Damaged shelf at Jewel. Even when he’s sick, she thought, he moves like an athlete: pivot, dart, grab. Flashes of his skin, hands and forearms. Away from the grill, he was pale. The burns on his wrists showed darker, especially against green. If he didn’t have to be in chef clothes, he wore this clover-colored tracksuit. He missed Boston. He’d only moved to Chicago for the job; everything else, everything with her, was a bonus.
She shook a box of candles. “I was going to surprise you. Obviously. Happy early birthday.”
“And I’m home crapped out with NBA YouTube.” He pointed to his laptop in the other room. A half-smile moved his mouth. “That’s really lovely. Thank you.”
She winced and picked up the vanilla. Compliments made her feel pitied. But then his arms were around her and he was kissing the choker around her neck.
“Someday,” he whispered, “we’ll see what it feels like to cook together like normal people, not restaurant zombies.”
She saw them for a moment, building a lasagna or making coq au vin. The phone rang and Doug let her go. “You can have the kitchen.”
He answered the phone, walked out, and she heard him sigh from the other room. He was the only man she’d ever heard sigh. Maybe she loved it. She’d heard him sigh chopping ribs of celery at work or in bed, Sundays, when he didn’t move until noon and then only to read Jack London or Frederick Douglass. He claimed to like old books.
When he came back, he was unzipping his green jacket. “That was the restaurant. I have to hustle my B-team. Break some necks.”
“Can we talk—have a drink first?”
She opened the freezer and showed him a bottle of tequila.
“I’m on chicken noodle and hot tea,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “Did you eat?”
There were Saltines and peanut butter at home. Maybe she’d had those.
“Either way. Let me know if you want something. Okay? I’ll be back, quickish.”
He said goodbye and I love you, squeezing the balls of her shoulders in a way that made her feel like a peg being fit into a hole.
She poured sugar and cracked eggs and put vanilla in a shot glass—Doug’s shot glass, shaped like a beak—before realizing she’d forgotten the milk.
She looked for her backpack, telling herself maybe she hadn’t finished unpacking. Doug had hung it on a coat rack. It was drooping by the doorway, beside a studded leash. The leash was for them. Doug didn’t have time for a dog.
She sighed at the wall beside the sink. It was the color of a dead garter snake, pebbled like an old refrigerator door. Once you were inside a place, especially a duplex, there wasn’t much difference between a wall and a door.
On this side of the wall, Doug and the sink; on the other side, a neighbor. Milk?
She saw a space below the cabinets and knocked on the wall.
The man and Doug wrote separate rent checks, paid their own gas and water, even watched for raccoons and pests in their different trash. Sometimes Doug wound up with Hobby Lobby flyers. The guy’s name was Julian Johnson.
But Doug joked and said Julius Irving.
“Never talked to the fella,” Doug would tell her, when he had to shove the wrong mail in the right slot. Fella was one of his pet words; he said it like Raymond Chandler does Compton. “But I feel close to him because I hear things, you know? Fetch Dr. J some prune juice ... that close.”
He meant close like proximal, not intimate, but she never argued. She was tired of listening to him explain things.
She looked at the shot glass of vanilla extract, thirsty.
There were things you couldn’t do around another person. If she moved in with Doug, she’d have less time alone, to test her personal limits. She would be watched. Candor-robbed. Even now, she felt his presence in the kitchen. It was secure and unnerving. His enormous mug in the sink, his Monster in the fridge; his crusty yellow soup stain, a comet on the stovetop.
She had never wanted to drink alone before.
But she’d changed in the year they’d been dating. Steadier, according to her mom: she didn’t like that term. It sounded so ’50s. Who had she been before him? Off-kilter, off-color, alone. She’d done things like squeeze ganache into truffle molds or scoop snickerdoodle dough at a restaurant. It was big when it was her turn to prepare dessert for family meal. No one liked braggy underlings (screw the supercilious cooks and their midday duck confit), so she’d made the most modest offering she could think of. Pound cake, her mom’s recipe. There it was, hulking in its loaf pan. Fucking delicious, Doug had said, eyes closing, opening, blinking closed again, dabbing his mouth, excuse me but—damn. The batter used sour cream; you drenched the pan with butter so the crust crisped and got crackly as a Florentine, near caramelized. End of shift, he’d found her in dry storage. The first time they kissed a long time, kissed until he took her permanent marker, unbuttoned her coat, pulled down her camisole, and drew a tiny stick figure dog on her sternum.
His name was Doug, but at work no one used the “U.”
Alone in his duplex, she sniffed the shot glass and downed the vanilla extract. She coughed. She screwed up her face; then, embarrassed, she saw she was performing like Doug or the neighbor could see her. She stuck her head under the tap and gulped.
She refilled the shot glass with vanilla. Get it together, she thought: Be capable, durable, good. Find milk. She felt like a pioneer wife in a calico bonnet on a homestead, bound for the general store. Whether she decided to move in this weekend or not, she told herself, Doug would not leave her. He had the loyalty of the abused and the sexual predilections of a man with persistent heat rash on his hands.
She shut off the oven. The C-store was only a fifteen-minute walk. She looked for the key Doug had given her, but it wasn’t in her backpack, her pockets, or her low-tops.
There was nothing to do except call her mom.
She went into the living room, where Doug’s laptop was still on the coffee table.
She rubbed the trackpad and the screen awoke. For an instant, she hoped to catch him in a lie—watching porn, trolling some MILF waitress on Facebook—but, no. Paul Pierce was paused mid-run, rangy as a hound. The phone rang and she stared.
“Helloh-oh!” her mom shouted. Salt-N-Pepa blasted in the background. “Be proud of me. I’m finally washing our bras. You’re on speaker. I’ve got my hands in boob suds.”
“I need milk.”
“Are you insinuating something about my breasts? Why do I have so many bras?”
She laughed to please her mom and hated herself for being so tolerant. Her mom treated her like a wise, older sister, but tonight she wanted the forty-year-old woman who’d brought her into this world to have advice or at least a handy tip: substitute [blank] for the equal quantity of milk.
“You have next-level tits,” she said, reluctantly.
“I don’t even think magenta works with my …”
“Sexual orientation,” her mom said, pausing. “Magenta is very draggy.”
Talking with her mom either made her elated or defeated. She was defeated.
“What should I do? What’s the substitute for milk?”
“Why are you baking for a chef? Did I raise a masochist? His birthday’s when?”
“Tomorrow. That’s not the point, though.”
“The point is come home! You’re dating, not his fishwife. I think one of us needs a glamorous sex spree. It could be you.”
She was silent. Her mom was low on logic and long on love. You could see it, the love, pushing between her cleavage, like a rosy peach. She wondered how serious a woman could become if she thought about something beyond tweezering rhinestones on accent nails.
“It could just be me,” her mom said. “That needs a lay. So maybe it’s a good thing you stay over tonight. Your mama needs to work it out.”
“I need to get through this cake,” she said sharply. “Can you just help me?”
She heard her mom’s front teeth click. “What do I know? Have you tried the damn neighbors?”
When she hung up, the center of her chest felt hot, like her insides were searing her clavicle. She sat on the edge of the couch and pressed play on the video.
She felt judged by The Truth. The name was natural in her head: Doug talked about the Celtics a lot. Pierce was The Truth, the Crafty Veteran, #34, P-Squared. She’d learned enough to see each man as an actor in a long moral novel and she knew what Doug liked about Paul was his fatherly goodness beside Ray Allen (inseparable from his mother), brain-rattled Big Baby Davis, and coltish, dashing Rondo.
The living room brightened with gym shoes squealing down court, the squall of fans, ref whistles, announcers narrating: “Pierce to Posey, Posey for three. Knocks it down!”
She could force herself to do anything with Doug, but alone sports were boring. She wiped a streak of flour from the computer and closed the screen.
She tucked her phone in her pocket, went to the back door, jammed on her sneakers, and remembered something she hadn’t thought about for years. When she was a baby, her mom used to keep her beside her, in a car seat, while she baked. She pictured herself small, a pet in the kitchen, how her mom would nudge her, rock her with a bare foot, hot pink toenails, rock her on the orange linoleum floor in the trailer. The montage of good memories stopped when she was three. That was the first moment of her life she saw on replay: She inhaled flour, choked, passed out. She’d spent the weekend in the hospital, in a room with seal pup wallpaper, eating endless vanilla pudding.
It was still the longest period of time she’d ever been away from home.
Night was more total in Doug’s neighborhood than hers. She could barely see his backyard under the snow, even with a big moon in the sky, round as a white orange. The moon was visible for her mom and her, too, but why look up when lights stayed on third-shift hours, pee-yellow between gaps in the blinds?
She walked up Julian Johnson’s steps, identical to Doug’s except slaked with ice. She stopped on his stoop. His welcome mat read Bonjour. She rapped the door, cold on her knuckles.
How long before Doug knew she’d been at the neighbor’s? She would remember to call him Dr J., or Julius Irving. Then it would be funny, not weird. She twisted her choker, her throat warm. The door swung open.
“Oh my god, you freaked me out!” the man said. “I have no sense of the human world when I’m working.”
She assumed it was Julian, though she didn’t see a reason to ask or introduce herself. What would her name do for him? He was skinny, with thick brows and sad eyes and a shaved head that made him resemble a tadpole. His head was pointy, like a top. It wasn’t the sort of head you shaved unless you had to. Baldness, cancer, aerodynamics. He wore a red sweatshirt and shiny, navy shorts. Her gaze inched down his body and stopped at his kneecaps. They were waxed smooth, tan as toffee when the rest of him was pasty-white, tattooed with stars.
She didn’t know why this had to be awkward.
“Could I borrow some milk?” she asked.
“Do you want to borrow some milk? Or have some milk?”
His eyes narrowed. His lashes were lustrous. Real or fake? She opened her mouth.
“I’m a teacher,” he said laughing. “Do you know for certain that you’re going to bring it back? What would William James do? ‘To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.’”
There was a winter breeze that, coupled with whatever Julian was reciting, made her feel like she was falling out an open window.
“It’s going in a cake,” she said.
He blinked very fast then, wincing, but he still held open the door.
“I’m just being fun. Cashew milk okay?”
She nodded and stepped inside. They were in a laundry room, with a washer and dryer and a tub sink, restaurant-big, big enough to hold sheet trays and stock pots. The house smelled like liver, the way it did when a chef made pâté. Strung across the ceiling were lights shaped like hula girls. The room felt green.
When Julian walked, he led with his pelvis. It was a funny sashay, something off about his gait, maybe his knee. It dragged a little or hitched. If she moved in with Doug, she would have this advantage. She’d know how Julian moved, what he looked like, the way he held himself.
She followed him into the kitchen. His layout was identical to Doug’s, but the main difference was Julian’s fridge. It was baby blue. Banana and pineapple magnets held headshot-size photos of shirtless, shellacked men in underwear. The underwear had more character than the models. Lace speedos, palmetto-printed sarongs, magenta G-strings: maybe her mom was right.
“I’m not a perv,” Julian said. He sounded proud. “I just have talented friends.”
He took out a carton of milk and shook it. She looked around. There were three big boxes of Kosher salt on the counter.
“Do you have a cup?” she said.
“Like, a cup … a mug/a cup? Or … eight ounces?”
He shook the carton again, raising it to his ear. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed and nosed the rim. Shrugging, he handed it to her. “Take what you need, bring back what’s left.”
The French press grounds had left a black-brown sludge trail and the enormous mug needed to be washed before she could measure the milk. Doug didn’t have a sponge. He had a wand with a foot-shaped scrubbie that smelled like an old bath mat. No way. She was using her thumb to work off the coffee stain when her phone started vibrating in her pocket. It was Doug. She wedged it between her ear and her shoulder and turned the water back on.
“How do you not have milk?” she said. “Was this cake doomed from the get-go?”
“We need milk?”
“I need milk. Your cake needs milk. I’m here, trying to bake a cake, and I don’t have—.”
“Yeah, and you sound really worked up. Hey. It’s okay.”
She was done fighting the coffee stain. Under scalding water, she rinsed the mug. She thought about hanging up, but he’d just call back and think she got disconnected.
She dried the mug with a paper towel, measured the cashew milk, dumped it in.
“I’m not worked up,” she said.
“Well you sound kind of on edge over something pretty minor. ‘The game isn’t over until the clock says zero.’ Thus spake The Truth. And really, your clock never hits zero when you’ve got a boyfriend willing to bring you whatever you need from his—”
“Stop talking like that,” she snapped. “I’m just trying to bake you a stupid cake.”
She heard him scoff. It was the judgmental version of a sigh, a guttural eye roll. She wondered how many times she would hear that if she moved in.
“I never asked you to make me a cake,” he said. “I was just calling to see if you wanted me to get you food. So I guess I’ll be getting us milk. Whole, I presume?”
“I mean, I took care of it,” she said.
The pettiness in her voice tired her. She said her hands were full, she had to go.
She dropped the phone in her backpack hanging on the door beside the leash. She would be ready to leave once the cake was out of the oven, once she was back from Julian’s.
She’d left Julian’s door ajar and he hadn’t bothered to touch it.
She walked through the laundry room, into the kitchen. He was standing at the sink, wearing a pair of yellow rubber gloves. She put the milk on the counter by the salt.
“You get enough?”
“Exactly what I needed,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
He was looking at her curiously and she looked right back at him. His lips were moist, as though he’d just applied a coat of lip gloss. They were chapped but shiny.
“What?” she said.
“Well, I need a second pair of hands. Just for something real quick.”
She looked down. Her mom had painted her nails glittery red, a color called Ruby Slippers.
Julian clapped his hands, lightly. She couldn’t tell if he was applauding her, himself, or the two of them. He nodded toward the living room.
“Do you have any experience with taxidermy?”
The dog was inside a black garbage bag in the center of the room. It was a brown standard poodle with a white flame on its curly chest. Its fur looked soft. Its purple collar sat beside it in a bowl printed with cherries.
“This is Churro,” Julian said.
He knelt down and thumbed the dog’s leathery nose. Crouched, his shorts rode up his thighs, as slender as her mom’s.
She thought she would gag. She didn’t. There was too much open space to be queasy. The furniture, a love seat and an armchair and an enormous mauve sofa, was all pushed to one side of the room. The ground was covered with a blue tarp.
“Is Churro a boy or a girl?”
“My girl,” Julian said. “Actually, my parents’ girl. But pets you get when you’re a teenager become proxies for your teendom-slash-adulthood. It’s that mutual process of watching each other grow up.”
She heard heartbeats in the back of her throat.
“They see it all, that’s for sure.”
“So, Churro was frozen yesterday, but she’s beginning to thaw. It’s a process. Shape a form, prepare the skin. Everything from removal to tanning. Then attach that to the mold. I’ve done some good work.”
He pointed to the ceiling. There were big birds in the room’s corners, pheasants or egrets, wings stretched, feathers muted sapphire. She didn’t like them. Glue glopped around their eye sockets. Their abdomens were tumorous.
“What kind of teacher are you?” she asked.
“You know Marino Academy, out in Oak Brook? The charter school?”
She shook her head.
“I teach AP Psych.”
“And taxidermy is a pet interest?”
She didn’t realize what she said until he groaned.
“Our interests are the external manifestations of our emotions. And our emotions are the result of changes in our physical environment. Event, arousal, interpretation, emotion. Textbook James-Lange. For me, that was having a dad that killed a bunch of grouse and showed the haul to his son. I hated it, seeing those birds. I’d break out in sweats, go lightheaded, faint. None too pleasing for my dad. He called me ‘delicate.’ ‘Sensitive.’ And I got frustrated with myself. For being that vulnerable. For letting my dad down.” An El rattled past somewhere invisible and Julian frowned. “You can evolve, I decided. It’s not where the emotion comes from, though, it’s where it leads to.”
She frowned at Churro. She imagined the dead dog’s fur underneath the kitchen table in Doug’s apartment, or just the pelt, draped over the back of the couch. If she ever walked in to anything like that, there, she would leave.
“She had a good life,” Julian said. “That awful thing people say. You ready?”
She wiped her eyes.
Her job was holding Churro’s shoulders. She faced away, staring at her reflection in an old TV with rabbit ear antennas. She didn’t look like a live-in girlfriend. She didn’t even look twenty-three. But none of that mattered. You couldn’t expect your appearance to reflect what really counted. It was better to see appearance as a door than a wall.
She felt Churro’s carpet-like fur under her hands while Julian sharpened his chef’s knife with the steel. He was an amateur. When Doug did that, his knife swashbuckled. Julian pulled the blade across the ceramic as though he could slit the air.
He made the first incision in Churro’s belly. It sounded like ripping cheesecloth.
“I’m careful not to hit an organ,” he said. “I had to watch my dad, even if hunting was something I hated. Taking an animal out of nature just to hang it on your wall or vacuum seal it in your freezer.”
“Is it gross?” she said.
“I mean, look.”
The whole torso was open now. The organs were polished, almost gleaming, exactly like lobes of liver. She was surprised that Churro was so dry, like she’d licked her own insides clean.
He slid the knife under the skin and began to take the skin off. She was only stabilizing the dog, really, but when it came time to do the head, she stood.
“I just need one more thing. Hang out in the kitchen and I’ll call you when this is over. I know—it’s nasty when you’re new.”
She stood in the kitchen, studying the man in magenta lace panties winking on the fridge. He looked like a tart, a torte, a troublemaker. She wondered how it could ever stop being nasty, but then she remembered how everything gross at first becomes tolerable, eventually, like portioning cookie dough with your bare hands or talking about sex with your mom, not even sex-sex, but blowjobs, and swallowing cum seems like the foulest thing imaginable, until you realize it’s a necessity. It has utility.
“Help?” Julian called from the other room. “And bring the salt.”
She brought all three boxes into the living room. A big black bag bulged beside the tarp, where now there was only Churro’s pelt.
She poured; Julian patted. It reminded her of making rugelach with her mom. For twenty-four hours, the skin would cure like this. When it was saturated, she held one end of the tarp and Julian held the other, and together they carried Churro into the mudroom, where they laid her on the floor, beside a trash can printed with a scene from The Wizard of Oz. And she felt it, for a second, the calm of belonging. She asked what else she could do, but he didn’t even let her back into the kitchen. He stood at the door, watching her go out. This was what he’d needed her for.
Doug liked the cake. They sat on the couch, their plates on their knees. She couldn’t bring herself to eat. She smelled Churro through the walls.
She listened to the room fill with his talk: The line cooks were fine; a team got farther than anyone alone. A group of surgeons from Rush came in with drag queens and ordered four rib eye platters, all the tallegio fonduta. That fuck-ton of porchetta he’d made was gone like that, after a table with three players from the Bulls. He was legit impressed with Joaquim Noah’s hair. The funniest thing, though, was a group touring the kitchen. The people were a family, two buttoned-up adults and a little kid. The kid, Doug said, was a nut. In a good way. She was dressed like a wild woman. A little off-kilter. This little girl had a purse shaped like a dachshund that she was dragging around, and inside she had her own spatula, her own thermometer, and her own—mini—chef’s knife.
“‘Bastianich or Batali,’ she asked me,” he said. “Pretty damn adorable. She turned her tree house into a test kitchen so she can practice … and I quote … living her dream.”
The fork she held was moving. She realized her hands were shaking.
“I think if we’re going to live together, we should have our own place,” she said. “You know, without neighbors.”
Doug patted her back like she was a baby being burped.
She moved. “You even said you can hear everything, through the walls.”
“Maybe Dr. J likes it,” Doug says. “Maybe it gets his dick hard when I fuck you.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
He moved the plate off her knees and took the fork from her hand. He pulled down the neck of her shirt and poked the tines to her sternum.
“As I suspected,” he said. “Still raw.”
He got up and went into the kitchen, where he grabbed the leash. He came back and clipped it to her choker while she was sitting still, on the edge of the couch.
“But wouldn’t it be nice,” she said, “to have someplace we know we’re alone?”
He kissed her then and it was a command: shut up, off the couch, on your knees, all fours. She crawled to the bedroom, where she felt a faint crying through the walls.
“I think I’m going to go,” she said after he finished.
He was in bed, smoking, eyes half-closed.
“You want me to, right?”
“Well, you gave me my birthday present,” he said. “Just joking. Love you. It’s no big deal, either way. ”
She dressed, hung up the leash, and locked his backdoor. She was sure she heard animals in the garbage, but at least the stairs were behind her.