By Nico Gurdjian
In our third floor apartment, squeezed into a sharp corner between the University Green and Wirströms Pub, our stove was leaking gas. I hadn't known, or maybe it was somewhere in the back of my mind stored away with other useless knowledge, that the ignited flame must be blue. Hannah came in mid pyttipanna stir, noticed the yellow glare of the flames and called maintenance with an aggressive intro about her roommate almost killing them all. My eyes rolled and I felt like pushing her off the chair so maybe she'd crack a tooth and stop opening her mouth altogether. She ignores me and pulls on a pigtail. Her hair is butter yellow, plaited with ribbons. She dresses in chiffon and swishy skirts. Hand-made by my aunt, she says at compliments, rattling on about her family's ethically sourced income. Hannah writes sonnets and leads talks on feminism. She is clean, consistent, honest. When we were younger, sepia childhood best friends, she would put bandaids on my knees, dotting sharpie eyes to make smiles.
The maintenance guy must have been in the building because he was up quick, calling out in broken Svenska. Hannah whisks around the corner with him on her heels, not giving any warning as I stood there in only a long sleep shirt clutching a dripping spoon. His name is Karl, a strong silent type - not uncommon here. Like a bear in those Russian videos: sitting on a log while people pet them and wrap furry paws/sharp talons around vodka bottles. But Karl doesn’t have fur or a giant vodka bottle. What he does have is a lecture about my burned down building sized mistake. Our stove is pulled apart, I watch him patch the leak. He keeps glancing at my bare legs from under his raised forearm. He meets my eyes sitting back on his heels, sweat droplets running relays down his bicep, a bit of belly rolling over his waistband. At this point, we both know the morning will end in sex.
Lars and I meet at the pub across the street from his apartment. It's been almost a month and I still haven’t seen the inside. Sometimes I think he has a secret wife, or kid, or giant family stuffed into 800 square feet. He says he has something to tell me so I down my drink, then his, so that the burning woozy can blur the break. But he doesn't end it, "My girlfriend broke up with me," he says instead, implying there can now be exclusivity between us. I nod and picture his apartment one last time before the spell of enigma wears off and he becomes boring again. A penthouse, animal print floor to ceiling, taxidermy of past family pets, a cat with an affinity for turnips and tax evasion. His television would only play the Truman Show on a loop and instead of furniture, it would all be one giant lazy river with Ulf Kristersson pool floats.
We take the elevator to the sixth floor and walk so far down the hallway I have to stop and pull off my kitten heels. Lars unlocks the door slowly, having to tug the key back and forth through the metal orifice, jacking it off before the door’s hinges release. I step in. All the furniture is leather, worn out. The kitchen holds a mound of plastic takeout containers. Lars softly taps on one of the doors across from the kitchenette, "This is Casper my roommate, best to leave him be." We enter the door opposite. A large bed takes up most of the space. The sheets are made, hardly anything is on the walls or shelving unit. Unsurprising. I start sleeping over in his bed often. It's soft and smells nice. Lars is constantly busy so I would just lay there in my clothes on the white sheets, staring up at the speckled ceiling until he decides to fuck me. It always feels like the beginning or the end of some vintage love story where they are either too nervous or too exhausted to do anything else.
Casper only appears in the mornings. He startled me at first, ghastly white and thin, footsteps practically inaudible. His routine was always the same: eat pickles, go to class, read Russian novels, jerk off, turn on the shower, let it run while eating pickles, turn off the shower, sleep. He keeps the jars of pickles in the fridge door. They float up in their jars of all different sizes and shapes like a serial killer organ collection. This morning Casper slips into the kitchen in a bright ruby jumpsuit that clashes with his paleness so violently, he looks like a blood clot. His sharp slanted proboscis drips mucus which he doesn't wipe away. He doesn't talk to me except for minimal grunts on Thursdays. I wonder if these grunts have meaning, a code he is waiting for me to work out and respond to, a game or test of sorts. I shovel fried eggs into my mouth and turn my back to him. I don't have to hear him do it, to tell exactly the specificity of his movements. Casper opens the fridge and pulls out a glass jar, rattling the others beside it. It clicks, the vacuum seal proving authenticity.
When Casper slips out to lectures, I slip into his room to borrow anti-boredom instruments. His room is a cave of wonder, lift up a swollen pillow to find crystallization. I think he fosters a veiled tenderness, sentiment, what with the crocheting needles and yarn next to a growing pile of woolen hats. Each one is a different color, topped off with pom-pom puffs. I reach to the top of the mound, selecting a yellow one with two red pom-poms. His mirror is spotted but I can still make out the hat nestled perfectly over ears. I tug it off and toss it back, picking up a porn magazine lying on the window-sill and shove it into my jacket pocket. In an act of kindness, I leave an original copy of The Brothers Karamazov. I make sure to yank his door closed tight before leaving. It clicks shut like the pickle jars.
I sit with Hannah on the floor of her room. The porn magazine sits between us, she gingerly takes a corner and opens it to the middle. One centerfold shows a nude woman on the ground of an office, resting askew propped up at an angle with her forearms. A man's leg sticks out from the side, his boot holding her securely in place, pressing hard on the center of her willingly arched back. "This is a disgusting portrayal of femininity," Hannah says pushing herself away from the paper, "the movement will get nowhere if we keep finding ourselves posing and existing in these pilled prescriptions of sexuality." I’m silent and look back at the lude photo, she is shiny all oiled up like a newborn. She probably slipped and slid around, scraping elbows, bruising knees, until they gave up and just photographed her on the floor.
“What do you think, Klara?” Hannah asks pointedly, hoping I'd offer more to her feminist jargon. I point to the woman’s glossy buttocks stuck into the air, “Maybe I should pose like this and finally make some decent money.” I say it jokingly but Hannah just frowns at me like I'm stupid. My cheeks flush up and the air turns awkward. She stands up and gathers her things, muttering about study group for class. Before she disappears to the outside, she looks back from the doorway gesturing to our new smutty friend, “Please throw it out.” The door slams behind her. I glance at the laminated women, tailored pinstripe tie hanging between her inflated breasts, and wink.
Lars is in love with me. He wants to surprise me with something so I use it as an excuse and come to his apartment early. I knock twice before sliding the key from under the mat and letting myself in, making a b-line for his bed. The door to his room is ajar from leaving in a hurry, my fingers push it open. A just ironed suit lies on his bed and I can't help myself. I pull it on, the fabric billows and sags down. His mirror is just ahead and I watch myself button the final holes before pulling the tie tight. I practice his gestures in the mirror, cupping my lips to repeat his words: "The way people stick their tongues out when a camera pops up, it's just so embarrassing." Embarrassing is part of Lars' philosophy, along with: disgusting, unworthy, vulgar, and inedible. I don't stick my tongue out in photos, but I use those words on myself in the mirror. Using his tone and his clothes, I say them to my reflection. It helps with hunger, plugging the hole.
When leaving, I see Casper in the hall and he grunts at me which is a surprise because it isn't Thursday. Then even more surprisingly he follows it up with words, just this once making the exception. He says Hannah and Lars are seeing each other and not telling me. Casper follows up the anecdote with a jutted out sad puppy lip. I sleep with a random guy from the bar and Lars finds out. He breaks up with me for lying to him. I point out that technically he is lying to me too about Hannah. He screams into the phone that I don't know the first thing about virtue. He says he's in love with me. The swirl of aggression to affection to violence confuses me and I hang up with a click.
When Christmas comes Hannah goes back to visit her family so I'm alone. The fire is burning, Jeff Buckley is singing, a singular package sits in the center of discarded wrapping paper. I hold it, shifting my hands around the cardboard looking for a to/from but no luck. My thumbs stick into the edges and I pull. The tape rips sharp and loud. Inside lays only a hat: yellow crochet with two red pom-poms. Temptation immediately wants me to put it on. To spark that intimacy, to fill the emptiness, appease the hunger. To sink down on all fours, arching under a boot. To open wide. To listen for the click. I close the lid and slide the box under my bed.