Thursday, 14 January 2016

Still New, Part II

Note: As the title suggests, this story is a continuation of “Still New, Part I.”

Levi was on his best behaviour. He asked all sorts of questions about Jill, he made funny jokes, he offered to run to the store and get stuff to make dinner. Once Levi had left, Robin asked Jill, “Is this okay?” though he couldn’t change anything if it wasn’t.
Jill laughed, remembering something Levi had said, presumably. “I’m starting to understand why you like him so much.” Jill rolled up her sleeves and started washing the piles of other people’s dishes in the sink and on the counter. Robin reluctantly dried.
Not only did Levi come back with the makings of a beautiful vegetarian pasta, he’d bought a big bottle of red wine and a six pack of Anchor Steam beer. He explained that when he was living in a San Francisco punk squat Anchor Steam was their beer of choice. Jill asked Levi questions about the squat while she chopped an onion, three cloves of garlic, twelve garden tomatoes. Robin got out pots and mixing bowls and listened, interested in the stories but also feeling peripheral to the conversation. At some point, Levi got warm enough to take off his sweater. At some point, Jill noticed the stick and poke torpedo tattoo on Levi’s upper arm and said how she’d always wanted a stick and poke tattoo.
“You still have India ink?” Levi asked Robin.
“Uh, do you want one right now?” Robin asked Jill.
She was smiling, considering it.
“No pressure,” Levi said.
Which seemed to confirm something for Jill, or reassure her. “Yeah. Okay.” She giggled.
Robin went to his room, which still smelled of him and Jill, and found, crammed into a gap between an old IKEA shelf and the wall, his toolbox full of art supplies. In his high school art class, the India ink was kept in baby jars and half the time when you actually managed to get one of the jars open the ink had turned into black sludge or a block of powder that Ms. Aaron would then add water to in an attempt to return the medium to its original consistency. Robin shook the jar, hoping for it to rattle. It swished. He went to the basement bathroom to open the jar above the sink. Of course, he should be happy that Levi and Jill were hitting it off. What else? Shouldn’t it be that simple?
Did people really decide to get tattoos that fast?
Robin’s roommate, Stephen, opened his bedroom door and walked, rubbing his eyes, towards the bathroom. Robin tried to twist the top off the India ink. Upstairs, Jill laughed. Leaning against the hallway wall outside the open door, Stephen said, “She’s still here, eh? Jill, right?”
“Yeah. Levi, too. We’re making dinner. You want some?” Robin ran the warm water, turned the jar upside down and put it under the faucet.
“Nah. I’m meeting Louisa.”
“Cool.” Blackened water dripped into the sink dying the dried toothpaste and soap scum. Robin tried again to twist the lid free, but the jar slipped in his hands. “I can’t get this fucking thing,” Robin said.
“Want me to give it a try?”
“I don’t actually want it open.”
“Whatever you say.” Stephen yawned as Robin squeezed past him, the bottle dripping grey water onto his cupped hand.
Levi saw the pool of inky water in Robin’s palm. “Paper towels?”
“A dishcloth’s fine,” Robin said.
“It’ll stain,” Levi said.
“I don’t care.”
Levi handed him a dishcloth, then took the jar from him and opened it easily. He evaluated the ink’s consistency by slowly tipping the jar this way and that. “Perfect.” Levi rubbed the jar rim with his finger, removing the black crust from the lid’s grooves. Jill was stripped down to her tank top now, leaning against the counter in front of the microwave Stephen’s father had given them. She was sipping wine and looking at her forearms. “I’ve always wanted a little black bomb.”
Robin nodded and pressed his lower lip up into his upper lip thinking it made him look thoughtful, but stopped himself when it felt like frowning. He wondered at the phrase, Always wanted, wondered what, if anything, he had always wanted.
“I think, like, midway on my forearm.”
Levi was stirring the sauce when he winced and said, “I’ll also need a needle and thread.”
Robin turned to go back downstairs.
“I don’t need it now,” Levi said.
“You’ve got everything under control up here?”
“Can I get you a drink?”
“I’m good.”
Robin’s sewing kit wasn’t immediately visible in the big junk drawer in the center of his desk. He’d moved the desk from his childhood home to his first apartment then to this apartment without once dumping out or sorting through the stuff in any of the drawers, and so it occurred to Robin, as he started noisily running his hand through the junk, that he was stirring years of accumulated odds and ends. The noise was lovely and Robin was enjoying himself until the pad of his right finger found the sharp end of his grandfather’s RCAF wings. It felt like someone had poured a big old Gatorade tub of ice-cold regret over his shoulders. Robin slammed the drawer and sat on his bed with his finger in his mouth.
Robin heard her feet on the stairs, but figured it was Stephen going up. Jill knocked at the door. “Are you okay?” She was holding a bottle of beer in one hand and her wine glass in the other.
“I just stabbed myself on a pin. I can’t find my sewing kit.”
Jill held out the beer. “Levi thought you might like this.”
“Just put it on the desk. Thanks.”
She set the bottle down, sat beside Robin and kissed him on the cheek. “Come on.” Robin half turned his head towards her. She tried to get her tongue in his mouth. He waited until she stopped then waited a breath more before he stood up and reopened his junk drawer. “It should be in here.”
Stephen walked by the open door of Robin’s room, his clothes in his arms and a towel wrapped around waist. “Steve. Have you seen my sewing kit?” Robin asked more to open the room up, so that it included people other than just he and Jill.
“Shit, sorry. Yeah.”
Stephen returned holding out the small pouch, his other hand hanging onto the towel’s knot.
Robin stood to grab the pouch. “Thanks.”
Jill stood too. “Oh my God, I— ” She looked down at her left forearm.
“You what?”
“I can’t wait,” she said. She put her arms around his neck and tried to look into his eyes. She stood on her tiptoes and tried to pull him down to her. “For the tattoo or to fuck you later.”
Robin gave a single nod and fought back his smile.
Jill bit his shoulder.
“Ouch,” Robin said.
“You’re so hot.”
Robin handed her the sewing kit and sat back down on his bed. “I’ll be up in a minute.” He checked his finger. The injury was disappointingly mild. “I gotta grab a Band-Aid.”
“Want me to bring your beer up?”
“Uh,” Robin shrugged. “Sure.”
His Lorazepam was in the same dusty wicker basket as the Band-Aids. He put the bottle in his pocket.
Dinner was delicious. Levi knew something was wrong anyway, but when Robin didn’t have a second helping, Levi asked his friend, “Is everything alright?” In that context it sounded like maybe a joke about how much Robin usually ate, so Robin played it that way. He stood up and patted his stomach, “I know, right? Maybe I’m getting sick.” No one laughed. Robin and Levi did the dishes together. When Jill went to the bathroom, Levi told Robin, “I don’t need to do it, you know. I can make up some excuse.”
“You mean the tattoo?”
“It’s fine. It’s good.”
“You sure?” Levi leaned over to try and make eye contact.
Robin met his eyes, then quickly looked down at the dish he was drying. “Admiring my beautiful eyes?”
“They’re not bad.”
“The way everybody’s always trying to gaze into them.”
Levi laughed.
Robin bared his teeth.
Jill came out of the bathroom.
Levi asked Robin if he had any rags or, better, some old towels. He did. They were the first round of hand-me-down towels he’d ever received from his mother who seemed always to be finding newer, fluffier towels that she just couldn’t resist purchasing and which pushed the coarsest of her fluffy towels out of her linen cupboard and into Robin’s apartment. “These are too nice,” Levi said when Robin handed him the pile.
“Have you felt my new towels?”
“But these aren’t rags.”
“You can have them when we’re done, provided they aren’t covered in carbon and gore.”
“I hope there isn’t gore,” Jill said.
“They’re just to protect the couch,” Levi explained, “but they’re nicer than the upholstery.”
“But easier to replace,” Robin reasoned. He spread out the towels. Levi helped.
Using rubbing alcohol Robin fetched from his dusty wicker medicine basket, Jill cleaned the area on the inside of her forearm that she wanted Levi to tattoo. Levi burned the tip of one of Robin’s sewing needles, then wound a thread around the needle so that it would hold some ink and he wouldn’t have to return to the well after each poke. Robin moved an easy chair from the corner to where he figured Levi would want to sit, then left it there when Levi said he would prefer something less comfortable. Robin fetched his wooden desk chair from downstairs. Before returning the easy chair to its home in the corner, Robin swept up the jackrabbit dust bunnies he’d uncovered and discovered a die hiding in the dust bunny warren. He picked the die up and dropped into his pocket, where it struck the Lorazepam bottle and reminded him of his planned escape route.
Levi carefully created a sketch of the bomb he proposed to draw. Jill loved it, she said, but she wanted Robin to look at it, probably, Robin realized later, because she was past the point of objectivity, but so was Robin only for different reasons.
Jill’s energy was mesmerizing. She seemed more upright, somehow. Sparks were flying off her teeth. She was moving faster, but it looked like the correct speed, like everybody else was moving too slowly and it took Jill’s excitement to help Robin see it. And that observation, maybe, was what kept Robin from taking the pills that so slowed him down, what made him sit and watch as his best friend held his new girlfriend’s arm and drove an ink-coated sewing needle into her again and again, the two of them, Levi and Jill, lock-focused on a tiny patch of her skin. Again and again Robin rolled the die on the floor in front of the easy chair, not noticing what numbers came up, just enjoying the sound and the distraction. When Stephen came upstairs to get a glass of water and to leave, he said, “I thought you guys were playing a game up here. Hi Levi. What are you doing?”
Levi looked at Jill then at Robin and gave each a second to answer Stephen’s question before Levi decided it was okay for him to tell Stephen, “I’m giving Jill a stick and poke tattoo.”
Stephen took a few steps closer, but kept a distance meant to be respectful and craned over Levi and Jill to see. “That’s cool.” He turned with his dirty cup. “Whoa, who did the dishes?”
“Jill,” Robin said. “And Levi.”
Levi was too focused on his work to say, And Robin, like he normally would have. Which was right, Robin figured.
Stephen left his cup beside the sink before putting on his Converse and coat. He stood in the doorway and said, “Well.”
“It was nice to meet you, Stephen,” Jill said, her smile reminding Robin of the baby-faced sun on that fucked up kids’ show.
“Yeah, nice to meet you, too. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Jill looked at Robin, still smiling like that sun. “I hope so.”
Robin rolled the die again.
“Have a good night,” Stephen said. He closed the door and the remote control resting on the PlayStation rattled.
Robin rolled the die.
“We should play a game after,” Jill suggested.
Levi squinted to see the time on the microwave. “What time is it, Robin?” Really, he was asking if he should stay.
“Uh, eight-thirty.”
“I’ve got an early start tomorrow,” Levi said. “I’m working on Anita’s film.”
“Cool,” Robin said.
Jill asked who Anita was and Levi and Robin explained that she was the one person in their film production class, a class they’d been in for three years now, that was certain to make a career in the industry. The conversation dried up quickly in the heat of Levi’s focus and Jill’s excitement and pain.
Robin got up for a drink, his body feeling like a flat, grey photocopy and tingling like there were ants crawling on him. He shook his head and rolled his shoulders. The beer Levi had sent downstairs for him was sitting on the corner of the counter. He drank it as quickly as he could, its warmth making it feel like oatmeal in Robin’s mouth. Once his eyes had finished watering, he got a cold one from the fridge. “Can I get anyone anything?”
Levi and Jill both just wanted water. It made Robin angry. He realized that he had only slept, like, four hours or something in the last—the water ran as he did the math—the last close to thirty-six hours.
At Levi’s request, Robin set one glass of water down beside Levi’s chair. Jill took a big, thirsty sip then set the cup by her feet. Robin returned to the easy chair and held the still cold beer against his chest until his hand started to numb. He reached out and was able, without improving his posture, to put the bottle on top of the VCR. He closed his eyes.
When Jill woke him, it was over. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Robin said, sitting up.
Levi walked into the living room from downstairs. “I put the chair back. The towels are folded up on the chair.”
Robin blinked heavily.
“I didn’t know where to put the ink so I left it on your desk. And I washed the needle.”
“What do you think,” Jill said, presenting her arm.
It was a sloppy, pointillist bomb, the black ink already a little blue on Jill’s angry skin. Levi had done a great job with the shading, giving an illusion of volume. “It’s good.”
“I love it,” Jill said.
“It’s small enough that you could always cover it later.” Levi was being modest.
“No way.”
They covered it with gauze Levi found at the bottom of Robin’s wicker medicine basket. Jill and Levi hugged, Jill energetically thanking Levi. As he hugged Robin, Levi said quietly, “Have a good night.”
Robin tried to say, “Thanks,” but was interrupted by a yawn.
In his bedroom, Robin lay down on top of his covers. When he felt Jill tug at his belt, Robin opened his eyes. As she pulled his pants down, her grin shifted into some more focused look. To Robin’s surprise, his body responded to her immediately.
They were like new people.
After they finished, they both finished, Jill lay against Robin’s shoulder and thanked him and kissed him on the cheek and thanked him again before they each fell asleep.
Toronto, Jan 2016

Emoji sequence: Reuben McLaughlin, brilliant writer, editor and friend; publisher of Pilot
Story: Lee Sheppard, other publisher of Pilot

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