Riley in Light
Riley’s ex-girlfriend isn’t home. She’s in the hospital. The hospital, Riley has been given to understand, is her new home. “You should see the scar,” Yuri told him. “More stitches than a softball.” Riley stood in the crush of strangers with his head cocked at a baffled angle, like a Labrador trying to make sense of daylight savings time, a drink in his hand, a drink in his other hand. He was shabbily tailored tonight, pinstripes and pegged cuffs and ragged jeans, his recent haircut attaining a plastic sheen in the mellow bar light. The style was fashionable sloth. Slowly he nodded. His old cubicle mate Yuri nursed a cocktail, radioactive-colored, some kind of girlie confection. He sipped at it boldly, unaware of the rim of neon around his mouth. “Malignant,” he continued. “The blackest of enchiladas. The surgeon made off with fifteen of her lymph nodes and that beautiful singing voice.”
“She sang? She was a singer?” Riley’s haircut seemed to squirm.
“Maybe it was sixteen,” Yuri replied and drained the pink drink. Then he drained one of Riley’s drinks. “I’d chisel your face onto Mount Rushmore, just so you could see your stupid expression.”
“It’s my face.” Riley shrugged.
Yuri smiled and sighted Riley through the bottom murk of his glass. Riley put his last drink in a puddle of its own slosh and fumbled an arm into his coat, a khaki number, ill-fitting, androgynous. It had been the first of her layers he stole.
The noise of the room began to crest as Riley aimed for the door, the sidewalk, the street, whatever world remained beyond the street.
The next morning Riley remembers the rubber tube that Yuri compared to an appliance plug connected to the hole in her stomach, and through it flows blood clots, skin rind, damaged membranes, fecal flakes. Assorted hunks of ex-girlfriend. Riley imagines her sitting on her hospital cot with this tube pouring more and more of her into a plastic baggie she patiently holds in her lap. The baggie expands like a bladder. She watches the slow ballet of her particles, beautiful movements, floating pieces of color. She looks like a child who has won a free goldfish at the state fair. And even Riley knows how long those things usually last.
His apartment is filled with her layers. First the lingerie and panties and hosiery and a few skirts and summer dresses and the khaki jacket, all of which he smuggled out of their shared apartment immediately following the breakup. Then he grew bolder in his liberations and stole her birding binoculars, the laces from her running shoes, childhood keepsakes, the key to her diary but not the diary itself. The final layer was the incidentals, light switch covers she never noticed, furniture she despised, a box of vegan cake mix she purchased by mistake. Marginal items, shy accidents. Riley includes himself in this category. He took a new apartment in the condominium slums and filled it with all her fine and forgotten things. Sunlight comes through the windows in parallel slivers, beveled by the steep neighborhood architecture. Some days he returns to the old apartment just to stare at the windows, the hazy indistinct spot where he used to stand in his bathrobe and damp hair, gazing across the road to that empty slot of sidewalk, that empty stretch of brick wall, that is now his new life.
He didn’t know she was cancerous at the time of their breakup. She claimed he only loved her as far as he could fuck her. Riley disagreed, but he liked the poetry in this declaration, the sophisticate’s wry wit, the frankness of sexual contract, so he didn’t argue. She was a slender girl, frizzy haired, naïve and meek. He could fuck her a fair distance. The length of a soccer field, say. There was never any indication she harbored secret tumors or any malignancy. She played the piano one-handed and in the bathroom she liked to examine her wastewater with a color-wheel chart, to make sure the yellows were just yellow enough.
They met as coworkers at the same eco-minded nonprofit. She came from Kansas and was trained as an antiquarian painter of still lifes and farm scenes that glorified the spiritual desolation of unpicked fruit, lonely girls lost in the high wheat. She liked to advocate for the fascism of acrylics, art smock as uniform, bootstrap aesthetics, a hayseed Mussolini. Riley understood none of this. He just shirred his face in interest, leaned in, and said, “That’s a valuable point,” as often as the conversation allowed.
Then in rapid succession: a stable courtship, the new cohabitation, high splendor, pledges of everlasting love, and the inevitable retractions. Riley moved out and changed his wardrobe and haircut and she changed all the locks, but not before he was able to liberate three cardboard boxes containing the most exquisite clutter. Now he is standing in his apartment, sheenless, totally sheenless, staring at all her stolen junk.
Does anyone even know where Mount Rushmore is any more? he wonders.
He doesn’t know which hospital. But he imagines her parents are cordoned around the bed like mourner sentries, talking idly about Birkenstocks and fungi and all the growth hormones that are pumped into genetically-tampered dairy products. They are Californians, with the Californian’s yen for gossip and random milieu. They will happily upset every social equation that is put to them in a vote. Riley’s own parents are buried somewhere up north. His only living brother, a twin, was the salutatorian of their high school class and has just been arrested for illegally trafficking cough suppressant across state lines. He looks much like Riley, except his nose is not so knurly and beakish when photographed in profile. Months ago he mailed Riley a postcard from prison that said, in total, Black Sheep Darkens the Flock. Riley pinned the card to his workstation at the nonprofit and was soon fired for trying to hack into his ex-girlfriend’s email account, dormant since she mysteriously resigned. So Riley spends his days working at a new nonprofit and communing with old friends in unfamiliar bars. And his nights he dedicates to pacing wild swaths around his apartment with its hidden molds and broken thermostat, stepping around the clutter of all her stolen shit, the windows open, cold shivers shaking him like an epileptic. Too ashamed to wear that khaki jacket again.
He takes his restlessness to the mall and runs off his energies by stalking the food court, the concourse of boutiques and fountains and kiosks, the parking garage and department store annex. The grandeur of so much imperial airspace. He feels like an anthropologist here, trying to make sense of all that has been imbedded beneath the terrain of pale tiles and glassed expanses. At the pet store, he leans into the window. An aquarium burns the same green as pea soup. Florescent fish make hinge-like movements in the glow, tail rudders snapping, eyes lidless and unblinking. They look alive, so alive it hurts. Riley unsuctions his forehead from the shop window and, startled by his own reflection—an expression of stupor and giddy menace—he backpedals towards the elevator, which shuts around him like a sardine tin and descends on a long metal track. It goes all the way south, he knows, clunkily and then faster, dropping like a smooth ballast to the hot red center of some other earth.
Riley arrives at the start of visiting hours but squanders so much time searching the hospital’s various wards that when he finally finds her room, visitors are being shepherded out of the building. Her family has left. The nurses are in distracted consultation around a bank of monitors. Riley slips into the room and must wade through a forest of helium balloons, flower bouquets, fruit baskets. Her bed is at a subtle angle so that she can face the TV, although the TV is shut off. The curtains are cinched and open. Riley drags a chair to her bedside. He can’t bring himself to sit. So he hovers, awkwardly, rudely, and sees she has her father’s face. His whole face. White hair, bushman’s beard, the hearty alcoholic’s veined and bulbous nose. The old man opens his eyes and nods gravely, gesturing Riley to sit.
Riley sits. Slumping forward a bit, he makes sure it’s really his ex-girlfriend’s father so snugly wrapped in Riley’s old afghan blanket in her hospital bed. Did she actually steal something of his?
“They thought it was a heart attack,” says the old man, raising the arm, still attached via rubber tube to an IV on wheels. He’s wearing a handsome cardigan under there. “They say I’m under observation but you’re the first person to visit me all day. So thank you.”
“You look well, Gary.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“That’s your name.”
“It’s not for you to say what is or isn’t my name. You don’t get to do that anymore. Break a sick young girl’s spirit. You sour-faced fucker. Your mouth looks like a hamster’s puckered asshole. You need a heart to have it attacked.”
“She’s not here,” says Riley.
“This room,” her father replies, “has too many daisies.”
“You have allergies.”
“Among other troubles.”
“The heart thing,” Riley nods.
“I think the doctors just wanted me out of the way,” her father says. “I was in the merchant marines, you know.”
“You’ve told me before.”
“I’ve never told you that, Gary.”
“You’re Gary,” says Riley.
The old man’s face relaxes, goes gray, serene.
“Goddamn you,” the old man hisses.
“You look like charbroiled shit someone has picked up on a stick.”
“I haven’t been sleeping much,” admits Riley.
Her father gestures to the unoccupied bed under the room-length window. Riley stares at the bed, stares at it carefully, trying to see himself sprawled on the skinny mattress in lame convalescence. But all he can see are the helium balloons sinking to the floor, the flowers turning an antiquarian brown, the fruit baskets advertising their own gentle spoil. Riley reaches through the bed’s safety rails and grabs the old man’s hand and squeezes, squeezes, squeezes.
Her new hospital is a specialized facility somewhere in the dunes and ruts of the Nevada desert. An adobe building, Riley imagines, a low haunted thing. He can visualize the outdoor portico where she is bracketed in her wheelchair, stationed on the rim of so much sun scorch and draught, watching the sandstorms roll in. She rises from her chair. She sheds her hospital greens and unbuckles her medical corset and stands there, revealed to the desert heat, a hundred different zippers running down and up her small frail body. Meanwhile, on the far side of the same continent, Riley remains stranded inside his tenement condo in this runty nook of mismanaged urban planning on the eastern shelf of New Jersey. He wants to take her in his arms, a delicate embrace, careful and chivalrous, but he knows it’s inevitable, his hands would grow restless, groping around, and it would not be long before he began anxiously unzipping all her hundred scars. The metal teeth gleaming. A ripping noise. Her candy-colored organs toppling out like fish guts, a heap of slush and spatter, glowing in pieces on the ground.
The apartment stays dark. Riley steps across the sprinkling of broken window glass but keeps the flashlight sheathed in his belt, instead roving her rooms like a blind man, finding things by feel. He is prodding his memory with every familiar sensation. The bedroom has a sour smell, warm and dry, the smell of recycled air. The sack on his shoulder is cumbersome and Riley compensates by pivoting every other step, compassing around the apartment, reorienting himself to the floor plan, which has not changed. The same furniture, the same feel. He sets the sack on the edge of the sofa and undoes the drawstring. As his eyesight adjusts the room moves from dark to dim, and in the dimness he can see some nuance, gradations, boundaries. There is the refrigerator with a collage of photographs affixed by ceramic magnets. The paintings on the wall and the journals stacked on the hutch. But Riley doesn’t inspect them. He doesn’t snoop. Rather he returns to his sack, which is actually an overlarge pillow sham strung with a homemade drawstring, and he begins removing the items, one by one. First her hosiery, then her silken undies, her satin bathrobe, culottes and sundress and the makeup compact shaped like a flask. Her khaki jacket and dental floss and shoestrings and nail polish and the cake mix, the squirt gun, the battery-operated sex toy, her college diploma, a salt shaker, the salt. Riley shakes the pillowcase to make sure it is empty, then looks around, pats his pant legs, glances at his watch and unstraps it from his wrist. He puts this on her bedside table and then he kicks off his shoes, shimmies out of his shirt, his undershirt, his socks and boxers and pants, and leaves all his clothes folded like flattened origami on the ledge of her bed. He gives her his credit cards, his social security card, his coins, the money he planned on using for cab fare home. Riley picks up the fallen flashlight and sets it on the dresser, which he notices is empty, anonymous, a simple block of useless wood. He sweeps up the broken glass and scatters it out the window, then stands at the window, straddling the light outside and the dimness indoors. Riley waits here shivering, penitent, naked as birth, fumbling in the coldness of his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, in the greater coldness of terminal longing, as the last of his energies dissipate through the room, where all the layers of her have been restored. Riley tries to remain stone-faced, invisible, a good omen to all. He’s trying to leave some life for her to come back to.
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