One-Bedroom Above a Bar
Sophie Leigh Nagelberg
The chef-boyfriend is lying face down in the bed, his head buried in the pillows. He looks like that arcade game with the gophers, but the other way around, because it’s his body that’s sticking out, instead of a bobbling head asking to get punched. Muffled sounds escape through the bedding, something in between moaning and singing.
“You gotta get in here,” he says. “Try it. Tryyyy it.”
Sunny from the restaurant gave us a crumbled bag of mushrooms and we went home and blended them with things accumulating in the cupboard: Haribo gummies, powdered milk, blueberry salt, and ice cream from the freezer.
The dog is pacing, hungry and confused, his toe nails tapping the floor. His bowl is empty. I think we forgot to feed him dinner, but it’s possible he just ate it. It’s all about to hit me, but it hasn’t yet. In the kitchen, I climb onto the countertop to look for the bag of dog’s food and when I turn around to get down, that’s when I feel it. The orange hardwood becomes a pit of fire, throwing balls of flame into the air, and I spill the bag of savory beef and rice, food bits billowing across the floor like a mushroom cloud. The room swells like a breathing lung.
“Come in here,” the chef-boyfriend continues to call from his post, but I’m stuck on the counter top, running my index finger through thick dust I didn’t know was this high up. He’s tall enough to notice. I’m not.
The dog prances in with a grin on its face and begins to vacuum the crunchy beef with its mouth. I descend onto a floor that’s swirling.
Earlier tonight, after a few drinks at a table too close to the bathrooms in a gimmicky restaurant with an Italian mural on the walls, the chef-boyfriend and I fought over something I said. It went something like this:
Me: When are you planning on trimming your beard?
Him: I wasn’t.
Him: What are you, my mother?
Me: I’m just trying to help.
Him: Can you leave it alone?
Me: If you trim your beard, we’ll have sex tonight.
Him: My beard was like this when we met. You didn’t have a problem sleeping with me then.
Me: Maybe I did. I just didn’t want to say anything.
Him: Then why did you come on to me in the first place?
Me: I was hungry.
We met at a restaurant—he was in the kitchen; I was still in undergrad waiting tables. One day, he yelled, I talked back, and we ended up having beautiful hate-fueled sex in the walk-in cooler, me holding on to a crate of heirloom tomatoes, unable to feel my fingers. That was in the summer time. By winter, I was on my final year of college, and we got our very own one-bedroom above a bar, which we saw as an extended living space. Death metal music came through the windows and we painted the walls black to match those of the bar, and soon enough, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two, only one had a bartender and slightly less lighting.
For days at a time, drunken friends and occasional strangers pass out on our furniture and sometimes the floor, until the dog licks them awake and they stumble home in unforgiving sunlight. That’s what’s nice about living above the bar: at four in the morning, after we’ve shut the place down and made agreements to travel to Tasmania with the bartender, we only have to make it up the stairs and into bed.
When we get home from dinner, we’re not fighting, but we’re not speaking. He pours himself some whiskey, slams a few cabinets, and takes off his shirt, revealing a stained, faded wife beater, his skinny arms dipped in ink. He throws the t-shirt onto the pile of clothes by his side of the bed. It smells like mildew and potatoes.
I look in the refrigerator for my wine, but it’s barricaded behind rows of plastic deli containers full of leftover food the chef-boyfriend and I have cooked and neglected, like so many other things. Colors have turned and strange things have started to grow—things I didn’t know were possible.
He sits on the couch and fumbles with the remote until the TV blinks on, but I don’t want to go out like this. We’re too young to hate each other.
Two weeks before graduation, management shut down the restaurant, leaving us both out of jobs. While I finished school, he finished each night downstairs in the bar, sometimes picking up where he left off in the morning. At home, he threw his knifes at the walls like darts and yelled about green beans and lobsters violently when we slept.
This is when the fighting started, and though we both found other jobs—him in another kitchen and me in a library, the arguing never lost momentum.
I sit beside him and squeeze his knee. “Let’s get high,” I say. “Let’s get high and make love.”
He scratches his forehead and ponders into the TV. I get used to looking into the side of his face. “Eh,” he says. I watch shades of blue, yellow, and green light up against his pale skin; the hues of a food processor infomercial. He’s handsome; has high cheekbones, a defined jaw. Almost thirty and hasn’t lost a hair on his head. There’s some grey in his beard. He’s good with people—most of them, anyway. I press my face into his arm and inhale the scent of cigarettes and cologne.
“Take a look,” the TV commands. It’s a lady in an apron and chef’s hat, mashing down buttons with a manicured hand. “Mix it, blend it, faster than ever, better than ever, Vitamix 4,000, second edition.” All the buttons make different sounds, the blades spinning.
“You want that thing?” I ask. “Let’s get it. I’ll buy it for you.”
“Too expensive,” he mumbles.
“The first fifty callers receive half off and free shipping,” the TV lady announces. She stops blending the mixture, looks into our eyes and asks, “What’s to lose?” It’s as if she knows all about us: our hopes, our dreams, our fighting. This thing could bring us happiness, I think, stupidly. And we’ve been saving coins in the piggy bank. What’s to lose? echoes in my cranium. I don’t know what she’s mixing in the Vitamix. It was red, now it’s brown. I wasn’t paying attention. What’s to lose?
We used to buy each other gifts all the time, hiding them under the couch cushions or in the washing machine. I dial the phone.
Honest to God, I’m the fifty-first caller, but it doesn’t stop me. I buy it anyway, with money I don’t have. Four hundred dollars down the drain, but we’re no longer fighting. The chef-boyfriend kisses the top of my head and thanks me. I get the drugs out of the sock drawer and we feed them to each other. It’s Tuesday night, nearing morning. What’s to lose?
Three hours later, all the lights are still on and I’m squirming in the bed, cold sheets sending electricity down my spine. “Get in here,” the chef-boyfriend says, his head encompassed in the pillows. “It’s like Narnia.”
“Bad things are in there,” I say.
“Babe, it’s good in here. Trust me.” I don’t trust him. Don’t even trust myself. This was probably a bad idea, but so far it’s been okay. We’ve haven’t made love yet. If we don’t, we will later. Lately, I’m really not unhappy.
“If it weren’t me, who would it be?” I ask the chef-boyfriend.
“Huh?” He pulls his head out and looks at me, his pupils like black holes.
“I mean, who would you want me to be? You know. If I weren’t me.”
“What the fuck, babe?”
“Okay, I’ll say it first. If it weren’t you, I would date someone that worked in an office. In a cubicle. And we would eat dinner at normal hours—six thirty or seven, every night at the kitchen table. He would make dried steak and sad vegetables, but I wouldn’t be alone.”
“I like you the way you are,” he tells me, and I know it’s the perfect truth.
“I like that you can cook,” I tell him.
“What are you so afraid of?” he asks.
Through blinds, I see the blueness of morning, the etching of a white sun beating against the wall. I feel myself rocking into sleep and I am thankful. I don’t know what I’m so afraid of.
Sophie Leigh Nagelberg is a graduate student at Columbia College Chicago. She is earning a MFA in creative writing and working on her first novel.