Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's debut novel, Spark, will be published by Engine Books in September 2012. Her work has appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Word Riot, Joyland, and Wigleaf, among other publications. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and has taught at the New School and College of Staten Island, CUNY. Courtney is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine and lives in Manhattan with her fiancé.
Today Lynne decides not to care what other people think, and once that decision has been made, everything becomes easier. She doesn't shower. Instead she splashes cold water on her face, ties her hair into a ponytail, and brushes her teeth hard but not for very long. She makes a cup of instant coffee, which she drinks over the kitchen sink as she looks out at the soggy backyard, the empty grocery store parking lot, another low November sky threatening snow over the mountains. In the bedroom Benny lets out a wordless shout. Last night he tossed and turned, at one point sending his fist onto Lynne's chest, where it landed with a hollow thud, shocking her awake. She got out of bed then and sat on the couch. She didn't even try to sleep. When gray light seeped between the blinds, she went into the bathroom and took off her t-shirt. She expected the bruise above her breast, yet the incongruity of the mark, like an ink stain on a favorite outfit, made her angry. She knew he hadn't meant to hit her; he would be remorseful if he realized what he'd done. She put her shirt back on to spare him the shame.
Despite the skipped shower, she is running late. In the bedroom Benny is sitting up, his skinny chest almost luminescent in the dimness. His eyes are half-open.
“Of course I'm going in.” The closet door wobbles, irritating Lynne as she pulls it open. “What else would I do?”
“Shit, baby. How?”
“No hangover,” she says, but her tone is too smart, almost mocking. A month ago she would have been lying right there beside him. She laughs. “Not today, anyway.”
She buttons her jeans, reaches for her usual blue Henley, and stops. On the floor by the window is Benny's New Paltz sweatshirt. She slides it over her head and turns, but he has rolled on to his side.
“I'll be back before three,” she says. “Be here, OK?”
He grunts and flops on to his stomach, his arm twisted awkwardly over the back of his head. She bends down and kisses his ear.
Sunday is Lynne's favorite day. At the end of the weekend they are more likely to be forgetful, to leave secret parts of themselves behind. In room 245: the top of a leopard print bikini, the right shoulder strap torn. In room 223: an empty box of saltines, menstrual stains on the towels, a Disney DVD. In room 217: a broken black plastic comb, a crumpled Camels pack, a Cherry Poppin' Red lipstick, minus the cap. Under the glare of the vanity, Lynne puts the lipstick on. The color is loud, demanding, the lip shade of a hooker. She wipes her mouth on a piece of toilet paper and flushes the stain away.
In room 109: a piece of stationary torn apart, scattered like confetti over the nightstand. Lynne gathers the pieces and stuffs them into her pocket. On her break, she borrows tape from the office and sits in her car, reconstructing a letter from a father to a daughter, the words begging forgiveness for some unmentioned but traumatizing act. The handwriting lacks any sort of style, and so Lynne imagines a man her father's age and, like her father, grizzled and diminished, his shoulders sloped where they used to spread muscular and proud beneath his checkered shirts. She envisions him hunched over the nightstand, his pen dangling above the motel's cheap stationary, a half-drunk can of beer at his elbow. She is growing more generous in her imaginings; not long ago, the beer would have been whiskey, a vial of painkillers. Lynne's father's choice was Percocet.
The man starts to write and stops. He starts again, hiccupping his soul onto the page.
She thinks about Benny, still young and proud to the point of frequent humiliation. After three years she is still waiting for him to give her more than “I love you”: his name next to hers on an apartment lease; at the very least all his clothes hung beside hers in the closet, behind a door that he has fixed. Sometimes she has to catch his head in her hands and force him to look at her. When she does, she sees a vulnerability that is frightening in its strength, its centrality. Last night he jerked away. She started to reach for him again, but his spine was electric. His skin hummed and buzzed.
She presses her fingers against her chest, making the bruise hurt. Then she puts the letter in the glove compartment and closes the door with a satisfying click.
In the overheated laundry room, Dalia and Chrissie sit at the metal folding table with bottles of Diet Coke, talking about Lynne. She knows they are talking about her because as soon as she pushes her trolley through the door, Chrissie nudges Dalia with her fat elbow and Dalia twists around, her mouth still open, her carefully plucked eyebrows bunched.
“Lynne. How's it going?”
“Just fine,” Lynne says.
As she stuffs the sheets into the washer, she is aware of their eyes on her back. She should use two machines, but she takes pleasure in the work of her muscles jamming the fabric down. By the time she slams the lid shut, she has remembered not to care.
She sits down at the table and thinks about throwing them off by telling them about the letter she found in room 109. But they would only act offended, probably report her to Mr. Benson. Instead she tilts her chair back so that she balances on two legs. “What's the latest?” she says.
Chrissie looks at Lynne with open scrutiny, but Dalia smiles. “The dryer on the left's acting funky again.”
“All right,” Lynne says. “Thanks.”
She should stay here, making them feel uncomfortable until they leave, but her head hurts from the heat, the clang of the washer, the nagging curiosity to know whether she was being portrayed as a sap, a slut, or worse. Chrissie is wearing a faded black t-shirt with Minnie Mouse on the front in a red polka dot bikini striking a pose. The irony of glamour girl Minnie on dour, ugly Chrissie should be pitiful, but the image has a taunting quality, a fuck-you to the expectations of the world. Across from her Dalia is tiny and perfect, a refined version of the party girl Lynne knew in high school. This week Dalia's manicure is a shimmery coral. Lynne gave up on nail polish years ago.
“I heard they got a warrant out,” Chrissie says.
Lynne's chair wobbles; she drops back onto all four legs. “You heard wrong.”
The dryer on the right buzzes. Dalia unwinds from her seat, arching her back like a cat. She lifts a clean sheet from the dryer and shakes out the static. Chrissie takes the other end, and together they fold.
Last weekend's fight was with Aaron Franklin, the son of Lou Franklin, owner of Wendy's Saloon. Two years ago Benny had been banned from Wendy's for slicing Kenneth Dickie across the chin with a broken bottle. Two years, in Benny's opinion, was long enough.
“Don't you have the sense not to go where you're not wanted?” Lynne said as they waited in the emergency room. She held a dishtowel to his broken nose. The fluorescent lights made his blood on her fingers look artificial, a bad joke.
Benny slid down in his seat. “You're the only one who ever loved me,” he said.
“You and no one else.”
“Fuck you.” Lynne grabbed Benny's hand and placed it over the towel. “Hold it yourself.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home. Some of us have to work in the morning.”
He looked up at her with wide eyes. “You're just going to leave me like this?'
“Don't play with me,” she said.
“It's your timing. Don't you get it? Sweetheart, your timing is all wrong.”
She sat back down. She waited another hour until his name was called, held his hand as the doctor stitched his face, drove him to her apartment and tucked him into her bed. He slept soundly, thanks to the painkillers, while she lay beside him, listening to a cat screeching in the bushes all night long.
Lynne knows what people say. Driving home from work, she mouths the accusations to the empty passenger seat. Benny is a nut job. He's destructive, impulsive, unreliable. A criminal. She's too good for him. She's wasting her life. But her Benny is different. Her Benny is vulnerable and innocent, and in his heart, he is pure. He's like a little boy, and Lynne feels for him what a mother would feel, what his mother should have felt.
She is all he has. He lets her in, but only so far. Lynne tries to push through anyway. What she wants most are his memories, but those he guards the heaviest. When he catches her searching, he clamps down tight, as if she is just another stranger poking and prodding and labeling. He believes that he is in control and when he leaves, he takes all of himself with him. He doesn't realize that from the moment he first entered Lynne, he became embedded inside her body, as visceral as her heart and lungs and bone. She is embedded inside him, too. That is why he always comes back.
Because Lynne understands their attachment, she isn't surprised that afternoon to find her apartment empty and doesn't feel his absence as much more than an irritation. If he'd stayed, he would have slept and she would have found him in a good mood. They would have eaten a late lunch, had sex, maybe even driven into town to see a movie. She will have to be content with the alternative. She makes a grilled cheese sandwich and a packet of tomato soup, which she eats on the couch while watching the last fifteen minutes of a medical talk show. The viewers call in with questions about cancer, and the good-looking young doctor in a white lab coat answers each one assuredly. With his upbeat tone and laugh-lined eyes, he makes cancer seem distant and safe.
Lynne turns off the TV and lifts Benny's sweatshirt. Her palm is warm against her stomach. She imagines heat reaching the cells growing inside her and remembers an illustration from her sophomore year biology textbook, the womb lit up and the fetus curled inside, pink and distant and safe.
When she told Benny, his lips pinched, ready to spit out evil words, but he said nothing. She hadn't chosen a good moment. He was in the midst of a rage—crying, screaming, punching the couch cushions. She'd been watching from the kitchen doorway when the words came out, spoken not by her but by what was growing inside her and didn't know better yet.
“Touch me,” she said. “Right here.”
He went into the bedroom. She followed and stood at the foot of the bed as he stripped to his boxers and pulled back the sheets. She took off her clothes and laid her body along the length of his. He kept his back to her. Toward morning he rolled over and took her chin in his hand. She couldn't read his expression, whether he was angry or worried or sad.
“We'll be all right,” she said.
When he didn't answer, she added the words that she needed to hear. “Sweetheart. Trust me.”
The new occupant of room 217 reads The Believer, The New Yorker, The Nation, and Atlantic Monthly. The issues are months old and stacked underneath the telephone, next to a bottle of chocolate milk. In the nightstand drawer, the motel stationary has been placed on top of the bible, which has been turned over so that the gold embossed cover faces the floor. The bed does not look slept in. Lynne straightens the pillows anyway and considers throwing out the milk, which probably should have been refrigerated. She leaves the bottle where it is and moves on to the bathroom. On the counter is a black leather dopp kit. She pulls back the zipper and finds the usual men's products—deodorant, shaving cream, toothpaste—but expensive brands with beautiful labels. She sniffs a round of soap wrapped in black paper and sealed with a gold sticker, the writing in French. For a moment she tries to imagine Benny unpeeling the delicate wrapper, lathering his skin in peppery vanilla, but the idea is hopeless and so absurd that she laughs out loud.
Why would a man who could buy French soap come here? Right now the only weekday guests are hunters and truckers and will be until spring. A man who buys French soap doesn't strike Lynne as either a hunter or a trucker.
The dresser drawers are empty. She scans the room for a suitcase, a duffel bag, a briefcase, but all he has left of himself are his magazines, his milk, and his pretty self-care products. She places the little round of soap in her pocket. All day long the scent stays on her fingers.
When a week passes, Lynne begins to worry. Benny has never stayed away this long before. Even during their worst arguments, he would slip into the house late at night and slip out again before morning. She almost preferred their lovemaking during those times. He'd wake her by kissing her, and she would accept him without a sound. For those few hours whatever they were arguing about would disappear. All that mattered were their bodies moving in sync.
But they are not in a fight, at least not one that has been clearly defined. Lynne makes her favorite dinner, eggs sunny-side up and toast with ketchup, but when she sits down on the couch, she can't eat. Benny is probably subsisting on sausage pizza, peanut butter pretzels, chocolate doughnuts, and can after can of PBR. When given a choice, without her, he invariably makes the wrong one.
She puts the plate on the floor. If her stomach is at fault, hunger pangs feel like a just punishment.
In the middle of the night, she wakes needing to throw up, but crouched on the bathroom floor, nothing comes. She rocks back on her heels and stares up at the ceiling, noticing for the first time a warped tile above the sink. She swallows the nausea down. If Benny were here, he could hold her hand. He could drive out to Wal-mart and buy a box of saltines and feed them to her one at a time. But he isn't here, and even if he were, he would be passed out or well on his way, completely unaware of her misery.
Beside the sink is the little round of French soap. She has been saving it for a special occasion, but now she unpeels half and presses it to her nose. The scent startles her—the pepper sharp, the vanilla sweet, a decadent combination. She inhales deeply and holds her breath. The kind of man who would buy this soap wouldn't leave her on the bathroom floor. He wouldn't sleep with other women. He would pay attention to detail; he would want her life to be beautiful.
His name is Alexander Rubinov, and he has paid for a week up front.
Ellie closes the register and picks up her fashion magazine. “Honey,” she says, “I don't know. Dark hair, I guess. Nice enough looking. Nothing to get excited about.”
“But that's weird, right?” Lynne says. “To pay a week up front?”
“Some people do.”
“He's not a hunter.”
“I have no idea, honey. He could be killing deer with his bare hands for all I know. Look at this.” Ellie points to a two page spread of celebrities in slinky silver dresses. “Metallic is in.”
“They look like robots,” Lynne says.
“Right you are.” Ellie turns the page, but Lynne knows that by next week Ellie will be manning the front desk in a tight silver top, with silver hoop earrings and silver boots to match.
“How's Benny?” Ellie asks. “Found a job yet?”
Ellie closes the magazine and folds her hands over the cover. Her skin is grainy, sagging around the base of each finger. The hands, Lynne's mother used to say, give away the age. Out of defiance, Lynne has only worn gloves for the nastiest clean-ups; lines are beginning to show. If she is going to be a mother, she will need to be more careful. She is in danger of letting herself go.
“You feeling OK?” Ellie says.
Lynne's hand goes to her stomach. “I'm fine,” she says and turns around fast. In room 103 she checks her reflection in the mirror above the dresser. Even with Benny's sweatshirt pulled up, she just looks like someone who has been taken out for a good meal.
She does what she swore she would never do—she calls his mother. The voice that answers is not the voice Lynne imagined, which was her own mother's voice, heavy and wary, ready to be old. Benny's mother has the gentle shyness of a child. She asks Lynne to repeat her name twice.
“So,” his mother says, “you're the one he goes to.”
“Not anymore. He's been gone. Two weeks.”
“He's not here.”
Lynne knows about the scar on Benny's mother's chest. He described it as pear-shaped, white as a ghost, and laughed as he lit up in bed, heedless of his mother's warnings. Lynne filled in the rest of the memory: his mother's scream, the sheets on fire. Such intimate details should bring them together. Lynne is carrying this woman's grandchild.
“Do you know where he went?” Lynne says.
“You'd have a better idea than I would.”
“But I don't know. And I'm getting worried. I think maybe he's hurt himself.”
In the silence Lynne searches for recognition. She can't be the only person who has these fears.
“I'm pregnant,” she says.
“How far along?”
“About nine weeks.”
“Well,” Benny's mother says, “you'd better make your choice soon.”
They met when Lynne was sixteen and Benny was twenty. He'd dropped out of high school; if he hadn't, he would have been expelled. His reputation as a fighter proceeded him, and when Lynne was introduced to him at Ryan Jameson's graduation party, she was shocked by his slightness. He was only an inch or two taller than she was, his arms as thin as a child's.
She was even more shocked when later that night he asked her on date.
“You don't go out with girls like me,” she said.
“Didn't you hear?” He leaned in close, his breath thick with tobacco and fruit punch. “I'm turning over a new leaf.”
Two weeks before he'd been released from the hospital. He showed her the scars on his wrists. The ragged pink lines reminded her of worms, and she half-expected them to squirm away or burrow deeper, leaving his skin unmarked. She'd had three fruit punches spiked with gin, and her lips felt sticky, her mind lifted and free but in danger of falling fast.
They kissed on the back porch, surrounded by the entangled bodies of her classmates. When he gripped her arm, she felt his strength, tightly coiled, as if at any moment she might change her mind and run away. As if he already knew that she was his to keep from running.
On their first date he took her bowling. For her he'd imagined a childhood of Friday family nights—pizza and root beer, Mom and Dad tying her rented shoes—and she felt flattered, although that was not the way her family worked. She had never been bowling before. Neither had he. The shoes hurt their feet. When he threw the ball, it landed so hard midway down the lane that she wondered what would happen if the floor cracked—would they have to pay for the repair?
He hit one lucky strike. She rolled into the gutter. They gave up and sat on the plastic seats, which were so dipped that she had to brace her legs to keep from sliding down. Benny put his arm around her, and she was pleased to find that her head fit perfectly between his shoulder and chin. Slowly he moved his hand over to caress the outside of her breast.
In the next lane a little boy made a strike. The dad, a big, former football player-type, cheered and picked the kid up, spun him around. The mom, an overweight blonde, gave him a high-five.
“That's nice,” Benny said. “That right there is sweet.”
“That's what we should have had,” Lynne said.
Benny's chin bumped against her forehead as he nodded. She wanted to see his face but not enough to move and disturb what they had created. Instead she spread her palm across his chest.
“People say you go off,” she said. “Like a loose cannon.”
“People can say whatever they want.”
“They don't know you.”
She wanted him to agree with her.
“Listen,” he said, “I only fight when I'm challenged.”
“What if I challenge you?”
His fingers pressed against her nipple in a way that she liked.
“With you,” he said, “it's different.”
When she knocks, she thinks she hears him say, “Yes.” As if he has been waiting for her.
Alexander Rubinov, wearing a black silk robe and black socks, lies on the bed, his arms crossed over his stomach, his legs splayed, one of his magazines at his elbow. He raises an eyebrow.
Sorry,” Lynne says.
“No, it's my fault. I should have spoken up.”
He swings his legs over the side of the bed, adjusts his robe. He is handsome, dark, with a hawkish nose that seems European. Although he is as small as Benny, his movements lack the spark and fury to make him seem big. Elegant, Lynne thinks, like Fred Astaire. She remembers the movies her grandmother liked to watch, Fred skipping nimbly up and down steps, twirling around Ginger Rogers.
“I'll come back later,” Lynne says.
“Why? You're here now.”
The door, still slightly ajar, falls shut with a groan.
“Are you the one who usually cleans my room?” Alexander asks.
“Have a seat.”
He pats the mattress. She pushes her trolley into the middle of the room and considers where to sit.
Right next to him seems too forward, across from him too afraid. She plants herself on his side, at the foot of the bed.
“I'm glad to see you,” Alexander says. “I've got a question I'd like to ask.”
From the nightstand drawer he produces a shiny silver flask and pours whatever is inside into a bottle of chocolate milk. He gives the bottle three hard shakes and inclines it toward Lynne.
“I don't drink,” she says.
He drinks down the bottle, his eyes wandering over Lynne's body, pausing at her stomach. He wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his robe.
“You took my soap,” he says.
“I didn't think you'd miss it.”
“I did. Do you always steal from the rooms you clean?”
“Somehow I don't believe you.”
“I can afford soap,” Lynne says.
“Then why do you steal?”
“I don't like seeing things go to waste.”
“I wasn't planning on wasting my soap.”
“I'm sorry,” Lynne says. “I'll bring it back. I haven't used it or anything.”
“No.” Alexander waves his hand in the air. “Keep it, please.”
Lynne goes to her trolley. As she bends over the bottles of cleanser, the canisters of wipes, the soggy cardboard box of latex gloves, her vision grows dark. She puts her hand on the wall to steady herself. When she turns, Alexander is still watching her, a half-smile on his face as if she were some freak on TV, one of those sad stories on a daytime talk show.
“You aren't going to get me fired,” she says.
His face falls. “Hey,” he says. “That's not what I'm about.”
She sits beside him. Her knee knocks against his thigh.
“What are you doing here?” she says.
“A little R&R. I didn't realize I'd get my head shot for going into the woods.”
“Everyone knows it's deer season.”
“Not us city boys.”
He leans in; his breath smells like alcohol, a familiar detail, reassuring.
“Who's the dad?” he says.
She puts her hand in the middle of Alexander's smooth chest and pushes him against the headboard. It takes a moment for her to realize that he isn't kissing back.
Alexander looks up at her. The Cherry Poppin' Red lipstick has been transferred, so that he looks like he is bleeding, like he's been punched hard in the mouth.
She leaves her trolley in room 217 and runs downstairs, twisting door knobs until she finds one unlocked. In room 113, she heaves in the dark, her back pressed against the door. She waits for footsteps, shouts. For Alexander's faltering knock. The baby kicks her, and when she doesn't pay attention, kicks her again, until Lynne places a hand there, over her bellybutton, where she can feel life unfurling, whether she wants it to or not.