Ian F. King
Tonight is the three year anniversary for Elsie and me. Though we broke up over a month ago, we’re still going out to celebrate. Somehow through her job she managed to get a free night’s stay at a posh hotel suite downtown and made the reservations six weeks ago when we were still together. We don’t spend much time around one another anymore, but she and I decided it would be pointless to let the room go to waste.
I’ve got about five minutes before she arrives to tidy myself up. It might look a bit pathetic if I’m dressed too well, so I’ve done myself up just nice enough, not too dressy. No tie. The shoes are a little scuffed but she won’t notice. The sweater feels too warm maybe, itches a bit. But it’s too late to pick out something new now.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror I take one last swig of mouthwash and run my fingers through my hair for a second, and then the phone rings. It’s her. She’s running late but won’t really explain why. She asks me to call the restaurant to see about pushing the dinner reservations back a half hour. A small spray of wintergreen saliva wets the receiver as I try to keep my voice down. “I don’t know the number,” I say. She tells me that she can’t get it to me right now and that I’ll just have to look in the phone book, then hangs up on me.
I find the number and call the restaurant, the same one we went to on our first official date. Elsie didn’t look much different back then. Though she did start to dye her hair black about six months ago. And last year she got a little tattoo of some ivy on her right ankle. I’ve also noticed the bags under her eyes gradually getting a little heavier, a little darker. Mine too.
It’s not really like her to leave me waiting, but it feels like it. “How fucking typical,” I want to say to anyone who could be sitting next to me. I swing my feet up on the coffee table and reach over to flick the stereo on. On the table there’s a photo of Elsie and I from a short vacation we took last summer, a little town in Mexico where her uncle owns a little run down cantina near the ocean. I stare at our dizzy sun burnt faces and wonder which one of us will be sleeping on the floor of the hotel room tonight.
Finally her car pulls into the driveway, the headlights briefly beam through the window casting a halogen shine against the living room wall. I reach over and turn the stereo down. For a second I have to stop myself from impulsively turning around and peeking through the blinds to watch her walk up the steps. I feel calm but notice my lungs pushing in and out deeper than normal. The hair on my neck rises to the sound of high heels clicking against the wet winter concrete.
Dinner has gone fine so far. At times Elsie has seemed a little distracted. I might appear that way to her too, maybe she’s been noticing all night. She stepped away to make a call shortly after we sat down. Her mother, she says. Her mother has been sick lately and she needs to check up on her at least once a day. “I’m sorry to hear about that,” I say, “let Maggie know that I hope she feels better soon.” Elsie nods exaggeratedly, “yes of course I will.”
Elsie and I have continued to chat occasionally since the split, so there’s not much new to tell, but it’s hard to break through the pseudo re-introduction façade and settle into anything near an intimate tone. When I try to bring in an old joke or a personal subject between us her lips close together a little bit and her eyes dart away towards the nearest inanimate object. When our conversation swims back to shallow depths her eyes resurface and her voice rises with punctured enthusiasm.
Our food arrives and we eat quietly, listening to other conversations happening around us for entertainment, the way we used to. When we both hear something odd or funny we look at each other and have a laugh, making silly faces that exaggerate the possible expressions of our fellow diners, finally lightening the air between us.
Instead of splitting the bill I decide to pick it all up, seeing as she was the one who got the room and all. She didn’t like the idea but was forced to cave in after I grabbed the check out of her hand. We threw our coats on, stepping out of the front door. Standing half sheltered from the winter we looked at our watches. Only a little after 9:00pm. “Well. What now?” she asks. We decide on a bar nearby the hotel. I reach my arm out into the night air to hail a cab.
We must have sat at that dimly lit booth for at least four hours. We finally started to loosen up dramatically. From one o’clock on it was blur of sweeping arm gestures and exclamation points. We were the last two left after closing time. I kept pushing for us to get another taxi, but she insisted that two blocks wasn’t that long of a walk.
When we finally arrived we staggered into the foyer, grabbed the key from the front desk and headed for the elevators. When the elevator started up Elsie leaned forward a bit with one arm across her stomach. I put my hand on her shoulder, asking if she was going to be alright. “Yeah,” she said, “I just need to get to the room.” The doors opened and we slid along the wall slowly over the red carpet.
After a brief struggle I managed to open the door and Elsie slouched in right ahead of me searching for the bathroom. She found it, tossed her coat and purse on the floor next to the immaculate king size bed and headed inside, roughly brushing past me. I draped my jacket over one of the sterile chairs and sauntered over to the window to throw open the drapes. Listening to her while I looked out on the dark city towers, I couldn’t hear much. After a prolonged minute I went over to the bed and slumped down on the foot end.
I can still feel my fingertips running up and down the taut rubber skin of her lower back. I think her name was . . . well I’m not certain. There have been a few recently. This one I met some night a couple weeks after things turned sour between Elsie and me. I was in the bottle then as well, and tried to sell her all of my problems, but she wasn’t hearing any of it. At her request we drove back to my place. When I woke up she wasn’t beside me anymore, but the broken toilet was still running across the hall. I looked around for a hastily scribbled note or anything, but there was nothing. I got up to fix the stopper in the toilet, and then shoved a handful of aspirin down my throat. I never noticed the echoing creak in the floorboards of the hallway as much as I did then.
A few minutes later Elsie is still in the bathroom and I’m restless. I haven’t heard any flushing, or running water in the sink. I look over and see her purse lying open on the floor. My instinct is to start rifling through it, though I don’t really know what I would look for. Anything I suppose, a recent ticket stub, a matchbook from a club we’ve never been to. I’m sure there is something inside that I want to find, that she wants me to find.
Reaching for the purse, I’m sidetracked by a woman’s shrieking coming from outside. I run over to find a poor looking couple arguing fiercely down on the sidewalk. I can’t hear them well through the glass, so I open the window and lean my head out. Although I catch a word here and there I still can’t tell what they’re screaming about.
But I keep listening to them intently. So intently that I don’t hear Elsie’s phone ringing quietly in the bathroom. So intently that I don’t notice when she comes out, grabs her things off the floor and leaves.
The bitter pair takes their squabble down the block. I turn my head to find the suite abandoned, bathroom light still on, the door to the hall left open. I look outside again just in time to catch Elsie on the curb, getting into a strange car. I step back and close the window.
Ian F. King’s one wish is that, by the age of 40, his old high school girlfriend will look into the searching eyes of her nine overfed and undereducated children and realize at that moment in exactly what capacity Ian F. King’s body of work, whatever it may consist of, serves as a metaphorical land bridge that both brings together and transcends the dissonant cadency of “Young Team”-era Mogwai, and the subtextual notions of chance and predetermination in the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. At the age of 23, he is currently, but not for much longer, getting away with reading books and writing about them for credit at the UW, and also at Wales Literary Agency. He is brimming over with opinions on a great amount of things, and will often share them whether he is asked to or not. His greatest achievement of 2003 was, sadly, his band’s show getting awarded “Poster of the Week” in The Stranger. Anyone with interest or support for him should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested and available drummers, e-mail for a demo at email@example.com.