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Fiction

The Familiar Smell of Coffee in the Morning

For some reason, when choosing classes for this semester I had convinced myself that scheduling an 8:45 am class for every day of the week was a good idea and would make me a more productive individual. The result is my new-found love for naps and my insistence that on Saturdays I let myself sleep until I can hear the others stirring in the kitchen. On this particular morning I’m not sure if it is the smell of coffee, the sun, or the sound of someone banging around in the kitchen that is waking me up. The combination drifts around my senses and pulls me slowly into consciousness until I find myself lying on my back, my eyes open and staring at the water stain on my ceiling caused by our careless upstairs neighbours. I lie here for some time, letting my dreams steal some of my brain’s awake time to continue their musings. But in the end it’s the smell of the coffee that convinces me to swing my legs over the side of the bed and wander into the kitchen. The apartment is warm, though through the window the outside looks brisk and chilly, and in my Saturday morning sweater and slippers I feel perfectly cozy. But as I turn the corner into the kitchen my heart sinks a bit. A pair of legs and an ass I don’t recognize are jutting out of the fridge while the rest of the body rifles around inside. As I make my way cautiously into my own kitchen the person emerges holding a carton of organic eggs and smiles at me.

“Good morning,” she says with a sleepy smile.

“Hi,” I say back.

I sit down at the little table by the kitchen window and watch her as she cracks two eggs into a bowl. Her reddish-brown hair is up high in a carelessly knotted bun and she still has smudged traces of black eyeliner under her eyes. She’s wearing a checkered pair of men’s boxers and an old Ramones t-shirt.

She must have spent the night with Julian, I think. Way to go, Julian. She’s gorgeous.

But her bare and freckled limbs move gracefully and confidently around the kitchen. She reaches behind her, opens the silverware drawer, and pulls out a fork while still facing me.

“How’d you sleep?” she asks.

“Um, pretty well, I guess.”

I pause and stare at her for a moment before remembering to be polite.

“You?”

“Not too well, actually,” she says. “I’ve been super stressed about that paper, you know? I know I have all weekend but I just feel like there’s no way I’m going to finish.”

“What’s the paper on?” I ask.

“It’s the urban agriculture one for my sustainable urban planning class.” As she speaks I get up and pour myself a cup of the coffee she had made. “So you’re in urban planning?” I ask, deciding to be friendly.

She looks sideways at me then rolls her eyes slightly.

“Yes, Camille,” she says. “I’m in urban planning like I’ve been for the past three years.”

She laughs, seeming pleased with her joke, but I stand frozen, clutching my mug. The sarcasm in her quip strikes me as extremely rude, and her use of my name makes me uneasy. I’m sure I haven’t introduced myself. Had Julian been talking about me to her the night before? I’m about to ask her name when Lydia stumbles in. She barely even looks at the girl and instead collapses into a kitchen chair and burrows her face into her arms.

“This is it,” her muffled voice says, emerging from her elbows. “This is the day my hangover kills me. I’ve pushed my limits too far.”

The girl places a cup of coffee in front of her on the table.

“Oh, God, thank you. You’re a hero,” Lydia says.

She sits up to drink her coffee and looks at the two of us leaning against the counter. I wait for her to ask who this girl is but she says nothing.

“Good morning, ladies,” Julian said, breaking the silence as he enters the kitchen in his tighty whities and stained tank top. He brushes passed the girl, who had barely looked up when he entered, and went straight to the bathroom. He proceeds to let out a fart audible even through the closed door. The other two chuckle but I am amazed at his strange familiarity. I have never known Julian to treat the girls he brings home like this, even if they are just one- night stands.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I caught your name,” I say to the girl.

Both she and Lydia give me a strange look.

“You’re a friend of Julian’s right?” I ask.

They both laugh and after a moment I laugh too, although it isn’t clear to me what’s so funny.

“You’re in a weird mood this morning, aren’t you?” the girl says, still laughing.

Once she and Lydia stop laughing she seems to get quite serious and sighs a long, melancholy sigh.

“So,” she says, making her way to the table next to Lydia. “I think Laurence and I are over.”

“Oh, Diana!” Lydia says, a sudden wave of emotion pushing through her hangover. “I’m so, so sorry, love.”

She reaches across the table and grabs the girl, apparently Diana, tightly by the hands. “What happened?”

“What’s going on?” Julian asks as he emerges from the bathroom.

“I’m wondering the same thing,” I say.

“Diana and Laurence are breaking up,” Lydia says.

Julian walks over and kneels down next to Diana, giving her a hug.

“I’m sorry, who are these people?” I ask hesitantly.

Nobody answers me.

“When did this happen?” Julian asks.

I watch tears well up in Diana’s grey eyes and Lydia looks as if she is going to cry herself. “I’ve been feeling like something was off for a couple weeks now.” This time she looks at me, her face pale and pleading.

“And then yesterday she told me that she really likes me, but that she thinks she wants to be seeing guys again.”

I stand there uncomfortably as she looks at me, trying my best to make my face look as sympathetic as Julian and Lydia’s. To my relief, Julian pulls her closer to him and she looks away from me to bury her face in his shoulder and starts to cry. Lydia gets up from her chair to pour herself another cup of coffee.

“Go hug her!” she whispers harshly to me as she pours. “Um, no,” I say.

She puts the coffee pot down abruptly and looks at me. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t hug people I don’t know.”

As she looks at me her eyebrows furrow and her top lip curls. She shakes her head slowly at me before sitting back down at the table. When it seems clear that Diana won’t stop crying any time soon, Lydia puts her arms around both her and Julian. I stay where I’m leaning on the counter, fighting my urge to retreat to my room, my body aching with awkwardness. Finally Diana calms down and pulls out of the embrace.

“I’m so lucky to have all of you,” she says.

“Okay,” I can’t help but burst out. “I’m sorry to interrupt but can someone please explain to me how you all know each other?”

“Camille,” Lydia snaps. “That’s enough! I don’t know what your problem is today but this little game you’re playing isn’t funny. Diana is going through something really hard right now.”

I feel myself recoil inward and when Lydia’s attention goes back to Diana I slip out of the kitchen and back into my room. I spend the rest of the day in there watching Netflix, sneaking out to pee or to make myself KD only when I can’t hear anyone else walking around. That night I fall asleep somewhere in the middle of season four of Archer and wake up with my bowl still next to me in bed, the orange sauce dried and caked onto the sides. With full consciousness comes the memory of the day before and my stomach knots immediately. Lydia’s harsh words still echo in my mind along with my original question. How do they all know each other so well when I’ve never seen the girl before? The uneasiness that is washing over my body is paralyzing. All I want is to lie there in bed and try to remember where I could have met her. I lie there for a few minutes, but I hadn’t brushed my teeth the night or morning before and the taste in my mouth is horribly distracting. I get up to go brush them, hoping the short walk will help clear my head. The door to the bathroom is wide open, but when I go in Diana’s there, leaning over the sink and washing her face.

“Oh, um, hi,” I say awkwardly.

“Hey Camille,” she says taking a step sideways to give me room.

I grab my toothbrush and the toothpaste and began to scrub, watching her in the mirror as she moisturizes her freckled face and brushes her hair.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” I say after spitting. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“It’s okay,” she say. “It’s just been really hard and I need you right now.”

“Um, okay,” I say.

“I’m going to be alright, though,” she goes on. “I started this painting to help me get over her yesterday. You want to see it?”

“Sure.”

She grabs me by the hand and leads me through the kitchen and into the hallway until we get to the closet where my roommates and I keep all the cleaning supplies and the vacuum we never use. To my surprise she opens the door and pulls me inside. And there it is — her bedroom. It isn’t huge, but it is certainly bigger than the closet I had believed existed in its place. The walls are blue, giving the room a cool, brisk feeling. One is decorated with three minimalist black and white prints of dalmatians and on the wall across from it hangs a map of the world and a Breakfast Club movie poster. Across the room from where I stand is the only window and it’s here that I focus my attention. Through the glass I can see the grey stone building across the street and I watch a car go by. My bike is parked right across Saint Hubert where I had left it locked to a skinny Plateau tree. With the blinds open I would be able to see into this room from where my bike is parked. So how is it that I hadn’t? How is there an entire blue bedroom in my apartment I have never stepped into before, a whole revealing window my eyes have just chosen not to rest on?

“Camille?” Diana says from the corner.

I turn to face her when she speaks and my head swims. She is just standing there by her desk, holding the painting she has painted right here in her room in our apartment where she lives. The unmade bed she slept in the night before is the same bed she has been sleeping in for... how long? The room is slightly messy, clothes scattered carelessly around the floor and three half empty glasses of water rest on the bedside table. It is certainly lived in.

“Camille,” she says again, sounding slightly worried.

“Wow,” I say absently, finally registering the painting. “That’s beautiful.”

And it is. It’s strong and dark and filled with pain, with hints of light seeping through the

edges. She’s talented, this should-be friend. Streaks of blues and greys are spattered about the canvas, spinning in an organized chaos around the centre.

“This is Laurence,”she says pointing to a grey streak in the middle. “At least, her confused, undecided spirit.”

I step towards her to get a better look at the confused spirit that had broken her heart but when I reach the desk a different image catches my eye. It’s a framed photo placed on the corner of the desktop. It’s a photo of me, smiling broadly as I present an equally happy Diana with a birthday cake. I must stare at the photo for a while because Diana picks it up.

“I love this picture,” she says. “It was so awesome of you to throw me that party. Remember Laurence never even showed up that night?”

“Yeah,” I say unsteadily. “She’s never been good enough for you...”.

“Thanks, Cam.”

“Okay, I’m going to go get dressed.”

“Sounds good.”

I close the door quickly behind me as soon as I get back into my room. I sit for a moment on my bed, my hands squeezing together in my lap. Then, in a moment, I’m on the floor on my hands and knees, fishing in the shadows under my bed for my box. I pull it out slowly, the cardboard scraping against the wood floor, and blow the dust off the top before opening it. I smile immediately and pull out an old photo of my sister and me, all dressed up for the renaissance fair we had begged our parents to take us to. I continue rifling through old newspaper clippings, pictures, and knick-knacks until I find the photo I’m looking for. I hold it gingerly between my fingers. It’s just as I remember it, the one taken on Halloween. I’m all in green in my Tinkerbell costume, Julian is dressed as Captain Hook and Lydia as Smee beside me. Except, for the first time, there’s Diana, not just in the photo but front and centre, crouching in front of us all, dressed as none other than Peter Pan. I drop the picture back into the box and lift out card after card, some from my parents and grandparents, but so many from her.

Happy Birthday, Girl! Love you, Diana.

From one single lady to another... Happy Valentines day. Your soul mate - Diana.

Bon Voyage, ma belle! I’ll miss you! - Diana

I drop them all and slide the box back under the bed so fast it hits the wall on the other side. Somehow I manage to rise and walk shakily back to Diana’s room and knock tentatively on the door.

“Yeah?”

I open it a crack and peeked inside. There she is, sitting cross-legged on her bed with her laptop resting between her knees, The Shins playing from the speakers. I see her staring at me through the crack so I push the door open wider.

“Um, have you seen my phone anywhere?”

“No, I haven’t, sorry.”

“Okay,” I say, then close the door.

I can’t move. My body is petrified in front of her closed door although my hands tremble like brittle leaves. I notice the sharp, quick breaths pulsing through my lungs and catching in my throat and try to slow them. Then they seem to come only sporadically, a painful tightness filling in the spaces. There I stand, trying my hardest to breathe normally and panicking at my inability to, when Lydia wanders into the hall.

“Woah, you okay?” she asks sounding shocked. “You look horrible.”

I slowly turn my gaze away from my shaking hands and to her face.

“Do you think I could talk to you for a second?” I mutter, barely audible.

“Of course,” she says and I follow her into her bedroom.

The familiarity of it soothes me. I know this place. I remember the movie marathons and the lounging study sessions shared there. I know the dark face staring at me, concerned, as we sit down on her bed. Looking back at her I am able to catch my breath and finally speak in a normal tone, although my voice cracks when I begin.

“It’s about Diana,” I say.

“What about her?”

I pause, unsure of what I could possibly say to explain this. I decide to say the only thing I, myself, know.

“I don’t know her.”

Lydia pauses just as long as I had and I think I catch a quick flash of anger sweep her face.

“Cam...”

“I wasn’t joking around yesterday,” I say. “I don’t know who that girl is.”

“You mean you feel like she’s changed,” she says flatly without a hint of a question.

“I mean I’ve never met her in my entire life.”

She says nothing and shakes her head in a slow, involuntary way. The look of concern remains on her face but it had changed. Her eyebrows are furrowed and her eyelids squint. Her mouth is pulled tight in subtle judgement. I watch her struggle to come up with something to say until finally she clears her throat.

“Do you need me to bring you to see somebody?”

I sit very still. Did I need to see somebody? I’m silent as I let the images of psychiatrists, prescription drugs, and hospital psych wings trail through my head. I see the doctors who would push pictures of Diana and me into my line of vision as I try to turn away. I struggle hard, all too aware that the pictures exist but still unable to remember. They get frustrated and push a needle into my arm and I collapse, exhausted and sobbing. My parents come visit once I move permanently into the hospital and their faces are sad and disappointed. I had had so much promise, they think. Even Diana comes to visit me once, but her face has been haunting my drugged sleep and I throw a chair at her, my hospital nightgown thrashing wilding around my too-skinny body as I rock back and forth, covering my face with my arms. I manage to force a thin laugh.

“It’s not like that, Lydia,” I say and leave the room without another word.

I close the door to my own bedroom softly, and just as gently lay myself on my bed. I curl my knees up as far as I can and tuck my chin towards them. At first the darkness feels good. It’s cool on my eyeballs and the emptiness is soft. My mind sways to and fro with my finally even breath. And then my whole body jumps as if I had fallen asleep and been woken by a fast nightmare. I open my eyes and see my cat walking around the corner of my bed. I sit up and he eyes me sideways, suspiciously. I haven’t even thought about him all day, or yesterday, for that matter. He looks strange sitting there on a pile of books. His stripes look strange. Do I even know this cat? Do I even have a cat? I feel my breath begin to quicken again until he raises a paw to lick clean. I love his dainty little paws. I love the way he crosses them over each other as he walks. He has done that since he was a kitten. I picked him because of it out of a litter of six at the SPCA.

“Okay, kitty, you’re real.”

As he continues licking I looked around my room. I have so many things, so many comfortable, familiar things. I stare hard at the jewelry box on top of my dresser. I have always had that box. I love that box and the tiny pink roses that were painted immaculately by hand all over the sides almost a century ago. But as I stare longer, the edges begin to blur and it seems to me like it might disappear. After a moment I am sure it will disappear. And why not? Perhaps it hasn’t ever really been there. If I can make a whole human disappear with my mind why not create a simple box? I blink my eyes and the box steadies, but the rest of the room begins to spin. I fall back into my mattress and feel tears run out of the corner of my eyes into the sheets below. My eyes stay open and let in the visions and thoughts that then dart around my brain like mice. They gnaw at me with words like “insane” and “hallucinations” until I scream my terror into my pillow. In the muted darkness I consider the possibility that it is me who doesn’t belong. What is wrong with my world was that my world exists at all; if it didn’t Diana would just go on being a normal occurrence. Perhaps I can just stop existing. It seems logical that I have to prompt the death, maybe with a knife or maybe with pills, but after I am sure there will be no mess. I’ll just be gone. Maybe Diana is there to take my place. Yes, that must be it. She’s there to tell me I should not exist here anymore. I have sleeping pills somewhere, don’t I? Then there’s a knock on the door, soft but deliberate. The room stops moving and the window comes into focus. It’s dark outside and a yellow streetlight flickers. The knock comes again and I sit up, wiping my face with my quilt.

“Come in,” I manage.

Diana enters, her demeanour gentle as she sits on my bed.

“I’m sorry, were you napping?”

“Um, yeah,” I say. “But it’s okay.”

“Okay, well, Lydia sent me. I just want to check in and make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine.”

She puts her hand on my shin.

“We can tell something’s up,” she says. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but if you need anything I’m here, okay?”

“Okay,” I say.

And then she hugs me and the heat of her body and her breath seeped into my skin. But it isn’t warmth that I feel, it’s a searing heat that burns me. It’s as if the blood that runs through her veins is jeering at me, mocking my inability to grasp its existence. Her hair brushes against my cheek scraping at my skin and I lift my hand to feel if it had left a scratch. She pulls away and smiles at me. It might be genuine, but my mind shapes it into a grimace. I sit shaking as she gets up and leaves the room. It seems hours before she finally crosses the room and leaves, and when she finally does I fall asleep.

I skip class the next morning and the day after and the apartment is quiet. The others go about their days at class and at work, giving me time to patter about, my movements small and quiet even alone. When I hear keys in the door I retreat to my room and nobody bothers me. On Wednesday I wake up with the knot still holding strong in my stomach, but my head feels a bit more sane so I decide to go to class. I make myself coffee and put two slices of bread in the toaster. As I wait for them to pop I hear footsteps come down the hall.

“Glad to see you’re up,” Diana says as she pours the fresh coffee into a travel mug.

Her voice startles me, but I manage to smile when I turn towards her. With every inch she moves my heart pounds harder but I keep myself calm, outwardly, and concentrate on moving about the kitchen.

“Yeah,” I say.

She screws the lid onto the mug.

“Well, I’m late for class,” she says.

“Okay, have a good day.”

She starts to leave then says, “Everything is okay?”

I take in the static of her outline and the swimming flesh and blood in between.

“I can deal with it,” I say, almost challenging her.

With that she does leave and my toast pops out of the toaster. I spread the butter over the surface and Lydia appears, dressed for work. She walks in cautiously and I can feel her looking at me intently as I eat my toast.

“Morning,” I say.

“Hello.”

I sit down in a seat at the table and looked silently out the window. She sits down across from me and follows my gaze out the window then looks back at me. After a moment she extends her arm across the table and my eyes fall heavily on her open hand, waiting for mine to shake it.

“I’m Lydia,” she says.

 

 

Alejandra Melian-Morse