Death Wishes

Sandra’s manager sent people home early because of the murder. He told everyone that the in-house therapist was available for counseling sessions, but Sandra left at noon, and drove around until she couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. Eventually she ended up at her apartment building, sitting in her car in the parking lot. A young woman with short red hair walked a small beagle past Sandra’s car. The woman smiled at her, her hand full of mail. The dog was sniffing snow. It seemed so ordinary, so disrespectful.

It was hot in her apartment and the air smelled of meat and something else, maybe mold. Gertrude was playing Christian rock music loudly and as Sandra walked past the kitchen, Gertrude turned around, spatula to her mouth.

“Sandra! Do you want some meatloaf?” She held out the bowl like a prize, a brownish red lump inside. Gertrude’s tiny, cramped features, her bushy blond eyebrows, caused within Sandra a surge of hatred and pity.

“No. Thanks.” Sandra went to her room and closed the door. Gertrude was always home. She designed web sites for companies and cooked bad-smelling things that she ate while standing up. Gertrude was 32 years old and looked like she was 50. Her hair was long and dirty blond but she mostly wore it in a tight bun. She wore cardigan sweaters that she buttoned right up to her throat and the kind of white sneakers nurses wore in hospitals. Through the walls Sandra could hear little children singing on Gertrude’s stereo, “Call me if you need me, I’ll be doing work for the Lord.” It reminded her of a cult, of little kids with chains around their feet digging in unison.

Sandra got undressed and turned the shower water as hot as she could stand it, letting the water crash into her hair and down to her feet. She kept thinking of Debbie, who had been at work on Friday, doing her job as usual, and now was just a grainy picture in the newspaper, a covered body being carried away by officials, a right arm hanging limply off a stretcher. They hadn’t been friends, had only talked a few times, exchanged office jokes and occasionally took messages for each other, but now that Debbie was dead, it seemed that Sandra could only think of nice things about her. Debbie had sat in the cubicle right across from Sandra and had shared her portable heater with her when she’d forgotten her sweater. She had bought Sandra a potted plant for Christmas last year. She had a nice smile and she always ordered candy from the P.T.A. moms in the office.

They both had boyfriends named Dave, and when Debbie’s Dave came to pick her up for lunch sometimes, Debbie would point to the photo of Sandra’s Dave on her desk and joke about how their boyfriends even looked alike. They were the Doublemint Daves, like the twins on that silly gum commercial. Two Daves, both tall with brown hair and glasses. Debbie’s Dave was funnier than Sandra’s Dave, who usually only joked out of sullenness. Debbie’s Dave was funny and sweet. He brought Debbie things, fast food kid’s meal toys and candy that cluttered her desk. Sandra had a crush on Debbie’s Dave. She wished her Dave was more like Debbie’s Dave, who once told her she looked like Sandra Bullock.

“Why, that’s her first name!” Debbie had said, and Sandra had blushed.

“See, there you go. It was meant to be.” Debbie’s Dave had laughed and winked at Sandra, pulling his hand through his already-ruffled hair. Sandra’s Dave never said things like that.

Sandra rinsed out the rest of the conditioner from her hair and stepped out, wrapping a robe around herself. In the kitchen, she got a glass of ice water and drank it quickly. Gertrude stood near the front door watching Sandra, hands shoved in the pockets of the hunting coat that was too big for her. She never carried a purse. “Why are you home so early?” she asked.

Sandra sat down at the kitchen table and began combing through the knots in her hair, spraying water across the table and the newspaper as Gertrude watched. She pulled loose strands of hair from her brush and arranged them in a clump on the table. Gertrude brought out a level of meanness in Sandra that surprised her. “Someone died,” Sandra said, staring straight at Gertrude.

“Oh.” Gertrude stepped back awkwardly, pressing against the door. “I’m sorry.”

Sandra sighed deeply. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the past, she’d always lived with friends. She and Gertrude had tried to be comfortable with each other, but with nothing at all in common, they’d taken to retreating to their separate rooms like small animals burrowing for the winter, awkwardly meeting in the kitchen or living room only to gather more belongings when necessary.

“It wasn’t really anyone I knew,” she said so that her roommate would leave. Gertrude nodded and turned, closed the door behind her without locking it. When she was gone, Sandra threw the deadbolt, pressing her cheek against the cold door. She could hear the wind whistling through the stairwell of the apartment complex like a spirit.

~ ~ ~

Her Dave called at work the next day to ask her if she wanted to see a hockey game. “I got extra tickets from work for this Friday! Isn’t that great?” He tended to get extremely excited over free stuff. She knew she would have to smuggle bags of candy in her purse. He was disturbingly frugal. Once in his kitchen, looking for a knife, she’d found a stack of neatly clipped coupons, divided into categories – Necessary Food, Snack Food, Cleansers, Restaurants. Necessary food? Wasn’t all food necessary? Was he crazy enough to worry about saving ten cents on a can of beans? It worried her.

“I’ve never been to a hockey game before,” she told him.

“Well, then all the more reason to be excited! It’s a great game. The fights are the best part.”

“You’re going to have to come pick me up,” she said. “I’m not walking to the Metro station by myself.”

Dave lived in the city. They usually spent their time at his place because Gertrude would hover around whenever they were at Sandra’s apartment, staring at them with a book open in front of her on the couch, flicking her blond hair behind her shoulder and sighing loudly if they were giggling in the kitchen. She made Sandra feel like she was being intrusive, and although Dave got irritated with Sandra (“You do pay half the rent, don’t you?”) he usually felt uncomfortable around Gertrude’s intense, vacant presence. Once he’d brought over some tiger lilies for Sandra, on the spur of the moment, and as she was putting them in water, Gertrude leaned against the counter, chewing cashews. “You know, I hate flowers. They just die and then they make you depressed.”

So they spent most of their time at his house. She enjoyed his apartment because it was always so warm. “You have good heat,” she told him on their first date, several weeks after she moved to the area, sitting with her feet tucked under her on his couch and wondering if her hair looked all right. Sandra liked to take naps in Dave’s bed, but didn’t like it when he tried to cuddle up next to her for a kiss. If she let him kiss her, she knew she’d eventually have to have sex with him. He never gave up once he started. Once the first kiss happened, he’d immediately start taking off her shirt. It was like clockwork – she could time it. It disgusted her, really, and one time when she’d pulled away and asked him, “Haven’t you heard of foreplay?” he’d looked at her blankly and nipped at her ear. “You want me to play with what, where?” he growled and she had to get up and escape to the bathroom.

She thought of Dave as warm and the rest of her life as cold. Warmth didn’t necessarily constitute love, though. Warm was more like home, like movies and socks, like hugs goodbye. When she looked at Dave she wanted to pet him on his head and finish a crossword puzzle – not fuck him silly. He was such a sensible, responsible guy that when he looked at her with those glazed-over, desiring eyes, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and had to devise ways to keep his hands off her. She thought this was probably not a good sign for their relationship. But he was her friend and it seemed too hard and hurtful to break up with him. He was a reason to get out of her apartment, to get away from Gertrude and her loud gospel music. Sandra didn’t really know anyone else in the area except the people at work. She went out occasionally with Beth, a woman from work a few years older than Sandra, but didn’t feel particularly close or comfortable with her. Once they went to a small, country line-dancing bar where everyone threw peanut shells on the floor – but Beth wore a tight, button-down shirt with fringe, a miniskirt, and big boots, and yee-hawed to every song. Dave was better than being lonely. He was a stick in a big puddle of mud.

~ ~ ~

There was gossip at work – at lunch, Beth said something to Sandra about the police investigating Debbie’s closest friends and family members. They’d arrested Debbie’s Dave. “I heard they found him in her apartment, that they took him out in handcuffs,” Beth said. “He was going through her stuff. Pictures and things. I think he was trying to cover his tracks or something.”

“I don’t really believe that. I don’t think it was someone she knew.” Sandra paused. She stabbed at her salad and remembered Debbie’s Dave’s laugh. “He was such a nice guy.”

“They might come in to investigate her area – look at files on her computer. They do that, you know. They have all these ways of figuring out stuff.” Beth’s eyes were wide. They reminded Sandra of this cartoon bug she’d watched as a kid. “You just never know these days. It’s so creepy.”

Sandra examined the pictures of him in the paper, read the articles carefully as though they held a clue to what really happened. The Doublemint Dave – a murderer? She’d have known. She would have been able to see it in his eyes – aren’t killers supposed to have some look in their eyes, a glaze or something? Sandra was sure that Beth was exaggerating, that they would clear his name any day.

Debbie’s desk was cleaned off quickly. (Who had done it? Had one of Debbie’s family members come at night, when no one else was around?) It was as if they wanted to wash away the terribleness of it all, to get on with life, sweep it under the plastic mat Debbie wheeled her computer chair around on to keep the carpet from getting ruined.

During the day, Sandra would look up and stare at the desk where Debbie used to work. There was only one trace of her left – a small, circular green sticker she’d stuck in the corner of her computer monitor that read, “Love Me, I’m a Vegetarian!,” the “i” dotted with a little red tomato. Sandra picked at it with her fingernail, but it was too sticky to come off without ripping and she left it there.

~ ~ ~

In his kitchen, before the hockey game, she watched Dave pour a glass of orange juice. “Want some leftover steak?” he asked her, peering into the refrigerator. He pulled out the dinner plate, covered tightly with sunken-in plastic wrap, and placed it in the microwave.

“I told you I’m not eating meat anymore,” she reminded him with a glare. “Oh that’s right,” he said. “That’s this week’s decision.”

“What do you mean, this week’s decision?” She stepped back from him and hit her head on the knob of one of his cabinet drawers.

“Ah, come here.” Dave hugged her, trapping her arms. He rubbed her head and kissed her hairline. “Do you need ice? I think you’ll live.”

“You’re making fun of me.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I hate it when you patronize me.”

He shook his head. “You know I love you.”

“Yeah, Debbie’s Dave used to say that to her and look what happened.”

He snorted. She picked off the lumps of fat laying on the countertop that he’d trimmed off his meat and tossed them in the sink in disgust, flipping on the garbage disposal. It made a dull humming noise, like a sick bird, and she could smell metal burning.

“Oh, it’s broken,” Dave said over his shoulder.

She peered down the drain. “Why don’t you fix it?”

“I don’t know how,” he said, licking his fingers.

“Wasn’t there a movie where this guy killed his girlfriend, chopped up her body and fed it to the garbage disposal?” She wanted to really irritate him. She thought about Debbie’s Dave then, wondered why he’d done it. She imagined them standing in Debbie’s kitchen, Dave slowly coming up behind Debbie with a kitchen knife while she made them drinks. Was it jealousy? Did he think she was sleeping with another man? Sandra remembered Debbie telling her something once about him not letting her go out with her friends. She shivered.

“No, I think it was the one where he killed her and burned her body in the industrial sized oven and then vacuumed up her ashes,” Dave said, laughing. She watched him at the kitchen table, hunched over his meat, and felt nauseous. Once, sleeping at her apartment, she’d asked him to kill a spider hanging in the corner of the ceiling above her bed. She remembered how his hand had shaken holding her shoe, how he’d missed and the spider had dropped to the floor and he’d shrieked, blushing.

She sat down next to him. He grinned and she felt like slapping him hard across the face, imagining his expression. She wished that they fought, screamed at each other, threw plates or something, anything to chip away at the level landscape of sameness. He leaned over the table and punched her shoulder softly. “Come on, Sandy. What’s going on with you? Are you still upset about that woman?”

~ ~ ~

Their seats for the game were almost at the very top of the row. They had to shuffle past two people already seated on the aisle occupying seats one and two. Sandra and Dave had seats three and four, but Dave shifted over two so that they left a few seats between them and the couple on the aisle.

“But what if these people come?” she asked.

“Then we’ll move,” he said.

The national anthem played and the game began. Dave tried to explain it all to her, but she just saw a bunch of men skating around. It was too fast to keep up, and she wasn’t sure where she was supposed to look. A few minutes into the game, a couple came up to their row, held up their tickets, and looked at Sandra.

“We have seats five and six,” the woman told Sandra coldly, as people around them shuffled in their seats to see the game.

“That’s fine,” Sandra said weakly, glaring at Dave. The two of them shifted over. Sandra sat down glumly next to Dave, who was completely oblivious.

“You goddamn jerks! Where the hell is your head?” Dave was a screamer. Sandra felt her cheeks get hot. She was embarrassed to be with him, to be sitting next to this couple who were quiet and well-dressed. She heard the woman and her boyfriend muttering and couldn’t concentrate on the game. She hated when people didn’t like her. It made her feel small.

When the team scored, Dave jumped up and pumped his fists. He started singing along to the fight song and clapping his hands in unison with the guy in front of him who was waving a foam “Number One” hand. The two of them slapped a high five, as if they personally had something to do with the goal. When the other team came back and scored two goals in a matter of seven minutes to pull ahead, Dave began cursing.

“Fuck! Stop playing like a bunch of pansies and make it entertaining for us! Kick some ass!” He yelled, and the foam hand guy laughed. Their seats were so high up that if she stood to leave Sandra thought she might pitch forward and fall, tumbling downwards quickly, banging limbs as she gained momentum. Would they stop the game?

She studied Dave’s profile, his slack chin, the hair behind his ear. It would be easy for him to kill her. He could do it with his bare hands. Snap her neck, like that. Anyone could kill her, really, sneak up behind her with a knife, or run her over with a car. Dave had his hands clenched, his eyes focused on the action. He was harmless, though. He was.

Foam hand guy stood up suddenly and then Dave did and everyone tensed. Sandra watched as one of the players grabbed an opponent by the head. His helmet was off, his hair wild and sticky from sweat, and he punched the other guy in the stomach repeatedly. The crowd was cheering loudly. Sandra felt fear, deep below her stomach, as if they were all on the verge of something terrible.

“Fuckin’ A! Yeah! Yeah!” Dave yelled. The referee came to break up the fight, but not before the helmetless guy spit on his opponent’s face. He skated into the penalty box and the crowd boo-ed.

She turned to Dave to ask him if they could leave, but he grabbed some popcorn and winked at her. “Now we’re ready for some hockey, right, Babe?” He pumped his fist.

The woman next to her looked over, smiling tensely. “Your boyfriend’s funny,” she said. “He really gets into it, doesn’t he?”

~ ~ ~

They went most of the way home in silence. Gertrude was awake, watching television in the dark, her glasses reflecting the late night dating show. She clutched her pillow, eating Doritos from the bag between her legs. They walked past her and into Sandra’s room, shutting the door.

Dave threw himself on her bed, making the wall shake. “Come here, Sweetheart,” he beckoned with a smile on his face. He was still drunk from the game. She had said several Hail Mary’s as he’d driven them home from the Metro station.

She walked over reluctantly, curling next to him, and faced the wall. He snaked his arm around her and under her shirt. He would go for the nipple immediately — ah, yes, there it was. His breathing got heavy, hoping she would match it. She wiggled away, turning towards him, hoping to avert things.

“Dave, I…”

He kissed her, hard. She could taste the beer and the salt from the popcorn, as his tongue explored her mouth. He pressed harder and slid on top of her, covering her body with his. He was tall, his weight smothered her and she tried to push him off. But he grabbed her arms, pulling them above her head and smiled at her. She thought she saw something cold behind his eyes. She felt her heart beating as she stared into his face, this man she didn’t really know at all.

“Oh baby,” he moaned, nipping at her ear. It amazed her that two people could be in the same room and have completely different ideas about what was going on. She couldn’t breathe and she struggled against him. He grabbed her arms tighter, held both of her wrists with his one hand, his other moving south, tugging on the button of her jeans. She thought about Debbie. She wondered if it was worse to be dead or completely alone, or if the two were even all that different.

“No,” she yelled suddenly, panicking. She twisted, pulling her knee upwards into his crotch. He screeched and rolled over.

“Fuck! Sandy, what the hell?” She pushed herself off the bed and stood up, breathing heavily. He looked at her, still doubled over, his eyes confused. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry. I just, I don’t know. I think you should leave.”

He reached for her and she recoiled. She saw him flinch. “I don’t understand what just happened,” he said, holding out his hands, palms up, like a peace offering.

He followed her out into the living room, where Gertrude still sat pinching her lower lip. Dave put his coat on.

“I’ll call you,” he said tersely, and left, slamming the door. Gertrude looked up from the show, a slight smile on her face. “Everything alright?”

~ ~ ~

Eventually they hired someone else to sit at Debbie’s old desk–a blonde woman, tall and lean, who had a little maple leaf pin on her coat and always wore dark brown lipstick. Her name was Nelly and Sandra made sure to go over and introduce herself on her first day. Nelly was married with three children and her husband’s name was Frank. She had pictures of her kids tacked on the walls of her cubicle, and she covered the “I’m a Vegetarian!” sticker with a laminated copy of the poem “Footprints.”

At lunch, Beth and Sandra would still talk obsessively about Debbie’s murder trial. Beth would remember things she hadn’t thought of before – how Debbie’s Dave had given her the creeps, how one time he told her he’d stolen a pack of cigarettes, how she thought she might have seen him once on “America’s Most Wanted.” “Should I say something to the police? Do you think they’d want to know? I haven’t been able to concentrate on work.”

Sandra nodded, not really listening but thinking about Debbie’s Dave and how she used to love his deep, booming laugh. She watched him on television, in her apartment, while Gertrude cooked in the kitchen. If the reception was fuzzy, he looked almost exactly like her Dave, only now with a beard. She used to dream about him sometimes, before Debbie had been killed. She used to think maybe she could take him away from Debbie and have him all to herself.

~ ~ ~

Sandra stopped calling her Dave and made excuses when he asked her to go out. Sometimes she caught sight of him standing in front of his office building talking to a group of co-workers, and she would feel a stab of guilt that she’d made a mistake.

One night, coming home from a bar after being out with Beth, she crawled into bed, pulled up the covers, and tried to sleep. She heard an ambulance siren and sat up to peer out of her window at the parking lot. The young woman with short, red hair was walking her dog, headed for the wooded path that snaked behind the complex. Sandra shivered as the woman disappeared behind the trees alone. It was so late at night.

Unable to sleep, she began writing a letter on yellow legal paper. She told Dave about the young woman and her dog, about fear, about how it was odd that something so small could seem so horrifying. She wrote about the way Beth danced with strangers in bars, her hips pressed forward, lips against their necks. She realized then that she was writing to Debbie’s Dave, that she could picture him opening the letter in his cell, running his hand through his hair like she remembered. The thought was like biting into chalk. She told him about Gertrude, how she ordered chocolate milk in restaurants and sprayed Lysol on the phone after she used it. She told him about her Dave, how he never seemed to understand what it was she was feeling, how their relationship would’ve been a long, sturdy rectangle with no bumps or grooves. She filled five pages with her handwriting, feeling reckless.

When she was finished, she folded the letter in threes and sealed it in an envelope without re-reading it, and went online to find the address of the prison. She thought again of the young woman walking her dog as she put on her sneakers and coat and grabbed her keys off the dresser, feeling slightly crazy as she quietly closed the apartment door. She knew if she thought about it too long she would lose her nerve. The mailbox was at the end of the parking lot. The night was cold, the wind harsh, and Sandra ran, her heart thumping, imagining she was going to be grabbed from behind at any point. The mailbox pulled open with a creak, and she fed it the letter. Racing back to the apartment, coat billowing behind her, Sandra wondered, briefly, elatedly, how she must look, and hoped there was someone watching her run.

—> First published in Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art

© 1998-2010 Tara Laskowski

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