© 2017 By Aiko Igasaki Proudly created by Wix.com

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Vices

He viewed the world through the small slit in his blinds like a bat in a cave, only emerging when the world was quiet and the promise of alcohol lingered in the air.  That’s all he was now, a creature in a cave bitterly resenting the world from the safety of his den.  The dead flowers had been piling up on the stoop for days now, a small shrine to his infidelity.  At least that is how he saw it.  Every flower, card or platter of baked goods left by a neighbor served as a reminder.  Another one came by the house that morning carrying a small offering of lemon bars, which she left carefully arranged next to the others.  She uttered a hasty apology for his wife’s passing before scampering off to her own yard lest she wake the old cretin. It had been a full month and the nosy pricks were still bothering him.   The inside of the house was slowly falling apart and growing more and more decrepit each day, drowning with him in filth.  The dust was so thick it hung in the air like smoke, giving what little sunlight that reached the air a soft hue.  The occasional roach crawled through the stacks of dirty dishes.  He didn’t care.  They were the only company that didn’t try to give him pitiful gifts and shower him with apologies.  He slumped in his chair, cracking open his eighth beer of the day, as the TV continued to play some movie about young beautiful idiots falling in love in a dystopian future.  What a dumb idea.  “Young people,” he thought, “always making it about them.”

 A knock on the door breaks the peace and he shouts from across the room, “go away!”  When would these neighbors learn he did not want their pity?  A cracking voice calls out, “It’s me, Harold.  Open the door.”  His beer comes through his nostrils as he coughs and sputters with surprise.  He wasn’t expecting her.  She had maintained her silence for many weeks now.  Clumsily he opened the door, and there she stood.  Kat always had the same look on her face and stank of cigarettes.  He could see the yellow spots on her teeth from here.  Her chipped manicure and messy bun relaxed Harold on sight.  She was a woman of his own disposition, cynical and distrusting of everyone.  “May I come in?”  “I haven’t cleaned,” he said trying to shield the mess from her gaze, “we could go to a bar.”  “I don’t care about your mess, Harold,” she said passively pushing past him into the room.  The room stank terribly, but she didn’t seem to mind.  “How have you been,” she said clearing some junk off a chair for her to sit down.  It fell to the floor unceremoniously, slicing through the tension with a harsh clattering of glass and beer cans.  “Great, I’ve caught up on a lot of good books.”

 

A silence hung in the air for a moment as they tacitly went over the events that had unfolded that month: the fight, the paperwork, the funeral, the unspoken words.  “I have something for you,” she said sliding a letter across the table to him, “congratulations on your acceptance to Greenwood University.”  “Well that’s good news.”  “Isn’t it?”  He chuckled.  What a ridiculous notion it was that someone like him would be attending university with a class of bright-eyed youths with the kind of stupid optimism that made him gag.  “Harold, you know if I didn’t say it before I want you to know that I truly am sorr-“ “Quit it, I don’t need to hear that shit.  Not from you.”  “Well, it was worth a try.” He took another swig from his now warm beer, “are you excited to teach me, professor?  Your naughty little secret?”  He disgusted himself.  “What is a 68 year old man doing going back to university?”  “It’s what Maureen wanted.”  “Ah yes.  Of course,” she scoffed, “what Maureen wanted.  And you always did do what Maureen wanted.” “It was her dying wish, I have to-.”  “Have to now,” she interrupted him with a tone that indicated disbelief, “Harold Crenshaw have you suddenly found yourself an honor code?”  “You’re questioning my morals now?”  “Are there morals for me to question?”  They smiled at each other light heartedly.   He had slowly inched his way to her side and his hand was slowly crawling up her shoulder through the messy disarray of hair.  “I’ve missed you.”  “Not now,” she said hesitantly.   “I love you,” he whispered. 

 

She moved uncomfortably to the edge of her seat.  “I need you.” “Let’s get drunk.”  She took the beer from his hand and downed it in several gulps.  “Go get some hard liquor.”  “You can’t get it yourself?”  “Very funny,” she said angrily, “you know they won’t sell to me around here anymore.”  Kat’s husband had made several gestures to help clean up her act by making deals with local vendors to not sell her alcohol, but her true nature overpowered his best attempts.  She slipped off her heels and chucked them across the room.  A cloud of dust blew up from the carpet as they hit the ground.  The light seemed to soften her features a bit.  She looked airbrushed in a way, younger even.  But Harold knew better.  For the first time in months there was laughter.  Maybe even love entered the equation somewhere, but he was too drunk to know for sure.

 

For the next few months she flitted in and out of his life unapologetically.  Harold didn’t mind.  He was lucky to have her.  Even when she emerged on his doorstep in the middle of the night, drunk and upset, he was happy to see her.  In the days when Maureen was still in the house he would find these tirades to be inconvenient.  Several times he sat awake in bed questioning his decisions.  He could always smell the alcohol lurking on her breath when she kissed him.  It added a sour note to the whole affair, but all in all he couldn’t complain.  On the night Maureen was hospitalized Harold found himself locked in her embrace in the handicap stall of a public restroom.  “At least the house will be empty,” she whispered in his ear.  It took every muscle in his body to keep from hitting her.  Maureen slept peacefully at his side that whole night.  He sat awake in an uncomfortable chair watching a disgruntled Katherine drive away. 

 

A giant sign graced the entrance of the Student Common Area: “Orientation, Welcome Freshmen!” The room was completely packed; everywhere enthused students pranced around the hall, talking to sophomores and juniors wearing university shirts.  Harold had never felt so out of place.  He could feel his palms begin to sweat.  He didn’t belong amongst this crowd of young opportunistic faces.  It really was just too much, no matter what reason Maureen had for sending him to this hell.  Harold turns to leave until he sees Kat across the room.  She’s here to save him.  He smiles and takes two steps in her direction, but before he can close the distance between them a middle-aged man in a sweater comes to her side and plants a kiss on her cheek.  They smile together for a while before a younger boy approaches them in a university shirt.  He never saw Kat look so proudly at anything.  They’ve barely talked about their pasts or their families.  Kat had only mentioned once, in a slurred voice, that she had a son that drowned a few years back.  He never knew she had another.  Across the room he meets her gaze, and as she hugs her son she shoots him a glare that says everything he needs to know.  He doesn’t need that kind of trouble in his life right now.  Orientation goes slow.  Harold feels more like an outsider than he ever had before. 

 

When classes started Harold would usually aim for a seat comfortably in the back, but this time was different.  Kat hadn’t contacted him since Orientation day, and this was a rather pathetic attempt at getting her attention.  “Excuse,” a voice said from beside him, “may I sit?”  “Do what you want.”  He had no patience today for these idiot children.  She sat beside him and plopped her bag noisily on the chair beside her.  “Are you excite?”  “Yeah, thrilled.”  “I’ve always wanted to learn American history.  Ever since I got to U.S.”  Harold was in no mood for this today.  He just wanted to see Kat.  “Have you-,” he cut her off before she could bore his with anymore excruciating small talk.  “My name is Harold.  I don’t have a major.  I have no interest in American history, no interest in my classmates and most of all no interest in you.  Now please, just go back to your twittering or whatever stupid trend you dumb shits are following these days.”  He could see the girl’s surprised face in his periphery, but paid little interest. To his dismay she did not change seats. 

The double doors burst open and Kat walked in.  Immediately they met eyes, but for the most part she ignored him entirely.  “Welcome to Survey of American History 104.  My name is Katherine Hapstall. I am passing your syllabus out now for us to review.” “Kat,” Harold whispered in her direction.  Again she ignored him, but he could see how vexing his presence was for her now.  Throughout class, she ignored him but occasionally shot him a glance, as if she was trying to devise an excuse.  “Lastly,” the two-hour class was nearing its end for the day, “I’d like all of you to choose a partner and work on a collaborative essay on a significant event in American history from the syllabus, ten pages due to me in two weeks.”  A resounding sigh of grief filled the hall as the students got up to leave, or desperately find a partner.  “Would you like to-,” the girl next to him was talking again.  “Sure, sure.  Leave me alone,” he approached the front of the class. 

 

A line of students was ahead of him, all asking trivial questions on extra credit and meaningless bullshit.  She answered all of them with that fake, animated grin he only saw her make when they weren’t alone together.   Finally he approached her.  “Yes?” She refused to look up from her paper work.  Standing in front of her now he suddenly realized he didn’t have a speech prepared.  All he could do was present himself to her like a used car salesmen and hope she had something to say.  “I-I haven’t seen you.”  “Is that so important that you felt the need interrupt my class?”  “I’m in your class.”  “Oh, fantastic.”  Finally she looked up, realizing a little too late that she had hurt him.  “I’ll come by later tonight.  Have some booze.”  “Alright.”  Finally, they would have some alone time.  “I think someone’s waiting for you,” Kat motioned to someone behind Harold.   He turned and to his dismay saw that it was the girl from earlier.  She gave a little wave before scurrying over in his direction, “May I get your contact information?”  Harold dialed his number in to her phone and half-heartedly threw it back in her direction.   “For the record,” he said quickly walking towards the exit, “I don’t give two shits.” 

 

Kat came by earlier than expected with a big bottle of vodka she bought off some college kids.  She had already finished half of it before she got there.  “You never talk about her.”  “What?”  “Maureen,” she said, slumping in his old armchair. “Even when she was here you never talked about her.”  “What is there to talk about?”  She got up and walked around the dusty room, looking at the few photographs still on the wall.  There was one in particular she was fixated on.  “You loved her didn’t you?”  Harold didn’t answer.  His eyes found a small roach making it’s way up the wall through the darkness.  “You must have,” her chipped manicure clacked against the glass of the frame as she lifted it off the wall, “I remember how many measures you took to ensure she was comfortable towards the end.”  The roach fell to the ground with a light thud and struggled on its back to regain its footing.  “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”  He felt Kat’s hand slide down his shoulders.  She kissed his neck lightly before placing the framed photo in front of him.  “Don’t think I haven’t noticed,” she whispered, “This is the only thing in this disgusting place that isn’t covered in your muck.”  “Stop this,” Harold snatched the frame from her and slammed it hard face down on the coffee table.  Kat backed away, letting out a sigh of frustration.   Why was she bringing this up now? 

 

“You’re one to talk.  How many defenses do you have?”  Harold flipped the roach over with his toe and watched it skitter in to the darkness.  “Is this where we’re at now?  Talking about our lives like a couple of those boring college kids.”  “I think it’s a normal thing.  I didn’t even know you had a son.”  It was her turn to be silent now.  “I guess I knew about the one,” Harold directed this dialog towards her back.   He had turned the tables on her, and he could see her shoulders growing more taught.  “What was his name?”  “Paul,” her voice broke and suddenly Harold felt guilty.    The room began to fill with a silence as thick as the dust clouds surrounding them.  She downed her glass and placed it gently on the kitchen counter.  “I have to get home,” she swiftly grabbed her bag and without another word left briskly, slamming the door behind her.  He heard her tires screech in the driveway as she sped off.  For the first time in awhile he feared for her safety, but was soon passed out clutching the framed photo of Maureen.  The next morning he saw that the girl from class, who was apparently named Anya, left him several voicemails

 

“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said happily as he plopped next to her in the library.  “Well I’m here.  So let’s just do this.”  “I thought maybe we could write about Neil….Arm…Strong?  The first man in space!”  “He was the first man on the moon, not in space,” history was once Harold’s favorite subject and while most of it had left his memory by now some small facts remained.  “Oh, sorry, I not know too much about that,” she said giggling.  “Aren’t there plenty of dumb wars on the syllabus?  Let’s just choose one of those.”  “I thought maybe we choose more happy moment.”  How is it he had only been here 10 minutes?  He wasn’t fond of this girl.  She represented everything he hated about young millennials.  “Sure let’s do that then,” he said getting ready to leave, “I’ll write one half.  You write the other.  “I was hoping we could write together,” she said hopefully, “my English is not best.”  “Where do you come from?”  “A small town in Russia, Balashikha.  I came here through exchange program.  I want to live here someday.”  “My wife Maureen was born in Russia.  She made a point of visiting there someday.”  “Did she?”  “Well no…she didn’t,” Harold sat back down remembering for a moment Maureen’s passion for other cultures she never got to be a part of, “alright then.  Let’s write this paper.”  “Where do we start?”  “No idea.”  They chuckled a little. 

 

 

Many hours later, by some miracle they had written out 10 pages. It wasn’t as painful as Harold had anticipated.  The hours strolled by, and by the time they were done he had said more about Maureen than he had in the past 4 years.  He was surprised at himself and how much he still remembered about her.  “We had met in college,” he said as they waited in line for an available printer, “she was an incredible writer.  She had such a mind for words.  One day, I remember, she wrote me this poem and it was so beautiful I shared it with all my friends.  You should’ve seen her face when she caught me reading it too them.  She was as red as a tomato.”  “You a writer too?”  “No, I’m horrible,” he held up the freshly printed copy of their essay, “clearly.”  There was a moment of short silence as the printer hummed.  “I’m sorry for loss,” for the first time Harold didn’t mind those words being said, “she seems like amazing woman.  She would be proud.”  “No,” he grabbed his copy of the essay, “she wouldn’t.  I’ll see you in class.”  He didn’t realize until he was in his car that he was crying. 

 

The next morning Harold stumbled to class 10 minutes late.  To his surprise Kat wasn’t there yet.  He took his seat next to Anya who was listening to a song on an ipod, and quietly doodling away in a notebook.  With a resounding crash, the double doors opened.  Kat stumbled in, very clearly inebriated.  “What are all you doing here?”  She stumbled to her place at the front of class.  Sensing the impending break down, several students had pulled out their phones and began recording.  Others were simply shocked or annoyed.  “We’re your students.  You’re supposed to teach us.”  “Teach,” she repeated in a slurred voice, “what is there to teach?  All you need to know about American history is to not repeat it.  There ya go! Lesson over.  Get the fuck out of here!  You incompetent little shits.”  Her head clunked down on the desk.  Harold got out of his seat and ran to the front of the class, “Ok, I think class is canceled today. So we should all just head out for now.  I’m sure the professor will update us online.  Let’s just leave our essays here.”  The class began to file out, but Harold heard their murmurs of disapproval.  “I’m totally posting this online.  She is so fucked.”  Harold ran to her side and draped her arm over his shoulder.  “Is she alright,” Anya said concerned, “should I get help?”  “I’ll take her to her car for now.  I’m sure she’ll be ok.” 

 

As Anya left, Harold set Kat down in one of the fold out seats.   “Let’s have sex,” she whispered, unbuttoning his shirt.  “Kat, what the fuck are you doing?”  “I’m fine.  Just let me come over.  Let’s get drunk.”  “I can’t do that anymore, Kat,” Harold was surprised at these words, “we can’t do this.”  “You’re dumping me,” she gripped his wrist with incredible force, “for what?  For that stupid whore?”  He knew she meant Anya.  “Stop,” Harold said forcefully, “It’s not like that.  That’s not why.”  “You love me,” she was yelling now.  “You have a family, Kat.  They love you.  Your son loves you.”  “They don’t,” her head was buried in her hands.  Every part of her was shaking.  Harold had never seen her this way.  She was never so vulnerable, always maintaining several layers of cold exterior between her and the rest of the world.  This was new for both of them.  Anya returned with another professor who came to Kat’s aid.  Harold backed away, not knowing what the right thing was anymore. Anya was waiting at the door.  “Do you know her?”  “We’re old friends.”  “Is she going to be ok?” “I don’t know,” he said before leaving without another word. 

He wanted to get drunker than he had ever been.  He wanted to walk that line between living and dying, but instead he fell asleep clutching the framed picture Kat had once plucked from the wall.  He had lived for so long, comfortable with his state of being, until he saw the devastation lying in his wake.  Maureen was in his dream that night.  She was young again, staring at him from the far end of the bed.  She said nothing.  She didn’t scold or pity him.  She simply sat perched at the end of his bed staring him down, and somehow that was the worst thing he could have seen.  He hadn’t forgotten a single line on her figure.  Her brown hair, once as wild as they were, cascaded in beautiful strands down her shoulders.  Her eyes were a brilliant green and they pierced him with such intensity he couldn’t help, but weep.  He tried to muster the courage to speak, but the words were not coming to him.

He awoke in a cold sweat, arms tightly clutching the frame of the photo, which had left a large red crease in both his forearms.  He set the photo aside and dragged himself down the stairs in to the depths of the empty graceless house.  He cleared the stoop of rotting desserts and wilted bouquets.  He cleared the plates from forgotten meals he ate alone, and opened the drapes for the first time in months.  Sunlight poured in as if it were waiting expectantly on the windowsill for this exact moment.  It glittered off the sides of beer bottles and washed the room in glorious beams of gold.  It greeted Harold like an old friend.   As if to say, “Hello, How’ve you been?  I’ve been waiting.”