Better Stories

By Ruth Steinhour

Mary sprawled on the sofa, flinging her legs over the armrest. She closed her eyes for a minute, enjoying the weak but cool wafts of air from the window fan. Her remote flipped through the television channels. A clatter followed by a colorful string of curses distracted her. Mary opened her eyes and glanced toward the kitchen.

Her roommate had many oddities, but Mary found Katie’s ability to cuss the most enviable and the most endearing. Mary did not believe in re-incarnation, but supposing she had, she would have speculated that Katie’s former lives were fraught with pirates and renegades, salty sailors and high seas adventures. Of these marvelous exploits a single relic remained in the vacant 24-year-old cooking in 90 degree temperatures- the ability to curse with an epic proficiency.

The young woman appeared in the doorway, one hand on her hip, the other brandishing a spoon that dripped with… something.

“Where’d you put the butter?”

“Do we have butter?” Mary kept her voice mild. Her eyes flickered away from her show and landed on her agitated roommate.

“Why wouldn’t we have butter?”

“I thought you were a vegan.”

“They make vegan butter.”

Mary shrugged, returning her attention to the TV. “I haven’t seen any butter. And your spoon is dripping.”

Katie sighed and slipped back into the kitchen. Mary noted with annoyance that she did not return to wipe the spots from the floor. She would doubtless leave the rest of the kitchen a mess as well. Once, fed up with the mound of dishes in the sink, Mary had asked her roommate to tidy up after her cooking experiments. The dishes were spick and span the next day, but Katie had splattered mystery soup across the stove’s backboard, presumably by accident. Mary scrubbed it away with gritted teeth, unwilling to confront her again.

Something went wrong in the kitchen every night. The worst had been the Sunday evening in January when Mary opened the fridge to get a smidgeon of milk to cool her hot cocoa. As she reached into the overstuffed shelves, her elbow brushed a large opaque container. It tumbled to the floor. The lid popped off and a thin grey juice oozed out. When Mary stooped to pick it up, she recoiled with a squeal of disgust. A very small and very dead octopus gazed back at her with empty eyes, its suckered limbs mashed against the sides of the Tupperware.

Mary had to draw the line somewhere. She summoned Katie to the kitchen and launched into a rant about proper kitchen etiquette. Katie leaned against the stove, waiting until Mary ran out of steam. When silence fell, she beamed and promised to save a serving of baked octopus for Mary. She cooked it the following evening, and the stench lingered in the apartment for two days.

Katie founded her food blog soon after the octopus incident. An ordinary food blog, with simple twists on familiar dishes, was far too blasé for Apartment 452’s innovative cook. Katie renounced all ties to her familiar dishes, and went on a vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, organic, non-GMO diet. She relished the challenge of creating edible yet revolutionary food from everything-free ingredients. Her decidedly unfavorable results did little to deter her. Although Mary often found her nibbling on brownie bites, pizza, or the occasional cheeseburger, Katie evangelized the benefits of her everything-free lifestyle to anyone who would listen.

Mary privately thought her roommate would not appear out of place in an artsy indie film about the undead. She had a petite frame that bordered on gaunt and her dark hair fell in tangled curls to the middle of her back. Her experimentations with homemade, chemical-free shampoos left her with perpetually greasy roots. Despite the purple shadows under her eyes and the grayish tinge to her complexion, Katie’s face had a resilient beauty. Mary could picture her roommate gliding eerily out of an Egyptian tomb, a mummified queen awaked to reclaim her ancient throne, perhaps with an undead octopus wriggling on her shoulder.

Most of what Mary knew about Katie she gleaned in her first few nights at Apartment 452. She soon determined that she and Katie operated in two different universes and lost interest in her odd roommate. Katie had cobbled together a degree from some small school in the Midwest. With a diploma in hand she returned to New York City where her parents lived. They refused to subsidize her rent and she refused to live at home, so she worked a variety of waitressing jobs and moved into 452 with her childhood best friend. A year later, the best friend took a job in Kentucky and left Katie scrambling to find a new roommate.

Mary had found her ad on Craig’s list- a decent living space, with rent rates suitable for her entry-level income. She could afford housing and still have plenty left over for glamorous New York shopping sprees. She moved in June, and dug out places for her tasteful cushions, dishware and organizing shelves amid Katie’s jumble of mismatched furniture and eclectic modern artwork. Katie’s favorite painting featured a gnarled tree in shades of grey and brown, twisted by the wind and sprouting dark leaves. Mary found it vaguely unsettling. It both repulsed and fascinated her. She did her best to avoid looking at it. The painting hung in a prominent position above the couch where Mary spent most of her evenings basking in the glow of prime time, and she had grown accustomed to letting her eyes slide past it.

In her honest moments Mary had to admit that Katie, though odd, was not a bad roommate. After all, some roommates never initiate conversation with the other, not even to exchange simple pleasantries. Some roommates never ask permission to host loud and long-lasting parties and never invite the apartment’s other inhabitant. Some roommates complain to their friends about the kitchen and the octopus, and they all remark on how strange that was, how weird, even though perhaps they are within earshot of a small bedroom where a young woman lies on her bed reading and trying not to listen.

Mary’s stomach squirmed with shame when she thought about it, so she generally didn’t. She hardly had time to think at all these days. Her job had gotten demanding. And yes, she was just a teensy bit bitter. A shred of dissatisfaction haunted her sometimes in the lull between dinner and bed when a quiet hour or two passed with nothing but the glowing television screen to keep her company. She shook it off by reminding herself of her recent successes. Unlike her roommate the waitress, her older sister the med school drop out, or her high school best friend who still lived at home, Mary had put every ounce of her considerable potential to good use. This kind of thinking often restored her good spirits.

As a last resort she turned to her photo album. Her mother had made it. On page two Mary stood beaming in her graduation dress. She’d already lined up her prestigious internship. She was on the fast track to a brilliant career. Even now she smiled when she thought of that sunny day thirteen months ago.

After Mary cheered herself up she filled her schedule for the next few evenings. She called Mindy or Charlotte, friends from the office, and they went out for cocktails and gossip. By Friday Mary would all but forget the strange emptiness that gripped her mid-week. This happened fairly often, more often than even Mary realized.

 

She flipped through the channels on that humid July evening and listened to her roommate destroy the kitchen. An unease brushed against her awareness. She recalled an odd moment from her morning. She sat at her desk gazing out the window, at the small green leaves of a tree pressed against the glass. Mary had no explanation for her sudden exhaustion. She shoved it aside but sensed it waiting all day until six o’ clock when she left her spreadsheets behind for the solitude of a rust-colored couch and a plasma screen TV.

Katie padded into the living room from the kitchen, startling Mary out of her reverie.

“Jesus, Katie, don’t just stand there. It freaks me out.”

“Sorry.” Katie looked at the floor. Mary noticed she held two bowls of ice cream.

“What’s that for?” she asked sharply.

Katie glanced up. Her wide, honest eyes were filled with a mixture of concern and perhaps a little pity. Mary felt a simmering irritation, bordering on anger.

“You look like you had a rough day,” Katie offered. Marry nodded, still lying on her back and staring at Katie’s hands rather than her face.

“And I was wondering if you wanted some ice cream? It’s dairy-free.”

Mary suppressed a grimace, sat up, and took a bowl. “Thanks, Katie.”

Katie settled down beside her. Mary’s irritation rose, irrationally. The couch belonged to Katie, after all. But not the TV. Mary turned it off. They ate in silence.

The scrape of the spoon on the bottom of Mary’s bowl broke the stillness.

“How was work at…” she hesitated, unable to remember the name of the restaurant.

“Chez Maman. It was pretty good. Last week I got promoted to the kitchen. Mostly chopping veggies for now.”

Mary nodded, trying not to let a trace of scorn cross her face. Promoted to chopping vegetables? She’d take a dull morning in the office anytime.

After a long pause, she asked, “And how’s the blog going?”

Katie grinned. “It’s great. Sometimes I think I love the writing even more than the cooking.”

Mary’s eyebrows lifted.

“I know, right? After I’ve been saving up and everything for culinary school, now I’m thinking maybe I don’t want to be a chef.”

“Oh?”

“The thing is, I like the writing part best. Writing and researching – I’ve been finding all these little markets and restaurants all over the city. The cooking part, well, you know how that goes sometimes.”

Yes, Mary knew perfectly well how that went. Her bad mood dissipated at the thought of Katie hanging up her apron and giving up her quest for the perfect everything-free dish.

She thought of Katie and her blog at four o clock the next afternoon, while she watched the rain pummel the window. A reminder on her computer’s calendar popped up, accompanied by a loud ding. Mindy heard the sound as she passed by and peeked into Mary’s cubicle.

“Hey girl. What was that? You’re not playing games, are you?” She made a stern face, then giggled. Mindy knew a thing or three about playing computer games on company time.

“No, no, I had set my calendar to remind me that the rent is due tomorrow. How are you?”

“Oh I’m good- the usual. Nothing new. Do you think Katie’ll have the money this time?”

“No idea.” Katie struggled to make rent. Once or twice Mary had covered for her. She meticulously recorded these debts, but in a unusual gesture of mercy she had refrained from reminding Katie.

“I’m telling you, you should move out. That girl is nuts. And now that Evan left, Char is looking for a roommate.”

“I’ll think on it.”

“’K. You up for drinks tonight?”

Mary nodded, and Mindy grinned. “Good. Meet me in my lobby at 8.” She walked away and Mary stared at the rain-drenched tree in the window. Her reluctance to move baffled her friends. Mary herself lacked a logical explanation. Katie’s weird kitchen habits provided her biggest source of frustration. Aside from her busy work schedule, her near-perfect life held no other causes for complaint. She could eliminate her biggest problem with an easy change of address, but she preferred to avoid thinking about her reasons for staying in 452.

Her inbox blinked with new messages. A headache nudged at her temples. Mindy’s fingers tapped her keyboard in the adjacent cubicle. Someone’s chair squeaked. She couldn’t concentrate. She popped an Advil for the headache. It didn’t help. She knew she’d regret leaving early, but at quarter till five Mary gathered her umbrella, left her papers scattered, and rushed into the rain.

A haze of noxious smoke engulfed her as she entered her apartment. Katie emerged from the kitchen, holding aloft a fire extinguisher and Mary’s camera.

“What the Hell did you do?” Mary rasped.

“Forgot to turn the oven off,” Katie muttered, glancing sideways. “Waste of ingredients. But now we know the fire extinguisher works.”

“What’re you doing with my camera?”

“Taking pictures for the blog. Sorry, but I dropped mine in the tofu acai berry soup that I made last week. How come you’re home so early? Everything ok?”

“Yeah, well…”

Concern flickered across Katie’s face. After a pause, Mary decided to change the subject before her roommate had the opportunity to say something kind.

“Why do you post pictures of your burned food on your cooking blog? No one wants to read about that. Or about the damn acai berry soup.”

Katie shrugged. “Everyone who’s got a sense of humor thinks it’s funny. It’s the failures that make better stories.”

Mary breathed in a large amount of smoke and coughed pointedly. She stalked into the living room. Her eyes found the weird painting above the couch and rather than avert her gaze, she stared in surprise. For a brief moment, those dark persistent leaves on the tree’s twisted branches looked impossibly similar to the tiny green ones outside the office window.


Ruth graduated from The College of Wooster in 2013 with a BA in Mathematics. This is her first publication. She lives in Cleveland and spends her evenings writing, enjoying craft beer, and going on adventurous dates. You can read about her dating stories and other mishaps at www.forthealmostwin.com.

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