By Joseph Holt
Featured Image: “Vintage European Style Key” by Paul Poiré
NOTE: When “Everything Equal” was posted to the NOR archives in Spring 2021, the author requested to revise and resubmit it to correct some issues of vulgarity and biased gender politics. His revision, titled “Futon Life,” appears below the original.
Three summers ago Ted Dexter flew standby to San Francisco with the vague intention of getting even with his ex-girlfriend. He and this girl, in only a couple months together, had argued, lied, cheated, had proven themselves in every way incompatible. Their final argument initiated with the most mundane of subjects—that he had worn “hideous, unstylish” carpenter jeans to the bars on a Saturday night—and escalated into a blowout that saw them thrown into the Cedar-Riverside streets, stumbling and shouting. At the sound of nearby sirens, Ted beat it back to his apartment and soon passed out drunk on his futon. He slept. The next morning he woke to find that sometime in the night this girl had come and gathered her belongings, most notably the blanket with which he had been covering himself. Sitting at the edge of his futon, slowly regaining his wits, he realized she had also gathered many of his belongings—his PlayStation, his baseball cards, his toaster, even the few bottles of Grain Belt from his crisper drawer. Also gone: his car. It would turn up several days later in Fargo, empty of gas and stripped of its stereo.
Ted did some sleuthing. After he and that girl had parted in Cedar-Riverside, she had gone only to the bar next door. There, she allowed herself to be sweet-talked by the drum tech of some low-rate emo band passing through Minneapolis on its shoestring tour. He bought her drinks and told her she was a babe. It was love, or some drunken approximation. From there the two of them hatched a plan to loot Ted’s place, pawn what they could, then ride Ted’s car to Fargo for the final stretch of that low-rate emo band’s tour. By the time Ted pieced together all the details, she was shacked up at the drum tech’s tenement in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco.
That tenement, when Ted found it, was even seedier and filthier than he could have imagined. Outside, a row of winos slept with their chins slumped against their chests. Underneath a nearby palm tree two teenagers loudly petted. Inside, the hallways smelled of piss. From various apartments came sounds of canned laughter and poorly tuned acoustic guitars. Once Ted found the apartment, he slapped the door and stood square in front of the peephole.
The drum tech answered wearing cowboy boots and Bermuda shorts, no shirt. He sported a mohawk along with a cheesy mustache. Ted asked to speak to the girl.
“You,” he said moments later when she came to the door. “You look surprised to see me. By that look on your face I’d almost say you forgot who I am. That’s hard to believe. I mean, you are wearing one of my old shirts.”
The girl looked down, then back to Ted.
“You betrayed me,” Ted went on. “You thought you could take what was mine, and that would be the end of it. But your actions have consequences. You can’t outrun karma, or luck, or vengeance, and you definitely can’t outrun me. You drove all the way across the country. But here I am. I found you. It was easy. Dipshit over there gave this address to all the pawnshops. You must think we’re all just a bunch of animals—wandering, aimless animals, just feeding and mating and running back into the wild.” He said, “You’re wrong.”
He continued, having rehearsed this entire diatribe in his head during the flight. The ex-girlfriend began with a stiff posture of indignation, then defiance, then finally resignation. She leaned back against the door jamb. She took it. She began nodding, even.
Toward the end he said, “I came here to take what’s mine. You stole from me. You took everything, I mean, you stole my toaster!” He took a calming breath, looking her in the eyes. “You know what, though?” he said. “Keep it. I don’t want anything from you. You are nothing to me. You can disappear.” At that point he thought to stop. As an exclamation, he leaned through the doorframe and spit onto the ratty carpet inside the apartment.
“Hey, uncool,” said the drum tech, who had been half-watching television through all this. “Not cool, man.” Then the drum tech said, “I love her.”
“All the best,” Ted called. Then to his ex-girlfriend he said, “You don’t have to say you’re sorry. I can see it in your face. That’s all I wanted. We’re even.” Then he spit once more into the apartment.
“Get outta here, jerk,” said the drum tech.
But Ted was already gone, walking down the hallway, his arms extended, his middle fingers flashing behind him. And that’s how that ended.
If it all went off that eloquently, I would be surprised. But that’s the way Ted tells it.
The next morning he hopped a ferry to Alcatraz and took the tour. Afterward he scalped a ticket to the Giants matinee game, where he says he mercilessly booed Barry Bonds. Later he strolled Fisherman’s Wharf for clam chowder and Budweisers, and in the evening he took the DART to Oakland, where he scalped a ticket to the A’s game and booed whoever could hear him. Finally he snuck his way onto some hotel shuttle to the airport, where he bought a standby ticket home.
When he returned to Minneapolis, that weekend of his became legendary. I heard the story a dozen times, to the point where the drum tech had become six-foot-six and cut with muscle, to the point where Barry Bonds had fouled a line drive right at Ted, on purpose if that’s even possible. Our circle of friends loved it. High fives were exchanged.
Through all the retellings, Ted omitted one particular detail: to pay for his flights, he had stolen $250 from a shoebox in my closet. He and I live in the same apartment complex and hold each other’s spare key. For the past six months I had saved $10 a week with the plan of buying a secondhand kayak. It was that money Ted stole from me. Once his next paycheck came in, I keyed into his apartment, snatched his debit card, and withdrew $250 from his checking account. (His PIN code, 1-2-3-4, was written in permanent marker on the back of the card, like he would ever forget 1-2-3-4.) Then I bought the kayak.
The subject of the money never came up between us. Things were even, it was understood. Everything equal, everything in its place.
This year I’ll be thirty. My hair is whitening and my skin loosening. I buy relaxed fit jeans and yogurt with added fiber. Occasionally I discover an eyebrow hair that’s grown an inch long and rigid as a wire. Among the indignities: one boy recently offered his seat to me on the bus, and the kids behind the counter at Arby’s sometimes call me “sir.”
As I contemplate the last decade of my life, I realize that ever since college I have made exactly zero new friends. Sure, I’ve witnessed many acquaintances, a few chummy co-workers, the occasional drinking buddy—but never did anyone assert himself as what I consider a friend.
Friends do this: they tell you when you have a booger in your nose. They make off-color jokes, unafraid of your judgment. They call every so often to say hello but aren’t alarmed when you sometimes go weeks without talking. And you do this for your friends: you say if they’re getting fat. You withhold the Twins score if you think they might have recorded the game. You silently keep track of how much pizza you’ve both eaten so there will be no argument over the final slice.
I’ve made no new friends because, by choice, I am somewhat insular. I’ve abandoned the bar scene, never attempted the happy hour scene, and am incredibly nonplussed by the internet scene. I don’t meet people. I don’t try. For my current lifestyle, with my current friendships, I am already operating at friend capacity.
How many is that, friend capacity? Four. Just four.
Of these four friends, two—Appletoft and Jacobs—are married. They are often sapped of time and energy by their respective wives. Recently the Appletofts bought a house in Wayzata, one of the affluent suburbs; surely a family is soon to come. The Jacobses: same story, different suburb. My third friend, Cleaver, is more freewheeling, although he is currently quarantined with scabies, a result of living uptown in the lowest-possible-rent apartment complex.
Then there’s Ted Dexter. He’s my best friend. On a field trip to the Prairie Museum in third grade I accidentally toppled a glass bookcase in the gift shop, and Ted spared me by lying to our teacher that a kid named Chub Carlson had done it. As high school sophomores we were suspended together from the cross-country team for cutting circuits to hotbox cigarettes in the bushes. In college he and I were specially reprimanded by the Dean of Students for sculpting a ten-foot cock and balls with snow and pink food coloring in the front yard of our neighboring sorority. For Halloween we’ve dressed up as Mario and Luigi, as Milli and Vanilli, as Saddam and Osama.
My friends and I, we share histories. They have seen me at my worst as I have them. I forgive them their peccadilloes as they forgive mine. We match each other flaw for flaw. We don’t need some stupid nickname like the Fearsome Fivesome to cement our status. Together we’ve grown up, sort of, and remained friends. That’s worth something.
Now, with all that said, I’m afraid I’ve been expelled from the group. The problem: I have been falsely accused. Ted Dexter is to blame.
Enter Mandy Muffkin. A girl eight years my junior. A tattooed, carefree layabout. Something of a leech, something of a parasite. Happy just to get by, always amazed at what life brings her way next. Lacking in all the necessary qualities of friendship. Mandy Muffkin became, over the course of two months last fall, something like my girlfriend.
It was September and I was at a campus coffee shop reading Drive, Larry Bird’s autobiography, seeking some inspirational passages to kick-start me in the new semester. Larry Bird was summarizing his college days in Indiana (Everything was a learning experience for me. I got married and divorced. I had a child. I had to sit out a redshirt year as a transfer.) when this girl plopped down into the armchair beside mine. “Mister Rounds,” she said.
I closed my book with a finger between the pages. That this girl called me “Mister” signaled she was one of my former students.
“Guess what I just saw?” she said. “I’ll tell ya. A guy on a unicycle. Like a cartoon. He was just riding down the middle of the street, pedaling away like it was nothing. I wanted to throw him some bowling pins and see if he could juggle.” She tilted her head and affected a goofy voice. “Hello, I ride a unicycle. Put me in your circus.” She giggled. “Isn’t that fucked up?”
Then I recognized her. Four years earlier, this girl, Mandy, had been a freshman in my one-credit discussion section of Survey of American Thought. The class had been my first assignment as a History TA, and in it I had floundered. Often I tried sparking discussion by naming some event or character, then adding, Isn’t that fucked up? As in, What about Teapot Dome? Isn’t that fucked up? This always elicited a giggle from Mandy, the only sound in a classroom of blank stares and brainless doodles.
Back then Mandy had been a dyed-blonde coed, the type to wear fashionable jeans with a hooded university sweatshirt. She was chipper and idealistic, hardly distinguishable from my other twenty-five students at the time. By that night at the coffee shop, though, she had transformed into something of a different species: the aimless, shameless, post-drop-out hanger-on. Across her shoulders was slung a military-issue canvas rucksack—an affectation, for sure, since everything else about her screamed anti-establishment. There were flashes of tattoo ink on her arms. She wore a silver stud in her lower lip. Her eyes were long with amusement but saddled with gray bags from erratic sleep. There was an odor about her.
I said, “That is fucked up.”
“I dropped out, by the way, before you ask me how classes are going and all that.” She flipped her hand in the way someone brushes off a mosquito. “Just living life.”
I said, “Okay.”
From then on Mandy did the talking. She rambled, completely unselfconscious. She wanted to get a basset hound, she said. It’s the funniest thing when someone slips on a banana peel. Oregon has a lot of trees. Starfish probably can’t live outside salt water.
Finally I stood to leave. I told Mandy it was nice seeing her again. “Wait,” she said, “which way are you going?”
“Downtown.” That’s where I live, I told her, amidst the car exhaust and the jackhammers and the sirens.
“Downtown! Can I hitch a ride?” I asked where she needed to go.
“Actually—” She stood and hefted the canvas rucksack onto her shoulders. “Actually, right now I’m not really settled in any one place. I was living with these two girls, but then one of them got married this summer and this other girl found a place with someone else, then at the end of August our lease ended and I couldn’t find any new roomies so I was going to start looking for another place like right now, but since I’m not enrolled anymore I couldn’t get a student loan and I’m between jobs anyway so I’m kind of up in the air about my next move, although, if it comes to this, I know a guy who has a house in Northeast and, if it comes to this, maybe you could drive me around until I find it and wait while I go knock on his door and see if I can stay with him a couple nights.” By then I had begun to assume—correctly, it would turn out—that her rucksack held everything she owned. “Or, I was thinking, maybe for tonight you would know a place where I can stay?”
First thing back at my apartment, she collapsed asleep on my twin-size mattress, despite the three cups of espresso she’d chugged earlier. I went to sleep on the couch in my living room, using my bath towel as a blanket.
By the time she awoke the next morning, I had loaded my computer with a couple housing classified sites. “I’ll give you a ride later if you need one,” I told her. Then I went up to Ted’s apartment, where he was still sleeping, and read the Sports Illustrated college football preview. Mandy, when I returned, was eating cold ravioli from a can and browsing a celebrity gossip site, one where photos of movie stars were doctored with curlicue mustaches and inane speech bubbles. “Any leads?” I asked, standing in the middle of my living room, looking down at her on the couch. She laughed at something on the computer screen. “That’s a no?” I said. She clicked a few buttons. Finally she looked up at me and said, “Oh, hi.”
I’ve had girlfriends. In college I dated a pale-skinned girl named Yvonne, a Kappa Gamma I wooed like crazy then, once I’d won her over, failed to appreciate. Upon graduation I left her for a job as City Parks Engineer in Lafayette, Louisiana, a long way from our home state of South Dakota. The whole thing was a mistake: I had majored in English, and the hiring committee must have misread my application. Either that or I was the only one who applied. But I didn’t think twice about it. I was twenty-two, believing myself unloosed in the world, unheeding and indestructible. I allowed Yvonne no say in my decision, and it was effectively the end of us. I would find in Lafayette, I believed, scads of girls like Yvonne yet somehow vaguely better. That didn’t happen. On most nights I read biographies and drank a four-dollar bottle of wine alone. I was terrible at my job. I was worse in my interactions with others. And I pined for Yvonne.
After two years like that I proposed she visit Lafayette, where I would find her a job and together we would look for a house. It was a losing proposal. By then we were only speaking once a month, if that. I was just lost in my thinking. She asked for time to consider, then stopped returning my calls before she ever said no. At the end of February that year Ted and Cleaver flew down and we drove to Mardi Gras. While there, I got food poisoning from an all-night shrimp buffet, Ted got charged with a misdemeanor for sleeping in a Bourbon Street bathroom at two in the afternoon, and Cleaver got a cold sore on his upper lip. It was the most fun I’d had in two years. Soon I quit that job with the parks system, sold off anything that wouldn’t fit in my Bronco, and landed in Minneapolis, where I crashed on Ted’s futon for six weeks until I finally got my own apartment.
“What do you do for fun?” Mandy asked me that first weekend, after we had been sitting in my living room for the past couple hours, her on the computer, me with the Sunday paper. My radio was turned to an indie rock station, a concession for Mandy since I prefer public radio.
“I’m pretty happy doing this,” I told her.
“No, I mean for fun. What TV shows do you like?”
“Well, I like going to baseball games,” I said, returning to her original question. “Sometimes I’ll walk along the trails down by the river. There’s a movie theater over there that shows good documentaries. My friend Ted and I play catch every once in awhile down in the courtyard.”
“I like to watch TV,” Mandy said. “I notice you don’t have a TV. You ever think about getting a TV?”
“My friend Ted has a TV. He lives one floor up—” I pointed up to the corner of my ceiling “—and one unit over.”
“This Ted sounds like a nice guy. We should see what he’s doing.”
“One thing I do is, I’ll drive around the suburbs and look at the houses.
That’s kind of like watching TV.”
“What? You sound like my grandpa. My favorite TV show is any one where there’s a dancing competition or a singing competition, or a dating or weight loss or cooking competition. I hate commercials, though. Some of these shows have hosts with accents. But I like shows that are made up, too, like the ones with the cops and the perverts. Commercials are okay sometimes, I suppose. You should think about getting a TV. There must be a thousand channels in the world, or if you think about all the countries, probably a million. Baseball games are on TV, too. TV has a lot of things you can watch.” I never claimed to be a good teacher. And none of my students would claim that I transformed them into critical thinkers. My evaluations each semester are inconclusive, because by the end of the term too few students attend class to provide an accurate sample. My best review had said, Misser Rounds made me feel better, which I took as a compliment despite its obscurity. On my worst review, one student had only drawn a picture of a pilgrim sodomizing a turkey (you could tell it was a pilgrim by the buckle on his hat).
That night Mandy and I drove out to the suburbs. We went to Kohl’s so I could buy a second bath towel and blanket, got Chili’s curbside and ate it in the car, drove past the Appletofts’ house but didn’t stop, then returned home where Mandy collapsed asleep on my mattress for the third consecutive night, leaving me again to the couch.
The next morning I was at my desk when Ted keyed in. He sat on the couch, pushing my new blanket and pillow to the side. He carried a mauve coffee cup, into which he spit wintergreen tobacco juice. “Ready?” he asked. Ted hawks cell phones in one of the suburban malls, just a couple miles past the university. We commute together.
“No,” I said. I was reviewing a legal pad which contained my lecture notes from the previous semester. “It’s not even seven-thirty.” For this present semester I had been assigned the eight a.m. lecture. Because I was in my fifth year of the History PhD program and had only just taken my orals, I suspected the department had stuck me with the early-morning lecture to either force me into a full day’s work or force me out completely.
“What’s this doing here?” he asked, flipping through an issue of Star that Mandy had bought from a gas station the night before. “Cellulite Nightmares. D-List Divas. How much longer do you need?”
“Ten minutes, at least. I want to finish my coffee. And I don’t like getting to class early, in case my students want to make small talk.”
“Ooh, guess which celeb has the hottest bikini bod? Seriously, Rounds, what is this?”
“Shut up you two!” Mandy yelled from the bedroom. She groaned and the mattress springs squeaked. Then she said again, “Shut up.”
Ted sat frozen, completely motionless, like he was tracking a deer. Then he slowly lowered his coffee cup, a string of spit extending between it and his lips. He pointed toward the bedroom, signaling, Girl?
I nodded to say, Yes, girl in there.
Whoa, he mouthed, what the fuck, incredulously.
“Go to sleep,” I yelled back. By then I was jittery with three cups of coffee.
I stuffed the lecture notes into my bag and motioned to leave.
I jostled Ted toward the door. He resisted.
Mandy turned the corner from my bedroom and brushed between us. She stumbled over the carpet, her eyes half-closed. She dropped onto the couch and said, “This spot’s warm. Who was sitting here? You must be Ted. Ted, were you burying your farts into the cushion? It’s warm.” She yawned. Her auburn hair stood from the side of her head like a shelf. “Oh man, I hate Mondays. I don’t feel like going to work today.”
“Who are you?” Ted asked.
“I thought you didn’t have a job,” I said.
“I don’t,” she said. “It was just a metaphor.”
“That’s not a metaphor.”
“Listen to the professor,” she mocked me. “Good morning, grammar.” “Who are you supposed to be? Is that your magazine, with the cellulite divas?”
“That’s not a question of grammar. It’s just a figure of speech.”
“A metaphor,” she said. “Work sucks. I’m glad I have the day off.” “You’re being ironic,” I told her. “But I don’t think you’re doing it intentionally.”
“I work at Mobile Hut,” Ted said.
“Yawn,” Mandy said, and then she yawned. She scratched her head, revealing some tribal tattoo on her inner bicep. “Rounds, what time are you getting back tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Five.” Actually, once I finished teaching I usually took a bus home, changed into sweatpants, and went back to sleep. But with Mandy there, I thought that afternoon I would stay on campus and plan lessons or do departmental crap (or, what I ended up doing, falling asleep in the library for a couple hours).
“Awesome. Five o’clock.” Mandy pointed back at herself. “By then I’ll be a new woman. You’ll see. Look for a new job. Look for a new place. Take a shower.”
“Whatever,” I said permissively, my mistake.
“What are we supposed to be looking for?” she asked one evening as we walked along the paved trails down by the Mississippi River. By then it was October, and already we had endured an early freeze and false snow. Mandy’s situation— unemployed and squatting in my apartment—was unchanged. “I’m freezing my tits off, Rounds. Tell me what’s the point of this.”
“There’s no point, per se,” I told her. “We’re just getting out of the apartment. Sometimes I like to come out here and think.”
“What an absolutely jerk-off thing to say. And what is it you think about, Rounds?”
“I just think thoughts. I think about my role in society. About the changes I want to make in my life. I consider the cyclical properties of nature.” At that, Mandy scoffed. “My dissertation,” I continued.
“Do you think about me?” By that point Mandy and I were sleeping together—or more accurately, we were having sex, since my mattress was too small for us to fall asleep together. We tried it once and I had fallen off and landed on my kayak, which, for no better option, I was storing between the bed and the wall. She and I weren’t making love, that’s for sure.
“Not really,” I said. A bicycler whizzed past unexpectedly and I jumped to the side, nearly turning my ankle. “Watch out, crazy,” I yelled.
“What’s your dissertation?” she asked.
“It’s a book-length manuscript I have to write so I can be a doctor.”
“I know that. What do you think, I’m a moron? What’s it about?”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll care. But okay. It’s about Richard Nixon, basically, about his ethical parameters. You remember all the Watergate fallout in the early Seventies, right?”
“I wasn’t alive in the Seventies.”
“No shit. I mean, you remember studying this, right? I’m just providing context.” We leaned against the rail of a short bridge crossing a stagnant finger of the river. Below us a bunch of muddy pop bottles and empty potato chip bags had accumulated against the shore. “Everyone today thinks of Nixon as a crook and a thief. Now, I don’t champion Nixon’s policies, really, but I’m interested in his deceits. It’s like how I was interested when Hulk Hogan began wearing black shirts and sunglasses, joined the n.W.o., and changed his persona to ‘Hollywood’ Hogan.” Mandy was doing something like nodding. Sometimes this happens when I’m teaching, a sign of encouragement. “My dissertation argues that Nixon’s actions, even if they weren’t morally guided, were ethically guided.”
I went on. I said it was painfully obvious that Nixon had cheated in 1972 to defeat George McGovern. But what’s also obvious was that he would have won even without cheating. Nixon’s lopsided victory resulted in an immediate upswing in voter confidence, allowing his administration to pursue unobstructed their short-term domestic and foreign policy objectives. And while you can debate the validity of Nixon’s vision, you can’t deny that through manipulation and deceit he was able to pursue that vision. “So the cheating, we would say, was immoral,” I told Mandy. “But according to Nixon’s beliefs and motives, it was on all accounts justified. In that case, by Nixon’s paradigm, the cheating was necessary and thus ethical.” I explained how morality is communal, the Judeo-Christian laws serving as our common morality. Ethics, I said, are personal and more specialized. A man’s ethics are contingent upon the circumstances or variables of a given situation. For example, I told her, if you kill a man who plans to kill fifty men, that, by law, would be immoral since it violates the Ten Commandments. Yet if you’re guided by a system of personal beliefs—basic utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest population, social preservation, whatever—then your action is indeed ethical. Mandy was leaning across the railing, spitting down into the water and watching the splash rings it created. “Ethics,” I continued, “aren’t a question of rightness or wrongness, but rather consistency. And I say Dick Nixon, though immoral, was the epitome of ethical behavior, since he consistently acted in pursuit of what he believed was right. Manipulation and deceit were simply characteristic of Nixon’s ethical system.” “Holy shit,” Mandy said, “are you hungry? I am so hungry. Walking makes me hungry. What time is it? The sun’s almost down. Whoa. I’m hungry.”
I told her we were out of food. It had been her turn to go grocery shopping. She had not been heeding my chore lists, nor was she respecting my bathroom occupancy schedule. “Listen,” I said. “You can go back to the apartment. I’ll get something from the deli.”
“Yes,” she said. “Best idea I’ve heard all day.”
At Hennepin Avenue I gave her the key and we parted ways. I started out over the bridge toward Lunds, traffic zooming past and causing fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts to circle along the concrete.
I believed in my dissertation, although work on it had long ago stalled. The previous year, one of my officemates, this guy Joshua, had stated that you can’t throw a rock through a library window nowadays without hitting a book on Nixon. Suddenly I began to dread that my work—the beginning of my life’s work—wasn’t meaningful, or that I was wrong, or worse, that no one would care. It launched me into some sort of malaise, one I feared was rooted in something existential. I set everything aside and read Profiles in Courage several times cover to cover. I began having a couple beers each night, then a few and then several. And worse, I deleted the 150 pages of my dissertation and was left with two legal pads of indecipherable notes. In the eyes of anyone else, I may as well have spent the previous two semesters sitting at my desk masturbating.
In that same conversation, Joshua told me that a chapter of his dissertation on water table disputes of the Lakota Sioux had been picked up by the Journal of Self-Important Fuckfaces. That guy, I hate him. I hate the way he wears corduroy blazers, the way he insists on being called Joshua instead of plain Josh, the way he says societal instead of social, potentiality instead of potential. He’ll end up tenure-track at an East Coast liberal arts school while I’ll be forever floating applications to community colleges. His posture is one of indefatigable cynicism and cool irony. Watching him makes me no longer want to be smart. I believe a man can become too educated—or so he will think—and find it impossible anymore to be sincere. It’s detestable, in my eyes.
Back at my apartment Mandy was tiding herself over with saltines. “Chicken,” I announced, “and hot rolls.” I spread it out across the kitchen counter.
“You’re welcome.” We loaded our plates and sat at the couch. We ate. Soon my fingers were covered in grease. “Get me a paper towel,” I said.
“Lick it off.”
“You’re closer to the kitchen,” I told her. “Just do it.”
“Fuck you,” she said, her lips greasy from the chicken.
“Fuck me? I paid for this. And I walked over the river to get it. You can take five steps to the pantry for me.”
“Walk six steps for yourself. I’m eating.”
“Get me a paper towel,” I said. “Come on. Do it.”
She gave me the finger. I leaned over and wiped my chicken-greasy fingers on her forearm. She dropped a half-eaten roll on the floor. “You cheeky shit,” she said. She picked up another roll and threw it at my face, so I grabbed both her forearms and covered them in grease. She leaned forward and kissed my cheek with her greasy lips. Soon I had pinned her backward on the couch, holding my face inches from hers, taunting her.
Just then the lock on my apartment door turned over. Ted entered. He was still wearing his phone-selling shirt, but had changed into sweatpants. He held a cereal bowl and a spoon. He said, “What the fuck’s going on here?”
“Knocking?” I said. “Think of knocking instead of just breaking in?” “Is he hurting you?”
“Shut up,” I said. “What do you want?” “I need milk. For my Tastee Flakes.”
“We don’t have any,” Mandy snapped. She climbed out from under me.
Ted sniffed the air. “Chicken,” he said. He stepped into the kitchenette and bit into a drumstick. With his mouth full he said, “Where’s the potatoes?”
“Thank you,” Mandy said, picking apart a roll. She and Ted were both staring at me, almost accusingly.
I said, “I don’t like to overload on starches, okay? They go straight to my hips.”
A deep silence followed, as if I had spoken a foreign language.
“Jesus. What a pussy.” Ted put another drumstick into his cereal bowl and wiped his fingers on his sweatpants. “Pussy,” he said. Then he left, locking the door behind himself.
Mandy went into the kitchenette for another roll. “Starches!” she said. “That was embarrassing for all of us. What are you, like, sixty?”
One night I was making a mustard sandwich in the kitchenette when Mandy came and stood next to me, staring at the side of my face. “Rounds,” she said, “we need to talk.”
“We can’t keep this up.”
“Okay,” I said. I went past her into the living room with my sandwich.
“Listen,” she said. “I like being here. We make pretty good roommates, especially since you pay the rent. But, Rounds, things need to change. I’ve been thinking about this. We both need something different.”
“Cut the shit,” I told her. “You won’t hurt my feelings.”
“All right, listen. We need a TV. I don’t understand you. Lucky Teddy’s got a TV, but I’m stuck down here in bookville. You have two bookcases. I tried reading some of your books, Rounds.” She suddenly gave me a look as if I had tried stabbing her. “They are fucking boring, dude. Look. What’s this?” She held up my dogeared copy of The Prince. “I thought this would be a fairy tale. Wrong. Or this, The Art of War—who buys an art book without pictures?”
“Those are for my dissertation.” That short talk along the river—that and the tedious prospect of spending all day in my apartment with Mandy—had re-enthused me for my dissertation. Of late I had been fleeing to campus each day from eight to five as if it was my job (which technically it is). Some mornings I read the alt weeklies in the union basement; other mornings I solved crosswords in the architecture library. But afternoons I would enter the History TA office, tell everyone to shut the fuck up, and settle in at my desk. Work was progressing, though slowly. I trusted that eventually I would arrive at a watershed. “I’m using those for my dissertation,” I said again.
“Interesting. Tell me more about Thisology and Thatology. Be sure to use words I don’t understand. You know what I like to read? This.” She picked a book off the arm of the couch and handed it to me, a paperback I hadn’t seen before, Tawdry Wishes. Its cover showed a strapping man illogically dressed in a cummerbund with no shirt embracing a buxom young policewoman as behind them a houseboat raged on fire. The image, utterly perplexing, made me curious to read the novel. “I got that from the bookcase in the community room downstairs.”
“Gross!” I threw Tawdry Wishes back at her. “That’s where they put all the old libraries of tenants who die.”
“And one other thing,” she said, dropping the book on the couch, “we need groceries. Do you realize you just ate expired mustard over moldy bread? That’s disgusting.”
“What! Why didn’t you say anything?” “We were talking about the TV.”
“We weren’t talking about the TV. You were! I was eating a bacteria burger, apparently!” Something felt funny in my stomach. My throat had a sensation like it needed to be scratched. “You never get groceries, Mandy. That’s why we never have anything to eat. It’s your turn. It’s been your turn for the last month and a half.”
“Hey, I have some good news,” she said. “I applied for a job today.” She smiled. That in itself appeared to be the good news. “A job,” she said again.
“I think I’m gonna puke,” I told her. “Where’s this job?”
“At the building,” she said. “A job at the downtown building.” It was obviously a line of bullshit. “I might start next week.”
I went and coughed over the garbage can, but nothing would come up. I didn’t expect it to. I was putting on a show, unsuccessfully, to ply some remorse or sympathy. “This sucks,” I finally said.
“I’d offer you saltines but they’re all gone.”
Her consolation would be sex, I knew. And I would accept. By then we had tried pretty much everything we could fit onto my twin-size mattress. Of late she was introducing new things, deplorable things she dressed up with exotic nicknames: the Guatemalan Gumdrop, the Polish Poke, the El Paso Lasso. I suspected she was passing her days in the apartment brainstorming these things. At first I resisted, but she was very persuasive. I got used to them. Life changes in that manner, where something that was once unthinkable becomes commonplace. You become accustomed to loneliness and desperation. It changes you without your knowing it, since your own life is always fluid to you.
That night in the bedroom she chanted into my ear, “Hit me, hit me.” I was on top of her, her fingernails digging into the flesh of my torso. “Hit me,” she called. I said, “I think I twisted my knee getting off the bus today.” I tried shifting my weight. Again she chanted, “Hit me!”
I was in the right position, so I swung open-fisted and landed it along her ribcage, just below her armpit. I hit her again, then once more.
She reached up and slapped me across my left cheek.
I slapped her. She slapped me back. We carried on with things.
Afterward, I sat at the foot of the mattress, checking to see if she’d broken my flesh. “We have to be more careful,” I said. “My health insurance doesn’t cover sex wounds.”
Mandy sat against the headboard, covering herself with a sheet. My bedroom window looks out onto a concrete parking ramp, the lights of which shine into my bedroom, despite me being on the seventh floor, like a constant nightlight. Mandy’s face was lined with light from between the blind slats; she appeared completely indifferent, uncaring, like my presence didn’t matter to her.
“Here,” I said, turning my back to her, “take a look at this. Does this look like a mole to you? I’m worried about this. People should have to take mole inventories each year.”
She pulled the sheet up tighter around her chest. “I meant ‘hit me’ like we were playing cards. Like blackjack. Like ‘gimme more.’”
“I don’t think it’s a mole. Probably just a bump.” I pulled on my old basketball shorts and stood there in the silence. Mandy was looking away from me, toward the kayak on the opposite floor. “All right,” I said. “I heard you. My mistake.”
She looked up at me. On her face was something of acceptance, or something of forgiveness. Her lips were flat, as if she would either smile or cry. She raised the sheet to invite me in with her.
“We have a problem with communication,” I said.
Then I told her good night. I went out to the couch. Soon I fell asleep tickled by a feeling of uneasiness, a vague feeling, anything but overwhelming.
I took my grievances to Ted. I told him how Mandy’s constant talking was like a siren when I was trying to read. I explained how my computer was always freezing up from her video downloads. I said how infrequently she bathed, and I detailed some of her sexual idiosyncrasies.
“I’m not comfortable with you telling me this,” he said. “Talk to her, not me.”
“She won’t listen,” I said. “The only frequency she picks up is her own shrill voice. Talking to her is like pressing a deaf person’s doorbell. When I want to tell her something I have to rap my fist against her skull so the hamster wakes up and starts turning in its wheel.”
“Rounds, please don’t tell me this. This is between the two of you.”
“Ted, be a friend. Who else am I gonna talk to? I certainly can’t talk to her.”
“Guys, do we have to watch baseball?” Mandy asked from the opposite end of Ted’s futon. We were sitting three across, all facing the television. Around us were dishes crusted with food residue and plastic bottles half-filled with tobacco spit.
“Yes, Mandy,” I said, leaning forward to look past Ted. “It’s the World Series. We have to watch it.”
“But who cares? It’s soooo boring.” “I care,” I said. “And Ted cares.” “Leave me out of this, please.”
“By the way, Rounds, you’re the one who doesn’t listen. I just told you to shut up like five times.”
I sat back in a huff. It was Game Three, and the Phillies and Rays were tied at one game apiece. I cared immensely. The Rays had been that year’s feel-good story, the most youthful team in the league, a bunch of no-namers and upstarts who had shocked everyone by winning the AL East. I hated them and wanted them to lose. Pitching that night for the Phillies was Jamie Moyer, a forty-five-year-old journeyman finally making his first World Series appearance. The statisticians kept posting the same graphic listing Moyer’s MLB debut (June 1986) and the age on that day of the batters he faced (usually three or four years). Moyer looked haggard out on the mound, like a lifer sergeant who each year gets assigned a group of undisciplined, untethered recruits. So far he was throwing a gem, allowing only two hits, one walk, and one run over five innings.
The pressure was such that I was nervous. I noticed suddenly that I was bouncing my foot on the floor, shaking the futon. “Which one’s Joe DiMaggio?” Mandy asked. Ted snapped a can of chew between his fingers, ignoring us both. His eyes were fixed scornfully toward the TV.
“All right, you two,” I said. “I wish I could stay, but I have to grade some papers.” That was my own line of bullshit. Usually I assigned my students grades based only on their first paragraph, preventing any inquiries by marking nothing worse than B-minus. “Go Phillies, fuck the Rays,” I said, then left.
Downstairs, listening to the game on the radio, I threw a world-class tantrum when Moyer was pulled in the seventh inning, kicking my desk and splitting my toenail. In response to the pain I bit down into an oven mitt, which for some reason Mandy had left on the windowsill, and popped a blood vessel in my eye. By the time the Phillies won it on a walk-off single, I had bandaged my toe and changed into my shorts for bed. That night I took the mattress, leaving the couch for Mandy.
I woke up and my back hurt. I went into the kitchenette and started a pot of coffee.
Mandy was not there. Her rucksack was gone. Her things had been cleared from the bathroom. On the coffee table was a note scribbled on a torn liner page from one of my paperbacks: your a great guy rounds and I want thank you for your awesomeness. now its time we go on and thanks again for everything you are number one. someday we might look back and laughing say isn’t that fucked up? all best, M.
That previous night, I later discovered, she had vented to Ted. She complained about my nagging. About the quiet, orderly environment I maintained. About how one night I had unexpectedly hit her. As an afterthought, she told him I’d been a lousy teacher, which in itself wasn’t news to Ted, although until then he hadn’t known Mandy was my former student. Hearing all this, Ted was convinced that I had changed beyond recognition, that I had become a lowlife even he could no longer tolerate.
He offered her refuge, he believed. He offered her his futon and his television.
For reasons I can’t explain, I handled things poorly. I avoided Ted. I took to Miller High Life. I stopped shaving, and one day I melodramatically dressed in black. Even if I didn’t want Mandy for myself anymore, I didn’t want her upstairs with Ted.
My friends were of no help. Appletoft said his wife didn’t want me around and hung up before explaining why. Jacobs told me what I’d done was despicable. Cleaver didn’t answer my calls, and I wouldn’t visit his apartment complex for fear of scabies.
I was blackballed. Ted Dexter started the rumor mill on me. He oversimplified everything to say, in short, that I allowed a student to live with me in exchange for sex. He claimed he swooped in and saved her from me, like she was some orphan in the ghetto. He did it on purpose, blackballed me. Why? To save himself. He knew I would try and blackball him.
And it’s true. When I first called those three, it was to claim that Ted was the lowlife. Which, I can now say, he is.
Earlier, before I’d lost my wits with Mandy, Ted asked me on our morning commute what the Chinese character tattoos on her shoulder blade meant. “Tea and coffee,” I said, though of course I had no idea. And I didn’t believe, in our normal interactions, that Ted should have seen them. “They’re pretty sloppy,” he said. “Probably had them done on the cheap.” I said, “Probably.” He dropped me off at campus and we didn’t speak of it again.
Soon after that, Mandy bragged about how she had keyed into Ted’s apartment while he was sleeping and stolen his last frozen pizza. I checked my pocket: I still had my key to Ted’s. But I was so happy to be eating that I never asked why he had made Mandy her own key.
So my suspicions were aroused, though I lacked hard evidence. Regardless, I believed I had enough to blackball Ted. Later, when I no longer cared, I would receive confirmation.
On a recent weekday morning Mandy keyed into my apartment. I was sitting at the desk, on my computer. “Oh,” she said, stopping short of the kitchenette. “Why aren’t you at class?”
“It was canceled.”
“You’re the teacher.”
“I canceled it.”
She sat on the far end of the couch. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Oh, right. Tricky Dick.” Then she said, “Look here, puppy-dog eyes. We’re still friends, aren’t we? I hope you don’t have a twisted dick over me and Teddy. I thought you knew anyway.” She tapped on the coffee table with her fingertips.
“Come on.” She smiled like I was putting her on. “You know. He had a key to your apartment. He was always breaking in to get milk or eggs or something stupid. What was I gonna do?”
“He didn’t—” I said. “He didn’t rape you, did he?”
“What—no! Oh god, no.” She laughed. “I don’t think I could be. . . What are you, crazy—the R-word? Get outta here, I’m always up for it.” This did not, however, ease my mind. “I’m up for it right now, if you are.”
I replied, “Give my spare key back to Ted. I don’t want you to have it.”
“You got anything to eat?” she asked. “I’m gonna take a look.”
She went to the kitchenette and I turned back to my desk. The refrigerator door opened, then the freezer door. “Let’s see here,” I heard her say. “Frozen waffles, I guess.” The toaster button dropped. Time passed. Without my noticing, Mandy left.
Now it’s February, the coldest month. Mandy just moved out from Ted’s, to where or for whom I don’t know. This week he taped a note to my door, written on the back of a Burger King receipt, reading Truce? On the front I circled where he had ordered four Whopper Jr.’s and wrote You’re fat, then returned it to his door.
I’m getting on with my days. Soon I’ll be finished with my dissertation and you’ll have to call me Doctor Rounds. I could be anywhere in six months. You’ll miss me.
What do you have to say for yourself, Ted? You weasel, you snake in the grass. You betrayed me! What do you have to say about how you snuck around and double-crossed me and smeared my name? Are you sorry? I know you won’t apologize. Here I spelled out all your misdeeds, and now you’re playing the fool—now everyone knows you’re the lowlife, thanks to me! We’re even.
Joseph Holt is author of the story collection Golden Heart Parade (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021). He graduated from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His writing has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.
(a revision of “Everything Equal,” NOR #11 [Spring 2012])
I’m thirty years old now, though I often feel like a bratty teenager. Life isn’t fair! No one listens to me! Other people are having more fun! True, but if someone else complained like this, I’d tell them to shut up. No one tells me to shut up because, as I noted, no one is listening.
And no, thirty is not old. Yet my skin is loosening and my gums receding. My joints crack. Hair from my scalp is migrating into my nose and ear canals. Kids on the bus now offer me their seats. Fast-food workers are addressing me as “sir.” Everything feels temporary—my ugly clothes and boxy apartment, my graduate studies and thankless teaching gig.
Am I better now than I was at twenty? I’m a bit wiser and more seasoned, naturally, but I’m also more cynical and predictable. Not much has changed in the last ten years. LeBron James won NBA titles with three different teams, but I can’t even afford his sneakers. Taylor Swift sold thirty million albums, while I’m still getting writer’s block on three-sentence emails.
Another thing, in the last ten years I’ve made exactly zero new friends. Sure, I’ve had acquaintances, chummy co-workers, even the occasional drinking buddy—but never did anyone assert himself as what I consider a friend. What do I mean by that? Friends tell you when you have a booger in your nose. They say if you’re getting fat. They make off-color jokes, unafraid of your judgment. They silently count how much pizza you’ve both eaten so there will be no argument over the final slice.
I don’t actually need new friends. Most people are stupid, and I’d rather not be annoyed. Besides, I already have four good friends. We’re all from the same town in South Dakota, we went to college together, pledged the fraternity, and then we all moved to Minneapolis. Four friends is plenty. For me, it’s the perfect number.
Two of my friends have wives now. Appletoft and his wife just bought a house in Wayzata, one of the affluent suburbs, and surely a family is soon to come. Jacobs and his wife: same story, different suburb. My third friend, Cleaver, launched a courier service for ag products and tractor parts, and he’s gone for weeks at a time driving all across the Midwest.
Then there’s Ted Dexter. He’s my best friend. Ted is in every photo of mine, he’s part of every story I tell. Here we are playing Little League baseball, or dressed as Mario and Luigi for Halloween. We’re glugging watery beer in college, taking a guys’ weekend to Vegas, cheering on the Twins at Target Field. Ted manages a cell phone store in one of the suburban malls. We live in the same apartment building, just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River.
I love my friends—I’ll say it, love. We share histories. We don’t need some moronic nickname like the Fearsome Fivesome to cement our status. We’ve grown up together and remained friends. That’s worth something.
Now, with all that said, I’m afraid I’ve been expelled from the group.
The problem: I have been falsely accused. Ted Dexter is to blame.
Enter Mandy Muffkin, aimless, shameless, lazy like an ancient reptile. Mandy flaunts personal boundaries and property claims alike. She wants to be entertained. She once threw pickle slices at my windows to see if they would stick. She cleaned the dirt between her toes with my toothbrush. Mandy is a prankster and a vandal, a parasite, a leech—and yet she made me a better person. Until recently, Mandy Muffkin was my live-in companion. A funny word, companion. Like special friend, it’s how obituary writers signal a relationship in the gray space.
One evening this past fall, I was at a campus coffee shop reading Drive, Larry Bird’s autobiography. I’m earning my PhD in History, with an emphasis in Vietnam-era politics. Drive was pure diversion, inspiration for me at the start of another semester. Lately I’d been unable to face any more texts, which is the academic word for unfun bullshit. Then someone plopped down into the armchair beside mine. “Mister Rounds,” said this girl—this young woman. “Check it out. Talk about a shitshow.”
Behind the counter, two young baristas were tending to a fire. One had burned a muffin or a bagel, and the other had draped it with paper towels. The flames were high enough to tickle the menu board, and the baristas were cursing. One dumped out a blender of smoothie mixture, which sizzled the fire and put up a cloud of green smoke. Everyone was staring, open-mouthed, but I hadn’t noticed. I’m very good at ignoring other people and their needs.
“Who are you?” I said.
“Mandy!” she said. “I’m the one who fell asleep in her fish sandwich.”
“You called me the Giggler,” she said. “Remember I had the wrong textbook and didn’t realize until midterms. You told me I couldn’t paint my toenails in class.”
Yes, Mandy Muffkin. Four years earlier, she had been a freshman in Survey of American Thought, my first assignment as a TA. Back then I was even worse at teaching, and my only discussion strategy was to name an event or historical figure and then add, Talk about a shitshow! As in, How about Teapot Dome? Talk about a shitshow! This nonsense always got Mandy giggling, the only sound among all the blank stares and brainless doodles.
Back then, Mandy was a typical coed. She wore university sweatshirts and walked like a hunchback beneath the weight of all her textbooks. Like so many freshmen, she navigated campus with her phone while eating breakfast from a Styrofoam container. But now, here in the coffee shop, she was someone different. Her hair was mussed and her nails unpainted, her forearms inked in a floral pattern. Her shirt was stretched and her jeans were ripped. These weren’t style choices. Mandy smelled bad. Her feet were dirty. A canvas rucksack drooped by her side, holding what I suspected was everything she owned.
“I dropped out,” she said, “before you ask me how classes are going.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “I was not a good student.”
“You were a sharp thinker. Your summary papers were very astute.”
She was skeptical, and rightly so. I was just saying crap to make her feel nice. She could have spoken Russian in class and I wouldn’t have remembered. Anyway, she didn’t want to talk about school. She had other ideas, and she told me about them. She wanted to get a basset hound, she said. It seems fun to juggle torches. The problem with sandals is that you can’t play soccer. Oregon must have the most trees, unless, wait, is Alaska a state or a province? On and on. Sea otters would be so great for cuddling. Had I heard the call of a whippoorwill?
I stood to leave. I told Mandy it was nice seeing her again.
“Wait,” she said, “which way are you going?”
“That’s where I live,” I said.
“Who lives downtown?”
“I do, in a big apartment building, fifteen stories tall. It sucks ass, if you’re curious.”
“Are you walking? I’ll walk with you.”
“You don’t have to,” I said. “I like being alone.”
“Me too! We can be alone together.”
“Alone together. That’s what we call an oxymoron, Mandy.”
“Oh, jeez,” she said. “I already got a C in your class. Don’t tell me there’s gonna be another quiz.”
Mandy was of course homeless—housing insufficient, we’re now being taught to say. But what landed her in that state, I’m not sure. She wasn’t a criminal and didn’t use drugs. She was employable, if unmotivated. What I suspect is that she’d gotten distracted and had failed to plan, and in her carefree way found itinerant life to be a new adventure.
She stayed that night at my apartment. I gave her my bedroom, which is nothing more than a twin-size mattress and a lumpy pillow, hardly an upgrade from the streets. Even the mattress is on the floor. Meanwhile, I went to sleep on my living room futon, using my only bath towel as a blanket.
I’m not a charitable person. I don’t like sharing. What do you want from me? I make fifteen grand a year, drive a Chevy Cobalt, and feed myself on mustard sandwiches and dinged-up fruit. It wouldn’t bother my conscience if Mandy was on the street, but before I’d noticed she had taken root in my apartment like a weed.
This was first week of classes. I went into campus but left Mandy my computer. That way she could search the job sites and the housing ads—or so I thought. When I returned home and asked about her “progress,” she would recount the videos she’d watched. Training videos? No, highlight shows and blooper reels. But what about her applications? She tilted her head like a parakeet being drilled with calculus.
“I need to do emails,” I said. “Can I get the computer?”
“But what will I watch?”
“If you have the computer, what will I watch? I notice you don’t have a TV.”
“No, I don’t like TV,” I said. “TV is deleterious to my personal welfare and esteem.”
“TV makes me feel like a pile of shit.”
“Then what d’you do for fun?”
“Crossword puzzles,” I said. “Go to a Twins game. Maybe walk to that indie theater across the river and see a documentary. My friend Ted and I play catch down in the courtyard.”
“I like TV,” Mandy said. “What would you say to getting a TV?”
“My friend Ted has a TV. He lives one floor up—” I pointed up to the corner of my ceiling, “and one unit over.”
“This Ted sounds like a nice guy. We should see what he’s doing. My favorite TV show is one with a dancing contest or a singing contest, or a dating or weight-loss or cooking contest. But I like made-up shows, too, like with the cops and the perverts. You should get a TV. There must be a thousand channels in the world, or if you think of all the countries, probably a million. Twins games are on TV, too. TV has a lot of things you can watch.”
I never claimed to be a good teacher. And my students would never claim that I transform them into critical thinkers. (My end-of-the-semester evaluations are inconclusive, because by then too few students are attending class.) And to be clear, I was exaggerating my sense of self-discipline. I didn’t need TV to feel like a pile of shit. Like Mandy, I was suffering my own crisis of motivation. If not for the burden of staying home with her, I might have cancelled class even on the first week, so little did I care anymore.
“Sometimes I’ll walk the trails by the river,” I said, “or I’ll drive around the suburbs and look at the houses. That’s kind of like watching TV.”
“What? No, it isn’t. But okay. If it’s walking by the river or driving around the suburbs, I vote for the one without walking.”
Suburbs it was. We needed another blanket and bath towel anyway. We stopped at TJ Maxx and browsed the gewgaws. Mandy needed socks, lotions, a hair dryer. Because we were near the Appeltofts’ house, I drove past and pointed it out. The suburbs can be dull, so I’m told, but I find them aspirational. Wouldn’t that be nice to own a house? To acquire tools and appliances, to have privacy from one’s neighbors, to creep toward death in comfort and security? The TJ Maxx stop had been expensive—Mandy had left her card at home—so after that we got dollar tacos and ate them in the car. Near a work zone, I slammed a pothole and Mandy drooped meat and fillings down her chest.
“Oh, shoot,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. This is your shirt.” She pulled a plank from her sleeve and crinkled the wrapper. “Do you like taffy?”
“No. That stinks like fake cherries. Did you steal that?”
“It was past the expiration date,” she said, shiftily.
But I don’t think taffy even has an expiration date.
Ted was amused by the Mandy situation. To him, I’d adopted a stray dog while knowing nothing about nutrition, vaccinations or leash laws. And he had a narrow vision of what happens when men and women live together. Were we boning? No, we were not “boning.” It wasn’t that kind of relationship.
“Then what kind of relationship is it?”
“One-sided,” I said. “I give and she takes.”
“Then kick her out.”
“I can’t. She won’t leave,” I said. “And if I did kick her out, things would go back to normal. I need a break from normal.”
Normal to me was the same as bland. Before Mandy, I would spend entire nights on the futon crossing and uncrossing my legs, doubting my aptitude and regretting my decision to pursue a PhD. Though I was no more hopeful with her there, neither was I brooding under a cloud of my own hostility. Case in point: lately I’d been fleeing to campus like it was a forty-hour-a-week job (which I guess it should be). As a teacher, I was arriving early to class, learning my students’ names, engaging them in small talk. As a student, I was annotating my readings and no longer slouching halfway beneath the seminar tables. I was making efforts, embracing the work—all because I couldn’t bear staying home with Mandy.
Ted and I hold each other’s spare keys. I asked for mine back and said I would return it once Mandy left.
“We should take her to a game,” he said, spinning out the key from his keyring. “Or get dinner some night.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so. She feeds on charity, Ted. She’ll get her claws in you, too.”
Mandy was not a succubus, though. I was exaggerating because I didn’t want Ted to interfere. Sure, my days with her were annoying, but they were also productive. A fair tradeoff. And annoying—I can deal with that. I ignore things very well.
Still, Mandy had her quirks and peccadilloes. She liked to whistle. She played videos at high volume on her phone. She left mugs on my bookshelves and got crumbs on the futon. Strands of hair materialized in the butter dish. She would lick her pinky finger and then scratch her inner ear. She laid her bare feet on the coffee table, whereas I wear penny loafers indoors.
If ever I was truly distracted, I would go for a walk. Being outside clears away the fog in my mind. It renews my sense of scale, and I accept that the world is larger than the space between my reading glasses and whichever paperback book I’m currently holding. This was an insight I hoped to share with Mandy, and so she and I began walking together.
“I don’t get what we’re doing,” she said. “You come out here to think, but what should we be thinking about?”
“Think whatever you like,” I said. “You don’t have to force it.”
“I might force you into the river if we don’t turn back. I’m freezing my ass off.”
True, that fall was unseasonably cold. Down on the river trails, we could feel the frost and see our breath. I say trails, but what I mean are asphalt paths. Lots of people recreate by the river—runners, cyclists, stroller pushers. Just then, in fact, a cross-country team weaved around us onto the grass. “Excuse us,” said a guy, and Mandy steered me by the elbow. It felt weird being touched, even through my jacket and two shirts.
“So on a normal walk, what do you think about?”
“Plenty of things,” I said. “My five- and ten-year plans. How baseball is a metaphor for life. The things I said poorly and how I’ll say them better next time. My dissertation.”
“What is your dissertation?”
“It’s a big manuscript I’m writing so I can be a doctor.”
“No shit. I meant, what’s it about?”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll care,” I said. “But it’s about Richard Nixon, basically, about his ethical parameters. You remember the Watergate break-ins, Bob Haldeman, the secret tapes?”
“Hmm. I might have missed that class.”
“You were there, you just weren’t listening. So, the ’72 election was a total shitshow—”
“Sounds familiar,” she said.
We had wandered down to the mill ruins, where many decades earlier flour had been shipped along the Mississippi River. The path ended at a metal railing, and we looked down to where a bunch of pop bottles and potato chip bags had washed up against the bank. I cleared my throat, a regrettable tic when I’m entering pedagogue mode.
“Everyone today thinks of Nixon as a crook and a thief,” I said. “Now, I don’t champion Nixon’s policies, but I’m interested in his deceits. My dissertation argues that his actions, if not ethical, were nonetheless moral. Get it?”
She did not get it. I said yes, Nixon had cheated, lied and swindled, he was a bully and a racist and a conman. You can debate Nixon’s political agenda, but you can’t deny that he was an effective politician. He took power and used it—abused it—until he was certain it would be lawfully taken from him. “His actions, truly all of them, were immoral,” I said. “But for his political aims, they were justified, necessary, and thus ethical.”
Mandy was spitting down into the water, watching the splash rings.
Morality is communal, I said, citing the Judeo-Christian laws as our common morality. Ethics, by contrast, depend on the variables of a situation. For example, if you kill a man who plans to kill fifty men, that would be immoral since it violates the Ten Commandments. Yet if you’re guided by a system of personal beliefs—utilitarianism, social preservation, whatever—then your action is indeed ethical. “We assess ethics by the consistency of their application,” I said. “By that measure, Dick Nixon was the epitome of ethical behavior, since his actions were so consistently immoral. You could say the same for all the modern demagogues—Huey Long, McCarthy, George Wallace. All these turds, it’s like one common sequence. So my dissertation, in short, explores the intersection of ethics, populism and power in American civics.”
“Holy shit,” said Mandy, “are you hungry? I am so hungry. Walking makes me hungry. What time is it? The sun’s almost down. Whoa. I’m hungry.”
We were out of food back home. I’d quit buying groceries to see how Mandy would respond. She had a debit card, but she wasn’t using it. I’d been paid that week, however, and in the moment I was feeling flush. “You can go back to the apartment,” I said. “I’ll get a rotisserie chicken from Lunds.”
“Yes,” she said. “Now there’s an idea!”
Despite all that chatter, I was seriously stalled on my dissertation. A while back, my officemate Joshua remarked that you can’t throw a rock through a library window without hitting a book on Nixon. It was his way of suggesting that my work was insignificant. And then, after four years of Donald Trump (talk about a shitshow), Nixon had begun to look like a goddamn Boy Scout! In a fit of insecurity, I deleted all 150 pages of my dissertation and was left with two legal pads of indecipherable notes. To my classmates and professors, I may as well have spent the last four years at my desk jerking off.
In that same conversation, Joshua told me that part of his dissertation was being published in the Journal of Smug Fuckfaces. What’s his dissertation about? Not sure, because I hate that butthole and choose to ignore him. He’s always stroking his beard and chortling while he reads The Economist. Don’t mispronounce a word around Joshua. Don’t bother asking his thoughts on the pennant race. He’s Mister Pissant, soon to be Doctor Dickhead. Nice corduroy blazer, Joshua, it’s so droll. Oh, and don’t call him Josh—it’s Joshua. That guy got too smart—or so he thinks—and now he can’t be sincere. He was part of my crisis as well.
“Chicken,” I announced back at the apartment. “And taters!”
“Taters,” said Mandy, giving me a high-five. “Fuckin’ A right!”
And that was pretty much why I liked Mandy. She didn’t hide her feelings. Bring this junky deli food to Joshua and he’d want to expostulate on crop subsidies and labor practices.
“Taters, cool.” Ted came from the kitchen area drinking my last Diet Pepsi.
“Oh, hi Ted. What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to ask if you two had dinner plans. Which I see you do.”
“There’s enough for everyone,” I said. “I got hot rolls, veggies, gravy. Dig in.”
And dig in we did. It was late in the evening, so all the deli food had been marked to half-price. We were hungry, and we loaded our plates. The food was salty and fatty, though none of us complained. The only problems were that it was cramped sitting three across on my futon, and that Mandy spat food when she so often spoke with mouth full.
So now Ted was part of the equation. I wasn’t keen on that. You could say I wanted Mandy for myself, which is only partly true. More so, I wanted what Mandy did for me: she added noise, threw off my routine, pushed me out into world and forced me to grow. Ted would screw that up. He and I were too comfortable together. And right then in my life, during what I considered a fair existential crisis, what I needed was a little more discomfort.
Ted and I have a traditional male friendship: we share beers and talk about sports, judge women on numerical scales, repeat all the same old stories. And it’s only more of the same when we’re with Cleaver, Jacobs and Appletoft. This, I imagine, is how straight white guys act on network television, but I was getting tired of it. Now Ted was annoying me, too.
No, I told him over and over, Mandy wasn’t my “girlfriend.” Of course I thought she was pretty. Yes, in such a small apartment, we certainly were intimate. I didn’t know what she “liked,” that is, besides internet videos and fleece blankets.
“Sorry, can you clarify,” he said, “are you sleeping with her?”
“No,” I said. “But I will be.”
“Can I sleep with her?”
“No, I don’t think you can.”
“No. I’m playing the long game,” I said. “We’re gonna fuck. Just you wait.”
But that was a big vulgar lie. I only said it to shut Ted up.
By all standards, Mandy was an attractive female. She was long and lean, sultry and lithe, her face was tan and her hair was smooth. Her eyes were deep and brown, searching. Her tattoos made her seem edgy, while her ill-fitting clothes (mostly mine) made her idiosyncratic. She acted without pretense: attainable, yet somehow beyond reach. Those dorky males on the network shows would be stammering and fumbling at a woman like Mandy. But not me.
I had little desire for sex. Or rather, no desire. To me, sex was a thought experiment. How might one initiate the process? How do partners gauge consent? How does the act shift a couple’s power dynamics? On one hand, I felt like the douche supreme for complicating sex into a matrix. But on the other hand, I was relieved at my own clarity of mind. Sex between me and Mandy would be transactional: I give shelter while she gives her body. That would be an abuse of privilege the scumbags in my dissertation would most assuredly embrace, and which I was all too glad we didn’t need to confront.
Anyway, I know there’s a word for me: asexual. Another is loner, but with Mandy’s help I was breaking free of that one.
And then there was the question of when Mandy would break free of me. I could be a scold and a prig, a schoolmarm, but what could I do? She wasn’t heeding my chore lists, nor was she respecting my bathroom occupancy schedule. I nagged her about employment, finances, hygiene. We weren’t even driving out to the suburbs anymore, because I’d had a skip a month on my auto insurance.
Our problem was one of resource allocation: too little coming in, too much going out. But to Mandy, there was a bigger issue. She was getting bored.
One night I was eating a lemon danish over the sink when she tapped me on the shoulder. I thought it was a bug or a drop of water, and I startled when I saw her there. “Mandy, hello,” I said. “What do you want?”
“We need to talk.”
“Fine,” I said, brushing past her with a second danish.
“I like being here, Rounds. We’re good roommates, especially since you pay the rent. But listen, we can’t keep going like this. Things need to change.”
“Cut the shit,” I told her. “You won’t hurt my feelings.”
“We need a TV. I can’t keep watching these shows on my phone! And before you give me a lecture, I already tried reading some of your books. Like this one, The Prince? Not a fairy tale. Or this one, The Art of War. Who buys an art book without pictures?”
“Those are for my dissertation,” I said. “It’s political theory. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Cool, tell me more about Thisology and Thatology. Be sure to use words with too many syllables. You know what I like to read? Books like this.” She handed me a paperback called Heir to the Everglades. Its cover showed a houseboat on fire, presumably in a bayou. In the foreground, a man in a cummerbund, no shirt, was embracing a young policewoman. “I got that downstairs in the community room.”
“Gross,” I yelled, shoving the book at her. “That’s where they put the old libraries of tenants who die.”
“Another thing, we need groceries. You just ate a moldy danish. That’s disgusting.”
“Moldy… No, that was custard.”
“It was fuzzy.”
“You mean the icing?”
“Icing on custard? You just ate mold, dude.”
“Ugh, those things were like a week old. I only bought them because they were on discount.” Something tickled in my stomach. My throat felt like it needed to be scratched. “You never get groceries, Mandy. It’s your turn. You don’t contribute! I’m not your sugar daddy, all right? It’s hard enough just taking care of myself.”
“Oh, please. Don’t be so dramatic.”
“Hey, I know a thing or two about you,” I said. “I can still access your student file. And guess what I found? Your parents live in Wayzata—same street as the Appeltofts. We drove past their house that night you spilled taco meat on my shirt. So why are you leeching off me? If I’d known it then, I could have dropped you on their stoop, rang the doorbell and sped away!”
“It’s not that simple, Rounds.”
“Oh, enlighten me.”
“They suck,” she said. “Actually, they think I suck. That’s pretty much the whole story.”
I coughed over the garbage can, acting like I would vomit. But that wasn’t going to happen. I was putting on a show, unsuccessfully, to ply sympathy.
“When I was sick, my mom fed me saltines,” Mandy said. “We don’t even have those.”
I complained to Ted. Mandy had frozen my computer with video downloads, I said. She had clogged the shower drain with hair. She clipped her fingernails in the kitchen, she sneezed in my face, she made smells in the bathroom that were oddly tropical. Now she was talking about catching a rabbit for a pet. I said her presence was like a dust storm and her voice like a tornado siren. She was a lump, a pile, a mound.
“Please don’t tell me this,” said Ted. “Talk to her, not me.”
“She won’t listen. Nothing gets through. When I want her attention, I have to knock her on the skull so the hamster wakes up and starts turning in its wheel.”
“Rounds, that’s enough. This is between you and her.”
“Ted, be a friend. Who else am I gonna talk to?”
“Guys, shut up,” said Mandy. “Or else give me the remote so I can crank the volume.”
We were sitting on Ted’s futon watching a dating show, Kissing Cousins or The Horny House or Love Stinks. Ted’s apartment had the same layout as mine, except flipped. And instead of bookshelves and notepads, he had a windshield-sized television and the newest PlayStation. A string of lights ran around his iguana aquarium, and a thin blacklight shone on a Led Zeppelin poster. Same lumpy futon, though.
“This show is stupid,” I said. “Me and Ted want to watch the baseball playoffs.”
“Leave me out of this, please.”
“Baseball is stupid,” said Mandy. “And by the way, Rounds, you’re the one who won’t listen. I just told you like five times to shut up.”
I sat back in a huff.
The dating show was peak idiocy. It was set on a beach villa, meaning no one needed much clothes. All the interviews were scripted, and the green-screen backgrounds were so obviously fake. Now the women were presenting a man with roses—white, pink and red—meant to indicate their horniness levels. But one woman had broken the system by acquiring a yellow rose, and everyone was shouting at the same time.
“Well, I have to grade some papers,” I said, getting to my feet. “Later, assholes.”
“So long,” said Mandy.
Grading papers was a lie. I only ever read the first paragraph of my students’ assignments. Downstairs, I paged through Heir to the Everglades, but the story was hardly intelligible. A man named Kendall Stanley had inherited a nature preserve near Miami, but his uncle Randall Stanley had framed him for tax fraud. A detective, Sandra Mantle, was investigating a fighting ring for alligators when she wandered into the Stanley Mansion. Within half a page, she and one of the Stanleys were groping one another. There was a lot of former and latter—always confusing. And several chapters seemed written from an alligator’s point-of-view.
I opened my window and flung the book. My apartment is on the seventh floor, and the book fluttered outward and flopped onto our parking ramp. But then I felt guilty for littering. I walked out and put the book in the trash, went to the river and threw a rock, sat on a street corner and watched the traffic. Once I’d returned, Mandy still wasn’t back. Who cares. I was tired. I changed into sweatpants and took the mattress, leaving the futon for Mandy.
I woke up and my back hurt. I went to the stovetop and boiled water for coffee.
Mandy wasn’t there. Her rucksack was gone. Her magazines, toiletries and phone cable, too. She had done the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, straightened the living room—all while I was sleeping. It was like she’d never been there at all.
The night before, I later discovered, she had vented to Ted. She complained about my nagging, my judging, my preaching. Am I really like that? She described me as quiet and orderly, dull, pedantic. She said I was a country hen who sits cross-legged and nods along to symphonies on public radio. And she said I was a lousy teacher, which in itself wasn’t news to Ted, although until then he hadn’t known Mandy was my former student.
He jibed this information with what I’d already said—namely, that I was scheming to sleep with her. And suddenly I was a lowlife even he could no longer tolerate. So what next? He offered Mandy refuge. She took his mattress while he moved to the futon.
I handled things poorly, who knows why? Though I didn’t want Mandy at my place, neither did I want her upstairs with Ted. He sent messages, but I ignored them. I took the stairs to avoid seeing him in the elevator. I read detective novels and bought the junkiest junk food, belched loudly and went to sleep without brushing my teeth. I became a disgusting person. Maybe I was mourning. I stopped shaving, and for two weeks I dressed entirely in black.
My friends didn’t help. Appletoft said his wife didn’t want me around, and Jacobs told me I was despicable. Cleaver didn’t answer my calls, and to be honest I didn’t know if he still lived in the same apartment. I was blackballed. Ted Dexter had started the rumor mill on me. He claimed that I’d been grooming a former student for sex, and that he’d rescued her like she was some orphan in the ghetto. He did it on purpose, blackballed me. Why? To save himself. He knew I would try and blackball him.
And it’s true. When I first called those three, it was to claim that Ted was the lowlife. He stole my girl! But Mandy wasn’t a girl—she was an independent young woman—and she was never “mine.” What would Richard Nixon do? He would smear his opponents in an effort to discredit them, and so I chose to do the opposite, which was to forget until I forgave.
One recent morning, Mandy keyed into my apartment. “Oh,” she said, stopping short of the kitchen area. “Why aren’t you at class?”
“It was cancelled.”
“You’re the teacher.”
“I cancelled it,” I said. “No time for class. Dissertation or bust, baby.”
I was on the futon with my computer, books spread out on both my sides. I gave the devil-horn fingers, which is very uncharacteristic of me.
“How’s it going?”
“I’m kicking ass,” I said. “It’s unbelievable. Here, I’ll read you a passage.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I was actually wondering, do you have anything to eat? I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“You can look around. Don’t you and Ted have stuff?”
She answered, but I wasn’t listening. The freezer door opened, and the toaster put out the cardboard smell of frozen waffles. “Hey, will you give my key back to Ted?” I said. “I don’t want it getting lost.” But she had already left without my noticing.
Now it’s February, the coldest month. Mandy moved out, and Ted taped a note on my door that said, Truce? He still thinks I’m mad at him. His note was written on the back of a Burger King receipt, and I circled where he’d ordered three Whoppers and wrote You’re fat, then returned it to his door.
I’m not mad at you, Ted. I’m just busy with more important things. Pretty soon you’ll be calling me Doctor Rounds, and I’ll be in the suburbs collecting furniture and eating steak from a fat-ass propane grill. I’ll have lawn games, a heated garage, my own washer and dryer. You’re gonna miss me. You betrayed me, Ted, you little weasel, you snuck around and double-crossed and told lies to all our friends. Did you read all this? Then get your facts straight.
Now undo your deadbolt.
I want to hang out again.
Joseph Holt works in bridge maintenance and grain farming around northeastern South Dakota. He also teaches at the University of Minnesota. His fiction has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, and his work in textual theory has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly.