A Man of Convenience
BY ASHLEY ZHOU
Honorable Mention for the 2013 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Marlin Barton
We were set to be married on January twenty first. That was seven months after I first posted the advertisement and two months after we met for the first time at the café across from the library. I had left my house too early, gotten to the café too early, so instead of entering the cocoon of warmth and chatter, I walked around the block seven times. The library was covered with red dust, the snow yet unfallen. I thought then about the years-old library card in my wallet, its edges still crisp, that replaced the one I had thought I lost. It had cost five dollars for the new one, and a week later, I found the original card buried under a mound of receipts from fast food restaurants.
It got dark so early in November. I had forgotten how early the sun set. Winter always surprised me with its indifference. When my toes were numb, I opened the door to the café and walked in. They had turned the heat up so high, so I had to take off my jacket immediately and carry it on my arm. What a pain it was to try to fish out a few bills for coffee with one arm incapacitated like that. Paper cup in my hand, I stood blocking the line to retrieve coffees and squinted for her in the yellow light. She had said in her message that she would be wearing pink. I began to walk, trying not to touch the sides of tables with my thighs, looking for pink. She never specified what shade of pink. There was a lady near the front who wore a salmon sweater, dark jeans, and a black scarf. Is it her? I wondered. The lady was looking at something on her silver laptop, her lips pursed ever so slightly, her chin a little dimpled. When I walked past her, she smelled like cigarettes. Not her. In her message, she had never mentioned smoking. Couldn’t be her.
There was a group of college students at a rectangular table discussing the recent election. They looked so lively and fresh and young. I felt embarrassed looking at them. I looked for pink.
At a two person table against the wall, she sat facing the side door of the café. There were no books or newspapers or laptops in front of her. She held a paper cup with both hands, leaning forward in her chair slightly. She didn’t see me as I approached her. She looked ahead.
It wasn’t really pink. It was a big, flowy magenta shirt that hid her rolls of fat and tented around her breasts, with black leggings and black, leather, high-heeled boots up to her ankles. She sat on the flaps of a black fur jacket. Faux fur, presumably. Her hair was dyed a coppery brown, but underneath it I could see some black roots. I guess there was something sad about this meeting, but she didn’t look sad. She looked like she had been waiting a long time, and I had too.
“Sofia?” I said. My voice was caught by a swell of laughter from the students. “Sofia?” I repeated, pulling out the chair opposite her. The legs grated against the floor. She looked up at me with big, clear eyes.
I will be forty-seven this summer. Ten years ago, when my mother died of diabetes complications, I left the city and my job in risk management to help clear out the house I had lived in for eighteen years. The house tasted like the precursor to a sneeze. The light from the windows seemed duller than the light outside and turned my skin yellow. Her two cats, Mittens and Stormcloud, pawed at my shins even after I had refilled their water and food bowls. Within three days, I had all of my mother’s possessions packed up and shipped to a storage center. The rooms were empty save for some of the bulkier furniture I couldn’t lift by myself. After I ripped down the curtains in my old bedroom, I walked out onto the porch and looked at the vast, green-gray plain, the peach-tinged sky. Stretching without interruption for as far as my myopic eyes could see.
I draped the torn curtains over the railing like a flag and went back inside. I didn’t leave again. I bought a computer and installed it on the kitchen table, surrounded it with dirty cereal bowls and mushrooms of coffee stains. The firm in the city fired me, so I took up a job writing advertisements for the local newspaper, which I could do without having to leave the house. I fed my mother’s cats bits of my own meals so they grew lazy and irritable. In May, I noticed that Stormcloud’s stomach had gotten so large it almost touched the ground and thought he was pregnant, but he died soon after, probably from heart failure. A few weeks later, I woke up in the darkness to the sound of scratching at the door. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. The scratching stopped soon enough. I don’t know how long I lay there, huddled in my mother’s old bedroom, her old bed sheets swaddling me, but when dawn pricked the skin of horizon, I opened the bedroom door. Mittens lay curled up there, sleeping. I scooped him up with one hand and carried him back to bed with me. He tried to bite me when I pushed him off my pillow, his yellow teeth gleaming strangely in the dim light. I threatened to throw him off the bed if he did that again.
Once he had settled down on the other pillow, I patted his tawny fur. “You miss your brother, don’t you?” I said as he hissed. I rolled over so my face wouldn’t be within reach of his claws and slept until noon. When I got up, I posted the advertisement on the internet looking for a wife.
Sofia was not allergic to cats. I received another e-mail before hers from a widow who was allergic to cats. Sofia was only mildly allergic to pollen in the spring and sometimes in the fall, but she wanted to be married quickly. She detailed what she wanted in that first e-mail, as per my request on the advertisement. In broken English, she explained she was a janitor at the local middle school but an illegal immigrant. She was afraid of being deported so she preferred to hasten this whole process. She had come to the country when she was sixteen. Her family had come before her, but they were gone now. She ended the e-mail with, “I am alone. Always, since this country, alone. If you will have me, have me. Sofia.”
When I met her at the café, I remembered this little sentimentality of hers. I was wary of it. But she did not go into a weepy fit about how we would love each other forever. She talked about food, mostly. About how watery the coffee in her hands was. “When my father used to harvest crops, the coffee they gave him was bitter and black. Black to greet the sun,” she said.
“Where is your family now?” I asked. She hadn’t said in her e-mails.
She raised her eyes to the ceiling. “They are gone. Like everybody else.”
“But where did they go?”
“Where does everybody go?” She gestured to me. “Where is your family?”
“My mother died ten years ago. My father left when I was eight.”
“Your brothers, your sisters? Your children?”
“I never had any.”
She nodded then, pressed her painted lips together lopsidedly so one cheek rumpled. “I’ll fuck you, but we’ll have no children. It will be just you and me, two in the house.” Furtively I glanced at the collar of her shirt. It was cut low enough so that I could see a field of darker skin above her breasts where pimples had healed into scars. And I had already glimpsed the fat beneath those breasts. “No children,” I agreed.
I listened to her prattle on about rice, tortillas, and tripe tacos until the street lamps had been blazing for hours, it seemed. By then, the combination of her husky voice and the smells of the café was giving me a headache. “Let’s meet next week at my house,” I said, pushing my chair away from the table. I grabbed my jacket and started to pull my arms through its thin sleeves. “You can see where you’ll be living.”
The walk back to the house was longer than I remembered and too cold for November. As I turned onto my street, there were no lights to reveal my breath like a cloud too heavy for the sky. Dragged down to earth. A tawny mass flew at me and scratched at my calf when I opened the door. I kicked Mittens across the room and heard him thump against the wall. “Damn cat,” I said to no one. I wondered what Sofia would think.
She loved Mittens. She cooed at him and rubbed him between the ears as soon as she came in, crouching in front of the open door and letting all the cold air blow in. She wore some kind of dark green sweater left open at the front and white shirt underneath that clung a little too tightly. On her feet were the same black leather boots. The smile that she wore when she fussed over Mittens dissolved, however, when she saw I had ripped the curtains down from every window in the house.
“Where did they go?” she asked.
“I think I burned them,” I said. Ten years ago was a long time.
She brushed a pane of a window with her fingertips. They left white, cold smears on the glass. “We’ll buy new ones, then.”
“Next week,” I said. “We’ll buy them next week.”
Next week came and went but Sofia didn’t return. She called me from the middle school one night to say she was too tired this week, and plus all her shows were airing their season finales. I never went to her apartment, but she told me it held just her bed and a television besides the kitchen and the bathroom. She’d said she would never miss her shows.
I received an e-mail while she was gone from a woman one state over. Her name was Margaery and she was sixty two and she was single and she was Caucasian. I had forgotten to take down the advertisement on the internet, it seemed. Margaery wrote that she had never been married and all her family was gone now. Her English was good in the e-mail, though not perfect. Better than Sofia’s certainly. She wrote, “I’ll make a good wife. I know it. I’m lonely now and I always have been, but you can show me what it is to not be lonely.” She signed it Love, Margaery.
I had not asked for love in my advertisement. I had not asked for a woman’s love since I left this house for college and in all my years in the city. I stared at the computer screen, glowing blue. Maybe I needed Margaery’s love now. Maybe I could know the opposite of loneliness. I clicked reply and wrote a letter back to her. It was good to hear from you, it began. I explained my situation. After all, sixty-two was no worse than Sofia’s thirty-one. I signed the e-mail with love.
From the next room, a noise sawed through the walls. I jumped, and an old hamburger wrapper crinkled beneath my elbow. I turned my head to listen for the noise again, muscles in my legs clenched, ready to fight or flee or something in between. But it was only Mittens puking up a hairball. A large one, by the sounds of it. Sometimes he got into the bathroom and played with the hairs left on the sink from shaving. He probably ate them. He was old and stupid.
With my head turned, I could see my reflection in the kitchen window, light from the computer outlining my silhouette. I was a little blue, mostly black. My eyes couldn’t make out my features, but I looked hunched. Crumpled. Dark as the night outside. I tried to raise one arm above my head to wave, watching myself in the window, but the smell of grease and sweat rose suddenly and choked me. I gagged, bringing the hand to my mouth.
Sofia did not come that week or the next week. But she called me on a Sunday evening and said she’d be free to go curtain shopping the following weekend. Her shows had finished their seasons, and she’d made a pork roast that she could bring over with some corn cakes and white cheese. “Those windows of yours need curtains,” she said, her voice tinny and strained in the telephone. “It won’t do if everyone can peep in and look at us.”
“Are you trying to stop me from seeing the outside?” I said. The brittle grass dotted with purple flowers?
The peach-tinged sky?
“Nothing. I’ll see you next week.”
I met her at the linen shop downtown. She was wearing a black parka, dirty, striking against the snow that fell the day after Margaery’s e-mail. She pushed into the shop ahead of me. The owner eyed us but said nothing. Sofia led us to the back of the store where the sale items were. She pointed at a roll of white cloth speckled with pale green flowers. “I made an apron from that,” she said, smiling. “I wear it every day.”
She spied a roll of indigo cloth and flitted to it. “This will be good for the living room, don’t you think?” she chittered.
I followed her slowly. The indigo was nice, but I was inspecting the sample curtains on the display window. One was cream colored, thick, with subtle hues of olive interwoven in the cloth. It looked expensive. I wondered if Margaery would think it was expensive.
Now Sofia was bending over a big crate of rolls of fabric. Her backside was enormous. I was thankful I wasn’t viewing her from the side, or else I’d have to see the top of the crate cutting into her stomach fat like a knife into soft cheese. She braced herself and with huge, rippling arms, pulled a roll of sheer white linen out from the bottom of the crate. She held it up for me. “What do you think of this, Rob?” she said, teeth flashing under the store lights.
I looked at her thick hands, at her painted nails, garish against the white. What I thought was that she needed to lose fifty pounds or else she’d die of diabetes like my mother. She sometimes smelled like spices I didn’t recognize, and she wasn’t even in this country legally, and there was a woman named Margaery who would be my wife. She was poor. I was poor too – so, so poor, with only Mitten’s tawniness to remind me – until Sofia and Margaery. Sofia. I could marry Margaery, but I already knew Sofia.
I began to walk towards her, slowly. The sunlight from the display window left me, left my side cold, as I approached her. If you’ll have me, have me, I thought.
I put my hand on her shoulder. I could feel nothing besides the thick parka.
“It’s nice,” I said, “but we’d still need actual curtains to cover the windows. This thin stuff won’t be good enough.”
She nodded, but she didn’t put the roll down. She stroked the frayed edge with one hand, and together we watched the pink nails moving up and down and up and down against the white cloth.
Ashley Zhou graduated from the Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey. She was a 2013 YoungArts Finalist in Writing/Fiction and received an honorable mention award for Music/Piano. Her writing has been published by The Apprentice Writer, The Postscript Journal, and Ambigram. She has attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the New England Young Writers’ Conference.