Patricia Christina Engel

 

Strays

Aristotle had a girl in the apartment. He'd locked me out again and I could hear music playing from the stereo that hed stolen from his old roommate. He never saw anything wrong with baring me from my own home because he says I can always go back to the bar and have a drink until he's done entertaining.

It was a cold night and I saw my breath in front of my lips with each exhale. I sat on the steps to the brownstone, watching drunken college girls pour onto the street from the bar next-door where I work as a cocktail waitress. I lit a cigarette and leaned into the concrete frame of the stairwell, cushioning myself within my jacket. I wished I'd worn a sweater.

Three cigarettes later, the door to our brownstone pushed open behind me, and a thin body squeezed past and down the steps. She asked me for a cigarette and I handed her my last white stem, deciding I'd smoked enough for one night.

"Were you with Aris?" I asked her, though I could already see she was his type. She was tall, and had hair as black as ink with sharp gray marble eyes. He liked girls that looked like mythological heroines, or fallen out of folklore.

She nodded. Her lips looked like bruised cherries. Aris kisses hard.

"Who are you?" She slid my cigarette into her mouth without lighting it.

"His wife."

Aris was on the sofa when I walked in. Our apartment is only one room with a mattress on the floor, separated from the rest of the space by a curtain to give the illusion of privacy. I am usually the only one who sleeps in the bed, Aris stays on the sofa, and the bed is a prop for when the officials arrive. They've never come, but we're always prepared, to show that our marriage is real.

He had no shirt on and his tan torso glowed with sweat. There were empty wine bottles on the coffee table, and Aris hadn't emptied the ashtray in days. He waved when he saw me.

"I need money, Ruby. We're out of food."

I reached into my pocket and handed him twenty dollars.

He examined the bill and ran his fingers through his gingerbread tresses.

"You know I could live on this for a week in Brazil? Fucking America, this will hardly buy me meal."

"You could get a job."

"Don't be stupid. You know I'm waiting for my papers. I don't want a shit job in the meantime. I have a fucking university degree."

I kicked off my shoes and collapsed onto my mattress. My view of Aris, reclining like a roman at an orgy, disappeared behind the curtain. I closed my eyes, trying to silence the noise of the street four flights below. The bar was closing and the bouncer, Scotty, was pushing the last reluctant patrons onto the curb. I could tell by the cursing, and the sound of a beer bottle breaking on the sidewalk. It was the same routine every night.

I opened my eyes again and moved my body so that I could see past the edge of the curtain to Aris, who was blowing smoke rings in the air and staring at the ceiling. His muscles were lengthened and taught, even as he lay relaxed.

Why was I so invisible to him? He went to great lengths to seek the girls he brought home. Why didn't he look at me the way he looked at them?

Aris disappeared for three days. He didn't call.

I realized he was home because he crawled into bed with me. I felt his body curl around mine, the heavy blanket creating a shell around us. I turned my face and felt his cheek against my shoulder.

"Where were you?"

"Don't ask me questions."

"I have a right to know."

"Don't pretend this is a real marriage, Ruby. I hate when you do that. You may be my wife, but you're not my girlfriend."

Everyone warned me before marrying Aris.

"He's using you." My father told me.

"You can't force a person to fall in love with you." My friend, Nadine said.

"You think he'll love you because he'll be at your debt," Scotty, the bouncer, said, "But he'll resent you for it instead."

I didn't listen.


I met Aris in the bar where I worked. I'd heard about him long before I met him. All the waitresses were talking about the gorgeous Brazilian poet who always seemed to show up for a drink when it wasn't my shift. He'd managed to seduce the entire staff with his subtle accent, his tantrums about the state of the world, political corruption, and poetry, which he called the last noble treasure of mankind.

One night I saw him, and I knew he'd become something huge in my life, be it through a tangled web of inconvenience and compromise. Then, I found out his weakness. Nadine waited on him one night and he told her how he was illegal, and in danger of being deported having overstayed his visa by a year already. He didn't want to go back to Brazil, feeling the muses in America anchoring him.

The next night, I watched him sip a whiskey on the rocks and scribble into a notebook. When the page was nearly full of writing, I walked over and stood across from him. I felt his eyes crawl over me, from my ankles to my shoulders until they arrived at my face, heating with embarrassment.

"I'll marry you." I said.

He began to laugh.

"I will," I said with more conviction, "I'll marry you so you can get your green card."

"I can't pay you."

"You don't have to. I want to do it. I want to marry you."

One week later, he'd moved into my apartment and my father threatened to disown me. We were married at city hall and Nadine and Scotty were our witnesses.

We celebrated in the bar that night. When we headed upstairs to the apartment, he pushed me against the wall of the stairwell and kissed me, hard, pressing his lips against my teeth and forcing my mouth wide open.

Then he pulled back.

"You taste like beer and cigarettes," he said, turning away and walking up the stairs.

I followed him up and it was then that I learned we'd not be sleeping together unless it was very cold, or he had gone without another girl for more than two days. I learned all his habits.


It was the end of another night and I found my apartment locked again. I settled onto the stairs and lit a cigarette, while Scotty ushered drunken people into taxicabs.

Another tall body with a flowing black mane emerged from the door behind me. I shuffled my body out of the way and when they asked for a cigarette, I handed one over without looking up, and then realized it had been the voice of a man, not a woman. I looked up and saw his jaw line, long, and almost equine in shape. His nose was broad and his nostrils flared like a resting lion. His eyes were deep, almost hidden in a nest of dark lashes.

"Are you Ruby?"

I nodded.

He offered me his hand to shake.

"I'm Reza. I just moved into the apartment next to yours. I met your husband."

I smiled weakly while he watched me curiously, almost skeptically.

"You're very pretty." He said.

I was uncomfortable under his stare.

"Thanks."

"I mean, you're too pretty to be doing what you are doing. I've only lived next door for two weeks but I see what's going on."

"I dont think you can know a person's life by spying for two weeks."

"I'm not spying. It's out in the open. Your husband brings girls to your house who moan loud enough for the whole block to hear them."

"Thanks for being so descriptive."

"You're sitting out in the cold while he fucks someone upstairs."

I stood up and stepped off the stairs onto the sidewalk and felt his footsteps behind me. He grabbed my arm and turned me towards him.

"I dont think a girl like you was put on this earth to love a fool who doesn't love you back."

"Stay away from me or I'll call the police." I said and slid back into the bar. I fell asleep on a banquette near the back and woke up when the janitor came to clean the next morning.


I wondered how I was so obvious. How was it that Aris knew I loved him, that everyone around me knew, and even a stranger could see it when I'd never so much as said so. How was I so transparent? Was it only because I had nothing to gain from the marriage?

Aris was sleeping alone on the mattress when I came home. He stirred awake and sat up stiffly when he saw me. I saw he was naked under the sheets. I stood by the door and we watched each other from the distance.

Aris never reacts, never shows concern, and never reveals anything. He'll walk around in the nude, every inch of his flesh exposed, and write poetry that he reads aloud like an actor. His only human expressions are through sex with anonymous females and false, manicured poetry. Without his artifice, he's only capable of complaining about the injustices of humanity. All his words are rehearsed. All his passions are performance.

"Dont ask me where I was." I said, knowing he wouldn't anyway.

He raised an eyebrow at me.

"You look like a fallen angel standing there in the shadows, disheveled. A beautiful fallen angel."

He waved me over to him. When I was standing at the edge of the mattress, he tugged on my hand and pulled me down beside him. I felt his nakedness through the thin sheet that separated us.

"I never saw you so beautiful before." He said, and cupped his hand around the back of my neck pulling my face to his. He kissed my face, marking a trail from my eyelids to my lips. His kisses were soft, not the rough ones that left stained flesh wounds as souvenirs. I let him peel off my clothes like rags and pull me into the sheets with him.


It was a slow night at the bar. The bartender called in sick so the manager assigned me to the job for the night. All the bar stools were empty when the black cascading mane walked in. It was the feminine version I'd encountered on the steps once before on her way out of my apartment yet I knew she was a regular visitor. She recognized me too and settled onto a stool across from me.

"I didn't know you worked here." She said. "I'm waiting for Aris. You know, he explained to me about your little arrangement. I know your marriage is a sham."

"Do you work for INS?"

"You're jealous of me. I would be too if I were you."

"Can I get you something to drink?"

"A diet coke." She said. When I turned my back to get it for her, I heard her say, "You're like a stray dog, begging him to love you even though he doesn't want you. The minute he gets his green card, he's leaving you. He told me so."

I turned back and handed her the drink.

"It's on the house." I said.

"You're desperate."

I heard the telephone ringing at the end of the bar. I stepped away to answer it and heard Aris on the other end.

"Ruby, is Saba down there?"

"The black-haired girl?"

"Yes. Tell her to come upstairs. I'm waiting for her."

I hung up and went back over to where she was seated.

"Saba."

"You know my name."

"Aris is waiting for you upstairs, in my apartment. Maybe you could leave him some money when you are through. We could use the cash."

She stood up and knocked the soda over, so that the sticky liquid slid all over the counter.

"Stray." She said, and walked out.


At the end of the night, instead of knocking on my own door, I knocked on Reza's. He looked confused when he saw me standing in his doorway. I looked over at my apartment, across the hall, and heard the music and laughter from within. I looked back at Reza. He stepped aside and told me to come in. His apartment was just like mine, a mattress on the floor in the corner, a ratty sofa and a lopsided coffee table. His television was on. It was after four in the morning but I could see he hadnt been sleeping.

"Insomniac?"

Reza nodded.

"I'm sorry, but when I'm confused I get this weird urge to hand myself over to strangers who spy on me."

Reza's smooth magenta lips parted into a crooked smile. With his black locks pulled into a loose ponytail, standing shirtless in a pair of pajama pants, he looked like a sort of ninja pirate.

"I wont bother you," Reza told me, "You can stay as long as you like. I don't like to see you wait on the steps."

I sat on his couch and Reza sat on the floor with his legs crossed. He pulled a bag of beads onto his lap and began stringing them.

"You make jewelry?"

"Yes, it's my passion. But painting apartments pays for this." He motioned to the four walls around us.

By the time the sun came up, I was wearing one his necklaces and had a silver cuff that he'd molded himself decorating my wrist. When I left his apartment and crossed over to mine, Aris was on the sofa. I slammed the door on purpose. He watched me cross the room and drop onto the mattress.

"What's that around your neck?"

I didn't answer him.


Reza didn't even lock his door. On nights that my apartment was occupied, I'd step into his and rather than watch him make jewelry all night, I began to fall asleep on his couch. One morning, there was a thundering on Reza's door. He opened it to find Aris standing there, terrified.

He saw me lying on the couch and leaned over me.

"Ruby, you have to come back. They were here. The immigration people were here. I pretended the apartment was empty and didn't move but they knocked for almost half an hour. They're checking on us. If we fail this part, they'll know what we're doing."

I gathered my things and crossed the hall. Reza put his hand on my shoulder as I passed him on the way out. I felt his finger skim the necklace he'd given me.

Aris and I sat in silence in the apartment. I'd never seem him look so scared. He looked at me as if I were protecting him. I hated to see him so weak.

"That Reza looks like an assassin. What do you two talk about?"

"We don't talk much. Just keep each other company."

Aris laughed his deep, throaty laugh.

"He's using you."

"You're using me."

"Were using each other."

"And I'm using him."

"That's great," Aris said, "So everybody's using everybody. Where the fuck do we go from here?"

I shrugged.

"You'll get your green card and then you'll leave."

"So we'll keep things the way they are then?" I nodded.


But things didn't stay the way they were. One month later, the immigration people arrived at our door again. Yet the original fear had already passed and I was at Reza's while Saba was with Aris. This time, the officials heard sounds in the apartment and didn't leave until Aris opened the door. He tried to concoct a story that we were both having extramarital affairs but the officials told him not to bother.

"We received an anonymous phone call," the white-haired official told us as we stood with arms folded in the hallway, the doors to both apartments swung wide open while Reza and Saba stood together a few feet away.

"Somebody called in who knows you both, and told us what was going on here."

Aris and I looked at each other, perhaps wondering if it had been one of us who'd called. We never really trusted each other. Then we both looked at Saba and Reza, knowing it could have easily been one of them.

Aris and I sat in the back of the police car together.

"Fallen angel," He said under his breath.

He leaned his head over to me and kissed my shoulder. We both knew it would be the last time wed see each other.