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Get caught up from the beginning here.
Darcy Winter had been all screwtop. She was so real that she would probably eschew cups and drink straight from the bottle. To Thom, Darcy seemed more acutely alive than other people.
He found it difficult to put Darcy’s appeal into words, which was certainly a factor in his session with Dr. Rudolph going so abominably.
“You describe Darcy in very romantic terms,” Dr. Rudolph had said. Then the doctor had asked him to talk about Nathalie. “How did that relationship begin?”
Thom told Dr. Rudolph about how after his father died, he used to go to the same bar, the Tir-Na-Nog, every night. One night Nathalie came in with a group of her colleagues and beat him at darts. By closing time, she was perched on the pool table kissing him, her legs wrapped around his waist.
The feeling was such a different animal than his miserable cravings for Darcy that he thought it must be the real thing. Or a cure. Or that perhaps his Darcy obsession would now subside and slip graciously into the dark water like a defeated siren.
None of that had happened. The relationship with Nathalie had progressed, as relationships do, and Thom’s inner and outer realities split — not for the first time. In a way, he was already too used to feeling one way and living another. He had practiced it well with Darcy.
But now Nathalie’s ski equipment was cluttering up his front hall and she was sniffling quietly at his kitchen table. He joined her, feeling repentant.
Nathalie had only poured wine for herself. A Darcy-like move, he thought appreciatively, rotating his empty glass. “There’s something wrong with me,” he announced.
She wiped her nose. “I know.”
“I am hung up on someone from the past,” he told her. “But I think that’s only a symptom.”
“A symptom of what?” Her swollen eyes looked skeptical.
“Me being screwed up,” he said. “Me being offered something good in life and not having the sense to take it. Maybe not feeling I deserve it.” Thom stopped. This was all coming a bit too easily now. “I do love you,” he said. “But I love you because you are normal and happy and you can be that way.”
For a long time Nathalie didn’t say anything. The clock ticked on the wall. “So can you,” she said. It wasn’t clear if she meant it.
“No. You know that Kafka story where the guy wakes up and he’s been transformed into a bug?”
Nathalie’s brow furrowed. “Vaguely.”
“Well, I’ve been a bug all along and I’m only realizing it now. And I guess I need to figure out what kind of bug I am.”
“You could stop being a bug.”
In Kafka’s world, that had not been an option. Thom figured Kafka’s world was not so different from the one he inhabited. Thom chewed his lip. “The bug in Kafka’s story just dried up and died. I think the maid vacuumed him up.”
Nathalie did not laugh, as Darcy would have, as even Thom himself was tempted to do. “Thom,” she said, “I love you.” She punctuated each word by pounding her wrist on the table. “I love you.”
Thom let out a long breath through his nostrils. He felt, for the moment, relieved.
••• ••••• •••
Throughout the month of October, they worked diligently to move in the rest of Nathalie’s belongings. There were boxes and boxes of Nathalie’s old biology textbooks, to which she insisted she still referred, but the dust on the masking tape sealing them shut suggested otherwise. Nathalie also brought two scrawny-looking calico cats that she’d found living alone in a graffiti-laden playground on Mission Hill. Their names were Kobe and Alexandra.
Kobe and Alexandra both yowled and bit anyone who approached. Alexandra claimed a sunny spot on the windowsill, concealed behind a large spider plant which had previously been the only living thing to share the apartment with Thom. Kobe hid under the green rug in the living room, his spotted tail the only indicator of his presence.
Thom stepped carefully over Kobe’s tail as he carried three milk crates full of Nathalie’s folded wool sweaters into the bedroom. “What’s with the names?”
“That’s what I always wanted to call my children.”
Thom fit the milk crates, but only just, into the bedroom closet. “So I don’t get any say?”
Nathalie sprawled across the bed. “Well, we can’t use those names now; the cats took them.”
Thom wiped his hands on his jeans and decided to avoid this topic. “So what’s left in the truck?”
Nat took the bandana out of her long sweaty hair and laid it over her face as if she’d just been declared dead. “Oh my God, more than I want to think about. Dressers, the bedstead…”
“Ugh, you brought that thing? I thought you were leaving it.”
“No! It’s beautiful!”
“That’s arguable. And it weighs about three hundred pounds.”
“It’s not that bad. Trixie said we might be able to take it apart.”
“Not unless you know a welder.”
Thom jogged downstairs to see about maybe bringing up some dresser drawers. He was surprised to see his coworker Irvin leaning against the U-Haul, his hands in his pockets. Thom grinned. “Hey! Thanks for coming.”
In desperation, Thom had sent out a group email on Friday at work, but he never thought anyone would really come. Helping someone move was above-and-beyond for a friend, to say nothing of a coworker.
Irvin shrugged, looking embarrassed. “You promised beer, right?”
“It’s been upgraded to beer and Chinese food. I keep finding out my girlfriend has more and more stuff. And she has to have it out by tonight because some girl from Toronto’s moving in to her room in the morning.”
Irvin peered into the back of the U-Haul and grimaced. “Is this everything?”
“She claims everything else left at her place is just clothes.” Thom climbed in past him. “Look at this.” He tugged at the filigreed white iron bedstead. By himself he could only move it a foot or so.
Fortunately, Irvin was stronger than he looked. Working together, they were able to move the thing a dozen feet before pausing for breath.
“What floor do you live on?”
Thom flushed. “Third.” It was odd — out of all his coworkers, he would have counted Irvin least likely to show up to help him move. Irvin typically kept to himself at work in a way that suggested he didn’t want much to do with anyone. But Thom thought Irvin was cool. More than once he’d tried to engage him in conversation about the spaceship models perched on his cubicle, or the replica Jackie Robinson baseball card he kept in a small frame, but Irvin had always refused to engage.
They heaved the bedstead up three flights of stairs, leaving an unsightly gash on the second floor landing but otherwise without incident. Nathalie must have figured out what they were doing from all the banging because she greeted them sheepishly in the doorway, with beers.
“Everything after this is easy,” she promised and disappeared into the tiny half-room that had been Thom’s office. Thom watched her go, feeling uneasy.
He had thought of that as his private space for so long that it had never occurred to him to mention it. There is a lot we need to talk about that we have not talked about, he thought. Which was funny because he still felt tired from the Kafka conversation. Well. Relationships were about communication, right? They just needed to communicate more. They could do that.
He looked over at Irvin, who was opening his beer while he read the magnets on Thom’s fridge. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” said Irvin, letting the bottle opener clatter on the countertop. “Some girl came by looking for you.”
Thom went cold. He knew it could not be Clarice, their only female coworker. No one would describe Clarice as a “girl.” Aside from Nathalie, Clarice was the only woman he currently knew.
“Small? Red hair?” said Irvin.
“Oh yeah?” Thom shook his head to indicate that he didn’t know who Irvin was talking about and fumbled for the bottle opener.
“I think your bell’s broken. Because she went into the foyer and rang it and then came out and asked me if I knew you.”
“You lied, I hope.” Thom’s eyes slid at the office door.
Irvin smiled. “She wanted to know if you were moving out. I said no, somebody’s moving in. She said she was going down the street for a beer and she’d come back later. And she had a big package under her arm.” Irvin gestured as to its size and studied Thom’s face. “Is this like an ex-girlfriend? Should I have said something different?”
“No.” Thom felt like the entire scene around him was unreal. He braced one hand against the countertop.
“You look really pale,” observed Irvin.
“Can you cover for me for a minute? I mean, for a while. Maybe an hour?”
“Cover for you? What’s going on? Where are you going?”
Thom banged out of the apartment and ran down the stairs. On the second floor landing, he encountered Darcy Winter.
Read the next installment here.