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Fiction

Everything in the Middle by Alexa Koch

Everything in the Middle | Alexa Koch

The rings around the bathtub won’t come out. Hard water stains, the broker had told me when I blanched at the sight of them. Should come out with some scrubbing and bleach. Hard water stains, the landlord told me when I called to tell him the tub was impossible to clean. I’ve scrubbed, bleached, and soaked. I’ve called a professional cleaning service. I’ve broken down and begged Dillon to move. He tells me that the time and money I’ve spent is unhealthy, but I can’t get over the discolored lines that don’t quite make a geometrically accurate rectangle. When I watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I imagine the greyish rings going with it. But they never do. 

I climb into the empty tub. It’s breathing around me, the whole porcelain thing inhaling and exhaling, the rings expanding and shrinking. Something that is supposed to be me is reflected in the silver-toned faucet. Neon suds swell at the drain in foamy swirls of pink and purple and yellow. Now blue, green, orange. I’m hyperventilating. I’m okay. It would all be better if I… Maybe I could… Don’t look at it. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue….  

The hour is late and I can’t sleep and the fan drones on. I sit down at my desk because it faces a window, am annoyed by the clutter: a pile of books, a coffee mug full of pens, miscellaneous receipts, a ceramic pumpkin that I put out last September, a half-empty prescription bottle. 

I hear Dillon’s voice in my head, see him shake the orange canister at me. Are you even taking these? When I first started on the little white pills I had sudden urges, what I’d eventually learn is an uncommon side effect on the grocery list of possibilities that the pharmacist stapled to my prescription bag and that I threw in the trash without reading. 

I still have the urges sometimes. Deep in one particularly unexplainable mindset, I once found myself, on the bus ride home, wanting to curl up under the bank of seats across from me and let the filthy floor streak my jeans with dirt. I wanted people to stare. I craved the feeling of cold metal against my skin and the whispers of the other commuters. I wanted to ruin my clothes. I wanted someone else to feel even a fraction of my discomfort. 

A more common urge was the need to break things, an impulse to smash a vase of dried flowers, to drop a glass lamp, or to hurl dinner plates at the wall. I never acted on it, but the desire was strong and lingered. If…

I stand up and sweep everything but the pumpkin off my desk onto the floor in a motion so sudden it shocks me. Lots of noises at once. The rustle of papers, plastic and ceramic bouncing off the wood floor, pens rolling in different directions, the thud of paperbacks and hardcovers, some landing open, spines facing up. 

I stand above the mess I’ve created, hands shaking, eyes scanning. Nothing is broken. I didn’t so much as chip the mug. 

I’ll have to clean this up before Dillon gets back from Canada. 

I walk over to the couch to lie down, hoping the change from the bed will help, but I can’t sleep. It’s late. Or early, depending on how you want to look at it. The fan drones on. I clamp my hands over my ears, squeeze my eyes shut, and imagine a shiny white bathtub, the satisfaction of scrubbing it to a gleam myself. 

Fish don’t live in this kind of water on first look, but the nutrient-rich cold depths keep them swimming back. Flounder, pollock, herring, and shad are year-round residents; tuna, mackerel, bass, and bluefish serve as summer tourists. The water is dark and uninviting. I walk to the end of the dock where a father and son are fishing. The kid is yelling excitedly— “Dad, dad!”— that he hooked something. Dad leans his own pole against the wooden railing and runs over as the boy reels and reels. Eventually, his catch breaches the surface. A clump of seaweed dangles from the hook, the red and white bobber swinging.

The kid is speechless, shocked, his mouth hanging open. The father laughs.

“Hmm, should we broil or fry this one? I’m thinking lightly breaded with lots of lemon.”

“Ewww! Can I try again, Dad?”

Dad grabs for the line, but it slips through his fingers, the seaweed swinging and wetting both of them with the cold bay water. The boy squeals with delight (“It’s cold!”), and Dad tries again, this time catching the thin, nearly invisible nylon line. I turn away as he unhooks the seaweed and tosses it back into the water. 

I used to fish with my dad. The jack we’d catch were most active in the evenings, so that’s when we’d go sit on the concrete sea wall at the end of the street, my legs dangling above the water, jelly sandals safe on the grass behind us. The thought of piercing a wriggling beige worm and watching the hook come through the other side was always too much, and I wished desperately that the tackle kit’s rubber invertebrates, with their brightly colored feathers and bobs, would entice the fish— all I needed was a nibble to hook one— but they never did. So I’d inhale the salt of the brackish lake water that I couldn’t really see below me and wait for my father to hand me the pole with its skewered worm.

My phone vibrates in my pocket and I ignore it. Instead, I take a sip of my Vietnamese coffee— delicious… I’m glad I finally decided to try one of these— and walk back in the direction of Lincoln Park. I consider a potato doughnut from the place on Exchange because an old-fashioned doughnut sounds great and I’m feeling nostalgic.

I pass one of many pottery shops, one of many breweries, one of many seafood restaurants touting lobster rolls. I pass a man shooting up in an alleyway and a man selling used books alongside a “name your price” sign. I scan his selection, the only one I recognize a tattered copy of a Stephen King novel I’ve never read. I hand over the few bills I have for a volume titled Red Rising. I like the simplicity of the cover, a red wing set against black. 

Settling in on a sun-warmed park bench, I open to the first chapter to find a handwritten list on the blank page across from Pierce Brown’s first page of prose.  

I skim the bulleted points, what appear to be events paired with dates. Some of the events are momentous, milestones even, others insignificant to anyone but the writer. First real job, 5/20/09. First apartment, 9/1/09. First promotion, first date with John, first pet, the list goes on. I’m surprised to find that it’s pretty long and has a right-pointing arrow suggesting more. I turn the page but there is nothing written there. I flip to the end of the book, where the entire last page and back cover are filled by some stranger’s life. The last bullet is dated 2016.

I grimace at the thought of taking a pen to a novel— chaotic evil— and flip back to the front.

He’d given me just two options that morning, Shirt A and Shirt B. Shirt A was a purple and white checkered one and Shirt B was the same, but blue and green. I should have picked Shirt B. I really hate that shirt! I shook my head, facepalmed my forehead. We should shop for you this weekend! 

I smiled at him, expectant.

Huh? What…? No. No. God, Bree, how did this— Dillon gestured to the blue Honda, my knuckles rapping its hood over and over— happen? Why did you do this?

I didn’t mean to, I countered, the syllables coming out as one long, strange word. Ididntmeanto. He’d nearly caught me in the act. It was petty, he’d said after. What the fuck? he’d demanded at once. I had laughed too loudly and asked why it mattered. How quickly my words came, how inappropriate my responses, how rash my actions— none of it within my control. 

How does this just happen? 

I shrugged exaggeratedly. 

Does it matter? The spot is mine, right?

The cavernous garage was silent, the only noise the hissing of two freshly slashed tires, one on each side of the car that I would regularly find in the assigned parking spot that costs me $75 every month. Management had done nothing after countless complaints. I balanced on the balls of my feet, waiting for whatever it was Dillon was going to do. 

I left more than one note on the windshield, I reminded him. Have you ever done this? Like a forsaken lover in a shitty country song. We’re just missing a banging screen door. And a six-pack. I guess it’s not like a shitty country song?

He gave me a strange look, a combination of bewilderment and concern, before his features set in a more familiar way. Let’s not stand here and wait for someone to walk by. And give me that. He took the knife from my hand and tucked it carefully into his bag before asking, with staged nonchalance, if I was still taking the meds.

If you don’t stop asking me about the fucking meds….

He put up his hands in surrender. We’ll pretend this never happened then, he said. And we did. I purged our apartment two days later to the sound of The Doors, throwing things out, heaping clothing into piles for donation, sorting things to list for sale online. He came home to a downsized wardrobe (goodbye, purple-and-white), no coffee maker, and stuff everywhere, while I bartered with a pawn store clerk over the value of a necklace that I found at the back of my jewelry box. 

I knew that he was leaving for Quebec that afternoon and we wouldn’t cross paths before he had to go to the airport. I let my phone die and didn’t charge it for three days, so I don’t know if he called. The rest of that week takes up space in my mind as excess of everything but sleep: too much spending, too much cleaning, too much idealizing. All of it ultimately out of my hands, too slippery to hold, a fish on dry ground, without me realizing. Both of us left gasping for breath. 

I think, now, that the silence between Dillon and me is too thick. I can taste it. Lemons, fractionally sweet, not enough to save us from all the sour, not enough sugar to ease the pucker. I like lemons.

“Hi. Can I pay for these?”

I hear the voice but continue typing rapidly on the keyboard.

The customer shifts, probably uncomfortable, waiting for me to acknowledge her. I make a note on a sticky pad with a flourish before clicking the pen a half-dozen times. 

“Sure thing.” 

The woman pushes a small pile of books across the counter towards me. 

“This is a good one,” I say approvingly, scanning the one on top. “This one, though…”— I hold up a small blue paperback— “is so bad. So boring. I met the author once. He was boring, too.” 

She gives me an uneasy smile and taps her debit card on the counter, the thin plastic making an irritating click-clack sound. 

“Can you not do that?” I look pointedly at her pink-painted fingernails. 

She stops tapping and replaces the card in her wallet as I finish ringing up her selections. She doesn’t make eye contact when I hand her the bag, mumbling a “you, too” when I wish her a good day.

I return to the computer, to the spreadsheet created to help organize the new inventory. I can barely focus, the familiar abbreviations for genres and publishers meaningless to me. I feel, overwhelmingly, that I’ve lost something. It’s not working, reads the sticky note, the black ink of my loopy handwriting the barest contrast against fluorescent blue. I trace the words with the pen, bolding the letters. It’s not working. 

I tap my fingers against the steering wheel as I wait in the arrivals area at PWM. I’m idling at the front end of the pick-up line, away from most of the other cars, wondering how much time I have before one of the officers yells at me to move. Dillon’s flight only just now landed, but I check my rearview mirror every few seconds, expecting to see his lime green hard-topped suitcase that I hate and he loves roll through the sliding automatic doors. Eventually, he appears on the sidewalk. Then behind the car. Then next to the car. Then in the car. 

He drops a small, paper-wrapped object into my lap. 

I pick it up, glancing at my sideview mirror. The lone officer is concerned with a minivan stalling traffic as a traveler stuffs their baggage into the backseat. I unwrap the gift, the paper crinkling. It’s a snow globe, the nicer kind with a glass sphere and a ceramic base. A miniature skyline and the letters Q-U-E-B-E-C in blue block letters forever under water. I flip the globe upside down and set it on the dashboard as the tiny flecks of white flutter around the cityscape. 

“See any moose?”

He doesn’t hear or he simply ignores me, focused instead on finding something in his backpack. I rejoin the flow of cars, eager to get away from the airport. Dillon holds up a second paper-wrapped object, this one a small rectangle, and says something about the next red light. 

We’re just a couple of miles from the freeway, so another 25 minutes will pass before I can open it. 

“How was the trip?”

“You know.”

I don’t. 

A pause.

“Is this how it’s going to be?”

I wait. He doesn’t answer. 

“Is it? Just weird silence?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

He puts the wrapped item in the center console, where it goes untouched red light after red light.

The first day of August I sit down at my window-facing desk and make a list. It begins as a gratitude list, a “grounding technique” I read about in a magazine in the optometry office last week, but it twists and turns as I go, shifting to pet peeves, to people I used to know, to subjects I didn’t like in school, to favorite foods. I stop only when I run out of space on the notebook page, every line and margin filled. I’ve authored a page of words that tell no story.

I consider the impressive list in Red Rising, the list-maker’s choice to collect her firsts in one place, a place she might forget that she’d put them. A place that no longer belongs to her. Why firsts? What good does such a chronology do?

I flip to a blank page, thinking I’ll fill the lines with my own firsts. 

First day of life, 5/24/87.

I scratch the words out. I don’t think that one counts. Too broad. Too contingent. My mind races through the years, scanning for some significant inaugural moment or event, and comes up with nothing. It feels like I can never pull things from my subconscious when I want them. 

The wrapped gift from Canada sits on the corner of the desk next to the snow globe. The snowflakes are still, a few suspended at the top where the water doesn’t quite meet the glass. I notice now the silver sparkles mixed with the white flecks. 

I pick up the gift, about half an inch thick, contemplate its weight. I don’t care enough to open it. Why did he buy it at all? He often travels for work and rarely brings home any sort of souvenir or trinket. Aside from a Chicago postcard on the fridge and an airline credit card in his wallet, there is no tangible evidence of his frequent travels. 

I once asked him why he never brings anything “fun” home from the places he visits, and he made a face that told me all I needed to know. Why would I?  “Inappreciable kitsch,” I imagined him following up with. 

I rip the paper off of the mystery gift, hoping it will give me a hint, a clue that will help me begin the list. 

A deck of cards, shrink-wrapped in thin plastic, a second layer of protection for something most would not consider fragile. The seal is easily broken with a fingernail. I cut the deck. Each card has a different image on the back, the suit side the same as any other deck. I attempt one of the fancy shuffling techniques I insisted on teaching myself as a kid, but the cards are too stiff in their newness and fly out of my hands, pictures of forest and city and moose and beavers raining onto the floor. 

I bend down and corral the cards the best I can, shifting them so they all point the right direction, not bothering to flip them to face up. The card on top is a long, greenish fish with a snout-like mouth. A pike. Its shiny black eyes look out from the card’s one-dimensional world, and I look back.

I go to the museum on my day off because it’s one of the only places I can wander for long in the sheeting late summer rain. My favorite piece of art in the entire building is a lamp. One of those Tiffany-style ones with a mushroom-like stained-glass dome of red, yellow, and green. It is always lit in its case, a warm glow I can’t feel, an unseen cord connecting it to its power source. I dreamt once that I’d broken the lamp, the glass case gone, the gallery unlocked and vacant. I had picked it up and dropped it, my dream form materializing somewhere else I don’t remember before it hit the concrete floor. 

There is one other person in this wing, and I watch her watch a painting from my bench by the lamp. The expression on her face is bizarre, something like wonder and grief, were these two emotions to exist together. The painting is something I’ve seen many times, but something that I could not describe to someone else. The truth is that I don’t know what is there on the canvas. 

I’ve seen it many times but haven’t looked at it. Now, I do look. It’s a jay, bright blue, alone. It’s a photograph, not a painting. The background of the photo is a black and green blur, a forest or bush or tree. The woman lifts her hand as though she is going to touch the frame but thinks better of it and replaces it by her side. She stands for a moment more before turning away, in search of something. Her eyes alight on the only seating in the room, my bench that is big enough for three or four. I look down before she realizes I’ve been staring.

Peripherally, I see her sit at the opposite end and cross her legs in an unusual way, crossed at the knee, right foot hooked behind left ankle. 

“That’s a great book,” she says, pointing to my bag. The unusual expression on her face has gone away. I’ve taken to carrying Red Rising around, though I imagine I will never read past the first chapter. “Have you read the series?”

I shake my head but say nothing, probably an impolite response. For a second, I consider showing her the list, telling her about how I feel compelled to bring its unseen writer, the author who penciled herself in with dates, with me, to offer her new firsts. That I like the idea that we might experience some things together, for the first time, however irrational and impossible, despite not knowing if she still exists somewhere. That I wonder if she made a list of lasts, too. If she reached an end, or if her end, like mine, is yet to come. 

Beyond first birthdays and anniversaries, it seems like most people care more about the stuff in the middle, all the in between, so I maintain the silence. I think about asking the woman about the jay in the photograph, to seem nicer, but I don’t. She’s looking at the lamp, her glasses reflecting its light. 

I wonder if she would agree that maybe the firsts are what mean something because they allow for the existence of seconds. In the bigger scheme of things, maybe seconds matter more.

We sit there, connected by nothing.

With all the windows closed, I exhale towards the ceiling. The smoke hangs in a cloud near the window, and I wonder what it would look like if it could make patterns on the glass. 

I click the pen and open the notebook to a middle page. I’m trying again to write a list. This time, I’m starting with lasts. 

Cards. 

Snow globe.

Both a goodbye. Not an immediate one, but an eventual, inevitable one. I can’t find it in me to care. 

Pull, exhale. 

Grandma’s service. 

College graduation. 

Thirtieth birthday.

The cards sit on the coffee table, the glassy black eyes of the pike somewhere in the stack. Nothing to see within it. I shuffle the deck and deal myself two hands. It’s impossible for me to lose.

About the Author:

Alexa Koch is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she runs The Watermark Journal. Her thesis project will culminate in a short novel of literary fiction that challenges the conventions of narrative and the thoughts that create the human psyche. She lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.

https://alexakoch.com/