Sigrid loved the American boy and he loved pot. She had left Sweden in May to be with him, and now the Atlanta summer crawled by like a wounded animal. His parents had gone to Europe on extended vacation, but before leaving his mother had taken her out to breakfast, just the two of them, and asked her directly, "What are your intentions with my Eli?"
"He is my best friend," she had replied, to which his mother, skeptical, had smiled blandly and sipped her coffee.
The young couple's job was to mind his parents' house and walk the big yellow dog that lay panting on the screen porch and only barked at black men. Eli smoked openly at first, but Sigrid criticized him for smoking too much and he became secretive. He took the dog for long walks in the woods. His showers behind the locked bathroom door seemed endless. Sigrid knew he was stoned because his eyes hid behind a frosted sheen of glass, and he was distant even when he nuzzled her neck and whispered that he loved her. This new, blunted intimacy left her unsettled, because she could still sense his true self, the one she remembered from last summer in Sweden, buried as if beneath a pile of mildewed blankets.
Eli wanted her to get stoned. He made her try pipes and joints and three different kinds of bongs. It only gave her a headache, and she grew to hate it like she had hated her father's drinking – the milky-eyed, sub-aquatic distance, the ever-present secrecy, the selfish other-life of the addict's hidden love.
But when he was not stoned his face opened up, his eyes cleared, and everything she had fallen in love with last summer was there again. He was a sprightly fish of a boy and she loved his high-pitched laugh. She taught him Swedish words, which he mangled endearingly. They would chase each other through the house, shrieking, and the big dog would bark and herd them down. When she caught him she would wrap her fingers around his throat and say in a zombie's voice, "Maaaaariage!" and this would fill him with hilarious panic.
Meanwhile, Sigrid's father was slowly dying in Sweden and she refused to go home to him. Not her mother's pleading nor the odd-hour phone calls from her parents' friends could convince her to return to her father at his death bed. Even Eli in his lucid moments was baffled that she stayed. She tried to explain to him that her father had been drunk for so long that he already seemed dead, that his choice to die now, just as she was escaping him, was ultimate proof of his selfishness. Nights she lay awake and felt like she was chewing on this old American house but couldn't swallow. She drifted to sleep and ate tuna fish candy and pulled slippery pink worms from her vagina. She saw her father, tall and slender as a pine tree, stepping through the forest with a hunting rifle. He disappeared into the shadows and she realized she was wearing his black rubber hunting boots, so big on her feet that she stumbled when she tried to walk.
"The camping trip is coming up," Eli announced one afternoon in July.
"Me and the guys," he said. "The guy-trip. We've been planning it forever."
"Guy-trip?" said Sigrid.
"The one I told you about in my letter."
"The one where I told you I was thinking of going camping this summer."
"You said we might go camping."
"But then you said you hated camping, so I ... ." He trailed off and turned to look out the window. "Look, I promised I would go. You can come, but you'd be the only girl. It's supposed to be a guy-trip."
"So you say that I can't come."
"I'm saying it might be weird. It would be weird, you being the only girl there."
"So I am not invited?"
"You're invited, it's just that–"
"And I will take care of your parents' house alone?"
"Just for a couple of days. Sam is here."
"With the dog?"
"We've been planning this forever."
"But you forgot to tell me?"
"Look, Sam needs a walk," he said. "We'll talk about it when I get back." Eli went to his bedroom to rummage through a drawer before leaving. Sigrid listened to the gate open and close outside, and then she was alone in the house.
Occasionally, all on their own, the wooden floors would creak. Eli's father had told Sigrid it was called slippage – an old house sinking into its foundations. Later, Eli had told her it was a homeless woman who slept in the basement, sneaking in at night and making a bed for herself in the old boxes. She had half-believed him, just as she had half-believed him when he had written that in America the kitchen faucets poured Coca-Cola.
When he came back she could smell the smoke on his clothes. He stood in the kitchen drinking a glass of water and staring at her. He tried to meet her eyes but she wouldn't allow it. She saw the bulge of his pipe in his pants pocket.
"We should eat dinner," he said. "I'll make some ramen."
"Except I'm not one bit hungry for noodles."
He laughed. "You sound like my mom. Where did you get 'not one bit hungry'?"
"The Ricki Lake Show."
"You've been watching television?"
"The woman wasn't one bit ashamed."
"What wasn't she one bit ashamed of?"
"She wasn't one bit ashamed of being a lesbian who was married to a man."
"Was her husband on the show?"
"Yes. He also wasn't one bit ashamed, but his mother was angry. She was many bits ashamed."
He laughed again. "There's no such thing as many bits."
"Yes," she said, smiling thinly because the language was becoming hers now. "There is."
The kitchen grew immense. Sigrid was on one side and Eli was on the other. He leaned against the counter like a drinker at a pub; she sat stiff as a student in her chair at the kitchen table. Every so often his eyes would drift closed and he would jerk awake as if he had been poked. It was dark outside and the darkness throbbed through the windows. Far away a siren wailed, and on the front porch the yellow dog howled in response.
"You smoked again," she said, staring out the window.
"Listen, I am not going to stay here while you go camping with the guys. I can't do it."
"Hey," he said, his eyes widening, "I want to tell you something. While I was out I saw a daddy-long-legs. It had six legs, but used the two front legs like feelers. They didn't have feet on the bottom, they just tapered off. I couldn't find any eyes, either, unless the black dot on its forehead was an eye. It was awesome."
She stared at him.
"I want to tell you something," she said. "I love you, Eli, but you are slippaging."
He peered back at her with cloudy eyes. "What do you mean? What's 'slippaging'?"
"You are slippaging."
"Slipping?" He smiled. "You mean slipping. How am I slipping? What did I do?"
"I will leave you before you become my father."
"But I don't get it. How am I 'slippaging'?" He gave a short laugh. "And how am I like your father?"
"He drank too much. You smoke too much. His drinking killed him."
"But he isn't dead."
"He is almost dead," she said, and it was quiet in the kitchen after she said this.
"Did your mom call?" he asked, studying the tile floor.
"No," she said, "But Sven did. And then Carl, and then Sylvia. They are all calling now, telling me that I am hurting my father and I will regret this for the rest of my life."
"Well, will you?"
"I don't know," she said, closing her eyes.
Then he looked puzzled. "Wait, who's Sven?"
He walked across the kitchen and stood behind her. Sigrid did not turn in the chair, and watching their reflection in the dark window she noticed his long blond hair falling in front of his shoulders. The blurry image made him look like a woman – a stockier, thick-set version of herself standing above her – peering down at her with a washed-out face and two blank holes for eyes. She watched his hands rub her shoulders and reach beneath her shirt to cup her breasts. A firmness pressed into her shoulder blade through the chair's backrest. It was his pipe.
Eli woke early the next morning to clean the house. They had been sleeping in his parents' king-sized bed, and Sigrid lay on the immense white slab listening to the vacuum knock about the furniture. Occasionally the dog barked angrily, and she imagined the boy was taunting him. He came into the bedroom after cleaning and told her he was going camping. She stared at the ceiling fan while he packed.
"Don't go," she whispered when he bent to kiss her.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I promised." Then he added, "Maybe you should come."
"Stop," she said. "How can I come on the guy-trip?"
He didn't answer her, and when he kissed her again she closed her eyes and turned away, listening to the rustling sounds of his leaving, the bag zipping closed, the receding footsteps, the brief rush of the kitchen faucet and the quiet latching of the front door.
Sigrid got up and went to the living room. She hated him for cleaning the house because now there was nothing for her to do. On the leather couch, beneath his parents' reproduction of Flaming June, she lay on her belly and tried to weep. The dog came and stood just inches from her face, watching.
The old house creaked and shifted through the day. Spots on the wooden floor moaned when Sigrid walked over them. The rooms were large and airy with high ceilings, but the walls shrank, casket-close, and she threw open all the windows. At times she swore she could feel the slippage, a subtly increasing tilt that made it impossible to lean back in her chair, as if the house wanted to tip her over and send her crashing to the floor. Walking through the long central hallway, she felt like she was hiking uphill, the bathroom a distant rise at the far end of the house. At night came the moths and beetles to perform a pointless dance around the light bulbs.
In the morning her mother called. Her father was definitely dying. There was blood in his brain and he was slowly losing his memory. He spoke rarely now, mixing up his syllables when he did. When a friend had asked him if he wanted to see Sigrid he had said, "Ney, yen, ney." After her mother hung up, Sigrid continued to hold the phone to her ear, drifting on the quiet hum of the broken line until the signal became shrill and she could no longer bear the sound.
In the afternoon she took the dog for his walk and when she came home she noticed clusters of ladybugs crawling from gaps in the living room windows and covering the inside walls. The house had cracked open, and there were hundreds of them, fat and lethargic as if emerging from hibernation, ladybugs in piles on the window sills, ladybugs belly up and trying to right themselves, dead ladybugs, ladybugs attempting to fly and falling on the floor where they scrambled around aimlessly like bumper cars. A ladybug flew past her head and she realized they had filled the living room, they were all over the couch, the coffee table, drowning in the half-empty cup of her morning tea. The dog was jumping around the room, snapping at ladybugs in the air while she gaped, horrified at the idea of a house that spit insects from its walls.
She took hold of the dog's collar and pulled him to the bedroom and shut him inside. He raked his claws against the door. From the hall closet she lugged the awkward vacuum into the living room and plugged it in. Afterward, she sat slumped and dazed on the coffee table, her ears ringing. A single ladybug crawled out of the vacuum's wand, one wing poking upward, and she shuddered at the thought of them packed inside the dark vacuum bag. She pulled the vacuum open and removed the bulging bag. It seemed to tremble in her hands as she walked through the kitchen and opened the door into the back yard.
In the far corner of the yard was a grove of thin bamboo where the dog went to the bathroom. Sigrid squeezed herself inside, careful to avoid the calcified piles of shit. She thought about Eli, sitting in a tent somewhere with his lips puckered, sucking on a pipe, laughing at something his friends had said. His laugh, she knew, would be different around them, a deeper laugh, a shorter laugh, a little bit cruel. He was laughing his head off, she thought, he was having the last laugh. He was laughing in her face and the laugh was on her. She nearly laughed, and then she choked, and then she sobbed just once and grew silent. The vacuum bag writhed in her palms and she turned it over and shook it, dumping ladybugs and lint and dog hair all over the ground. The red-speckled pile moved grotesquely in the leaves. If only it would snow, she thought, desperately wishing it was winter and the world was blotted out beneath a clean white carpet of death.
She looked back at the house. It was dark with the shadows of afternoon. In the bedroom window was the yellow dog, standing with his front paws on the sill and watching her. She had always loved dogs, but she felt nothing for this big American animal. If she slipped and fell, if the house raised a treacherous tile to trip her in the kitchen, if she hit her head on the floor and bled to death, the yellow dog would not be sad. He would whine at the back door, eat the food in his bowl, shit in the corner, and when he was hungry enough, he would lap at her blood with his long pink tongue.
Sigrid went back inside. The dog scraped at the bedroom door. Above the windows in the living room a few drowsy ladybugs still clung to the wall.
She called her mother.
"How is he?" she said.
"Very bad," said her mother. "But he's awake, and he said he forgives you for not coming home."
"But I'm coming home," said Sigrid. "I've decided."
There was a silence on the other end of the line, thick with static from the overseas connection.
Her mother sighed. "Hurry then."
An hour later, she sat on her duffel in the hallway outside the bedroom. All around her the house was shifting and groaning, anxious for her to leave. It seemed to lean forward now, as if to dump her out, and she had to grip the bedroom door frame to keep herself in place. The central hallway had become a long, narrow tunnel, slick and steep. At the end was the open front door, a tiny dot of sunlight. At any moment the taxi would arrive. She would take a deep breath. The yellow dog would bark once like the crack of a pistol. Then she would let go, sliding down the hallway on her duffle bag, eyes closed, praying for safe passage as she slipped like a breech baby, feet first out of the American house.
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