One night after their college life drawing class, Gabriel—large, dark, hairy, culturally good-looking—asked Eleanor, "Are your parents rich?"
"They are now, but they didn't used to be," Eleanor said and started telling him the story of garbage soup.
Then Gabriel saw his old friend Joe, his best friend, he said.
"Hi!" he said to Joe.
Joe said "Hi!" and walked on.
Joe was his friend from when they were five years old, from when they were in high school and took the train from Portland down to Mexico, he explained.
Then Eleanor went on with the story of garbage soup. "I think we were poor when I was growing up, but I'm not sure. My parents don't talk about it much."
"Wait a minute. You made me think of something." He called another friend.
"Hello, Dr. Mystery," he said. He asked Dr. Mystery to tell him a story. Dr. Mystery told him the story. Gabriel handed her his phone so Dr. Mystery could tell her the story.
"You have to say, 'That's life,'" Gabriel said.
She took the phone. Dr. Mystery said, "This is from an old joke. It goes like this. You say, 'That's life.'"
"That's life," she said, and Dr. Mystery said, "What's life? A magazine. How much does it cost? Fifteen cents. Only got a dime. That's life. What's life? A magazine. How much does it cost?"
While she listened to the story, Gabriel wrote it down. When the phone call was finished, Gabriel had to go to the library, and she had to go home because she had nothing else to do, but she still hadn't told her story.
"We used to have garbage soup," she said as she followed him. "On Saturdays my father would bring home old vegetables and meat scraps from the grocery store and make them into lunch."
"That's disgusting," Gabriel said then waved goodbye.
The next week as they walked to the snack bar on their break, Eleanor told Gabriel, "When we were kids, my older brother Teddy did the neatest thing. Do you want to hear?"
"No," he said; then, he said "Yes" and laughed.
"Well, he was just a kid, maybe twelve or fourteen, and my father was punching him around the kitchen for my mom. Teddy was bigger than my mother, so my father had to punch him for her. My father was bigger than either of them. He hit Teddy in the nose, and it started to bleed, a stream of blood. Teddy didn't hit back or anything. He just walked into the living room, bent his head over, and dripped blood on my mother's new gold carpet." She looked at Gabriel and smiled. "I think that's the coolest thing I've ever seen a kid do."
She was happy telling him the story and didn't care if he thought it was cool or not. It made her realize how much she missed her silent brother Teddy.
It was comforting to find she could walk down the sidewalk leaving a trail of snot and tears no one would see. Was that a sign? Eleanor wondered. Was that sometimes a sign, when you walked down the sidewalk carrying groceries, crying? At the daycare where she worked the other workers would think it was a sign. They were trained to see signs there.
As she got closer to her house, she listened for Gabriel's motorcycle. That would be a sign. Often she would run outside, thinking she had heard it, and there would be no one there. He had promised to visit. Perhaps today he would come. Perhaps he would come before she cooked dinner. Perhaps they would go out to dinner. He liked to go out. Then she remembered it was Friday, and he played his guitar on Friday and Saturday nights. It might be fun to go clap for him and listen to him sing. It was the weekend, and she was supposed to have fun.
Thinking she might see him reassured her, but her hands were still limp and uncoordinated as she struggled to unlock her door. After she put the groceries away, she drifted into the bathroom. She would clean the sink. It was gray and stained. She wanted to see something, a sign, in the patterns of the stains as she tried to make them white. Gabriel often wore white. He was always in music, but he never danced. That was how her older brother Jamie had been before he was killed in a car wreck when he was eighteen and she was ten.
She decided instead she wanted to go rollerskating in the cool green concrete rink. She would think about Gabriel, imagine him skating beside her, then tell him she had been skating and had thought of him. He would praise her independence. She would move in and out of the rhythm of the track with the fast guys, and when she went fast enough, concentrating on holding on to the ground with her skates, everything would be controlled by the music and round.
She woke up scared when she heard a knock at the door. Then she heard Gabriel saying, "Eleanor, wake up. It's all right. It's me. Answer the door."
"I didn't think you'd be asleep this soon," he said when she opened the door. It was 2 a.m. He had his guitar in his hand. "I just finished playing. I missed you. I thought maybe you would come. You said you might. I thought maybe you were awake, so I decided to come." He hugged her, and she was glad.
"Do you have any coffee?" he said.
She offered him instant. He was going to leave, but she asked him to have nut bread and stay. He sat at the kitchen table and played music while she made the coffee, set out buttered slices of warmed nut bread, then watched the butter run off the bread, cool, then harden again. The coffee stopped steaming and oil formed on top.
She stared at the muscles in his huge forearm. She thought about touching his hand, lifting it from his guitar, but reached out and touched his thigh instead. He played the song about the drunken sailor and his favorite one about the long cool lady. Eleanor acted happy. She tried to talk to him.
"What are you doing tomorrow? Do you want to do something with me?"
He said yes. He said he would call her, and they would do something. Finally he stood up and apologized for playing so long, for coming so late.
She thanked him. "It was wonderful. It doesn't matter. I can sleep in."
She walked with him into the living room. They stopped, and she put her arms around him and leaned back. His bulky strength made her happy. He admired her body and that made her happy. They kissed and moved against each other. She pictured them as two curved geometric forms filled with sand, one that could be poured into the other. She tried to fill her curved space, to take the sand she needed from him without letting him know she was taking it, without leaving anything missing, but the sand seemed to flow the other way. She could feel herself disappearing instead of filling up.
"I have to go now," he said.
"Can't you stay? I want you to stay."
"I want to stay, but I can't. Maybe someday I can."
"Why can't you stay?"
"I have obligations. Believe me, I want to, more than anything, but I can't." He opened the door and was gone.
In bed she hugged her pillow to her body thinking of all the times she had fallen asleep that way and all the men who had gone away.
When she finally slept, she dreamt she was running through a forest of giant wooden boxes, the boxes the model, Kitty, had run through in life drawing, only now they were bigger and were colored green, brown, blue, and white. They had no shadows. A white light shown evenly on them all. They were heavy and set at odd angles. Their sharp corners were like teeth jagging into each other. A young man was running behind her. She tried to make it be Gabriel, but it was one of the college football players who lived in their house after her brother Jamie died. It was her favorite, Danny. Then she wasn't afraid even though they were running. They were running for fun though the corners of the boxes made running difficult, and she hit them.
She could see her mother at a distance waiting for them to reach her. Children were tumbling out from underneath the band of her mother's apron, rolling out as babies, hitting the ground as two- or three-year-olds, tumbling onto the bare wooden floor of the forest of boxes, then running off to play, smiling, chubby five- or six-year-olds. Eleanor and Danny were excited. They couldn't stand still. Her mother wanted them to stop being silly. When they got quiet they could ask politely for what they needed. Danny wanted to know something then Eleanor wanted to know it too, but her mother wouldn't answer. They repeated the question, but her mother refused to tell.
Eleanor woke up forming the question, thinking “What is my name?” and for a moment could not remember then could not get it straight.
She spent the day in and out of bed, watching the windows, adjusting the volume of the radio, listening for Gabriel. When she heard too many motorcycles go by, she turned up the volume and drowned their sound out. Late in the afternoon he came. He wanted to take her shopping. There wasn't time to come in.
They went to a thrift store. After looking at Army jackets, Gabriel went to the slips and peignoirs. She helped him find the most interesting ones. "Look at this one! Look at this!" she said.
She looked at the peach silk bed jacket he held up. He asked if she liked it, and she said yes. He had her try it on. It was a little too small, but he thought it was sexy.
She was surprised when he bought it and put the sack inside his white shirt.
Then he took her home. She hugged him and kissed him goodbye while he was on the motorcycle. He was late for work.
She watched him as he rode away, holding on to herself, seeing his taillight flash red over and over as he wove down the street. I am not ten years old, she told herself. I can get control of my life. I don't have to always be so alone.
M. Kaat Toy (Katherine Toy Miller) of Taos, New Mexico, has published a prose poem chapbook, In a Cosmic Egg (2012), at Finishing Line Press, a flash fiction book, Disturbed Sleep (2013), at FutureCycle Press, novel selections, short stories, flash fiction, prose poetry, creative nonfiction, journalism, and scholarly work. "Madness Stories" is from Madness with Grief, a novel told in stories.