The first time he saw her, the sky screamed lightning. That’s what he told anyone who asked in the years after their breakup. He knew it was a desperate move; painting his failure with bold foreshadowing only made him look stupid and weak. Still, it was a chance he was willing to take. At least there would be something on record for people to reference when she moved on to her next victim.
He was sick of feeling like a host for her parasitic needs. The apartment was perpetually trashed no matter how many hours he spent picking up empty pizza boxes, video games or the juice boxes crammed between couch cushions. As fast as he moved, she was faster. Her stamina showed no signs of flagging.
“You should be more respectful,” he’d tell her. But just as quickly, she’d remind him she never forced him; he’d jumped at the chance to give her a place to stay. To make sure she was off the streets and getting regular meals. At least that’s what he’d told her. And himself.
He ran his fingers through matted hair and tried to remember the last time he’d relaxed. The alarm went off in his ear and he rolled over to slam it off. Another pre-dawn appointment to keep their cash flowing.
He grabbed a pair of jeans from a bureau overflowing with panties he never touched and shrugged a wool sweater over his head. It was freezing in Milwaukie and he always met outside.
Clients buying weed were either early or late, never punctual. He moved through the kitchen silently, filling his coffee cup outside the door because her ears were super-sensitive. The lock slid into place behind him and he heard her groan from the couch. As if she’d been up all night.
She didn’t work, of course. They’d talked about it when she first moved in. It seemed logical; she had a Nursing degree and could make more in one shift than he could in 3 days. The only problem was medication.
“Come on Esther,” he remembered coaxing, “Just consider taking the pills once a week. Enough to get through 12 hours and then you’re clean the rest of the time.”
She pretended to consider it for a minute, cocking her head and looking into his eyes. Her eyes were incandescent green, setting off obsidian hair she wore like a halo. He almost forgot what he’d asked her. When she refused the lithium, her eyes spilled over with tears. “I just can’t, Eli. It makes me feel too ill, like I’m outside my body watching people think it’s me.” Then she laid her head against his shoulder and he inhaled the cinnamon that infused her skin.
It was a poison dart that slipped into his heart so painlessly he’d not ended things immediately.
Esther kept her beauty because she wore it unawares. Eli needed that purity. He desired all the things he couldn’t have and hated both of them for filling their roles so perfectly.
She had never slept with him and he had never asked. They orbited around each other, she the manic comet streaking through his life and he, the dead planet, weighted by self-imposed inertia disguised as the knight in shining armor.
It was warm that year, even the swimming holes were empty because the water was too hot. Eli came home from an early deal to find Esther draped over the air conditioner, putting all his credit card numbers on Facebook. Specifically, on pages that appeared to have direct links to ISIS.
“What the hell are you doing?!” he yelled, trying to grab the cards from her hands and unplug the computer.
She rolled off the air conditioner and eyed him coolly. “Someone had to do something or we’d never get off center.” He almost hit her then, feeling the urge run from brain to fingers faster than he could stop it. Esther saw it and moved back. “I was wondering when you’d get sick of me.”
Eli felt his stomach rise. He stared at his hand like a rabid dog and sank to the floor. It was an admission of guilt. The apartment sat in suspended animation, neither of them moving until Esther shifted her weight and crunched a pizza box beneath her foot. Eli looked at her and felt annoyance slide over his skin. Nothing was sacred. It never had been.
“How can you look so perfect and be so broken?” he’d asked her, his voice level and clear. It was the first time he’d had the balls to speak honestly. Perhaps he was too tired to lie.
Esther’s skin was almost transparent, thin blue veins winding beneath flesh that covered it like frost. She absently traced one from the back of her hand, up and over her bicep to where it disappeared into her shoulder. “No one asks me to do anything.”
Eli shuddered. “I asked you to take the lithium.”
She nodded. “Once. Then you never mentioned it again.”
“I was trying to be respectful.”
Esther kicked the pizza box at him.
“I’ve lived with you three years and done nothing but make a mess, spend your money and tease your cock to the edge of reason.”
Eli had never heard her this lucid and it frightened him. She was the limpid chaos that made him feel both sane and unhinged. He depended on her predictable swings to give shape to his days.
“So you’re saying what, Esther?”
She stood up and walked over the rubbish littering the flat until she reached the front door. There was nothing in her hands, no suitcase, no bags, no purse, just her. The air lightened as the scent of cinnamon trailed after her.
“That I’m through, Eli. Mania or not, you’re sicker than I am.”
And she turned the knob, leaving him sinking in the waste of time and disposable solutions.