So This Is How We Go
Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition: 2020 First-Place Winner: Madison Owens Bakalar for her story “So This Is How We Go”
So This Is How We Go
You’ve been dreaming of a steak all afternoon: medium rare, the middle just tinged with pink like a sunset right before night swallows up that last bit of light. Maybe a baked potato with butter and chives. Green beans or cob corn, the butter running down your wrists. You convince yourself that January isn’t too cold to barbecue. You’ll take off your skirt, put on some sweats, and stand a good two feet away from the flame. The snow will melt a ring around the patio.
You think of these things on the commute home, unaware that the world has gone to shit and your boyfriend is packing his bags. In the driveway, you wave to your neighbor, Bruce, but he’s knee-deep in the frozen ground.
“Underground,” he yells over the hedge, teeth clattering. His hands are bone-white on the shovel. “I’ve been reading up, and that’s what the experts say. Underground is our best bet.”
When you close the front door, Edgar is pacing in the living room. You notice the duffel bag in the foyer, the news channel on mute, the house in disarray.
Edgar stops. He looks right through you and palms his greasy hair.
“Babe, I’ve been thinking,” he says, “what with the world ending and all, who are we trying to fool? I’m in love with someone else.”
You laugh; you wait for the serious expression to dissolve on his face, for him to break character.
“Might as well be honest, right? That’s what matters in the end, isn’t it?” He says this as if he’s trying to convince himself, still not meeting your eye.
You tied your snow boots too tight. You can feel your pulse in your ankles, your feet, blood thumping as it squeezes its way through your pinched veins. There are a million questions circling your brain, but you only ask one: “Who is she?”
“We met online,” he explains, wearied, like the effort it takes to get you up to speed is draining the life out of him. “Her name is Karen. She’s a geologist.”
“Oh,” you say, but you know he’s lying, know he’s trying to lessen the blow. “The world’s really ending?”
He drags you outside, tilts your head toward the east, and points. A gray speck like a pinhead in the sky. A meteor barreling through space. You think it’s just a smudge on your glasses. You think he’s gone insane. You turn to Edgar, but he’s kicking at the handle on the car to break the ice and throwing his stuff in the backseat.
“Wait, so that’s it then?” you yell, the cold air making your eyes tear. “I don’t understand.”
You watch as his car peels out of the driveway, tires spinning on the ice by the mailbox. He cranks down the window and sticks his head outside.
“Sorry,” Edgar says, and then he’s gone.
This is how you think of yourself now: mostly alone. This is how you adapt, survive. In the morning, your teeth feel furry, and you realize you forgot to brush. You realize you spent the rest of the evening and the following two days curled in a ball on the floor watching the news, making up for lost time, reacquainting yourself with the world. Pulling your head out of whatever fantasy it’s been stuck in for the past few weeks. Knocking the dirt out of your ears. Edgar used to joke about it over dinner, so you thought it was a hoax, an outlier. Fake news. “The math just doesn’t add up,” he’d say. The improbability helped you sleep at night, holding him close.
Your neck is cramped, so you roll into a camel pose, squashing a box of Triscuits beneath your leg. You never were any good at yoga, but it always seemed like something you should do. Your friends were all into it: Bikram, Kundalini, Hatha, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, Hot. But you’re too antsy, limbs aching for movement, rhythm. You’d rather go running and feel your kneecaps burn. Plug up your ears with punk music and just get it over with. You don’t like listening to your thoughts or noticing your lungs expand and collapse against your rib cage. When the blood rushes to your head, you fall back onto the rug and close your eyes.
You remember everything all at once. Edgar’s slow, rumbling laugh, the Steelers tickets on the fridge, the last look he gave you before speeding away: full of pity and something else, something that cut deeper, like regret. Surely he was kidding. Surely he’ll be back in a few days. Your phone is beneath the couch, and you have to stretch out to reach it. You dial his number and whistle the Jeopardy theme song while it rings and rings. Two towers per half mile and there’s still not enough room in the cellularsphere for you to get through. You think of your mother in Jersey, your father in Des Moines. You wonder if they’ve got an exit plan, if they’ve been trying to reach you since the meteor first shifted course and decided to play bumper cars with your planet.
You know Edgar’s halfway to South Dakota by now, because that’s where she lives. His hands are probably shaking from the three cans of Red Bull that litter the floor. A habit she got him into back in the day. You knew he was lying, about how they met online. As if the name wouldn’t ring a bell: He meant Kara, not Karen, the dumbass. They were high school sweethearts until you came around and gave him a reason to cheat. Biology class at Drexel, when you copied off his test and spent the rest of the semester holed up in his dorm room watching reruns of Cheers. He never got over her, and you were aware of this, keenly. You convince yourself his lie is the truth, tell yourself you’re better off – one less person to worry about when the sun blots out and the world erupts in flame. You tell yourself these things, but still cry when you find his loafers by the back door, his half-eaten sandwich on the counter.
It comes back to you as you’re making coffee. The bright lights outside your window, the metallic grating as your neighbor Bruce dug through the night, half frozen, still at it. You fill two mugs and walk outside, cut through the hedge, stand at the mouth of the hole, and call in. He pokes his head out and offers you a hand.
You were a child once. You were eight, nine years old in a field with your cousins, the sky plum-colored, poisoned with rain clouds. They were tall and limber, cruel like your uncle, and you followed them to a cave in the hills, watched as they yelled into the darkness, teeth flashing in the dusk. You screamed when the bats swooped out, hundreds of them, nipping at your hair. You crouched to the ground, heard the crack of their baseball bats as they felled them from the sky, laughing. You don’t remember what the animals looked like — stunned, bleeding on the ground — but you remember the smell of the earth as you crouched there, trembling. The damp, heavy weight of it in your lungs, like being buried underground.
You’re in that field now, and Bruce is talking logistics, weight distribution, rate of survival. He’s black with dirt, hair burnished from sweat. He’s ten, fifteen years older than you, with a gravelly voice that makes you want to clear your throat. You sit on an overturned bucket and listen as he explains his theories. The shelter is huge, a lot bigger than you were expecting. Flame-resistant metal along the walls, wooden beams preventing collapse. He has a cot, shelves stocked with canned foods, a two-way radio, and books to pass the time. Maps plaster the walls, blankets pile high in the corners, sand bags corral the entrance. You’re envious of his resourcefulness, his focused mind. You want to stay here in this hole forever, but instead, you head for the ladder. Bruce wraps you in a hug and says, “What kind of name is Edgar anyway?” You realize that (of course) he knew; he was in the yard all day and saw your relationship fall apart. You want to feel relief, camaraderie. You want to laugh at your mutual despair, but all you feel is his boner against your leg.
You go to work because that’s what normal people do. You shower and comb your hair and put on the nicest dress you have. It’s a bridesmaid’s gown from your friend’s luau-themed wedding. It’s tight around the hips and a little too short, but you hold your breath to zip it up the rest of the way. You pack yourself a lunch like you never do – summer sausage and swiss cheese and mayonnaise – and roll it into a tortilla because you ran out of bread.
You’re the only person at the office, typing away on the fifth floor of a brick building in which you’ve spent half your twenties trying to get promoted. You work at The Big Dill, selling pickles for a living. Dill, Kosher, Bread and Butter, Halfsour. You’re a publicity girl, the face everyone sees at corporate events, shoving samples at the millennials who populate farmers’ markets on the weekends. Smiling at bearded men who smell of hemp and coconut oil. Who complain about the lack of sustainable farming and biodegradable utensils. Who have buckets filled with compost in their backyards, but who suck down five-dollar coffees just to make it through the day. The hypocrisy infuriates you.
On your lunch break, you blast N’Sync, dance down the aisles of the cubicle farm, and jump on top of Rhonda’s desk. You kick her Zen sand garden off her desk, hoping you’ll really fuck up her feng shui. Passive aggressive is your middle name.
Because this is how you cope with things: You don’t. You push them so far back into your mind that you almost forget they exist. They linger on the periphery, a lukewarm haze around your brain, striking a nerve every now and then, causing a momentary frenzy, but remaining mostly unseen, like flying saucers or the dust bunnies under your bed.
You head home early because the silence is eating away at your nerves. You punch the elevator button but think better of it. What if it gets stuck? No one would hear your screams; no one would come running, no fire trucks or maintenance crews. No sirens or jaws of life rending open the roof of the elevator and extracting you from your certain death.
You find your coworker Asher crying in the stairwell, slumped against the wall. He’s been here this whole time, and you never knew. Through the entire discography of the 1990s. He heard you singing the Goo Goo Dolls at the top of your lungs. He heard you set off the fire extinguishers, spraying the foam along the walls, in the break room, dousing the place as if it were on fire. You always had a thing for him but never wanted to admit it. His freckled forearms, his southern twang sweet like honey in your ears. Blond hair stringy, falling into his eyes. The door bangs against the wall, and he looks up at you, wild with fear.
“I thought you were robbing the place,” he says, smoothing his wrinkled shirt. There are bags beneath his eyes, and you want to ask him if he slept here, if he always has.
“Interns don’t work on Fridays,” you say, continuing down the stairs. “Don’t you know?” In the parking lot, it’s too warm for your winter jacket, so you take it off.
You don’t ask why he doesn’t have a car, why he’s wearing slippers instead of shoes. And when he gets into the passenger seat, you let him. You drive to the nearest grocery store and walk up and down the empty aisles, making Asher push the cart. Dead silence save for the humming of the empty freezers, a lone man slicing a rump of turkey into paper thin sheets. The canned goods are gone: tuna, collard greens, stewed tomatoes, heart of palm, even spam. Everyone is so prepared. You wonder where all the procrastinators are. You can’t be the only one left. In lieu of baked beans and Spaghetti-o’s, you stock up on perishables. Fresh bread from the bakery, Greek yogurt, blocks of cheddar cheese, chicory and arugula, black cherries. You nab a pack of cigarettes on the way out just to feel the weight of the carton in the pocket of your cardigan. All that tobacco packed in filaments that remind you of the leafy green rows back home. Nobody in your family has ever smoked until now. Your granddaddy cut and bound it but shied away from the end result. His liver got him anyway. So, you fill your lungs with it, you and Asher. You sit in the parking lot and feel it smolder inches from your nose.
Through the windshield, you squint at the fiery marble in the sky and snub out your cigarette on the dashboard. You peel off your cardigan and drive barefoot back home, Asher crafting a kite out of his button-down shirt over the West End Bridge. There are people sunbathing on their lawns, the water rushing into the storm drains as the snow begins to melt. Your neighbor Bruce has installed a pump in his cave. He stands knee-deep in the slush.
You appoint Asher to the couch, but he crawls into your bed late at night, puzzles himself in beside you. It’s hot in your bedroom, and you turn on the fan, roll onto your back, and watch the blades spin round and round. The blinds are closed, but you can still see the smoky yellow haze outside, like the calm before a summer storm.
You don’t sleep anymore. You don’t even bother doing the dishes. They pile in grimy mounds in the sink, encrusted with melted cheese and swaddled in banana peels, swarming with flies. Instead, you and Asher have sex, sometimes two, three times a day. He makes you feel less alone, if only for a few minutes. He makes you forget the world outside: the fireball cutting a hole through your atmosphere. You christen the living room, the hallway, the bathroom, the kitchen, the basement with your presence, trying to extinguish all memory of Edgar. But his coats still hang in the closet, and Asher cries every time he comes. You cannot bear either one of them.
So, you think of Karen instead. Color in the lines of your make-believe. You give her red hair, a firm ass, a headlamp to illuminate the stalactites and stalagmites that punctuate the cave. You bet she looks good in khakis. Nobody ever does, but Karen would. You imagine it would be cool down there, deep underground, the water trickling off the ceiling, the earth groaning from some antediluvian ache. Spelunking. You learned the word long ago. From some nature show on the Discovery channel. Or a geology class that you mostly slept through. It comes back to you now as you and Asher retreat to the basement, making friends with the stray cats that have weaseled their way inside. You’ve heard rumors of an underwater sanctuary, all the scientists and mathematicians and world leaders congregating at some secret bunker nestled deep inside the Mariana Trench. You’ve heard people paid billions of dollars for a seat on a space shuttle, all other flights sitting idle on the runways, the rubber tires melting into the cracks in the asphalt. It’s too late to ask for Bruce’s help; he’s closed the hatch, hunkered down for good. The grass outside has died a mustard brown.
There was a time when you wished the world would end. You were sixteen, and the love of your life, Landon McGinnis, had just broken up with you. You were, understandably, devastated. You woke up on January 1, 2000, alive, hungry, disappointed. You were expecting, had prepared for, something much different: a collapse of time and space, an explosion in the Earth’s core, a barrage of tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis that would ravage the coastlines and plains, wild packs of coyotes and rabid dogs tearing down your doors. Wildfires and earthquakes, swift and devastating. The rapture even. You weren’t religious, but you had factored this in, just in case the moon became like blood or the stars fell earthward. Just in case you saw the four horsemen or heard trumpets from on high. On your bedside table, you amassed all the great religious texts from the public library: the Quran, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, the Bible, Tao Te Ching, the Tanakh and B’rit Hadashah. You burned incense on your dresser, walked naked around your room despite the crisp December air, fasted for three days, and then ate only Kosher food. Y2K! Your mother tried to get you to see a psychologist. Your father told you to stop stinking up the house. But you ignored them both. You bowed five times in the direction of Mecca, made a voodoo doll out of an old sock and some rice, and, at a quarter to midnight on the eve of the Millennium, when you felt sufficiently spiritual, you lay down on the bed and waited to die.
But nothing had happened. You fell asleep and woke up in a new year, stark naked, unbearably single. It could have been a mistake. Perhaps you were dreaming; perhaps you’d already crossed over to the other side. Perhaps the rest of the world had been annihilated, and your house was the only building left standing. You’d heard of this before. Whole towns flattened, but the library pristine. An anomaly, an act of God. Fear like acid in the back of your throat. How terrible would that be? A different kind of loneliness. You lunged toward the windows, tore the blinds away, and were suffused in the early morning light. As your eyes adjusted, the world came into view, so familiar you felt like crying.
You feel like crying now. You want to weep over Landon McGinnis. You want to believe that this is only a nightmare, a false alarm, the mad ravings of some cult whose predictions turn out to be laughably incorrect. That you’ll wake up any moment, your heart racing inside your chest, your mother pounding on your door yelling you’ll miss the bus.
But you’re here and Asher’s here and he’s giving you a look that makes you want to bury your hands in his scraggly hair, twine yourself so closely against his chest that you lose a sense of your edges.
“So this is how we go,” he says, his eyes like uncut emeralds in the half-light. You’ve stripped down to almost nothing, the sweat running off in rivulets.
“I always thought it would be something else,” you say.
“Something nuclear.” The heat is overwhelming, and you have to concentrate to breathe, to keep your eyes open. “Or something not so grand.”
“Like dying in your sleep,” he says before drifting off, his head like a rock against your shoulder, his breathing steady and slow.
Spelunking. You like the way the word rolls off your tongue, as if you’re dropping rocks deep down into the pit of your stomach, filling the void that Edgar left behind. Spelunking. Spelunking. Spelunking. You wonder if they’ve found each other, if they’ve set up camp in Jewel or Wonderland or Rushmore. The caves strung along the South Dakotan plain like gems yet to be mined. Perhaps Edgar has written some elegant manifesto for future generations to find, if anyone survives. Perhaps he’s etched it into the stone walls, next to some prehistoric stick drawings, his clothes ragged, his face slick with sweat. Or perhaps he’s stuck on some lonely stretch of farmland, out of gas, his feet blistered from walking for miles, not a soul in sight.
But you don’t want to think about that. So, you close your eyes and remember that time you and Edgar took an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. You stood at the railing and the city squirmed beneath you, like those microbes beneath your telescope in BIO 101, like Edgar’s hand on your thigh. Tens of thousands of windows all catching the flare of late afternoon, and tens of thousands of people inside each little window, crying or laughing or fucking or yelling. Edgar wrapped his arms around your waist, and you watched the waters of the Hudson drift south, shimmering like spilled mercury in the stilted light.