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The art history teacher’s house had burned down. On the day the campus reopened, she stood in front of the class and asked who else might have lost their home. White ashes lay scattered on the desks, and students wore masks on their way to class. A girl Lucas had not paid much attention to in the first weeks of school started to raise her hand, then let it fall away. After that she kept her eyes on the textbook in front of her. Two other students raised their hands and talked about the night of the fire, what they had lost, and where they were staying now. One of them cried and couldn’t continue. The teacher said she wouldn’t take attendance anymore. For the rest of the semester, if students needed time off or needed to help friends and family, they could choose to do so. “It’s not that it’s not important what we’re doing here. It is, but sometimes you need to take care of other things first.” The class ended after half an hour. They didn’t talk about abstract expressionism, Rothko, or de Kooning.
The girl’s name was April. She wore combat boots, black jeans, and a black sleeveless top. She was overweight, with messy black hair and tattoos on her shoulders and arms. They were small tattoos, all done in black ink, and seemed to have been randomly placed. One was the Hyrule Crest from The Legend of Zelda, another a pentagram. Several other symbols Lucas couldn’t identify. He walked down the hallway behind April and caught up on the stairs. “You raised your hand,” he said. It came out accusatory, though he hadn’t intended that. “I mean…” He wasn’t sure what he meant and fell silent. His face felt splotchy and hot.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to get into it. It’s not like I owned a house or something.”
“Huh,” he said. “What happened?”
“My apartment burned down. In Santa Rosa.”
“That sucks,” Lucas said. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, I didn’t have insurance either, so I can’t buy new stuff right now. But I still have all my schoolbooks, because they were in the car.” She screwed up her eyes.
“Where are you living now?” he asked.
They walked together through the sliding doors. Lucas had nothing more to say; it had cost him a lot to start the conversation. He was faintly aware that he would not have spoken to April if she hadn’t raised her hand for that split second. His family lived only a mile away from campus and hadn’t even evacuated during the fires. Lucas had the granny unit for himself, his own kitchen and bath; nobody spied on him. He was better off than the girl. It felt safer to talk to a girl when you knew she was a fire victim.
“I got to go.” April nodded and walked away from Lucas. It was still hot, and his shirt clung to his back. He waited a few moments, breathed in the smoke and fished for his mask. His hands were wet.
During next week's class, Lucas didn’t talk to April. She arrived late, and even though there was an empty seat next to his, she didn’t take it. After opening her textbook she chewed on a pen. Half the students were missing. The teacher talked about trying to find a permanent place to stay; she’d been moved into a hotel by her insurance and she wore the same outfit as the week before. April, too, wore the same black jeans and t-shirt. He waited for her to lift her gaze and notice him.
After class he walked behind her toward the parking lot near the music center. April did not turn around once, she was listening to music; Lucas could see the white ear buds. She walked past the first rows of cars toward an old brown Accord and pulled open the door. That’s when she spotted him, and he raised his hand and waved.
She didn’t wait for him to get close enough to say hi. Lucas’s own car stood in a different lot, but he pretended otherwise and marched on. April started her engine and pulled out and away. Her Honda seemed stuffed with things; maybe she had been able to save some of her belongings before she had evacuated. Maybe she was a hoarder. A Legend of Zelda sticker took up most of the upper windshield.
That’s how he identified the car two days later. Instead of going straight to class, he cruised through the parking lot searching for April’s Honda. Once he found it, he pulled into a spot two rows away, got out and walked over to the brown Accord. Even from twenty yards away he could see how crowded it was inside. The windows weren’t tinted, and soon he could distinguish pieces of clothing, books, and random things like a Kleenex box, a tape measure, Taco Bell bags and cups. When Lucas reached the passenger side of the car, he stooped to get a closer look, lifting a hand over his eyes against the glare. “Fuck off,” April screamed from inside, and he stumbled backwards. A second later she had thrown open the driver’s door and glared at him from across the roof. “Are you fucking spying on me? Fucking creep.”
He should have apologized then. He should have assured her it was just a coincidence, but Lucas was too panicked and embarrassed. “Are you sleeping in your car?” he said and winced at his own words.
“What if I am?”
“Nothing. I was…I thought…you want to have coffee?”
“With you? You’re stalking me. I don’t know you.”
“I’m in your class,” he said.
“But I don’t know your name. I’m in class with a lot of people.” She said this slowly. He noticed how she always talked slowly, as though everything had been pondered for a long while. At the same time, everything sounded like a question.
“I’m not a stalker,” he said firmly, and noticed that he really believed that.
“O-kay,” she said. “So what are you doing here?”
“Asking you out for coffee?”
She sneered and got back in her car. Then she honked, and the sudden sound made him jump and hurry off to class.
“We can have coffee now,” she said in November. He hadn’t attended Art History 347 “From Abstract Expressionism to Pop” anymore. He didn’t want to seem like a creep and didn’t want to be reminded of April’s red face when she’d flung that word at him.
“Oh?” he said. She’d appeared behind him in the hallway of the Social Sciences building. He was pleased that very first second, as though she had forgiven him and removed the ‘creep’ label. The next moment he became suspicious. “You out of money?” His skin grew bumpy.
She sighed loudly and without a word trudged passed him.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” He was suddenly afraid to not see her again. “Let’s go. We can take my car. I was a dick, I’m sorry.”
Lucas paid for their iced lattes at the Starbucks down the road. She said, “Thank you,” and sank into one of the two leather chairs at the end of the room.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Still living in your car?”
“What about your family?”
“What about them?
“Where are they?”
April didn’t answer right away. She sucked the coffee through the straw and looked very busy doing so. Finally she said, “I have grandparents near Los Angeles. They don’t have any money, they’re already paying for most of my tuition. My mom…I don’t know. Nobody knows where she is right now.” She sucked more coffee, and when it was gone and only ice was left in her cup, Lucas thought he might love to watch April light a cigarette.
“You smoke?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” she said. “Not now.”
“You can sleep at my place,” he said.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because it’s not your car.”
“I’m not some homeless person. I just don’t have an apartment right now.” Water from her cup had dropped onto her shirt and pants.
“I have the granny unit. My parents don’t check on me.”
She put her cup on the small wooden table between them. “You need to earn that. I still don’t know who you are. I’m not going home with some random dude just because I sleep in a car.”
“We’re in the same class.”
“You haven’t been coming.”
“I was busy.”
“So how do I earn that?” Lucas didn’t feel he deserved to be questioned or tested. At the same time, he was strangely excited by her request. It added something romantic to their mid-afternoon talk, he thought. “What do I need to do?”
She looked around. Her eyes fell on something off to the side. “Don’t turn around,” she said. “On the shelf to your left sits a San Francisco mug. I want that. But you can’t buy it for me. You need to steal it. If you do it, I’ll have a look at your place.”
“I can't do that,” he said. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”
The glimmer in her eyes disappeared, and she got to her feet and reached for the backpack. “I’ll wait outside. If you don’t show in five minutes, I’ll walk back to campus. Don’t even think about giving me a ride.”
“They really don’t ever come to say hello?”
“Well, they do. But they always knock or holler. They don’t just come in. And they don’t care. I think they’d be…” He bit his tongue.
“They’d be happy if you had a really nice girlfriend?” She’d put down her backpack by the door, was still holding on to the Starbucks mug. Her armpits were wet, he could see. He wondered how they would taste.
“But I’m not a nice girlfriend.” She smiled at him, and it looked like a real smile, and he smiled too. No, his parents wouldn’t find her pretty; he was certain of that. April was too big, her clothes too masculine. His mom met with her friends every morning to run three miles along the train tracks. She never ate dinner and told every new acquaintance immediately how old she was waiting visibly for a reaction.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Would I be here if I had one?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. It’s not like…”
“We broke up.” She heaved a sigh, then added, “He broke up with me. Sort of. I can’t stay with him.” She didn’t look at Lucas while she said this; for once, she spoke very rapidly, and he took the cue and kept quiet about the boyfriend.
“Are you hungry?” he said.
“Did you pick this stuff?” The living and sleeping area contained a foldout sofa and a white wicker chair. A gold-framed picture of a flowerbed hung on one wall, and a painting of the Arc de Triomphe on another. The carpet was speckled brown-and-beige, the windows framed by beige curtains.
“When my grandparents visit, they sleep here,” he admitted. “As long as they are alive, I’m not supposed to change anything."
“How often do they visit?”
“Just twice a year. They live in Virginia.”
April sank onto the sofa and put her feet on the wooden steel-and-glass coffee table. He wanted to warn her not to break the top — it wasn’t as sturdy as it seemed — but he closed his mouth in time. She had watched his face and smiled again, and it wasn’t a pretty smile. “You sure you want me to stay?”
“I earned it,” he said.
“You earned my visit. Not my staying over.”
“Oh boy,” he said.
Her smile vanished. “You want me to stay or not?”
“Sure, yes. I want you to stay. What do you want me to do?”
“What part of a woman’s body do you not like?” She relaxed, sinking back into the cushions.
“What do I not like?”
“Yes. Something must gross you out.”
“Feet,” he confessed after thinking about it. “I could live with people having no feet. I like shoes, but feet are gross.”
She took off her boots and socks. “Kiss them,” she said.
He couldn’t get her to wake up. He banged around in the small kitchen, hummed in the shower, noisily packed his books; she didn’t stir. She hadn’t even taken off her clothes, was still wearing black jeans and t-shirt. Lucas had not really slept at all; the presence of another body in his apartment had filled him with excitement and dread. Yes, he’d wanted April to stay, but what if he fell asleep and snored? What if she stole something? What if she got a knife and stabbed him? Maybe she didn’t like him at all.
He locked the door behind him and left for school, but he couldn’t concentrate on the history of the Punic wars and during a short break, he left and drove home. April was gone; nothing seemed to be missing. She hadn’t tidied up the couch, and a dirty coffee cup still stood on the table. He threw his bag onto the wicker chair and shouted, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” He wasn’t quite sure what he was angry about, but he avoided windows and mirrors for the rest of the day. He cleaned the apartment and even the toilet. He carried the two paintings into his parents’ garage. He took the wicker chair and stored it in the garage as well. There was no space left to park a car inside anyway. Then he went to Target and bought a framed picture of Brooklyn Bridge, and a Star Wars poster of Kylo Ren and Rey fighting. He bought vanilla-scented candles and tea lights, two large lighters that made hissing noises and whose flames were entirely blue.
She reappeared after dark. He opened after the second knock. “Can I come in?”
“What will you do for me?” he asked.
“Oh shit.” Her face fell and looked ugly.
“Alright, just come in.”
“No, no. What should I do for you?” As though her head weighed a great deal, she lifted it to meet his eyes. He was too stunned to have any idea what she should do. He’d never even thought about it before April’s return. “What?” she asked. “You want to see my boobs?”
He shook his head, even though he would have loved to see them, but it was too obvious. “Blow smoke into my mouth,” he said.
“I’m not going to kiss you, and I’m not going to smoke. No way.”
“Choke me instead,” he said.
“You don’t get to ask. Are you going to do it or not?”
He lay down on the sofa, and she climbed on top of him. She smelled salty, her face was red. She wore the same clothes she’d worn the day before. “How much?” she asked, then put both hands around his neck.
“If I raise my hand, stop.” He closed his eyes but opened them when he could no longer breathe. He watched her watching his face, a question mark painted on it. Her eyes were narrowed, focused, maybe scared. Still, she kept pressing down and he could finally relax. He felt it like heat, like a high fever burning and weakening his limbs. He was at peace, his whole body was able to give up. “You have a boner,” she said.
The pillow below him was wet. Her hands on his face were wet too. She was kneeling next to the sofa. A glass with the rest of the water stood on the coffee table. “Fuck you,” she said. “Fuck you. Why didn’t you raise your stupid hand?” Then, “I’m going to take a shower. I earned it, too.” With that, she took off her shirt, and he could see her bra and white belly below.
“Yes,” he wanted to say, but nothing came. Then he listened to the sound of water and after a few minutes watched steam waft through the half-open door. When she returned she had one of his towels slung around her body. “Do you have anything I can borrow?”
She helped him up, but he got woozy anyway and nearly fell onto the steel-and-glass table. She refused to wear any of his polos but liked a plaid flannel. Only his sweatpants fit her, though she could pull them up to her armpits. She declined his offer of fresh boxers. “I don’t like you that much,” she said.
“How much do you like me?”
She shrugged. “How much do you like me?”
“I don’t know.” It was as close to the truth as he could make it. “But I like you being here.”
She gave a short, resigned laugh. “How many women have stayed here?”
“None.” Two had visited but not stayed. They had neither called again nor answered his messages. He hadn't found out yet how to make someone stay.
“Guys?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“I don’t like guys much myself,” she said.
“You had a boyfriend.”
“Case in point.”
“Not that much either.”
“I’m a guy.”
“Yeah, I don’t like you one bit.”
He went to a drawer in the kitchen and came up with four tea lights and a lighter. He sat the tea lights down on the coffee table.
“Don’t,” she said.
He looked her way. She sat with her legs drawn up on the sofa; her face was clenched. “What?”
“Fucking candles,” she said.
“Oh,” he said, but lit the first anyway. With thumb and middle finger he picked it up and held it out to her. She retreated into the cushions, closing her eyes. Lucas crept closer, the candle in front of his face now. “I’m right here.”
April put her hands over her face. After a while she stopped wailing.
She asked him if she could stay the weekend, and he demanded to see where her house had stood. “That’s your price?” she asked. “Of all the things you could ask for?” She seemed disappointed and annoyed.
They took his car, an old Acura coupe that had belonged to his uncle. The suspension clattered and the seats squeaked every time they hit a bump. “You need to give me directions,” he said once they were on the 101.
“Why do you want to go?”
He thought about her question. “I haven’t seen any of it. Just the smoke. Nobody I know lost a house. Except for you.”
“I don’t have a lot of friends. And you probably don't either, otherwise you wouldn’t be staying with me.” He hadn’t wanted to say that last part, hadn’t even known it was coming. "When this is over, you’ll probably never even call again.” He glanced quickly sideways to see if she was going to protest but not a muscle in her face was moving.
“You have a high opinion of yourself,” she said at last.
“But I’m right, right?”
“Take Bicentennial and then hang a left.”
The National Guard had blocked off the area and only recently started to admit tenants and homeowners back for short visits. Every car had to stop at a checkpoint where an officer demanded to see Lucas’s and April’s licenses. She gave the officer her address, and about a hundred feet further on, another officer handed them bags with heavy-duty gloves, masks, protective glasses, and several bottles of water. Trucks hauling debris went in and out of the area. To the right, the emptiness he was looking at had been a K-Mart, she explained. The McDonald’s near the on-ramp was gone too. The storage units had miraculously survived, but her apartment complex beyond them had not. The driveway had been blocked off, so they parked along Hopper.
“Fuck,” Lucas said. The air still smelled of soot, and in front of him was nothing but an empty expanse interrupted by a few charred trees. It took him a few moments before he remembered April, and when he did, she was still sitting in the car, staring straight ahead. He opened the door, said, “Show me.”
She pointed to her right, away from the street. “You go. I’ll wait for you.”
“We made a deal,” he said.
Without another word she exited the car and entered the premises of the apartment complex, walked past a mostly empty rectangle to another mostly empty rectangle to her right. If he hadn’t known better, he wouldn’t have suspected that buildings had stood in these spots. They were separated by a broken driveway littered with the remains of bikes, barbecue grills, shelves and things Lucas failed to identify. Several cars had burnt out, two were lying on their roofs. A small RV, blackened and missing its windows, lay on its side.
He joined her in front of what he suspected had been the entrance to her building. She raised a finger and pointed. “There. Second floor. One of only four studio apartments they had. Happy now?”
An older woman wearing glasses, mask, and gloves was sifting through the ashes to their left. “You think you could find anything?” Lucas asked April.
She shrugged. “I didn’t have much. My computer is toast for sure.”
Together they stepped over what was left of the foundation and into the rubble. Lucas spotted something, bent down, and pulled it from the ashes. It was an iron colander. “Yours?” he asked, but she shook her head, creasing her forehead and squinting as though he was holding a dead rat by its tail.
The layer of debris was soft and thick, a gray beach; he tried not to sink in too deep, pondered every step. “Here,” she said and stopped. “That was my kitchen. But now there are two kitchens in one. Though my stuff should be on top. Maybe my downstairs neighbor already searched for her things.” She got into a crouch, pulled a glove from the bag the officer had handed her and fished through the mess. She picked up half a porcelain plate, stared at it for a minute, then dropped it again. A kitchen sink had survived, and when April cleared the ashes away, she said, “Look.” A mug appeared in her hand and only the handle was missing. “You’re Awesome, Keep That Shit Up” was printed on its side. “From my grandparents.” She dropped it back into the sink. “I’m not even sure I want anything. It wouldn’t mean the same.” She was moving on to her living area, she said, and after few minutes picked something from the gray and white mess and held it out to him. It was a metal box, big enough to hold markers, letters, or a paperback or two. “Open it,” she said. “Open it, open it.”
He did as he was told. She was pinching her eyes shut and said in a tiny, squeaky voice, “Is anything in there?”
“No,” he said. “Just a bit of ash.”
“What?” She opened her eyes and took the box from his hands. “Fuck,” she said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She grabbed the box and looked for herself. At first it appeared as though she would throw it away, but then she knelt and filled it with debris and shut the lid.
“What was inside?” he asked.
“Come on. What was it?”
“Forget it. It wasn’t important. I didn’t want to come anyway. You made me.”
She walked away from him still shaking her head. She looked very heavy, her shoulders very rounded, her back slumped. If he hadn’t known it was April he would never have approached that person shuffling through the ashes. He picked up the colander and carried it to the car.
“Do you want me to jerk you off?” she asked that evening. He’d ordered pizza and the empty carton still lay on the coffee table between them. She’d taken off her boots and socks again, and he’d been trying not to look at her feet on his carpet. The colander was drying in his sink. It was black and brown, soot baked onto it. He thought it pretty and was looking for a place to hang it. Now he inspected her face to see if she was serious. Or was it a trap? A bad joke?
“Here’s what you have to do.”
He listened her out. His heart was beating furiously, but he wouldn’t let on. “Sure,” he said after she had finished. “Just that?”
He got up from the couch, not able to figure out what to do next. Whenever he tried something new, this white space appeared in his head. It wasn’t fog, but neither was it solid, and his thoughts couldn’t navigate that space. It had appeared too, whenever he’d invited someone over to his place. The girls had entered, and after that, he’d been unable to make sense of the situation as though someone had kidnapped Lucas and dropped him off in a vast, snowy expanse without proper clothing and no way to orient himself. Every step was the wrong one. He could hear April saying, “You’re shaking. Stop shaking, for crying out loud.”
The first time they walked past the house on Pacific Avenue, the windows on the first floor were lit. Two cars, a Mercedes and a Subaru, stood parked in the driveway. April grabbed Lucas’s hand, and stared over his shoulder at the kitchen. “There’s someone moving around,” she said and made herself small.
“What if he sees you?” Lucas asked.
“He’ll only see your back. And it’s not like he is expecting me.”
“How long were you guys together?”
“I don’t want you to talk about him.”
“Then why did you make me do this?”
“It was a mistake. Let’s move.”
They walked east for two blocks, then returned on the other side of the road. “It’s pretty big,” he said. “What do you want from him?”
She shrugged. “I want him to know he can’t get rid of me like that.”
“Did you guys…did you have sex?”
April looked up at Lucas. It was too dark to clearly see her expression, but even so he understood in that moment that he shouldn’t have asked. He couldn’t explain it to himself, but the longer she kept quiet, the uglier he seemed to become. His ridiculously long, spidery toes, his knobby knees, his sallow skin — on good days he could fool himself into believing that he looked nice, almost attractive, but April’s stare said otherwise.
“He’s married, isn’t he?” he said. “That’s why you couldn’t stay with him.”
“Does he have kids?”
“Shut up or I’ll leave. You can forget about the handjob.”
“Does he? How many?”
“Goodbye, Lucas. Have a nice life.” She walked away from him towards Mendocino Avenue. He wanted to chase after her, but his legs wouldn’t budge. Instead they steered him back to the house and up the front steps.
It was the wife who opened the door. She was maybe in her forties, with short dark hair and glasses. She looked as intimidating as a math teacher or a hospital doctor; she looked nothing like April. For the first few seconds he just fidgeted, couldn’t squeeze out a single word. Then he apologized for ringing the bell. “Is your husband home?” he asked.
“He can’t come to the door right now,” she said very deliberately before taking a step or two backwards as though preparing herself to slam the door shut.
“That’s too bad,” Lucas said. “I got something for him.” He raised the shopping bag that held April’s metal box.
“You can leave it with me.” She extended her arm.
“I’d like to see your husband.” Lucas’s throat was very dry and he could feel his left leg twitch nervously, yet the words came out perfectly this time. “It’s for him.”
“Then you’ll have to come back another time or go see him at his office.” The woman started to close the door.
“Maybe I have the wrong address.” He grew afraid she was able to see his twitching leg.
“Yes, maybe you do. What is this?” she asked, pointing at the bag.
“I can’t say. It’s confidential."
“Then it might be better you see my husband at his office. If it’s not the wrong address.” Her tone became more confident; Lucas was certain she could see him shake. “And what is this about? Who are you?”
The last question was spoken sharply. Without thinking, Lucas sat the bag down at the woman’s feet and ran. He didn’t stop running until he reached his car. Bending over the hood, he broke out in shrill laughter that turned to sobs; he hammered on the roof of the car until his hands hurt.
Back at his place he gathered the few things April had left behind, stuffed them into her backpack and left it on the front step. Then he locked the door and switched off his lights. He stayed awake to listen for the sound of April opening the gate to the garden, but at some point he must have dozed off. In the morning her things were gone.
Four days later she was back, and he didn’t even ask her where she’d been and he didn’t make any demands either. It was only seven o’clock in the evening and dark already, and she lay down on his couch and fell asleep within minutes. He kept watch while studying for a history test, drinking a 40 of Miller Light and eating a pint of Chunky Monkey. Next week his family would celebrate Thanksgiving and he would have to give up his apartment for four days. He would have to take down Brooklyn Bridge and Star Wars and retrieve the wicker chair from the garage. He would have to clean as well.
April woke before midnight and said, “Hold me.” He sat down next to her, tipsy and full of ice-cream and benevolent thoughts. “Don’t be a doofus. I’m not some precious doll.” He squeezed harder, and she made herself small and curled up in his lap.
“What happened?” he said.
“Stroke my hair.”
He complied, and after a few minutes repeated his question.
April shook her head, and he didn’t ask a third time. He woke around five in the morning with his pant leg wet from her drool. Carefully he got up and switched off the lights. Tomorrow he’d buy a pack of cigarettes and light them for April and watch the smoke curl from her lips. He would show her how to stub them out. Maybe then he would introduce her to his parents and they all would have Thanksgiving together. His parents couldn’t refuse a fire victim.
Without waking April, he resumed his position on the couch. He would have loved to brush his teeth and use the blue mouthwash, but he didn’t have the heart.
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