The Truth About Me

by Louise Marburg Issue: Fall 2015

The front hall of my new house was crowded with junk: soggy cardboard boxes, an old bamboo cage; an armless coat rack, a chest of drawers with no drawers; and a heap of worn-out but elegant shoes, the discards of a fashionable woman.  I didn't know who had lived there before, I bought the place from a bank, but whoever they were, they moved away long ago, because the place was derelict and needed repairs both obvious and as yet undiscovered.

It was in an area we called “Sewage” when I was a kid, but was properly known as “Seward,” the kind of neighborhood where people sat on their stoops in the summertime, and left their Christmas lights up all year long.  In affluent Llewellyn Gardens, where I grew up, the houses had patios and people took down their lights. So the stoop-sitting and unseasonable lights were proof enough that Seward was a lowly place, and the taunt “Where are you from, Sewage?” was a common, if mild, insult of my youth.  Later, when my friends and I were old enough to drive, we would go to Seward to buy beer at a package store where the guy at the register didn’t ask for I.D. “You going to Sewage?” was a hopeful question, then, for anyone who had the use of a car.

The package store was gone by the time I bought my house, and Seward was becoming a vaguely hip area.  Students from the Art Institute rented rooms there during the school year, and people from other neighborhoods came to eat at local restaurant called the HiLo that served oysters and crabs.

“Gentrifier!” my neighbor accused when I went over to say hello, though as far as I knew I was the only “yupster,” as he put it, to buy into the neighborhood.  It was summer and he was bare-chested, a massive barrel of a man, with a fringe of hair around his head like a medieval tonsured monk. It was October before I saw him put on a shirt, and he wore knee-length, multi-pocketed shorts right up until Thanksgiving dinner.  His wife had a job at the spice factory doing something clerical; he was on temporary disability after dropping a heavy box on his foot while delivering packages for UPS. He told me to call him Mun, and introduced his wife as Gina. I said my name was Harry, even though I had always been called Harrison.  Our houses stood about two feet apart; I thought it was important that we get along.

“You won’t be the only one for long,” he said.  “More will follow, and next thing you know there’ll be a Starbucks on the corner.  Good Christ.” He settled heavily into a rusty metal lawn chair he’d set up on the sidewalk in front of his house.  “And what that means for me is higher real estate taxes.” He made me tell him what I paid for my house, and was impressed by how little it cost.  “But it’s a piece of shit,” he said. “Practically falling down. Those are asbestos shingles, you know. Gotta get rid of them safely, and it’ll cost you a pantload to do it.”

I didn’t think that was true; I hoped it wasn’t.  The shingles looked like they were made of tar, with bits of mica imbedded in them that winked in the afternoon sun.  My idea was to eventually replace them with white clapboard siding, fresh and clean, and to put green shutters on the front windows.  I had a lot of ideas. I thought about the house all the time; I even dreamt about it. I dreamt it had a back yard, which it did not, and that the parlor had become a ballroom.  The ballroom dream was particularly vivid because of the shock of the discovery. I didn’t ask for a ballroom! I screamed at somebody, a stranger, who was standing in the ballroom with me.  I often saw strangers in my dreams in those days. My psychiatrist said it was because of stress.  I was supposed to avoid stress as if it were a food that would kill me. But buying a house wasn’t even on the Holmes and Rahe scale of the top ten most stressful life events.  My psychiatrist had never heard of the Holmes and Rahe scale. I’d been seeing him since I was nineteen, almost five years, and he was old, over seventy.

“Retirement is number ten on the Holmes and Rahe scale,” I said.

“You should get a job before you think about retiring,” he said.  He thought he was being funny.

There was useless crap all over the house, not just in the front hall.  Someone who’d lived there had a fondness for broken lamps, because there were maybe twenty of them in the basement, and I supposed the same person had collected the dozens of table fans and toasters and various other gadgets, all broken too, that I found in a bedroom upstairs.  There were dusty cans of food and stacks of piss-yellow newspapers, and perfumes so ancient they had condensed to dark smears at the bottoms of their elegant bottles. I found a laundry bag full of enough pink sponge hair curlers to set the hair of every woman on the block. On the floor of a closet off the kitchen lay two small pelts of brown and white fur with shriveled feet attached to them.  I picked one up between my finger and thumb and took it over to Mun’s. He was sitting in his lawn chair in the narrow shade of his house.

“Oh, yeah, that guy,” he said when he saw the pelt.  “I’d forgotten about him. He died, then his wife. When was that, about six years ago?”

“I don’t know when,” I said.  “What kind of animal was this?”

Mun looked disgusted.  “Guinea Pig. They kept them as pets.”

I dropped it on the sidewalk.  Mun kicked it into the gutter.

“What’s with all the broken lamps and stuff?” I said.

“Mister Fix-It,” Mun said.  “Pete Delarosa was his name.  He died about a year after we moved in.  He liked fixing stuff. Except he never did.  He used to go around asking for items to repair, but people stopped giving him things when they realized they were never going to get them back.”

“So he was nuts.”

“Batshit.  He and his wife died within a few months of each other.  Someone bought the place after that, I don’t know who. He never lived there, I know that.  Let the house go empty when he could’ve rented it out. He must have been rich, like you.”

“I’m not rich,” I said.  I sat down on the bottom step of his stoop.  The sun was right in my eyes. “If I were rich I would have hired someone to clean out the house for me instead of picking up dead Guinea Pigs myself.”  

“You got a point,” Mun said.  “You never told me what you do for a living.”

“I’m a translator,” I said.  That was what I always told people who asked what I did for a living because it was the kind of job that allowed a person to both set their own hours and work from home.  Dutch was the language I chose to say I translated because I’d never met anyone who spoke it.

“Dutch!  Where’d you learn that?” Mun said.

“College.”  If he had asked what college, I would have told him Johns Hopkins.  I did go to Johns Hopkins for most of my freshman year, so it wouldn’t have been a total lie.  But he didn’t ask. I pulled on the sweaty neck of my T-shirt and watched a couple of cars whoosh past.  Some kids started shouting at each other down the street, and I heard the beeping of a truck backing up. I began to get the gelatinous feeling that always came on when I forgot to take my meds.  I rarely missed taking them, and never on purpose, but I didn’t feel like getting up and going inside right that minute. There was a lot to be said for sitting on a stoop. I understood now why people did it.  There was an easy silence between me and Mun that I liked and wanted to continue. I wondered how old he was, and decided on thirty. Though I knew he was on disability for a hurt foot, I hadn’t noticed him limping.

“Okey doke,” he finally said.  “Time to get us a beer.”

We went up the street to the HiLo, and drank Pabst out of bottles at the bar.  There wasn’t anyone there at that time of day, midway between lunch and dinner, and the bartender sat at a table looking at Facebook on his phone, laughing occasionally at something he saw.  

“You on Facebook?” Mun asked me.

I shook my head.  If I had been on Facebook I would have had about five “friends,” two of them being my parents and one of them my shrink.  I had a classmate from high school who I hung out with now and then, and I kept in touch with my former roommate from Hopkins.  My high school friend was a drug dealer, mostly pot, and had as much free time as I did. But I didn’t do drugs -- illegal ones, anyway -- and he was almost always stoned, so we didn’t have a ton to say to each other.  My college roommate had gone on to business school and worked for a hedge fund now. The photo on his most recent Christmas card showed him with his pregnant wife and a fluffy white dog. When I knew him in college, he thought he might be gay and wanted to major in Theater.  My plan had been to become an environmental attorney: I was wicked smart back then.

“You got a girlfriend?” Mun said.  Again I told him no. “Because Gina thinks her cousin Aggie would like you.”  He picked at the label on his bottle. “She loves fixing people up, she wants everybody to get married.  She keeps bugging me to ask you if you’re interested. So I’m asking you. You don’t have to answer.”

I could think of plenty of reasons not to date Gina’s cousin, but none that I wanted to tell Mun about.  I hadn’t been on a date in over five years, and hadn’t had sex since my Senior Prom. The less you have sex, the less you crave it, I’d found, and I didn’t want to revive the dead ember of my libido only to have to smother it again.  I had come to fragile terms with the fact that there would be no happy ending for me.  I took six pills a day, and heard a malignant voice if I didn’t.  Once, it ordered me to hang myself; I tried to do it, but the noose didn’t hold, and I broke my kneecap when I fell to the floor.  Before I bought my house, I’d lived with my parents, and moving out was a step that neither one had thought wise. Not since bussing tables the summer after high school had I possessed the stamina to work a real job: I relied on an inheritance from my Godmother, who had been childless and very kind.  My greatest fear was being committed to the psych ward again, a place where no matter how fucked-up I felt, or what the voice urged, everyone else seemed way crazier than I was, which is why I took my meds and avoided stress and saw my psychiatrist religiously. Mun would probably think I was joking if I told him the truth about me.  Then he would realize I wasn’t.

I took a swig of my beer and said, “Is she hot?”  

I could see by the expression on Mun’s big, lumpy face that I had said the right thing in just the right way.  We clinked our bottles and drank to good-looking women. I felt like a character on T.V.

“The shingles on my house are made of asbestos,” I told my psychiatrist.  “I have to hire a special company to remove them.”

“I think you should leave the shingles where they are,” he said.

“That would be like continuing to eat fatty foods after you’ve been told you have high cholesterol,” I said.  “They could give me lung disease, they’re carcinogenic.”

He peered at me over the steeple of his fingers.  He had a leonine head of yellow-white hair. “I sincerely doubt that, Harrison.”

“No, really, it’s been proven.”  I couldn’t believe this was news to him; in fact, I was sure it wasn’t.  “I’m calling myself Harry now, by the way. I’m a regular guy.”

“You know you’ll never be that,” he said.  “We’ve gone over this before.”

I woke with a bang, sucking air.  I had taken a nap in preparation for my date with Gina’s cousin Aggie, and the hot afternoon light that filled the room when I went to sleep had dimmed to a purplish glow.  I dressed in fresh khakis and a polo, then changed to jeans and a T-shirt. In the end I decided on the khakis with a long sleeve shirt, the sleeves rolled up to my elbows. I took a klonopin because I was nervous.  I hoped I looked handsome enough. Aggie only lived a few blocks away, but we had agreed to meet at the HiLo.

She was small and dark-haired and not quite plump, her face as round and white as a plate.  She looked surprised when I walked in, though I knew Gina had described me, so she must have known more or less what I looked like: tall and thin with wavy brown hair.  She told me about herself before I asked, in a precise and level voice, feeding me facts as if to get them over with, though I’d heard most of them already from Gina. She was twenty-one and worked at the spice factory as the operation manager’s secretary, a job that Gina recommended her for, but the operations manager was her mother’s sister’s brother-in-law, so she might have gotten the job anyway.  The apartment building she lived in was owned by her uncle, who charged her a nominal rent -- if not for that, she said, she would still be living with her parents. They and her younger siblings lived five blocks from her building, about the same distance, in the opposite direction, from me and Mun and Gina, so she was surrounded by family, and well-known in the neighborhood, at home wherever she went.

“Have you ever considered living somewhere else?” I asked.

She cocked her head as if listening to the sea in a shell.  “Where else?”

“Anywhere.  Another part of town, another city; another country, even.”  Too late, I realized it was a stupid question, a snobby question, and I was afraid I was going to alienate her even before we had ordered.

She shrugged.  “No. You?”

“Me?”  Yes, I’d considered it, I’d planned on it: I’d wanted to live in New York City after college and go to law school at Columbia.  I had an urge to reach across the table and gently tug on one of her corkscrew curls, stretch it out and watch it spring back. My vision blurred for half a second, the klonopin kicking in.  I checked myself in the mirror above the bar. I looked fine, normal. I’d even shaved that day. “Never,” I said. “Why would I?”

“Except you’re not from here, you’re from Llewellyn Gardens.”

“But I always wanted to live in Seward.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said mildly.  Her teeth were straight except for one bottom incisor that stuck out from the others, disassociating itself.   “Do you really speak Dutch?”

“Of course not, why would I do that?”

She laughed and said, “You’re funny.  I’ve never heard anyone speak Dutch. Say something.”

I spoke the single phrase I knew in Dutch -- “I’d like a Heineken, please” -- in as guttural a voice as I could cough up.  

She applauded me.  “What a strange-sounding language!”

“It sounds better in writing,” I joked.

She smiled at that and said, “You’re different, aren’t you.”

“Than what?”

“I don’t know.  Than everyone else.”

“Is that a good or bad thing?”

“Good,” she said decisively.  

The bartender put down our drinks.  

I did reach out then and pull on a curl.  “Boing,” I said as I let go.

I bought cans of white paint and all manner of painting paraphernalia, brushes and rollers and sponges and trays, everything I could think of.  I didn’t have any decorating ideas, so painting everything white made sense for that reason, and also because I didn’t know what I was doing and could be sloppy without it showing.  The one thing I forgot to buy were drop cloths for the floors, so I disguised my splats and drips by painting them white as well. The rooms in the house were low and small, but as I painted they seemed to grow.  I understood it was an optical illusion, but it still made me feel a little crazy.

Mun came to look at it after I’d finished.

“What the fuck?” he said.  “What’d you paint the floors for?  It looks like a hospital ward.”

It looked nothing like a hospital ward.  The rooms in hospital wards were painted different colors -- yellow and greens, mostly -- and the floors were usually some kind of tile.  I thought the place looked wonderfully like nothing I’d seen before.

“Aggie been here yet?”  I told him she hadn’t. As I didn’t have any furniture but my bed upstairs, I wasn’t in a position to entertain.  “She already thinks you’re a weirdo,” he said. “I don’t know what she’ll make of this.”

“She thinks I’m a weirdo?” I said.  “Really? Did she tell you that?”

“No.  She called you ‘unusual.’”

“Good unusual, or bad unusual?”

Mun looked at me.  “You got a thing for her, huh?”  He chuckled.

“What’s so funny about that?” I said.

“You and every guy in the neighborhood over the age of twelve.”

I sat down on the floor, then lay down so all I could see was the ceiling.  My eyes smarted against its brightness, unrelenting as sunlit snow. “I can understand that.  She’s beautiful. Why doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”

“Picky,” Mun said.  “Nobody’s good enough.”   He leaned over and looked down at me, his face framed in edgeless white.

“You think I’m good enough?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said.  “But, yeah, sure you are.”

I had not had “a thing” for a girl since high school.  I didn’t know many girls anymore. My dead libido had come screaming back to life when Aggie had chastely kissed my cheek, and I badly wanted to have sex with her as many times as she would allow.  I didn’t honestly know how much I liked her because I couldn’t think about anything else. Whatever she wanted, I wanted to give it to her so she would grant me this one thing in return.

I asked Mun what he thought she wanted.

“The usual stuff,” he said.  “Husband, house, family. She’s not complicated; she’s just picky.  She likes you, though. She said so.”

Mun must have told Gina how much I liked Aggie, and Gina must have told Aggie, because the next time we were together, she possessively tucked her arm in mine as I walked her home from Gina and Mun’s, where we had gleefully smashed crabs with wooden mallets and sucked the meat from their bodies and legs.  I had never eaten crabs that way before, but now it was the only way I ever wanted to eat them: all that banging and sucking had been cathartic. Aggie had been ruthless with her mallet and monstrously sexy all evening, so when we got to her building and she suggested I come up to her place, I almost fainted from excitement in her foyer.  I don’t know how long it had been since I’d had a wish come true. It was as if a butterfly had landed in my hand.

“Pink is my favorite color,” she said as she unlocked her apartment door.  “A lot of people think it’s too much, but it’s my place and I can do what I want.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said, thinking of my white floors.  The apartment was just one room and a little kitchen, and except for the appliances and bathroom fixtures, everything in it was pink.  “Holy moly,” I said, looking around. Pink carpeting, pink walls, pink sofa-bed, pink lamps, pink curtains at the windows; I felt like I had stepped inside a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

She went into the kitchen and brought out a couple of cans of Pabst and we sat down on the sofa bed.  

“This pulls out,” she said.

“I figured.”

“Mun and Gina are so great, aren’t they?”

“They really are,” I said.

“Crab is my favorite food.  What’s yours?”

“Crab,” I said because it was all I could think of at the moment.  Blueberry pie was actually my favorite. We were silent then. We drank our beers.  I was so wrought up by her proximity I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Do I smell like crab?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said.  I leaned in to smell her and she kissed me on the mouth.  I followed her lead, and kissed her back, opened my mouth when I felt her tongue push against my teeth.  She took my hand and put it on her breast and cupped my hard-on through my pants.

“Am I going to have do everything?” she said.  There was a lamp behind her that made me see stars.  I felt her lipstick tacky on my mouth.

“No,” I said.  “I just didn’t know how far --”

“All the way,” she said.

My hands shook as I unbuttoned her shirt, and she must have noticed because it took me a long time -- there were a lot of buttons and they were small.  She sped things up by taking off her pants, and then mine, and dragging my T-shirt over my head. She pulled the sofa into a bed with an athletic ease that startled me.

I tried to think of other things -- I counted backward, I envisioned my mother -- but still I came in about thirty seconds.  Her body was round and soft and white; her breasts were smaller than I’d imagined, but heavy in my hands. Her thighs were sturdy, covered in a down of dark hair.  Her shoulders made me think of birds. Birds were in my head, anyway; I’d been noticing them all day. I saw two blue jays fighting in an ailanthus tree. They dipped and swirled and crashed into each other, then retreated to their separate branches before going at it again.  I must have watched them for an hour. Now I saw birds wherever I looked, like learning a new word then suddenly hearing it all the time.

“You’re remind me of ‘Odalisque,’” I said.

She stretched her arms over her head.  “What’s that?”

“A painting by Manet.  He was an Impressionist artist.”

“I don’t know anything about art, Harry, but I’m going to take that as a compliment.”

“I mean it as a compliment.”

She propped herself up on her elbow.  “We should do it again, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.  I’m sorry.  That wasn’t so great.”

She took charge of me without embarrassment.  She told me what to do and where to do it, and I followed her directions closely.  Sad to say, I had never made a girl, a woman, climax before. I was busy being mentally ill during the years when I would have learned how.  With stunned fascination I watched her breathe and shudder, her eyes wide as a frantic animal’s. Then she closed her eyes and arched her back and cried out in a way that made me wonder if I was hurting her.  I saw that she was in her own world and was briefly, sharply, jealous, but then she pulled me to her and we were together again. I was in love, but afraid to confess it.

“Will you be my girlfriend?” I said instead.  Pathetic, idiotic, childish.

She looked at me for what seemed like a long time, studying my face with interest and what I interpreted as concern: people always ended up feeling sorry for me, and she wouldn’t be any different.  I looked around for my clothes, ready to go home.

“What, do you think I sleep around?” she said.  “I already am your girlfriend.”

Up until then my house had been a house; now I saw it as a home.  Aggie could paint the whole thing pink if she wanted. She came over and looked around.

“I remember when Mr. Delarosa lived here,” she said.  “His wife was sweet. They gave out mini donuts at Halloween.  Now it looks like no one ever lived here.” She regarded the floors without comment.  She was wearing her work clothes, a sleeveless navy dress and heels so high they must have hurt her feet.  She was an hourglass silhouette. She crossed her arms and looked out the front window. “There’s a blue jay in the tree out there,” she said.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real blue jay before.”

I took this as a sign.  When I was crazy, everything was a sign of something.  I didn’t think like that anymore. But I still believed in the occasional augur.  The blue jay had not appeared by mistake.

“What you need…” she said as she walked upstairs.  

I didn’t hear the rest.  I lay down on the floor and listened to her footsteps as she toured the rooms above, thinking I would never put down carpets so I could always hear that sound.  “I love you,” I said out loud a few times. My phone rang in my pocket. I had skipped my psychiatrist appointment that morning and he had been calling every few hours, but I could tell by the ring tone that this was a text.  I never got texts. I rarely got phone calls. I took the phone out and read, Please call me as soon as you see this.  During our last appointment I told him I was in love with Aggie.

“You think you’re in love,” he said.  “But how can you be? You don’t know anything about her.”

“Actually, I know a lot about her,” I said.  “I know her relatives, I know where she works, I’ve stayed at her apartment; I’ve used her shower.  Her favorite food is crab, and her favorite color is pink. Her favorite store is Banana Republic.” I thought her choice of store was a classy one, given her meager salary.

“And what does she know about you?”  He raised a bushy white eyebrow. “Have you told her about your illness?  Do you plan to? Obviously you will have to. You must realize that.”

It occurred to me that I could see a different psychiatrist if I wanted to, someone who didn’t know me.

“Why are you lying on the floor?” Aggie said.  She leaned against the doorjamb, dangling a shoe off one foot.

“It’s nice,” I said.  “It’s relaxing. Come join me.”

“Hah, right,” was all she said.  “It’s boiling in here. I’m going over to Gina’s.”

She clacked out the door and down the front steps.  I could hear her heels on the sidewalk. “Hey, Mun,” I heard her say.  Mun said hey back. A second later, I heard the squeak of his sneakers.  He came in and handed me a can of beer before cracking one of his own.

“Shit, this place is like an oven.  Why do you lie on the floor all the time?”

“There’s no place to sit, for one thing,” I said.  “But really, I like looking at the ceiling.”

“Why?  There’s nothing up there.”

“Exactly.  It’s like looking at nothing.”

“It is looking at nothing.”  

As he sat down beside me, we heard a happy shriek from next door.  

“Gina’s pregnant.  Sounds like she just told Aggie.”

I sat up.  The room spun.  “Wow.”

“I know, right?  The circle of life.”  He shook his head as if trying to wake himself up.  We sat there drinking our beers until I remembered what I wanted to ask him.

“How well did you know Gina when you two got married?”

“We grew up together.  You knew that.”

I nodded.  I did know it, but forgot.  “Do you think you have to know everything about your spouse?”

He finished the beer and crushed the can in his fist.  “Oh, shit, I’m not supposed to do that because of the recycling.  Sure, yeah, I think you have to know everything. If I found out Gina was keeping something from me I would be pissed.  That’s the whole point of being with someone, isn’t it? One for all and all for one. You have to have complete trust.”

All of a sudden everything seemed impossible.  I felt tired just thinking about trying to act like someone else.  “I’ll always be alone.”

“Why is that?” Mun said.  He turned and really looked at me.  The perspiration on his broad forehead glittered in the evening light.

“Because I’m mentally ill.”  I tapped the side of my head.  Foolish tears of self-pity burned my eyes.  “I’m crazy. I have to take medication to control it.  And I’m not a translator; I don’t speak Dutch. I didn’t even graduate from college.  I live off a small inheritance, just enough to buy this house and not have to work a job.”

He scratched his chest.  “I’m not surprised.”

“What do you mean?  What part of that doesn’t surprise you?”

“I don’t know.  All of it. I can’t say why.  No, I can. First of all, why would a translator from Llewellyn Gardens buy a crappy house in Seward?  Then, where are your friends? Why do you never go out? How come you take naps during the day? And you know, no offense, but you’re kind of an odd duck.  Like lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, for instance. That’s not something anyone normal would do.” He stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants.  I thought he was going to leave. “Want to go to the HiLo?”

He offered his hand and pulled me up off the floor.  Then he belched at length without covering his mouth, like a grizzly roaring at the sky.

Louise Marburg is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her stories have been published in Prime Number, Labletter, Reed, Corium, Day One, Necessary Fiction, The Louisville Review, and forthcoming in Slippery Elm and The Lascaux Prize Anthology.  She lives in New York City with her husband, the artist Charles Marburg.