Pella woke into the charcoal hum of predawn. Her hand shot to the alarm clock before it could complete even a single screechy beeeep that might wake Henry. His T-shirt and socks and warm-up pants, which he’d worn every day since she—since they—moved in, lay balled on the rug on his side of the bed. She scooped them up and carried the tiny bundle down to the dank half basement, shoved it into the ancient washing machine, added a half scoop of one of her roommates’ Tide. She brushed her teeth and slipped out the front door, taking her usual detour around Mike’s block. When she clocked in, Hero clicked his tongue at her jokingly: three minutes late.
The students kept dirtying dishes and mugs and glasses and silverware; the cooks kept scalding food to the bottoms of pots; the other dishwashers kept quitting because it was May, the weather was heavenly, and finals were looming. Pella kept picking up shifts. She wasn’t going to classes anymore. You never knew who you’d run into in the lecture halls or out on the quad, and anyway she wanted the money she earned here, in the safety of the noisy, humid kitchen. She missed Professor Eglantine, but she wasn’t going back into oral history class to face all those baseball players. She’d already bought the books for the seminar Professor E was teaching in the fall. By then Mike and Owen would be gone and the rest of them would have half forgotten her. Who knew what’d happen to Henry.
When the breakfast dishes were finished she headed to the VAC, her sweatshirt hood tugged up around her head like a burka. This didn’t keep anyone from seeing her, of course—but it kept her from seeing them. She swam fifteen laps at her slowly improving pace, showered, and headed back for the midday shift.
Toward late afternoon she helped set up the salad bar for dinner. Chef Spirodocus emerged from his tiny office, where he’d been holed up doing paperwork. “Today,” he said, “we make my favorite. Eggs Benedict.”
Their first lessons had been elementary: how to stand in the kitchen without straining your back; how to hold a knife; then how to slice, chop, dice, mince, carve, julienne. Pella had nicks and cuts all up and down her hands—her still-swollen middle finger didn’t help—but her skills were improving day by day. Chef Spirodocus had told her she could graduate to prep cook by fall, which was good, because the dishes were getting boring.
The hollandaise turned out perfectly, creamy and smooth but not too heavy. Pella plated the finished product and shared it out among the dinner shift’s workers, who nodded approvingly. She wanted to take some home for Henry, but she knew he wouldn’t touch anything so rich. He’d barely been eating. Instead she filled an empty plastic tub with soup from the salad bar’s big crock and stuck it in her backpack.
When she arrived home, Henry was sitting on the living room couch, the television off, the remote control by his side, no book or magazine in sight. Pella touched the top of the TV to see if it was warm—yes. What kind of weird pride was that, that let you sit around someone else’s house all day long, doing nothing, but kept you from wanting to be caught watching TV?
“Anybody home?” she asked peppily.
“How was your day?”
She was the wrong caretaker, or coach, for someone so depressed: she was too indulgent, too empathetic. He’d be better off with someone tougher, someone who’d never really been depressed and didn’t know what it was like. At least he’d managed to get his clothes from the washer to the dryer and back on his body. That was something.
His caved, vacant expression reminded her of all the days she’d spent pinned to her and David’s bed by the white sunlight that streamed through the high windows of their loft (There’s a certain slant of light… ). Bad days, those. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I brought some soup.”
He hesitated, weighing his aversion to food against the mild censure he’d face if he declined. “I’ll heat it up,” Pella said, and headed for the kitchen. She dumped the soup in a saucepan, cranked the gas, waited for the pilot to catch.
Henry, having followed her into the kitchen, went to the sink and filled his Gatorade bottle with water. He carried that thing everywhere. Or at least he carried it from the bedroom to the bathroom to the living room to the kitchen—those, as far as Pella could tell, were the only places he went. He took a long gulp that drained the bottle, refilled it, and screwed the orange plastic cap back on. The scruff was thickening on his face and neck. Men and their beards. “You did the dishes,” she said.
“Sure.” He unscrewed the cap and took another gulp. “Your dad called.”
“While I was at class. He left a message.”
Pella doubted that Henry had gone to class—in fact, she realized, it was Saturday. Which meant tomorrow was Sunday, her day off. She swirled a spoon through the bubbling soup and headed for the living room to check the voice mail.
“I erased it,” Henry said. “Like you told me to.”
“Oh.” It was true she’d told Henry to do that, days ago—she wanted not to think about her dad for a little while, and she didn’t want Noelle and Courtney to hear any forlorn messages that might lead them to gossip about their school’s president—but it seemed presumptuous and maybe even cruel of Henry to have actually done it. “Okay.”
“He said he wanted to talk to you about something. He said he was going to the baseball game tonight, but he’d have his cell.”
Henry’s fingers twisted the orange lid back and forth on its threads. Something had occurred to him. “What day is it?”
“Oh. Wow. Really?”
“Does that surprise you?”
He sank down at the table, twisted the orange lid. “Saturday night’s when they play the final. They made the final. They could go to nationals.”
There was little Pella could say to that. She set out two bowls from the wire dish rack and tried to pour the soup over the lip of the pot without spilling. There was probably a ladle in one of the drawers, but she didn’t know which. It was annoying to live in a place where nothing was yours, where every move you made felt like thievery. Noelle was already annoyed with Henry’s constant presence; kept making pointed jokes about splitting the rent four ways. Pella needed to talk to Henry about that, but it could wait till morning.
Even after the eggs Benedict, Pella was ravenous; she’d been eating more lately, a side effect of all the work and exercise. The soup was mulligatawny. It tasted delicious, and it would have been useful to try to parse the ingredients, but her first thought was that it would be too rich and spicy for Henry. Sure enough, he sipped a few mouthfuls and laid the spoon down beside his bowl. Something like chicken noodle would have been better, blander. Not that she’d had a choice: the soup of the day was the soup of the day. Something like Stockholm syndrome was going on here, or reverse Stockholm syndrome, depending on whom you considered the captive and whom the captor—she couldn’t even taste the soup for herself but imagined it on Henry’s tongue.
She finished her bowl. Then she finished Henry’s. They put the unwashed bowls in the sink and walked to the bedroom. Pella stood on one side of the floor-bound futon and stripped down to her underwear, while Henry did the same on the other side. Her arms were growing less flabby from swimming and scrubbing pots; it made the lines of her tattoo look sharper, better drawn. Someday soon she would make up with her father once and for all. They’d been fighting half her life, and yet the fights always felt like aberrations. No matter how bad things got between them, she could always reach forward through time and grasp the moment, however distant, when they’d be as close as they were when she was six or ten.
She lowered herself to the futon from one side, Henry from the other. They faced each other under the cool dry sheets, their heads on separate pillows. They were the previous tenant’s sheets and pillows, left in the hall closet: Pella had washed them twice instead of buying new ones. Part of the new frugality. She lay on her left side, facing Henry, her body pressing into the mattress with a pleasant weary weight. She knew that his stifled yawns meant something different from hers, were the signs of a caged, stymied energy turned inward and devouring itself, and she felt for him. They were like children or invalids, in bed at seven o’clock. Her hand slid onto his hip. He flinched and then relaxed.
Tonight was different, stranger than the first time, a kind of surrender to the tender meaninglessness of adulthood. She wasn’t going to let him kiss her, with that beard, and he didn’t try. Apart from the beard his body was like a Platonic ideal of a body, a smooth white marble statue, though already a little less muscular than she remembered. Like a statue, he didn’t smell like much of anything. They clung together loosely, eyelids open, watching each other. He came quietly, with just a hint of a whimper. People thought becoming an adult meant that all your acts had consequences; in fact it was just the opposite.
Outside a springtime Saturday evening was just beginning—crickets chirped, speakers thumped, frat boys shouted from porch to porch. Pella reached down and felt for her book on the rug. She was reading Proust, something she’d never done before. For years she’d been planning to get her French in shape to read him in the original. But who knew when that would happen.
Henry pulled on his boxers beneath the covers, part of their weird routine of modesty, and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him. As sleep closed over her Pella heard water running in the tub. He’d lie there until he heard Noelle or Courtney come in, which, tonight being Saturday, might be in six or seven hours or not at all.