Indoor Games (originally published in 2010 in the Brooklyn Review Issue #27)

You can find the original story here:
http://www.brooklynreview.org/archive.html

Indoor Games

I collect. I stack. In a circle, as bricks. I sit Indian style in the middle. Soon, the wall will rise above my head and I can toss the blanket over top, use a flashlight inside.
But the door unlocks, and there is Rafiq. Entering the apartment as Rilke is going on top of Pessoa, and Pessoa knocks Patchen, and Patchen knocks Derrida, and Derrida comes crashing down, hard-corner first, onto my skull.

I cry out. I am caught.

I push all the books away and I run to our room embarrassed.

Yesterday, when I told Rafiq that I was going to build a fortress, I don’t think he thought I meant it. Not literally. Then again, he didn’t believe me when I said I was going to burn sage and rid the apartment of the spiritual residue of its former occupants. When I set off the smoke detector, he was alarmed.

“We said we wouldn’t smoke in the apartment!” He yelled over the beeping.

“This isn’t smoking.” I said, holding the sage up in the east corner of the room

“Yes it most certainly is smoking,” he said pointing to the stream of gray rising from the bundle of twigs in my hand, “Look at it!”

I am afraid that the fortress will be equally annoying to him. Not to mention embarrassing. These are games we play alone.
I lie in the bed, the comforter covering my head and I hear him open the door. I groan. It is a thin door, I think, why can’t you just talk through it?

“Sweetie,” he says.

“Away!” I yell, “Alone! Away!”

I find that if I talk in single words—single words with no more than two syllables—and loudly, it has the effect of eliciting sympathy from Rafiq. He might offer to rebuild the fortress with me and express awe and gratitude for my child-like approach to the world. This would not be a lie. It’s mostly true. He likes, for example, when I talk to puppies.

“Sweetie,” he says again.

I answer with a whimper.

“What’s that you’re building in the living room?” he asks, and I know today he will play.

“A fortress,” I say from beneath the covers.

“What a good idea! Is it to protect you?”

I push the comforter back from my face now because I can’t breath all my used-up air, and because it’s hot, and because he seems to get this fortress business.

“To protect me, yes.”

While Rafiq is at the secondary school for geniuses where he teaches math, I stay at home and keep up my website. It’s a new website. I post videos of laughing babies. They keep me sane, the babies. So happy and chubby. I put some ads up there too, because that’s how you make money. This month I made $5.76.

I had a job at one point, but they gave me some money to leave. They said it was the economy. I think they might have just been tired of me.

“Ah,” he says, still leaning on the doorknob, only the top half of his body coming through the door, “I think I understand.”
I pull the covers down to my knees. I have not changed out of my pajamas today. I drank 4 cups of coffee, but I only ate a little bit of Mexican lasagna and I am starving. It is late in the evening and I am feeling bad because I should have cleaned up. I should have cooked dinner. He has to go to work all day, sometimes staying into the evening. All I have to do is work a little, maybe do some eating. How is it that he is now trying to coax me out of my cave?

Rafiq puts his books on the desk next to the door and approaches the bed. Corporate Finance, one says. Financial Accounting, the other one says. Sometimes I pretend to read those books. It’s funny because I know all the words in there, but when they are strung together like that, they just don’t make sense to me. They make sense to Rafiq, though. He likes to talk about financial theories. This is fine for the most part. I know that my listening is the thing he likes, even if I don’t understand. But sometimes I understand a little bit. Sometimes I understand just enough to make me nervous. When he gets to talking about derivatives I have to hide in the closet.

Tonight, he will not talk about the value of the dollar, though, he promises, touching my hair and asking me to come out and eat dinner with him.

“Only one piece of Mexican lasagna left,” I tell him, “I haven’t cooked anything, not even the easy casserole with the cream of chicken soup in it.”

“It’s okay,” he says, “I’ll make you shrimp and mung dhal.”

I nod my head. This sounds good.

“Come,” he rubs my leg, through the covers “You must be starving. You’ve been working so hard.”

“Now, really,” I say kicking my feet from under the covers and hopping past him, “Come on.”

I know I have to move on from this game now. I know he is just handling me. I think the truth is that he regrets agreeing to get an apartment with me and regrets asking me to marry him and he is now realizing that he can never have children with me because I am not the stable housewife his parents would have arranged for him to marry. He is just trying to keep it light now. Doing a little dance around the fire.

I want, once again, to build the fortress, or hide in the closet. I can’t stand it when he’s so nice to me.

I am walking toward the door of the apartment. I put my boots on.

“At times like these it is best to leave.” I say out loud, or maybe to myself.

Outside the wind is slapping things. Nothing is immune to her cold hand. Everything gets swiped.

I look up and down the street. I am the only person stupid enough to be out here now. I remember that the man on the radio said something about gale force winds. That must be what these are, I think. I wonder if it was hard for Rafiq to walk home. It is hard for me just to stand here.

A broad wind sweeps up the street and a large loose branch falls from the tree just outside our apartment window. It crashes down on the red Corolla in front of our building. The alarm chirps loudly, people are coming to their windows. I look up to see if Rafiq has heard the noise.

He is hanging out our fourth floor window.

“Okay, baby?” he yells, “Have you had enough now?”

“Not quite,” I yell back up.

I just want to walk a little. Forget the fortress. Then I can come back upstairs, start again.
But this is hard, because again comes the wind. It nearly knocks me off my feet, and another piece of the tree, a smaller one this time, falls on the Corolla.

Rafiq is yelling again, “Baby!”

Now people are looking out their windows at me, not the fallen branches.

“Rafiq” I call back up to him, walking toward the broken tree, “What kind of tree is that? Is that a sweetgum?”

Rafiq and I sometimes go on botanic tours of Brooklyn, and I am always trying to guess the names of the trees we see. Rafiq is good at this. He has a brain for categories.

I am not sure what I have a brain for.

Definitely not for trees or derivatives.

“Baby, look at the bark. It’s a horse chestnut. Now, get up here.”

“Oh, poor poor horse chestnut,” I say looking up at it “Did it hurt?”

“Oh, God, please. Express your sympathy for the tree up here!”

Rafiq seems pretty upset now, so I go upstairs. When I see him at the door I give him a hug and a kiss like I should have thefirst time I saw him tonight. He holds me a little longer than I think he should.

He makes the shrimp and mung bean dhal. It is good but a little spicy.

We go to bed.

Lying in bed, I think I will leave the apartment tomorrow. At least for longer than I did tonight.

The night crawls into our room and sleep happens to both of us.

Rafiq’s alarm wakes me in the morning.

I curl my leg into his, burrow my face in his shoulder, kiss the skin there. I feel his readiness with my knee, but it’s too late. Familiar voices are already telling us about the bad things in the world and Rafiq is rising from bed.

He is moving about getting ready to go away again for many hours. I lie in bed, listen to him rustle about, think about what I will do when I leave the apartment. I could go for a walk, I think. Misidentify some trees.

With Rafiq gone things are still. It sounds dead outside. The winds of last night are gone, and I can’t hear a thing out there, even with the windows open.

I am still. Just listening to how quiet it is. A few minutes pass and when I finally hear a car I feel okay again.
I get back to the fortress of yesterday.

It doesn’t last long, though. Not what I want it to be. I leave a semicircle of books, thinking maybe afternoons are better for this sort of activity.

I turn on Aaron Copland. Vast fields open up in my apartment. Lassos and horses. Big Sky Country.

I eat some food so that when Mom calls and asks me what I ate, I can report: Cream of chicken soup and hash browns. Perfect.

I wash the dishes. Flirt with some reading. Pace the living room.
The day is threatening to end at some point, and the list I made of things to do outside is not getting done, but I can’t bring myself to leave just yet.

The phone rings. It’s Mom. She asks what I ate this morning. I tell her, but she can’t hear me. I have to turn Aaron Copland down to give her my report. She tells me that Grandma is looking at a retirement home and Aunt Tibby got bit by a seagull.
This is better than the time she called me to tell me Grandpa was dead and that there was a fire in the house, but still, it’s not great. I am waiting for news, but not this news. I am waiting for news of money, of prizes, of great things. This is never the kind of news Mom brings.

“Did you get the pictures?” she asks.

“What pictures?”

“Of the home that Grandma Kelly is looking at.”

“Is Grandma Kelly looking at it or are you?”

“Well, we are all looking at it, of course.”

“Of course.”

“So, did you get them?” She asks again.

“Oh, yeah, the place is nice. It’s bigger than my apartment here.”

A scooter whizzes by outside. I tell my mom I want a dog.

“That’s a lot of responsibility.” Mom says.

“Really?” I say, “Is that what you said to Sharon when she told you she was pregnant?”

“You’re impossible,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” I say.

I tell Mom I have to go. Something is wrong with the apartment. I have to call the super.

She asks what’s wrong. I say, I don’t know yet, I have to go figure it out and before she can object, I hang up.

I look around for something wrong. I can’t find anything.

I’ll clog the toilet, or the bathtub, I think, but then decide that would be embarrassing. Too personal. All the windows are working fine, and I don’t want to mess with the stove.

I remember the steam pipe in the kitchen was hissing last week. I pull the ladder out of the closet and bring it to the kitchen. I climb up in the corner, fiddle with the valves on the pipe. I hit one of them a couple of times with the wrench.
It looks pretty messed up. Robin should definitely fix that. I call him.

He will come in a half an hour. I don’t have enough time to shower and look like a normal person, but I put a bra on under my pajama top and start the water for the coffee.

Robin is shy like me, but he laughs more. I try and remember what I say that makes him laugh and write it down. Then I try it on other people to see if it is funny or if I am making Robin uncomfortable. So far, it’s 50/50.

When Robin comes in, I regret the invite immediately because I don’t know what to say, and I left the fortress out.

“Oh, you’re just in time,” I say, “Want some coffee?”

“Uh, sure.”

He walks through the living room. I am relieved. He doesn’t seem to notice the fortress.

The ladder is still in front of the stove at the steam pipe, so I have to bend my body in a funny way to get the pot of water off the stove and pour it into the French Press. I have liked coffee in the French Press ever since Grandma Jeanne finally admitted we were French. It was a family secret for some time. We are supposed to be Irish, but it turns out we’re more French. My grandpa’s mother’s name was Petit. It means little.

I prep the coffee while Robin climbs the ladder.

“Did you try to fix this?” he says

“Yes.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” he says, “You could really get hurt.”

“Oh,” I say and think about Uncle Doug and the pool pump that blew up in his face, and remember that water and pressure are scary, “I guess you’re right.”

Every month I get an update from Aunt Maura about Uncle Doug’s condition. I don’t want Rafiq to have to push me around in a wheelchair, feed me, and send people updates about my condition.

Watching Robin up on the ladder, I think of all the ways that I could become broken and Rafiq would have to care for me. I decide I might not leave the apartment today after all.

Robin leaves to go get new valves for the pipes. I pour his coffee. He comes back and knocks.

“Come in!” I yell.

He climbs the ladder again, and puts the new valves on. He doesn’t really have time for the coffee, he says.

He stops with his hand on the door, before he leaves.

“What’s that?” he says pointing at the fortress.

I am a very bad liar, so I don’t even try.

“That’s my fortress,” I say.

“Oh,” he says, “I could use one of those.”

He laughs loudly the way I like and then he goes, waving on the way out.

I am glad that I broke the pipe after all.

Now that he is gone, I turn the Aaron Copland back on and sit at the computer. I search for laughing babies. It’s pretty much the same things everyday, so I have to watch a lot of crap. I have a list of criteria. Minimal vocalization from adults: If I have to listen to some stupid person cooing for 4 minutes, it’s ruined. No drunk people: If you’re drunk it’s hard enough to watch a baby, let alone video tape them. No people forcing the baby to laugh: Sometimes babies get too excited. It is uncomfortable to watch. No dangerous baby situations: I don’t like adults laughing at babies playing with toilet water, or cats and dogs, that makes me nervous. Cats and dogs on their own are good, just not in babies’ faces.

My sister has a baby and I watch them all day, so I know a lot about them now. I mean not enough to have one. I can’t think about having one. I can only think about all the things that could happen to it. I wouldn’t want to take the baby out. I would be afraid that I would lose it, or forget to feed it, or just give it to someone I thought more capable than me. This is why I just watch videos of them. This is why I want a dog. I think a dog is a safer bet.

Finding the best laughing babies takes a few hours, which I am pleased about. Now, I have to start to clean up around myself because Rafiq will be home soon. I straighten up the fortress, sweep coffee grinds. Put the ladder away.
I even take a shower and put on clothes like the ones I wear outside.

Rafiq comes home. I am at the door to greet him. I hug him and kiss him and ask him about his day. A big donor came to the school where he works and wanted a tour. Rafiq gave him one and his boss said he did a good job. I nod while he talks about this. He sits in the corner on the chair. I am on the bed with a book in my lap. I’m looking, as Rafiq says, rather calm.
He asks me about my day.

“Well, Robin fixed the steam pipe,” I say.

“Oh,” he says, “I didn’t even realize it was broken.”

I smile.

“That’s what I am here for,” I tell him.

This time I make dinner. Tacos.

He loves them. We both have beers with our tacos. I tell him about the funny babies that I watched. I tell him I think I will take the fortress down tomorrow.

“If you’re ready,” he says.

After dinner, we carry out our preparations for sleep.

In bed, with the lights out, it is dark, but I can see him in the amber glow of the streetlights. I am acutely aware that loving is a state of constant anxiety. I reach for his face and pull him close enough to breath the air that is leaving him. It is warm and it smells of toothpaste and tacos and beer.

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