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This time last year I lived with two boys named Bill—or, I should say, I lived with my boyfriend Bill, and we rented out the basement to another Bill for three hundred a month plus a third of the electricity. It was Bill who picked Bill out of all the people who responded to our ad. I didn’t even meet him until the night he moved in. But as soon as I saw him standing in the doorway—he had on these shark covered boxer shorts that were sticking out from beneath his jeans—I knew I was going to leave my Bill for him, and as sure as I knew it, I also knew it wasn’t going to work out between us and I’d end up in the corner of the basement bathroom wearing the neon-blue sharks, saying to myself, I knew it wasn’t going to work out between us. I knew it from the beginning.
When the end actually came though, all I could manage to do was crawl out of the bathroom and telephone Bill, the first one.
“He left me,” I said when Bill picked up. “Do you hear me, Bill? I think he met someone else.”
Bill said, “I hear you, sweetheart.”
“I just don’t know how I ended up like this, all pathetic like this. Why didn’t you try to stop me?”
“I did what I could.”
“No, you didn’t. You said do what you have to do. You didn’t even turn off the television.”
He sighed loudly.
“Please, Bill. I need you.”
“Well come on upstairs then. I have to be at work by three.”
AFTER I MOVED back upstairs, we turned the basement into a rec room and I took on two extra dinner shifts to make up the three hundred and change we were losing on a boarder. I framed old pictures of us and mounted them along the wall. I wrote sweet, little notes on paper napkins and put them in his lunch bag. I did what I could.
Still, Bill wasn’t above milking my indiscretion to avoid certain things, like his turn to clean the toilet or do the dishes. “Jeez, Joanna,” he’d say, “If I’m not mistaken it’s also my turn to leave you for three months and shack up with someone else. Which would you prefer I do first?” But soon enough he stopped with all that, and my time in the basement didn’t get talked about, kind of the way his lapses in judgment weren’t talked about—like how he’d used our car savings to buy two spots in heaven from the guy who hands out pocket-bibles on the corner of Jefferson and Third.
It helped things along considerably that Bill turned twenty-six a few weeks after our reconciliation. I planned this great surprise party for him at the sports bar down the block, and invited all his co-workers from the toy store to come for drinks and cheeseburgers. Everyone came, and they even brought gag-gifts from the store with them: Pokemon trading cards, magic gum, a Barbie Jam’n Glam Tour Bus. Bill was all smiles as he opened each present, even though he kept kicking me under the table.
“I don’t think anyone actually paid for these things,” he whispered. “It’s going to mess things up. For inventory.” Bill was the manager of the toy store. Inventory was a very big deal.
I kissed him on the mouth hard. “Then we’ll sneak them back in,” I said. “For inventory.”
I thought that was the end of it, but late that night we were lying in our bed back to back and Bill said, “Joanna? You know you really make things better.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Even if I had made him calmer earlier, most of the time I really just stood there.
“You’re not going to leave me again, are you?” he asked.
“Bill, come on.”
“No,” he said. “I need to hear it.”
I reached behind myself for him, my hand catching his hip. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said. “I promise.”
I was already half-asleep, but, at least for right then, we both got to believe it was true.
I was going outside to check the mail, and I found him sitting on the front steps, a paint can beside him. It was the strangest thing, seeing him in person again. Everything sped up—the screen door closing, the wind, the stupid squirrels.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“What do you mean what am I doing here?”
He had shaved his head, the flipped-out curl behind his ear replaced by a thin blue vein. I wanted to kiss it.
“I just thought I’d bring the paint by for you. Pea green, like you wanted. For the bathroom.”
“Oh,” I said. I started to add that I didn’t want it anymore, but that seemed like a petty thing to say. “Thank you.”
He nodded, and told me he could help me paint if I wanted. He had some time.
I wondered if he had that time because his mother fired him again. He worked at her tattoo parlor out on Route Five. They had some artistic differences.
“No, you should really go. If Bill gets home and sees you here, he’s not going to like it.”
“I’m not scared of Bill.”
“No one’s scared of Bill. That’s not the point.”
He was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Don’t you miss me, Joey?”
I picked up the can of paint. “I’m going back inside now, Bill.”
And I did. But from inside, I watched him through the living room window. He sat there for a long time, picking at something under his nails. He didn’t once turn and look toward the window, but I kept standing there anyway. I kept staring at him until after he got up and left. I didn’t even put down the paint can. And that night my arm was sore and every time I lifted it to reach for something, I had no choice but to remember why.
I rolled down the window, my eyesight a little foggy from the bottle of wine table five sent back and we drank. “Oh, that’s not a creep,” I said. “That’s Bill.”
“That’s Bill?” she said. “Your Bill?”
I didn’t know how to answer that.
She said, “Man, he looks like crap.”
As I walked toward the steps, I could see that his face was flushed, red. I wondered if he was drunk too.
“Are you crazy?” I whispered. “Bill is asleep inside.”
He smiled at me, like I was kidding.
“This isn’t funny, Bill. You can’t just show up here.”
“The loan came through,” he said. He made a triangle sign with his hands. “Bill’s tattoos—all in lower case. In blood red or some wicked shade of green. Can you picture it?”
What I could picture was the two of us sitting in the bathtub the night before he’d taken off: Bill was sitting behind me, his legs wrapped around my waist. He was telling me all about how he was going to get the money together.
I sat down on the step beneath him in amazement. “I don’t believe you did it,” I said.
“I’ll need someone to answer the phones, make appointments.” He paused. “You interested?”
“In an appointment?”
“You’ll have your own voice mail.”
I shook my head. “I can’t, Bill,” I said. “You know I can’t.”
He said, “I don’t know that.”
I stared at the hole in his jeans, fraying out right above his knee. I thought about everything I didn’t know: who he had left me for, why he wasn’t with her now, what I’d do if he stopped coming to see me.
“The job’s yours, Joey. If you change your mind.”
I reached up and fingered the edge of the hole, my nail touching his kneecap. He squeezed my hand, and mouthed, “Thursday.”
Then he was gone.
In the morning, I went upstairs for breakfast. Bill had made eggs with
Tabasco sauce and limes. “You fell asleep on the couch?”
I felt him watching me. “What?” I said.
“Nothing.” He piled some eggs onto my plate. “You just seem edgy. That’s all.”
“I’m fine, Bill.”
“If you say so.”
“I do,” I said. “I say so.”
He nodded, and squeezed some ketchup onto my plate, before squeezing some onto his own. “I like those boxers,” he said.
I looked up at him.
“The sharks. Where did you get them?”
“Aren’t they yours?” I said.
I ate a forkful of eggs, the lime stinging my tongue. “I’m not sure then,” I said. “Somewhere else, I guess.”
“We can’t live in the basement,” I said. “I won’t put him through that again.”
“Okay,” he said.
“And I’m going to keep working at the restaurant. At least for now.”
I turned and looked at him, his eyes gazing at something down the street. It occurred to me that he had never told me he loved me.
“So I was supposed to stop by the bank,” he said, looking toward me, “like over an hour ago.”
“Well, let’s get going then.”
His first appointment was with a teenage guy who wanted a heart on his bicep with a lightning rod breaking it down the middle. The curtain was sheer, and from the front counter I was able to watch Bill work. I had never seen him focus like that on anything. I couldn’t help it. It made me feel lonely.
The guy paid in fifties, and we framed one of them, putting it right above the cash register. We stood there looking at it for a bit, and I opened the bottle of champagne we’d brought from home. Bill had forgotten the cups so we clinked the bottle against the counter, and we each took a sip.
“To wealth,” I said.
He bent down, and kissed my hip, right on top of the bandage. Then he started to pull the bandage back to see how my skin was coping, but customer two walked in and Bill went in the back to help him and that was the end of that.
It started to wake me up at night, everything that needed doing, while Bill stayed sleeping beside me.
To make matters worse, one Friday when I was about to do the weekly bank run, this very tall—over six-foot-tall—redheaded woman waltzed in. She was wearing a pink halter-top and I noticed that her forearms were covered with tattoos of different birds, crows, and blue jays. White clouds with black outlines filled up the empty spaces.
“Who are you?” she asked me.
I sat up taller on the stool. “Who are you?”
She gave me a smile, which was really more like a smirk, and for a second it seemed like she was going to start laughing.
“Can you just let Billy know I’m here?” she said.
It was then that Billy pulled back the curtain, the tattoo gun still in his hand, and said, “I thought I heard you.”
“You did,” she said, “It’s me.”
“I can see that,” he said.
She gave him the same smile that she had just given me, and this time she did laugh a little. “Is this a bad time or something?”
Bill fidgeted. “Well I am kind of with someone right now,” he said.
The way he was looking back and forth between us, I wasn’t sure if he was talking about his client or me.
“Some other time then,” she said.
He nodded. “Some other time.”
“No!” I said. “No other time. There will be no other time!”
They both looked at me, but only for a second. Then she walked out the door, and Bill went back behind the curtain. I was afraid to turn around and see through the sheer what I knew I’d see: him watching her until she was out of view, his face contorted a little, confused, the same way mine looked whenever he’d walk away from me.
Bill was quiet for a minute. Then he turned toward me. “Her name’s Candice. She’s a bartender out in Greenfield,” he said. “Where she lives.”
He emphasized that part—the where she lives—as if her being forty-five minutes away proved something.
“Have you been seeing her again?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t.”
I tried to remember if he had disappeared for a long period of time in recent weeks. I couldn’t remember him disappearing at all.
“You should believe that,” he said. “I’m not.”
I nodded. Part of me did believe him, but that didn’t feel like the whole problem. The whole problem was that if he wasn’t seeing her, I knew it was her choice, not his. The problem was that if she chose him again, I knew everything I was doing for him still wouldn’t be enough to make him choose me. But how could I do that? How could I make him choose me?
Bill reached over and touched my stomach. “What are you thinking?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said, shaking my head.
“No, not nothing. Tell me.”
But I couldn’t tell him, not when what I really wanted to say was don’t leave me again. Please. Promise me you’re not going anywhere.
“Joey,” he said. “I can’t read your mind.”
“Thank God,” I said, moving closer to him. “That’s our best shot.”