by Ryan Sartor
I’d been sleeping with two women, both named Claire. Well, just one woman, really. Claire P. was the one I had sex with. Claire M. slept over, but we just kissed. My roommate, Randall, hated the situation.
“You’ve been seeing both of them for close to a year,” he said. “There has to be an assumption of monogamy.”
“Why would anyone assume that?”
Randall was making a big stink because our apartment only had one bedroom and we alternated weeks sleeping on the living room’s pull-out couch. On couch weeks, he complained about waking up sore and unrested. He also had to walk through the bedroom to get to the bathroom. Last night, it was midnight, and he had to pee, but he couldn’t remember which one of the Claires was over. He knocked and interrupted us in some state of undress. And then, when he finally did reach the bathroom, he was quite annoyed that I hadn’t flushed after I’d peed. I did this to save water, but he complained about yellow stains on the toilet bowl.
“You talk to them so tenderly,” Randall said. “It feels like you’re in a relationship.”
I sort of knew what he meant. Claire P. and I argued like we cared. She was an intellectual who worked at a bank in Philadelphia and wouldn’t touch any novel that hadn’t received a positive write-up in the New York Review of Books. She scoffed at my copy of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, dismissing it as “pop lit.” She was trying to get me to read Milan Kundera’s The Joke.
“I’m a serious reader!” I yelled once. “I like Thomas Pynchon!”
“He just writes about his dick,” she said, which was true, but she also admitted that she’d never read his stuff.
Claire M. was still in college and she had this soft way of speaking, often sounding like she was on the verge of tears. It was unclear what she wanted from me, perhaps marriage and children. While working on a paper for her Lit class, she’d once asked me a few questions about Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which, in Claire P.’s defense, I’d never read. I mumbled something about “new historicism” and asked if she wanted to kiss.
“I’m careful and thoughtful,” I said to Randall, back in our living room.
“What about the coffee shop?” he said. “The book club thing?”
He was referring to last Thursday, when he and I had peeked through the glass window of Hava Java on N. 19th St. and noticed that Claire P. and Claire M. were each separately attending the writing group to which I’d stupidly invited them both. I asked Randall to join them, while I snuck across the street and hid in the 19th St. Theater lobby, unfolding a paperback of The Crying of Lot 49. This section of Allentown was technically called the West End Theater District, but its only notable attractions were the one theater—which was not even a real “theater” theater, but usually just a movie theater—that coffee shop and a weekly farmers market.
As the Claires stared at him, Randall sweated his way through a story about horses, improvising the words while staring at a blank piece of paper: “As mares travel through western grass…”
“I think it’s possible for me to date both of them,” I said, back in our living room, “and for that to be okay without me needing to introduce them to one other.”
“Then why did you invite them both to the book club?”
“Stop calling it a ‘book club.’ It’s a writing group. And I don’t know why I did that. I’m an idiot.”
In addition to the Claires thing, Randall was upset with me for getting fired last month and then slowly running out of money. I’d been working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, but hadn’t gone through ESL certification training yet. I’d been putting it off, which I guess the school district had been aware of, and gotten impatient regarding, since they fired me.
A few days later, while I was cooking kale and listening to Belle & Sebastian on my little record player, Randall came home from work, sweating through his dress shirt.
“What are you doing tonight?” I asked.
“Gonna watch the Yankees/Phillies game with some coworkers.”
“Are you a big baseball fan?”
“I don’t know why you say stuff like that,” he said. “I feel like you’re fucking with me.”
I tapped the edge of my spatula on the pan, brought the flame down to the lowest setting.
“You came home from work,” I said. “I’m asking a question.”
“You know I don’t like baseball.”
“Oh, okay. I kind of like baseball. More than you do at least.”
I stared at him an extra moment to drive the point home. Why didn’t he just invite out? I was unemployed. I didn’t have any coworkers. I didn’t have any friends in Allentown. I, frankly, regretted moving here. My uncle was a principal at the high school and had gotten me the ESL job. I didn’t have a car or license or interest in driving and the public transportation was awful, so I’d asked Randall to move here so he could drive me around, but he refused to take me anywhere. In his defense, I hadn’t brought up the issue of driving with him ahead of time. He’d just been living and working in Connecticut and I asked him if he wanted to move and he said, “Sure.”
I hadn’t realized before we lived together, but Randall really hated and resented me. It shined through in the ways that he talked about the Claires and his general vibe of being quite lonely and closed off. His posture said everything. He looked like a half-folded ironing board. Randall couldn’t accept the fact that I really loved and cared about him. He didn’t want to live with someone who wanted to live with him. He couldn’t reconcile how I was more charming and women were more interested in me than him. He probably didn’t want me at the bar with his coworkers because women would talk to me. I was much taller and more handsome, even though he thought that he was the more handsome of the two. He couldn’t accept how significantly his lack of height set him back in terms of attractiveness: My 6’2’’ to his 5’6’’.
Maybe I’d been staring at him for too long, but I could now feel his face screwing up as he stared right back.
“I can’t live with you anymore,” he said.
“What’s it now?”
“You can’t pay rent and you’re just driving me crazy. I feel like every time I go out, you give me these puppy dog eyes because I’m not inviting you places. I just want to hang out without you. It shouldn’t be such a big deal.”
“Fine, I won’t go to the bar.”
“You were never invited.”
“You don’t own the bars. There are, like, three places to drink in this town. Where are you gonna go? Brew Works? Freddie’s? I don’t care, obviously. It’s Freddie’s, isn’t it?”
“I talked to Tony and told him that you lost your job. I gave him a choice: you or me. He chose me. The locks are already changed.”
“This is bullshit.”
“You don’t have to leave now, but I made a key for you that says, ‘Do Not Copy,’ so don’t try to make another key and break in or whatever.”
“I wouldn’t do that. Come on. We’re friends.”
“No, we’re not.”
The next day around noon I walked to Dunkin’ Donuts to get a large French vanilla—
light and sweet—and a cruller. I came back and all of my stuff was out on the front lawn. Randall had left a note on top of my box of 45’s: “Sorry. I don’t trust you.”
I tried my key to the apartment. It didn’t work. I was frankly impressed that he’d gotten all of my stuff out in less than an hour. Did he have, like, cameras set up around the house? And then as soon as I left, he drove over from his office? Brought some friends with him to get everything? I was really curious about the details but my pride prevented me from calling him.
I phoned my uncle instead to see if I could stay with him for a bit.
“Ah, I’m sorry Tim,” he said. “We’re having an ant problem. I don’t think we should have guests.”
“Are they like, those fire ants?”
“What do they do?”
“They try to bite people.”
“Yeah. Everyone’s getting bitten up.”
“Could you loan me some money?” I asked. “All of my stuff’s here and I can’t afford a storage place or whatever.”
There was a long pause. “Sorry,” my uncle said. “What was that? Your Aunt Jane was talking.”
I called Claire P. to see if I could crash with her.
“Why don’t you ask the other Claire?” she said.
“Who told you about that?”
“Ha. Well. Actually. I was at Borders and grabbed the last copy of Vineland by Thomas Pynchon and there was a woman standing there who told me she was also there to buy Vineland and then we started talking and figured out the whole thing. I didn’t take it too hard—I thought you were probably sleeping with other people—but the other Claire looked like she might cry. She’s clearly a tender person and you’re clearly an asshole. Don’t call me again and don’t call her.”
“Wait, one last thing.”
“How do you like Vineland?”
“It’s really bad and I think you’re bad for liking it.”
I put my phone away and took a look up and down my block. It was a pretty poor, sort of working-class city. I guess it used to be popular back when there were steel mills or whatever, but now a lot of people couldn’t find work. Most people who lived in Allentown claimed that the Billy Joel song “Allentown,” about a rundown city, was actually about Bethlehem—one town over—but I wasn’t convinced.
I looked directly across the street and watched a man slowly approach another man. I saw that he was carrying something sharp and thick. He deliberately moved his arm up and raised what looked like a very dull machete and sort of gently drew it into the middle of the other man’s head. The second guy just sort of fell and hit the grass with a thud. There was no blood or anything. He didn’t even look dead, he just looked asleep.
While the cops and ambulances came out to clean things up, I had the thought that maybe if I could just reason with Randall, he’d let me live with him again. I waited for another tenant to enter the front door and then I climbed in through the back window and up onto the roof.
Through the window to my old apartment, I saw Randall laughing, standing with a man who was about 5’6’’, potentially a new roommate. I could see the far closet door, where I had hung a warped Nirvana record and covered it with candle wax. Randall had always hated that. He said, “Why would you do that?” And I told him, “Leave me alone.” The record was gone, though. I wondered if he’d thrown it out. I sent him a text asking if he still had my Nirvana record with the candle wax on it. I watched as he looked at his phone and then put it back in his pocket.
Perhaps his intuition kicked in in that moment because he looked to the back window and then this new potential roommate also looked and they were both staring right at me. I was perched on the edge of the roof like some superhero or burglar. I tried to move quickly out of sight but I slipped and fell to the ground. I couldn’t quite measure with my eyeball how many feet I’d fallen, but I looked down at my legs and I wondered if they were broken and wondered why I hadn’t just called my parents and told them I was coming home.
I heard the ambulance sirens start in the distance and then I saw Randall looking down at me, looking sad. And then I saw Claire M. and Claire P. approaching. And my uncle was there. Everyone looked so sorry for how they’d treated me. I tried to laugh and told them that I was fine and I think I said, “Whoopsie daisy,” but no one even cracked a smile.
Ryan Sartor is an assistant in the writers room for “Duncanville” on Fox. He hosts The Difficult to Name Reading Series in Los Angeles.