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Steel

T.A. Noonan

Erica and I ended our five-year engagement on May 21, 2005, in a diner outside Oakland Park, Florida. While I was in the bathroom, she took my purse from the booth and searched the pockets. When I returned, she rolled a half-smoked Black and Mild across the table. The plastic tip clicked against my fork.

“I thought you quit,” she said.

“I did.”

“I don’t think I can be with a liar.”

Truth was, I had been lying. I knew our relationship was over months before, ever since she said she wouldn’t move if a job or school took me out of state. The confession stunned me. After all, I’d followed her, moving 900 miles from Louisiana so we could live and work on our Masters degrees together. She dropped out three semesters later, but I stuck to it. I’d made a commitment. Her refusal to finish the degree seemed to mean that she’d given up on everything connected to it.

I couldn’t accept this and tried to salvage our relationship. Unfortunately, I did a shitty job. Instead of spending time with her, I kept ten-hour days on campus. When I finally came home, I shot some vodka, grabbed a Diet Coke and leftovers from the fridge, and retreated to my room. We barely spoke during the week. On weekends I studied, wrote, slept, or went out with friends. If Erica joined me on these outings, we didn’t act like lovers. I knew she hated cigarettes, but I started smoking again—even though we’d celebrated the day I quit with dinner and sex. The last time we ever had sex.

———

The breakup came a week after I’d gotten a new piercing. It was an industrial: a long, surgical steel barbell that chorded the upper curve of my right ear. I’d never seen one until Tanya, one of Erica’s friends, visited us; she had one in each ear. Erica and I fell in love with them immediately and told Tanya we wanted to get them.

“Did it hurt?” asked Erica. “More than a regular ear piercing, I mean?”

“Not really,” Tanya said, “but they’re a bitch to care for. The aftercare hurts a lot worse than the actual piercing. Your ear swells up twice its size for about a month, and even your hair will hurt it. Plus, if you get pierced on the side of your head that you sleep on, you can’t sleep on that side until it heals.”

“How long does that take?” I asked.

“About six months. Sometimes a year or more.”

That turned Erica off, but I still wanted one.

“Yeah, you should,” she told me. “You’re better at dealing with pain.”

———

Graduate school put a huge strain on my finances. I made just over $7,000 a year as a teaching assistant, and even with student loans, I had trouble making ends meet. So, in order to save money, I roomed with two people. One was, of course, Erica. She had steady work, sold her art online, and didn’t mind helping when I was behind on rent. The other was Ben, a 22-year-old programmer we’d befriended soon after our move. Despite the usual arguments over chores and such, we all got along pretty well. Ben and I were particularly tight. We would spend hours talking about everything from gourmet food to Jewish mysticism to The Iliad.

Both Erica and I knew that Ben prided himself on his observational skills, so when I got the industrial, we decided to prank him. We promised not to mention the piercing and placed bets on how long it would take him to notice. I said a month. She gave him two weeks. I made certain to expose my ear as much as possible.

Three days into the healing process, he noticed the swelling. “What’s up with that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Only when I touch it.”

“Huh. Maybe you have an ear infection.” He said nothing else.

Erica got tired of waiting after six days. Frustrated, she dragged me to his room, forcibly tilted my head to the side, and pointed to my ear. “Look.”

Ben stared for a moment. “What am I looking for? You’re crazy.”

“Look harder.”

At last, he saw the two-inch barbell, red skin bulging against round ends. “Oh.” He shrugged and turned back to his keyboard. “I thought that was a hairpin.”

———

My ear was still tender the next day, that afternoon in the diner. I had my hair in a ponytail so it wouldn’t irritate my swollen helix. When I realized that Erica was really breaking up with me, I took off my engagement ring and tried to give it to her.

“Keep it,” she said. “It’s yours now.”

I slipped the ring back onto my finger. Honestly, I was glad. My hand was used to its weight. After a couple of deep breaths, I pulled my hair down to hide my face, hide how upset I was. As my hands moved away from my head, the ring accidentally clipped the piercing. That’s when I started crying.

———

Temp work paid less than usual that summer. Before I knew it, I was months behind on my car note and had a credit card in collections. I wanted to move out but thought I couldn’t afford to live alone. So, six weeks after the breakup, I agreed to move with Erica and Ben into a two-floor, three-bedroom townhouse in Coral Springs. The place was nice—new tile, washer and dryer, cupboard under the stairs à la Harry Potter. We didn’t mind the Clinique-green exterior or the fact that it faced a sketchy apartment complex. For the bargain price of $1,300 a month, we were willing to overlook an ugly paint job and bad neighbors.

The best part was the space. We finally had enough room for everyone’s stuff. But despite all the square footage, shelving was limited. We had over a thousand books and only a few bookcases between us. Ben insisted on keeping his entire library in his room for easy access while working. Both Erica and I had small shelves to keep in our rooms for the books we needed most, but the rest had to remain downstairs. When she suggested we consolidate our libraries to conserve what little shelf space we had, I flipped.

“They’re my goddamn books. I don’t want to mix them up.”

“But we don’t have enough shelf space.”

“I’ll stack them on the floor.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Fuck you.”

She left the shelves open anyway.

I protested for a few days by keeping my books in stacks and boxes. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that Erica was right. I couldn’t leave my library all over the living room. So I filled the spaces she’d made for me. My books on literary theory sat beside her comic collection. Nabokov’s Pale Fire next to Anton Wilson’s Ishtar Rising. A dog-eared copy of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s technical manual cozying up to a catalog of Bernini’s sculptures.

It was strange, keeping my most important possessions with someone else’s. I’d read an essay that said the surest sign of love among bibliophiles was the consolidation of personal libraries. But we had done this out of necessity; by the time Erica and I combined our books, the engagement was over. I wanted to pretend her comics, Ishtar Rising, and Bernini were mine. I couldn’t. She knew what was hers.

———

We didn’t tell Ben about the breakup right away. His previous roommates, a married couple, had stiffed him three months’ rent when they moved out after their divorce. Erica and I didn’t want him to think we’d do the same. Besides, we didn’t know how to talk about it publicly. We were too busy acting like nothing was wrong. Once school started, however, I spent less time home than before. My ten-hour days became fourteen-hour days. I left at 8 AM and didn’t return until after 10 PM. The daily shots of vodka multiplied.

A couple of weeks after the move, Ben confronted me in the kitchen.

“How come you’re never home?”

I shrugged. “I’m always busy.”

“Bullshit. The semester just started. You can’t be that busy yet.” Pause. “Is it my fault?”

“Dude, you are the least of my problems.”

“Then it’s Erica.”

What could I say? I hadn’t been able to admit to anyone that our relationship was over. I shrugged again, left the kitchen, and went upstairs to Erica’s room.

“We have to tell him,” I said.

She nodded, as if expecting the moment, and followed me downstairs. We all gathered in the kitchen, our cat curling around our ankles, to discuss the breakup. Erica and I swore that it wouldn’t affect our ability to pay rent. That nothing had really changed—after all, didn’t we still act the same around each other?—and we would keep our personal lives separate from our financial obligations. Ben remained silent.

Afterwards, Erica shut herself in her room. I followed Ben to his room, sat on his king-sized bed, and cried. Even though the industrial was healing well, my ear throbbed. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was crying or because I’d somehow managed to bump it while crying. “What am I supposed to do now?” I asked.

He answered with a box of tissues and a copy of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat. “Read this. You can’t keep it, but it’ll make you feel better.”

———

The Stainless Steel Rat is not a breakup story, but a science-fiction adventure about James Bolivar diGriz, a master thief, con-artist, and liar—the Stainless Steel Rat of the title. After accidentally joining a government agency, James meets a sexy murderess named Angelina who paid for her cosmetic surgeries by stealing. Of course, he thwarts her schemes, cures her homicidal tendencies, and makes an honest woman out of her in the end. Light-hearted, ridiculous stuff. Still, even as I wondered why Ben recommended The Stainless Steel Rat, reading it made me feel better. James and Angelina had big problems, and it worked out between them. Maybe I could work out my problems with Erica.

———

Hurricane Wilma struck Coral Springs on October 24, 2005. It damaged approximately 14,000 power poles, more than the total number of poles replaced after Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne in 2004. An estimated 95% of Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach County residents lost power. Erica and I were among them. Ben was not; he was in Phoenix attending a convention.

Having weathered many hurricanes over the years, Erica and I assumed Wilma would be a cakewalk. We made only basic preparations. When the power went out in the morning, we celebrated with shots of Cuervo Gold. It took us most of the day to realize we still had meat in the freezer.

Neither of us had ever barbecued, but by sunset, we were more than drunk enough to believe we could. We stacked charcoal briquettes in a lopsided pyramid, following the diagrams on the bag. When we realized we didn’t have lighter fluid, Erica coated a sheet of newspaper with cooking spray and used that to start the fire. Once the coals whitened at the edges, we made hamburger patties and cooked them until the juices ran clear.

We sat in lawn chairs and ate the bunless burgers with our fingers, congratulating each other on our combined genius. Post-hurricane breezes tangled our twin ponytails around our necks and ears. The coals smoldered white-red in the pit, their smoke almost overpowering the backyard ligustrums. The sky darkened. With the lights out all over south Florida, stars we’d never seen before emerged. It was like all the electricity had been scatted above our heads.

Erica suggested I bring out my book of starmaps, so I did—along with a portable radio, batteries, and a flashlight. As I flipped through the charts, she put the batteries in the radio and cued up a local station. We spent the next hour and a half talking, drinking, searching the sky for every constellation in the book. The host rattled off deaths, gas shortages, and boil-water orders in the background. And every twenty minutes, a commercial break interrupted the news, advertising everything from the Red Cross to custom engagement rings. If it wasn’t for the host’s voice, I could have imagined this was any ordinary fall night before our breakup. But we were just two roommates sitting outside, shooting tequila, wondering how we’d never noticed all the stars.

“Doesn’t it feel,” Erica said during one of the jewelry commercials, “like we’re listening to a broadcast from another universe?”

“Yeah, it does.” I wondered if she’d timed it, wanted to speak over the advertiser so I wouldn’t get any ideas.

“You should write a story about it. A science fiction story about two chicks who buy a radio that only picks up channels from other dimensions.”

“Sounds like something Stephen King would write.”

“I like Stephen King.”

“No one would read it.”

I’d read it.” She would, and I didn’t want to argue. It broke the illusion.

“I’m gonna go study for the GRE.”

“How, read Milton by candlelight? Fuck grad school. Let’s play Trivial Pursuit.”

Of course she wanted to spend time together when we weren’t together. But any time spent with her was time I could pretend we were still engaged. “Sure. You go set up the board. I’ll bring in our stuff.”

By the time I got everything inside, Erica had the game, four Capri Suns, two shotglasses, and bottle of Cuervo set up. “Hurricane rules: every time you get a piece, you have to take a shot.”

“You’re going down, bitch.”

I won the first match and drunkenly proclaimed that I’d always win because it was my game and I’d memorized all her cards. She called me a cheater, swapped decks, and won the second round.

———

We didn’t divide our stuff until I’d completed my Masters and was moving to Mississippi to start my PhD. That’s when the real split happened. Didn’t matter that she already had a new girlfriend and hadn’t thought of me as her future wife for a year. Everything else had been practice.

I packed my dishes, left her pots. My television. Her DVDs. She insisted I take everything she owned that she couldn’t use without me—her Playstation games, which were useless without my PS2. Her lampshades, without my lamps, just took up space. Our mixed shelves yielded seventeen boxes, each one carefully numbered and labeled with its contents. I was tempted to pick through her library, take what I wanted. She probably wouldn’t have noticed until I was long gone. But books were sacred. I had no intention of alienating her.

“What about our armchairs?” I asked. We’d received them as a joint housewarming gift before anyone knew about the breakup.

“Take them. What do I need armchairs for?”

“I don’t know if I’ll have room in the truck.”

“Then leave them. Whatever. They’re just chairs.”

“But they’re our chairs.”

“They can’t be our chairs if you’re not here.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic. “Well, I’m giving them to you. You can keep them.”

“That’s stupid. What am I going to do with two armchairs?”

I don’t remember how the argument turned from chairs to our relationship, but I do remember that I finally stopped pretending that everything was okay. I bitched about moving to Florida in the first place, how her choice had cost me my savings and my independence. How she’d never finished school. How I’d supported that decision—all her decisions—when she had no intention of returning the favor. How sick I was of relying on her when all I wanted was for her to rely on me. How impossible that was. How we weren’t getting married.

When I finished shouting, she narrowed her eyes. “You,” she said, “are the most selfish bitch on the planet.”

———

Erica is right. I am selfish. I know this because of the industrial. I say that I got it for her, but that isn’t true. I thought it looked nice; I got it for me. I could have set the cost of the piercing aside—plus all the money I spent on cigarettes, alcohol, distractions—to move out, start over. Instead, I spent a year leeching off her and imagining that she’d come back, be my blushing bride. Like that would have happened. She had her mind set on a tux and wouldn’t have worn a dress if I’d begged.

She is right about a lot, including the pain. Not because of the industrial. Because I could ignore the rift between us. Because when she called me selfish, I knew she was right and started throwing things. Small objects at first, then bigger ones. I had a glass bottle aimed at her head before I caught myself, stopped mid-throw, and punched a wall instead. A wall that had been repaired with a steel plate.

Yes, I am good at dealing with pain. I packed with a broken hand.

———

Ben never mentioned whether or not he heard the fight. I never told him the truth. When I signed my last rent check, he noticed me struggling with the pen and asked what happened. I said I’d dropped a box of books on my hand. He must have known, but he kept my personal life separate from my financial obligations.

A year and a half later, I lost the engagement ring at a party. I convinced friends to help me search, but no one ever found it. I waited a couple of weeks before telling Erica. During that phone call, we talked about current events. Books we’d borrowed from one another. Possible visits. Ordinary, friendly topics.

Then I changed the subject. “I lost the ring,” I said, scratching my ear. “You know, our engagement ring.”

“That sucks. I know how much you liked it.”

“Yeah, I miss it. My finger feels naked. Look, I know this is gonna sound weird, but I think it’s a sign.”

She laughed. I could hear typing in the background. “That’s one of the things I hate about you. You’re always looking for signs. Sometimes things that happen to us don’t mean anything.”

I thought about James diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat. It had been some time since I’d read the book, but I remembered that things really hadn’t turned out perfect between him and Angelina. Sure, he’d foiled her plans, but he never did cure her completely. She still indulged in the occasional threat of murder, still acted on her suppressed sociopathic tendencies. Their relationship was far from idyllic.

We weren’t them, but it was hard to throw away so many years, so many bad habits.

“If it is a sign,” I said, “you have to admit it’s a pretty good one.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”

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  1. Luiz says:

    Thank you Julie! Erica is a beautiful girl, inisde and out! It has been such a pleasure to become friends with her and Goose. I’m so excited to meet you and the rest of your family next week! It’s going to be a wonderful day!

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