Alison and I, cleaning the house. Neither of us lives here. Alison used to live here, and when I was dating James I made the place my home. But.
We begin seated opposite each other on the grey carpet. Alison has a little patterned box, wooden, in which she keeps her drugs.
“Just a quick pick-me-up,” she says, “If I’m high I can clean all day.” Alison is barefoot and her shoes have grayed the tips of her toes. She wears a light flowered dress and keeps her feet tucked beside her. Her bent knees make pink circles. Alison has a round face, and today her brown hair is tied back in a bun. She removes materials carefully from the box. In a few months I will move into Alison’s house and I will learn that she smokes a bowl every morning, first thing. We will go to New York together, spend a week in my father’s apartment there, wander the city, listen to records from the fire escape, and after three days of not smoking Alison will say, “Wow. I’m having emotions.”
Alison picks two buds from their dry stem and presses them into the pipe. “I read a poem I think you’d like, Eve,” she says. Alison is able to give gifts this way. In a group she will single you out with a piece of information she has saved for you especially. When you arrive at her house she will pull a book from her shelf, and she has chosen it just for you. The idea that someone thinks of you when you are absent, that someone knows you well enough to be reminded, or to recommend. Alison lights up, takes a long pull and says in a strained voice, “Have you read Elizabeth Barrett Browning?” I have not and I shake my head. Alison nods. Smoke issues from her mouth, “She’s great,” she says, “You’ll love her. She writes sonnets. I’ll show you later.”
When Alison is finished smoking we can open the blinds. The sunlight comes in clean and white and I turn on the stereo and start in the kitchen, on the pile of dishes. It is large, and dangerous smelling. Alison sweeps the floor –she will sweep and mop, and sweep and mop again, before she considers the job done.
Neither of us lives here. It was James who wanted to have a party, but he is upstairs in his room with the door shut.
This house is our church. On Wednesday nights James hosts salons here, and we come and read stories and poems and listen. It is important to be heard. It is important for James to tell me that I write well.
Alison and I clean and sing along to the stereo. Alison sings tunelessly, just off, a little lower or higher, but her voice is clear and I like the way the two melodies come together, hers and the recorded one. I shake my hips at the sink, and Alison swishes across the floor in her skirt. A green vine is pressing its way in at the kitchen window. Alison tells me how Robert Browning rescued Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her father, who had convinced her that she was sick and kept her locked in the house all day. We discuss our favorite literary couples. I like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, but Alison favors Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She always says it like that, all three of his names. It’s because she likes the way they sound together, the s’s and e’s.
“Percy Shelley was awful,” I say, “He only married Mary Shelley after his first wife killed herself.”
Alison shrugs. “Ted Hughes was pretty awful, too,” she says, “You know the first time they met each other, Sylvia Plath bit him so hard that he bled?”
I do know this.
Chris also lives in this house. For a while, he and Alison were sleeping together. Chris dates a demanding girl with a shrill voice. Alison is brilliant, and men do not treat her well.
We vacuum the living room, and this is largely pointless because the carpet is stained, and hard in places where things have dried on it, beer and wine, spilled food. James comes downstairs.
“Lookin’ good, ladies,” he says, and when he opens the door to step outside light streams through.
When James and Mark crashed the car trying to drive to New York City they called Alison. I was sitting on her porch with her when she answered the phone. She was smoking, and we were watching the rain.
“Holy fuck,” she said, “Are you guys okay?” A pause. I could hear James on the other end of the line. “No, don’t even worry about it,” she said, “See you in a little bit.”
I watched her pull out of the driveway in her silver car.
James’ shoes are in the hallway. They are worn and dirty, have so lately housed his feet. I set them neatly next to one another at the bottom of the stairs.
Alison says that she would love to be a housewife, to have no responsibilities, to be able to sit at home all day and write. It makes me sad that she feels this way and I tell her so. I would go wild with rage if I were trapped at home and indebted to someone else.
I clean the bathroom, and feel good about it because what could be more loving? I wipe old urine away from the place where James will stand every time he takes a piss.
Alison is the smartest person I know. Neither of us has the confidence to spread our arms and knock away the walls of this place.
Kate Wheeler grew up in North Carolina among green things. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading” and in “The Baltimore Review.” She lives just outside of Brooklyn.