Short Story: ‘Bloomsbury Redux’ by Tina Gibbard

When I put my hands in Lytton’s armpits and groped, he flicked his tongue at my arm and rolled his eyes. His pits were warmly damp, a clammy route to his core. He usually ignored me, apart from a startled bark yesterday when he awoke. Lytton was not a barker, or a growler; he was silent and lugubrious.   I gazed at his endlessly long cylinder of a body, the stumpy legs and massive toes turned out like a ballerina. The armpit experience was a breakthrough. There had been no eye contact between us in the past week, apart from a brief flickering meet, and then a self-conscious head turn away on both our parts.

Lytton and myself were in the apartment by ourselves for long periods. The Chicago summer heat was intense. Going outside left us gasping for breath, so we stayed in, the juddering of the ancient air conditioner the backdrop to our days. I lay on the couch reading, and Lytton absorbed coolness from the tiled bathroom floor.   The apartment was a 1920s block, with an odd floor layout that left it with minimal air flow. The furnishings and furniture were in shades of brown and olive and the shelves filled with a preponderance of Catholic paraphernalia. Jesus stared down at me, gilded and medieval. There were many fabric bound books, mainly about Virginia Woolf and her set, Theodore’s specialist subject.   Theodore was out teaching at the university most days and some of the evenings. I gave Lytton a hug and he bore it patiently, gazing into the distance, pretending that no contact was happening. As a reward for his forbearance I gave him a pig’s ear, which he carried off to the bedroom to eat in privacy. Sometimes I would fold up my sofa-bed during the daytime, other times just lie on it, staring at the creamy ceiling.   The aircon’s ack-ack-ack made me feel as if I were on a plane, humming and suspended in mid-air.

On the third day, still lively at this point, I had made a tzatziki and a salad, ready for Theodore when he came back from work. I had thought to take on a housewife role, the patient wife and the scatty professor, a mini Bloomsbury group. We would talk about literature, and his students, as we ate. I would offer searing insights. Except I wasn’t his wife, and I didn’t know he didn’t like yoghurt. He pushed the untouched salad to one side and brought out a six-pack of ice-pops from his bag. Slinging them in the freezer, he withdrew one and retreated to his bedroom to watch Season 5 of Dexter. I watched his hot, open doorway as I ate my salad.

This was clearly how a genius behaved. I was here for three months, there was time for things to change. I had always loved Theodore, ever since he had produced a tiny battleship from behind my ear when I was six. So much more interesting than a coin.   When Vanessa Bell’s daughter was born, her boyfriend’s ex-lover declared, ‘I think of marrying it.’ Surely Theodore harboured similar ambitions towards me. His gray-templed face smiled out at me from the photos on his sideboard, as he collected awards and shook hands with the Vice-President. He had seemed so amenable to the idea of me staying when my uncle had asked.

From the window of the apartment I could see Lake Michigan, more like a sea than a lake, with its foamy waves and endless horizon. Staring out at it each day, I decided it was time to write a little, like Virginia Woolf alone in her room. When I told Theodore I had started writing he laughed. ‘You’re like a secretary who types all day but has big dreams, writing her penny dreadfuls in the evening. Don’t expect me to read any of it though, I have to read students’ trash all day long.’   I filed my writing carefully in my notebook, written out neatly in my best handwriting, ready for the day when Theodore would change his mind, intrigued, and ask to read it.

On the tenth day Theodore took me to look at the Frank Lloyd Wright houses. My right shoe melted in the heat as we walked, the purple rubber crumbling so that the heel collapsed.   We looked at three houses before Theodore declared we had seen enough and led me to a Starbucks. We skipped the museum as Theodore had been twice before. He spent a long time in the toilet and then we climbed back in his car to drive back home. At the weekend, he said, we will go to Milwaukee and see the bronze Fonz statue. You know, from Happy Days. You’ll like that.   I nodded in agreement.

Back in the droning apartment, Lytton coiled on the floor and Theodore showed me a children’s picture book; Paul Bunyan, Work Giant.   He flicked to the third page, showing a picture of the ox strenuously licking Paul Bunyan’s face. What do you see? I gave a side-glance at Theodore, looking for a trick in the question, but he was studiously, fixedly looking at the picture. An ox and a lumberjack? No, no. See here. He traced the line of the ox’s strong, long neck. Do you see the shaft, and Vesling’s line. He looked at me. We all have a seam, all the way around us, a remnant of the time when we were a blastula in the womb. His finger moved upward to the ox’s happy face, jabbing it decisively. And the glans.   Theodore turned through more pages. Paul Bunyan straddling a row of houses, his hips pushed forward. Paul Bunyan lying in bed, the other lumberjacks closely packed behind him.   A secret, you see. A secret code. Penises. Balls. Theodore closed the book and placed it under his arm, reached for an ice-pop, and retreated to his stifling bedroom.

On the twelfth day the heat lessened, and I took Lytton down to the shore. We walked through a small park and onto the pebbles, grateful for the light breeze. The lake was deserted and we idled along. As I gazed out over the grey water, my foot kicked into something soft. I looked down at a rooster. Its throat was slit and its long yellow feet bent downwards in a death curl, blood and feathers scattered on the stones.   Flowers surrounded it, roses and gerberas, and two pears sat pointing at its coxcomb. I pulled Lytton away before his nose could bury into the arrangement.   When I asked Theodore about it that night he was unsurprised. ‘Voodoo. The Haitians like to do their ceremonies down there.’ Later in the evening he took me for icecream. It was bright and loud in the mall, the pink icecream lurid. Bubblegum flavour, he explained, placing an enormous dish in front of me.

After three weeks Theodore stopped coming home. I sometimes thought he had been in, there would be a dish in the sink, or a pen on the floor, but I wasn’t sure. I rang him, but there was no reply. I thought he must be busy, so I just waited for him to turn up again, sending him an occasional chirpy email, careful not to pressure him. Lytton had started looking me directly in the eyes now, his face creased in concern. I would talk to him and he would cock his head to one side, his lip snagged up on one fang, indecorous, like a lady with lipstick on her teeth.

When Theodore had been gone for five weeks I went into his bedroom. He had e-mailed me once, to tell me had gone to Boston for a break. It had not been possible to invite me because his sister was renovating her house, and did not want strangers there. I was to continue my ‘writing’, and look after Lytton. His bedroom floor was covered with khaki shirts, brown corduroys, DVDs and students’ papers. I opened his wardrobe doors. More olive and brown, and a lone white dress shirt in the centre, with a wine stain on the bib. Closing the doors, I lay down on his bed, and climbed under the musty counterpane. I imagined Theodore lying next to me, his long angular form staying perfectly still all night, just the occasional noble sigh emerging from that thin-lipped mouth.   Twilight fell, and I stayed there.

In the mornings I would go to the coffee shop on the corner of the block and buy buns, coffee, and tubs of icecream. I bought some plastic moulds and juice so that I could make endless ice-pops of my own creation. Lytton had enough kibble and pig’s ears for a few more weeks, and I always took him for his daily walk, which proved a good time to think. It had been terrible, of course, how it had all ended at work, and I was grateful to have time away to distance myself from it. So incredibly unfair, the accusations and leaps of logic. Arthur Bremer’s coffee cup had long been washed out, there was no way of saying that had been the cause I breathed the lake air, Lytton poised next to me, nose pointing out to the horizon, the lead relaxed between us. The offerings on the beach had continued, today’s being a dead pigeon and three oranges. I let Lytton eat some of the pigeon’s innards as a treat, and then drink from the lake to rinse his bloodied mouth.

I continued my writing each day, waiting for Theodore to come back. He had been gone for over two months now, but I had set up a semi-circle of his photos to watch me as I worked. I wrote letters, stories, poems and plays. Staccato and streaming, flat and overblown. There would be something here for Theodore to love, something to make him love me. I laid them out in tempting piles, so he would see them as soon as he came back. The writing was good, I knew it was good.

The day finally came, as I woke to find Theodore filling the bedroom doorway. He frowned. ‘Get out of my room please.’ I arose, naked. He looked me up and down in silence, and I tilted my palms fractionally towards him. Here I am, this is me, for you. He looked away. ‘Get dressed. I think it’s time we had a talk.’   I took my time having a shower and getting ready. My red lipstick was almost too striking, so I left my eyes small and undefined, my cheeks unblushed.

When I entered the dining room he had a clutch of my writing in his hand, and I watched unseen from the doorway as he scanned and quickly discarded pages.   He finally saw me, saying, ‘I think it’s time to cut your trip a little short and go back home to your parents. You’ll find something suitable to do at home, maybe some simple shopwork. You’re a reliable, sturdy girl, I’m sure you’ll be a useful addition to some lucky company.’ I bent to scratch Lytton’s head as my reply. ‘Well, I have classes through to late tonight. Start gathering your things and we can look at some flights for you tomorrow morning.’ He smiled at me, as he tossed my papers into the recycling bin.

After Theodore left for work, as the air-conditioner juddered and hummed, I made him some special ice-pops as a goodbye present. I arrayed them at the front of the freezer so that he would immediately see them, a range of colours and flavours, one of which would surely appeal to him. I put Lytton’s lead on him and took him down to the shore, where I placed a single large rock in my pocket, as Virginia had done. Then I looked at Lytton, and waited for him to tell me what to do next.


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