This story is by Victoria Maddocks and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She shakes her head as she opens the washing machine, pouring detergent in the basin. She knows she shouldn’t, but if she doesn’t wash his uniform for him, he will wake up saying he has no clean clothes for work. Then he’ll call out sick again, and waste the evening plucking out new songs on his guitar. Not that it should matter to her. They aren’t married. They don’t even live together. But ever since she moved into the apartment above his and first met him in this very laundry room, they have been in a pattern of give and take. Her giving, him taking. But what else should she do? Let him lose his job? He can’t make ends meet on the paltry amount he makes playing gigs, and she can’t let him starve.
She sighs in resignation as she adds his clothes. His socks are dingy, and she noticed his toe poking through one the other day. She ought to buy him a new pack next time she goes shopping. His boxers are in good condition. he bought them last month to replace the frayed ones he’d been tugging off as they got into bed together each night. His nametag is still pinned to his work shirt, four seemingly innocuous letters that transmute into magic when arranged to spell his name. She pricks her finger as she removes it from the fabric, and starts the water to rinse the dab of blood. She feels something in the pocket of his black slacks, and reaches her hand in to remove it so it doesn’t get ruined in the wash. She pulls out a crinkled mass of paper, and flattens out the sheets to set them aside with the name tag. At first she assumes it’s his work schedule or lyrics to a new song, and she does a double take when she realizes it’s not. It’s a pile of receipts.
He had told her that he and his co-worker got drunk after they closed the sub shop last night, and he ended up crashing on his friend’s couch. She remembers that when he stopped by this morning he looked sheepish and a little sick, and she teased him about having a hangover. She hadn’t doubted his version of events at the time, but as she scans through the receipts, she realizes what really happened last night. The washing machine continues to fill with water as she begins to read.
The first slip of paper is from Vinny’s, for a large pizza, Italian sub, and bottle of soda. The second is from Mandarin Palace: General Tao’s chicken, fried wontons, and half a dozen spare ribs. The third is for a gyro, moussaka, and spanakopita from Zorba’s. The next is from 7-11, for three bags of chips, two hot dogs, and a six-pack of beer. The final receipt is from the motel across the street from the sandwich shop. All of the receipts show yesterday’s date, and are time-stamped during the hours he had told her he would be at work.
That explains why he looked so guilty when he got home, and why he hadn’t wanted to give her a hug before he went to lie down. He had called to her from her front door, saying that he needed a shower and a nap, and scooted downstairs to his own apartment without coming in. She presumed he stunk from the drinking, and told him she would catch up with him later. An ordinary man would have used that line to cover up the scents of perfume and sex clinging to him after a night spent with another woman. But not her man. She knew he would never cheat on her. At least, not with another person. No, he was trying to hide the smell of grease on his fingers, the odor of vomit on his breath, the food stains on his shirt and pants.
She had discovered his secret a few months ago, when he had been binge eating in his own apartment. She could hear him retching into the toilet in his bathroom through the air vent in hers. Thinking something was wrong, she let herself into his place to offer her assistance. If he had a stomach bug, she could get him some medicine, some water, and a cool rag for his forehead. When she reached his door, she was surprised to find it locked, and let herself in. The mess in the kitchen created the illusion that he’d thrown a party: empty soda bottles, the melting remains of a carton of ice cream, a half-eaten cake, and an empty pizza box. But he hadn’t had a party. He’d told her he was tired and wanted a quiet night at home. And if he’d had any guests, she would have heard them coming and going. She heard everything that happened in his apartment, had fallen in love with him as she listened to him strum his guitar through her floorboards. No, he hadn’t had a party. He had eaten all of that food himself. And afterwards, he threw it all up.
That first night, he’d caught her peering into a brown paper bag containing the remnants of a hoagie and fries. She froze with fear. She waited for him to yell at her for violating his privacy, for breaking into his house, for coming over unannounced. After all, he had asked for a quiet night at home, and there she was, standing in his living room uninvited. But instead of yelling, he stood there silent for a moment, his deep brown eyes penetrating hers, and his red bow mouth tugging down ever so slightly at the corners. He looked as handsome to her as he always did, and though her arms ached to hold him, they each remained frozen in place. Then, he parted his lips, and began to sob. She went to him immediately, cradling him in her arms as he slid to the floor, his tears soaking through her night shirt. As she held him, she could smell the sweetness of the cake icing, the cheese from the pizza, and the tang of bile. When he finished crying, she led him to his bedroom, tucked him beneath the rumpled blankets, and stayed with him until he fell asleep. Then, she’d cleaned up his entire apartment. Vacuum streaks where crumbs had been, shiny countertops in place of the to-go boxes, an empty trash bag, and a heavy dose of air freshener. When he woke, he was silent, contrite. He didn’t explain, and she didn’t ask him to.
After a few weeks had gone by, she broached the subject with him. They had just made love in the clean sheets in her bedroom, and he looked so beautiful in the morning sunlight. The world felt full of promise, her heart felt full of love. She felt close to him, and wanted to feel closer. She wanted to understand what had happened, why he did it, and how often. She wanted to know how she could help, how he could heal. She hesitated to speak, knowing his tendency to shrink away from any intimate discussion. But that morning, in the comfort of the sunlight and the blankets, she took a tentative step.
“About that night in your apartment. With the food?” she ventured.
She could see the light leave his eyes, the glow drain from his skin.
“There’s nothing to talk about alright? Just drop it,” he muttered. He turned his back to her, tugging the blanket over his bare skin to replace the warmth of her embrace.
“I just wanted…” she began, but faltered.
“Listen, I don’t want to talk about it, it’s over.” He flipped on the television to punctuate the end of the discussion. She interpreted his words as a promise that it was never going to happen again, that whatever had prompted such strange and desperate behavior was an anomaly, or something now buried and done with.
As far as she knew, he had kept his word. There had been no more requests for quiet nights at home, no more unusual sounds coming from the bathroom.
But now, as she thought back over the past few months, he had spent the night away from home a few other times. Had he lied about visiting his sister? About having out-of-town gigs? Were those only cover stories for nights spent in a cheap motel room, alone with his emotions and a mountain of food?
The agitator in the washing machine starts, calling her attention back to the task at hand. She realizes she is still clenching the pants in one hand, the receipts in the other. For a long moment, she watches the new boxers, the old socks, and the work shirt, swirling amongst the soap bubbles. Then she crams the receipts back into the pocket where she found them. She stuffs the pants into the water, and lowers the lid.