Asha listened to the knocker fall against her door again and flipped onto her stomach, wiping her nose on the couch cushion as she turned. She was wearing the unwashed green robe she’d been using as a housedress since November. The robe had begun to stiffen, especially at the bottoms of the damp sleeves, which triple soaked whenever she triple-washed her vegetables. Her hands were chapped and gnawed and smelled of onion. In September, when Asha was thirty-six years old, she’d broken off with James, and in November she’d moved to Minnesota. To study botany, she’d told her friends, but really it was to get away from everything James; like the ocean he had permeated the buildings and the air for miles inland, and she wanted to be someplace that never smelled like salt, someplace with a long memory of frozen winter faces and decorum, someplace that had never heard her scream.
The knocker could only have been Bean from 3A. She’d met him by the snack machine in the laundry room. Bean had recently broken his television, and in exchange for being her only visitor and weekly grocery shopper, she’d given him control of her remote. Bean was twenty-nine and played hip and dumb and therefore was, Asha figured, a good influence.
“You know what time it is, Biznatch, so hurry it up. Crimebomb is on and I brought ice cream.”
Bean threw himself against the door and fell into her living room, a pint in either mittened hand. One jean leg was tucked into a white moon boot; the other dragged snow on the wooden floor. His coat was open and he had on the satin yellow shirt she’d advised him never to wear in public. He didn’t look her in the eye. Self-sabotage ran in the building.
“I was called before the committee today. They say there’s a seven-year limit, even if you change your thesis multiple times. What a foul practice.”
“And you wore that shirt because … ”
“The shirt is irrelevant because I forgot to take my coat off until practically the end when they were asking me to leave. Then it came in handy because I looked lavish and cheap and out-of-place all at once, just like you said. The salad ready?”
“Finished ten minutes ago.”
“I hope you did the onions last. Otherwise the zing goes missing and the chop salad becomes more of a nudge.”
Bean was a master’s student admitted to the university at the behest of his father, a day trader who had given the money to replace the clouded windows of the cafeteria. Bean had begun his studies convinced that the secrets of the platypus could offset modern infertility. “Mammals are mammals, right? One hole in the platypus carries urine, feces, and eggs. It’s ingenious. Once humans are laying eggs, man, everything else will be solved.” He’d been forced to abandon his thesis, he conjectured, because Asha and the rest of her sex weren’t as practical as he’d been led to believe. After several thousand hours of televised crime osmosis, a new thesis had emerged. Bean theorized that since most of the prison killings he’d seen had occurred in the laundry room or shower, the murder rate could be substantially reduced with an every-other-week washing routine. Today he’d blamed his lack of evidence on the county prison, which when pressed had offered only a control group.
“How could I possibly have conducted research without an experimental group? It’s like the committee wanted me to fabricate results. Nobody cares about ethics, these days, man. Or inmates for that matter.”
Bean wasn’t the worst person in the world to have TV dinners with, but his lips made an “O” before each forkful, so he always looked like he was going to talk. Asha had never interrupted the possibility. She regretted that now.
“Asha, come outside or something.”
“I can’t. It’s too cold.”
“It’s going to be cold for months. Aren’t you sick of it in here?”
“Are you going to stop buying my groceries?”
“I’ll still buy them. But I feel guilty.”
“You aren’t keeping me indoors, Bean. You’re just helping me eat something other than vending-machine food.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Bean, I’ve tried, okay? But I cried just chipping the ice away from my windshield. Then the tears froze on my face. Everything is too hard here.”
“Put on my coat and my gloves and my hat and my boots. You won’t even believe how happy being outside’ll make you. We’ll just get some coffee. Then I promise we can come back.”
Asha gave in, simply because she lacked the resilience to fight, and trudged in the snow behind Bean. Her family and friends were still on the Atlantic; none of them knew she lived in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking nothing but a bus stop and that her windows rattled every twenty minutes during the day from the bus and all night from the wind; she’d told none of them she was almost out of money, or that she couldn’t focus without a horizon at her window, and no one had remarked on any emptiness in her voice or asked her if anything was missing. She’d come here to grow into someone else, but the people here had no idea that she existed and couldn’t help her change.
Asha took her eyes from her feet to gauge her distance from Bean, and slipped on a sheet of ice. She felt a scrape to her forehead, and heard a moan not unlike her own. Beneath her face the ice was bleeding; someone invisible was hurt.
When she was six years old, her family had moved to a high-rise apartment a few blocks from the ocean. She’d waited every night until the sky got so murky she couldn’t make out where it met the sea. When the water and sky were one, she could sleep, knowing her family was grounded in one holy place, and in the mornings when she woke she could see gulls pecking in the sand. Here it felt so dark from her window that there was nothing but to let everyone she’d known endlessly fall.
Asha reached up to touch her face. She was embarrassed, and her blood accused her from Bean’s stained mitten. He didn’t know she’d fallen; winter had absorbed the sound, and she couldn’t see him from where she lay. She could feel her face chapping. She wondered if Bean had ever felt invisible, she wondered if she only felt that way because she’d lost her vision of herself. He’d be circling back for her soon. Asha didn’t want to be seen that way, a woman left bleeding and alone. She dug into the marrow of the night, steeling herself in Bean’s large and ugly clothes, and stood up.