short fiction

Love Thy Neighbor

Aimee Griffin

My face is covered in freckles for the first time since I was a little girl. They’re the product of an island vacation, paid for by Robert, that I spent sun bathing and running up an excessive bar tab. Robert hates the freckles and says they make me look immature. I suppose a man who still has the face of an eleven year old would have some sort of authority on that. Most people would call Robert my boyfriend.

Sometimes, my coworkers and I pretend we don’t just tolerate one another, and we go out for drinks. One night, I offer to buy the first round for our table because every man there looked at my ass when I walked in, and I liked it. Robert tried to loop his arm around my waist after that. I evaded. The bartender smiled as I ticked off my drink order.

“I like your freckles.” He lined up the glasses on the bar. I wrote my number on a napkin that he slid into the pocket of his tight black trousers. When I collected the drinks he leaned over to my ear, “I hope they’re everywhere.”

Four hours later in my apartment I have rough sex with Robert and I accidentally ruin his new designer shirt. He doesn’t care until I ask him to leave. He tells me he feels used, I tell him that he snores. I don’t tell him that I like to eat breakfast alone, because the sight of him scarfing down my expensive organic food ruins the meal. I always end up watching his womanly hands pirouetting a triangle of toast through runny egg yolk on my designer plates. For once I avoid the whole unpleasant scene and have my favorite breakfast in bed: green juice chased with a shot of gin.

The bartender calls me that day and I invite him to my apartment. We drink a bottle of expensive bourbon that I’d been hiding from Robert and fuck on the same sheets on which Robert had lain the night before. I hadn’t wanted to change them. The bartender’s scent is stronger than Robert’s. He leaves the next morning without asking for breakfast and I tangle my legs in the sheets and breathe in the smell of sex and two different men. I fall asleep for the rest of the day.

I wake up angry. It’s leftover anger, hatched a long time ago and possibly no longer justified, if it ever was. I just want to keep being angry, keep being annoyed at everyone who gets in the way. I’ve been angry for so long that I can’t decide if I’m sick of it or still unsatisfied by it.

The two fish Robert bought me are swimming in their tank on a side table. The plastic plants inside are covered with brownish green algae and I want to take them out and throw them away but I don’t want to get my hands wet. One fish is a shiny powder blue, and I imagine it to be the smarter one. It swims up the wall of the tank until its little scaly body is vertical, at which point it floats down a bit before swimming upward again. It seems to be exploring the boundary of the tank over and over. The second fish is bright orange with some blue on his tail, and I suspect it of being stupid and frivolous. I get up and turn on the light in the bowl. I really don’t believe the fish notice the difference when the light is on. I turn it back off, and then on again, and then off again, clicking the switch faster and faster. I wonder if the strobe will give the fish seizures. It doesn’t. I click the light off and decide not to put any fish food in the bowl today. Then I take the bed sheets outside and burn them in an alley. There’s a homeless person squatting there and I throw a fifty dollar bill at his feet and tell him to leave me alone. I dump the sheets into a rusted drum he’s been using as a stove for his garbage meals, pour vodka over them, and light them up.

The bartender’s hands are big and masculine. He wants to talk about cheating but I don’t. I don’t want to talk at all. I want to feel his hands and mouth on me and relish in all of the ways he is not Robert, though they share the need to talk too much. Robert buys me a puppy that never stops yapping except when it sleeps, but I make sure it only pees on my expensive floor rugs once. I lock the puppy in the pantry when the bartender fucks me, because it’s judgmental with its huge watery eyes. I don’t know why Robert keeps bringing me pets. It’s been five days since I sprinkled the fish flakes on top of the algae ridden water in the bubbling bowl. The carcass of the orange fish floats belly up, gently buffeted by the filter stream. I’m glad that it died first. I pour half the jar of flakes on his corpse.

Robert wants us to spend more time together as a couple, so he comes to my apartment and parks himself on my couch and eats my expensive organic food. I haven’t put sheets on my bed in a week. Robert asks why and I tell him that my favorite set got ruined and I can’t stand any of the others. He buys me expensive high thread count sheets. They’re too soft, just like his hands. He finds one of the bartender’s socks in my room and asks why it’s there. I tell him I’m fucking a bartender on the side and he laughs. When Robert’s around I always feel sleepy.

We take a walk in the park with the puppy. Robert wants me to name it but I see no point. I only let the puppy sleep in my bed when Robert’s there. The animal smells like wet dandruff and urine but it’s better than Robert’s overly floral odor. I hate the dog somewhat less because of this.

Eventually the bartender calls me and tells me he isn’t going to sleep with me anymore. I throw a heavy crystal vase and hit the fish tank, cracking it open and spilling the dead and living fish onto the floor. I crouch next to the soaked patch of carpet and lower my face as I watch the one living fish, the blue one, struggle and flop on the white, wet fibers. The fish makes dying look like a sterile process, and I wonder if watching a human die would be different, or if it would be equally as boring. I put the blue fish in a glass of water because I admire it for surviving when I’d tried to starve it. Then I put the old dead fish in the glass too. I wonder if the live fish will try to eat the dead one if I stop providing food again. When Robert asks me what happened to the tank I tell him I don’t know.

The puppy starts to get bigger, and it gets less needy because I never pay any attention to it. Robert lets it lick his hands and his face, which is just another reason for me to tell Robert he can’t touch me.

One day, I get home from work and there’s a puddle on my kitchen floor and two fish carcasses. I can’t remember if the blue fish was alive when I left the house that morning, or any morning that week. I put them in a plastic bag and mail them to the bartender; he said once that he liked them.

This week at work I’ve given most of my tasks to my annoying intern, pretending that she’s being considered for a full-time position. She has a cute enough face and shiny ringlets that bounce, but she’s too plump and her ass stretches the back of every skirt or pair of pants she wears to the limits of their seams. She works through lunch, fetches my no-foam soy lattes, and looks just a little bit more pathetic every time I see her. I try to keep her constantly busy so she doesn’t look up at me with her shiny little brown eyes. She’s so eager to do whatever I tell her, so I ask her if she would spread her thick thighs if it meant getting the job. I catch her crying about it in the bathroom later.

I notice that the intern is attracted to the IT guy who comes to our floor, so when intern is spending lunch at her desk, dribbling the crumbs of a greasy deli sandwich all over her sensible blouse, I decide to call IT and feign dire computer distress. When IT guy shows up to my office, I take off my silk blouse. His look of rapture is annoying, but it’s worth it to see intern’s face when she shows up for a meeting to find IT boy zipping his fly and me fixing my makeup. Her face is very similar to the puppy’s after I leave him in the closet for hours.

Robert’s parents are in town, so he makes dinner reservations. He will not accept any of my excuses for not going, including that I actually hate him. I ask him to send a car to my office but he picks me up in person anyway, smiling his too-big smile. Intern is horrified when she sees him and he introduces himself as my boyfriend. I kiss Robert with the same mouth that kissed the IT guy a few hours ago and intern almost falls off her chair. Robert is giddy after this minor public display of affection and tries to hold my hand when we leave the building. I don’t let him.

Robert’s parents are just as oblivious as he is. His mother’s scent hits me before I even enter her personal space. The woman drips diamonds, but her front teeth are smeared with too-pink lipstick. The skin on my cheek prickles where she kisses me hello. His father pulls me into an unnecessary bear hug and pats my lower back a little too close to my ass. Robert is sweating. Robert’s mother orders a chardonnay and I order the same, even though chardonnay is disgusting. His father orders two doubles of scotch, neat, and I laugh at Robert as he struggles to choke it down. I cross my legs when Robert tries to reach for my knee under the table. I think his father is trying to play footsie with me. I imagine jamming my butter knife into his right eye and it makes me grin. The mother is saying something about how nice Ibiza was this year, as if it isn’t nice every fucking year, and rattling off a list of forgettable country club names from Robert’s childhood. I think about how it would be funny to leave some of the puppy’s shit in intern’s filing cabinet. If she didn’t look at me with those shiny, pleading eyes all of the time, maybe I wouldn’t hate her so much.

Robert is fidgeting so much in the chair next to mine that he elbows me. He’s talking about his promotion at work and how it has given him the opportunity to start thinking about the future. I think that in the future I’d like to hear the crack of his father’s skull on the sidewalk outside this restaurant. Robert coughs and motions to our waiter, who rushes over with four flutes filled with champagne. Floating inside one is a gaudy obstruction, a bauble not terribly unlike the one glinting on Robert’s mother’s left hand. She grins at me with her lipstick stained teeth and her sleazy husband takes her hand as Robert clutches mine in his sweaty paws. Robert asks me to marry him. Something pops in my brain, like an incandescent light bulb burning out.

I say yes.

The next couple of weeks at work IT guy keeps walking by my office. I’m fairly certain that intern told him about my engagement. I tell him that intern is happily available for whatever needs he has and he storms out, possibly crying. I get him fired and then I’m slightly less annoyed at work.

I call out of work for a week because sitting at my desk is boring and intern does all of my work anyway. It’s summertime and I spend most of the long, hot days sprawled naked on my bed staring at my hideous new engagement ring. The sheets I finally bought a few months ago but haven’t yet washed smell musky and lived in and I wrap myself in them and breathe in the stale odors. I get dehydrated because I don’t often move from the bed to eat or drink and roll my thick tongue around the dry walls of my mouth. The puppy licks my toes and whines for food, so I wrap the engagement ring in some old slices of lunch meat that I find in the crisper and he swallows it whole. I was expecting some type of choking scene or dramatic indigestion but he just keeps alternating between whining for food and napping. I drink a few tall glasses of gin and fall asleep for the first time in three days. When I wake up there’s a pile of shit on the floor with the sparkling ring in it.

When I go back to work, I have a new ring because I told Robert I wouldn’t wear the shit ring. I flaunt the new ring in front of Robert’s mother and her over-injected face attempts to sag because the original ring was some kind of family heirloom. I let her overhear me telling Robert that the new one is just “so much nicer” and I’m almost giddy getting to spend a whole dinner without her fawning over me and patting my arm with her gross hands.

Robert plans pretty much the entire wedding, with his mother sometimes attempting to get me involved. I tell Robert to make up whatever story he wants about my parents, since we aren’t inviting them. The story must make his mother feel sorry for me, because she takes me dress shopping with an exorbitant budget. She says the first dress I try on is too sexy and revealing, so I buy that one. She stops trying to get me to do wedding things after that. I ask intern to be my Maid of Honor and have her squeeze into a ruffled floral monstrosity chosen by my mother-in-law. I am not permitted to make her wear black.

The event is as disgusting as imagined, since it’s everything Robert’s mother wanted, minus my dress. There are so many flowers the perfume makes me want to vomit. Robert’s suit is white. He looks like an idiot. I get drunk on expensive champagne before the ceremony and giggle through Robert’s vows. His mother is painted up like a clown.

I tell intern to undo my dress so I can fuck some groomsmen and she runs off and tries to tell Robert about it but he is too drunk to understand or care. I didn’t actually want to fuck any of Robert’s cadre of doughboys with receding hairlines, but I like to watch the intern panic. I pawn Robert’s father off on her and he tells her stupid stories about his business while pawing at her thick thighs.

I never actually agree to move to the suburbs with Robert, but it happens anyway. Moving is boring. Robert lets me hire people to do everything and I take a week off of work, thinking it will be fun to fuck a bunch of the workers in Robert’s brand new house. Apparently suburban workers are primarily concerned with paychecks and fidelity. I let one of the painters find me naked on a new chaise, and he starts blubbering something about his family. He doesn’t show up for work the next day and his replacement seems overly interested in me but I don’t let him see me naked because he smells like fish and Old Spice.

The backyard of the house is fenced in, so I leave the dog out there all the time. The heat is oppressive and sometimes I forget to fill its water bowl and it lies under the deck, panting heavily. It doesn’t bother to whine. One day, the landscapers damage the fence and leave a hole just big enough for the dog to wriggle through. It does not come back.

I resort to drinking pitchers of margaritas on the new deck while tanning naked and emailing ridiculous requests to the intern, who is desperate to prove herself after I tell her I don’t think she’s ready to be an assistant. Most of the neighbors are middle aged, doughy, completely below interest, but our immediate neighbors to the left hold some promise. Every morning when I wander out onto the deck with a mild throb in the front of my brain and a steaming mug of spiked coffee, the wife bounces out of her front door, all smooth brown legs and natural brunette hair in a short, boyish cut. Her small breasts hardly need a sports bra to contain them, and she always wears shirts that seem purposely cut to hide the feminine curve of her waist. She trots off on her toes and waves to the range of milquetoast neighbors, her common but sizable diamond ring glinting in the sun.

At the end of the week, a sleek navy sports car pulls up into the circular drive next door. The man who gets out glances up at the deck where I stand in just a bikini bottom, cupping my tits with one arm and sipping my drink. He smirks and gives a little wave before glancing over his shoulder to check if his small, plain wife has come outside. He looks back one more time before heading inside and I drop my arms for a second, before returning to my lounge chair. And then I get a fun new idea.

One of the neighbors decides to throw a party to welcome us. She’s a large woman who wears a ring on every one of her fat fingers and constantly yells at her petite husband. She likes planting red lipstick kisses on Robert. Lots of the menopausal neighbors flirt with him, and it’s so pathetic that it’s not even funny. The tomboy neighbor woman is at the party wearing an ugly sheath dress. Her name is Jane. I feed her fruity cocktails so she will talk about her muscular husband, whose name is Brian. She throws up on the fat woman’s white carpet. I offer to drag her home.

Jane sags against my side, mumbling into my shoulder, while I wonder if the noxious fumes of her vomit breath will linger on the fabric of my dress. Suburban bitches have no respect for another woman’s Cavalli. Brian opens the door shirtless, wearing a pair of cotton lounge pants sitting on his hips. I smile and apologize for delivering his wife in such a sorry state. He lifts her limp body in his arms with the same ease he later lifts me on their kitchen counter while Jane sleeps upstairs.

I become interested in dressing Robert up like the neighbor man, buying him the same cologne, soft crew neck t-shirts in muted colors. I can’t get him to wear the clothes, but he takes to the cologne and I let the scent fill my head and take me back to the last time I had the neighbor. Robert thinks I want to get pregnant, and I let him. We have obligatory sex once a week. I don’t stop taking my birth control. I want the latex barrier between us back. I see him watching the landscaping company’s male teenage employees mow the lawn shirtless. I ask him if he wants to fuck one together and Robert gets mad. I ask him how hard he is and he walks away.

Jane and Brian have a fight about their marriage, she tells me during a private yoga class in her backyard one Saturday. The instructor is uncomfortable because whenever I called him before it was for sex, not actual yoga. Over coffee a few days later Jane can only speak in an annoying trembling whisper: Brian isn’t attracted to her, he seems disgusted by her, his business trips are getting longer and more irregular. I nod and think about how much better it is to fuck Brian than Robert.

Robert wants me to be sociable, so I invite some neighborhood women to brunch. I wear a backless, long dress, no bra. One of the harpies tells me I looked ‘daring’ and I tell her I’ve seen her dress before: on my grandmother. Jane sits across from me, twisting her wedding rings and generally looking pathetic. I tell her she loses any charm her face has when she pouts and pour her a goblet of Mimosa. She pushes it away and gives a lame excuse, brushing her stomach with her fingers and then flinching. I take a big mouthful of my vodka rocks and encourage Mrs. Anderson and her recently Botoxed forehead to make unwanted sexual advances toward the horrified young waiter.

Jane and I play golf the next Saturday when Brian is away. He had left a day earlier than necessary to fuck me in the jacuzzi of a pricey hotel room. I drank two bottles of French champagne and he told me he loved me. I told him he didn’t.

Jane is relaxed, until on the 7th hole when I tell her I know she’s pregnant. She sends her ball into the woods. When we go to look for it, she sits on the ground and cries. I rub her back and think vaguely about how I had used Brian’s deodorant that morning while in a rush.

I decide to hire intern as my assistant because she is appropriately terrified of me. She gets fatter and pinker every day and has a general hatred for the IT department. When her makeup is particularly cakey and her clothes exceptionally tight I assume she has some kind of date. I pile on unnecessary work or call her a lot on those nights.

I take assistant with me one day and tell her we were going to lunch. We go to get drugs. I think she is getting ready to submit a report about me, so I leave some of the drugs in her desk.

Brian is starting to feel guilty – or he realizes I’m not actually interested in changing my life for him. He leaves voicemails that I delete without checking. He sends desperate text messages. He shows up at my office and I have assistant make him wait an hour while I prank call Robert’s office.

I finally let Brian take me out to some excessive restaurant a state over. I eat a multiple course meal and drink $800 worth of wine before I let him break it off. He sobs about his wife and wanting to start a family with her. He still fucks me afterward. The next day, I take mopey Jane to the city for the weekend.

I buy her clothes and ice cream because that’s how women bond. She says Brian is distant; she’s always alone, etc. She suspects an affair. I make noises and faces that I think are sympathetic. I say that babies didn’t fix broken marriages. I hold her hand.

The next week, she tells me she wants to get rid of it.

I drive her to a clinic and sit in the waiting room flipping through 6-month old magazines. I wonder what I could possibly catch from the ancient plastic chair that smells like expired Lysol. The doctor comes out and asks if I’m Jane’s friend. I say that I brought her. He tells me it went well. I ask if that means that he disposed of it. The left side of his mouth twitches.

I tell Brian via text message that what he is doing to Jane is disgusting and that he’s taking advantage of me. At 1AM, his car peals out. I hold Jane for a little while as she blubbers, then I tell her I’m bored. Brian shows up again to ask me why I had taken his wife to get an abortion, convinced it means that I love him. Jane pathetically tries to attack me with various household items but is easily restrained. I assure Jane I don’t have any interest in Brian anymore. She asks me why she should believe me and it is hard not to laugh when she realizes that I’d only ever told her the truth. She asks why I took her to see a doctor if not for some sick and twisted satisfaction stemming from my affair with Brian. I tell her that I was curious; I’d never been to a clinic before.

They move out the following Sunday.

The new neighbors arrive just a few weeks later, another all-American husband whose basketball shorts don’t hide an impressive dick and another petite and passable wife, this one with bouncy brown curls and perky tits. The day they move in I glimpse them fucking in the dining room since none of the rooms have curtains yet. The husband’s body is pleasingly taut, and the wife is full of enthusiasm. She looks like more fun than Jane.

Robert and the husband are somehow connected by privilege so Robert invites the new couple over for dinner. I hire a chef and wear a jumpsuit just sheer enough to make everyone uncomfortable. Robert attempts to be affectionate with me when they arrive and I laugh. The wife gets very drunk and I know that the husband will need help taking her home. I wonder what their kitchen looks like.