04 :: THE USED
— Cooper —
MY HAIR is refusing to lay flat. I face my reflection in the mirror hopelessly, duck down into the sink, and splash water over my head in an abortive attempt to calm the ebony-colored mess. Combing my fingers through it, slicking it back, to the side, curling it over. Nothing works.
According to most sources, sleeping with your boss couldn’t be construed to look like constructive criticism. But in my experience, I’ve found that the worst parts of me always tend to be made painfully clearer as she’s gasping them into my ear.
Blinking a series of fresh images from my mind, I come to the stale decision that my hair has a life of its own, an unruly disposition which I have no control over. I attempt to console myself with the idea that this—whatever it is that I’m doing with her—counts as nothing more than a professional courtesy. It seems to be the only thing I’m ever useful for, anyway. There is no doubt that I am not the first nor the last hapless employee to be torn apart by the manicured red claws of Jennifer Maverie. I let the faucet run, stuck in a staring contest with the person in the mirror. Ergo, the pathetic post-apocalyptic stage of my own self-destruction.
I need out.
The dull silence breaks when some guy bursts into the bathroom. I flick the faucet off, yank some paper towels out of the dispenser, and try to wipe the exhaustion from my face. It doesn’t work.
When I exit the bathroom, my first priority is to ignore the dirty looks that a few girls from the graphics department are aiming at me. My instincts are screaming run, but instead I head towards the barracks for another cup of coffee before returning to my desk.
Not even four seconds after sitting down, Andrew, a particularly smiley guy from the neighboring cubicle, pokes his head around the corner and raises his eyebrows expectantly. “So, how was it?”
I open a blank document on my computer and pretend to be busy in the hopes that I won’t be forced to look at him. “How was what, Andrew?”
I wait, just for effect. “Nope,”
He pffs at me. I stop typing nonsense for a moment, holding my index finger down on the F key. There’s so much hatred seething within me. I feel it sweltering beneath my insufficiently composed exterior, gaining degrees by the second. Finally, I swivel my chair around to face him.
“Come on, man, we all know what’s going on with you two.” He gestures to Maverie’s office. “Just tell me, is it any good? Cause I mean…”
I grimace. “What?”
“Well, dude, it’s kind of unfair to the rest of us, you know…” He grins. There’s a piece of lettuce stuck in his left incisor, probably from the Big Mac he had for lunch. It takes every ounce of self control I possess to keep from punching the living shit out of the guy right here and now.
“Andrew, let me give you some advice. You wanna know how to get in good with Maverie?” He nods, smirking like he’s worth something, until I say, “Learn to shut the hell up.”
He scoffs and turns away, shrinking back into his own cubicle. I down the searing coffee like it’s a shot glass and slam the paper cup onto my desk, wholly unsatisfied. This isn’t going to go well. I’m grasping at loose ends and I don’t even know what I’m reaching so desperately for. The decision practically makes itself. I grab my bag from the floor and follow my intuition straight out of the building. I know Jennifer won’t dare to do anything. She, of all people, should know that my work for the day is done.
I wave a taxi down from the sidewalk. The driver is talkative, rambling on about the stock market, and all I can think about is the bottle of Jack Daniels in my dresser drawer back at the apartment.
I sneak past Charlotte, the apartment complex receptionist, who is chatting passionately about the pros and cons of owning a Prius on the phone and conveniently facing the opposite direction. My father once told me never to interrupt a woman on the phone. I use that as an excuse to spare myself any unwanted conversation with her. My father wasn’t the wisest man, which became evident the minute he decided that dragging my mother across the lawn by her hair was the best way to keep her from leaving him. In any case, I’m not about to deal with the woman’s incessant flirtation right now. By the time I reach the stairs, any remorse I may have felt is forgotten. I take them two at a time. The only thing in the world that exists anymore is the whiskey in my apartment.
My anxieties twist with the fear of being forgotten until everything becomes this thick chunk of ice settling in my gut. I remember that whiskey is warm, that my apartment is empty, and that the painting is still sitting face down on my kitchen counter. All of these seem like good enough reasons to break my two month sobriety streak with a drink. I almost make it to the front door, fumbling around with my keys until I notice a box pressed up against the wall. It’s not big, and when I pick it up, it’s not very heavy either. There’s no posted address on the outside, so I bring it in with me and leave it on the counter, right next to the painting.
The weight of the bottle settles so perfectly in my hands as I pull it out of the back of my bottom drawer. Even though I know that the glass was manufactured to shatter after it’s been emptied, I set it down on the counter next to the other two mysteries as a viable option. Looking at it now, I remember that those glass shards tend to draw blood when you squeeze them in your hands. I sit down and stare at all three items: the unopened bottle, the painting, and the box.
I reach for the box first, figuring I won’t be able to read the label on whatever’s inside with blurry vision, but fully intending to drown out the noise afterward. The paper is thick and there’s no name or address on the outside. Tearing into this box gives me the eerie sensation of walking into a house that doesn’t belong to me. The feeling is skittering around in my chest and I can’t shake it. Inside the box, the first thing I see is the color white. Envelopes. Stacks of them. They’re all different shades of the same color, hue tainted by the passage of time. I pull out each individual stack, all held together with black rubber bands. They seem to weigh more outside of the box than in it.
On the front of each envelope, in what appears to be seventeenth century calligraphy, is a date. Organizing them by year on my living room floor, I feel like a detective. The possibility of these hundreds of letters belonging to anyone but me seems irrelevant.
By the time I’m finished, the light outside is fading. The oldest letter dates back to August 13, 1980. There are earthy brown stains around the edges and the ink is smudged in a fingerprint trail that leaves me guessing this particular envelope has been handled excessively.
Against my better judgement and without particular reason, I carefully rip the envelope open. The letter consists of a few lined pages torn out of a spiral bound notebook. I unfold to the front, squinting my eyes in the dying light of day.
I stop there. Her name seems like a good stopping point, a place to rest my eyes. The letters don’t belong to me.
Suddenly, the walls begin to rumble. A loud crash erupts from the hallway and I am on my feet, letters abandoned where they lay. I hear a scream. Breaking out into the hallway is blind and recognizing the scream as Grace’s is reckless. Before I know what I’m doing, her front door is busted open and my panic is peaking. I see a red-faced Mason. She is standing under him shaking with her back against the wall. That’s all it takes to launch me across the length of the whole apartment aiming for a complete knockout. Get it out, get it away from her, take the used and make him useful.
As if I ever possessed the talent of self-restraint, I stop when she steps out in front of me, immediately shying away from the strength of her trembling palms.
Mason is practically foaming at the mouth. The tears in his bloodshot eyes look to me like the type of acid that burns holes in walls and human flesh, and he smells like shit.
“Just in time for the party, our little hero!” He slurs, teetering.
I use a figurative hammer to nail my heels into the wooden floor panels rather than bash his head in, figuring this is the game of a recovering alcoholic. It takes one to know one, after all.
Grace’s wary voice pulls my attention downward. “Cooper,”
It’s only now that I realize how close she’s standing, both hands pressuring me back toward the door. I scoff incredulously, tremulous anger fusing through every limb.
“You need to leave,” She pleads. “Now,”
I shake my head vigorously and there’s this inability to meet her eyes that keeps me leaning forward with fists clenched. Mason looks like he’s about to crumble. There’s a broken vase on the floor a few feet away. Whether weapons or miracle workers, something broken can always be beautiful. I imagine violence, killing him, or all of us, or myself a thousand different ways with that shattered piece of art. A fight to the death and the grace of the gods or some shit. I can taste the glory, or maybe it’s just the blood in my mouth. Chewing on the inside of my cheek serves to hold back an inevitable wreck of words.
Grace gives me one final push, tugging me out of the Colosseum and back to reality.
I exhale slowly, releasing all of the tension in my body. This is the part where I feel weaker than I’ve ever been. She watches me with wide glassy eyes and a cracked expression until I’ve backed into the doorway, at which point she closes the door in my face.
And I’m back in the hallway with nothing but damaged pride and the crumpled letter in my fist.