He staggers into the kitchen and tosses the girl’s car keys onto the counter next to a provisional ballot. He’s Puerto Rican, barely young, standing in the sunlight falling on him through the kitchen window above the sink, staring. At the dining room table is the girl, beautiful but fierce-looking.
The kitchen and the dining area are really one room divided by the kitchen counter. In the dining area the windows are closed and papers are spread in a semicircle on the table where the girl sits silently at her work laptop. She’s sitting cross-legged on one of the armless chairs. The horns of a hip-hop beat fill the room. The guy is watching the girl but the girl isn’t watching back. She’s a little younger than the guy and Mexican. Her whole area is in shadow except for her face, bathed by the laptop screen in soft blue light.
The girl is white and the guy is black.
He’s done this a thousand times before; he knows how she’ll come at him and he’s ready for it.
“You shoulda saw the line at Albertson’s,” he says, trying to draw out the girl. He opens a kitchen drawer and then closes it. He glances at her. The girl’s clicking and scrolling away at her work laptop and hasn’t acknowledged him standing there, but he can feel her focusing on him. His jaw tenses. Behind his eyes he feels pressure growing.
“The line started all the way out in the fucken parking lot,” he says as he walks over to the pantry, toward the dining area. He opens both doors with both hands and stares blankly, thinking. He’s waiting for her. All he hears is the click-click of the keyboard and the horns and the bass. He knows she’s deciding how and when to come at him.
He takes out a box of low-calorie, high-protein oatmeal and the yellow-and-red can of Puerto Rican coffee. “Do you want coffee?”
When it finally comes, the sound of her voice straightens him. “Sure.”
He looks at her and then starts making the coffee, showing his back to the girl without taking his attention off her. Once the coffeemaker gets going he swings around the counter and into the kitchen to start making the microwavable oatmeal.
“What’re you doing?” she says. Now she’s watching him, her face turned to where he’s standing in the golden air of the kitchen. He sees the whites of her eyes.
“What?” he says. “Making some oatmeal.”
“I can’t believe how fucken selfish you are.” Her voice sizzles. The girl is staring at him, her face a dirty look. The girl always does this when she’s pissed off or heartsick or hungry: she just stares, luring the guy out, into the open, where she can nail him if he slips. She rests her hand on the edge of the table, ready to come at him.
“You want oatmeal?” the guy says, steadying himself.
“I don’t want your piece-a-shit oatmeal!”
The girl’s face is pure carnage, her top lip curled a bit and trembling. In the chair she pushes herself away from the table as her legs unfold and come down and she gets up and comes around the table, heavy-footed, nostrils heaving, snarling toward the guy in the kitchen. He spins, facing the girl, and they meet next to the kitchen counter.
“Before you make yourself breakfast, ask to see if I want something too!” she says with her face all heat and movement.
He spins away, making sure the girl doesn’t see him grinning. Plenty of girls before have caught a guy grinning and retired him.
“Are you gonna go vote?” he says.
She comes at him: “I told you I’m not sure who I’m voting for yet!”
“You made your choice months ago like everybody else,” he says, firmly. He still has his back to the girl, only looking at her once over his shoulder. The coffee is ready and he’s pouring himself a cup.
As he turns to face the girl again she comes at him: “I know who I’m voting for president, but I don’t know the rest of the names on the ballot!”
“Just leave the rest blank,” he says, steering her anger down and away. “I picked ‘None’ for president, picked the Latina for senator, and then just basically left the rest blank. I always do that when I don’t know shit about the judges.”
See!” the girl says, her face and hands flaring as her words come piercing at him. “I didn’t even fucken know you could do that! It’s not like I’ve done this before or have as much time as you to be looking up candidates and issues and shit!” The girl’s words almost catch the guy. He feels the room get smaller.
The man can feel the danger. The girl’s looking for a soft, unguarded spot now to stick her words. She wants to finish him off here and forever.
He tries bending the girl’s charges away from him. “I know, babe,” he says. “But I figured, with everything you’ve been through, after all this time, all these years, I thought you’d wanna be first in line to vote.”
The girl’s eyes are wide and watery, her body shaking but tense, her lip curled, legs solid, her feet square. The girl swings her neck to face the counter, grabs the provisional ballot and starts waving it so close to the guy’s face he’s forced to step back with one foot and lean away. “I do! But I wanna make sure I do it right though!” she says.
Huffing and rolling his eyes, he slips, saying “C’mon, that’s bullshit, babe, and you know it.” Just as he turns the girl brings the provisional ballot down pas! with all her force on his shoulder and upper arm. The guy stumbles back stunned, facing the girl, waiting for her to come at him again, but the girl is just standing there, holding the provisional ballot in her hand, looking just as stunned as the guy.
The girl knows the guy’s hurt. She’s hurt him and the girl looks sorry. She begins to say something but the guy shrugs it off. His shoulders fall as he drops his head, staring at the floor, his feet, and then at the cup of coffee in his hand, black and steaming. He turns and walks out into the backyard where the sun is bright, leaving the girl in the dark of the room, knees wobbly, confused. Her eyes and cheeks are wet. The girl can’t make up her mind to follow.
Featured image: Hubertine Heijermans/Flickr