Building Mansions Out of Coffee Beans
She looked around at the cold, white walls which were once covered from top to bottom in photographs, paintings, and poems. She was a self-proclaimed starving artist, but that stereotype had never bothered her. Sure, the apartment was a forced one-bedroom complete with a corner bathroom privatized only by a makeshift door fashioned out of a curtain, but she thought of it as a certain right to the type of work she was in. Bare walls were foreign to her and left a subtle frown outlining her face.
She walked to the area that was once her beloved kitchen to check for anything she may have left behind. She carefully opened the cabinet door, which let out a scream in protest. Her mouth involuntarily turned up its corners as she recalled the first time she opened that door and how much the noise had irritated her in the beginning. She hadn’t bothered to open it since then.
As the door creaked open, a shimmer caught her eye in the dim light. She reached for it with a wary hand, desperately trying to remember what she could have put in the cavern of the cabinet. As soon as its smooth surface made contact with her palm, she knew. Memories rushed back to her in a mirage, like she was a weary traveler, thirsty and yearning in the desert.
“I mean, we’ve lived together long enough. We might as well go through with it.”
That’s when she should have run. It took her three months to convince him that she deserved a ring. But, he was an artist in his own right and didn’t believe that a woman should be forced to wear such a grave symbol of possession.
“I thought you were a feminist, anyway.”
She took a blurry-eyed look at the ring and threw it as far as she could muster. Screams and fights filled her head as a bitter taste hung in the air. She wanted to yell at him now, but she knew that if he were here, she would seize up and succumb to his intellectual superiority. She imagined him standing in the corner, arms crossed with a grin plastered onto his square jaw, and even now, her voice buried itself deep into her lungs like a child afraid to act up.
But, still for some reason, a feeling of remorse overcame her as she picked up the ring and put it in the one box that she carried out into the hall. She looked at 112 etched into the wooden door, faded and cracking. The eviction notice painted a stark contrast of color that made her laugh. Irony is a beautiful thing.
The September air had begun to sting her exposed skin, but she kept the car window open anyway. She needed to clear her thoughts; she needed to feel real. She didn’t bother to say goodbye to the one place that made her who she is today. She mocked its fragility and worshiped its solitude, even if the solitude no longer included her in its plan.
As the speedometer neared 75, she looked down to see her hands shaking and glowing with a nostalgic paleness she had not recognized on her own body for quite some time.
She prayed to whatever God was listening that her sharp breaths were not mistaken for an invitation by the man lurking outside. She had stopped hearing his footsteps approaching and only heard her breath scream into the dark space of the closet. All she could hear was her exhales and all she could feel was the apprehension burying her more and more as each second passed.
He had just come home from the university where he taught art classes three days a week. Usually after class he would swing by the local liquor store to “drown his sorrowful excuse for a life in something equally bitter.” It was a line he always spat at her when she dared to protest, which, at that point, had not been very often any longer.
He claimed that teaching tortured souls brought out his own demons to fight. He spent all day observing the inner chaos of students in their late teens, many still going through their goth phase, which was taxing on the human psyche. Although she didn’t really know what that meant, she took his word for it.
She had also taken to hiding in the front closet when she heard his feet clamor up the stairs outside the hall. As his clumsy excuses for feet made his footfalls grow louder on each old board, she felt her lungs implode into her chest out of sheer terror until everything went black.
“What are you doing in here?” he said. She quickly sat up and rubbed her eyes as if she had been asleep for hours on end. “Are you stupid? You can catch a cold in here. Come and lay on the couch. I’ll bring you a blanket and make you a cup of black coffee.”
Then, the paleness began to disappear for a while.
1-95 was backed up for the next ten exits because of the perpetual construction that seemed to be happening. She started to think back to how these roads looked before the enormous machines and men with orange hats took residence among the blooming foliage. The roads were smoother, that was for sure.
She quickly braked, anticipating a short stop ahead of her. Her heart seemed to mimic the stop-and-go motion as she caught sight of the miles left on the GPS. 49. At this rate, a typical hour-long drive could take double that time if not more. She had to get off at the next exit. Maybe that could eliminate some gratuitous travel time.
She got off in Greenwich and decided to take the scenic route where she had spent her younger days driving slowly down this road, ogling the mansions that stood like proud and arrogant castles among the trees. Some had circular windows with vines of ivy scaling their exterior. At this point, she imagined the people who lived inside: cold, adventurous, worldly, and she imagined herself belonging to one of the houses, hiding away in a spare room that was apart from the rest of the house. Here, she would pull a book out from a seemingly innocent bookcase only to be transported to a secret inner library, containing books from libraries all across America. She would sit in there, and read and paint for hours while the world continued on without her outside of those four walls.
She forgot how much she used to dream until she began to apply the brake more and more while gliding down her old, forgotten street.
“Look at that one!” She had opened the window long ago, letting in the winter breeze, but he didn’t care. He looked into her eyes, expressive with their unexplainable happiness, and slowed the car down.
“Wow,” he remarked. Then, he stopped the car altogether. “You know what?” Her eyes never strayed from the stone walls of the mansion, covered in a dusting of snow, even when the sudden stop jerked her body forward. He laughed to himself at her oblivious silence. “I’m gonna buy that house for you one day.”
He gave her a moment to let that sink in. Right on cue, she snapped her head in his direction with a grin plastered on her childlike face. She nearly jumped into his seat while trying to squeeze all of her love and thankfulness into his unsuspecting body.
“I love you,” he said.
That was when she pulled away and stared at him, first out of shock, but then the same way she stared at the mansions. He waited anxiously for her reply.
It was their first Christmas together, and she didn’t know if it was the song playing on the radio or the lights that adorned the adjacent mansion, but she looked him right in the eyes and said, “I know. I love you too.”
She pressed the gas pedal to the floor of the car and closed her eyes as the blur of the next mansion stained the backs of her eyelids. She began to feel the chill of the air circulating through the open window and closed it immediately. She couldn’t remember why it was open in the first place.
She traveled through winding back roads and streets speckled with boutiques and shops she had never stepped foot in a day in her life. No one really walked along the strips. They were too busy, locked away and hidden from sight.
Soon enough, she was back on the highway, past the traffic that impeded her journey. She glanced again at the GPS. 33 miles. 33 years.
Her hands began to shake again and she saw the ring glistening on her third finger. When was it retrieved from the floor? She couldn’t remember.
“Here you go.” She smiled, sheepishly, one hand behind her back as she handed him the envelope that was stuffed to the brim. He studied its exterior and arched his eyebrows in a smirk.
“What the…” He carefully tore it open to reveal its contents. He unfolded row after row of artistically creased stock paper that was eventually the length of his arms. She watched him study it, biting her lip for an answer.
“It’s nice,” he finally said. “You just can’t get my mouth right, can you?” He set the portrait down on the couch and shuffled over to a container of pencils. Then, he erased each carefully constructed line bit by bit until a mouth-shaped hole remained. She watched as he re-drew his own mouth, fuller and more defined.
“There. Now, it looks more like me.”
Over the next few weeks, she woke up to have the face appear different day after day. One morning the ears would be smaller, and the next, the lashes longer. She finally encased it in an impenetrable frame and hung it above their bed. That was three weeks after their four-year anniversary. That was the first year he had only given her tears for her present.
She stared out at the open water, tinged with flickering lights on either side. The pull of blackness across the sky began to infringe a sort of drowsiness upon her, but she quickly whisked it away when she saw the colors of city lights just ahead.
She was glad she chose to take the upper level of the GW on a night like tonight. The Hudson glimmered with the welcoming contrast of natural shades of pinks and oranges that tinged the sunset and the blues and whites of fluorescent bulbs that adorned every building in New York.
She adored the traffic and the honking of horns that circulated like an unrehearsed chorus in the streets. Listening to feet splashing through puddles amongst the sound of angry cab drivers filled her ears with joy. All she felt was the surge of creativity that echoed through her very being. The city welcomed her; she could feel it.
She climbed the rickety stairs to her new apartment, room 413. She flung the door open, and for the first time in years, she did not flinch at the thought of what was inside. Her first order of business was to hang up all of the paintings, poems, and photographs on her walls. The bareness struck her like a slap on the wrist.
She reached into the box to pull out a black and white still-life she had taken while still in college. That was when she noticed her palms were tinged red. She shrugged it off and went to the sink in the kitchen, relaxed by the sensation of running water. Soon enough, the water in its basin glowed a crimson hue and she scrubbed harder, trying to erase the blood of her past from deep within her memory.
She had become accustomed to doing so lately, and was elated by the fact that she recalled very few events from her life before the move. Fear of the cold no longer forced her into another’s arms. She could make herself her own cup of coffee now, and she decided to add sugar this time.
Kathryn is just your average Lady Lazarus attempting to squeeze the universe into a ball and be Spring. She is currently an over-ambitious college student at Saint Francis University hoping to double major in English and Spanish, and minor in Women’s Studies. Her plans for the future are to dismantle the Patriarchy word by word, and write to her heart’s content.