“UGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH,” Else moaned loudly into her bedroom. Her mattress molded her body which the sheets warmly enveloped. Outside them: chill, residential disarray, and a large rolling suitcase deriding her limbs’ aching weakness.
She sighed, muttered aloud, “I’ll leave it in the alley,” and sat up to sip water.
Sniffles had descended upon her ten days ago with the timid white flurries of the twentieth, through which she’d walked home from her last evening of work at the dance studio commencing the winter holidays. Wet congestion, stress, and phlegm followed as slush. Despite her readying herself to make tracks for the train, Else’s bed had swallowed her.
Saul Bellow’s Herzog rested on the window ledge nearby and missing its dustcover. She caressed its cloth binding, teal, appreciating its texture and proximity in absence of desire to reread it now, and inhaled its rather anise-like smell, though possibly more season’s wish than whiff vérité. (Her potted ivy similarly manifested as mistletoe that evening.) At the local bookshop, Herzog had cost something like two loads’ washing and drying in the complex laundry room — or had she scored it off her block’s little free library?
Else replaced Herzog upon the sill and relaxed deeply into her pillows, resuming gazing upon the painting: a print, bought cheaply, framed at disproportionate expense, titled someone else, by a Chicago artist, and its central figure evoking herself — in sum, blaring narcissism. She recalled Ned’s dubious expression, though no asked questions, in glancing at someone else when last he breakfasted over, more than a year ago. She’d griddled them both bacon, and vegan pancakes for their mutual friend in town from New York.
Now, still swaddled and half-reclining, she craned the luggage’s zippered top to review her final packing of the twenty-third when, optimistic, feverishly rosy and eating an orange, Else had bid her China-bound roommate bon voyage from the kitchen table before wrapping gifts and nestling them into the roller for a draining few hours. The wheeled valise had stood sentinel over her agued throes seven days, forgetting noone’s presents, tissue, ribbons and paper fairly protected from crushing, stowing a book and change of clothes besides. Satisfied Else closed it and rose from the bed as from a bath, shaking back her pinguid hair and shedding blankets like suds from her body.
“Sure, I like that one,” the Ravenswood gallery owner, a clean-faced, middle-aged woman, had answered genially. “I did it off a photo I took of a girl I saw on the Brown Line. You look a bit like her.” At that time, just over two years prior, Else’s hair glinted variegated as a handful of change — platinum nickel-and-diming her scalp as henna- and drugstore-tinted length faded coppery alongside her face and fanned down her shoulders.
The woman’d returned to measuring what appeared an architectural blueprint sprawling over a birch drawing table. Meanwhile, Else browsed in silent and cursory dismissal of surrounding works noir-nodding nudes, oil caricatures of rapscallion cocktail olives, and countryside villages school of Thomas Kinkade. For perhaps the aggregate amount of her coin-jar head, Else purchased the digital image file (cash). FedEx/Kinko’s-printed, professionally matted under glass, debits and personal checks later someone else assumed her wall and had been embarrassing her since.
“Mmmmmaaaaahhhhhhhh.” Droning and frying her long-unused voice, Else stuttered her legs over the floor in collecting an armful of mugs atop her piano, inhaling motes of dust with their teas’ scents licorice, cardamom and chamomile from dried, spent and stuck bags. Additional cups and water-glasses she walked and doubled the apartment’s length to retrieve from her bedroom’s floor and desk and deposit in the kitchen sink, three at a time while she doubted her grip. Hot water, cleansing the counter of strewn spices, honey slop, rogue lemon seeds and soup cans, absolved her further of sickness, and after a personal turn under the forgiving spigot of the bathroom and equal treatment to its toothpasted basin, Else, exhausted but scrubbed moderately alive, crawled back into her nest of covers.
She slept ’til four, then awakened for no reason other than that she’d been unconscious for inordinate recent time. Rested and quiet, she reveled in the black coziness of healing night awhile. She sang, issuing hoarse improvisations into the darkness, then giggled at them. “Ooh,” she murmured, slackening back into sleepiness, and pressed herself to dreaming again until after six.
Bellow’s Herzog she read for pleasure some of the morning, and attended to some online bill-paying and mail, before closing up her computer, rousing herself, and preparing to renew her attempt at travel to the suburbs. In the mirror she combed and smoothed her hair (all one color, its true dishwater blonde, now) and bundled well, tied on her pack and rolled the suitcase behind her. someone else Else detached from the wall and bagged to carry with her out the door.
Else’s paternal grandmother Sophie Tyroler in her youth half blackened half bleached her hair along a middle part and maintained this style between her five pregnancies, or during, too, for she had been fashionable broad, though now fifteen years passed. Family lore failed in pinning which chemical uses and abuses continued through her gestations. Whether peroxide and jet, alcohol and cigarettes, or other factors to blame, Else’s father entered the world sprouting a naturalized version of the coif fad: chestnut surrounding his left brain, blonde vesting his right. Three decades later Else arrived displaying this still subtler as a dark streak on one side of her head. Today she’d appreciated it as becoming for the first time in her life, and had slid a hat over all, warming at the possibility she’d never again decide to dye or chop drastically. From just clear a week’s illness ridden out in solitude and the battiness that had precipitated, and yet under its humbling influence, the glimmer of a conviction heartened her, and she left the apartment so, resting the framed painting against the backlot dumpster beaded with glassy ice as she exited the gate.