When my coworker Aldona invited me to her apartment for refreshments (her word) and a movie for the fourth time in two weeks, I reluctantly said yes.
Aldona and I work in the women’s locker room at the university’s older gym. We hand out clean towels to naked women, most of them 40+. The students prefer the newer gym where Lady Gaga and Beyoncé roar from the speakers. Aldona and I are thankful that we work in the older gym, but that’s where our commonalities end. She’s twelve years my senior, a grad student in psychology, a smoker, and she’s Lithuanian.
The stench of cigarettes in Aldona’s apartment is so thick that the shortbread cookies she has arranged in a spiral on a white plate taste like ashes.
On the screen, a young woman staggers through an empty hallway. Her breathing is ragged, her cheeks are streaked with mascara. She opens one door, then another, apparently unable to decide where to hide.
The inability to make decisions indicates that you have not accepted yourself as an independent individual, Aldona said the other day when we were folding the gym’s thin, scratchy towels.
This was after the third time I’d turned down her offer to come over. “Sorry, I have plans,” I said, and Aldona folded four towels in silence and then offered up this pronouncement on indecisiveness. There was no obvious correlation between my comment and hers. It wasn’t as if I were dithering, I’d been if anything too forceful. Still, I flushed.
I always pictured therapists as refusing to express their opinions, parrying any question with their own (“What do you think about that conversation with your mother?”). Aldona struck me as weirdly judgmental for someone planning to be a psychologist. Now, watching the terrified woman on the screen flutter and swoop between doorways, I think of all the terrible things I could say to Aldona.
Like that underneath the cigarettes, she smells meaty, as though she’s been churning out sausages from her mouth. Like that one of the hairs on the bottom of her chin looks almost pubic. Like that only a creep invites her coworker over to watch a movie when the one television in her apartment is in her tiny bedroom, so they have to take up opposite sides of her double bed, sides that are not separated by a wide enough chasm. I am leaning so far toward the edge of what has become my side of Aldona’s bed that I’m like a boulder on a precipice, flirting with gravity.
For a would-be psychologist, Aldona has no intuition at all.
Do I chalk up her crazy obtuseness to a language barrier? Aldona sometimes sprinkles articles where they aren’t needed, excludes them where they are, like a Cockney with the letter H. Or maybe Aldona is conducting some bizarre experiment to locate my breaking point. What will it take to make me scream like the woman on the screen, her irises encased by white so her eyes look like bulls-eye targets?
“Mind if I open your window?” I say. I cough a few times for emphasis.
Aldona takes a drag from her cigarette, exhales slowly.
She says, “‘Why is this happening to me?’ is unanswerable question. The appropriate question is, why I allow this to happen to me? Or better: why I cause this to happen to me?”
I resist the urge to smash the plate of cookies over Aldona’s head. Instead I get up and open the window. It’s humid out, the peak of summer, but still I press my face into the mesh screen. I suck in hot air. It’s like being in the locker room when the showers are running.
A boy riding by on his bicycle stops and dismounts. He yanks down his shorts and moons me. Before I blink, his shorts are back in place, and he’s pedaling away.
I open my mouth to tell Aldona what just happened—she’s the only person here—but as I turn toward her, a machete slices through the movie heroine’s skull as smoothly as though through a block of cheese.
Aldona nods, taps ashes into the hollow body of a ceramic mouse.
I turn back toward the window.