The One We Live In by Michael DeStefano
I stuff the prescription in my pocket and go into Claudia’s apartment. Her head doesn’t move when the door clicks shut. It stays tilted back, like she’s looking for cracks in the ceiling as her fingers move gracefully over the keys. Her playing always sounds entirely perfect. I’m constantly listening for a wrong note, or for the timing to sound a little off, but it never happens. I can’t decide if I want it to or not.
There are two frozen dinners left in the freezer, beef and bean enchiladas. I put one in the microwave and set the timer as Claudia finishes her song.
“When will you learn to cook real food for us, angel?”
“I don’t know how,” I say. “Who would teach me?”
“I think a cookbook would do it.” She begins an exercise that she always does twice before closing the piano for the night. Once she starts playing, I know to stop talking because she’s stopped listening. She hums along with every key her fingers touch.
Mom had been helping Claudia for over a year, but I’d never met Claudia until the funeral almost three months ago. Every night I heard her piano through the wall we share, and it used to annoy me, so whenever Mom asked me to visit Claudia with her, I always refused.
One afternoon in July while I was lying in bed, I heard the piano more clearly than ever and started thinking about Mom. The song became a soundtrack for my memories. I closed my eyes and tried to distract myself from my thoughts and eventually fell asleep. When I woke up, I got dressed and knocked on Claudia’s door.
She kind of looks like Mom, or what Mom would look like if she’d reached Claudia’s age. Similar height and facial structure, at least. But Claudia’s blond hair is graying, and I have no idea what color her eyes are because I only ever see the whites.
Her neck stiffens briefly when she hears the silverware drawer open, then again when she hears the drinking glasses and forks touch the dinner table, but her playing stays perfect.
After setting my side of the table, I’m careful with the placement of the utensils on her side: her fork lines up with her right armrest, her spoon to the right of that – out of the way unless she needs it. It’s a game I play in my head, sort of like what I used to do at church with Mom when I was younger, when I’d see how many hands I could shake during “Peace be with you” or how fast I could say all the prayers. In this game, if Claudia has to feel around before she finds something, I lose.
The microwave beeps twice, and I rush to open it before it beeps again. I hate that sound.
Claudia finishes her exercise and covers the keys. “Something smells good,” she says.
“What’s that song you were playing when I came in?”
Claudia finds her seat slowly but easily. Since I’ve known her, I’ve only seen her use her walking stick a few times, the first few times we went grocery shopping together. But never around her apartment; it’s always in the same place when I come in, resting in the corner between the wall and the piano. She hasn’t used it out in public lately, either. Now she uses my arm.
“Chopin,” she says once she sits. “The Revolutionary Etude.”
I’d heard the name in music class last year but don’t know enough to continue the conversation. “What would you like to drink?”
She puts a finger to her lips and tilts her head slightly. “Rum,” she says. “And a glass of water on the side.”
I set her drinks up, then get my food from the microwave before it beeps. She attempts to pour herself the shot but only fills it about halfway.
“Here, let me —”
“No, thank you.” She runs her fingertip gently along the rim of the glass, then slowly dips the finger inside until she touches alcohol. “I was way off,” she says with a laugh.
She never lets me help her with tasks like this. She even insists that she vacuum on her own. Aside from setting the table and loading the dishwasher, which she lets me do because she knows she’d take too long, the only little thing she lets me help with is when she holds my arm in public.
Her second pour is almost perfect, with a little rum overflowing and disappearing into the napkin I’d placed underneath. She raises the glass in my general direction and says, “Health and happiness.” She takes the shot like it’s water and puts the glass right back on the napkin.
“So how was your appointment?” she asks.
“Pointless.” I smell the milk before I drink it. It’s fine.
“Nothing. He had me take some stupid true-or-false test.”
At times I have fits of laughing and crying that I cannot control. I am troubled by attacks of nausea and vomiting. I would like to be a singer. “What’s the point of this?” I’d asked the doctor. He told me he just wanted to see how I answered the questions. “They’re not really questions,” I said. I see things or animals or people around me that others do not see. I wish I could be as happy as others seem to be. I hardly ever feel pain in the back of my neck.
Claudia grabs her fork on the first try.
“Enchilada with a side of yellow rice,” I say. “It’s organic.”
She cuts into the enchilada, picks up a big chunk, and blows on it. “Why do you think the test was stupid?”
“It was a waste of time,” I say.
Claudia swallows another bite of food, grimaces, and says, “The smell was deceiving.” She smiles and reaches for her glass of water. “So what were the results of this test?”
“Apparently I’m depressed.”
“You don’t agree?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “He gave me a prescription.”
She takes a long sip while I rearrange food on my plate. “Did you fill it?” she asks.
“I don’t want to be taking pills everyday.” I take a bite of enchilada. It doesn’t taste bad to me.
Claudia nods and reaches for her spoon. “What did the two of you talk about?”
“He just asked me a bunch of generic questions, so I gave him generic answers.”
Another smile. That reminds me of Mom, too, how she’s always smiling. And she’s a good listener, though I don’t know how she hasn’t told me to shut up yet. Most of our conversations are one-sided, just me complaining, not about anything personal but about people in general. Half the time, she says she understands but tells me it’s unfair to judge people. The other half, she smiles and changes the subject or starts playing a song without responding.
“It sounds like you didn’t give him a chance,” she says.
“He didn’t ask the right questions.”
My enchilada’s not piping hot anymore, and I want to finish it before it gets cold, so I stop talking and eat faster. Claudia’s only eaten half of hers, but she’s eaten all the rice, and I don’t expect her to eat more than that anyway.
“They’re not psychics, DJ.” She puts her fork down and dabs her mouth with her napkin. “What was the point of going if you didn’t want to talk?”
“You wanted me to.”
She takes a sip of water and sighs.
“Are you done with your food?” I ask.
She pushes the tray toward the middle of the table. “I think I’m going to need more alcohol, though.” She laughs when she says it, but I can tell she’s disappointed. Or at least I think I can tell. There’s a slight change in her tone, something that I can’t pinpoint exactly. I’m just sure that it’s there.
“He could have asked the right questions if he was really interested,” I say, clearing the table. “But he gets paid whether he cares or not.”
Claudia pours herself another shot, stopping short just before the rum reaches the top of the glass. She doesn’t toast to anything. When she’s done, she wipes her lips with her sleeve. “You need to start giving people the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “They’re not all bad.”
“Most of them are.”
“According to you.”
I’ve wondered for weeks how Claudia could stay so upbeat after losing her eyesight, with no sign of other friends or family and nothing but a piano and a slightly nicer version of my apartment, but now I think that she’s positive because she’s blind, because she can create a world for herself better than the one we live in.
“If you won’t talk to a doctor, then talk to me,” she says. “It’s been two months, and I still don’t know much about you.”
“Closer to three months,” I say. “And I don’t know much about you, either.”
“You don’t ask,” she says. “Which is fine. But don’t say that I don’t ask. I’ve tried many times to get you to open up.”
That first week of visits, she didn’t push too much for information. She was at the funeral. She knew what happened. So our conversations were strictly food and music and me complaining. Every week, though, she started asking more personal questions, about Ronnie and my childhood and my nonexistent social life. When I could answer in one sentence, I’d do it. When I couldn’t, I’d change the subject and hope that she wouldn’t push further.
I start the dishwasher. The noise, normally annoying, breaks the uncomfortable silence. Claudia sits in her favorite chair, a classic wooden rocker with a faded yellow pillow on the seat. I follow and sit on the couch across from her.
“So?” she says.
“What would you like to know?”
“Really?” She lifts a foot and massages it for a short while. “Okay, I’ll start with something easy.”
“I’m listening,” I say, going back to the kitchen. “I’m still hungry. You want anything?”
“No, thank you,” she says.
The snack cabinet is pretty barren. There’s a near empty bag of pretzels rolled up and tightly sealed with a rubber band. Reaching inside, I’d say there’s a dozen full pretzels max. The rest is crumbs and salt.
“I was thinking about this yesterday,” she says. “You were talking about how Ronnie thinks he can come into your apartment whenever he wants. You were clearly angry, but I realized that I’ve never heard you curse. Even when you’re mad.”
“That’s unusual for someone your age, don’t you think?” she says. “Then I realized that you’ve never had a single drink with me.”
“I’m only eighteen,” I say.
“Millions of eighteen-year-olds drink,” she says. “Don’t be wise.” Her rocking gets faster. “Now tonight, you tell me you don’t want to fill your prescription because you don’t want to be taking pills.”
“I guess my question for all those things is why?”
I chew and swallow a pretzel and reach into the bag for another. “I don’t know. That’s just how I am.”
“But how did you get this way?”
This time I take a handful of pretzels, chewing each one slowly, watching Claudia as she waits for an answer. She’s slowed her rock to almost nothing.
My next reach inside the bag comes up empty.
I roll the bag up and fold it twice before throwing it out and going back to the snack cabinet, even though I know there’s nothing there.
The refrigerator is no better. Some individually wrapped slices of cheese, a half-drunk gallon of milk, and three cups of Greek yogurt that Claudia loves but I think is disgusting. “I need to go food shopping,” I say.
“I know how you got this way,” she says softly.
“Then why’d you ask?”
“You don’t want to talk about her,” Claudia says.
“Is that a question?” I fall onto the couch and adjust the pillow behind me. It’s a nice couch, mostly tan with red and green floral patterns, and the cushions are firm and soft at the same time, if that makes any sense.
“No,” Claudia says. “I’m sorry.”
“Can we change the subject please?”
“Of course.” She rocks and takes a deep breath, probably wondering what subject she should move on to. I’m hoping it’s the enchiladas or something new to get when I go food shopping since she doesn’t always come. “Are you religious?” she finally asks.
“Yes,” she says. “Though it’s too hard to get to Mass now. And I used to hang a cross in my old bedroom, but I must’ve lost it during the move.” She rubs the corner of her eye with one finger. “I still pray every night before I go to sleep.”
Mom used to pray every night, too, but I don’t tell her that. Instead, I analyze the light side of my left arm, take hold of an unusually long hair, and tear it out.
“So?” Claudia says.
“I was when I was younger,” I say. “But not anymore.”
I find another long one and do it again. This one doesn’t come out on the first try. The tough hairs are frustrating, but I like them because by the time I finally get them, the pain and the challenge has almost completely distracted me. This one takes four tries and when I’m done, I have what looks like a small rash just above my wrist.
“A lot of people turn to religion after a loss,” she says.
It must’ve come out more frustrated than intended because Claudia says, “Are you done opening up?”
“For today,” I say.
She smiles and nods, then stands and scratches her knee through her pants. “Then I’m going to bed,” she says. “Remind me tomorrow to have Ronnie fix the leak in the bathroom.”
“Is it still light out?”
“Do streetlights count?”
She laughs and inches her way around the rocking chair toward her bedroom. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, angel.”
“If you can’t sleep, come knock on my door.”
“If I can’t sleep,” she says, “you’ll hear the piano.”
The lights are off when I get to my place, and I don’t turn them on. The curtain is pulled down, which surprises me. Sometimes Ronnie comes in and raises it when I’m out. He always says I need more natural light in here.
The red dot on my answering machine is flashing, and I erase the message without listening, then reach into my pocket and put the prescription on the counter. I’ll probably throw it away. Mom wouldn’t want me taking pills. She’d say God’s the better option, but that seems like a toss-up right now.
With the curtain down, it’s pitch black. These are the only times that I get to live like Claudia, in the dark, where nothing is real if I can’t see it, where I can imagine an apartment with freshly painted walls and real furniture and a television. I see the shadows cast around Mom’s closed bedroom door, and I imagine she’s behind it sleeping, hugging a pillow, maybe a hint of a smile on her face.
I undress quickly, fall into bed, and stare at the ceiling until my vision adjusts. Cracks. I close my eyes, hoping that when I die, it is this same peaceful darkness.