Photograph by Helena Kvarnström
by Tao Lin
There was a hole in his air mattress and he taped about half the mattress but the hole was not covered.
At night he woke every four hours when the mattress deflated and he had to push a button to make more air go in.
It made him know his dreams but in the morning he never remembered anything.
Issue #1 soundtrack: Katie Mullins "Anna"
He put up a thing in the laundry room that said he would buy a real mattress for thirty-five dollars and someone called and he went.
“It’s two mattresses,” the woman said. “I’ve just been sleeping on both. It’s two on top of the box spring.”
“Three mattresses,” he said. “How much for two? I forget what I put. On the paper.”
She hesitated. “Thirty-five,” she said.
“You can have the third free,” she said.
He thought about it. The third was longer.
“I want those two,” he said.
The first night with the real mattress he slept five hours and woke very awake. He was happy about the new mattress. One night he was reading and his roommate knocked.
“Come in,” he said.
His roommate opened the door and laughed.
“I have to lie on my back in bed to read,” he said. “I have no table. Or chair.”
“Your room is kind of scary,” said his roommate.
His roommate’s room was bigger. It had a queen-sized bed, two large windows, a stereo, a wall-length bookcase, two dressers, a chair, an oriental carpet, and three different kinds of lights.
One night after showering he walked back to his room and saw broken glass. The light from the ceiling had fallen.
“It could have killed me,” he said to his roommate.
“I heard it,” his roommate said. “I thought it was something else. You dropped something or something.”
The room was brighter without the glass covering for the ceiling light and he liked that.
He had no job. He had a temporary job at the library but that was over. One day he went to the library for his check. The checks took four weeks to be processed.
“This better be over five hundred dollars,” he said.
“Oh,” said his supervisor. “Is it?”
“I’m opening it,” he said
“It’s like four hundred and ninety-nine,” he said.
“Oh, good,” said his supervisor.
He deposited the check and had two-thousand-dollars. His rent was due in a few days and then he would have about twelve-hundred-dollars.
He met someone. After they had dinner together a few times they were on her bed. “Do you think I’m weird?” she said. He said she was not. He asked about himself and she said, “You’re not like a lot of other people. You say ‘what’s that?’”
“For what?” he said. “When?”
“You point at food and ask what the food is,” she said. “You ask questions.”
On a different night she asked if he thought she was pretty and he said she was.
“You haven’t told me,” she said.
“You’re pretty,” he said.
She laughed a little. “Thanks,” she said.
On the night that she also said they should not see each other until the weekend she was crying a little and she said, “I’m sorry I’m sad.”
“You’re not fat,” he said. “Why do you think I think you’re fat?”
He was holding her from behind on her bed and they hadn’t had sex at this point and would not, even in the future, and she smiled—he saw the side of her face over her shoulder—and said, “Sad. I said ‘I’m sorry I’m sad.’”
Later that night he sucked on her nipples a little then stopped. They lay there a while. She sat and he looked at her. He sat. He asked what she was thinking and she said she liked him but they didn’t communicate physically.
For a while he had thought that she was too beautiful to really like him.
He had black hair. Hers was brown. He was about one inch taller. She weighed more. He was skinny. Her apartment had three rooms. A room, the bedroom, the kitchen. In the kitchen was a dining table, a refrigerator, and a fish tank.
One night they were standing in the doorway to her bedroom and she poked him and said he was skinnier than she was and he poked her and then she went in her bedroom and lay on the bed.
She wanted him to read a story to her.
“I can’t read,” he said. “It has exclamation marks. I can’t do exclamation marks.”
“When I talk out loud I get tired,” he said. “My mouth. I won’t be able to finish.”
A few nights later she said they did not communicate physically and he went home and read fifty-pages of a non-fiction thriller book and then cried a little while listening to music in bed. In the morning he felt sad.
The night she said they did not communicate physically they were on her bed and he was listening to the sounds outside her window. The city noises were quiet and it made him remember when he was a child lying half-asleep on the sofa listening to the rest of house.
“Why are you sad?” he said.
She said she would not feel sad if she did not have to and he understood what she was saying, though she said it in different words. “Because I should,” she said. He thought it was a very good way to say it. He did not say that he was also sad because though he was sad generally he was happy that she liked him and that he liked her.
A little later they were holding one another and eventually she took off her shirt and bra. He was licking her nipples and she was moaning and when he tried to take off her jeans she moved his hand away. She said she hadn’t had sex for a long time. She apologized and they lay there a while. She sat and he sat and that was when she said that she liked him but they didn’t communicate physically.
(A few weeks later there was one night when she said a lot of nice things to him.
She said, “It’s good to see you,” and, “I like you,” and, “There’s no one else like you.”
Later that night when they had most of their clothes off she said, “Do you want to fuck?”
He said he did. She leaned back a little and got a condom from her dresser and he held it.
He realized he was not aroused. He was concentrating on her and for some reason he was not aroused. Earlier he was but now he was not. He had two jobs now and had slept about twenty hours that week.
“Wait,” he said. “I’m kind of sick.”
She asked what he meant and she laughed a little. He thought it was the kind of laughter when you were happy and laughed at almost anything.
”I’m on Tylenol Flu. I can’t get hard when I’m on Tylenol Flu.”
“Are you sure?” she said.
The first time she invited him over after dinner she had said, “Do you want to come over to eat grapes?”
He was twenty-two and she was twenty-five. He thought she was very mature and he liked that.
He was surprised she asked him over because at the end of dinner they did not speak for a while and it had been a little uncomfortable.)
The night she said they did not communicate physically he said, “I like the sounds outside your window. They make me feel really young.”
That night she also said, “You just want me to climb on top of you and fuck you.” He said that was not what he wanted. He wanted to say that she just wanted him to take off her pants and lick her vagina.
He liked when they held each other and listened to music and he wanted to say but would not, even in the future—another three or four weeks and then they did not really see each other again—that she was much more concerned with sex than he was.
He wanted to say that because maybe then she would say she was not as concerned about sex as he thought she was. Then they would not have to worry about it so much.
When he tried to take off her jeans she stopped him and said she hadn’t had sex for a really long time and was sorry.
(A few nights before she had asked if he had sex before. He said he had. She said it didn’t seem like he wanted to.
“Because I feel like you don’t want to,” he said.
She said, “I don’t yet,” and made a noise—sometimes she made this noise—like she was happy.)
After she said that they should not see each other until the weekend he said it looked like she was on drugs. “Are my eyes dilated?” she said.
She was looking in the mirror on her dresser and her eyes were dilated and she thought it was strange and funny. He did not think anything was very funny because a few minutes earlier she had said that she did not want to see him until the weekend.
(A few weeks later he took a rock from a restaurant’s koi pond—he said if someone tried to stop him he would punch them with the rock in the face, and she laughed—for her fish tank and she said, “Do you want to come put it in yourself?”
They talked louder and faster after he said yes to that question. He had two jobs now and after he kissed her neck and pinched and rubbed her nipples for a while he felt with his fingers that she was wet and she said, “Do you want to fuck?”
He said he did and she laughed a little and leaned back to get a condom from her dresser.)
He got off the bed and went in the kitchen and she followed. “Now what?” he said. “Oh. We already said ‘now what.’”
The kitchen was quiet and the only light was from the fish tank, which was below them on a little table against the wall. There were long silences between talking and they held each other more sometimes and sometimes kissed.
“I don’t want to not see you again,” she said.
“Before in this situation I just wouldn’t see the other person anymore,” she said. “Maybe I’m more mature. Or I just like you a lot. I’m in a bad mood tonight. I’m just in a bad mood.”
He understood that she was saying something that meant something and so was a message but it sounded strange and more like a sound than a message and he felt a little confused.
They had dinner one time at a Japanese restaurant and he did not finish his food. Outside they were walking and she quickly said, “Do you want to come over to eat grapes?” He said he did. The grapes were purple. After that they were purple again and the time after that they were purple and then they were green.
Tao Lin is the author of Shoplifting from American Apparel and four other books of fiction and poetry. His second novel, Richard Yates, will be published by Melville House in September 2010. He lives in Brooklyn and blogs at heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com.
Helena Kvarnström is an artist living in Toronto, Ontario. She works with photography, text and collaborative video projects with partner Kevin Marchand. She has exhibited internationally and her novella/photography book, Violence, was published in 2005. Her website can be found at inne.day-lab.com.
The song “Anna” is from Katie Mullins’s debut album, Pastoral, which she self-released this past November. Katie lived in Berlin for six years where she sang at an opera house and in a country band. She now lives in Brooklyn where she teaches little kids and writes songs. Visit her online at katiemullinsmusic.com.