It was September, Kurt had settled into his routine as a student, but Kiki was still hanging around the apartment, moping.
They’d come back from Nantucket after Labor Day, him with a beard and her pregnant, which they hadn’t expected. They hadn’t told her mother, who went with them, or her investment banker sister who paid for the place the last week of August, when things were most expensive.
They had dutifully taken care of things, going down to the clinic on Commonwealth Avenue and brushing past the lone woman who was holding a sign and walking the sidewalk, like a picketer, outside. He had gone in and read the pamphlets with Kiki, then she had gone in for the procedure and emerged not too much later more pale than usual—he hadn’t thought that possible.
Then he had settled into his books, and she had stayed in their apartment, recovering. She wasn’t supposed to be there—the housing office had said there was only one room available in the apartment, for a male student only, another graduate student had signed the lease. That guy didn’t want four people in the apartment, and he didn’t want the complications of a couple.
They had taken up together when she had broken up with his friend Tim, who moved out of Kurt’s apartment when something had happened between him and Kiki, nobody knew exactly what. Tim moved on to graduate school so there was nothing standing in Kurt’s way if he wanted to make a play for Kiki.
He did, and he called her up one Valentine’s Day and asked if she wanted to go out some time. It wasn’t exactly easy; he’d have to drive down to where she was in Connecticut, things would be awkward at first, he knew. So he had the whole day planned out; they would go to a museum, maybe two, to pass the time until dinner. Afterwards, he’d have to start the drive back to Boston.
She asked him to spend the night at her mother’s place where she was living. He would sleep on the couch, and she had kissed him before she went to her bedroom. That was a lot of progress in one date, he thought. He headed back in the morning after her mother made them breakfast; they kissed again on the gravel driveway, and as he drove away he was elated, as much as he’d let himself be.
She had then moved up to Boston where he was in the middle of applying to grad school, and had moved into his student apartment, even though she’d turned him down the first time he asked her to. As a result, they didn’t have an apartment of their own, and she shared his room in the apartment he was assigned by student housing.
He was working days as a proofreader and studying for the grad school exam at night, and she found temp work that kept her in money but left her time to do what she was interested in, which was taking violin lessons. That was what made her a two-edged sword, he thought to himself; creative enough to start something like that at the advanced age of twenty-two, impractical enough to start something like that at the advanced age of twenty-two.
She’d been doing nothing but sleeping and eating and practicing the violin since the abortion, and he wondered if she would ever start temping again. He had money saved up from the proofreading job he’d quit right before he started school, but he hadn’t planned on supporting them both. He figured she was good for half of his one-third share of the rent; if the guy who signed the lease decided to be a prick about it, he figured they could pay half the rent since they were half the people in the apartment, but he wanted to put that day off as long as he could.
He tried to concentrate on his reading but Kiki was up and she was practicing; she was a beginner, but having taken up the instrument when she’d already passed through adolescence there was nothing endearing about her mistakes. She didn’t want him in their bedroom when she practiced, and the guy who signed the lease, a fat guy from upstate New York named Hank, always made a big to-do about slamming the door to his room when she started up. The other roommate was a former college football player, a black guy who was going to the law school; he was never in his room because he was always in the library, but Hank controlled the apartment, so it didn’t help that he had one roommate who was on their side, or at least didn’t care.
Kiki came out of their room and flopped down on the biggest chair in the front room and put her feet up on the footstool in front of it. Wherever she went, whatever she did, she let you know that she was still recovering, still recuperating. He didn’t doubt it, but it made for more tension in the apartment with her always around, not temping downtown.
“How’re you feeling?” he asked her.
“Okay. I won’t go into detail.”
“Thanks for sparing me.” He got up and went over to her and put his hand on her forehead; he didn’t know why, it wasn’t like she had a fever or anything, he figured it was something you did when somebody was sick.
“Can I make you some breakfast?” he asked.
“I don’t think I could keep it down,” she said, although he instinctively doubted her. She’d never been very ambitious, she hadn’t done anything with herself after college, and he figured her first instinct was to avoid confronting the world of work as long as she could. The word “malingerer” popped into his head, but he tried to put it out of his mind.
He turned back to his book as Hank came down the stairs, on his way out the door to campus.
“Hey,” Kurt said, and Hank just gave the two of them one nod. Kiki knew that Hank wanted her out of the apartment, and she didn’t even turn her head towards him.
After the door closed behind him, Kurt went back to his book.
“What’s his problem?” Kiki said, more as a curse than a question.
“You know, too earnest. He’s working hard in the fields of play, doesn’t like to see you sitting around all day.”
“Does he know what I’ve been through?”
“No—I would never tell a doofus like him.”
She gave him a sidewise glance. “Meaning you would tell somebody really cool you liked?”
“No, you know what I mean. It’s none of his business.”
She leaned back, closed her eyes, and exhaled.
“The temp agency called while you were asleep,” he said after a moment.
“What did they want?”
He started to say “What do you think they’d want?” but he caught himself. There was no need to get sarcastic with her, not after what she’d been through.
“They said they had a job at B.U., in the School of Education.”
“Working with the dean. It sounded pretty good.”
“You don’t have to do the work,” she said with a tone of bitterness in her voice.
“I’m sure proofreading was no more exciting.”
She looked over at him with a trace of malice in her eyes.
“At least when you’re a proofreader you’re by yourself and don’t have to answer to somebody else’s beck and call.”
“True, but you try reading a technical manual, or terms and conditions for an industrial valve all day. I would think that being a dean’s assistant would be pretty good work by comparison.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“Neither do you unless you ask them. Maybe you’d be answering the phone and making appointments, not just typing and filing all day.”
She snorted audibly, and was silent. He read on for a few paragraphs, then spoke.
“If you don’t feel like breakfast, maybe you could at least call them back.”
She looked up and glared at him. “You’re really on a kick to get me a job, aren’t you?”
“Well, it’s been awhile. I read the brochure. You should be okay by now.”
“I’m not okay,” she said, then got up and headed towards the kitchen. He heard the refrigerator open—he figured she was fixing herself some breakfast. He listened and detected the sounds of the cupboard opening, then cereal clinking into a bowl. He decided to leave her alone and hoped she’d cool down.
He heard the water running in the sink after a while, then sounds of her puttering in the kitchen as she cleaned up. Then he heard her coming down the hall.
“If you want me to go back to work so much, where’s the telephone number?”
“I put it in our room.”
She walked to the room in the back of the apartment that was theirs. There was silence for awhile, then he heard her come back into the kitchen and make a phone call.
He tried to hear what she was saying—she sounded business-like, so he assumed she was calling about the job. Her voice had an inquisitive pitch at first, as if she was asking questions, then periods of silence punctuated by grunts—“Um-hmms.” It sounded as if she was being deliberately non-committal, as if she didn’t care whether she got the job or not.
She wrapped it up with a perfunctory closing, then he heard her go back into their room. She started playing the violin, softly at first, then louder with more expression; it was probably the only piece she had mastered in the time he’d been listening to her. It was still amateurish, he thought, but heartfelt at least.
After a while she stopped, and he heard the sound of her putting the violin in its case and sliding it under the bed on the bare wooden floor. A few minutes later she came out and went into the hall bathroom and closed the door behind her.
When she came out he could see there was color in her cheeks when she looked at him. She stopped at the hall closet to take out her scarf and her beret, then came into the front room.
“I guess I’m going in for an interview,” she said as she wrapped the scarf around her neck twice and looped it in the front.
“Hey, that’s great,” he said.
“Wish me fucking luck,” she said as she put her beret on her head and adjusted it as she looked at her reflection in the hall mirror.
He stood up and went to her. “C’mon, don’t be that way.”
She cast her glance down, and he could tell she’d been crying in the bathroom. He started to hug her, but she stiffened.
“You know that wasn’t my first abortion, don’t you?”
“No,” he said stepping back, assuming an attitude of innocence. “How would I know something like that?”
She looked up at him, her nose red and running. “I thought you might, since the other guy was your roommate.”
He said nothing.
“Tim. It was Tim. So you two have that in common.”
She turned and went to the door. He didn’t know what to say or do. She went out and, after she’d closed the door, he looked through the bull’s eye glass window at her distorted figure going down the walk, then turning towards the street where she could catch the bus.