There’s a Hollister bag just sitting in front of my grandparents’ weather-rusted black metal door. It can’t be theirs. I imagine my grandfather asking, “What’s a Hollister?” in a way that I wonder if he’s putting me on. And I reply, “You’re better off not knowing. I wish I didn’t.” I live above them in the upstairs apartment of their house in Astoria. I usually grab their mail when I get home from work. They’re always afraid someone will take it.
I pick up the Hollister bag, but there’s a strong stench emanating from it like ground beef. Normally I’d expect that from Old Navy, but not Hollister. So I open it and inside the bag are seven deer tails.
I close it, then open it again as if I’m double taking except there’s no one there to see it. Just me and the empty block and Mrs. Sefante who’s basically blind from cataracts sitting stoically on her porch like she always does. She could be dead except for the fact that when I go to work every morning she’s gone. I assume she moves herself unless she’s like one of those cork owls there to frighten pigeons.
I’m not really sure what to do with them. It seems like a waste to throw them out. It’s such a specific number. Five, I could understand, but seven. It’s lewd, almost scandalous. I figure I’ll ask my grandparents. Maybe they’d ordered some deer tails in a Hollister bag and they were wondering why it was taking so long.
I ring the worn, black-eyed doorbell. It sounds like those bicycle bells you squeeze. After a minute, my grandmother shuffles to the door. She’s always surprised to see me even though I come by four or five times a week.
I can see my grandmother going through my uncle’s names like a rolodex trying to reach mine. “Paul, eh Raymond.” She shakes her head in frustration, giving up. “What a treat!”
I lower myself down to her little white head and we hug awkwardly as I enter because I’m two feet taller. My grandmother reminds me of what a shrub would look like if it were ever made human. I imagine my grandfather as an armoire. “Nana Emily,” I announce.
“Whatcha got there?” she asks as she ushers me inside.
“That’s what I came about.” I take off my shoes and walk down the long, dark corridor. The brown carpet feels familiar. To my left is the taxidermy bear up on its haunches, gritting its teeth. To the right, a collection of deer antlers smallest to biggest. Maybe I have their tails. They’re hard to make out in the darkness, but I know they’re there. I can smell them even through the garlic.
My grandfather just had double knee surgery and his ears are shot from the war. He was a naval gunner and his ship was hit by a kamikaze, but it didn’t explode. I used to ask him to tell me that story over and over as if it were the story of my birth. In a way, I guess it was.
His gray hair is not as thick as it once had been, and his knees bulge and are ripped down the middle. The stitches are fresh. I can see them clearly, walking out into the light because he’s wearing faded mesh shorts, sitting on the gray leather couch. The Discovery Channel is blaring. It’s a program about skyscrapers.
“Would you turn that down, Ted!” His real name is Salvator, but they changed it on Ellis Island.
“It’s too loud!” my grandmother yells and he clicks the volume down.
“He can’t hear a thing,” she whispers to me. I nod. “Look who’s here.”
“How are you, boy?” His back has given out and he’s reduced to inching his way around on his walker. He pushes himself up and off the couch. Once a hunter, gardener, fisherman, and cheese connoisseur, he now spends most of his time on that couch asking my grandmother for figs.
He makes his way over, shakes my hand, and kisses my cheek. Our stubble meets. His shake had once been a bear’s grip. I wonder how tender and spotted my hands will become. It’s strange to feel your decrepit future.
“So what brings you here at 6:30, boy?”
“Well actually I found a bunch of deer tails outside your door.”
My grandmother stops putting out chestnuts. “Your grandfather can’t hear,” she says to me again. “Deer tails, Ted!”
“Deer tails? Where? Here?”
I open the Hollister bag and there they are, dripping like candy apples.
“You want some chestnuts?” my grandmother says.
“No thanks,” I say.
“You should eat. You’re growing.”
“I don’t think I am anymore.” She must have said it so many times that she didn’t even consider I was now in my thirties.
“What’re you gonna do with them?” my grandfather asks.
“I was hoping you’d know.”
“Back when I was fishing with Paul I used to use deer tails for lures. The little hairs.” He pretends to twist one in his fingers. He grimaces as he begins the process of putting aside his walker and sitting down at the kitchen table. Everything is yellow on that table. The flowers, the tablecloth. I wonder if it was a different color ten years ago. What would be there ten years from now.
“So you guys have no idea why someone would’ve left these on your doorstep?”
“The butcher used to give them to me for fishing, but he’s dead now,” says Papa Ted.
“Yeah, poor thing. He really suffered,” my grandmother adds.
“Ok, well I’ll just hang onto them I guess. I’m sort of interested.”
“Yeah, why don’t you come back tomorrow,” says my grandmother. “I think your Papa Ted is sleepy.”
He’s shutting his eyes at the dinner table. I kiss them goodbye and leave with the Hollister bag.
It’s good timing because I remember that my girlfriend is coming over at seven and I have to clean the toilet seat and vacuum. I try to make the bathroom as sterile as possible when I know she’s coming. It’s a small room that’s painted purple because the apartment actually belongs to my grandparents and my grandmother likes that color.
She told me I could paint it another color if I wanted to, but I don’t see a need. It’s a purple bathroom. It’s got personality. I live there because it’s cheap and it’s not too bad getting to Pace where I teach a few photography courses to undergrads.
Yesterday was my birthday. Kate took me out to dinner and we ate meatballs and told each other all the things we loved about us. It was a perfect night. I drank white wine with her because that’s all she drinks. The red makes her teeth the color of my bathroom. I don’t mind white, but I like red better. In any case, it was a perfect night.
After vacuuming, I set out two wine glasses on my kitchen counter. It’s a small space, but it’s perfect for a single man and it’s a one bedroom, so if one day Kate wants to move in I think we could make it work. I have some of my own photographs up as decorations. That’s about all they are. I’ve only ever sold four of them and one of them was to my grandparents. It’s of a man staring longingly at a duck. I think my grandfather liked the nature aspects of it, but I always saw something more hopeless in that photograph—as if the only being who could ever understand him was that duck and, inevitably, he was going to run out of bread and the duck would just sort of float away.
The doorbell rings. I realize the Hollister bag is just sitting on the blue couch, so I stuff it under the kitchen counter. I run over and unlock the door. When she comes in we kiss on the lips. She’s a little winded from walking up the stairs. She tastes like smoke. I don’t like it, but I know better than to say anything now. The last time I said something she compared me to her father and we had a big fight, so I told her as long as she’s going to quit at some point I’ll keep my mouth shut and I have ever since. I even light her cigarettes sometimes as a peace offering.
I remember meeting her for the first time. We’d found each other on one of those kitschy dating sites in which the most private thing anyone’s willing to admit is that she’s on the site itself. Most relationships I’d had on it had continued on in that opaque sort of way until one of us got tired of fucking. Then I met Katherine.
She was late, but she had this smile that seemed so genuine. I wanted to fall in love with her that moment. And it wasn’t really that long after that I did. It seemed like more of a challenge for her; as if by her resistance she was questioning the nature of love itself, or anyway, that’s how it felt. But by the third month we’d settled into something magical. Midnight pizza, sex after brunch, and celebrity name games at dinner. She was everything I’d hoped for. And she told me she loved me one day when it was raining. Looking back I wonder if maybe she was just trying to make conversation.
She drops her overnight bag on the floor and kicks off her boots because otherwise my grandparents complain.
“Anything go on at work?” I ask.
“Nothing. The usual,” she says. She always says this. “Whatya wanna do for dinner tonight?”
“I found seven deer tails on my grandparent’s doorstep.”
“What does that mean? Is that like a metaphor?”
“I don’t think so.” I wonder if it is. “They were all bloody.”
“You’re so creepy sometimes,” she says cursorily. She walks over to the counter and rifles through some menus. “These are all sticky.”
“I didn’t put them there.”
“The menus?” She opens the fridge and pours herself a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “You want?”
I nod. “The deer tails. It wasn’t me.”
“Well who was it?
I work my way around the counter to where she’s standing. I throw my arms around her, grab her ass and kiss her voraciously. “I missed you.” I start kissing her neck and work my hands up her backside, my thumbs curving under her bra. Her skin feels cool on my fingers.
She kisses me back, but unfurls herself from my hold, handing me a glass. “Don’t you feel like all we ever do is lay around in bed and have sex and watch movies?”
“No.” I pick a long strand of her blonde hair off my sweater and back away, leaning up against the counter. “But that sounds amazing. Is that an option?”
“I just feel like I’m not accomplishing anything—I have to be more active.” She swishes the wine so that the liquid draws long, thin rings on the glass that expand and disappear.
“You’re not accomplishing anything by being with me? Should we be doing your taxes or something?”
“No,” she takes a gulp of wine, “just forget it. You’re twisting my words. This is about me.”
“I feel like you made it about me, too.”
“I don’t want to argue.”
“Me neither,” I concede. “But just to be clear—”
“Just leave it. It’s better if we just forget I said anything. It’s about me being more active.”
I take the bottle and top off my glass. I can feel the wine burning my empty stomach. I think about those deer tails sitting rancid in the kitchen and how we can explore their mystery together. “Let’s do Indian,” I say, jokingly. I know she’ll laugh because I always suggest Indian when we don’t know what to eat because she hates Indian and then we laugh.
In the beginning, it was the little things I’d committed to memory that seemed to prove my love, mostly because I hadn’t even tried to remember them. They just suddenly became important. Her favorite breakfast wrap, which ear was the ticklish one, this tiny stray blonde hair above her lip that made her somehow fallible where most of the time I saw her as near perfection.
She laughs in a way that makes me not believe it.
“Listen, about Louisville—”
“Can we just talk about that later?” she says.
We’ve been planning this trip to Louisville. It had taken me a while to convince her, but she finally agreed even though, as she said, she’d “rather be going to Turks and Caicos.” To which I replied, “I’ll just go ahead and dip into my giant trust fund. I only live above my grandparents to be ironic.”
“I just want to figure out the dates. You keep putting it off,” I say.
“You really need to talk about this now?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“I’m going to take a shower. Then we can talk.”
“I’ll take one with you.”
“Not today.” She grabs a towel from my closet and shuts the bathroom door.
I wait anxiously for her to get out. I lie on my bed and take small, birdlike sips from the wine glass. She’s in there for a while. I wait. I sip. I’m thinking the 30th would be a good day to leave.
When she comes out of the bathroom, she’s dressed again and her blonde hair is darker from the water and slicked back. Her face is red from the steam. “Let’s talk,” she says.
“Ok,” I say, patting my hand on the bed as an offer.
“No, in the other room.”
“Ok.” I follow her into the other room and we sit down on the blue couch. I feel like a dog about to be euthanized. I follow her movements.
She looks me straight in the eyes. “So how do you think we are?”
“We are?” I put my wine glass on the arm of the couch.
“Yeah how do you think we are?”
“Wait, are you breaking up with me?” I feel sick. I thought she was going to tell me she didn’t want to go to Louisville.
“I just feel like there’s something missing.”
I can hear the television from downstairs. My grandfather is watching a hunting program. I can feel the recoil in my feet. I imagine the deer in full sprint collapsing down with the puncture; its final, staccato breaths muffled by soil and wet grass.
I lean back into the cushion as if it could break my fall. “Not enough. What’s enough? What else is there? We were just talking about deer tails and it was funny and now something’s not enough.”
“I don’t know,” she repeats. “I’m sorry. The tails weren’t funny. I know this is terrible.”
I’m not sure now what to do with these moments. They seem wasted on me alone.
I remember during Sandy she came and stayed with me because I hadn’t lost any power and she was living in the Village with no lights. She’d given the Lhasa Apso to her parents because of this. The dog looked like a little white Ewok, its eyes like shiny coffee beans.
She grabbed a cab and I waited for her out in the rain. I just remember feeling like I was in the eye of something. The streets were so quiet. It was only misting. A lot of stores were still shut up, and I just tugged my hood over my head and waited out there for twenty minutes watching every cab that came by.
When she arrived I paid him forty dollars. She hugged me and kissed me lightly on the lips.
“You’re saving me,” she said.
I remember she said that because there had been so many times I felt like she’d saved me. I felt listless without her. I couldn’t imagine not having her next to me at night, even though she didn’t like to be touched when she was sleeping because I was too warm.
“You’re like a furnace,” she’d say. And I’d roll over and move my hot chest away from her. I still knew she was there though, and that was enough for me to sleep well.
“What was it like before me?” she asked one night at our favorite little Mexican place.
I smiled. “It was the dark ages before you.”
“It’s the renaissance.”
I remember waiting for so long for her to find that charming, but she got this anxious, fidgety look as if I’d just placed the weight of the world on her small breasts.
“I’m just messing around. I used to have fun then, too.”
She sipped some margarita from a little red straw. I could tell then that she was afraid of how much she meant to me.
Now as we face each other on my couch, I notice how much it hurts her to do this. How much she has feared this moment. “How long have you been wanting to do this?”
She hesitates. “I don’t know. I just felt it last night.”
“On my birthday?”
“Didn’t want to ruin anything.”
“Do you really want to know?”
I just notice how blue the couch is and I wonder why someone left that Hollister bag in front of my grandparents’ door. What could it mean?
“A few weeks, I guess,” she says, finally.
“A few weeks. Jesus. Have you been acting this whole time?”
“There’s nobody else. It’s really about me. I still love you. I mean it’s funny, they always say ‘it’s not you it’s me’ and that’s really the case here.” She diverts her eyes. I can’t look at her anyway. It’s like staring into a mask.
I recall the first time she met my grandparents. We stood outside their black metal door. She smelled so good. There’s something almost religious about the aroma of someone you love, as if that scent holds every memory, every moldy dive bar, every lick and fuck and misplaced hair. It’s there forever no matter how many years go by. Encapsulated.
She took out her phone. “Wait before you—there’s this picture of my dog.” She shuffled through myriad candid shots of her dog, but accidentally flipped to an old photo of her kissing someone. She was holding the camera in one of those narcissistic impromptu shots in which you really just want to see how your lips look on someone else’s.
She flipped it off and just looked at me. “Oh God, you’re going to act weird now.”
She was right, of course. I was going to act weird no matter how hard I tried not to show it. I don’t think it was that she still had the photograph or that it was some kind of retroactive betrayal; but really it was just a cycle. There would be some athletic blond boy kissing her again one day in front of a fountain or Applebee’s or wherever that was and I realize now that I was just passing through. I was a snapshot in a long line of men who knew her scent probably better than I did. Who broke her heart where I would only have mine broken. The saddest thing I realize now is that I had taken that same photograph once in Rome or Istanbul and it had meant so much then, ineffably smitten, surrounded by pigeons and the sound of the sky at night. A garden no one else knew about. I realize how easy it is to forget the moments that define you.
When we got inside, my grandmother had prepared chicken parmesan, which she knew was my favorite.
“It’s so nice to finally meet the girl,” said my grandmother.
My grandfather sat at the table with his knife and fork pointed up in the air like a Viking. He stared across the table at Katherine as if she were a hair in his salad. “What’s your story?” he said.
“My story?” Katherine turned to me in search of an explanation. I shook my head. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, finally.
“He can’t hear you,” my grandmother yelled from the kitchen.
“Oh,” said Katherine. “I said, I’m not sure what you mean about my story.”
“No.” My grandfather put down his knife and fork. “I guess not.”
The dinner was good and garlicky. Later when we kissed I could still taste the chicken in her.
“Isn’t it funny how when we think of the future it’s all a little blurry? I think that’s cause there’s still time to change it,” I say. The cloth on the blue couch feels warm and my palms sweat.
She gets up and starts looking things over in the bedroom and then behind the kitchen counter.
“What are you doing?”
“I just don’t want to forget anything.”
Katherine fidgets, searching for nothing particular. She is so close to the Hollister bag, but she never feels it. She never acknowledges it. She sits back down next to me. We don’t touch. She makes a motion for me to hug her, but I can’t.
“Will you remember how I taste?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Maybe I should’ve asked how easy I’ll be to forget.”
“You’re such a hopeless romantic.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just as sad as you.” She chips some green polish off her fingernail.
I’m trying to keep it in. My face is contorted and she leans over and hugs me tightly. I don’t hug her back, but I love the feel of her hair on my scruff and she’s soft like a child. I am suddenly old.
“If you ever need anything.” This is her parting gift to me. She gets up and looks around one more time as if taking a little bit with her. She puts on her coat and throws her bag over her shoulder. My head is down, lost in the cracks of the blue couch, the crumbs, the stain where she spilled ketchup a week ago.
“Ok, this is it. I’m leaving,” she says.
And then she’s gone. I haven’t even picked up my head when I hear the door squeak behind her and the metal chain rattle down against the lock.
I go to the kitchen, unsure at this moment what to do with my body. It feels ungainly. Foreign. I pick up the Hollister bag and set it on the counter. I open it and stick my face into the dark space inside. It’s ripe in there. I can taste blood and fur. I can taste the grass they ate I can smell their small bodies. Staring into the deer tails, I get a strange feeling that everything is suddenly disjointed.
I realize now that there is no story. There is no reason for the seven deer tails in a Hollister bag. There is no mystery or serendipity. I crunch the sides of the bag together with my fists and slam it into the garbage. There is no why. It’s as if they’d never come to me at all. I pluck a blonde hair off my sweater. I release it and it twists to the tile floor.
I wonder if Mrs. Sefante is still out there waiting. I run some water over my face. It’s cool on my hot skin. I am a furnace. I am everything she thought I was.
About the Author: Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He recently finished his MFA at Columbia University for Fiction. He has been published in Blue Penny Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Nib Magazine, FictionWeek Literary Review, Ascent Aspirations, Newport Review, and Post Road literary magazines among others. Currently, he is writing a novel entitled Doc and teaches Writing and Literature at Monroe College.