It was 1AM and they had just made love on the brown futon in the living room. It was late but still loud from the trucks rumbling up Ashland Ave. and the fan they’d pointed at themselves. When they were done they slowed down and their minds came back to them they lay together, holding each other, feeling the sweat that made the sheets cling to their backs, staring at each other’s face in the streetlight that made its way through the blinds.
“I love you,” she said, smiling.
“I love you too,” he said. He smiled too, and looked down to the condom still on him. “I’m gonna go take this off,” he said, and kissed her.
He scooted off the futon, trying to keep his feet from touching the sheets. They were new, and the only clean things in the apartment. Walking awkwardly with the semen-filled condom in front of him, he made for the kitchen and the plastic bag they were using as a trash can. I the darkness he had to feel his way around the minefield of pots, pans, and trash cans that they’d strewn across the floor to catch the water leaking from the ceiling. The plastic bag was on the counter. He felt around for it gingerly, trying not to disturb the layer of kitchen supplies they’d rescued from one or another leak. He found the bag, grabbed it, and felt the drop on his forearm.
He stopped for a second and held his arm in place. Another drop fell. “Shit,” he said under his breath. They must have missed the sound of the rain with the traffic outside, the drone of the fan, the sounds of their own bodies.
For a second he considered saying nothing. He could go back to the futon and go to sleep, discover the leaks together when they woke up. It was, after all, her apartment.
But instead he walked quickly back to the futon where she was curled up clutching a pillow. He picked up his underwear with his foot and put it on. “There’s another leak,” he said, emotionless.
She sat up on her arm. “What?” she said, confused, half awake.
“It’s leaking again.”
“What?” she said, angry now, already off of the futon and speed walking to the kitchen. She turned on the light, and they saw the walls, the leaks.
The attic, full of shit and grime and exposed by the ceiling panels that had been removed after earlier leaks caused by earlier storms, had a stream of brown syrup running from it and onto the newly painted walls. They were a beautiful rich orange that strangely matched the yellow brown stream that flowed down them. He quickly pulled boxes, blenders, and toaster ovens away from the septic flow and replaced them with pots and trashcans not currently catching rain. She stood, transfixed, staring at the wall, the potholders hung there.
Earlier that day her best friend had given her two potholders from a folk art festival in New Mexico. Skeletons sang opera and drank coffee on them, and they matched the kitchen’s burnt orange. She had tacked them up on the wall in defiance of the apartment’s slowly advancing decay, an attempt to make the place her home and not a rotting, browning shell.
The leak had run right over them and tinted them a mustard brown. They hung damp and dripping from their corners.
“Oh, Gloria’s presents,” she said as if she were apologizing to them. She grabbed them from the nails they had hung on and looked them over. “They’re… Oh…” she said.
She started to cry, almost pressing the gifts into her face like handkerchiefs but was repelled by their smell. They’d been soiled. She set them on a stool instead and cried into her hands, tears mixing with a day of sweat.
“It’s OK,” he said, setting down a stack of cutting boards.
“But her presents!” she answered.
“It’s alright, we can wash them,” he said, hugging her. For a moment she held herself steady but then grabbed on and cried into his bare shoulder.
He was surprised. She did not cry easilly, and had gone through things much worse than leaking ceilings and stained gifts. There was just something so crushing, so defeating, so entrapping about the situation that one couldn’t help but cry. Her home was not a home, could never be one, and every effort she’d tried to make it one had been answered with more damage, more dirt, more contempt by the building’s owner and, seemingly, by the building itself. It was like the mess had momentum, barreling over any attempts to clean or tidy up. The potholders had been the latest of many blows.
“She just gave them to me,” she said between her sobs.
“I know.” He kissed her neck, her cheek, thought about wiping her tears with his hands but thought better of it – they’d touched the water, after all.
Her tears were dying down by then and they held each other. She let out a little laugh between sniffs.
“Is it too late to move out?” she asked with a begrudging smile.
He laughed just enough, and said “Maybe.” It was, of course, he thought. “But we’ll get through this, you know? You won’t be going through this alone. Tomorrow you can clean, and they can fix the ceiling, and it’ll be alright.”
“I know,” she said.
They washed their hands, fell back on the futon, and woke six hours later to clean again.