White Sheets and Lipstick (A short-short story)

10:22 p.m.

Max plugged in the vacuum three times. The first time, the little red light failed to appear. The second time, it blinked sleepily at him. The third, it illuminated his face with its rosy glow.

Max reached again for the cord, almost yanking it out. Instead, he twirled the rubber rope between his fingers. His fingers wandered down the length of it, almost grabbing the vacuum’s handle. His eyes closed.

“Max?”

He jumped, separating himself from the vacuum and straightening his back sharply. The red light just barely lit the room. He could see the light from the kitchen shining through her hair. He reached his hand out toward the wall, finding the light switch. He flipped it on and off twice. He saw the right half of her mouth pull upward just before the room dimmed the second time. He turned the lights back on again.

She had her shoulder propped against the wooden door frame, her body arching towards the floor. Her arms were loose at her sides, fingers carefully rubbing the thin material of her sweatpants  – she had learned not to cross her arms since she moved in.

“Hey. Sorry. I was just coming to bed. Just had to make sure everything was picked up in here, y’know?” His eyes flicked involuntarily over to the vacuum cleaner. He’s eyes scanned slowly from top to bottom, admiring it’s symmetrical curvature. (I like it when he looks at me like that.)

“I get it.” She walked back into the kitchen. Her right hip sat slightly higher than her left, her gait – uneven. He heard her turn on the water faucet, and he knew she was splashing water on her face the way she did before sleep. The faucet switched off, and one, two, three, four, five, six seconds later the bed groaned softly. The newly shared apartment was almost claustrophobic.

Max was left alone in the small living room. The ends of his fingers itched furiously for the handle of his soft feather duster. It was just three steps away, perched at the edge of the second shelf from the top. Instead, he jammed his uncomfortable fists in his pocket. Turned the sink on three times. One, two, three, four, five, six seconds later the bed mumbled under his slight frame.

1:47 a.m.
Max typically slept no more than three hours at a time. He woke just before 2, his pressed khaki’s shuffling together as he turned to check the clock. (I can just see him through the open doors when he turns like that. He leaves the light in the kitchen on for me.) Settling onto his side, Max could see his vacuum’s pinhole of red light glancing slyly at him from through the door to the kitchen, the living room. He pinched his eyes shut and pressed his pointer fingers heavily on the outside of his eyelids, counting each little pressure-based explosion. He heard her smack her lips twice in her sleep. (I could hear her make those mouth noises from here. I just know he hated it.) He had seen thirteen explosions on the insides of his eyelids before he stopped counting.

3:11 a.m.

His was uncomfortable before he even woke up. He pulled back the covers once, and again just for good measure. The sterile air felt reassuring. Max turned to look at her. The covers were pulled tight to fill the space beneath her chin, the crisp blackness of her hair sharp against the pristine white of the pillow case he had washed that morning, like every morning. When her eyes were closed, he found it easier to ignore that her eyes were slightly different shapes. (I am perfectly symmetrical. Let me reassure you with the purr of my motors, the sound of serene sterility.) Sometimes he preferred it that way.

He went to the lit kitchen. Opened the cabinet door six times before he took out a glass. There was a smudge around the rim – he found it was lipstick. Almost mahogany, no woman’s lips were that color. The shade made him want to scrub her face until her lips were faintly pink from harsh soap and dish towels. He knocked four times on his left temple, and gave his head a solid shake to make sure the thought drained fully out his ears. He didn’t always think about her like this. Sometimes, she did things exactly right. No one else had ever been willing to do things exactly how he needed them done. Except the lipstick. (I would never leave a smear on your cup. He had been standing over the sink, staring at the stained glass for too long. I worry about him, sometimes, when he doesn’t use me for too long. I keep him centered).

He heard her lips smack from the bedroom. Four smacks, this time. (You shouldn’t let her get away with that.) He glanced into the living room. The red light of his vacuum was usually green by this time. Maybe he had used it more than usual today. Things had seemed a little dirtier. But most things had, the last few days. (It’s her.)

A quiet monologue seemed to be coming from the bedroom. She was talking in her sleep. She talked some nights, but he had never heard her like this. She was shattering his flawless nocturnal silence.

“I get it.” The sound of sheets. “I get it, okay Max?” The bed springs squealed in protest. “It’s fine. Just wish we could get rid of that stupid vacuum. Too loud.”

3:16 a.m.

He hadn’t moved since she spoke. (Did you see – she didn’t fold her shirt before she went to bed. She laughed at you yesterday when you washed your hands four times after you spilled maple syrup on your thumb. She’s trying to ruin you.) He set the glass down on the counter. Pressing his fingertips to his closed eyelids, he started counting. One, two, three, four, explosions fired. (Let me help.)

3:17 a.m.
He stood over her side of the bed. She hadn’t spoken in two minutes. The sheets lay in a pile at the bottom of the bed. His bed. One arm lay reaching at his empty spot. The other was tangled into the split ends of her hair. The angle of her body reminded him of her too-high right hip. It was a scene of chaos. (A mess? In your house?)

3:18

The vacuum handle fell almost naturally into his hand. It’s single eye flashed excitedly at him. It was green. He unplugged it (so close. I can fix this for you) and carried it noiselessly through the lit kitchen, into the cold bedroom (I was made for this).

3:19
Chaos. Mess. He saw one, two, three explosions but he didn’t remember closing his eyes. Mahogany. No woman’s lips were that color. The purr of a motor, the sound of sterility. He vacuumed up the last of her.

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