Feathers ~ 3
“Rupert, are you driving home tonight?”
“Stay. If you don’t, I get lonely.”
So Rupert stayed. Their friendship moved into that excitingly vague category that is both more than friendship, and less. Rupert enjoyed his new intimacy with Ellen, felt grateful to her because of it, and fully intended to make her happy– as long as she could accept the fact that they were only good friends and that (of course) he considered himself engaged to another woman.
One morning, Ellen stood in front of the closet naked. She took out a pair of clean sweatpants. Rupert’s eyes trickled open.
“You shouldn’t put those on,” he murmured lazily from the bed. “You have a beautiful body.”
Ellen stood frozen, holding the sweatpants in front of her. Rupert rolled over on his stomach and went back to sleep. Ellen listened while he began to snore, then quickly swathed herself in the sweatpants.
For the most part, Ellen found their relationship soothing. When she woke in the mornings, her eyes fluttered open to light dancing across the ceiling through cracks in the blinds, and Rupert’s thick, heavy arm draped over her like a blanket. Ellen smiled. She rolled over and looked at him. With his eyes closed, she could see that his eyelashes curled up only at the very tips. She liked to observe these details about him that no one else knew. Carefully, Ellen pried up his arm to slip out from underneath. There was something clenched tightly in Rupert’s fist. Ellen gently extracted it from his fingers: his cell phone.
Ellen looked at Rupert. He was sleeping soundly. Ellen wrapped herself in a blanket and slipped into the kitchen. She examined the cell phone. Rupert had text messaged his ex-girlfriend three times during the night.
When Ellen went to the grocery store later, a girl with long, golden hair dashed down the frozen food aisle with two boys in pursuit. Ellen stepped quickly into the sheltering triangle of cold air behind a half-closed freezer door. She watched the group through the glass: college undergraduates, easily identified by the girl’s long, smooth legs, and the shaggy, greasy curls exploding from beneath the boys’ baseball caps. The boys flirted with the girl while she selected ice cream: strawberry? Or some kind of sorbet? She couldn’t decide. Through the frosty glass, the girl’s face appeared blurred and softened, like a painting of an angel. Ellen watched until her own breath fogged the trio into a white smudge. Then she looked down at the one part of the girl she could see beneath the freezer door: her shoes. Christian Louboutin.
When Ellen returned home, the brown walls of her bedroom pushed in on her oppressively. She had painted the walls brown when she moved here six months ago, even though at home, in the house where she lived with her mother, her walls were turquoise. Ellen liked things around her to be the color she felt on the inside. Ellen went outside. She sat on the front step in the fading light. A yellow dandelion, sprouting out of a crack in the cement, rubbed against her ankle. Ellen picked it, and tucked it behind her ear.
That night, Ellen called Rupert. Rupert was with his ex-girlfriend and did not answer. Ellen slid to the edge of the bed, leaning on her elbows in the dark. Her shoes, lined up on the floor in front of her, seemed to point to the door like an instruction. Ellen slipped into them. She went outside and unlocked her old, rusty Dodge. She flicked the headlights on. She started the engine.
The next day, Ellen was not in class. None of us noticed. Was there one less fluttering outline in the corner, one less whisper from the shadows? We inhaled Russian literature and the French modernist movement with careless nonchalance. Ellen drove until her car ran out of gas. When it finally drifted to a halt on the side of the highway, she pressed her forehead into the steering wheel and cried. Eventually, she looked up. Her eyes were so swollen that the shopping mall, rising in front of her at the end of the highway, looked like a foggy rendering of the domed, turreted Kingdom of Heaven.