3   +   6   =  

I have an apartment full of stuff that is all unreal. I have been away from the city for days, waiting for her to return home and make the place lived in again. To make the stuff real. The toaster. The hairdryer. The coffee machine. The microwave. The foot-massager. The greaseless sandwich grill. Her skin flakes were all over the stuff.

The apartment air smells like sour laundry despite the open window. Humid soup air wafts in, roiling the dust. Her skin flakes dance in the sunbeams. I cross the room and open the balcony door. The hibachi grill. The plastic chair. The dish chair. I sit in the dish chair and drink air into my lungs. I hate the city now. I hated the city before I met her and now I hate it again.

The phone rings.

We kissed and kissed. She was so real. Her skin was warm and my skin was warm.

You have a cold puppy nose, she said.

She kissed the cold puppy nose. I kissed a chin.

I closed my eyes and inhaled her perfume. It was artificial but she wore it alive. When I opened my eyes again, it was morning and I climbed out of bed to some racket.

She was in the bathroom with the door open. Humid soup air filled the living room. I passed through the air and took a drink. Shampoo and body wash. Wet hair blown hot and dry. The radio sang to us. I went into the kitchen and microwaved some oatmeal, toasted some toast, brewed some coffee. The coffee machine hissed and sputtered and leaked into a wide-open cup that was saying Aaaah. Everything was alive. Everything was real.

When I met her she wanted a dog, so after two weeks I went out and got a puppy. She was so happy. So was the dog. She kissed my cold puppy nose and the puppy’s cold puppy nose. I kissed her chin, kissed a snoot, got my face licked.

I walked the dog when she was at work. She was a pilot. Well, an astronaut actually. An alternate for an alternate. She flew to Florida or Texas every few weeks for conditioning, in case a bunch of astronauts got the flu. She was the right height for an astronaut, the right weight. She was good at math and science. She had an optimal body mass index. She had a flight suit with the NASA logo on the sleeve as well as an Air Force insignia. Her name was stitched over the left breast.

Sometimes when she got back from training she would miss her periods because her body fat percentage did a nosedive in training. She’d joke she was pregnant and I was sort of okay with the idea, even though it was a joke. We played with the puppy and called it Baby.

A bunch of astronauts got the flu, so she got the call. This was her big day. She was so excited, let’s celebrate!

We went out for breakfast, lunch, dinner. In between meals we made love. On the counter between the toaster and the microwave, on the couch, on the dish chair on the balcony, getting our reproductive merchandise all over everything. I kissed her goodbye at the airport.

When I got back to the apartment, I drank in the sex air. It was truffle soup. Late summer leaked in through the cracked window, making what was once hot sex hot soup. I smelled her, and I smelled me, and I smelled the dog. The dog came out of the bathroom. He wanted to go for a walk. I need to air the place out, Baby, I said. I aired the place out, leashed the dog, Velcroed on the specially-made pouch and stuffed it with plastic shit bags. I closed the door and thought about her up in the air.

I hated the city because I grew up there. Everything was so familiar, so old. Partly it was the weather. Sub-zero, snowless winters. Violent ice winds, frozen nosehairs, chapped skin. Winter gave way to summer almost immediately. Plants had just enough time to catch their breath before the air turned to soup. Summer was all nudity, air conditioning, or heat stroke, and our dog, panting and panting, mouth open tongue dripping onto the floor. Until the sliver of Autumn, then the belly of Winter came flouncing in again.

My family was concentrated in the city and her family was spread out. I liked her family, she didn’t; I didn’t like my family, she thought they were quirky, cute. I didn’t like my neighborhood, she did. Besides your family being close by, there’s a little of everything, she said. She liked the neighborhood kids who lit dumpsters on fire because they thought it was funny. She pitied the elderly who struggled to department stores to buy air conditioners in early Summer. She liked the rumors about the whores for twenty dollars four blocks south of our building. She liked the graffiti, the skater kids. She thought there was a quaintness about how anyone who was creative was either a hobbyist or destitute. She liked the dog park. I liked the dog park because she liked the dog park and I love her so much.

When I heard they lost contact with the shuttle, I left the city and took a plane to Houston. They suspected problems during reentry and expected the shuttle to emergency-land. I took the dog with me.

When the plane was taxiing to the gate, the stewardess seemed concerned.

She asked me if I had forgotten anything. I had no luggage. Just the dog. No, I said.

You can keep the complimentaries, you know, she said. I had flown first class. There was a free toothbrush, razor, floss, paste, mouthwash, earplugs, if I wanted it.

No thanks, I said.

She looked like she wanted to ask me more. She looked at the dog, asleep in his carry-on crate, and I bet she wished she had a treat. She only had peanuts and chocolate bars. Chocolate bars are poison for dogs.

Do you want some peanuts? she asked.

No, I said.

Then a cold light went ding and a hundred seatbelts clicked open. The dog woke up. He knew it was time.

In the airport terminal the news replayed footage of a comet in the sky.

I exited the airport, following roads designed for zero foot traffic, seeking a view of the sky. I switched the dog crate from arm to arm. The dog wanted out, but he would quickly get killed by a car if I let him out. There was no shoulder.

I finally found some sunlight and high above me I saw the comet. The comet was by no means angling down for an emergency landing. I went back to the airport and hailed a taxi. I took it to a hotel and contacted the space center. They wouldn’t tell me anything except, Yes, a hotel was a good idea. In fact, it was on them. They said to hold tight.

I checked in and let the dog run around the suite. It was a large suite with a balcony. There was a mini-fridge, warm to the touch but cold inside, and empty. There was a coffee machine, plugged in. The little red light was hanging in there. There was a microwave, and inside, though spotless, the air hung heavy with the smells of something recently cooked.

My cell phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket. The dog barked.

The comet was coming down in pieces. Landing gear demolished a front yard outside Abilene. A little boy in Waco found a thumb and showed his parents. A leg came down further on in Louisiana. I wondered if it was her leg. If the dog had found it, I thought, he probably would have chewed on it, maybe gotten radiation poisoning. I wonder if the dog would know from the smell that it was her.

It turns out there were some survivors from the shuttle. A small colony of roundworms survived reentry. No more than fifty, no larger than a millimeter each in length. They survived the radiation and everything. They were recovered in aluminum canisters in southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana, and, oddly, the runway of the East Texas Regional Airport outside Longview, where the shuttle was supposed to have emergency-landed.

I didn’t go out. I didn’t shower, make coffee, drink booze, refrigerate or heat up anything. I ordered room service, and, as far as I know, Houston picked up the bill on all of it. I let the dog eat meat scraps from the food, chew on steak bones.

At one point I picked up the dog and took him out on the balcony. The comet had long since faded from the sky. It was on the ground now, a messy trail of radioactive garbage. I told the dog, She’s out there, somewhere.

The dog squirmed. I put him down. The balcony railings were spaced wide enough that he could escape if he wanted. Below was a busy street, a busy sidewalk. People in suits got in and out of cars. People in hotel uniforms helped them in transition. The dog moved around the perimeter of the balcony, sniffing. He smelled something or thought he smelled something. What do you smell, Baby?

The dog looked up at me with wet eyes.

He had a scent.

She must have been everywhere, in the air as well as on the ground. I wondered where her big parts were. I wondered if the dog had a molecule of perfume in his cold puppy nose, or a skin flake. Or a molecule of cloth from her underwear. Maybe he could smell her breath. Maybe he could smell her out there somewhere.

 

I took the dog for a walk. Coming out of the elevator, the concierge nodded to us. I had the dog on a leash with a pouch full of shit bags. I was wearing what I had traveled in. Just clothes, sunglasses.

Another man in uniform opened the big glass front door of the hotel. Hot soup air rushed in and I drank it. The dog drank it, caught the scent again. She was in the air all over Texas. Outside, the dog tugged on the leash, tugged east.

What is it, Baby?

I let the dog drag me four blocks, then I understood. The dog wouldn’t leave her. I could sense that much. I loved the dog, because she loved the dog and I love her. The dog sniffed and sniffed. A gust of wind rustled a discarded newspaper, distracting him for a second. Then he started tugging again.

East, east!

I unlatched the leash. The dog took off.

I wonder if Baby found her somewhere in the woods of southern Arkansas. Scraped up, not dismembered. A smoking space suit a quarter mile away in a field. She, in her underwear, rinsing her hair in a stream. Wringing it out. Days in the woods, authentic human smells get a slim foot in the door. Authentic pheromones. Baby bounds up to her. She pets Baby. Baby licks her legs, she picks him up. Baby licks her face, she licks his cold puppy nose. She cradles Baby like a baby. Baby licks her breasts, she is so beautiful.

I sold the toaster. I can eat bread. I gave away the hairdryer. The air can dry my hair. I sold the coffee machine. I can boil water on the stove. I sold the foot massager, the blue ray disc player, the greaseless sandwich grill. I like my sandwiches greasy.

The microwave sits. It gets used but never cleaned. Someday it will die and I’ll toss it out. The hibachi grill gets used, when people come over to say hi, and sorry, and the rest. The dish chair still gets used. I sit there and drink in the air.

The phone rings. I think that it might be her. Park rangers found her hiking out of the woods with Baby at her heels, practically prancing. She looked good. It’s somebody else, saying hi, and sorry.

I never wiped down the apartment. Our fluids are dried to surfaces. Our sweat, evaporated. Her skin flakes are everywhere. They dance with my skin flakes in the sunbeams.