When Burley comes home late every night, I tell myself he’s busy. He tells me that, too, but I believe it more when I say it.
Now, I do understand. He’s been busy before, but this is a busy with a smell on it.
This particular night, it’s 9 p.m. exactly. He comes in all fed even though I made pot roast. The pot roast that burned while I waited for him, the flat char of it still coating the air. Burley whooshes himself into the shower. Careful to take off his jeans and shirt and ball them into a wad. “Best to leave those,” he says. “I stopped for gas, and some jerk spilled coffee all over me.”
I wait till the shower is running to give his shirt a good sniff. Not a hint of coffee anywhere. Nothing is wet. And then I go for his jeans – in the pocket, a matchbook. Red with the black outline of two lovers, two cocktail glasses about to clink.
After the shower and him toweling himself off. “Whatta day” and “I shoulda called.”
I hold up the matchbook. “Oh this,” he says. “This isn’t anything. Guy at work was passing them out. New place opened up down the street.”
Burley says, work’s gonna be a bear this week, just so I know. He likes to compare everything to animals. Guys at work are a bunch of donkeys. Me, I’m a cute little cat.
And I am. Curled up and patient, like my mother taught me to be. This is what men like, she said. And really, I didn’t mind. Although Burley forgets sometimes that a cat needs attention. A tickle on the back of its neck. A rake of fingers through the hair. Later, in bed, I nuzzle up, kitten-like. He turns on his side. “Tired,” is all he says.
I whisper, “hey I’d love to go to that matchbook place with you. Have drinks like we used to.” I say this as his breath becomes even with sleep. I wobble his shoulder, and say it again, but he doesn’t move. He is a lost mountain to me now.
Something that isn’t hunger exactly gets me up on my feet and into the fridge. I pull out the leftover pot roast, burnt as it is. I kitten my face into it. Nuzzle and nibble and suck. Soon I go from tame little cat to feral. I crouch down to the floor and start gnawing like a lion on one of the nature shows I watch when Burley isn’t home. And then, without a sound, Burley just like that in the doorway. The swell of the fluorescent light overhead, sudden and sharp.
Burley leans over and struggles the pot roast away from my mouth. A look on his face like he caught me kissing another man. He lifts me to my feet. He flinches as my fingernails dig into his shoulders. Any harder and there would be blood. “What’s wrong with you,” he says with a look on his face like one of those animal trainers who realize they’ve gone too far. “I told you,” he says, “none of this is anything,” He grabs a dishtowel, wipes the grease off my chin and kisses me down to the floor.
Next morning, the mess from last night all over the kitchen and Burley humming from the bathroom. The pot roast, the dishtowel, the spot on the floor with naked us rubbed into it. I think about asking Burley now to tell me about the gas station. What was the feel of it, I want to say. Who was this guy? Was he bigger than you? Was the coffee hot? Why weren’t you burned? I clean everything up and put on a pot of coffee, the smell of it filling the room. The same smell that wasn’t anywhere on Burley’s shirt, and when Burley comes in and kisses me on the cheek, pulls back and winks at me, I feel a million questions on my tongue, a lion’s growl forming in my throat…
Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, and Passages North. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ in Fall 2021. She is flash fiction editor for Flash Boulevard and The South Florida Poetry Journal. She lives in NYC.