Down to the Skin
That summer, more creamer was the solution to everything. When they first cut my hours at work, I sat down and poured myself some coffee. But the coffee was cheap, and it didn’t taste right. So I added in some creamer. The creamer was Matt’s, but he didn’t mind if we shared groceries. “What’s mine is yours,” he said. The creamer was the kind that came in plastic containers that looked like thimbles and said, “No refrigeration needed.” I was an attendant at an art gallery, and my job was to mainly make sure that people looked but didn’t touch. I was also to make sure that people didn’t steal. Sometimes, I planned wine and cheese receptions or helped with installations.
Like my living situation with Matt, the job had seemed ideal at first. It had been part-time always. But it started at 30 hours a week, and now I was down to ten. Matt was someone who had placed an ad on Craigslist that said, “Looking for a roommate in all the wrong places. If you take drugs, have a criminal record, or listen to 80s music, please don’t apply.” I liked his humor, so I called him.
Matt, like the job, had been chill at first. I had worked at the gallery from 9-3. Then, for two hours, I did my own thing. Sometimes, I wandered the city. At one time, I had been an aspiring artist, so I walked around trying to get ideas. When people asked me what kind of art I did, I said “urban landscapes.” Since the term didn’t mean much to most people, they didn’t ask more.
At five, I returned home and cooked dinner. At first, I cooked dinner just for myself, but then Matt joined me and we ate together and told each other the story of our days. But, lately, since Matt had started seeing Chelsea, I had started avoiding dinner and dinner time. Chelsea didn’t cook. And I couldn’t afford to eat what they ordered, so I tried to stay out later. With my shorter hours at the gallery, finding free stuff to do was becoming more and more challenging. But I stayed out as late as I could. It was better than coming home and finding Chelsea feeding Matt pad thai with chopsticks, a little egg stuck to his chin, and making up an excuse for something that I needed to do in my room.
This day I was too depressed to wander round the city, so I returned home early at only two or three. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t really afford to eat much. So I sat down in the apartment and poured some coffee. I added in the creamer. If Matt noticed my increased creamer use, he didn’t say. I sat there and stared at my cup awhile and lost track of time. By the time Matt got home, I was still sitting there.
“Hey,” he said, Chelsealess. He was wearing a shirt with green diamonds on it. He was an architect, a real artist, something I thought I would never be. In school, I had studied art in and dabbled in everything—pottery, painting, drawing—and specialized in nothing. And, then after graduation, the gallery job came up and seemed perfect, and it had been for a time. “Cooking tonight?”
“Um,” I said. I hadn’t even thought of eating. “I don’t have any food.”
Matt pointed to the plastic bags he had. “No worries,” he said.
I got up to help him put the groceries away. “Spaghetti?” I asked. He nodded. I realized I was hungry. I got a pot out and poured some water in. I turned the stove on. “Look,” I said, “with you and Chelsea, you know, maybe I should find another place?”
“Oh no, it’s cool,” he said.
I didn’t want to admit how poor I was. The weather was warm enough. I was thinking about sleeping in my car for the rest of summer until I found something better. Rent was due in five days. “Um, look,” I said, still not sure how to break it to him. “I’m flat broke. My hours got cut at the gallery.”
Matt looked at me with concern. “When?”
I was tempted to lie but I didn’t. “Like a month ago.”
“Okay,” Matt said, and I felt like crying. Instead, I concentrated on cutting vegetables. I assumed they were for the sauce.
Matt just stood there for a minute, and then he wrapped his arms around me. The touch of him was a shock, and I cut the tip of my finger.
“Shit, shit,” I said.
“Here,” he said, “let me see.” He held my finger up to the light. “It’s okay, Katie,” he said but I was shaking.
He went to kiss me. And I thought about how wrong it was since I knew about Chelsea. Chelsea was an investment banker. I think she made more money that Matt even, and Matt himself made decent money. Still, I let him kiss me. I needed something other than coffee creamer.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About the coffee creamer. I’ll get you some more.”
He didn’t respond. He kept on kissing me, and we made quick love until the water boiled. We didn’t talk about it afterward, not that night, not the next day when Chelsea was back and I felt like screaming.
I said hi to her, like I was fine, like it was nothing, like I didn’t care. They were eating takeout, and I tried to slink off to my room, but Matt said, “Katie, wait,” and handed me a takeout container of my own to take up.
Secretly, I wanted coffee creamer, not the coffee, just the creamer. But I would wait. And I did wait. Until after Matt and Chelsea were asleep. And then I slunk downstairs and poured a bunch of those little containers into a cup. I mixed flavors, french vanilla, hazelnut, it didn’t matter. Sometime later, Matt came down. He was only in his boxers. “You know, Kate, we have milk.”
“I know,” I said. I both wanted him to kiss me again and didn’t want him to kiss me again.
I looked at him and said, “I don’t have the rent money, Matt. Should I go?”
“Now?” he asked with surprise, maybe even alarm. I thought he looked good standing there in his boxers. He had just the right amount of chest hair. And even though he was older than me, maybe in his 30s, none of it was yet gray. Chelsea was his age.
“No, I don’t know,” I said and gulped the creamer down.
“Is there a specific kind you prefer?” Matt asked, about the creamer.
“No,” I admitted. “Not really. Sometimes, I just mix them all together.”
Matt went to the cabinet. He kept them above the sink. He brought five more containers for me and dumped them into a cup. Matt kissed me even though Chelsea was upstairs. I felt my body responding to his body. “Hey, Matt, we can’t.”
“Kate, are you on the pill?” he asked. This seemed like a question he should have thought to ask before.
I shook my head.
“Okay, then,” he said. I assumed that he would go back up to Chelsea. But he kept kissing me. We were both quiet as he stripped off my clothes down to the bra and then down to nothing.
“Kate, this okay?”
I nodded. We finished. He went upstairs first, and then, after I put my clothes back on, I followed. The next morning, the alarm didn’t wake me and I almost didn’t make it to work. What would it matter, I thought, if I just didn’t show up?
Tuesday, rent was due, so I felt like I should at least come home and remind Matt that I didn’t have the money. Chelsea wasn’t there, but Matt got home before I did, and he was waiting with groceries.
“You remember, right, about rent?” I said.
He nodded. I almost asked him what I was making him, but I looked in the bags to see. I felt like I should ask him what I was doing. Was I trading sex for rent, and, if so, how long could that last?
The first bag was filled with creamer. “For you, Katie,” he said. And I wanted to cry, but, instead I laughed. The next bag, even though it was in a grocery bag, wasn’t groceries. It was dinner. From an expensive takeout place that I never went to. Couldn’t afford to go to. “For us,” he said. “You hungry, Katie?”
I nodded and devoured the food. Afterward, we went upstairs to his bedroom to make love. I wanted to ask if we should maybe talk about what we were doing, but I liked what we were doing, and I didn’t want it to end.
The next night, Chelsea was back. I didn’t want to slink up to my room until I at least had some creamer. I thought that straight creamer would look weird, so I made coffee first and then dumped the maximum amount of creamers in that I could. Then, I went upstairs.
While they were sleeping, I came down and drank more. Matt, I noticed, had bought me a bottle of creamer too, and it was in the fridge. But I liked the packets, and even though I knew they probably weren’t the most environmentally friendly way to go, I couldn’t help liking them. They made me feel safe and comforted in a way that almost nothing else did except making love to Matt. But Matt was with Chelsea. I was just his poor, weird roommate who liked drinking his creamer. I fell asleep at the kitchen table but woke up before Matt and Chelsea. I showered, went downstairs, drank more creamer and left.
That night, when I got home, Matt was there, Chelsea was not. “I missed you this morning,” he said. He looked cute, I thought. Like a guy I could date if we were just a little closer in age.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“35,” he said. “You?”
“You just graduated college this year, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Going to grad school?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I think my parents kind of want me to come and live with them, but I don’t want to go back to Ohio.”
“Where you from?” he said. I couldn’t remember if we had had this conversation before.
“You like Chicago?”
“Except the winters.”
I thought he might say more, but he didn’t. For some reason, up until that point, Matt and I hadn’t gotten very personal.
“Kate,” he said, “I want to have kids.”
“Does Chelsea?” I asked carefully, not wanting to tread where I wasn’t welcome.
“Chelsea wants to have a career.”
“You want a wife who doesn’t have a career?” I asked.
“I didn’t say that,” he said. “Look, do you want to get dinner?”
“Like a date?” I asked.
He didn’t respond. And I wanted to say, but aren’t you still seeing Chelsea?
“Kate, do you want to have kids?”
The answer up until then had been I didn’t know, but, at that moment, I found myself saying yes and meaning it. Matt took me to a nice restaurant, the kind I couldn’t afford on my own, and he asked me about my friends, my parents.
“Where are all of your college friends?” he said as he fingered shrimp and I ate steak. He’d made it clear that I could get whatever I wanted.
“I don’t know. I guess we’ve all kind of scattered. Everything feels so uncertain.”
After dinner, he took me home and we made love and then made love again. “Matt,” I said after the second time because I felt I’d earned the right to know, “what about Chelsea?”
He shrugged. But the next night, she wasn’t back. And she wasn’t back the night after that. We made love a lot, and I worked a little. And then I got tired and told Matt that I wasn’t sure I felt like going in again.
“Would it be okay,” I asked him uncertainly, “if I quit?”
He laughed. “And what would you do then?”
“I’d cook for you and clean for you and then,” I added tentatively, “if you want, we’d have a baby.”
Matt looked serious. “Oh would we? And when?”
“Maybe,” I said, “next year?”
“Go to work,” he said, “and think about it.”
I did go to work, but I was throwing up and was glad when my five hours were up. I was down to two days. I came home and went to bed. Sometimes, I just went to Matt’s bed. But since I was sick, I chose my room, my bed. Matt came up and found me.
“Want some creamer?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “I think it might make me sick.”
“Are you sick?”
“A little sick,” I said.
“And creamer doesn’t help?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve tried.”
“Kate, let’s get you to a doctor.”
“I don’t have insurance.”
“Let’s get married,” he said. “I can add you to mine.”
“Don’t you want to be sure?”
“I am sure,” he said.
“When did you first know?” I asked.
“The night I came down and found you drinking coffee creamer. I thought, I can’t let this girl get away.”
I laughed. “Be serious,” I said.
“I am serious. Kate,” he said, “we should talk.”
“We are talking. If we make love, it might make me feel a little less nauseous.”
“You think?” he asked. He sounded tentative, hopeful. And I didn’t know, but I said that I did. And we stripped then, down to just skin, and I thought how lovemaking was pure sometimes. Like coffee creamer, I greedily drank him in. And I kept on drinking him in until I was full.
Lori D’Angelo lives in Virginia with her husband, sons, dogs, and cats. She is an alumna of the Community of Writers Workshop in California and a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She wrote this story when she was a fellow at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences.