Fran doesn’t sleep because the houseguest goes to the bathroom every hour and locks the door. The houseguest is Fran’s best friend.
“You don’t have to lock the door,” Fran says. “You don’t even have to close it. At least not all the way. It’s loud because it’s old.”
“I know,” says the houseguest. “But I’m going to do it anyway.”
Looking at the balloons and stars on her curtains Fran wonders how long a person can last without crying themselves to sleep. This is a dramatic and sentimental thought and Fran tells herself so. But telling herself so only makes her more upset.
“I wouldn’t just come barging into the bathroom,” says Fran. “That would be insane.”
Fran was once strong and detached. She is breakable now. She possesses the anxiety of her mother now, not the meaningless beauty of making Monte Cristo sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon. When Fran does sleep it’s for minutes.
“You can’t say that for sure,” says the houseguest. “I need to protect myself. Can we have lunch now, I’m tired of talking.”
Fran has a one-minute dream about God, who in the dream resembles her father. God is holding a kite and wearing blue Umbros. He’s standing in an empty parking lot. Around God’s feet are calico kittens and a sleeping porcupine. It’s a wonderful dream. Fran wishes it would last the night so she could remember it and extend it through the reality of her days. When she wakes, from the bathroom door closing, she sits up in bed but keeps her eyes closed, trying to bring back the dream. She doesn’t want to lie back down.
Fran asks the houseguest if she’s staying much longer. The houseguest says a little longer.
“How much longer?” says Fran.
“Forever,” says the houseguest.
Fran hasn’t had a houseguest in years. That houseguest was her father who deep fried a Monte Cristo sandwich and burned his arms and had to go the hospital. Fran remembers how proud he was about the sandwich, which he described, unasked, as “absolutely delicious.” Fran remembers a family of five in the parking lot huddled around a burn-barrel cooking hot dogs on sticks. Her father said, while inspecting the growing burns on his fingers, this would be his last visit. He was moving to Houston so he could live with a woman who was the third most respected orchid expert in Texas.
In the parking lot Fran assembles a tent. She has no idea what she’s doing. Two men ask her if she needs the help of two men. Fran says no, she’s got this. The two men stand with their crotches a little too close to Fran’s face. “Please don’t,” says Fran. The two men drive off in a Kia Optima and in their absence Fran makes the tent three-dimensional. She’s proud of herself and it’s cold outside.
Inside the tent Fran has a pillow, some blankets with elephants on them, and a lamp she can’t use. She’s also missing something but can’t figure out what the something is, if it’s small or big, important, or completely trivial. Maybe it’s the most important thing in her life. It could be worth money. She spends the rest of the day trying to imagine what the something is. But she can’t figure it out.
“You’re out of milk, eggs, bread, all meat, cheese block, toilet paper, soap, and Doritos,” says the houseguest.
Fran stands in the doorway kind of swaying back and forth. “Oh,” she says.
“And the dryer is broken,” says the houseguest.
“I’m sorry,” says Fran.
“Good,” says the houseguest and she closes the bathroom door. And locks it.
Fran tells her father she’s camping under the stars in New Mexico. The desert is cool and pink and wild. She loves a certain cactus and has named it Savino. He doesn’t believe Fran, and Fran knows he doesn’t believe her, but they project imagination and happiness into their phones. Life is easier this way, but not really. Before the conversation ends Fran’s father says he will buy her more minutes, so they can keep having conversations.
“Can I visit?” says Fran.
“I don’t think so,” says her father. “This arrangement suits me.”
“Do you miss me?”
“Not really,” says her father. “You should see these orchids Rebecca is working on. She has an entire wall full of blue ribbons now. That’s how impressive these orchids are. They are growing up the walls in our house and I’m going to build a greenhouse because Rebecca has reached a new level.”
Fran says goodbye and tries to sleep.
The tent in the parking lot is surprisingly comfortable. Fran sleeps for an hour. This is a big improvement. She dreams of bathroom doors closing. Everyone outside her dream drives a car. They ring her tent in exhaust the color of God’s eyes, which is the color of a white Kia Optima. Fran was once unstoppable because she never understood something could stop her. This not knowing kept herself from herself. Now it’s just her. Before she wakes up she sees herself celebrating having slept an hour. There are fireworks shaped like balloons, stars, kittens, what she remembers of her father’s face.
“What day is it?” says Fran.
“Who gives a fuck,” says the houseguest. “Your TV is foobar.”
“But it’s a Sony,” says Fran.
“Can you get a new one?” says the houseguest.
“I think so.”
At the TV store Fran charges a 900-dollar flat screen on her father’s credit card. The credit card is for emergency purposes only. Fran considers the television to be an emergency situation.
When Fran sees the TV in the box, not just on display, she realizes it won’t fit on the bus. “It won’t fit on the bus,” she tells the boy at the register.
“Tough,” says the boy at the register.
“The driver won’t allow a big box because it will mean less people on the bus,” says Fran, doing a little laugh, which she is aware of.
The boy at the register looks at Fran and something changes. He is sixteen years old and owns a car with a leather interior. He likes the veins in his forearms. He gives Fran a ten percent discount.
Fran walks three miles against a highway carrying a 55-inch flat screen. Every car that passes her is a Kia Optima. In white. From a Kia Optima someone calls her “TV Lady,” which doesn’t seem that mean, just accurate for the situation.
The houseguest is standing at Fran’s tent in the parking lot. She’s smiling and laughing while on her phone and when she sees Fran she hangs up and looks angry and crosses her arms.
“Hate these,” says the houseguest.
Stacked against Fran’s tent are all of her belongings from the apartment.
“And I really hate this,” says the houseguest.
She slaps the crystal into Fran’s hand. It’s an amethyst the size and shape of a gerbil. A gift, from her father, while vacationing in Cape Cod, twenty years ago, when she saw the shop that had hanging beads for a door and a neon sign that said REDEMPTION. She had to go in so her father let her go in. Fran asked the shop owner if crystals were real.
“Real?” said the shop owner.
“Is it alive?” Fran said. “This purple one. It looks alive.”
“I guess so,” said the shop owner who was unpacking tiny metal figures holding axes. “Here. Feel.”
“It’s shaped like a gerbil,” said Fran. “How funny.”
The shop owner looked at Fran and then gave her father a ten percent discount and a bottle of oil to spray the crystal with. In the hotel room Fran called the oil “rock juice” and sprayed it, constantly, keeping her father up all night. At that stage in his life he didn’t mind. At that stage in his life he liked Fran because she was young. They went to the beach in the morning and he watched her play in the ocean for hours.
“Chet is coming over,” says the houseguest holding the flat screen. Only the bottom half of the houseguest’s legs are visible. “And like thirty other people. I’m throwing a party because Chet got me pregnant. I’m a mom now.”
“Can I grab something to eat first?” says Fran.
“Maybe later,” says the houseguest. “I’m busy.”
Fran thinks about being tough but instead walks to a diner. In the bathroom stall someone has written I NEED PUSSY and below that someone else has written HOW IS EVERYONE NOT SCREAMING. Fran realizes she’s in the men’s bathroom. Leaving the bathroom a man in a bright orange sweater and khaki pants makes sure to brush past her. He sweeps his body across Fran’s body. “Mind if I give it a go honey?” says the man. He is three times larger than Fran. She wonders how men got so big. She wonders how she became so alone in this world of big men.
Fran walks back to her booth and orders a Monte Cristo sandwich. She eats it with her crystal next to her.
At the party the houseguest is arrested. She set a girl on fire. When the police officers ask who owns the apartment the landlord walks the police out to the parking lot and points to the tent. The police officers sigh. Fran is inside with her crystal. The police officers ask the houseguest why she picked Fran and the houseguest says she just picked the most insane-looking woman to take advantage of. The houseguest shrugs and then laughs and then rubs her belly. The police officers look at Fran, now standing outside her tent holding her crystal. They ask her why she let the houseguest into her apartment and Fran tells them because the houseguest is her best friend.
“I’m naming my baby Sapphire Rose O’Connor,” says the houseguest.
With the help of the landlord Fran moves back into her apartment. She sets up the tent in her living room and stays there with her crystal. She calls her father but the phone doesn’t work because he forgot to add the minutes. He’s too busy smelling orchids and humping Rebecca.
In another dream, Fran is with God, in the parking lot again, and there’s the kittens and the one porcupine, but this time Fran is the kite. String is wrapped around her left ankle. She looks down the string and to the hand of God who is waving with his other hand and smiling. He is smoking a candy cigarette. They had those in Cape Cod and Fran ate hundreds. God blows sugar into the sky. Fran says, “Let me out.” She feels brave inside her imagination. So he does. Fran looks into an endless blue sky with streaks of red because the sun is so bright up there and when she looks back down she’s over the ocean and alone and happy.
Her father drives a white Kia Optima and in the passenger seat is Rebecca wearing a flower-print dress and hoop earrings that touch her shoulders. Fran can’t believe it. She hugs her father and says come in, please, come into my apartment, what a wonderful surprise. She shows them to the couch. Fran microwaves mozzarella sticks and puts them on a paper plate with three napkins.
When her father asks if anything is new Fran says not really. She doesn’t mention the houseguest because that would mean Fran moving to another apartment complex with more oversight. Rebecca moves around Fran’s apartment not touching anything but judging everything. Rebecca respects custom cabinets and prefers an open floor plan.
“I wanted you to meet Rebecca,” says her father. “So, Rebecca.”
“Hi,” says Fran.
“Rebecca is second among orchid experts now,” says her father. He is so proud. “Isn’t that something? Soon she’ll be number one.”
“That’s nice,” Fran says.
“Hardly,” says Rebecca. “Bitchface Gina will never die.”
Fran thinks how Rebecca has the kind of voice other humans can’t be around.
“So this is the 900-hundred dollar purchase on my platinum,” says her father. Rebecca laughs with a hand over her mouth. Her fingers are incredibly long.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” says Rebecca.
Fran runs into her tent and brings out her crystal. It’s seen a lot of use in the past few days and it doesn’t look like a gerbil anymore, more just like a purple crystal. Fran has been feeding it rock juice. It’s a very old crystal and Fran isn’t sure how much longer it will live. She’s just not sure what the life expectancy of a crystal is.
Her father holds the crystal and picks at it like a scab.
“Remember?” says Fran. “Redemption!”
“Drawing a blank,” says her father. “Am I supposed to?” With his nail he chips off a chunk, which Rebecca picks up and throws in the sink.
“Wait,” says her father. “Your birthstone.”
Fran sits on the floor. Realizing you’re a breakable person means you’re already broken. This is another sentimental thought, but Fran doesn’t care anymore. It’s just true. Sometimes sentimental thoughts are sentimental because they are accurate, thinks Fran. That’s how words and life works.
Fran’s father picks up a mozzarella stick, smells it, and then puts it back.
“What a cozy apartment,” says Rebecca. “Good for you.”
Fran looks at the TV that the houseguest has positioned on a table in front of the fake fireplace. From the party, someone had drawn, most likely the houseguest, a big penis on the wall. It’s still there. Then Fran looks at Rebecca. “You’re so ugly,” she says. “You’re sad inside too. That’s why you spend your life time growing orchids, because you can’t grow anything inside yourself.”
In social situations Rebecca prefers to stand but when she hears these words she appears to sit.
“Your entire identity,” says Fran, “is in other people saying you did a good job growing a plant, which grows on its own.”
Rebecca leaves the apartment and revs the engine of the Kia Optima. Fran wonders why she just doesn’t beep the horn. The difference makes her like Rebecca a little.
“That was the meanest thing I’ve ever heard,” says her father. “I don’t know what Rebecca ever did to you, but she certainly didn’t deserve that. She has a big competition coming up. In Europe. Do you understand how good you have to be for strangers to fly you to Europe? I’ll talk to you when I add more minutes to your phone. I’ll do fifty.”
“Can you do a hundred?” says Fran.
“Fine,” says her father. “I’ll do a hundred.”
Fran sleeps the entire night. It’s the longest she’s ever slept. Fran sleeps for twelve-hours and has a twelve-hour dream. Thousands of gerbil-shaped crystals protrude from the amethyst mountain she steps on, climbs up. Most of the dream is just Fran sitting on top of the mountain. In the morning she figures the climbing part only lasted an hour. That for eleven hours she sat on top of the crystal with the clouds blowing through her hair. She said, for hours, “Do you love me?” and she kept responding, “Yes. There is no one else.”
Tough was originally published in the Washington Square Review.