By: Nina Adel
At the end of the long stretch of dollar stores, blocks of restaurants offering licuados and tortas de asada and pan dulce, there is an inland sea. A half-neighborhood before this great quantity of open water, Belvidere Road becomes the gateway to a place of refuge, a temporary home for alcoholic and drug-addicted men just out of their most recent rehab residencies.
Turn right onto Jackson Street, then soon, a left. Right at the end of the park. Left into the alley. Send a text. It’s Leila, I’m here. At the mildewed house. There’s dirt atop tiny icebergs delineating each parking space. The younger residents have girlfriends who come here sometimes to spend the night, but I am the first, the only woman to sleep here, so far, as the guest of the middle-aged resident who has been here too long. He is new to me, but here, they know him. By now he fancies himself the counselor of the younger former addicts. The Village Idiots, he calls them. He sets himself apart.
Older. Rebuilding. Doesn’t belong here. Is a teacher. Has a family.
When the back door opens to the winter afternoon, his cold eyes move stealthily toward me. Something about that gaze is not right. I feel myself warned away from and reeled into his turbulence. Both. There is tension, compulsion rising from his body, circling, but as soon as he begins to talk, I am lulled into a sense of normalcy and warmth, his offering of love and openness and an extension of sweet desire obscuring every sign of danger posted along the way.
He has just come up from under murky water. What I think when I see him there is that he has been sleeping; that his newly awake condition is responsible for the slow appearance of the man from inside the body. But he has been there at his frying pan, at his guitar, at his computer screen lining up future nourishment, like blood, fully awake for many hours before my arrival. His drowsy appearance is only the human form of the demon emerging from a polluted undercurrent.
The sweater he wears is grey, his sneakers are grey, the snow below the steps is grey, the siding of the house, the hair at his temples, the skin below his eyes, the light he projects to guide me up the stairs–all grey. The kitchen, white. The counter, brown. But he opens his arms and pulls me into his jacket and kisses me strangely, dangerously, welcomes me into a promised night of gentle touches, whispers–his words.
He has bought a teapot and cup and green tea, though he drinks only coffee now. Bought them for me, along with a grapefruit, because he knows from weeks and months and hours of conversation, away from here, that these things are pleasing to me and will make me feel welcome in this broken house off Belvidere Road. He wants to begin by making me feel welcome.
Hours of sweet, intense caresses follow, then a meal he has prepared and saved for me, as promised, and he lays the story out for me to see that he learned to cook from a friend, that he was the cook in the former life with his wife and children, that cooking for others is his pleasure. Like the garden he used to tend before his poisoning, the alcohol poisoning. The guitar club he used to teach before its termination due to his escaping rage. The meetings he used to lead for others in recovery; before the leading part was over and all that was left was his own dull attendance, stripped of public recognition, of gazes that had sustained him.
Please, Leila, he says then, the meal savored and completed, the dishes washed and stacked, come shower with me. I bought this almond-scented shampoo for you; let me, he asks, wash your hair –an act he will forget later and request again, claiming it’s the first time in his life to do such a thing; forgetting we have already had this, the lather and the shower rain. Let me soap you with this peach bar, smooth you like a peach, smooth you with this soap.
In the morning, we have gotten so close, have whispered all night, and while this closeness makes me feel soft and light and hopeful, to him it is terrifying; the demon within can’t risk allowing such an offering to fill the protective shell he wears; a shell like a man. Affection is the death of a demon.
The pressure mounts all day until at last he says, what if I want to stop. I didn’t realize we’d get this close. I take in a gasp of air, and hold it. So why did you invite me, I ask. He is silent, has no answer, but he offers up a new caress, and I am alarmed, move to leave.
He sends out a ray of reassurance, reasserts his desire. I want to get away. I can go, nothing is holding me here, but I stay. I employ no caution, and I stay.
We drive back up Belvidere, past the chain stores he frequents; the shops where he buys cheap, tiny bottles of sweet almond shampoo and teapots with matching cups. My hesitation is real, my fear is real, my anxiety, real, the demon says, but the man has me back the next day, and offers something designed now, overnight, to feel like love.
I’ve been held in the arms of a grey demon living inside a man. I let it happen. No one but me has driven my car this long distance to his door. I have failed to do what only I can do, to watch over myself. To say, Leila, no. This isn’t right; it’s not for you. To command, Leila, stop.
I spread my arms, throw back my hair, and swim to him; open, awake, ashamed.
He has extracted my minerals. It was easy.
I leave, emptied, driving along Belvidere. The road extends far out into the countryside, away from the inland sea. The dollar stores become fewer; the shops selling religious candles and sample-sized peach soap bars to recent waves of hopeful immigrants and lone, recovering men who will never recover, who will never admit what is lurking beneath the alcohol. The licuados and tortas de asada and pan dulce can no longer be found. There are no roadside stands, no food trucks, no shops by the time Belvidere crosses the highway.
Above it, the sky is deep, layered in dark puffs, a murky, choking blend. The white stream drawn straight across by a plane that landed is exaggerated against this dirty sky, sharp and clear; but as minutes go by, it begins to vanish, starting at the furthest visible point and creeping forward to the newest, until the streak of airplane waste is no longer visible to the human eye, but the sky is no less soiled for its invisibility.
Driving through the dirty air I try to breathe the sweet almond, the peach from my own body, the scent washed by demon hands into my skin and hair, but it is no match for the smell of grey poison. I drive on, quickly, up from Belvidere and onto the highway; past prairie grass remnants clinging to the sides of factories, past tall, orange cranes threatening neighborhoods now too close to the interstate, past drive-through burger joints and oily truck stops; hours and hours, away from the grey. I drive back across the milky Ohio River, but when I look down over the bridge into the river, all I see is blue and green, the normal blue and green of ancient river water.
An MFA graduate of Hamline University, Nina Adel recently won the Bellevue Literary Review’s 2020 Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction and has been published in Moria, Sweet Tree Review, matchbook, Selcouth Station, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, The Tennessean, among others, and is a Glimmer Train honorable mention recipient. Once primarily a singer-songwriter, she lives in the heart of Nashville with her two children and teaches writing at a local college. She’s also the manager and instructor for the Creative Writing for Immigrants and Refugees program at the Porch Writer’s Collective. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @writethinkspeak.