Suckers

Creative Nonfiction
Melissa Leavitt


tentacles
Photo Credit: Bill Selak

I almost flunked my interview when I applied to volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The volunteer coordinator looked at me, straightened the lapels of her lavender blazer, and cleared her throat. She asked me if I had a particular interest in aquatic life; I said no. She asked me if I was from the area, if I could easily give directions to visitors; I said no. She frowned. But finally, she opened up a black binder, tapped a page with her pencil, and said she had an opening at the Information Booth on Friday afternoons. She handed me a turquoise cardigan, with the aquarium logo embroidered on the pocket, and told me never to throw it out or donate it to a thrift store, even if I quit. “We don’t want just anyone to wear it.”

So I began to spend every Friday afternoon standing at the Information Booth, telling people how to find the bathroom or the gift shop; thanking Harriet, my shift partner, every time she told me how nice it was to work with such a jovial young person; and waiting for the octopus to swim out from behind the rocks. The octopus habitat was in a tank across from the Kelp Forest, in the wing of the aquarium adjacent to my booth. I’d never seen her during my previous visits, and when I started volunteering, I asked the Kelp Forest volunteer to let me know as soon as she came out of hiding. She was shy, I was told. She almost never came out during the day, never when there was a crowd. Occasionally someone would buzz me on the walkie-talkie, telling me to come over, quick, because the octopus was out. But all I could ever see was the tip of one tentacle, one sucker grasping a seaweed frond, or one eye looking out between two rocks.

I had moved down to Monterey for the summer with my boyfriend, Michael, who had a temporary job in the area as a real estate attorney. I was portable, since I was writing my dissertation—all I needed was a stack of library books and a place to plug in my laptop. Volunteering at the aquarium gave me a break from sitting home by myself all day, trying to write about other people’s homes. My dissertation was all about representations of the home in American literature: the difference between tenancy and ownership, domestic bliss, and the motif of eviction. In Monterey, I hoped to finish my third chapter, about an obscure midwestern writer obsessed with what he called “a nation of homes.” A nation of homes was a land where everyone had a place that couldn’t be taken away, where work and commitment were the currency of ownership. I began every day by typing “a nation of homes” onto my blank Word document. I couldn’t get past it. A nation of homes.

Michael and I sublet our San Francisco apartment, and treated the summer like an extended vacation: he loved the mountains, I loved the beach, and the Monterey peninsula had it all—including a furnished two-bedroom house we could rent that was an upgrade from our cramped studio. We dated for years before we lived together, but began to fight as soon as I moved in, over things like dirty dishes and the unmade bed and who finished all the Cheez-Its.

On our drive down to Monterey, as the suburbs gave way to small towns where the homes had huge spaces between them, we listened to Selected Shorts on NPR, a reading of “Goodbye To All That.” We stopped at a roadside stand to buy cherries and pistachios, then stopped a few miles later to buy lemonade from kids sitting at a card table on their front lawn. The smell of eucalyptus reached in through the open windows as we turned off 101 and broke west toward the coast, and we imitated the calls of the sea lions that seemed to welcome us home.

But just a couple weeks into our stay, we began to fight again. One night, after we finished eating dinner, I told Michael that when we moved back to San Francisco, I thought we should try to find a different apartment, a bigger apartment; maybe we just needed more room to spread out. Michael said he didn’t want to move, because he loved the neighborhood and he’d been in that place for years.

“If we don’t move, then I don’t think we can live together,” I said.

“Then I don’t think we should be together,” he said.

He took off his shoes, left them under the kitchen table, then walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. I threw his shoes against the wall, while he stretched out and closed his eyes. An hour later, he came into the spare bedroom, where I was sitting on one of the twin beds, deciding whether to call my friends now or wait until Michael went to work the next day.

Leaning in the doorway, he said, “Sorry. I didn’t think I’d take that long of a nap.”

“Do you remember what we talked about before you fell asleep? Do you remember that we broke up?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sure. What do you want to do now?”

We watched La Dolce Vita, the next movie in our Netflix queue. We watched the closing credits, in their entirety. We watched the DVD extras. We stared at the blue screen on the TV for ten minutes after we pressed stop on the remote. Then we talked, and decided to keep living together through the rest of the summer. He had two months left at his job, and we had two months left on our lease in Monterey. I could have asked him to pay rent on his own for the rest of the summer, but I didn’t want to leave. I had just started volunteering at the aquarium—I couldn’t turn in the cardigan yet. And I had friends scheduled to visit. I couldn’t disrupt their summer vacation.

I emailed those friends the next morning, and they both called me within the hour. What happened? they asked. They seemed surprised. Andrea told me she didn’t think it was a good idea for me to stay; Diana asked if I wanted her to drive down to get me. The morning fog had burned off by the time I finished with the second call.

Every day around noon, the sun thinned out the fog, turning the sky lighter shades of grey and the carpet paler shades of beige, until I found myself squinting as I looked at my book or computer screen. That day, after I hung up the phone, I stretched my arms above my head, trying to warm my hands in a beam of light coming in through the window. Then I sat on the floor in a patch of sunlight and cried. After a while I went for a walk out to the bay shore, taking the path along the docks so I could watch the sea lions. They slept piled upon one another, the long white whiskers of one disappearing into another’s folds of fur and fat. I stared at them, trying to tell where one body ended and another began, until the wind picked up, the fog blew back in, and I was too cold to stand still. I started walking out to watch the sea lions every afternoon, right around the time Michael would get home from work.

We still slept in the same bed, but hardly ever touched. I’d lie awake for hours after he fell asleep, watching his shoulder blades move together and apart as he breathed in and out. When he turned over, I turned the other way, too, so if he opened his eyes he wouldn’t see me watching him. I’d leave as much space between us as I could, fearing that if I did fall asleep, I would reach for him out of habit, or he would reach for me, cupping the underside of my breast with the palm of his hand. I only slept soundly after I heard him turn on the shower in the morning.

Before we broke up, I always made a point of getting out of bed when he did. When I first moved into his apartment, we commuted together from San Francisco to the East Bay—I headed to my teaching job at UC Berkeley, and he went to his law office in Oakland. BART was so crowded in the morning that we always had to stand, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the handrail hanging from the ceiling. We stood facing each other in the middle of the center aisle, with people pushing in on either side, and Michael held onto the rail while I held onto him. He put his messenger bag between his feet so he could reach up with both hands, bracing himself while the train jerked back and forth. I wrapped my arms around his waist and we held steady as our train moved underneath the water, swaying while everyone around us shoved.

When my job ended and I began to stay at home to write everyday, I made myself get up early so we could start the day together. I slept on the left side of the bed, and he slept on the right; when we got up we’d cross paths at the foot of the bed, between my closet and his dresser. This moment of crossing paths was my favorite time of the day. To be a person in a couple—a person set in motion because someone else was in motion, too—made me feel like I’d found my place in the world, like the path had been cleared and I could see my way home.

After we broke up, I thought about moving into the extra bedroom. We had made up the twin beds with new sheets and blankets so friends would be comfortable when they visited. But I convinced myself there were ghosts in our house, and I was afraid to sleep alone. The other volunteers told me ghost stories, and I believed them all, even in the cheer of the aquarium’s crowds and piped-in Caribbean music. My favorite restaurant, just a block away from our house, was supposedly haunted. I figured our entire neighborhood was haunted. Our house was old. The doorways had settled and shifted, and doors would swing open and shut; the ceilings were slanted, and cast shadows even in the middle of the night.

Our new sheets stayed unused until Michael’s friends came to visit from New York for the Fourth of July. Jake and Lillian had just got engaged; they slept in one twin bed together, saying it reminded them of when they first started dating during their freshman year at Brown. We told them we thought that was cute. We didn’t tell them we had broken up—Michael said he didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. I agreed to go along with the charade, but all weekend, I worried I would give something away in my gestures or choice of words. Afraid to seem cold or unkind, I laughed a lot, too often, when I should have been listening.

We took them to the restaurant with the ghost in the attic. After we ordered, Jake asked Michael what was new in his life. I grinned to fill the space left by Michael’s pause, and Jake smiled back.

“Ok, this is gonna be a good story,” he said. “I can tell.”

“No, actually,” Michael said. “My father died.” Michael looked at me, and I looked away. I had forgotten about it somehow, before Michael even had a chance to tell his friends. Lillian dropped the roll she had just picked out of the breadbasket.

Two weeks before we moved to Monterey, I was cleaning out our closet when the phone rang. It was Michael’s brother-in-law.

“Hey, is Michael home? I have to talk to him right away.”

“No, he’s down the street doing laundry.” I looked at his desk and saw his cell. “He didn’t take his phone. Should I have him call you when he gets back?”

“No, I have to talk to him now.”

Michael’s father had suffered a stroke that morning; things looked bad. Michael had to come home to Ohio right away, to take a flight that night if he could. They were keeping his father on life support, and Michael had to decide whether he wanted them to turn it off. His father would probably die right away without it.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll get him.”

I couldn’t find my keys, so I left the doors open. I ran two blocks barefoot down the hill to our laundromat, and found Michael sitting in front of one of the machines, reading. I sat next to him, touched his knee, and pushed his magazine down, telling him what happened.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What am I supposed to say? I don’t know.”

“I don’t know. You have to go now,” I told him. “The door’s open. The door to the building is open.”

“You talk to him. Tell him I’ll call him back.”

“Michael, I can’t. He’s waiting. He’s still on the phone. You have to go.” I pointed to the machine. “I’ll watch your stuff.”

He told his family to take his father off life support, and flew home the next day. His father died before he got there. As Michael told Jake and Lillian, I nodded along with what everyone said—their questions, their condolences, Michael’s stories about planning the funeral. One of his hands started to shake, and he put it in his lap. I didn’t take it in mine. I waited too long, trying to decide if that’s what I would have done, before. I looked at his hand, watching him trying to stop the shaking by pressing it, palm up, into his knee. I wondered what Jake and Lillian would say about me that night when they crawled into their twin bed.

The next day we drove down the coast to Big Sur, stopping partway to hike in the seaside hills. We pulled off on the side of Highway 1 and climbed down to the beach, jumping off a low cliff wall. Jake and Lillian went first, and then I came behind them, with Michael following. I heard him stumble on the rocks and skid down to a ledge, and I turned around.

“Need a hand?” I asked.

“No,” he said, jumping the rest of the way down to the sand. Lillian turned around. Michael waved at her and then put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back toward him. “Thanks, though.”

We finished the day at a restaurant that jutted out over the ocean, where diners could watch whales breaching in the distance. Our table was pressed against the window, with two seats facing the ocean and two seats facing the interior. I took one of the seats without the view.

“No, you can’t,” Jake said. “We can’t steal the whole view.”

“No, seriously guys, it’s totally fine. I really want you to enjoy it. Don’t worry about it!”

I put my hand on the table to emphasize my point, and knocked over the salt shaker. Salt spilled over Michael’s side of the table, and he pushed it back toward me. A young boy sitting at the table next to us tapped me on the arm.

“Hi,” I said to him.

“You need to throw that salt over your shoulder. You’re gonna have seven years of bad luck.”

“Oh, ok,” I said. “Thank you. I will.”

“You have to.” The boy took his hand off my arm and went back to eating his fries, while his father looked at me and shrugged.

I changed the subject, but Jake interrupted me.

“You know, he’s right, you don’t want bad luck. Throw some salt.”

For the first few months of my relationship with Michael, after the initial weeks of show-off dates, when he took me to concerts and plays and restaurants I’d never been to, we would spend the entire weekend in bed. I was living in Palo Alto at the time, and I would drive up to his apartment around six every Friday, and stay until Sunday or Monday. When I arrived, we’d go to the store to pick up food—cheese, crackers, red wine—and we’d call in for take-out when we got tired of that. We might take a walk at some point on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and if the fog cleared, we might go down to Dolores Park to sit in the sun. But other than that, we were in bed.

One night, I picked up the bottle of wine off the floor next to the bed and filled our glasses. Then I rested the bottle against my side and leaned over to kiss Michael. He rolled over on top of me and knocked over the bottle. I scooted down to the end of the bed, wrapping myself in the top sheet, while he went to the kitchen for a towel. “Get salt!” I shouted after him. “To sop it up!” He emptied the entire salt canister over the spill and we watched the grains turn red. We left them there over night and fell asleep at the foot of the bed.

I looked at Jake and pressed my fingers on the table, picking up a few grains of salt on my fingertips. While Lillian clapped, I flicked salt at the window behind me.

Our next visitors were my friends Diana and Andrea, who came for my birthday at the end of July. They had asked me if I thought Michael would do anything for me, and I said yes, I think so, because it would be too weird if he didn’t, right? They said they’d come anyway. The four of us went to see a movie at the amphitheater in Carmel, answering the pre-show trivia questions and winning me a T-shirt. When the movie started, Michael stood up and walked to the end of our row, saying I probably wanted to sit next to my friends.

“Is he pouting?” Diana asked.

“I hope he’s not trying to ruin anything for you,” Andrea said.

I pointed at the screen. “It’s starting. We’ll talk later.”

But Michael did most of the talking later, after the four of us went back home for tea and birthday cake. I kept asking him, “Aren’t you tired? You don’t want to be tired when you get up for work tomorrow. You’re going to work tomorrow, right?” But he stayed up as long as we did, the four of us sitting cross-legged on the living room floor.

Diana, Andrea, and I slept in the next morning, and then spent a few hours at the aquarium, taking advantage of my guest passes. I pointed out the volunteer ladies in their turquoise cardigans and we laughed. We watched the sea otters dive for plastic balls; we waited for fifteen minutes in front of the octopus habitat, trying to catch a glimpse of her between the algae-streaked reefs; and then we headed over to the wave display, where we took pictures of each other pretending to be capsized. After a stop in the gift shop, where Andrea bought a Steinbeck novel and Diana bought an octopus-shaped magnet, we headed back home for lunch. As we ate bowls of homemade pudding with strawberries fresh from the farmers market, we planned the rest of our day, deciding between a drive past the mansions in Pebble Beach, or a visit to Tor House, a home in Carmel a poet had built for his wife.

When we were almost finished eating, Michael came home for lunch.

“Oh, you went to the aquarium?” he said. “That’s good. Aren’t those guest passes great? Nice to know a volunteer, huh?” He put his arm around me. “Did you see the octopus? I still haven’t.”

Andrea and Diana looked at him without saying anything.

“Michael,” I said. “We’re eating here. We’ve kind of been hanging out. We’ll probably leave soon, though.”

“Oh, that’s ok, I don’t mind you didn’t wait.”

Michael took out a Trader Joe’s mini quiche from the freezer and put it in the microwave. Then he came over to the table and opened Diana’s bag from the gift shop. He picked up the magnet, tracing the pattern of green dots on the purple body. There were eight little magnets on the octopus, one on each leg where a sucker should be, and Michael threw it at the fridge, five feet from the table. He whistled. “Just had to see how well it would stick. Pretty good.” Then he took the magnet from the fridge and walked further away, throwing it again. He did this several times, throwing the octopus harder and harder from greater distances.

“What are you doing? Stop it,” I said. “You’re gonna hurt it.”

“Just seeing what it can take,” Michael said, throwing it again. This time the magnet didn’t stick, skimming across the surface of the fridge and falling on the floor. He picked it up and tossed it to Diana.

“Thanks,” she said, pushing her chair back from the table. “I’ll just put this with my things. Before I forget and leave it here.”

A week or two after Diana and Andrea went back to San Francisco, I started to search Craigslist for apartments. The lease on our Monterey home was up in the middle of August, and I didn’t want to be caught with no place to go. Michael was adamant that he should keep our studio, and I didn’t fight him for it. He was there first. Plus, he had never repaired the hole in the bathroom floor where a mouse chewed its way in from the basement. Every time I sat down on the toilet and looked at that hole, I felt like Michael was opening the door to something dirty.

The mouse first appeared one night a few months after we moved in together, when Michael was out with a friend. I was in bed, reading, when it ran out of my closet and into a cupboard. I screamed louder than I ever thought I could and called Michael, telling him I saw a mouse and asking him to come home. He laughed, but said sure. When he got home, we sat on the bed waiting for the mouse to run back across the floor. It finally did, and I screamed again, but Michael wasn’t able to catch it. Our upstairs neighbor, Armando, called to ask if we were ok; Michael told him I was scared of a mouse. The next morning when I woke up, there was a patch of blood on the bed sheet beneath me.

“Holy shit,” Michael said. “Are you ok? Didn’t you just have your period like two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said, trying to lift myself out of bed without smearing the blood. “It’s not my period. I guess I was just really scared.”

Michael called his work to say he would be late. He set out glue traps and cleaned up the droppings we found in my shoes. But we still didn’t catch it. I’d hear rustling during the day, when I was trying to write; I’d see a flash of something when I walked past the closet. I was terrified every time I was home alone. I made Michael go into my closet every morning to pull out the clothes and shoes I wanted to wear that day, and he always tried to get me to laugh by pairing sweaters and skirts he knew didn’t match. If the day turned foggy, I would sit in our apartment, shivering, until he came home and handed me a sweater.

One day I finally called an exterminator, who pointed out the hole in our bathroom floor and the cracks in our walls.

“You’re living on a rat highway,” he said. “You basically have to tear this place down and build it again if you want to be safe.” He told me to make sure no one left any crumbs on countertops or tables. He also told me to get rid of any plastic bags, which we kept in the cupboard under the sink.

“Use those arty-farty canvas bags the hippies take to Whole Foods. You know what I’m talking about. I guess you should use them anyway, because of the earth.”

I nodded.

“And find the food source. This guy’s eating something, that’s why he’s still here. What’s the asshole eating? Ask yourself that. What’s the asshole eating?”

I told Michael we probably had this mouse because of him, because he left dirty dishes where he ate, on the couch or at his desk. He started washing his dishes as soon as he finished a meal, but the mouse still didn’t leave. “What’s the asshole eating?” we joked every morning, while Michael cleaned up the new droppings.

After another week, we bought still more traps, and lined them in every cupboard, on every shelf. I went to the grocery store for more plastic bags, to replace the ones we threw out. I put the traps inside the bags, stuffing them in the cupboard under the sink. A few hours later, I heard the bags crinkle and the mouse squeal; eventually, the squeals got louder and came at shorter intervals. I decided to leave, and opened the top drawer of Michael’s desk, where he kept his spare change, to get enough quarters to take the J-line downtown. I sat in Union Square, holding a cup of coffee but not drinking it, listening to all of the noise. Not until Michael called me, telling me he had found the dead mouse and thrown it out, did I finally go home.

I decided to stay in Monterey after Michael left: I could keep working at the aquarium, I could probably write better without any distractions, and I could be alone. I imagined living in a home where nothing ever changed unless I changed it—where every glass or book or towel stayed put—and where I could sit still for as long as I wanted. I found an apartment in a building that I thought looked quaint, and then went back to San Francisco for a week, staying with Diana and packing up my things while Michael was at work. When I packed my share of towels and sheets from the linen closet, I found a torn cardboard box sitting on the bottom shelf. Inside were pieces of the gingerbread house I made for Michael the previous Christmas, which I had saved so we could use it every Christmas. All that remained were hard candies and shreds of the six-pack container that served as the house’s foundation.

On the morning I moved back to Monterey, I went over to Michael’s apartment with the moving truck. He had taken the day off work to help me, and was just waking up. We had decided that I would take our bed, since it was originally mine; he had pushed the mattress and box spring against the wall, and was lying in a sleeping bag on the floor beneath them.

“That seems like kind of a dangerous place to sleep,” I said.

“It’s ok, no problem,” he said. “I didn’t want to make you wait around too long.”

A couple of his friends came over to help us load the truck. When they left, they told me, “See you later.” I picked up my keys. Michael walked me to the door, and we looked at each other.

“Hey, I have to tell you something funny,” I said, tapping him on the chest. “Remember that mouse we had?”

“Yeah. I think I remember the mouse.” He smiled.

“Well, I finally figured out what it was eating.” I told him about the gingerbread house.

“That’s what the asshole was eating? That’s hilarious.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So I guess it’s my fault, huh? I’m sorry. I was the one who said we had to keep that house.”

“Oh, it’s ok.” He reached behind my head and tugged on my ponytail. “It was a really nice idea.”

After I’d been back in Monterey for a few weeks, I finally saw the octopus. While I was working at the Information Booth, counting the number of wheelchairs we had lent out to visitors, the Kelp Forest volunteer buzzed me and told me the octopus had come out from her hiding place—she was really exposed this time. I grabbed my camera and nudged my way past the visitors, trying to look official so I could get a clear view. The octopus took up almost the entire length of her habitat and I had to step back to take her all in. Her head, like a misshapen egg, was tilted to the left, with all of her arms stretched out to the right. She wasn’t like I imagined. Her head was lumpy, her arms weren’t fanned in a perfect circle around her body, and I couldn’t get a good picture of her. No matter how many different angles I tried, she kept coming out looking lopsided, with her arms cut off or her head indistinct.

When I show those pictures to people now, they can’t tell what they’re looking at. All they see is a pile of rocks in the background, and a row of suckers pressed up against the glass.
pencil

Melissa Leavitt is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has previously appeared in Willow Springs and New Delta Review, among other publications. She is currently working on a collection of essays and a children’s book. Email: melissaleavitt[at]gmail.com

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