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Cake Between the Teeth

I only know what you’ve told me.

Around 11 p.m. while I’m checking yogurt expiration dates for tomorrow’s continental breakfast, you are pulling over to a man crumpled on the side of the highway. It’s a dangerous place to be, trapped between concrete and a road that’s iced over several times since the New Year. At any moment, a car could whip out of the tunnel, just as you did on your Yamaha, and smear him like butter along the dividing wall. I don’t know why you stop. I do know he’s got the type of face that makes women speed up when he calls to us in the street, and you put him on your bike anyway.

It’s the first thing I notice when you walk through the hotel doors. The incongruence. You are supporting him, even though you are half his weight. He’s too old to be your boyfriend, too young to be your father, and in any case, I can’t make sense of you either. A woman all leather black and polish, out here in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t afford boots like that, even if I knew where to buy them.

Your accent is newscaster-smooth, but I can hear a hint of stackjacket in the vowels, like maybe you grew up in mine country and moved away. I see your kind around the holidays, making the annual pilgrimage home. Staying here at the only Days Inn for two hundred miles, complaining about the Wi-Fi and the freezing air, as if they hadn’t been born with it in their lungs.

There’s something nice about you, though. I like the way you pause before you respond, like you’re waiting to make sure I’m done.

While you arrange a room, he stares at the TV in the reception lounge. It’s playing an old cop show. The detective is taking a statement from the victim’s coworker, and solves the case from one tiny detail the woman mentions offhand. Nice clothes—dry cleaning—the perp was the dead girl’s dry cleaner.

Your guy starts to slump against the lobby wall. He’s so messed up, his eyes barely open, and when they do, they wander toward you.

I think maybe I should call the police, but I don’t know what I’d tell them.

• • • •

After you leave for room 118, I make my rounds; tidy the reception area, finish inventory of the breakfast offerings. The Frosted Flakes dispenser is a bit low, and someone’s dumped a scoop of ice on the vending room floor. I drape a rag over the puddle and watch the water seep through and meanwhile you’re sitting on the edge of the bathtub, waiting for it to fill up.

You have the man kneel, then lean backward over the rim, submerging his hair. I know that you use half a bottle of complimentary shampoo and a little bit of conditioner, and that in the process you soak the bathmat towel completely. The part I don’t know is whether you reach your own fingers into the water, if you lather up the grease of his hair and feel it under your nails. If you are disgusted but do it anyway, or if it makes you feel something else entirely. This is an important detail, maybe the most important of all.

I know you didn’t leave things out on purpose. It’s just that I didn’t ask the right questions.

At 1:14 a.m. you come to the reception desk, where I’ve been watching the cop show marathon with my eyes half open. You ask for a first aid kit that I pull from the wall container in the back room.

Sorry, I say. Looks like the tube of Neosporin walked away. No one ever replaced it.

That’s okay. The way you smile is so pleasant that I feel myself become a mirror, crinkling the corners of my eyes in the way you do.

There’s a pause where I think you might head back to the room, and the thought makes me nervous. I tell you there’s still tea and hot cocoa and stuff set up in the lounge, maybe for a late-night snack.

I’m pretty sure you only take up the offer to be polite.

You can’t figure out how to turn on the hot water machine, so I come and do it for you, mixing up two Styrofoam cups of Swiss Miss with a red-and-white plastic straw.

You offer me one of the cups, nodding over your shoulder in the direction of room 118. He’s asleep, you explain, and you don’t know when he’d wake up to drink it.

I scrape my straw around the powder-sludge bottom and ask where you two are headed. The real question is too transparent. You smile and tell me anyway.

You were riding along the highway. You saw him and stopped to see if he was okay. You noticed he was intoxicated, scratched up but not badly hurt. You wanted to help.

I ask if everything’s been alright since you went to the room.

You say yes, everything’s fine. You were helping him wash his hair, because it was filthy.

The nail on your index finger is bitten down to the quick, and when you press it with the pad of your thumb, I imagine the feeling. Exposed skin, never meant to meet air.

There are so many reasons not to believe what you’re telling me, but I don’t know why you’d lie. If he had you at gunpoint, you could escape now. Maybe this is an arrangement of some sort. Maybe you don’t know that you’re in danger. Maybe there’s nothing wrong here at all.

We both agree that the hot cocoa is watery, and too sweet.

I don’t ask the right questions.

You finish your cup and say goodnight and as you’re walking away, I think I notice a slight limp, but it could just be your heavy boots.

Between the hours of two and four a.m. I wash sheets and make the beds in 103 and 122, careful to tuck in a wine stain I find on the corner of one comforter. While walking past your room, I stop. There’s no sound coming from inside, only the hum of the heater and an electronic drone from the vending machines down the hall. I press the stack of laundry to my chest, waiting to hear a bass voice or the clink of a glass put back on the table, but there’s nothing, not even a breath, so I keep walking.

I fall asleep watching TV in the reception lounge. It’s an episode about a woman who was murdered in her apartment while her neighbors were eating dinner next door. Around five a.m. the sliding doors wake me, and bitter cold creeps into the lobby. My eyes are sore from sleeping in mascara. I squint around the outside of the building, but there’s no one there, only my own clouded breath and salt stains on the parking lot asphalt.

It occurs to me that when you were checking in, you asked if I was the only person on shift tonight. You said it in such a casual way, but your eyes kept darting to the phone on the wall.

From the hall, your room is still quiet. I consider knocking, but I don’t know what I’d say if you answered the door. Instead, I slip my keycard into the lock and wince at the volume of the beep.

Inside, it’s fever-warm. The nightstand lamp is on. Each decorative pillow has been laid at the foot of the bed, neatly, carefully, as if for my benefit. It feels strange to imagine that you were thinking of me in that moment, while I was peeling gum off the carpet or scribbling into a notepad, because there is something enormous under the covers. A mound. Surely a trick of the quilt around a sleeping body; rough polyester folded into a pocket of air. It’s too large to be one person, but I can’t understand how it could be anything else.

The heater whirs on full-blast, flushing my skin with blood.

I find a head on the pillow. His, not yours. He’s got his arms clutched around his shoulders, as if trying to make himself smaller, and with his face curled into the pillow I can’t tell if he’s breathing. Two fingers against the neck, that’s all it would take to know for sure, but in my gut, I can already feel the rustle of sheets, the annoyed squint of eyes woken from sleep, and I’m not even supposed to be here at all.

From the bathroom, I hear a droplet hit water. The man’s coat is laying in the doorframe with the sleeves pulled inside out, like he took it off in a hurry, and I am careful not to disturb it.

The vanity light flickers on with effort.

In the tub the water is full to the brim, and gray with the kind of mop-bucket opacity that makes a throat clench. There are shoe prints on beige ceramic, muddy and huge. A shampoo bottle is tipped over, leaking one stripe of green below the surface, and staring at the trail, at the place where it disappears into milky nothing, it occurs to me that you are a small person. The boots make you seem taller, but I don’t think you take up very much space at all.

The bathmat leaves a wet stamp on each of my knees. My sweater is too loose to roll up, so I pull the whole thing over my head.

I’ve unclogged drains before. Had my fingers cradled by the metal fangs of a garbage disposal, probing the soggy remains of onions and chicken bones that once grazed my teeth and now violate the space under my nails. I didn’t cry then, but I am crying now. Knuckle deep then wrist, bracing for the raw-poultry smoothness of a torso with the warmth gone, the color leached, but it’s something worse. A tickle I imagine to be a clump of hair and when I pull it to the surface, a black sweater is clasped in my fist.

I remember the loose neckline. Two sharp little collarbones.

Did you get it wet while washing him?

Did you pull it over your head like I did mine?

Did you expose two inches of abdomen, enough to make his eyes cling to your turned back? Was he awake when you returned from the lobby with a scalded tongue, and when he made a joke, did you laugh too hard or not enough? Is there a violence in you that someone like me wouldn’t recognize; the urge to counter a meaty grope with a sharp slice to the belly, and afterward, did you curl up beside the failing heat of him, like a child with a nightmare? Because the man is not waking up, not when the first aid kit rattles to the floor, or when I tear the pillows from their neat order, or even when my hand hits the polyester mound that should contain nothing but air.

I know that you are kind when you smile.

I know that you hold yourself tight like a boxer, that your eyes are hollow in a way I can’t explain, and I know that beneath my grey-foamed hand there is something both rigid and soft, like the cartilage bones of a newborn bird.

My fingers dampen the quilt with bathwater. From somewhere beyond the ceiling, I can feel the murmuring vibration of a TV on low volume.

I think about the episode I was watching before I fell asleep. The part where the detectives inform the neighbor lady of the exact time when the victim was killed, and the neighbor says oh but that’s right when we were eating dinner. Salmon with green beans and some cake left over from the holidays, and right then you can see the realization dawning in the woman’s eyes, that while the girl was pinned to the kitchen floor, they were complimenting the seasoning of the fish, and when she screamed they thought it was the TV, and while blood gurgled hot and wet from throat to linoleum they were sitting at the dining table with buttercream frosting on their fucking teeth.

The neighbor woman starts crying. The walls of this apartment are very well-insulated, she says.

The detectives exchange a pointed look. One of them says hope it was good cake, and that’s how the episode ends.

Steph Kwiatkowski

Steph Kwiatkowski is an Illinois-born writer whose natural habitat is the strip mall parking lot. A member of the postponed Clarion West class of ’20, she has worked as a preschool teacher, nonprofit administrator, and server of sugar in many forms. She now lives in a strange land with no winter, and can make you a mean latte.