For the past year, Henry had slept in a different bedroom each night. He kept his clothes neatly folded in a smallish room on the third floor. The room acted as his own majestic walk in closet. It housed his collection of solid colored t-shirts, a tub full of white tube socks, seven drawers of trousers, one pair of nice dress slacks, and a faded pair of blue jeans that had never once fit him. Lazarus had given Henry a tuxedo, which was draped over a chair, unworn under its original sheath of plastic. He owned two pairs of shoes, a sturdy set of boots for the winter and spring, and plastic thong sandals that he replaced every June. Henry did not own a single pair of underwear.
He had retired to bed that night in one of the many third floor bedrooms, this one wallpapered in pinstripe lavender and taupe. There was a framed world map on one wall, and a collection of porcelain figurines on the desk under the window. The room smelled musty, and faintly of mothballs or baby powder. The shelves on the other wall were covered in dust. He traced his fingers over the bindings of his wife’s book collection. They were multicolored, but took on an overall beige tone when he squinted, a dominating yellowing not unlike that of old pages. Kate must have had thousands. Books lined shelves in rooms throughout the house. All four walls of the library on the first floor were covered with bookcases, hiding the windows and leaving the room perpetually dark. There were cases of them in the basement, and brimming cardboard boxes in the attic. Books in stacks of three or four were piled on coffee tables, countertops and even scattered around the kitchen. Hard covers were hidden in the linen closets, under tablecloths and on top of one of the two refrigerators. Some of her books had titles written in languages other than English, though Henry was unaware of Kate speaking any other language. Some of the books contained pictures, some recipes, some dictated distinct walking tours in Ecuador. There was no rhyme or reason to order of the books. They were stacked in random order, old ones piled on top of newer looking ones, ones with broken spines and ones with missing covers. Some were dry and cracked with age, while others looked greasy with their freshly laminated covers. They ruled the house; heaps of books burgeoning like overgrown house plants. Henry leaned into a shelf and allowed his nose to brush along the edges. He inhaled slowly, collecting a fine dust in his nostrils. His nose felt tickled now, and he waited for a sneeze to come. Squinting his eyes and bunching his lips together, the nervous feeling of a passing sneeze overtook his sinuses, his eyes watering with silent dissatisfaction.
The bed was lined with small pillows and a teddy bear that Henry didn’t recognize. Most of its fur was rubbed off, its little bead of a nose hanging by only a few loosely sewn yarns. He selected a particularly white book and shimmied out of his trousers. Stripping off his shirt, he wrapped himself in blankets and held the stuffed bear to his chin. He opened the book, and began to read:
“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse’s Hôtel des Etrangers and Cannes, five miles away.”
He turned to his side and pressed his cheek against the teddy bear. He knew Kate was sleeping in a separate bedroom, locked behind a door to a home he bought on impulse. He thought about how she would look beside him on the French Riviera, her finger donning the ten-karat ring she had picked out herself, her teeth framed by a heavily lipsticked smile. He wanted desperately to spread tanning oil on her shoulder blades, to think of them as angel wings, to think of her as a goddess. He wanted to love her. He fell asleep in a fit of panic, stroking the bear’s ear and feeling the ghost of another woman beside him. He could feel her slipping away, evaporating from his arms, from his dreams as he kicked the blankets around the bed, searching for her with his bare feet. When he awoke, the bear was under him, suffocated, its nose a bit looser than before.
Wrapping a sheet around his torso like a toga, Henry propped the teddy bear on a shelf and eased the practically unread book back into the collection. He relieved himself in the toilet across the hall, gleefully deciding not to wash his hands this morning. Still, he brushed his teeth furiously, enjoying the taste of toothpaste mingling with the dabs of blood that formed on his gums near his molars. Henry did not floss. He made his way across the winding hall towards the room with his clothes, where he dressed himself in fresh trousers, and a red t-shirt. The sheet was left in the corner, along with a few other soiled items that Henry had neglected to put in the hamper. He walked towards the nearest staircase, and made his way to the kitchen. The clock above the sink read ten-oh-ten, and Henry bated his curiosity by eating one of Kate’s plums. It was unusual for his wife to be sleeping so late. She usually positioned herself at one end of the kitchen table in the morning, slicing fruit in front of a book or the newspaper. Henry checked the microwave clock to make sure he had the time correct before sitting down in her seat and slicing a plum.
By noon, Henry began to twitch. His fingers shook a bit, and he had grown sick of the fresh fruit and had begun stuffing himself with alternating spoonfuls of raspberry jam and peanut butter. His forehead ached, and he pressed four fingers against his temples, squeezing hard enough that his jaw cracked. When he checked Kate’s room, it looked perfectly normal, save the absence of the woman. Henry’s stomach fell towards his knees, and he suddenly felt nauseous. Leaning over himself, he vomited on the carpet, emptying his insides of the unbearable sweetness he had eaten all morning. His heart valves began snapping angrily. He was turning red, and beads of sweat dripped into the brown vomit, salt mixing with the sweet. He threw himself on her bed, whimpering like a child, wiping his mouth on her pillow, lying like an embalmed corpse. Henry lied there for nearly two days.