"Adelaide" By Kayli Wren
Flakes of red paint fell off of the apartment door as I hit the worn gold knocker. On the second knock, the door swung open and I realized it had never been shut properly to begin with. In fact, it couldn’t have been locked for months, not since she tried to rip the deadbolt from the wooden frame. The wood was exposed and splintering now and the metal lock protruded slightly from the wall – a messy job.
The front room was in a state of stubborn disarray; articles of clothing were strewn about haphazardly and coffee mugs rested on wooden tables beside their coasters. Several easels were propped against a far wall or lying on the floor where they had fallen. One clean canvas sat on an easel in the center of the room, an island of elegant expectation amid a sea of discarded filth. Half-completed paintings, sculptures, and sketches lay wherever there was space. A wire figure in the corner was missing a head. The pond in one pastel piece dropped off mid page. One tube of startlingly red paint had split open on the couch and was spreading slowly across the surface.
“Adelaide,” I called, looking around for her purse and shoes and finding them under a small table next to the door. “Addie?”
Scarcely clad, she appeared around the corner toting a bottle of gin in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.
“Evening, Owen,” she chirped, absentmindedly sticking the wooden end of the paint brush between her teeth. She was humming a lilting melody, her hips swaying to a private orchestra that played only for her. She smacked the paintbrush down on the table, swiped off a coffee mug and peered inside. Sniffing hesitantly, she shrugged and poured her liquor into the mug. Adelaide plopped down on the couch, barely missing the red paint. She looked me in the eye and raised an eyebrow.
Silence spread between us like spilled paint. Maybe she was doing better.
Adelaide began laughing, a low cackle. I managed a snort of air, somewhere in between a scoff and a chuckle. Maybe not.
“It’s been too long,” she said, holding out the gin bottle and crossing her legs. I shook my head slowly. Adelaide shrugged.
“Well if it’s not for that, then what are you here for?”
I tossed my coat on the couch beside her and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “You called,” I said.
“I didn’t,” she retorted, looking down into her mug.
“You did, Addie. You called me at 1 o’clock in the morning. We ended things four months ago. You can’t keep doing this.”
“Oh hush, Owen. I’m being sentimental.” Adelaide took a gulp from the mug. “You were far too serious for your own good when I first met you. Don’t you remember? Almost two years ago now. You were so solemn and quiet.”
“Addie, we need to talk about your call –.”
She continued on as though I hadn’t spoken. “I never stopped prodding you the first couple weeks, trying to get you to talk. Don’t you remember? Of course I learned that’s just the way you were. Quiet, not so many words. We got along all right though, didn’t we, Owen? Even with the silence.” She raised her coffee mug at me and winked at its contents. “Am I right, darling? I talked, you listened. We had a good thing for a while there,” she said, nodding into her mug.
“We did,” I allowed, gingerly sitting beside her.
“What happened to us, Owen?”
“You know what happened,” I said quietly.
“I know, it’s just – You’d think I’d remember the last good day, Owen. Everyone deserves that one last good day. But you never gave me any warning.”
“Addie, please. Let’s not –.”
Adelaide gazed down at the mug in her hands, speaking more to her drink than to me. “You’d been sleeping here a month already when it started,” she said. “I remember the first night – the night you left the house hours after midnight when the sky was still dark. You woke me up when you got out of bed. I lied later, pretended I slept through it all. You came back hours later, dumped the bags on the floor in the front room. The next morning I pretended not to notice the packages of Sharpies scattered on the floor. There must have been two hundred Sharpies that morning, ripped from plastic and cardboard packaging. All red ones too. With so much paint and pencils and charcoal in the house, I wondered why you’d need loads of cheap permanent markers.”
“Addie,” I broke in softly, “we’ve been over this. It was you that night. You left the house, took a taxi to the store, bought the red Sharpies, and brought them home.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Owen,” Adelaide frowned. Her eyes flitted around the room, looking at broken paintbrushes and spokes of wire, anywhere but my face.
“I noticed the writing during breakfast,” she continued. “My spoon was halfway to my mouth when I saw the scribbles. You started in the corner of the front room. Small words. Only a few lines. Printed neatly in red, block letters parallel to the floor.”
She looked up for a moment, smiling and peering into my eyes. “I should have known then, don’t you think? I probably should’ve know right then that something was wrong.” She shook her head. “I was always pretending not to see, always. I shouldn’t have been pretending, should have gotten you help. But it all just started without warning. I still don’t know what it was that made you do it, but it ate little pieces of you and you never stopping writing. There were so many words. You covered everything. Every inch of the apartment. The walls were thick with them. Red coated the walls. I thought the words were random at first, there was so little sense. But I began picking out phrases, exclamations, entire conversations. Like you were talking to someone who never talked back.” Her voice fell to a whisper.
“I forgot what it felt like, Owen, not waking up in the middle of the night to find the bed empty beside me. And some scratching, somewhere in the apartment. Sometimes distant as you hunched in a far corner of the front room. Sometimes closer, like you wanted me to hear. Once it came from right below me, a stirring and scrabbling under the bed and the scent filling the air. You had crawled under there and were scratching away at the underside of the bed with one of those Sharpies. Oh God I should have known, shouldn’t I? Should have –.”
She was crying, tears streaming down her face, cascading down her still smiling cheeks. I remembered those nights too. I remembered the red. The words and the smell and the scratching were everywhere.
“Addie.” I was up and by her side. It was you, I wanted to tell her. It was all you, Addie. The scratching all night long, the words appearing over everything like a sickness – it was all you. But it wouldn’t help her to hear it again, to know.
“Please,” I whispered.
“I should have known that first night,” Adelaide cried. “Words everywhere – words in cabinets, running down chair legs, in the shower. The shower, Owen. I spent an hour that morning trying to wash the shower clean, the water running faintly pink. For weeks I thought I saw red in every drop of water I saw. How could I have not known that something was wrong?” She clutched my shirt in her fist. “Red words on my coats and pant legs. I’d put on a shirt and there they would be, circling around and around my arm – one long, nonsensical conversation.”
It was you, Addie. You.
“I’d take out plates and glasses for dinner and there they would be – scrawled around each rim, written across every surface. Words on china dishes against words on napkins against words on silverware. Words stacked perfectly, one on top of the other. I’d wash everything twice – once before we ate and once after. I was always washing, washing and pretending, pretending and washing until I stopped washing. Just ate off plates that tasted like Sharpie, licking Sharpie words off spoons and every sip I’d take I’d stare at the words on the bottom of the glass. Always pretending because I thought it would help, just looking anywhere but your hands gripping those markers, layering words on words on words and I should have known.”
Her small fists tangled in her own hair, pulling and ripping.
“Addie. Addie!” I said, reaching towards her, grasping for her hands.
Her face flickered between smiles and grimaces, the tears falling. Her fists beat into my chest, pounding.
“How dare you do this to me?” she cried. “How dare you show up here unexpected just to torture me? I should have known enough to stop it!”
Adelaide went still, falling limply against me. Her eyes, startlingly clear and bright, gazed up at me. Her eyebrows creased together.
“I still don’t know what it was,” she whispered.
“I know, Addie. I know.”
Across the room, the gouges in the wall around the deadbolt stared raggedly out at me. Four months ago, the night I left her, she had tried to tear it from the wall. Circling the room, writing her secret conversations in red marker, Adelaide had reached the deadbolt and tried to write across its black, metal surface. But the red ink didn’t show up. Adelaide couldn’t read her own words, and that was too much for her. She ran out, woke the neighbors, borrowed a crowbar, and tried to dislodge the lock.
Adelaide followed my eyes to the hole. She drew herself up slowly, pulling away from me. Her eyes had turned cold and dark.
“Foolish man,” she murmured. “You, trying to tear the lock out of a door just because red Sharpies don’t show up on black metal.” Her eyes seemed to glaze over. “So many words and none of them showed up on the lock –.”
“Addie, just focus on me, okay? Try to focus.”
“So foolish. You shouldn’t go around breaking things in other people’s homes, even if the words don’t show up.”
“Oh Addie,” I whispered. It was you. “I didn’t break the lock, it was –.”
“Liar,” she shrieked. “It was you, Owen. Say it.”
“Addie, you’re not thinking straight –.”
“Say it, Owen,” she begged. “You know it was you.”
“Yes, all right. It was me,” I said, pulling Adelaide close as she collapsed into my arms.
“All I wanted to do was take care of you, Owen. I was trying to take care of you and you wouldn’t let me because you thought it was all me. That was the worst part.”
“All right, Addie. It’s all right now,” I said, trying to soothe her. I only ever wanted to take care of you.
“I give up, darling,” Adelaide sighed. “I do. I just needed the words. The silence – you were always so silent. I just need the words.” Adelaide sighed in exasperation and pulled away. “Go on home, why don’t you.”
“I don’t think–.”
“Just do it. Go.”
Around us, the red conversation filled the walls, the table legs, the mug of gin she held. Conversations overlapped in huge block letters, cursive writing, and miniscule print.
I shook my head and picked up my coat, swinging it onto my arm. I paused with one hand on the doorknob, gazing again at the ragged wooden holes around the lock in the doorframe.
“Addie?” It was my silence, wasn’t it? That drove you to the store that night to buy the red markers. Because you couldn’t talk to me, could you? I should have known. It’s my fault, Addie. And your red words like you were talking to someone who never talked back.
She looked at me over the rim of the coffee mug.
“Nothing,” I finally said. “Never mind. Just buy another lock won’t you? Please.”
When I looked back, Adelaide stood motionless in front of the empty canvas in the middle of the room, the nearly empty bottle hanging loosely from her other hand. Around the room, clothes and paintings lay side by side next to blocks of molding clay. Above it all, lines and lines of red Sharpie words circled the room. Before the door closed, I saw her pick up a marker from the hundreds scattered on the floor and move towards the wall. When I shut the door, more flakes of red paint fell to my feet. Red Sharpie doesn’t show up very well on red front doors. I used to find the paint chips under her nails in the mornings. I should have known. But I just pretended not to see.
It wasn’t until the cab ride home that I smelled it. The bitter smell that woke me up at night with the scratching in a distant corner or beneath the bed. I lifted my coat sleeve to my nose and breathed the scent in. The words could barely be seen on the dark blue fabric, but I knew they were there. Letters of a never-ending conversation. Adelaide must have written them on my sleeve without my noticing. By the time I paid my fare and stepped out onto the wet pavement, I couldn’t even smell the words anymore.
Adelaide had called me before since our breakup, claiming that her doctor said she was better. That she was all right. And she had seemed to be getting better, at least over the phone. I used to think maybe a couple of weeks with the doctor could do the trick. But it never did. She would ask to come to my apartment, but I knew that couldn’t happen. Too dangerous, with those red Sharpies she carries everywhere. So I would take a cab to her place, find her alone and covered in red words. Take care of her. Or try.
I would call Dr. Anderson the next morning. Ask him if Adelaide had been going to appointments, tell him it had gotten worse. And that this call had been different. This time she had acted like no time had gone by at all, as if we were still together. She called to ask me to pick up Sharpies on my way home. Red ones. Of course.
As I unlocked my front door, I reached with my other hand into my coat pocket. There was a Sharpie there, and my fingers curled instinctively around the shape. Adelaide must have put it into my pocket.
Opening the door, I flicked the light switch and the room came to life. Red words. Red lines. A never-ending red conversation spreading across the white walls of my apartment. As I shut the door behind me, I slowly uncapped the marker and drew the red tip along the backside of my door.
Kayli Wren is a writer from Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Words are not perfect. They are flawed, misspoken, and sometimes clumsy, just like real people. But I write to capture the snapshots of our lives, to expose the nuances of life and reveal the cosmos compiled therein. I write to accept, reject and make sense of our world. I write to be brave, to be open, to be honest. I write to show someone that they are not alone. I write to try to make people think. I write to acknowledge rawness and pain and beauty, to appreciate every element, scarred and fragile, of our existence.
I've previously been published in Teen Ink, Literary Orphans Tupelo Press Teen Writing Center's Crossroad's IV, and the Kenyon Review Young Writers Anthology."
On Her Work:
"I hope that when people read my work, they will feel something visceral and real, of lingering and tenderness, anger and joy, panic and peace. I hope that they will feel any and all of the emotions that make us feel alive."
Connect With Kayli:
Read her recently published poem, "Stardust" in Quail Bell Magazine: http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/the-unreal/poem-stardust