Susan Sage

Featured on ArLiJo Issue No. 84

The Toppled Book Towers

Claudia had never felt like such crap in all her twenty-three years of living, yet she’d never felt so positive about her future. Her newfound optimism was all because she had a plan—actually, a couple of them. No point telling her parents about the bigger-picture plan for they’d only laugh at her as they always had—like after she told them when she grew up she was going to build a house of shells (she’d been five at the time). How they’d howled after informing them of her future career as a race car driver. She was too tall, they told her, and adding insult to injury: she didn’t have the right personality—whatever that meant. Then there was part of the large yard she sectioned off with wooden stakes for a pet cemetery. They’d been shocked more than amused by that one. Always, they’d been such buzz killers, balloon poppers, party poopers and basic pains in the ass. They were on their way to her apartment now, ostensibly, to save her from herself.

She didn’t need them anymore, nor did she need to see her 14 year-old sister, Kristen, who no doubt, would show up with them, and ask—as she always did—too many questions. The first one, no doubt, would be, “Why are we taking you home?” “Home?” she’d ask, in response. Then she’d give her sister a look of such disgust, hopefully, it would silence the reporter-in-training.

Claudia’s brushed by one of the tallest of her several book towers (over five feet high), a little too closely, and caused it to collapse. She glanced about her studio apartment trying to decide if she should topple the others, too, but decided against it—then it really would feel like her kingdom was in ruins. She hurled herself onto her mattress on the floor, and rolled up in the pink blanket she’d had since infancy.

If Eli hadn’t left her, her world wouldn’t be crumbling—falling down around her. Maybe he’d texted her last night, but then again, he hadn’t in over a week now. Other things she hadn’t done for about that long: eaten anything besides peanut butter on a spoon and cookie dough ice cream; changed her clothes; taken a shower; or left the apartment (except once to buy more ice cream and a bottle of wine). There’d simply been no point—Lately, no one from Kelly Service’s had called to offer her a temporary office job; they hadn’t in several weeks. Her two college classes she was taking (art history and American lit) were being taught by the absolute worst professors imaginable. Why bother going to class? Besides, she hadn’t finished a course in a year, why ruin her track record? Some other reason she’d remained walled up in the apartment —what was it? Oh, yeah—If Eli were to contact her, she wanted to be here, as talking to him anyplace else would be too much of a distraction. Always the chance he’d call—

Since her parents would soon be here to help pack, she probably should try to make a dent in all the stuff she’d accumulated—particularly her books. All of them; every last one of them would take up residence at her parents‘ house, that is, until her next move. Yesterday she’d managed to find a few cardboard boxes out by the dumpster. First, she’d toss out what she didn’t need and attack the overflowing wastebaskets, then the moldy gross food in the fridge (But, Mom, I was merely growing mold for a science experiment for one of my classes—) Somewhere in the mess were garbage bags—

Before things began going downhill a year ago (not a week ago), one majorly wonderful event occurred: she’d at last moved out of her parents‘ home and into an apartment. Claudia recalled how when she’d first moved here, she’d gaze lovingly at possessions acquired by one of her mom’s friends who was getting a divorce: black futon, beige bean bag chairs, art prints on the walls, along with her swivel office chair and giant wooden desk. All of it hers, no one’s but hers—It had caused her to feel for the first time, excited—exhilarated even—about her life, her future. The most striking art print was one of a tree surrounded by a fence. Shed missed the irony, though she saw it now.

This was in the pre-book tower days. She’d been enrolled part-time as a student and worked full-time as an office temp. The weekly or monthly job placements were something she could mostly rely on; she never stayed at any one place long enough to get bored. She rescued a stray kitten and proved to be a good cat-caretaker until Sabrina wandered away when she was bringing groceries up three flights of stairs—Claudia must have left the door open.

Right after losing the kitten, things began to slide. She got super fidgety in her two classes. When she tried to take notes, she always wound up doodling. Any leftover money from her paychecks went to the cause of book buying. She’d hit library sales, used bookstores, and sometimes order a new title from Amazon. Problem was, she’d never get beyond the first page or two.

Her book towers began to grow. She liked admiring them once they got to be several feet tall. Once they got shoulder height, she’d immediately begin building another tower. Some of them stood alone, others she grouped in cityscapes. She always cautioned her visitors to be careful around them.

Boys began visiting her on the weekends—seniors from her former high school. They’d heard the word that she had her own place on the university campus. One guy told another. Sometimes two would show up on the same night. At first she enjoyed luring them with wine and snacks. At least in the beginning, she’d hoped one of them might turn into a boyfriend. Sure, she had sex a little too soon after meeting them, but how did anyone ever know whether or not a relationship would turn serious? Then she heard from a friend, an older sister of one of her male visitors, how she was being referred to as ‘Cum Queen Claudia.’ She never took money from any of them. Still, word got out about the services she provided. Things got out of hand, and before long, there were three or more ‘new’ guys. Some returned; others didn’t.

Despite having a unibrow and a few acne scars, she was attractive enough, if not exactly drop-dead gorgeous. Her mother always said she would’ve been considered beautiful in the 19th century: willowy with pouty lips and a widow’s peak. One night, a visitor bumped into one of the book towers. She yelled at him to “get the hell out of my apartment!” He left without saying a word. It was the only time she yelled, but Jason obviously hadn’t understood how important books were to her. None of them did, that is, until Eli. Eli had a unibrow, too. At nineteen, he was older than her other boys, as he’d flunked two grades because his mom moved around a lot. He’d never met his dad. What made Eli special: he was the only one who admired her book towers. He’d read quite a few books, in fact, several of the ones in her towers: novels by Bradbury, King, and DeLint. “You’ve heard of the fantasy author, DeLint?” She couldn’t get over that he had.

At first she didn’t tell him that she hadn’t read any of her books. On their first evening together, she’d enjoyed listening to his take on several, though he at first talked ‘at her’—at least he spoke and didn’t make her kneel before him. Unlike the others, he didn’t want to have sex right away. Later, he admitted the other boys had pressured him into visiting her that first time, but on their second ‘date’ (the next weekend) he made her spaghetti and garlic bread. After dinner and a couple glasses of wine, they kissed, held hands and told each other all the places they’d like to travel to. They both had Paris, Vienna, and the Black Forest on their lists, and decided to someday travel together.

The day after their second date another one of her boys showed up. She couldn’t recall his name, but wound up giving him a quick blow-job. Later, she felt a weird guilt she’d never experienced before. Of course, she didn’t tell Eli, but shortly afterward, received a text from him informing her: “If u want me to be yr boyfriend—no other guys, ok?” She readily agreed.

It was Eli who convinced her to see a doctor for her problem with concentration. However, she didn’t have health insurance and was afraid she might have something majorly wrong, like early onset Alzheimer’s. If he hadn’t harangued her about it, she wouldn’t have lied. She wound up telling him it was ADD and a very nice doctor—Dr. Smithson—had written her a prescription. In order to convince Eli that the medication was working, she began reading online summaries of several of her books and memorizing them. He seemed impressed, though sometimes he’d ask her questions she couldn’t answer. She didn’t bother telling him how she’d dropped her classes, though he did find out in time, along with the fact that she’d never seen a doctor. Maybe if she had money for the prescription she needed, her situation wouldn’t feel so hopeless: she’d be passing her classes because she’d be able to concentrate longer and do the required reading—no matter how lousy the profs—

She began reading poetry and loved it—understood it in a way she had little else. She loved reading it aloud to Eli, as well as writing her own. Right before she fucked up everything, she came up with an idea for a café, as well as a new kind of poetry—one that maybe she’d invented. The café would be called Tangled Word Café and customers would get tangled in a poem that would drop on them from the ceiling—the lettering would be like a spider web. Maybe there’d be audio versions of the poems playing—Book towers (poetry only) would be part of the interior design. Eli looked at her like she was crazy, though he didn’t say she was, she knew him well-enough to see it in his eyes. He left early that night.

An hour afterward, Jason was at her door with flowers. Months had gone by, and he still felt bad about toppling over one of her book towers. She was poised, really fried at Eli. Maybe Jason would turn out to be a better boyfriend than Eli and wouldn’t think of her as a nutcase. Besides, Eli knew her too well, and maybe that wasn’t a good thing, as she was mentally unbalanced. Jason and she were in the middle of things when the buzzer sounded. Hair still disheveled when she answered the door. Eli stood there with roses for her tangled word idea (“Such a good one,” he’d said), when out of the bathroom strutted shirtless Jason.

That happened a week ago. It was the last time she’d seen Eli. She felt better about things until it hit her that almost a full year had passed with only Eli visiting her, (not counting the boy whose name she couldn’t recall, and Jason). Why couldn’t Eli see that those two guys were mere blips or hiccups in the scheme of things?

A couple days ago, her parents received a letter from the university explaining how she’d dropped all classes for three semesters and how she’d now have to be re-admitted if she wanted to continue her studies. Her parents hadn’t liked the sound of her voice. When she told them she hadn’t paid rent in a couple months, they said it was time to come home for a while, until she got “back on her feet.” She wondered if they also knew about the first few months and the dozens of boys—Unless they brought it up, she sure wasn’t going to divulge anything—Nor would she say anything about the Tangled Word Café, as the words were so tangled in her head just now—

She looked around at her messy place. Still, it had been hers. How could she go home again? Hadn’t she always heard that once a person left, there was no return? She’d been like the tree in her art print, surrounded by a fence—Silly, if you think of it, for it’s not like trees can go anywhere, but living at her parents’, other would be fences off from her. A new plan occurred to her: she’d tell them she needed to use a restroom, probably at a fast food place off the freeway. She’d disappear inside and go out the door on the other side of the building. Then she’d hitch a ride—somewhere—maybe to a place near where the Tangled Word Café would someday exist. She’d buy a new art print of a tree surrounded by nothing but maybe green grass or a field.

The buzzer sounded. She wasn’t ready for them, and doubted she could look at Kristen in the eye. It wasn’t them; it was Jason— her new ‘boyfriend.’ Her words again tangled in her mind. She looked for a ‘no’ or a ‘get lost’ in the word-web. Once she found them she knew she’d be able to handle the situation.

Copyright © 2016 by Susan Sage.

Susan Sage has recently been published in Referential Magazine, Storyacious, E.T.A. Literary Journal, Digital Papercut, Black Denim Lit, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Rockhurst Review, Passages North, Metis, Qua, The Wire, and Corridors. Her first novel, Insominy, was published in 2010 (Virtualbookworm) and is working on a second novel. She received my B.A. in English from Wayne State University. As an undergraduate, she was a recipient of The Tompkin's Award in Creative Writing, and she has taken graduate coursework at The University of Michigan-Flint.