Richard pulled the steaming plastic bowl from the microwave. It was dinner alone tonight. He always made macaroni on the nights alone. Simple and warm is all a meal should be when you’re by yourself. And the yellow cheese was bright and filled the otherwise empty kitchen with light and sweet smelling steam. It was too hot at first. Richard went to the refrigerator and pulled out a cardboard milk carton with purple and blue lettering. It was a trick his father had shown him; a splash of milk over macaroni. He poured the rest of the carton’s contents into a glass and threw it into the trash under the sink. He preferred to eat in front of the television on these nights, the voices filling the room with sound, keeping his thoughts away from himself.
Sitting down on the green couch with red specks in it (Marie had bought it), he held the warm bowl under his chin and ate quickly, the warm noodles feeling good to his soul, the milky cheese running down his clean-shaven chin. These nights apart seemed to be increasingly common. He remembered when he and Marie ate together every night and afterward she would curl her toes under her body on the green couch with red specks and hug her knees close to her chest and smile and tell him about all the things she hoped for and how she hoped he wanted them too and how it wouldn’t be easy but that love was the important thing, the only thing. And they had that. And they had a green couch with red specks. And they had a dog and an apartment that they couldn’t afford and a radiator that conked out every two or three weeks at which point Richard would pull out the roll of duct tape and the wrench his father had given him as part of a tool kit for Christmas one year and begin to tighten and loosen away until the cranking pipes finally starting pushing out hot air. And then he would curl himself around her slight frame on the green couch with red specks and dream.
The dreams had felt like warm macaroni. He now ate his meal in silence, closing his eyes in nostalgic bliss, dreaming of a time that was never meant to be. Love, it appeared, wasn’t the only thing. They had had to put the dog down. That’s not the sad part of this story; that’s its own story. In Richard’s case the greatest tragedy was the clear plastic bag that now lay empty on the kitchen counter. Macaroni. He bought it in bulk from the convenience store in town. It was off-brand but that didn’t mean anything. Large, clear plastic bags filled with small, yellow donut halves. That’s what it looked like, anyway. The bag was tied with one of those red twist ties that had been lost long ago and on this night the last donut half was poured out from the clear plastic bag, which now lay crumpled on the counter. Perhaps he had simply forgotten to toss out the bag, which had once been filled with small yellow donut halves. Or half circles in general. Gold wedding bands. Perhaps the empty bag had slipped his mind when he’d thrown away the milk carton. Perhaps.
The question he kept asking himself from his spot on the green and yes, red specked, couch, was where to go. What was the next step from here? He still lived in an apartment he couldn’t afford, with a radiator that conked out with increasing regularity to the point that he had stopped making attempts with the duct tape and the wrench and stayed, sometimes with her, but often without her, on the couch. And now there was no more macaroni. It’s always the little things.
Maybe she felt the same way; maybe he should have said something about how he felt they were drifting, floating away from each other. It had been so slow, so unnoticeable, that when he’d finally understood what had happened she was gone and he was left staring down into the steam of cooked noodles, tears materializing in his eyes from the hot, moist air. Maybe it was his fault that they’d drifted, maybe she had expected him to hold her back into him. Maybe, he thought, as he ate the cooling, halved wedding bands, his life’s slow disintegration had its origin in things more cosmic, more universal and less trivial than his own inconsequential actions. Maybe all things expand, he considered, putting his fork down and sipping the milk, leaving yellow lip stains on the glass. Everything expands along with the universe, including her, including me. The macaroni expands, the milk expands, the radiator expands. What was one continues to expand until it’s two, until it is two separate and complex things. And maybe, he thought, we can hold on to each other for some time. Maybe love can be the binding, or maybe the dog, or maybe the apartment or the radiator’s rusting pipes. Maybe they can anchor us. But maybe our footholds come out from underneath us, our anchors lose their grips. Maybe we have a finite number of little half circles to hold us together. Maybe one day we lose the red twist tie. Maybe we slowly boil away the little half circles until all we have left is the empty bag and empty dreams. Richard sat there on the couch with a cool, near-empty bowl in his lap, the pipes of the rusted radiator creaking and moaning, sobbing and heaving, in tune with Richard’s own soul, which was grieving for unfulfilled dreams.
His dreams were different from hers, a fact he’d never shared. While he watched and listened to her, small and curled up against him, whispering dreams of things to come, he dreamt that things would never change; that she would always fit against his body, effortlessly, the way two puzzle pieces join together; forming one image. He dreamt that he would always be so warm, so helplessly poor and so inept at fixing the damn radiator. It shivered and groaned and shook with effort. The milk at the bottom of the bowl was cold.