Stephanie C. Trott

2021, Fiction

(NO) VACANCY

Marlene has been inside me for nearly two years. Six hundred and ninety-four days, if you’re counting, and I have been from the start. Possession isn’t something one comes into slowly but rather all at once, like jumping off the high dive at the community swimming pool. You’re just minding your own business falling through space and then all of a sudden you’re smashing through something and you can’t breathe and you don’t know which way is up. You’re held down there in the cold and the dark with no chance of escape, even though the other side is so close that sometimes you can feel the sun and see the ripple of wind at the surface. But that’s exactly where she’s bringing me now: the surface.

I was still in school when it happened, about to get my bachelor’s and spend a summer traveling alone through Europe. Cliché, I know, but c’mon: the food, the art, the sex. Who wouldn’t want to spend three months gorging themselves in every possible way? A middle-aged ghost wasn’t on the list of things I wanted to put inside me, but that’s what happened one night in the library while I was studying for finals. I walked in as one person and came out another.

No one told me what to expect when she took hold of my body. I didn’t know I’d lose my sense of taste and smell, that my hair would lack its shine. Most days I’m lucky if I get up before eleven, and I only listen to classic rock. Now I’m more scared of being alone than I am at the thought of her staying forever.

She drops the news as I’m flossing one night after dinner, right as I’m working to free a shred of spinach: “I’m leaving you.” Her words come out of my mouth as I fling a tiny green speck onto to the mirror, and blood fills the space between my bicuspids.

“You’re what?” I ask, tasting warm iron and salt. I can’t believe what I’ve just said.

“Leaving.”

“Why?”

“I’m bored. You never take me anywhere new.”

“I thought you hated anything new.”

“See, that’s the problem,” she sighs. “You don’t anticipate my needs anymore. It’s never ‘what does Marlene want,’ not like in the beginning. I need someone who’s going to challenge me. Someone who won’t be such a pushover.”

“I’m not a pushover,” I say. “I don’t let us walk naked in front of the windows anymore.”

“I know, and I hate it. We’re holding each other back. I have needs.”

“I can change.”

“You can’t. Trust me.”

On the bus ride to work the next morning, she outlines her impending departure so that I can continue coming to terms: she’ll select a worthy partner after trying out a few and will make her final move in a month.

“What if you don’t find someone?” I ask, eyeing the other passengers and imaging her inside them. The man with a bumpy nose. The woman with body odor. The child whose shoes are on the wrong feet. “Then will you stay?”

I know this is a text-book case of Stockholm syndrome, but I can’t help it. Who am I without her? Someone who secretly still needs two credits to graduate, who knows she’s a disappointment to her parents, who’s never been west of the Mississippi River—Hell, I’ve never even been out of the Northeast. I’ve let this woman consume me, change me, define me. It won’t be a relief to have her gone; it’ll be an emptiness, like a sagging mattress tossed to the curb. Without Marlene, I’ll have to face who I’ve let myself become with her, and there will be so much undoing to be done up again.

I’ve come to find myself more comfortable in her company than in that of my family and friends. I haven’t seen them in months, though they still call every so often. Mostly they say they miss me, that it’s been too long and hope I’m okay and want to get together for dinner some time. But other than social withdrawal and a bit of concern for my sudden isolation, no one who knew me before has suspected a thing. Possession isn’t always a loud and ornate expression like they make it look in the movies; as crass and obscene as she is in private, Marlene is generally quite quiet when we’re around other people. Most of my conversations with her happen in my head, like some twisted version of a conscience. Only occasionally does she act out.

“There are at least five people on this bus who would work,” she says. “Six, if you count that baby, but I don’t like the way he’s sucking his thumb. That shit makes for years of orthodontia.”

“So you want someone younger.”

“No, I want someone with more agency.”

“A baby doesn’t have agency.” We cross Myrtle Street and I press the yellow tape to signal our stop.

“No, but he’s a hell of a lot cuter than you.”

We get off the bus and I watch it pull away with her potential suitors as we head toward the bank. After I watched my friends graduate, the only job I could find (and keep) was as a teller downtown, monitoring money and handing out lollipops through the drive-up window. I didn’t go to college for this. I studied Proust. I analyzed Baudelaire. I thought my life might take place somewhere along the Seine or at the very least in Canada. Now the closest I come to that dream is exchanging dollars for euros, placed into the hands of folks who have more cash than they know what to do with. That’s how you travel: you have money, time, and a life that gets to be filled however you wish.

When Marlene arrived, I resold my plane tickets and used the rest of the money I’d saved for my trip to rent an apartment where we could be alone and get to know each other. It was difficult at first and took time to learn what foods she liked (chalupas and cheezy curls), which clothes she wanted to wear (nothing, preferably, but cutoffs and flannels were eventually permitted), when she slept (never), and where we could go (very few places).

Marlene’s idea of travel is our weekly trip to the public library, where we check out 1980s horror films. She’s frugal, and it’s one of the few things we can squarely agree on. Together we take walks down Elm Street, spend summers at Camp Crystal Lake, sleep restlessly in Amityville, and make snowmen at the Overlook Hotel. Today as we watch a pirated version of Poltergeist on my iPhone, I tell her there are other movies we could try. I could take her somewhere new without going anywhere at all. I suggest Phantom of the Opera, trying to find something a little more cultured.

“I hate music.”

Nosferatu?

“Too quiet.”

King Kong?

“I could get into bestiality,” she teases and has me eat a cherry lollipop while Carol Anne gets sucked into the void. A man in a white newsboy cap pulls up and fiddles with the plastic drive-thru canister, sending it through the tubes and into my hands. He rolls up the tinted window of his Benz so that only his eyes are visible. “Bet he’s loaded,” says Marlene.

Inside the container is a deposit slip, a check for $32,000, ten twenty-dollar bills, and a business card. He’s placed three red Xs by his telephone number, which he’s underlined. Guys do stuff like this all the time, send me little notes through the deposit system. I can see myself with this man: Eddie Almeida, Independent Real Estate Agent. His card says his office is on Bradford Avenue, across from the liquor store where there’s always a cop circling, and I’ve seen his face smeared on billboards near the highway. He has a reputation, and Marlene’s taste in men—questionable at best—has rubbed off. Before her, I never would have gone for a guy like this. Lately, though, even she is quick to find fault with them. Eddie rolls his window down again and presses the intercom button.

“That sucker looks real good,” he says. He licks his lips and winks.

“Oh, stuff it,” Marlene says aloud, wanting him to hear. “You’ve got the tiniest little dick and no clue what to do with it. Come back when you get some Viagra.”

I feel my cheeks flush as we process Eddie’s deposit, then return the receipt without making eye contact with him. He pulls away, likely as embarrassed as I am; I hate that she can read everyone’s thoughts, not just mine. I take the lollipop out of my mouth and throw it toward the trash bin beneath my desk. It misses and sticks to the rug.

“Did you ever think about using your powers for good?” I ask her.

“Did you ever think about using my powers for anything at all?”

*

Two weeks pass and Marlene is no closer to finding her next partner, or at least that’s what she’s telling me. Mostly she goes out when I’m asleep, but her return jolts me awake like a cat pouncing on my chest. There’s this deep weight and I can sense her inside me again, settling in and leaving me to acquaint myself once more with the heaviness of another being. I bet if you took a scan of my entire body, you’d see how physically messed up I am from having another person inside me for this long. My fingers have curled, my feet have bunions. Sometimes I wonder if she’s given me stomach ulcers or if it’s all the coffee she drinks. My eyesight is gone—like, completely shot. I ache all the time, but I can’t remember what it’s like not to.

There are days when I look in the mirror and see only her face, but I know that a part of me is still in there, somewhere. I see who I was in the freckle on my right pinky toe, in the scar above my upper lip that I got when I was ten. Everything else is Marlene: the way my sweat smells like cigarettes even though I’ve never smoked, how my eyebrows now thin at the ends where they once were thick tufts of blonde. Her table manners are what’s worst, the chewing and the smacking and the slapping of my lips, and the way she swallows things whole. It hurts, inside and out, when someone has taken control of you.

Marlene was a waitress in her mortal life, at the all-night diner down the street from our apartment. I never went there before she moved in, but since then I’ve become one of their regular midnight customers. Marlene takes me there when she’s restless so that she can watch the desserts spin on their chrome plates. I buy us a piece of chocolate cream pie and wait for her to settle. Tonight she wants to play AC/DC on the jukebox, but I don’t have any quarters. “We can listen to music at home for free,” I tell her.

“You don’t have anything I like.”

“We can find something on YouTube. There’s a ton of B-sides on there. Or I can reserve some Slayer CDs from the library. Whatever you want.”

“No. Just knowing you’d rather listen to ‘Coat of Many Colors’ puts me in a mood.”

“Everyone loves Dolly Parton.”

“I do not love Dolly Parton,” she growls.

We sit in silence as she becomes transfixed with a bowl of rotating JELL-O and I finish the pie knowing I fucked up. The waitress comes over and says it’s nice to see me again. I smile and Marlene licks the graham cracker crumbs off our fork. I joke with the waitress and tell her I’m practically part of the furniture now. She places the receipt face down in front of me, as if I don’t already know it’s $4.73, that it’s the sixth piece of pie I’ve eaten since Tuesday, that my pants are ripped beneath the crotch from where my thighs can’t stop rubbing together. I’ll need to get a gym membership when Marlene leaves. Shit.

The waitress smiles big and leans over the counter. Her breasts rest on the sugar shaker.

“Anything else I can get you, hon?” she asks.

I feel my eye start to twitch, and I quickly slap five bucks on the counter. Whenever Marlene’s about the act up, my left eyelid quivers and then it’s only a matter of moments before she’s flipping a table or calling someone the C word. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does I mostly black out.

“Thanks for the pie, bitch,” I hear Marlene slur as we trip toward the glass doors and spill into the night. She finds my keys as we’re walking toward a yellow Camaro, their metal edges poking out from my hand like Freddy’s jagged nails. Tunnel-visioned, I watch as she scratches three deep lines from tail to front and bangs my fists on the hood, barely making a dent.

“Dumb blonde,” she says, and walks my jelly legs back to my Toyota.

Inside I come-to slowly. My foot hurts and the skin between my fingers is bleeding. I fumble for one of my brother’s old Black Sabbath tapes and play it as I drive us home. It has taken so long to learn how to please Marlene that I have lost the things that please me: Édith Piaf’s “Padam Padam,” the taste of fresh strawberries, sunrises, the feeling of my dog, Arlo, sleeping against me. I had to rehome him early in our relationship when Marlene jokingly tried to kick him, and I haven’t seen him since.

“What was that about?” I ask calmly, not wanting to upset her more.

 “She’s the one.”

“What? How?”

“She’s perfect.”

“But you just mangled her car. You don’t even know her.”

“I’ve been watching her for a long time. Doesn’t give a damn about other people, lives in a shitty apartment across town and only cares about her next paycheck. She’s got no savings, just that car, and she reminds me of myself when I was alive. She’ll get those scratches fixed in no time, and then I’ll have something nice to ride around in once I get her to actually drive it right.”

“I think the Camry’s pretty nice.”

“It might be nice for you!” she roars, and we swerve into the empty bike lane. The car rumbles and then quiets as I get us back in the road. Marlene sighs. “You heard how she smirked at us. She thinks she’s better than you.”

“So?”

“So she needs to be taught a lesson. I never had anyone do that for me, okay?”

We’re silent for a few songs until the tape clicks over. This savior complex is a new side of her, one I don’t understand. Am I not worth her staying to help me clean up this mess? Why does she have to fix someone else when she’s broken me? She waits until the intro of “Turn Up the Night” finishes before she speaks again.

“Don’t come back to the diner when I’m gone. Go to Europe, like you were going to. I hear Paris is nice.”

“What would I do in Paris?”

“I don’t know. Drink wine. Meet someone new.”

“But I have you.”

“We each need to find ourselves again.”

“Please, Leen, I don’t know what else to do. I’ll miss you too much.”

“Shut up. You won’t.”

“We could go together, before you leave? One last hurrah. I’ll sublet the apartment and show you the Mona Lisa. We can ride through Montmartre on a Vespa.”

“Those things are ridiculous.”

“Yeah. I know.”

*

Marlene leaves me on a Tuesday just after three A.M. We’re watching The Exorcist, the part where Reagan’s head spins all the way around, and I’m waiting for Marlene to laugh like she always does. “Demons don’t have to obey the limits of anatomy,” she told me the first time we watched it together. “It’s different with ghosts. You go and snap your neck, and I’m stuck living in a cold house until the Rapture swings by to pick me up.” It’s never stopped me from thinking about it, especially when I thought she might be off with someone else. But we both knew I’d never jump. If I died, she’d have no one to come home to, and neither would I.

Reagan’s head begins to turn, and I feel a rumble in the pit of my stomach, like green slime might come out of my mouth if I’m not careful. Instead it’s Marlene, loud and deep and rolling out of me in waves. I feel her next in my chest, then in my throat and on my tongue. Finally she’s everywhere, her voice and mine filling the room as we laugh at someone else’s misfortune, someone else’s undoing. She keeps going and I can’t stop it, the sound of her leaving, the sound of me coming back. I laugh for what feels like forever, until Father Karras dies and the credits roll and roll and I’m not laughing anymore. I’m crying, alone. Lying in my bed with my sweat and my stench and my own body. Mine. Not hers. Not ours.

I gasp in air and feel it reach the bottom of my lungs, welcoming oxygen to touch the parts of my body I’d forgotten were meant for just me. I piss myself, the sheets soaked with a deep, aching relief. I was a bed-wetter as a kid, and the feeling is familiar, safe. But as it cools and the warmth dissipates, I’m swept by the quiet realization that it’s happened: she’s gone. I’m alone. And Paris is so far away.


Stephanie C. Trott lives and writes in southeastern Massachusetts. She is a fiction editor at Longleaf Review and the 2021 guest editor for Emerging Voices in Fiction at Oyster River Pages. Her fiction additionally appears in Prairie SchoonerBlood Orange Review, and New South.