Blue Tape

By Jennie Berner


I made myself at home: kicked off my shoes, strapped my purse over the doorknob, set the kettle to boil. Well, not quite home. I dug into my purse for the electric-blue tape I bought special, for this occasion. SAFE ON ALL SURFACES, the packaging boasted. LEAVES NO MARKS BEHIND. I tore off a small piece and stuck it on the back burner, seven o’clock. I scored the tape with my fingernail: k for kettle.

The evidence of Karl’s morning routine was scant, but reassuring. Coffee grounds -- Sumatra, his favorite -- sank in the trash, still percolating the ruffled filter, a yellow mug waited in the basin, and a sugar spoon lay face-down on a saucer.

Karl was particular about spoons. More than once, I had made the mistake of leaving one “face-up,” as he called it. He hated how this caused the coffee to pool in the hollow.

“Now when I go to use it for my cup, there’s a ring of cold coffee caked on it,” he would say. Though his fussiness was irritating, I never objected. This was a lesson Karl told me he had learned in the army and, as such, it was off-limits. We didn’t talk about his service. At least, we hadn’t since the early days of our relationship, since before I had introduced him to Sue.

That night of their first meeting seemed ages ago, but the effects had never quite worn off. At first, I had thought the two of them were having a blast. They certainly doled out plenty of laughter. Later, they corrected me.

“I didn’t appreciate her making fun of the army,” Karl had said once she was gone. “I wish you’d said something.”

“Oh, she wasn’t making fun. It just seemed that way, because one of her eyebrows is naturally darker than the other,” I explained. It was true: her eyebrows gave her an air of perpetual cynicism that could be unsettling to those who didn’t know her.

The next day, Sue and I had worked the same shift at the bookstore. “I can’t believe you’re seeing that guy,” she had said, all the while slipping security tags into art books. “He is so not your type. I mean, the army? The mustache? Your values are totally different.”

“The mustache could be ironic,” I said.

She didn’t have to make the look. Her eyebrows did it for her.

Maybe Sue had been right. Maybe there is a certain kind of guy who serves his country and grows a mustache, and maybe I’m not the girl for him. But I have to admit, that single image he gave me of his military days -- a set of men sipping coffee in uniform, the small courtesies and spoons they shared -- really did something for me.

It’s possible that I vaguely thought about all of this as I studied the spoon and the mug on Karl’s counter. More likely, I was still too nervy to reminisce. Almost as nervy as yesterday. I had to note the crucial details: the mug’s handle pointed at eight o’clock; the spoon more like four. Only this time, thanks to the tape, I wouldn’t have to scramble to remember the original positions of the objects. I stuck one piece to the counter, as close as possible to the point where the spoon handle made contact. S, I initialed. Then I dropped the spoon in the mug, removed the mug from the basin, and affixed another square to the precise spot where the mug had been centered. I notched the tape at eight o’clock and stepped back. They looked nice, those touches of blue.

In the pantry, I found my box of Earl Grey tea. Karl only drank coffee, regular. Tea was prissy. So I always kept a stash of my own. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the fact that the tea was still there, now that we were broken up. Maybe it meant he was distraught. He was having trouble letting go. This would have satisfied me. But there were other possibilities, too. Maybe he was planning on keeping the tea. He would serve it to future guests, future girlfriends. They would compliment him on his taste. One day, he might even become something he swore he never would: a bona fide tea-drinker. He would frequent specialty stores in search of exotic blends with names like “Dandelion Detox” and “China Harvest” and carefully monitor steeping times. Of course, that wasn’t even the worst scenario. The worst was that he simply wouldn’t notice the tea was there.

I prepared the tea in his mug, stirred the sugar with his spoon. Sure, it was riskier this way, but it heightened the strange sense of intimacy I felt being in his apartment alone. I wrapped the tea bag in a tissue and tucked it inside my purse. My nerves were starting to settle. The day before, I had been so much more anxious. It was a wonder I had even made it to Karl’s building. On the walk over, I had been tormented with the thought of what might happen if I ran into him, or someone else I knew, like my nosy coworker Crystal, who lived a block down from him. I nearly turned back. Although Karl’s street wasn’t, in any sense, out-of-the-way, it was set back just enough from the center of town that there was really no reason to be on it unless, of course, you lived there, or had a boyfriend who lived there, or needed to go to the post office. This time, I brought letters to mail, as a precaution. The letters were just normal bills, and not even late. But no one could tell the difference.

I sat on his sofa with my tea. It was eight fifty, about three hours until I would need to leave for my shift at the bookstore. Karl would be halfway through teaching the first of his four survival skills classes. Up until a month ago, Karl had been a kayaking instructor at an all-boys prep school. Sometimes, in bed, we would pretend that I was one of his students, caught up in the turbulent rapids and stranded on an isolated bank, drenched and ravaged like on the cover of a harlequin romance. Once, I even used the puffy red vest I kept at his place as a life-preserver. All of this was ok, so long as he didn’t actually have any female students. But when he began to consider a new job that had opened up at the sister school, I began to worry.

“It just feels wrong, knowing the fantasies you’ve had,” I had said.

“I’ve had!” He threw up his hands. I mean, literally threw up his hands. I remember, because it’s not something you see a lot in real life. “Those fantasies are always yours,” he said. “I just play along.”

He had a point there. I tried a different tactic.

“Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere coed?” I asked. At the very least, I wanted him to have some younger male competition.

“This position is a unique opportunity,” he said. “It’s not like every high school has a survival program.”

“But if it’s an all-girls school, shouldn’t they be looking for a woman?” I asked. “I mean, the girls should have good female role models. With you there, they’ll assume that only men are qualified to teach survival skills.”

My name, “Renee,” was all he said.

I stayed with him long enough to learn the grim details of his new position. In the fall, he would teach survival skills and train the girls into shape. In the spring, the cohort -- about forty girls in total -- would take a week-long wilderness expedition in the Appalachians. Meanwhile, I hung onto a remote hope that Karl and I could work something out, by which I really meant a remote hope that he could still change his mind, and return to kayaking. I liked our old routine.

When he didn’t, I called it quits.

“Our values are totally different,” I said, echoing Sue’s sentiments exactly. “I can’t support what you’re doing to those poor girls’ self-esteem.”

In reality, I had very little interest in high school girls’ self esteem. In fact, I think that self esteem in general is overrated, and particularly the self-esteem of girls who are over ten years my junior. I just couldn’t stand the thought of those classes, of Karl guiding his students’ slight hands as they mastered intricate knots and supervising their exertions on the rowing machine. Thus, it makes no sense, or every kind of sense, depending on how you look at it, that this was what I thought about, what I pictured him doing, as I sat on his sofa sipping tea.

I left for work at noon, making sure before I went that I had returned to their original locations the mug, the spoon, and every other item I had handled. The pieces of blue tape peeled off easy. I shoved them in my purse, praising myself for a job well-done.

I arrived at the bookstore early. Sue was eating a sandwich in the break-room, a tiny loft-space with a futon and a mini-fridge. It offered a great birds-eye view of the store, a view of which the customers were oblivious.

“Look, do you think that guy could be stealing?” Sue asked, motioning with her sandwich towards a man in the history section.

“Nah. I’ve seen him before,” I said. “He’s harmless. Why?”

“Crystal said she saw him removing a security tag this morning.”

Crystal was the coworker who lived near Karl. Actually, she was more than a coworker. She was a friend. I might even say good friend, though that might be pushing it. Everyone in the bookstore, including Crystal herself, was under the impression that Crystal, Sue, and I were bosom buddies. The guys down in shipping and receiving referred to us as “the threesome,” and our most frequent buyer, a retired professor, called us “Charlie’s Angels,” apparently on account of our different hair colors. But the truth was, Sue and I were close friends. Crystal was just Crystal. And though Sue and I were happy to spend time with the girl -- this young 20-year old girl who could coin catchy abbreviations like “reg” (for “register”) and wink at customers without looking creepy -- we also had our own private times, when Crystal wasn’t invited.

“So Crystal’s here today?” I asked.

Sue nodded. “She’s on till two. But she was suggesting we could meet up later, after you get off. We want to know how you’re doing.”

I knew what she meant: Crystal wanted to know how I was coping without Karl. Crystal’s father wrote self-help books, some of which we carried in our Mind/Body section. So she knew all the stages, all the signs, everything about breaking up properly. Sue claimed Crystal was a genius. Of course, Sue never had a real boyfriend.

“I’m not so sure about tonight,” I said. “But maybe you and I could see a movie on Friday?”

“If that’s what you want,” said Sue. “But I agree with Crystal. It would help you to talk.”

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I said. “You were right about him. We just didn’t have that much in common. You keep forgetting that I was the one who broke up with him.”

I couldn’t tell whether Sue was raising one eyebrow.

I didn’t go out with them that night, nor did I see a movie with Sue on Friday. But I did sneak back into Karl’s apartment two more times that week, and three times the week after. I knew I was being psycho. I didn’t need anyone telling me, certainly not self-help Crystal. That’s part of what I liked about it. I didn’t have to worry about whether it was healthy, at this certain stage in our breakup, to burn things or wait by the phone or sleep around. Breaking into your ex-boyfriend’s apartment while he’s away is just sick, period. I reveled in the certainty.

Slowly, I began to create my own routine. To cover my tracks, I invented new and innovative methods involving diagrams, blue tape, and plastic wrap. All was going perfectly, I was moving on, I hardly even thought about Karl anymore. It was as if he didn’t live there. Then, one day, I left a teabag in the mug. I didn’t realize my blunder until I reached the crosswalk by the after-school enrichment center. I turned around in the middle of the street and dug into my purse, just to be sure -- no teabag. The crossing guard, an older woman wearing a light-reflective vest, gave me a frown, then held up her mini-stopsign for the second time.

“I forgot something,” I shouted as I rushed away down the street.

When I reached Karl’s apartment, his car was parked in the driveway. I panicked. It wasn’t even three yet. Why was he home? His figure appeared at the window. Was he looking for me? I sprinted as fast as I could back towards the crosswalk.

“Did you get what you needed?” the crossing guard asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

“Good. Now, I want you to stay here for a minute,” she said.

“Sorry, I’m kind of in a hurry,” I replied. I didn’t dare look back.

“Wait.” She held out her sign in front of me to block the way. Cars whizzed by. “When you forget something like that, it’s God’s way of helping you avoid danger. So you have to make sure you allow enough time to let the danger pass. Say a prayer, maybe.”

I didn’t say a prayer. Instead, I stood there staring at this woman, whose job it was to cross me, with all the hate I could conjure.

That evening, I braced myself for Karl’s angry phone call. But the phone never rang. Was it possible he hadn’t noticed the teabag? Or that he had found some normal explanation? Or did he simply figure that he didn’t have to call me -- that now I would surely know I had gone too far? I didn’t go to Karl’s the next day, or the day after. I spent my spare time in the break-room, spying on customers and listening to Crystal talk about experiments in developmental psychology. Crystal had been using her father’s books to run a battery of tests on her eight year old cousin, just for kicks. According to Crystal, her cousin was in what’s called “the Period of Concrete Operations.” He could not yet understand the concept of conservation. A tall glass of water transferred into a shallow container appeared to be a different quantity altogether. I didn’t let her run the tests on me.

By the next Monday, I was infuriated with Karl. It was bad enough waiting for his call. It was worse admitting it would never come. I knew I had to return to his place.

For the first time, the sight of his door filled me with dread. I wondered whether he might have changed his lock. But my key fit same as always, then turned with a click. The mug, of all things, was still there. The mug with my old teabag, now dry and shriveled. There was no question: it was in the exact same place I had left it, that is to say, the exact same place he had left it originally. Maybe if Karl had been messy, I would have accepted the oversight. But this was the guy who bristled if his dresser drawers were open just a sliver.

I decided to set up my own test. I left a dirty spoon face-up on the counter. When I returned the next day, they were still there, the mug and the spoon, untouched. I left a tissue on Tuesday, a bookmark on Wednesday. On Thursday, I left blue tape everywhere. Friday, I had had enough. I started by whipping up a broccoli omelet. I made sure to burn the cheese. When I spilled ketchup on the floor, I stomped in it. The tracks followed me into the bathroom. I cleaned my teeth with my old toothbrush, taking care to leave toothpaste marks in the sink. I shaved my legs in the bath. I rummaged through his dresser for my old red vest, then draped it over a chair.

As I was tugging at the bedspread, I happened to glimpse the room in the full-length mirror. It had lost all composure. Drawers lay half-open, clothes strewn about, as if a small storm had struck. I wouldn’t have recognized the scene for what it was had I not, finally, noticed the vest, in the middle of it all, like an anchor. I thought about putting it on, about walking away in it. But clearly, it had accustomed itself to its home in the drawer: its once-puffy shape had deflated, and its fabric held onto deep wrinkles and folds.

I didn’t stop to look at my own reflection. Carefully, I folded the vest and replaced it in the drawer. I scrubbed the sink and bathtub, mopped the floor. I did the dishes. Next, I vacuumed everything, every corner, every surface, every stray hair. I didn’t even care whose hairs they were. I wiped the windows, the doorknobs. I removed every fingerprint.

Finally, after three weeks, I was done.

On the way home, I ran into Sue and Crystal as they were leaving Crystal’s apartment.

“What are you doing here?” Sue asked.

“Going to the post office,” I replied. Only, this time I didn’t have my letters with me. Over the past week, I had abandoned all method, all strategy. “I’m picking up a package,” I added.

“Cool,” said Crystal. “We’ll join you.”

I could have asked them where they were going, but I didn’t. It was enough just knowing they had been at Crystal’s together, and that I hadn’t been invited.

At the post office, Sue and Crystal waited in line with me. I felt like I was leading them to some sublime river I would plunge myself into and drown. But I felt good about it.

“I’m expecting a package,” I said confidently when I reached the counter.

“Did you get a pink slip?” the man asked.

“No.”

“Do you have a tracking number?”

“No.”

“Then you’ll have to come back another time.”

“It’s important,” I said. “Can’t you just take a look?”

He examined me over the top of his glasses. “ID?”

While he was away, searching for the package, Sue and Crystal questioned me.

“Who’s it from?”

“Karl,” I speculated. “It’s from Karl. He mailed me some of my old things because I wouldn’t pick them up.”

“That’s kind of funny, he sends you a package and it ends up here right by his apartment.” Sue’s eyebrows were killing me.

I scanned the post office. High in the wall sat a window, like the one in the break-room, where a figure watched the activity, sipping coffee or tea. Directly below lay a tall, wide barrier. This was the same barrier behind which the man had disappeared with my ID. From time to time, sounds escaped -- a clanging, a scuff. I tried to picture the other side -- a row of metal shelves, assorted boxes, a lift machine. The man was surely taking his time.

“It must be heavy.” As I said this, I imagined a large box, meant just for me.

“What’s in it?” Crystal asked.

I didn’t know. My toothbrush, perhaps. My vest, my tea. Could there be more? As I waited, the package expanded in all dimensions. Clearly it was too big for the man to handle. He had to get assistance to lower it from the shelf to the ground. And now? Well, now he was pushing it slowly down the concrete hall, inching it forward with all his might. Any minute, I would see it. We all would. In color, no less -- electric-blue. Karl had taped it up tight. It would take me forever to peel off the layers of tape to get inside. It was just like him to do that.

I thought about how surprised Sue and Crystal would be when they saw the package. They would laugh and say, “We didn’t believe you! We thought you were stuck in ‘the Period of such-and-such Operations.’”

They would help me carry the package to my apartment.

I glimpsed the figure in the high window again. From that vantage point, anyone could see it coming. Even I could see it on its way.

 

Jennie Berner lives in Chicago, where she is working on a Ph.D. in English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, the Journal, and the Boston Review.

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