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The Sick Day Issue

'Knives': New Fiction by Paul Maliszewski

His girlfriend had said they needed to talk. It was just like you hear about: the quote-unquote talk.

by Paul Maliszewski
13 September 2016, 12:00am

Photos by Pat O'Malley

This story appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

In the middle of breaking up—the middle of being broken up with—he got thirsty. I think I need some water, he told his girlfriend. He pointed toward his throat so as to make his intentions perfectly clear. His girlfriend had said they needed to talk. It was just like you hear about: the quote-unquote talk. They went around and around, with her alternately telling him she had nothing left to say and then asking what his vision was for them, if he even had one. My vision? he said. He couldn't believe it. His vision. What was vision anyway? She told him she wasn't in the mood to parse it all out. But he had questions still. He didn't understand, he said. He was trying to think back about what had happened. He asked for examples, and she said to please tell her they weren't going to play the example game. They talked for an hour, maybe longer. They sat in the front room, she on the edge of the futon—her futon—and he perched atop the ottoman that went with this chair his aunt had given him.

In the kitchen, he got a glass and some ice and then he stood at the sink and let the water run over his fingers. That was when he noticed the knives were gone. The knives were hers, a gift from her parents. They came with one of those big wooden blocks where all the knives go. The block was beside the sink, right where it always sat, but it was empty. Even the sharpener was gone—and those scissors they hardly ever used, because they didn't know what they were for, whether they were special scissors or what. Had she packed them? Nothing else was packed, nothing he could see.

He thought of her too of course, and sometimes he called and she didn't answer, or she did answer but after asking how he was doing and how their friend was, she said she was sorry but she couldn't really talk. It was the knives he kept coming back to though.

He took his place on the ottoman and looked at her. Better now? she said. He let the sarcasm go, if it was sarcasm. Most of the time he couldn't tell. Sure, he said. I guess. He asked her where she was going, where she'd live. Asking was a way of finding out if there was someone else. She was moving in with a friend, she told him. He knew this friend, sort of. He had met her. She lived down the street in another apartment complex. More like town houses. Probably expensive, he thought. He didn't like her friend much. She liked commercials was the thing. She'd always just seen some commercial on TV and wanted to talk about how hilarious it was, or cute, and had you seen it too? So your friend, he said, she knew we were breaking up before I did? He thought this was proof of something. Deceit perhaps. His girlfriend shrugged. She had to arrange to live somewhere, didn't she? What was she supposed to do, just show up with a suitcase? He said he was just asking. She didn't have to be defensive. He was going to mention the knives then. Putting them away like that, it really made him burn. It was just so insulting. What did she think he was? Was he supposed to go berserk and pull a knife on her? Was that the thinking? Maybe her friend had suggested it. Maybe she'd seen something on television in between commercials. Or her parents, it could have been her parents. Not that they weren't good people. He didn't mean that. He loved her parents. Or maybe her sister had given her the idea. Her sister was dating a cop. The cop could have said, Make sure you tell your sister to put all the knives away before she breaks up with him. Seems like a nice guy and all, but you never know. Can't be too sure. He could hear them saying these things, talking about him, strategizing. Was everyone in on the planning? That was the other thing that bothered him: He didn't know when she had packed the knives. Had she gotten out of bed in the night, last night, and quietly stowed them somewhere? Or had she woken up early, before he did, and done it then? And where were the knives anyway? Pushed to the back of a cupboard? Hidden behind the cereal? Or had she taken that extra step and removed them from the premises? Maybe she carried them down to her car.

He wasn't the violent type. He had walked off on her once, left her, but that was different. He wasn't even threatening. They were coming back from dinner and she asked him a question, and it just ticked him off, how she asked him, how she had put it. He tried to answer but then he walked away. The question had to do with the holidays. She had asked where he was going to spend them that year, and he didn't know and he wasn't ready to think about it yet, even though he knew he probably should. It was just always a thing with them, friction over the holidays. Anyway, it didn't matter. The point was he walked away, and that was all he did. He figured she had her keys. She'd let herself in, and then he'd come back in a bit, after he'd worked through whatever it was, and they'd just forget about it, watch TV or something. He certainly didn't expect to get home and find her sitting on the stoop. That had not been his intention. Was that violent though? Sometimes she said his words were violent, his language, but he could never understand that. They were just words. He had pulled a knife on his brother once, but they were kids, and it was just stupid. Plus, he'd had his bed between them, a double bed at that. He just opened his knife, this pocketknife, and he told his brother to get out. He didn't lunge at him or chase him or anything.

A few days later, she called and said she would like to come get her things. He said that was fine, of course. Whenever. She didn't want a scene, she said. She was hoping he could leave while she packed. She would have help, she said. So, he said, a few hours are we talking, or what? He looked around the apartment. Between them they didn't have a lot. Should only take a few hours, if they were focused about it. She said maybe he ought to go visit someone, get out of town. Had he thought of that? Just take a little time. She mentioned a friend of theirs, but he hadn't talked to him in a while. Call him, she said. It would be good for you to talk to someone.

For various reasons, he took her advice. Because she was probably right; that was one reason. But mostly he just felt it was important at this stage to be agreeable. That if there was any chance of their getting back together—and he did still think of that, despite everything she'd said to the contrary, he did still hold out that hope—the least he could do was try to be halfway agreeable. So he went, he saw his friend, and the rest doesn't matter, except for the fact that while he was gone, he thought about the knives. He thought of her too of course, and sometimes he called and she didn't answer, or she did answer but after asking how he was doing and how their friend was, she said she was sorry but she couldn't really talk. It was the knives he kept coming back to though. Not that he mentioned them. He never did, not to her or anyone, but the thought of them was always there, the knives and the assumptions behind them. One night, he started to wonder if maybe she didn't have a point, putting the knives away. He stayed awake worrying about what it was he'd done or said, but then he slept, and the next day he thought nothing of the knives for several hours, until they were there again, on his mind, he wasn't sure why. He wasn't a bad person. He told himself that. He hadn't done something awful and then conveniently forgotten it. He'd done nothing—he knew this—and yet there lay inside him a small but unappeasable doubt.

He pictured the wooden block on the counter back in his apartment. All those times he'd reached for it to get a knife, or the times he'd held a knife when they were both in the kitchen, cooking together. How careful he was, how mindful of where she stood, just to maneuver around, get to the cutting board or whatever, because it wasn't a large kitchen by any stretch and they'd liked to work together.

This story appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.