Miller moths, heavy as helicopters, stumbled through the stale air of their third-floor apartment that summer, and when he came home from work and stripped off his seersucker plaid shirt, leaving nothing but a thin white v-neck to sweat in, he dashed about the apartment issuing awkward swats with a rolled-up newspaper, triumphantly leaving sooty filament stains where moth wings met the plastered wall.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she’d say from her post at the narrow gas stove, meticulously frying chicken breasts the way her mother had shown her. “It’s disgusting.”
He ignored her, however, and continued on in his senselessly predatory pursuit of graceless dirt-colored insects, focusing his lichen-hued eyes in a way that unsettled her with its lack of humanity.
At the bank down the street she spent her daytime hours, bundled in turtleneck sweaters and wool plaid skirts to ward off the artificially cold air. When she came home she immediately kicked off her cheap leather shoes, peeling off her nylon stockings and leaving them in an ever-growing pile at the corner of their bedroom. She laid in bed underneath a screenless window, at mercy to the lung-hot air which only became agitated by an ineffectual ceiling fan. When he came home a half-hour later he joined her there. They said nothing; words that would not have traveled, anyway, through the high-viscosity atmosphere.
At six o’clock he removed his first beer from the squat fridge while she took a stemmed glass from the cupboard, filling it with vinegary pale-yellow wine. Then dinner, and on his second or third beer, when the new darkness brought the onslaught of flying vermin, he performed his duty. Afterwards they sat at the massive antique oak table and argued for lack of conversation.
“They leave marks all over the walls,” she would say, pushing an itinerant pile of couscous around her stoneware plate. “I can’t scrub it them off either.”
He tensed, eyeing another one. “I guess you would rather have them flying around the house then.” It progressed from there and usually ended with her tearfully requesting to be sent back home to Detroit, where there were no moths at all, and then he would have no one to cook him dinner, since that’s all he wanted here there for anyway, and him sweetly capitulating, and then they would brush their teeth together in the diminutive bathroom off of the kitchen, and fall into the still-hot bed, grown warmer by their youthful presence.
On Friday evenings, without fail, she requested to be taken out to dinner, to be escorted manfully by him to the Greek restaurant with outdoor patio, the barbecue stand with the sweet tiny corn-muffins, or the pizza place on the lush campus of the private college from which he had graduated. That was her least favorite, because they would inevitably run into old friends of his, still giddy in their newfound post-college freedom, old friends who were not resentfully tied down with a dropout bank teller from Detroit.
“You’re just as smart as they are,” he assured her, but she sensed insincerity, whether it existed or not. “You just need to exert yourself a little more.” She rode through campus, tense in the passenger seat of his black Volkswagen Golf, choosing not to contest either statement.
Afterward dinner they drank at the brewery with the pool tables where the bartender, Joe, gave them free beers in exchange for augmented tips, or at a neon-signed dive bar on Nevada Street where the winking proprietor generously slung glass goblets full of testy concoctions, appeasing both sulking fixtures and exuberant students alike.
Drunk, they liked and hated each other as much as when sober, but the strain of their interactions temporarily lifted. She still idolized him, with his notoriety and capacity for self-exertion, while he still needed her with her pillowy sensuality and vulnerable domesticity. He still despised her lack of focus and pedigree, while she still chafed from his arrogance and reckless masculinity.
The end of most Friday nights that summer either came together or fell apart, melodramatically so. She might become irrationally incensed at a misplaced and harmless comment and decide to walk home, stumbling in her patent heels past squat bungalows until he, distraught, found her ten minutes later, wherupon she would issue epithets and threats before breaking down and climbing into the waiting car. He might grow weary of another young man’s attention to her, address the situation, and consequently become unwelcome in the establishment while she trailed behind him, proud and ashamed. When they arrived home he would burn things in the toaster oven while she fell into bed still clothed, and in the morning they would wake relieved if wholly pained, to spend Saturday in bed, nursing tall glasses of Alka-Seltzer.
At the end of the summer they flew to Seattle to visit his parents in their modern house on Lake Washington. They caught crabs in live traps and viewed orcas from a motorboat in the Puget Sound, and his mother, a short-cropped practical nurse, made a dessert with cherries and kirsch that she lit on fire.
“Cherry flambe,” she announced triumphantly.
In the fall he slept with another woman, a plain but ambitious acquaintance from his college days who had invited him, “just as friends”, he assured his companion, to a wedding another state away. She sensed it sharply as she lay in the bed alone that Saturday evening, underneath the window where chill now passed. A single moth laconically bumped against the ceiling before coming to rest in the corner peacefully. By the time he came back she had left.
That it ended doesn’t matter as much as that it was, for a short while. He stopped drinking and learned carpentry. A year later, she married a pleasant man in Detroit.
Summers and miller moths continued to flourish, unaware.