My Knee Had an Itch
Richard Charles Schaefer
The sun is the blaze. Earth’s gravity is the rope tying me to the beach chair, which is the stake. There was no trial to speak of, and yet I burn. ‘SPF 50’ my tan ass. I toss myself in the ocean to see if I float.
It rained the whole drive down from Chattanooga but hasn’t rained since my first sunrise in Miami, four days ago. Denise wondered why I drove instead of flying, and everyone else wondered why I was coming to Miami at all. My coworkers vacation in places like Charleston, Orlando, and Panama City Beach. I shared Interstate 75-South with mini-vans from Michigan, full of families peering out from between flip-flops and pool toys slipping out of tote bags, the spilled innards of relaxation.
“Are you meeting someone there?” Denise asked. “Or maybe hoping to meet someone there?” While she and I Skyped, I was sitting at my home office in North Chattanooga, looking out my window at a tree that looked undeniably like a spider; doubly troubling was the fact that it had far more than eight legs and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was moving towards my home. Since there were no Amazon Prime eligible axes that seemed adequate for self-defense, I booked the hotel room in South Beach instead. How could I explain it to Denise? Ishmael wanted to knock off hats; I wanted to deforest Lookout Valley.
But, anyway, the question, whether it’s coming from Denise or one of my coworkers, really comes down to a critique of my audacity in traveling alone, and they don’t expect an answer. So I spared Denise an explanation of the alien flora in Chattanooga; I do describe to her watching iguanas and vendors climb the palm trees, the former to disappear into the tufts at the base of the fronds, the latter to return with coconuts. I relate details of drunken couples’ bickering at sidewalk restaurants across from Lummus Park and the way green parrots mimic them with airborne arabesques and flourishes as they squawk.
“Isn’t it lonely?” she asked yesterday. The only people here who look lonely aren’t alone; the lonely ones are the people staring into the watered-down universe at the center of the $45 mixed drinks they’re sharing with friends and insignificant others who seem oblivious to the dejection.
“It’s perfect,” I said.
I flip in the water and turn my face toward the sky; maybe I can’t float, exactly, but it takes minimal effort to avoid sinking.
The woman in the next stall is muttering platitudes to herself like someone in a movie talking to their reflection, borrowing from the ‘pull yourself together’ school of bracing, verbal slaps. I can see her wet shorts and bathing suit bottom rolled around her ankles, her bare feet shaking with just the tips of her toes touching the ground. I own the same bikini, though it’s not the one I’m wearing today. The music that was playing in the lobby is also playing here in the bathroom off the hotel bar, a Spanish version of “It’s a Man’s World.”
“This was a mistake,” she says. “A mistake.” So the pep talk didn’t work.
If I’ve ever talked to myself in a bathroom stall, I certainly can’t remember doing so; I’m tempted to try it now, but if I do, this lady will think I’m talking to her, so I keep quiet. We’re four blocks north of my hotel on Ocean Drive, and, although this woman was possibly drinking here, I doubt she’s staying in this hotel either.
She starts sobbing, then bangs on the sides of the stall once. I’m about to ask her if she’s okay when I hear a trickle of urine hitting the tile and see it running toward my own feet, so I hurry out.
A man with a bright red nose and an orange bathing suit stops me at the bar.
“Was my friend in there?” he asks.
“Probably,” I say.
“Either she was, or she wasn’t,” he says.
“There was someone in there. I don’t know if it was your friend.”
“It was,” he says, either defensive or offended; it’s hard to say.
The placement of my hotel room’s two mirrors—one wall-mounted, the other freestanding and full length—and one long window seemed arbitrary at first, but if I stand in the corner just behind the door and face the room, I can see the bed, the sky, and both mirrors, each reflecting the bed and the sky, and none of them capturing me.
I imagine three of myself lying on three beds, imagine six eyes staring at the corner I’m standing in. If I could set aside temporality, I could be the ghost in my own eaves. Instead, I sit down on the edge of my bed and look out at the roof of the neighboring hotel: men in hard hats, the tops of palm trees visible past the scaffolding across the front of the building, two doves mating on the corner of the stucco.
The sun is nowhere near setting, and the AC has been running non-stop against the April heat. As a kid in Massachusetts, we used air conditioning intermittently for the few weeks in the summer that really needed it, and almost never at night. I find it stifling how this unit never clicks off, but less stifling than the humidity that would suffocate the room like gauze shoved into a sucking wound if it did.
I slip out of my bathing suit and into a bra and dress and fall back on the bed I’ll be sleeping in for the next month. I wonder how many people’s bulks have contributed to this mattress’s sag by force or simple gravity; for now, it’s all mine, until Denise gets here in two and a half weeks. We’ll share it like the beds we sometimes shared when we were children until I got frustrated with her faking violent dreams to twist more of the blankets onto herself and returned to my own bed. Until I learned that the night terrors she was thrashing through were real. I don’t know how my sister can remain in Salem.
When I moved to Chattanooga, with no prospects to speak of, I think I expected her to follow me there. After a year or two, when I’d established a steady enough career to bear the weight of describing it to my family—Project Manager, sure, sounds impressive—I extended an official invitation to Denise to join me. She promised to think about it, and I never brought it up again. She’s visited Chattanooga twice in the three years since, and I visit Massachusetts once a year for the Fourth of July, about a third as often as I visit Miami, though never for a full month before. And this is the first time I’ve asked Denise to join me.
I close my eyes and try to find the feel of the afternoon sun amidst the chill of the air conditioning, but it’s as impossible as taking a sip of a Bloody Mary and spitting out just the vodka. I keep my eyes shut anyway; the hazy shade of darkness is the same as the red that hides inside the blacks of old Polaroids.
When I hear the knock, it sounds like it’s coming from the window, so I assume it’s a dream, and I ignore it. However, it’s actually coming from the door, and I’m awake.
“I didn’t think you were here,” the maid says when I open the door. She’s holding two Tupperware containers.
“I put on the ‘do not disturb’ sign.”
“I thought you weren’t here. I’ll go. I’ll go.”
“Well, no, I guess since you’re here, you can come in. You don’t need to make my bed, but you can take the trash, I guess.”
“No, no, I’m on my break. I’ll go.”
“Well, wait. If you’re on your break,” I say, “why are you coming in my room?”
“Ahh,” she says, and gestures toward the window. One of the construction workers on the neighboring roof is waving at us. I look at the food she’s holding.
“Oh, Novio?” I ask.
“Hahaha, no, he is my brother. I bring him his lunch.”
“Oh,” I say. The guy in the hard hat is still waving.
“These windows don’t open, though. They’re locked. Uh, bloqueado?”
“Oh right, right,” the maid says, “saltadors. But I can open it. If you don’t mind?”
“That’s fine,” I say.
She steps around my bathing suit and other clothing on the floor and uses a small key to unlock the window.
“Hola, hola,” she shouts across the gap. There are maybe six feet between the buildings. She swings her arm back and forth underhand to indicate she’s going to toss the Tupperware, and when she does it hits the side of the other building and bursts open before falling out of sight. A red stain splatters the stucco. It looks like marinara sauce, probably homemade. The maid quietly closes the window again without locking it as her brother laughs and looks down at the ground where the Tupperware must have landed.
“I’ll bring you fresh towels,” she mutters and hurries out of the room. Her brother is still standing there on the neighboring roof, pointing at me and smiling. No, pointing at the second Tupperware she left on my windowsill. I think about how I’d have to calculate for wind, how the other roof is slightly higher than this one, the awkward way I’d have to stick my arm out the window to get a good angle. I lower the blinds and set the chain on my door.
Miami nights shine further into the world’s corners than Tennessee’s sun can. Maybe it’s because the days here provide the soul’s battery with enough charge to last until the next dawn. In Chattanooga, as it was in Massachusetts, the sunset signals a flipping of signs from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ in the glazed-over storefront windows of people’s eyes; you can wander from face to face looking for someone still open to provide some much-needed provision that’s hard to name until you find it, and you rarely do.
On South Beach, I can get that provision just by walking near a stranger, without ever saying a word to him or her or even making eye contact. Because, whatever that commodity is, it isn’t really coming from them; the mere proximity to other hearts is enough to amplify the beat of my own.
On the other hand, it’s possible that the nocturnal energy here is just because I’m surrounded by tourists celebrating their freedom to sleep in tomorrow by getting hammered. It’s probably a mix of the former and the latter, though a watered down one.
I decide to wander away from the beach itself, heading, out of habit, toward the Lincoln Road Mall and its many blocks of shoe stores, fashion ranging from the bootleg to the beyond-reproach, and restaurants with minuscule storefronts and sizeable outdoor eating areas in the middle of the pedestrian-only street. Habit takes me further, to the only bookstore in the world where I’ll willingly pay cover price for a book (and not just because I’ve seen people attempt to steal $300 plus art books from them on more than one occasion). I bypass the new arrivals and art books (I’ve been here twice on this trip already) and head into the children’s room in the back. I’m alone in it, as I usually am.
There is a book I only half-remember from when I was a child, and I have an equally halved memory of seeing it from the corner of my eye in this room on a previous visit. Somewhere, here, is the missing piece of that fraction of a fraction, some part of my childhood that must be worth remembering simply because I don’t.
I sought this book out consciously, once, in Massachusetts, a birthday gift for Denise’s daughter. I described what I could remember of it (a young witch, a castle, an evil cat, many talking cats who weren’t evil, and a post-modern tone) to, first, a bookseller, and then to Denise (who surely must have read it too), and finally to my mother, thinking it might have been an obscurity absconded from her childhood collection. None knew what I was describing.
The memory is more a texture than anything else, no keywords unique enough to string together into a Google search. The cats will only let the main witch pet them with her right hand (if at all), for her left, her casting hand, will shock them every time it touches them. Ultimately, she defeats the evil cat by scratching him between the ears with her left hand, effectively giving him shock therapy that renders him benign.
Denise insisted, when I described this to her, that it was from a story that I wrote (if that were true, which it’s not, it’s no surprise my mother wouldn’t remember). However, I can remember the feel and smell of the pages (stiff almost to the point of breaking and dusty, respectively), the way the font looked, the width of the margins. When I close my eyes, I can almost see the copyright page, the crest of the publisher and the publication year just out of focus. Mostly, I remember the way the story transported me; I can still feel the way its world’s gravity pushed me down in my bed as I read, the way its rules seemed to make more sense than those I had to live by (though, of course, I remember none of that liberating constitution now), the way the characters spoke truth even when they were afraid. Surely, nothing I wrote myself could move me that way, any more than I can make myself laugh by tickling my own feet.
I skim the shelves, but can’t find anything like what I’m seeking. I grab a few postcards from the rack by the bathroom and buy them, so I don’t seem too suspicious for skulking through the children’s room. One of the postcards is a portrait of Frida Kahlo, and the others are multiple copies of a daguerreotype picturing a cat wearing reading glasses.
“My knee had an itch,” the caption says apologetically, and, in the photo, she does have one hand touching her bare thigh, ostensibly reaching toward the supposed itch, the other hand curled up and pointing at her cleavage. The photo is of one of my coworkers, wearing a bikini on the beach in Destin, on the Gulf Coast. She’s tagged in other photos posted by the two friends she’s on vacation with, but she posted this one herself. I’d caption it differently: “We all get itches.”
I scroll past the photo and take a sip of my Cuban coffee. The tables around me are filled with families and couples eating dinner; the restaurant’s staff is fluent in as many languages as the patrons can throw at them, though they don’t wear their countries of origin on their nametags, like at least one other place along Lincoln Road.
My waiter was surprised when I spoke to him in English; I wonder where he thinks I’m from, or if he was merely trying to flatter me. Somehow, “where do you think I’m from?” is just as combative a question as “who do you think you are?” I can’t imagine asking either question without shaking someone from the lapels while I do.
I return to the photo of my coworker, to a smile broad enough to reach the nosebleed seats of her dating app of choice; I’m sure her smile’s aim is true, even if its targets are questionable. This coworker was among those who imposed scandalous subtexts upon my solo trip to Miami, winkingly telling me that she was planning a trip too. A “girl’s trip,” referring to the “girlfriends” undertaking the journey with her; I’ve never taken a girl’s trip, never referred to friends as girlfriends. I’m not the prude this coworker half-presumed to be testing the boundaries of with her innuendo; I neither begrudge her her lust nor put a gag on my own. Unlike her, I’m also not afraid to be alone.
I take another sip of my coffee and lock my phone, return it to my bag. I’m thinking again about that book. I remember seeing a neighborhood cat stunned by a light blow from a passing car when I was young. I lifted the cat from the gutter and brought it to my mother. For some reason, I told her it had been struck by lightning. She took it to the vet; it recovered from both its real and imaginary injuries, and we adopted it.
There are a notebook and pen in my purse; I start to write down the memory, my momentum repeatedly disrupted by recalling more detail as I go, trying to capture it all. Trying to remember the name of the vet, I tap the pen on the edge of the page, and it slips from my fingers, landing in the small aisle between the next table and mine.
As I lean down to grab the pen, a waitress rushes by with four bottles of beer in her hands, and I bump her thigh. The beers foam a little, but nothing spills.
“Sorry, my knee had an itch,” I say as the waitress continues toward her destination. I leave my pen on the ground.
About the Author
Richard Charles Schaefer is a Massachusetts native living and writing in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his wife, daughter, and two cats. He recently finished his first novel and is working on a collection of short stories. He holds a BA in English and Political Science from Umass Amherst.