Rumpus Original Fiction: Straw House


Claudia was a morning person; Rio loved the night. He had been called many things in his life—an insomniac, a nighthawk, a shadow-dweller. Once, a little girl in pigtails had pointed to him on a bus and whispered to her mother, “Mommy, it’s a vampire.” His least favorite phrase was night owl, a term he found both arbitrary and redundant. Nobody ever said day dog or water fish or sky bird. But most people were stupid and did not care about the language they used. This was another thing Rio hated: people. Claudia, on the other hand, considered herself a people person—another term Rio found ridiculous.

Rio’s real name was Benjamin Emmanuel Baruch, but everyone called him Rio because he’d been conceived at midnight on a picnic table beside the Rio Grande. Before his brother Doug’s death, his parents had loved to tell his conception story—to waitresses, to Rio’s teachers, to cashiers at the Hy-Vee. They were the type of parents who had taken joy from embarrassing their children and felt pride that after all their years of marriage and parenting—more than fifteen years at the time of Doug’s death—they were still doing good work in bed. Rio had never minded the nickname. The name Benjamin reminded him of grape jelly and powdered wigs.

The way it happened was a house fire. Doug’s room was in the attic, where he’d moved as soon as hair started appearing above his lip. Doug claimed to require privacy, which everyone understood to mean time and space in which to masturbate. The fire had occurred in the milky threshold between night and morning, when, according to cinema and literature, all bad things happened: murders, poltergeist activity, alien abductions. This was April in Kansas, when it was not uncommon for chandeliers of lightning to fall from the sky. For months after the fire, Rio would surface from his grief only to realize that he had been grieving not for Doug but for the family dog Cinnamon, who had been asleep in the attic at the time of the fire. This realization would send Rio into an even deeper, darker arena of sadness. He began to pull out his eyelashes, to break into a sweat when he saw anything that began with the letter D: Diet Coke, his aunt Deborah, the painted didgeridoo his father kept above the fireplace and which had, somehow, survived the fire. His parents divorced two years after Doug’s death, having developed their own set of phobias and idiosyncrasies and ways of dealing with both. His father found God. His mother moved to a town on the Colorado border so she could legally buy marijuana. These days, they came together as a family once a year, on Doug’s birthday, to have a picnic lunch in the park near the cemetery. His father, once handsome, had grown fat and ugly and Evangelically happy while his mother, who had always been plain-looking if not a touch frumpy, had become radiant and poetic in her grief. She took to wearing floral headscarves and dark eye makeup. Every year she would say, “Has it really been another year?” She would then roll a professional-looking joint and smoke it while looking into the distance.

Claudia knew none of this when she met Rio. All she knew was that he was good-looking and shy and that he listened to Hank Williams on Friday evenings and never, to her knowledge, had visitors. She knew this because she lived in the apartment next to his—if she put an ear to her bedroom wall she could hear him talking on the phone to his mother, whom he still called mommy. The two had spent months exchanging we’re-in-the-same-elevator pleasantries until one night the pipe under Claudia’s sink burst and she came running to Rio’s door. Inside of her apartment, she watched as he wrapped his hand in a beach towel, reached through the scalding water, and turned off the water that had already turned her favorite pink rug a deep shade of magenta. The steam burned the hairs from his pale forearm and when he looked up Claudia was standing above him, laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

She said, “I’m like the worst feminist ever. I totally could have done that myself.”

“You didn’t know how.”

“I think it’s more that I didn’t want to.” She crossed her arms, shifted her weight. She was wearing cotton shorts and a gray tank top with no bra and wondered if Rio might misinterpret the situation as a come-on. If perhaps he’d think she’d orchestrated the burst pipe so that she might get him into her apartment while she was wearing very little clothing.

Rio, not wanting to stare at her, looked around at her apartment. “Fuck me,” he said. “You have a dishwasher?” The sink in his apartment was perpetually crowded with dishes, as was the plastic drying rack he let grow a dark, dangerous looking mold in the summertime. More often than not, he ate his cereal and macaroni and cheese with plastic bowls and utensils. When he thought of climate change, he thought first of his love for plastic cutlery and second of the long drives he often took at night, sometimes all the way to the Flint Hills where the land opened up like an accordion and the stars took on new numbers.

“Let me buy you dinner,” Claudia said. “To say thank you.”

Rio ran a hand over his newly smooth arm. “I eat late,” he said.

“Would eight o’clock be okay?”

“Eleven would be better.”

“At night?”

Rio nodded. “Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Claudia lied. “That’s how they do it in Spain.”

“Have you lived in Spain?”

“No, but I’d like to some day,” Claudia admitted, and watched the disappointment wash over his face. She chastised herself. Why had she never lived in Spain? She would put it on her bucket list as soon as he left, beside “fall in love” and “lose ten pounds” and “stop being such a baby.”

The next afternoon, Claudia went to Target and bought a six-pack of Red Bull, a twelve-pack of vanilla SlimFast, and a navy sundress, size medium. She tried on a floral romper that she liked more than the sundress, but it was a size large and so she went with the sundress instead. If a man ever found her clothes, she wanted him to think she was average. Just an average girl of average size. Nobody needed to know that sometimes she ate only celery sticks for lunch or that when she was fifteen she had paid her neighbor Alana fifteen dollars to cough in her mouth (and not tell anyone about it) so that Claudia could also get the flu and have an excuse to eat nothing but chicken broth for a week.

At 10:45 p.m. she chugged a Red Bull. Her normal bedtime was 11:30 p.m. but she wasn’t going to tell this to Rio. She wore a black thong under the sundress, just in case. She couldn’t be sure if he was gay or straight or something fuzzy in between. She figured she herself was probably something fuzzy in between; sometimes she thought of women when she touched herself.

Claudia had wanted to take Rio to her favorite restaurant, the only Indian restaurant in their modest Kansas town, but it closed at nine and so they went to an all-night burger place instead. Claudia ordered a burger with no bun and a side salad. Rio ordered a buffalo burger with a basket of truffle fries. “You’ll help me eat them, right?” he asked. Not wanting to seem weird, Claudia agreed.

Rio talked with food in his mouth. Without Claudia really asking him, he divulged the details of his life: the freelance graphic design work he conducted from the comfort of his living room, his dream of moving to Austin, Texas and starting a company that flips websites. He liked cats but was allergic to them. He was a non-discriminatory music buff. He loved going to concerts alone—just in the past month he’d been to a Kenny Chesney concert in Wichita, a Spoon concert in Kansas City, and a little bluegrass festival an hour outside of town. Did Claudia like music? He wanted to know.

“I do,” she said, dunking a pinch of fries into a paper cup of ketchup, “but I’m also one to appreciate silence.”

“You’re an introvert.”

Claudia shrugged. “My mother says I have sensitive faculties.”

“If you don’t like going out, what do you like?”

She thought about it as she shoved more fries into her mouth. Part of her worried she was being unattractive—there was sauce dripping down her shin, a splatter of grease on her new dress—but part of her had stopped caring. Despite his good looks, something was off with Rio. He did not smile, and the bags under his eyes seemed to grow darker as the night wore on. After every bite, he swallowed in such a way that Claudia wondered if he was thinking to himself, Now you have swallowed four bites of human hamburger food. She didn’t think he was gay. She thought he was a cyborg.

“I like to read,” Claudia said. “I like to read and go to bed at a normal hour.”

“What do you read?”

“Lots of things. Biographies, memoirs, novels.”

He said, “I read novels.”

“Really?” Claudia was always surprised to find that non-English-major people read. It seemed an obsolete art that the proletariat tolerated only on airplanes. “What are you reading right now?”

Infinite Jest.”

Claudia braced herself for the inevitable script that would follow. She kept a running tally: six different men, most old friends from her college English classes, had told her to read Infinite Jest. She’d started it twice—both times because she wanted to sleep with the guy who lent it to her—and both times she could not break the fifty-page barrier. She hated it—it was absolutely inflated with itself, like a gigantic paper fart—but not as much as she hated the men who found something so subconsciously phallic in the writing that they had to go around sticking it in women’s faces, demanding they consume it. She imagined hosting a great bonfire with its ten hundred pages. She would roast hot dogs and marshmallows as the men sat around, forced to watch their beloved burn. She also suspected she was wrong, that she was simply too stupid to appreciate its genius.

All Rio said was: “For now, my only opinions are that the writing is terrific and it’s terribly long. But that’s fine with me. There’s a lot of time for culture when you’re the only one awake.” Then, he reached across the table and kissed Claudia on the lips. There was still food in her mouth, but he didn’t seem to notice or mind. Cyborg behavior, she thought. And now you are kissing a human female. Insert tongue, remove tongue. Insert tongue, remove tongue. But his skin smelled good—a layer of hamburger and then a layer of peppermint aftershave. She’d once read that half of attraction is scent. She’d never believed it until then.


Claudia’s mother had always told her that the best love starts with affection, not attraction. “Lust is a straw house,” she said. “Affection is brick.” Claudia had never known what to think of this advice; her mother’s house—the house she had grown up in—had aluminum siding that could burn your skin in the summertime. Rio’s mother had never told him anything about love, because she knew firsthand that the fingers of circumstance could undo even the strongest of knots. His mother had dated on and off since the fire. Mostly off.

Claudia usually hated first dates because they were followed by days of anxiety in which she would imagine all of the ways the man could ignore her if the date went poorly. Perhaps he would block her phone number like the dentist she’d met on Tinder, or they would run into each other at the grocery store and he would pretend not to remember her, like the guy she’d gone home with on New Years whose meat-filled grocery cart made her remember—as if it were some long-repressed war memory—that, during sex, he had taken a ballpoint pen from her nightstand and inserted it into his own butt. But with Rio just next door, mind games like this would be impossible or, at the very least, more difficult. The real problem was that he lived by a different clock. He rose with the moon, slept with the sun. When they saw each other, it was between the hours of 5 and 11 p.m. Claudia would get home from her job at the community college—a mindless secretarial position that consisted of filing and entering data and taking phone calls—just as Rio was waking up. She would hear his birdcall alarm go off at exactly 5:15 p.m. Usually, an hour later, he would knock on her door and ask if she was hungry. The thing about Claudia was that she was always hungry, especially if it meant eating with Rio.

They grew fond of one another. As if by a miracle, straw turned to brick. Rio found himself looking forward to his time with Claudia. Over time, even the parts of her that once aggravated him took on a particular charm: the way she paced around her apartment when she brushed her teeth, how she let her toenail polish fade down to a few continent-shaped chips before she re-painted them, the way she closed her eyes and let her mouth hang open during sex. She was something else during sex, a creature at once disgusting and alluring, repulsive and perfect. Sex was the time he felt closest to Claudia, and she to him. However awkward they were outside of life—while eating or walking or watching a movie—they were twice as graceful in bed. Claudia would think, “Go faster,” and Rio would go faster. Rio would think, “Roll over,” and over Claudia would roll. Separately, they both wondered if this was what some people called pheromones: invisible speech bubbles that floated back and forth between two people. Or maybe this was love.

Everything was good except for the weekends, when Claudia wanted to go out and do things during the day: shop at the farmers market or kayak on the lake. But Rio was always asleep. “The mornings are not an option,” he said. “Consider me out of commission. You don’t complain when the bank is closed on Sunday do you?”

“But why?” Claudia asked. They were both in bed, naked, Claudia’s head on Rio’s chest. She could hear his heart beating—he wasn’t a cyborg, at least this much she had figured out.

“Just because. It’s how I am.”

“Are you an insomniac?”

“I just prefer the night.”

“You prefer to sleep when you could be spending time with me?”

“It has nothing to do with you—it’s how I’ve always been.”

“But why?”

“It’s not your business is why. Do I ask you why drink those disgusting diet shakes?”

At this, Claudia got up and put her clothes on. She wished for a long walk home or an angry drive across town, but instead she simply walked the three feet of carpeted hallway separating their apartments. Once home, she went straight for the refrigerator and ate a bowl of leftover spaghetti noodles. She’d made the spaghetti the night before, for Rio, who loved anything with noodles. They’d reenacted the scene from Lady and the Tramp where the dogs slurp from different ends of the same noodle. In the end, Rio kissed her and then carried her to her bed.

When the noodles were gone, Claudia ate a spoonful of vanilla almond butter and then went to bed. She decided she wouldn’t speak to Rio for three days.


Three days later it was the weekend. Claudia came home from work at 4 p.m. and swallowed a pair of E-Z Snooze pills followed by a glass of red wine. She woke seven hours later feeling groggy and woozy but determined. She quickly put on a shirt and jeans, drank a cup of coffee and half a SlimFast shake, and went across the hall to knock on Rio’s door.

“It’s you,” he said.

“It’s me.”

“Are you still mad?”

“I’m over it,” Claudia lied. “I’m here to spend then night with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I just woke up. What would you like to do? What do you normally do? I’m ready, whatever it is.”

Rio reached out and pulled her to him. “You really want to know?” he asked, taking in her smell. She smelled like wine and coffee and milk. She smelled, for the first time ever, like the night.

Claudia nodded. For a moment she worried that he would reveal a life of criminal behavior. Perhaps he would drive her to the dump where he put the bodies of the people he murdered, or to the ramshackle cabin where he kept his horde of child-slaves. But then she remembered the way his hands moved in bed, how his fingers stroked her hair. These were not the fingers of a murderer. If anything, Rio was the type to stay up all night writing poetry and watching documentaries about bird migration.

“I’ll take you to my favorite place,” he said.

And so she followed him to his car, where he put in a CD called Night Tunes Winter 2013.

Where he drove her was to a field. He shut off the engine, turned off the music, rolled down the windows, and sank into his seat. With his eyes closed he said, “Eventually the frogs will start up. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.”

“This is what you do?” she asked.

He opened his eyes and looked over at her. “Occasionally I go south instead of east. There’s a lake where you can see owls.”

She did not know what to think. What was it she had thought he was doing? Trolling clubs in Kansas City, getting high with a secret group of friends, slinking off to another woman’s house? She had wanted to have her feelings hurt, but now there was just this. The chirrup of crickets. The smell of autumn at night. Perhaps her feelings were hurt—it was too soon to tell.

“And you just sit here?” she asked.

“Of course I don’t just sit here.”

“Well, what do you do?”

He closed his eyes again. “I talk to my brother—this is the only time he can hear me.”

Claudia felt the air in the car thin and then thicken. She took one breath and then another. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Rio told her the story—about the lightning and the fire and his brother’s room in the attic. He even told her about Cinnamon and the guilt of his misdirected grief. This, he had never told anyone, not even the white-haired counselor he’d been sent to from the ages of eleven to fourteen.

“This is why you stay up at night?” she asked him. “Because of the fire?”

He gave her a funny look—where had she gotten that from? “That’s not it at all,” he said. “Like I told you, I’ve always stayed up at night. This is just where there’s enough quiet for him to hear me.”

“So you were this way before the fire?”

“I was awake when the fire happened,” he said. “We didn’t have a smoke detector. I was the one who woke my parents.”

Back at his apartment, Claudia watched Lord of the Rings while Rio finished up a website he was revamping for an organic toothpaste company. Claudia was startled when Rio’s living room began to change colors. She looked over and saw the sun rising. They were on the building’s fourth floor, which meant they overlooked the town and could see, beyond the modest spread of homes and buildings, the distant horizon out by the wetlands, which would soon be destroyed to make room for a freeway. Thy sky went from pink to orange to yellow. The clouds took on a metallic lining, as if an invisible hand had traced them with an X-ACTO knife and they might, at any moment, detach from the sky and float down to the earth.

“You see this every day,” Claudia said.

Rio looked up from his computer and squinted at the window. “Usually I put the blinds down,” he said. “I prefer the dark.”


Normally, Claudia ate her lunch at her desk. She’d pull out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or microwave a Lean Cuisine and try to make her meal last as long as possible. But today, Claudia told her boss she was going out for lunch. What she really did was walk across campus to the library, where she had reserved a book on Circadian Sleep Disorders or CSDs as the journal abstracts referred to them. She checked out three books, each with equally soporific titles, and took them back to work where she furtively read them between answering phone calls and updating spreadsheets.

Later that night, she brought the books over to Rio’s. “I have some books you might find interesting,” she said, and spread them out on the floor of his living room. However messy his kitchen was, his living room was immaculate. He was the type to use coasters.

“What are these?” Rio asked.

“They’re about sleep disorders. I was reading today and I found out about this thing called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. It sounds exactly like what you have.”

“What I have?”

“Rio, you don’t sleep at night. Ever.”

“And you don’t eat desserts. Ever. Or let me fuck you with the lights on.”

She closed her eyes and forced herself not to lash out at him. Of course he was cranky. She was confronting him with a diagnosis. “Let’s not get unruly. I feel like we’ve been here before. I’m just trying to help you.”

“Have I asked for help?”

“It’s not healthy, how you live. People aren’t meant to sleep all day. We need the sun. We’re meant to live in the sun.”

“Maybe I like the moon better. Maybe I love the moon. Maybe you’re just jealous because I’m not able to spend every waking moment with you—taking you out to brunch or whatever it is you want me to do that I’m not doing. Maybe all of this,”—he gestured to the books—“is because you’re jealous of the moon.”

“Well, the moon won’t fuck you,” Claudia said. “And it sure as shit won’t do your dishes. You might want to assess your loyalties.”

“I don’t want to fuck the moon,” was all Rio could say. “It would be physically impossible. And when have I ever asked you to do my dishes? You do them without my asking. You like to do my dishes. So don’t put that on me.” He didn’t understand how she didn’t understand. He’d misjudged her. She was not of a romantic sensibility. She was selfish and basic and narrow-minded.

In the safety of her own mind, Claudia was thinking nearly the same thing about Rio, except with the additional thought that he might be insane. Of course she didn’t like doing his dishes. What she liked was helping him—or at least being of help to him. She liked the idea of him liking her liking helping him. What she really wanted, but would never admit to anyone, not even herself, was for him to need her. She wanted Rio to rely on her so thoroughly that his life could not possibly continue without her. The fact that he progressed through the majority of each night without her was an affront to this desire.

“I’ve been this way forever,” Rio said. “And I can’t change for you. And you shouldn’t want me to.”

“But what if I can’t be with you the way you are? What if I’m always going to want more of you than you’re willing to give?”

Rio looked down at the books. One of them was titled Sleep Disorders and the Afflicted Mind. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is me.”

“And if I learned to live the way you do—if I learned to be awake when you’re awake?”

“Are you willing to do that?”

Claudia had no intention of doing this—she had tried it once and it had made her grumpy and nauseated for three days afterward. She merely wanted to know if their relationship would be more normal if they lived on the same plane, as a normal couple—if he would want her in the way normal couples wanted one another. Voraciously. Hungrily. Unconditionally. “Would you let me in if I did?”

Rio closed his eyes. How could he predict whether he would like a thing he had never had? “I don’t know,” he said. “And I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep.”

Claudia gathered her books and went to the door. “You know, I really liked you,” she said. Why was it always this way? Why did love work for everybody but her?

“Don’t say it in the past tense like that. I like you, too,” he said. “And I’ll see you around. You know where I live.” He smiled, although he suspected that as soon as she closed the door he would feel a sinking sensation, as if he’d assumed there was another step in a staircase. As if he’d smelled smoke and assumed there was a fire, when really it was only a barbecue. People sitting around being happy.

Claudia did not want to, but she smiled back. She looked at him one last time, knowing that it would not really be the last time. That she would see him in the laundry room, the parking lot, the breezeway. That each time would hurt a little less than the one before until eventually it didn’t hurt at all, save for a tiny pearl of hurt that would remain always, shaped by the knowledge that love was indeed a temporary thing, something that felt like stone but was really a fistful of sand.

She closed his door and, a few moments later, opened her own.


Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.

Becky Mandelbaum is the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2013 Lawrence Art Center’s Langston Hughes Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Salt Hill, Great Jones Street, Hobart, Juked, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Her winning collection of stories, Bad Kansas, is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in Fall of 2017. Originally from Kansas, she currently caretakes a ranch in Colorado. More from this author →