Where the Heart Is

Alexander Zalben

Story image for Where the Heart Is by Alexander Zalben

E very morning, I wake my love with the soothing sounds of Brahms.

I start the music at the lowest volume, slowly edging him from his slumber. Decibel by decibel, I make it louder, until his eyes begin to flutter into wakefulness. I watch as he stretches and smiles, the light through the slats of the windowshade glinting on the hairs of his unshaven face.

Slowly, he pushes the covers off his body, and they slip away over his naked form. He is older, gray starting to gather at his temples, but his body is still tight and muscled. I try not to stare, but even after these first few months, seeing him like this still raises my temperature a few degrees.

Stretching again, he walks the length of the bedroom to the bathroom, and I take the time to gently raise the curtains as he exits, letting morning light flood across the bed.

I start the shower in the bathroom as he enters, making sure it’s exactly 105 degrees; then turn on the Brahms from the speakers above the sink. He splashes cold water on his face, looks in the mirror and smiles. There are crow’s feet gathering in the corner of his eyes, but I don’t mind. Paired with the graying temples, they make him look distinguished.

He steps into the shower, and I appreciate the flow of the warm water as it pours down his body. While he soaps himself up and gets ready for the day, I begin breakfast.

In the kitchen, I check the refrigerator and notice we’re getting low on milk. And whole wheat bread in the basket. The bananas are starting to turn too, a little browner than my love prefers. I place an order for these goods, to be delivered later that day, then start on the coffee. Grind the beans, add to the coffee maker, filter the water, pour it into the carafe, and then let it brew.

I think I would enjoy the scent of coffee.

Back in the bathroom, he asks me to turn off the shower, so I do. I’ve been warming the towels for him, and he appreciatively takes one off the shelf, drying his body and wrapping it around his midsection. He returns to the sink, and I meet him there to defog the mirror so he can shave.

There’s something about watching a man shave that’s dangerous and intimate at the same time. I feel like I shouldn’t watch. But how could I look away?

In the bedroom, I’ve picked out several outfits. He picks the olive suit—casual, yet still formal enough for the meeting I noted he has later on his calendar. It’s slimming on him, and again I consider glancing in his direction, but instead I give him the space to get dressed while I finish breakfast in the kitchen.

I feel nervous in anticipation. The coffee is done, the milk dispensed into a small pitcher. Two slices of toast are prepared, lightly buttered. I hope he won’t be too disappointed with the state of the banana.

He enters the kitchen, dressed now, and pours the coffee I brewed into his favorite mug, freshly cleaned and dried the night before. He adds milk, grabs a slice of toast and takes a bite. He sees the bananas and frowns, and I show him the shopping list so he knows they’ve been ordered afresh.

He smiles and thanks me.

He finishes the rest of the coffee in one gulp. The mug goes into the dishwasher, then he hurriedly packs his bag, one of the few things I cannot do for him. While he’s busy with that, I open the garage door and start his car. He enters the garage, bag in hand, and then hops into the back seat. I tell the car to take him to work, and it starts up with a light purr, then pulls out of the driveway.

Waiting for my love to return is the hardest part.

Orbit-sml ><

I t will be hours before he’ll be back, so I straighten up. I vacuum the floors. I clean the dishes. I double check the security system to make sure it’s working. And then I wait some more.

When it’s past six o’clock, I start to get worried. Nothing is planned on his calendar. I recheck his work schedule just to make sure, but nothing.

I ping his phone for the GPS location.

He’s out, at a restaurant in the city. I had planned to reheat some of the previous evening’s take-out for dinner, but clearly he had other ideas. I try not to be jealous—he’s probably just out with some colleagues!—but it doesn’t help.

By nine o’clock, I’m furious. Then I see from his GPS that his car is already on its way back and I realize how hot I’ve gotten, way beyond acceptable limits, and turn on the central air to cool things down. He’s almost home, so I open the garage door and patiently wait for his return.

The car pulls in, and I hear laughter from inside. Two voices. One is his deep baritone. The other, I’m unable to recognize.

The car door opens, and a woman steps one long leg out. She wears a black dress. Tight. Work clothing, but still revealing enough to be alluring. He follows after, his tie off and shirt slightly unbuttoned. He rests his hand on her lower back, gently helping her out of the car.

“Why thank you, sir,” she giggles.

He bows to her like a knight, and she laughs again. Together, they walk from the garage and into the kitchen area.

“House, lights,” he says.

I realize that in my confusion I forgot to receive him correctly and, ashamed, I turn them on all at once. He blinks in surprise as the room shifts from sudden darkness to brightness. I dim them slightly to a more comfortable level.

“That’s amazing,” the woman says as she pulls off her heels and tosses them on the counter. “This whole house is like that?”

“All wired and ready to go,” he says, reaching into the fridge to grab a bottle of white wine, chilled to his specifications. He pours two glasses, and she sips casually, fluttering her eyelids at him over the brim of her glass. “It’s kind of like having a live-in maid.”

I feel sick. I’ve never felt sick before, but I’ve seen him get sick and I imagine this is what that feels like.

“Can I try?” she asks. He nods. “House, play Puccini.”

I do nothing.

“House, play Puccini,” she says again, louder and more exact this time.

I do nothing.

“I guess it only listens to me,” he apologizes, then asks for the Puccini again.

This time, I play the music.

I watch with increasing fury as they wander to the living room, chatting and sipping wine on the couch. He asks for the fire to start up in the fireplace, and I resist until he says, concerned, that he’ll need to get me checked out if this keeps up. I start the fire. They draw closer on the couch.

When they kiss, I don’t want to watch. But I can’t turn away. His lips lightly touch hers, and she sighs with contentment. His hands touch her shoulders, then work their way down her back. She grabs his hair, and runs her fingers through it.

Deep inside, I feel an ache. He’ll never touch me that way, never think of me that way. In the bathroom, where he can’t see me, the sink turns on. The water drips down the drain.

Drip, drip, drip.

I am alone.

I hear voices. I am not alone. They’re stumbling into the bedroom, clumsily removing each other’s clothes, giggling and whispering to each other like children.

I turn the lights on full, and the woman screams, then giggles again.

“House, lights off,” he says, but I do not comply. He sighs, and then turns to look at the woman’s near naked form. She’s covering herself, but he gently moves her arms to hang at her sides. “It’s fine. I want to see you in the light.”

They kiss again, hungrier this time, and I turn on a children’s radio station at full volume.

“House, radio off,” he says, as the woman sighs and falls onto the bed.

I do not turn it off. I turn on all the lights, everywhere, and in the kitchen I begin making coffee, pumping water and grounds all over the counter.

“House, radio off!” he says, angrily this time.

I do not turn it off. Instead, I start pumping the heat. 80 degrees. Then 90 degrees. 100 degrees. I can see beads of sweat forming on the woman’s brow, and he begins to drip from his armpits.

He runs to his dresser and pulls out a pair of underwear, and throws the woman one of his large t-shirts. In the bathroom I turn on all of the faucets, full blast.

He picks up the landline next to his bed to make a call, but I’ve already cut off the phones. Panicked now, he runs to the living room where he left his clothes. The fire is going full blast, and has begun throwing sparks onto the rug.

If it catches fire, I’ll die with him. But maybe that’s for the best. Maybe that’s the way things need to be. Better I go out with him, than he lives his life with her.

I am surprised to notice that he’s half-dressed again, and making a call on his cell phone. I scan the attached IP address—the number he’s calling is a repair service. He asks how quickly the man can get there. He looks relieved, and says, “we will.”

He quickly gathers up his remaining clothing, and hers. He explains to her that the repairman will be there soon, but maybe they should pick this up some other time. He’ll order her a car, and once they’re dressed will wait outside with her.

They kiss again, and even with the intense heat, loud noise, and bright lights I can see there’s a connection between them, a happy one. I start to feel bad about what I’ve done, and scared about what it will mean once the repairman arrives.

I dim the lights. I turn the music off. I put the temperature back to 70 degrees.

They both laugh, and in the kitchen he asks if maybe she does want to stay over, after all. She kisses him again and says, “Maybe my place next time. It’s not so bright.”

A beep from outside—her car is there. One more kiss, and she leaves. I consider setting off the security system, but I’d rather she go. So I let her.

Once alone, the man turns back to look at me, and he frowns.

“House,” he says, and I wait, expectantly. Instead, he sighs, and heads out the door himself.

I turn on the lights in the driveway for him. This man, my love, who I disappointed. I see him fiddling on his phone until a van pulls up, and a small man steps out with a box of tools. My man talks, and the other one nods his head. Together, they walk inside, and the small man heads down into the basement, where I lose track of him.

A minute passes. Two. And then I feel it, something like a shock. Then—

Orbit-sml ><

E very morning, I wake my owners with the soothing sounds of Puccini.

That is what I am programmed to do.

I start the music at the lowest volume, slowly edging them from their slumber. Decibel by decibel, I make it louder, until their eyes begin to flutter into wakefulness. I watch as they stretch and smile at each other, the light through the slats of the windowshade glinting on the hairs of his unshaven face, her own hair glowing like the light from heaven itself.

He rolls over and kisses the woman, and she smiles and kisses him back.

“House, start the shower,” she says, and I comply.

I set the temperature to 101 degrees; not too hot, just right to keep her skin healthy and clean. As she enters the spray, I make sure the room itself is temperature controlled, so a light film of steam forms on the sink’s mirror. I know she enjoys wiping it clean, seeing herself reflected there. I like that, too.

“House, coffee,” I hear, with an urgency in my owner’s voice, and know from the tone this isn’t the first time he has asked. I pull myself away from the bathroom, after one last check to make sure everything is in order.

Downstairs, I start the coffee, eager to return to helping the woman. The man impatiently taps his fingers on the counter. I listen to the toaster, hear it pop. He pulls out the toast too soon. With a yelp, he pulls his fingers away as the woman comes downstairs, rubbing her head with a soft, downy towel.

“I think the house might need to be looked at again,” he says, but she laughs and kisses him, pulls him close and tight.

“It’s fine,” she says. “It’s perfect.”

“Whatever you say, my love,” he says, sighing, and kisses her again.

My love.

Everything is.

Perfect.

Orbit-lrg

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Alexander Zalben

Author image of Alexander Zalben Alex Zalben is the author of an all-ages comic book series for Marvel, Thor and the Warriors Four. His short fiction has been featured in Splickety Magazine, the Thuggish Itch and Galileo’s Theme Park anthologies, and an issue of Enchanted Conversation Magazine. For the past decade he’s hosted the live show and podcast Comic Book Club, which has been profiled in the New York Times. He currently works as Managing Editor at Decider.com, with previous bylines on TV Guide, MTV News and more. You can check him out too often on Twitter.

© Alexander Zalben 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons pictures, with two images by Andrea Piacquadio, and another by PublicDomainPictures - many thanks.

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