The Elephant in the Room
The elephant isn't a crisis at first.
Maybe your heart drops a bit the first time you walk into the bedroom. Your gaze falls on one of the dusty corners in passing and there it is, the big girthy trunk swaying sadly between its eyes like some crusty, stretched-out old tire. And at first you think to yourself that maybe you're having a "vision," probably because "vision" sounds better than "psychotic break." But even that would make more sense than the truth: that the thing crouching against the peeling white walls is touchably, actually real. So real that when it shifts its weight, the creaky bones of the old house whine for mercy.
And yet, you know it must be real. Not because of the smell (there is none, yet) or the straining of the floor beneath it (people hear things all the time), but because it seems too quiet to be anything else. All it does is sit there, existing (as far as you can tell) just to exist. A real "vision" would at least try to tell you something. Otherwise, what would be the point?
This answer has to do for now because you can't find a way to ask about it. After all, this is a Strange Man's bedroom, and you are hardly welcome to begin with. As long as a Strange Man is still Strange, you have no right to inquire about lurking pet elephants or seek reassurance about your mounting psychosis. Maybe if it smelled, you would have no choice but to ruin the moment with such things, but it doesn't. It doesn't anything. And so you make yourself at home with the Strange Man in the strange bedroom. You fall into his strange body and land on the strange bed, burying your face in his shoulder and trying to forget about the elephant. What does it matter? you think to yourself. You know that Strange Men don't tend to stick around too long anyway.
Sometimes, though, Not Too Long is still too long to continue tuning out the rumpled heap of old rubber that crouches every night on the bedroom floor. It doesn't sleep, either. It just stares, unblinking through the hours, watching your body rise and fall like a wave in the strange sheets. Sometimes, you even make eye contact. The Strange Man is always a bit occupied with the task at hand and, his back turned, oblivious to the desperate glint you notice in the elephant's eyes. It makes you uncomfortable.
After everything is finished, you scramble for your clothes alone, the window draft prickling at your naked body as the Strange Man naps face-down on his strange pillow. The elephant doesn't bother to throw you your t-shirt, even though it's always right there. If he's sentient enough to enjoy watching the ritual unfold, he's sentient enough to help you clean up after, and so this makes you angry. You rationalize putting up with all of this out of concern that the Strange Man may find you impolite.
Weeks pass, and the elephant starts to stink a bit. You find out that the Strange Man has a wife -- almost-but-not-technically an ex-wife -- with whom he is very close. This is weirdly reassuring for you. You may be the object of misguided elephant lust, but you are also the lover of a Strange Man who keeps a responsible level of civility with all of the women he lets into his bedroom. This, you convince yourself, you can work with. Though you have not gotten the courage to ask about it, you are certain that you are part of a close-knit, carefully selected group of women deemed worthy of the privilege of staring at and stepping awkwardly around the Strange Man's elephant, one of them being his ex-wife who smiles lovingly down from a frame on the wall.
If only you could still ignore the smell.
You don't want to tell your best friend about the elephant because she doesn't approve of the Strange Man. "He has you on a hook," she says so emphatically. "He wants to have you and this 'ex' wife at the same time." This knots up your guts, but you smile politely every time and insist that you know the Strange Man well enough to be sure he wouldn't treat you that way. Sometimes, you wonder if maybe the elephant would change her mind. You script out the conversation in your head but never carry out the plan; in each scenario, she says "elephant" the way she says "ex", and then you end up too humiliated to move.
The smell isn't what you probably would have expected, not a direct assault on the senses but a lingering hint of well-mixed mold and death. It's as if someone bottled up the foul humidity of a zoo on a hot day and accidentally spilled it on the floor, leaving, despite their best efforts to clean up, a slight residue whose aroma occasionally catches on the breeze from the poorly-insulated window. The smell, like the elephant, is just there. Sometimes, when you lie in bed with the Strange Man, you scrounge up the courage to ask, "Hey, do you smell that?"
The Strange Man, without fail, says, "No. It's probably just you."
You are never quite used to the elephant, but he begins to make sense to you, tells you things without speaking a word. Meanwhile, the Strange Man seems to sleep harder and harder each night. He is oblivious, still, to the sounds of you rummaging in the dark for your clothes on your way out of the room. This is a good thing, as the process has quickly become longer and more complicated.
Lately, you have noticed other clothes scattered among the ones you wore to the Strange Man's apartment. What seems at first to be your black sweater turns out to be a little cocktail dress you've never seen before. A pair of jeans becomes a denim jacket you would never be caught dead in. You doubt yourself, dismissing the obvious explanation, and hold each piece in front of your eyes to determine which belongs to you. The elephant antagonizes, nudging each unfamiliar wad of cloth towards your feet. They sit ominous and wrinkled at the end of his trunk as if waiting to be noticed. A balled-up shirt from a concert you've never been to. A fluorescent yellow bra. A sock. His gaze haunts you as you bend down to retrieve each; the large, black eyes focus and gleam as if he wants to tell you something and this is the only way. This is the language: the tight grey fold of his mouth, pursed and pleading for some kind of response or confirmation. Night after night, you step back into your raggedy thong in silence, pretending you don't understand.
You feel guilty about this. The truth is, you have gotten good at making up languages of your own. It seems nowadays that every aspect of your life requires translation. For instance, the Strange Man is unable to understand, "The elephant camping out in your bedroom smells like someone shit inside of a dead deer." You learn to find other words to explain the nose-crinkling and wincing the odor often causes, words like, "Sorry, I just got a weird chill." You doubt your best friend could respond to, "The elephant watches us fuck," so you opt instead for, "There's something weird about this guy I've been seeing, but I can't quite put my finger on it." Your nosy dental hygenist is never truly listening, so you can get away with just replacing "elephant" with "dog". She is, perhaps, the person in your life closest to knowing the full story.
You still haven't figured out where the poor thing has been pooping.
One day, the elephant finds his way out of the bedroom -- or at least, you think so. You are leaning in the kitchen doorway, watching the Strange Man tilt his phone away from your eyes, when you pick up on the almost-fecal musk -- which has only grown worse since you began to notice it. But you figure you must be crazy. You can accept the thing's existence but not the fact that it could fit through the Strange Man's doorway.
This could have been your time to mention the elephant, but something stops you. Guilt, maybe, because the Strange Man is smiling so much, so hard, harder than he does with you. He's like this a lot, staring at his phone and smiling. You try to change the subject, ask, "Who are you texting?"
As he answers with the ex-wife's name, you catch a fleeting glimpse of something big and gray and knowingly winking that disappears before you can determine what you saw.
You smile. You're glad that she and the Strange Man keep in touch. You know for almost-certain that you are part of a carefully selected group of women deemed worthy of the privilege of smelling the Strange Man's elephant and sometimes noticing it when it is not there.
That night in bed, while the Strange Man is preoccupied, the elephant winks at you, a flash of red beneath his swaying trunk, a lace thong that isn't yours. His lips seem to water around it, suckling, tasting. From the frame on the wall, the ex-wife glowers down at the scene. You feel her presence until you fall asleep. The smell is unbearable.
You wake up in the middle of the night, the way you always do, to collect your things. The Strange Man is snoring so loudly that the elephant doesn't wake him up when he moseys over to the foot of the bed, concerned, his beady eyes glimmering. Despite your efforts to ignore it, your glance snags on his across the mile-long, three-foot space between you. Two-foot. One-foot. His trunk almost brushes your bare chest as he nears, stunning you with the rotten sweetness of his hot ass-breath. The floor seems to buckle under his weight. He seems bigger from here, but that may be due to the proximity. You can't be sure. You don't trust yourself the way you used to.
The web of tension traps you. You try to look away but fail. It's the language again, the one you and the elephant share without speaking. The language of eyes. Their beady hunger is different than it had been earlier that night -- not tantalized, just desperate. In his shadow, you watch the wide creases in his shoulders rise and fall slowly with breath. You wait for him to meander back to his corner, slide you some of ex-wife's underwear, his eyes sparkling. But the eyes are too busy screaming into yours. He knows he has hurt you.
You don't want to tell your best friend about the elephant because she doesn't approve of the Strange Man, but she already knows about the Strange Man so you tell her more about the Strange Man. The texting. The photo. The mysterious red thongs and denim jackets scattering his floor. "He's leading you on," she says so emphatically. "Stop letting him have his cake and eat it, too."
"I'm happy that they still keep in touch," you say out loud but mostly to yourself. The photo frame nailed into the bedroom wall of your mind is smiling, sinister. You convince yourself that you are part of a carefully selected group of women deemed worthy of the privilege of having a photo of a wife hammered to the inside of your skull. It doesn't work.
Your friend frowns. "They're probably doing more than keeping in touch." She says "keeping in touch" the way she says "ex", and you are too humiliated to move.
A few days later, you crack.
You find yourself standing once again in the Strange Man's kitchen, watching him ignore you in favor of his phone. The elephant has found his way out of the bedroom again; he stands in the doorway, facing the Strange Man's back. You catch the playful glimmer of his eye as he stands, his large belly hypnotic in its hovering. You catch yourself imagining your fingers grazing the shallow tributaries of his skin. He seems larger now; in fact, he seems to have been getting larger all along. The Strange Man stands before you on his phone, oblivious. Out of habit, you start to say, "Hey, do you smell something?" Something, in this case, meaning something bad. You realize now, though, that you don't smell something bad. The elephant's fecal, rotten smell has been replaced with something sweet -- rotten, but sweet. Fecal, but enchanting.
That night, while you lie with the Strange Man, the elephant stares, but this night, the stare is different. The black, beady eyes penetrate, overflowing and flooding you with longing. The Strange Man finishes. He begins to snore, and you freeze there naked, the back half of your body still tilted toward the ceiling. The wife in the frame on the wall is gone, hidden in the soft shadow of the elephant's swaying, bulky body.
You think about her, and the clothes on the floor, both of which fade from importance now as the grey, pursed lips of the elephant enchant you. There, in the kitchen doorway, he grows larger and larger, the confines of the room cracking and splitting from the pressure. You beam, impressed, under the rain of crumbling plaster and wood dust. The Strange Man grins still at his phone, never looking up at you, never looking behind him at the elephant. You try to tell yourself you are happy to be part of a carefully selected group of women deemed worthy of the privilege of watching the corners of the Strange Man's grin slice wider and wider into his face, happy that they are all still keeping in touch, but this mantra is numb. You thumb your mind for the details of who they are and why. You thumb your mind for even a wallet photo of the ex-wife, but she is gone.