They call us Gnome & Monster, or Naomi & Edward. His family calls him Ted, even though his middle name is Louis—a family curiosity that every member has a different story for. He looked like a teddy bear as small toddler, he should have been named Theodore after his grandfather, and He gives hugs like a bear. His mother and father are divorced, but both sides of his family stick to the name. It’s a badge, a label, an itchy Christmas sweater that a mother spent all summer knitting. His family calls me Nayami, Nowmi, Niomi, or Neomi—and I never correct any of them. As long as it isn’t Nicole or Nancy, I can handle the added syllables and the accented vowels. I enjoy watching the scrunched eyebrows and small magenta tongues gloss over lips as they contemplate the five letters, the slight chin wiggle as Neyome is whispered.
When we are not Naomi & Edward, Gnome & Monster, Neiomi & Ted—we are separate. He is Eddie to his coworkers, a foreign name to me, a stranger’s employment badge that I pick up from the table covered in used coffee mugs, empty cigarette packs, and opened half-filled bags of salted chips. The crooked, glossy letters spell out deja-vu, a person that I might have once met, but can no longer remember. I see him in his blue, white-buttoned shirt and dark, cat-furred slacks, and he is Monster in disguise, a man that will transform, behind the wheel of our yellow car, into Eddie. Eddie, who goes to work in the large red brick building with gray tinted windows that reveal the secret life of cubicles and release the small whirring sound of pencils being sharpened.
Sometimes, strangers try to call him Ed. Those people stay strangers.
When I am not connected by our ampersand, my name is clipped and shorn to only its first syllable: Nay. Behind my apron with a coffee carafe in my hand, I am reduced to the sound of horses and the disagreement of a Shakespearean actor. The name started with the café’s chef, a smiling little Mexican man filled with tales of Irish heritage. He cut my name without permission—but as long as it wasn’t Nadine or Nanette, I let it slide. It was easy for the children and teens to remember, and even simpler for the passing customers to read off the name tag. When it said Naomi, the men—in their light pink polos with their matching wives behind them sipping their sugar-free vanilla lattes—wouldn’t even try, with the exception of a small Asian man who informed me that it was spelled wrong. I was relabeled, packaged fresh. Nay is the girl at the café with the hair and the piercings through her smile and eyebrows. Nay tutors algebra, makes hazelnut lattes, and designs coupons to be thrown in Fourth of July parades. Nay exists only behind a forest green apron covered in window paint and coffee spills.
Sometimes, strangers try to call me Sha-nay-nay. Those people stay strangers.
The building we live in, the building that contains all of our furniture, cats, and names, is the pock of the town: the voters and the taxpayers and the mothers and the mayor and the workers see a blemish on the pristine trimmed flower gardens of the university close by, a pimple on the clean red bricks of the new police station, and a bright shining sore next to the brand new purple satin awnings of the local stores selling Vera Bradley purses and customizable silver frames. When they pass by, with their strollers and their missions and their stranger’s eyes, they don’t see the windows. The windows are clouded with drippy doodles of gnomes and monsters dancing and fighting, loving and shouting, they don’t see the hearts and initials tattooing the glass— doodles drawn with a finger and painted in breath.
Apartment 3 is where we live: where we live as Monster & Gnome; where we live as Edward & Naomi. Our living room is dark from the cheap trailer wood paneling some past tenant stained a terrible generic-brand cherry, and from the heavy sienna brown curtains I crookedly sewed from the bargain cloth found in a closing JoAnn fabrics store. The room is full of desks, bookcases, my drafting table, end tables, coffee tables—everything is surface. And every surface is filled. Earrings and knickknacks and stacks of Atwoods and Kings and Gaimans and Oates. Board games tower in Jenga stacks, crocheted blankets puddle in granny squares, and by our front door, on the little hooked heart-shaped plaque that we hang all of our keys—we hang our names. Nay and Eddie, Naomi & Edward, Niomi & Ted drape in folds of flesh, empty husks with no bones or souls. Unused, they wait for us, wait for us to need them again, to pull those identities over our heads until we forget that Eddie, Ed, Monster, Naomi, Sha-nay-nay, Gnome still dangles with the rest of the keys: There is only room for one name at a time.
When we are Gnome & Monster, we are in love. It isn’t hard to come up with reasons to smile, and there is no stress, and the dust that dances in the sun beams of our apartment‘s broken windows bring us happiness, and we don’t care if we wash our dishes right after we use them, and sometimes we jump into the yellow car and start driving in a direction that doesn’t matter because we have plastic matching sunglasses that keep the too-bright sun out of our eyes. When I am Gnome and he is Monster, we purchase dusty board games from thrift stores and bring them home to spill all over the carpet along with ourselves until it is far past the time that we should have gone to bed. The cupboards are full of cake icing and marshmallows, sweet coffee and sugared cereals. When we pass each other, we slip our fingers underneath the hems of each other’s black t-shirts and feel the secret soft skins of the sides of our stomachs that neither of us ever put lotion on.
When he is Monster, he sprawls on the paisley couch-sofa and listens to mothy music sung by haunted men who have voices like a fingernail being scratched down the thick E string of an electric guitar. He swivels around and around and around in the blue armless computer chair while he waits for his computer magic to load, the salt on his beautiful witch-fingers falling back into his silver and blue bag of potato crisps. Monster takes walks with his large photographers’ camera and captures images to bring home—he is a hunter that stalks and nets, a predator proud to bring home his day’s catch. On his computer he clicks and twirls, saturates and crops until the photographs of forgotten churches, snow-filled trees, and unloved tombstones become windows into his mind, a compiled collage of details that paint an entirely new, unknown world for the two of us.
When I am Gnome, I crochet large heavy blankets on the far right coach cushion while listening to the escaped half-notes and almost –chords of Monster’s music. I rub my feet into the carpet when I walk through the full living room, feeling all of the individual fibers in between my painted toes. When I am Gnome, I ignore impending due dates of homework and assignments and sit at my busy drafting table and let the Muses consume me—I load my brushes full of paint, and fire- to-kill at the already covered canvases littered beside the encrusted easel. When I am Gnome, I take the red and black markers and doodle all over my body, and when I run out of skin, I draw on Monster—cover his skin in birds flying to freedom, with eyes that see everything, and trees that grow from the roots of our bones. On our flesh, I draw us stories; I draw an entirely new, unknown world for the two of us.
When we are Naomi and Edward, we are in love. The bills begin to stack up on the candled bar, and money is tight, and shoulders are brushed against uncaringly, and sometimes harsh words are exchanged under breath until someone says “Fuck you!” really loudly and the fragile door of the bedroom is slammed hard enough to make the tree picture in the living room rattle. When I am Naomi and he is Edward, we sleep far apart on the big bed, and make sure not to say a single thing until the silence is so full of anger that it crackles with every heavy exaggerated roll of the blankets and tug of the pillows that just won’t become comfortable. The cupboards are empty except for the cans of soup Edward’s mother gave him when we first moved in together—we’ve obstinately not eaten them, but haven’t thrown them away. Independently, we worry about the bathtub not draining the four inches of stagnate water from a shower taken three days ago, and wonder how we’re going to pay the $800 bill from Naomi’s bike accident the same day the yellow car was purchased, and rent is building up and Edward isn’t working and the vacuum broke so we can’t pick up all of the crumbs and thumbtacks from the living room floor that keep puncturing the soles of our bleeding bare feet.
When I am Naomi, I sharpen my tongue along the fragile perforated lines of Edward, waiting for the trembling paper gentleman to make a wrong turn into the scissor’s sharp slice. I want to hurt, to do damage, to cut off the dolls dearly loved tuxedo buttons, remove a delicately stretched and opalite-filled ear, slice into a white-collared captured throat. Angered and ashamed at his loss, at the tender paper-cut wound of his pride or respect, Edward closes up, a sheet of paper folded in on itself. With blades, I must always approach—What was it I said? Why are you angry? Why don’t you just talk to me?, and try to trace the origami folds of his patterns . I must unfold, must shred the sheet of his 8-fold self, even though my scissors are dulling and I just create more confetti damage on the living room carpet that the broken vacuum won’t be able to suck up.
When he is Edward, he lets silence replace all of his words, even when I ask him, “What’s wrong? What’s the matter with you? Why are you acting this way?” I, as Naomi, pick and poke and scratch and tear at his fortress until he pours oil over his castle walls into my ears, scorching me with a dragon’s pent up breath as he consumes us both in his wild too-hot fire of words. The flames surround us, curling the wood paneling onto itself and the plates get broken in the sink and the cats go running and the deck of cards that I was supposed to put away but instead forgot and left on the coffee table is tossed into the air to bomb the living room with sharp spades and the hard edges of diamonds. The flames burn our bare feet and scorch our hair and pour smoke into our eyes until all we can see is tears. He’s hurt, she’s hurt, we’re hurting—and the two of us run away from each other, our burned clothes in tatters streaming behind us.
We cautiously leave our bases—remove our small, childlike hands from the trees that give us time-out, that let us breathe, that shade us from the bright hot sun beating through the leaves onto our scorched, tired faces. Wounded, we stagger from our holes of hiding, our safe places, and meet in the living room, the small living room filled with scorched surfaces and ashy Dumas’ and thousands of spades and hearts with their edges dark and curled, with tendrils of smoke still dancing and dissipating above them. We stand before each other, our clothes and hatred, our labels and names—burned and cindered away.
Naked and nameless, he takes my nail-bitten hand. Naked and nameless, he leads me to our mis-fitted front door, to the heart full of keys, and to our familiar labels waiting for us, our empty cicada shells needing filled. Placing Gnome around my feet, he slides her up my calves and thighs, rests her on my shoulders, and encloses her around my face. I take Monster and pull him over his outstretched arms, his face temporarily blinded as I tug and pull him, arms matching arms and toes matching toes.
Together, as Gnome & Monster, we walk through the ash of our apartment to the dusty dirty windows, and we breathe on the glass until the fog creates a canvas, allowing our fingers to paint a mural of hearts and diamonds, fire and scissors. We draw our names, draw the skins that hang temporarily unused by the door, draw ourselves in our bandaged re-labeled namelessness. And the people who walk underneath our window, with their unworking umbrellas and their strollers filled with children never look up to see our stories; they never look at the murals drawn with fingers and painted in breath.