by Justin Mejia
The bell rung and Javier felt the weight of the previous ten months melt off of him, drip onto the floor, and evaporate into the ether, as if the floor were a hot frying pan and his tension was oil.
The students had been gone for a while now—being the final class of the term, Javier had finished early enough to leave time for goodbyes and photos—but he still didn’t feel his semester was actually over until he heard that bell. And now he had.
Javier grabbed his overly stuffed bag and walked out of the classroom. He briskly traveled through the seemingly hundreds of hallways, stairwells, and doors, then into the city that surrounded campus, and finally onto the train that would take him home. It was the only day of the school year that he truly had time to stop and chat with students and colleagues, but it was also the day Javier most desperately wished to avoid that. Although it was somewhat unfeeling to quickly dart home without so much as a word of goodbye or congratulations to those who had been a part of his daily life for the past year, he wanted nothing more than to start, in earnest, the spring vacation he had fantasized about so much since the previous year’s had ended. He even planned to take a longer, more indirect train ride home as to avoid any possible contact with students or coworkers. And so he did.
After arriving home, Javier dumped his bundles of texts, folders, files, and papers onto his desk. He took off his jacket and un-airpodded his ears, switching the music to his home speaker set at just the right volume. He washed his hands and his face, and he reached into the refrigerator to grab the cold can of slightly-more-expensive-than-usual beer that he had purchased especially for this evening. The cracking sound of it opening and the cool wash of carbonation against the inside of his throat nearly brought tears to his eyes. After working so very hard for the last several months—more if you counted the previous semester as well—it was finally over; his first year of teaching at a respectable university. From this moment, he had exactly 64 days where he didn’t have to set foot in a classroom, didn’t have to answer an email from a student asking for more time on an assignment, and certainly didn’t have to spend his time off considering how to make the perfect tenses both comprehensible and fun. All he had to look forward to over these next 64 days was a lot more of his current state: beer in his hand, music in his ears, and levity in his heart.
Barely a few days of his vacation had went by when Javier saw it. While cleaning his apartment, he noticed a small stain—in the shape of a C, but with its ends nearly closed into a circle—on the folder at the top of his mound of work materials. He was more confused than angry, though, as Javier couldn’t recall how it might have gotten there in the first place. Had he left a glass of water or a cup of coffee there? He could see himself doing so, but wasn’t sure if he was now inventing the memory. He half-heartedly tried to clean the stain but quickly gave up when there was no change.
“Oh well,” he thought, content to move on to the next area of the room, “it’s just a folder anyways.”
Now that he thought about it, Javier supposed that the folder was actually doing what it was intended to do—shield its contents from the mess of the outside world. He thought about all of the things that serve that purpose: protecting their contents from the outside world. In a way, that was all a house was, hell, that was all a body was. Although, after thinking a bit more, Javier came to the conclusion that bodies and folders were actually more analogous to cars than houses, and he felt a bit silly for making such an obvious logical misstep.
Still, the point stood: the stain was inconsequential. The important things were inside the folder and therefore undamaged by the stain. What would’ve happened if the stain had in fact reached the contents, though? Those were important documents—final grade submissions, syllabuses for the following semester, textbook order forms, and other obligatory paperwork that closed out one semester and ushered in the next. They would be viewed by people in the office, and what would their faces look like if one showed up with a coffee stain? Puzzled? Shocked? Or maybe even a little disgusted, he supposed. Javier smiled a little at this thought as he dusted the screen of his TV. Shocked indeed.
It was the early afternoon when Javier, having finished his chores and his lunch, pulled the tab of a beer can until he heard the gratifying crack that came around this time each day of his vacation so far. As he tilted his head back and let the crisp liquid slide down his throat, he remembered the stain from an hour or so earlier. More precisely, he remembered the contents. He was a bit annoyed that—just a few days into his vacation—he was already thinking about work again. Most of the reason he had pursued this career path was for the generous amount of time off that teaching university had naturally built in. It irked him to know that even during this supposed time off he would have to do at least some work. What irked him more was that, had it not been for the appearance of the stain, these thoughts would have been far from his mind. That was right; that damned stain was to blame. But now that his mind had wandered that way, it sat there in his thoughts for a while longer, until the plot of the TV show he was watching became complex enough to consume him completely. And so it did.
Several weeks passed by in much the same fashion. Javier woke at 8:55am (he had an inexplicable superstition about waking up at any time that ended in ‘0’), went to the toilet, washed his hands and his face, and made a simple breakfast of either cereal or toast and coffee. As he ate, he watched the latest uploads of his favorite YouTube channels and checked his emails and messages. He responded immediately to those that didn’t require much effort, and flagged the ones that did for after lunch.
With his breakfast finished, he would brush his teeth and change his clothes, then he would either do the laundry or the dishes—laundry on even-numbered days, dishes on odd—and on Wednesdays he would vacuum and dust. Once these tasks were finished, Javier would make the five-minute walk to the grocery store, where he would pick out his lunch for the day (usually a premade sandwich or Japanese-style lunch box), buy ingredients for that evening’s dinner, and any other basic necessities he might be running low on. Once he was home, Javier put away his purchases, took a beer out of the refrigerator, found the next episode of whichever TV show he was currently watching, and ate his lunch.
For all of the routine of the mornings, the afternoons always varied for Javier. However, there was one constant: after lunch, Javier always got back to the emails and messages he hadn’t addressed that morning. Sometimes they were personal: messages from family and friends, or invitations to gatherings. Sometimes they were professional: notices about the coming semester, requests for confirmation on certain things, and, without fail, and at least one reminder of an impending deadline. The latter was the type Javier despised the most. He was an adult with both an old-fashioned paper calendar and a functioning calendar app. Why should he be subjected to endless reminders of deadlines that he was well aware of?
It was the mental interruption of his vacation that he despised. Even on this longest of vacations, Javier was unable to keep his mind from slipping back into thoughts of the university and students and textbooks, and it drove him insane. Javier was an all-or-nothing kind of person, and if he was thinking about work during his vacation, it was just as good as actually working in his book. And it was because of these reminders that he was thinking about work. The reminders were in effect making him work. During vacation. It wasn’t a stretch to say that they were making him work for free, which is to say that they were basically stealing from him.
Starting down this logical flowchart, Javier felt his chest getting hot with indignation.
One day, just over a month into his vacation, Javier was lightly cleaning his apartment—as he always did on Wednesdays—when he got to his desk, he noticed the stain from a few weeks before. It was still there, but it had changed somehow. It seemed darker. More substantial even. If it had not gotten bigger (and Javier wasn’t sure that it had), it had at least gotten more noticeable somehow. Javier stared at it, puzzled. He could see that even the texture had changed. No, it would be more accurate to say that it now had texture, although that wasn’t the case before.
Javier quickly opened the folder to check that the contents weren’t affected; he was relieved to see that they were not. As he started to close the folder though, he was struck by the sight of the stain and jumped back, allowing the folder to fall back open. He stood in front of the desk, deeply troubled; Javier wasn’t completely sure, but for the brief moment he saw it, the stain on the front of the folder looked even darker and more substantial than it had just a few seconds before. But there was no way that was possible, right? After steeling himself, Javier took one step forward to be within reach of the folder, stretched his arm out, and, making the least amount of contact he could, flipped the folder closed.
He had been right.
Darker. Larger. More textured. And now, moving in a rhythmic, pulsating squirm.
“No way,” Javier muttered. Then, all at once, he grabbed his phone, keys, and wallet, threw on his jacket, and walked straight out of his apartment and into the city. That night, he dined out, drinking several large beers while replaying the scene of that afternoon in his head, trying to make sense of it. As he drank, he messaged a group chat he had with several friends to see if anyone was available, one of whom, Scott, was. Within the hour Javier and Scott were drinking and chatting away. But Javier didn’t bring up the stain. He spent the next few hours with the front of his brain distracting itself from its own thoughts. Meanwhile, the rear of his brain rationalized what he had witnessed as a trick of the eyes. Still, his heart knew that it wasn’t.
After too much beer and not nearly enough time, Javier reluctantly allowed Scott to get on his train home in peace, and then began the walk home himself. Struggling to walk in a straight line proved to be a potent antidote to thinking about what awaited him and before he knew it, Javier was at his front door. As he opened the door and kicked off his shoes, the muscle memory he had built over the years moved him towards the bathroom to wash up before going to bed. The bathroom was far closer to the stain than he wanted to be, however, so he immediately turned into his bedroom and collapsed onto the bed—still fully clothed and taken by sleep within seconds.
The next week or so was a complete departure from the happy routine Javier had created over the previous month. Each day he woke hours later than usual, quickly getting ready and running out of the door. He skipped breakfast as it was closer to lunch time to begin with, and ate all his meals out at restaurants in the city. He spent the time between meals anywhere that had free Wi-Fi and outlets for his phone. He became an urban nomad just to stay away from his own home. In the afternoons he drank far too much coffee in an effort to recover from the previous night’s alcohol, and in the evenings he consumed far too much beer in an effort to ease his return home to the stain at night.
Each evening he would send a message to his group chat asking for companionship and, for the first few days, one or two of his friends showed up. They would eat and drink to excess for several hours before returning to their own corners of the world, obliging Javier to do the same and return to his.
After four or five days straight of this, people stopped coming. In fact, they started to ask if Javier was okay, as this behavior was more than a little outside of his norm. Javier gently reminded them that he was on vacation. His friends—relieved—acknowledged this, but also collectively lamented that they were not in a position to go out all night every night on weekdays. And so, Javier dined and drank out alone for several more days until one morning, he, his wallet, his spirit, and his body had had enough.
Javier rose on the 42nd day of his vacation drowsy and hungover, but determined to take back what he had worked so hard for this last year. He fought his physical lethargy and made his way to the bathroom, where he showered and brushed his teeth, shaved his scruff and set his hair, put in his contacts and clothed himself, preparing his mind and body for his task.
In the cupboard under the bathroom sink, Javier found the thick rubber gloves and apron that he only used a few times a year while deep cleaning with chemicals. He was dressed for battle. But was this a battle? Would it go down in the history of this kingdom—his apartment—as a defining moment? Would this be his Hastings? His Normandy? Javier realized he was getting in his own head and needed to clear it: No, this would be no Hastings, no Normandy. He was simply cleaning (or destroying if need be) a stain. A mysterious, animated stain with the capacity to change and whose origin was unknown. A stain that, if left unchecked, might just taint all his work. Maybe his entire desk. Possibly the whole apartment or even the city. He stopped himself; there was no need for melodrama. But he went back to the cupboard for a surgical mask just in case.
And so, Javier took one last breath from the stain-less area of his apartment and flung open the door to the living room that housed his desk. He was stunned at how wrong his internal monologue had been.
With the door open, Javier could experience the full effect of what the stain had become in his absence. At first, it felt as though a wall of hot air blew past him, but as he lingered in place Javier came to understand that the thick, hot air of the room didn’t simply move past him from the living room into the hallway. Instead, it was expanding, filling the new space it was given access too.
And there was a low hum, like a machine that is meant to be kept on continuously. As Javier tried to discern where this sound might be emanating from (it sounded like it was coming from all directions at the same time, as if he were a fish and it were the ocean), the smell of old things attacked his nostrils beneath the mask. Not rotten, but the old of something unused for a very long time. Something that, when you finally took it out of its box or bag or drawer, carried with it the stale smell of the day it was put away.
As Javier pinched his nose and took a breath into his mouth, the air tasted slightly of metal. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was unpleasant. Like cheaply canned foods.
Still, his eyes struggled the most. What he had left as a curious and unsettling stain on a single folder a week earlier had somehow grown to take over the entire stack of books and documents on his desk. It retained all of its previous qualities—pulsating, textured, dark, dark—but now instead of it being acknowledgeable as a “stain,” it was more akin to a bulbous, furry, sludge-like blanket thrown on top of his yet-to-be-completed work.
After staring blankly for a few moments taking it all in, Javier noticed that one end—if the thing had “ends”—seemed to be stretching itself out to him. Javier backed across the threshold into the hallway once more and slammed the door shut.
His first instinct was to run out of his apartment, just as he had done the previous week. Indeed, the thought crossed his mind to simply abandon his apartment and all of its contents. He thought to get on a train and take it to the end of the line, then start a new life wherever that was. But just as this thought was passing through his mind, the stain (if it could be called that anymore) crept under the gap between the floor and the door in front of him. Without realizing what he was doing, Javier jumped forward and stomped the no-longer-just-a-stain. Although he felt nothing beneath his foot, in response the thing that was previously a stain withdrew back beneath the door. Vaguely inspired by the small victory, Javier decided to fight. And seeing the thing starting to slowly test the door gap once again, he knew it had to be soon.
Javier flung open the door to the closet just to his right. He grabbed both a spray bottle of cleaning solution and his mop in one fluid motion, then kicked the door to the living room wide open. At the sudden opening of the door, the thing that had until a moment ago been starting to creep under the door jumped back in surprise. It looked like a bear standing on its hind legs now. Javier took two hasty steps forward as he sprayed the solution in a continuous stream, all the while the thing retreated at the same pace Javier advanced.
It was not only retreating, but shrinking as well. Javier continued to spray and walk forward, all the while, the thing got smaller and smaller, going back to its source like a sort of reverse big bang. Javier moved the bottle around from side to side and up and down as he advanced, making sure to get any straggling pieces of the thing. After a mere 15 or 20 seconds of this, the thing had completely returned to its original form on the folder: a small, faint, nearly closed C-shaped stain.
Still, Javier held down the spray button and let a continuous stream out onto the folder. After five or ten more seconds of this, he slapped the mop down on top of the stain and violently wretched it back and forth, dislodging his books and documents and sending them all across the room. He continued this for some time until he felt confident that the stain was gone—or at least that it was now and forevermore only a stain. He slowly lifted the mop off of the folder while looking very, very carefully to confirm if it was gone. Indeed, it was.
Javier dropped the mop, collapsed onto the floor, and ripped his surgical mask off; half out of relief, half out of exhaustion. It was done. The stain was gone.
Javier spent a little more time on the floor as he slowly removed the rubber cleaning gloves. After a while, he got up and looked at the folder once more: the stain was still gone. He then slowly started to pick up the room that had become so messy from the encounter. He organized the books and documents by year and class and set them in neat stacks on his desk, being sure to leave a space in the middle for him to use his laptop or write if he needed to. As for what he needed to submit, he placed the disheveled documents all in the previously stained folder, which he in turn put on the coffee table in front of his sofa along with a large envelope.
After that, Javier took a cold can out of the refrigerator and sat down on his sofa. The cracking sound of the beer opening and the cool wash of carbonation against the inside of his throat nearly brought tears to his eyes, just as they had a seeming eternity ago. This was the most he had felt like he was on vacation during this entire vacation. And he got to have 22 more days just like this while the staff in his department were puzzled, shocked, or disgusted at the messy documents he would be submitting. Shocked indeed.
The thought made Javier chuckle as he placed his beer can down on the folder, the condensation leaving a small, C-shaped stain, its ends nearly closed into a circle.
“Oh well,” Javier thought to himself. After all, that was the purpose of the folder anyways.