My Beloved Water Filter by M. D. Talley

It was love at first power squat. Girl meets girl. Neither of us were cut out for CrossFit. I wanted to stay slender despite a red wine, cheese and baguette diet, not become a sweaty gladiator. No, we were beginner yoga forever, where we ran into each other again—at Yoga Forever. I figured we must live in the same neighborhood. Recognition, innocent laughter and “we’re such slackers” rhetoric ensued. But when the instructor suggested something that would contort us into pretzels, we both slipped into child’s pose instead. I knew right then I wanted to spend the rest of my life this summer with Julia.

Though I’m thirty-eight, my name is Nancy. That’s a name for fifty- or sixty-year-olds. My face still has baby fat but people say my hands look mature. Any stranger who sees them while I’m shopping calls me “lady” or “ma’am.”

Julia’s parents were from Mexico. I asked if she preferred Hispanic or Latina, and she said she would prefer just Julia.

Karin and Phoenicia from my White Guilt book club scolded me, said to refer to her as Latinx or be shamed on Twitter and Facebook. Julia is mellow about that stuff. She is Diet Woke. Just wants respect as a woman and isn’t triggered by descriptors. Anyway, we started dating. Our initial sleepover occurred at my apartment. A little awkward, but a bottle of wine and giggling carried us through.

My first night at her place changed everything. Julia’s apartment was modest, and much of the furniture came from thrift stores. However, she had invested in a bulbous water filter on her kitchen sink, and another on her shower head. I knew that ones with German names were the best or most expensive, though I’d never heard of the Helmut 5000. After sex, I felt dehydrated. 

“Do you have any bottled water?”

“Even better.” Julia smiled mysteriously. “Straight from the tap.”

I nodded but remained suspicious. So I sipped a small amount, then gulped down a full glass. “Amazing,” I said. Never had I sampled water that tasted of youth and hope and a sunny day with a spring breeze. It was like a tampon commercial but without the sales pitch.

“I know, sweetie,” she confirmed. The first time you’re called sweetie is the best; you’ve reached a new level of intimacy and can relax…

I went to sleep content, only waking some time before dawn to hear Julia crouched by her sink whispering, “My love. My beloved Helmut. I’ll never leave you.”

Way too early in our whatever-it-was for me to be jealous. They had history together and I was the newcomer, so I dozed off again.

In the morning, I showered before dashing off to work. It was astonishing. My usually flat, lifeless hair took shape, had allure, actually looked sexy. “Julia, what’s in your shampoo? Pantene never did this for me before.”

She kissed me on the cheek, perhaps wary of our morning breath, and shook her head. “Not the shampoo.” She put a hand through her lustrous, wavy hair. “It’s the filter softening things. Hard water is what makes our hair drab and kills our plants eventually.” Julia’s apartment did boast an incredible array of healthy house plants.

Later, at the office, female coworkers mentioned my luscious hair and the glow in my face. Men noticed nothing; they never do.

Bud Terdman from accounting buttonholed me. “So your community must be supporting Caitlyn Jenner in the gubernatorial election.”

“No,” I said. “My team votes for California, not whatever bullshit recall Orange County foists upon us.”

He grinned. “Couldn’t you ever go for a guy, someone like me?”

“I already love a man who smells of cigars and Old Spice, and votes Republican.”

“Your father?”

I nodded. “And that’s tough enough.”

***

When Julia said she’d prefer we stay at her place from now on, I didn’t argue. Although firmly in denial, my obsession had begun. For a week I barely ate to save up enough to order a filter. Imagine my shock when the Helmut 5000 was not available on Amazon. Out of stock and no longer manufactured. One seller had a repurposed Helmut from 2008, but I needed it shiny, updated and virginal.

I almost cried over this injustice. Life is brief…and tragic, to boot.

Things progressed in our, yes, relationship, to the point where Julia gave me a key to her place. In retrospect, that was a portent. I started to sneak over during my late lunch hour, knowing she wouldn’t be there, to shower (again) and drink from her kitchen sink. It didn’t seem wrong. I would have expected the same from her if the Helmut was on the other spigot.

Everything went swimmingly for a month until one afternoon I lingered in the shower too long and she came home early.

“What are you doing?” Julia yelled through the door.

Nothing kinky. The water massaged every pore of my flesh, each bone in my body. “Just stopped in for a quick shower. Feeling sweaty, being August.” I dressed and met her with an apologetic expression.

Julia frowned, her face looking older than its thirty-four years. “I heard you in there, talking to my water filter.”

“What?”

“Don’t deny it, bitch.” She paced about the living room. “You think you’re the first person to use me for my Helmut.”

“No, no, no,” I tried. “You’re the one I’m crazy about. The filter is just a bonus. I’ve been trying to order my own for weeks.”

Julia helped towel my hair dry and I thought things were cool, until she said, “Listen, I really like you, but we’ve gotten too hot and heavy too quick. I need to take a week off, think things over, spend some time with mi familia.”

She’d never used Spanish expressions around me before, but then the clincher: “Can you give me back my key till we sort things out?”

“Of course, darling.”

She smiled one of those tight smiles that resembles a wild beast baring its teeth before charging. I left quickly, sad that I wasn’t sad about not seeing her, but over the denial of access to her wondrous Helmut.

After a week of frizzy, dry hair with split ends and the indignity of drinking Trader Joe’s bottled water, I texted her all casual. Hey, girl, want to see a movie this weekend?

If you have to wait three hours for a text reply from your partner, well, you know they’ve been mulling over their response.

Listen, Nancy. Can we just be friends? I was sort of getting over Hector when we met, but that situation is more an on-off thing. I know I should have told you I was bi, but you kept secrets from me too. Toodles.

I was crushed. And her farewell was shocking. What Latina ever deigned to use British expressions? Even my Wonder Bread aunts and relatives from the Midwest don’t say that shit. I started to text back, but I knew it would only make things worse and she might change her locks. Unbeknownst to Julia, I had made a copy of her front door key. Yes, that’s how deep my obsession with Helmut had become. It wasn’t fair that she had two magic filters and I had none. Plus, they were no longer available on the open market. She was supply and I was demand.

***

The last step in an affair or short-term relationship is always the grim retrieval of personal items from the other person. It’s usually done impersonally and Julia wanted that too. She texted: Your stuff is on my doorstep. Pick up any time tonight.

I had heard of aggrieved people depositing flaming bags of clothes and books on their ex’s stoop. Ashes to ashes. So at least we hadn’t reached Fahrenheit 451 proportions.

I dropped by at nineish and grabbed my belongings: toothbrush, pajamas, a Cher CD we sang along with when drunk and the Gwyneth Paltrow candle I gave Julia as a joke. I noticed her door ajar and heard voices. Deep breath. I then pushed inside, wanting to say goodbye in-person.

“Nancy B.?” Julia said. My birth name was Nancy Dross. I changed it to Nancy Bocelli because everyone loves that blind opera guy, and Italian seemed less white than being a milkmaid from Omaha.

Standing next to her was the boyfriend. Pale, slight and wearing wire-rimmed glasses. The word fragile came to mind.

“Take care, girlfriend,” I said. “Just wanted to wish you well.”

Julia smiled. “This is Hector. He’s an adjunct professor in Cultural Studies.”

“Oh, I took that years ago,” I said. “What’s your course?”

“It’s called, ‘I’m OK–You’re a Colonial.’” Hector stared at my “ma’am” hands.

“How fun,” I replied. “So you cover the U.S., England, France, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany?”

“Uh, well, no. Just here.”

“Ah.” I wasn’t exactly sure what being an American Colonial meant, but I guessed it was worse than a Confederate, and older. I knew they wore breeches and periwigs, chewed on balls of opium and some had wooden teeth.

Listen, lady,” he said in a whiny voice. “Julia was never gay. She was just bi-curious. So why don’t you take your yoga mat and head back to Whole Foods and leave us alone?”

“Wow, that is so homophobic and ageist and reductive.” I didn’t really know what I was saying, but he trembled and grew paler. Extremely PC people are always checking the latest guidelines, fearful that they have broken some new rule, used a figure of speech that is no longer acceptable. Julia looked confused and on the verge of tears. Perfect. I stamped outside and slammed the door.

I waited a month before using the copied key on Julia’s apartment. Through surveillance, I knew she had left for the weekend with Hector. I tried and tried to remove her kitchen sink’s water filter. Even a wrench wouldn’t loosen it. Bowed but not broken, I attempted unfastening the shower’s attachment. Success! Bad hair days would be a thing of the past. One Helmut was mine. Julia had blocked me on social media, so I blocked her phone number and email address. Total erasure.

I am telling you all this today, Doctor, as you’ve determined you can no longer help me and this is our last session. I disagree that institutionalization is my best option; I no longer stalk Julia and feel much more balanced. Here, I’m giving you her key copy. One last thing. I did want to inquire about the water filter in your restroom? It looks Germanic, so very familiar…

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