#38

Nicki sat down across the card table from Mitch, the cup of coffee in her hands hot and comforting. He looked up at her and smiled, and Nicki thought it seemed almost genuine. The intensity was there, but the lingering dull sadness still sat behind his pupils.

The card table had been set up in lieu of a real kitchen table, and since they were  planning on moving, neither of them thought it made any sense to replace. Nicki thought this was probably because Mitch wanted to make sure they followed through–that if they made their residence any more permanent, perhaps they wouldn’t go at all.

But Nicki knew they would do it. Not because she wanted to leave, but because she wanted to go. She knew that being with him was contingent upon her willingness to go with him, and to make sure that he went. Until they were on the way to Texas, their sparse belongings packed in the trailer behind them, she could not reach him. As long as they stayed in this picturesque little home that he had set up with the dreams of someone else, he would be caught between two worlds.

So Nicki never said anything about the table. She didn’t say anything about their surroundings. She focused instead on their plans, the future, their new lives in the South. And whenever she did so, his eyes grew brighter with intensity as he listened to her ideas. Even if half didn’t come true, she knew her words were deepening his attachment to her, and the belief that hope was still worth the risk of everything falling apart again.

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#37

“Five years from now, we’ll be raising our kids in this house.” Mitch held Lisa to his chest as they stood in the front yard of their white cape-cod home. It was the first week of autumn, and the warmth of summer hung on in the sunshine, but a cold breeze cut through their clothes, sending a shiver up Lisa’s spine.

“You think so?” Lisa’s voice was sleepy, dreamlike, as she imagined chasing little versions of him and her around the yard.

“Absolutely. I’m thinking we could crank out at least two or three in that time. Irish twins, maybe?”

“That sounds perfect.” Lisa hugged him tighter, pressing her nose into his chest and breathed his smell.

 


 

“Five years from now, I think I’ll have moved to Texas.” Mitch sipped from the bottle of beer resting on the end table in the darkened room.

“You think so?” Nicki thought she hid the emotion in her voice well, but he quickly looked at her.

“What?” He wasn’t upset, but seemed genuinely surprised at her question.

“Mitch–” Her voice caught this time, and she looked down.

“I can’t stay here anymore, not after losing Lisa. This house, it’s not a home without her. We had too many dreams–I can’t stay here.”

“I know. I know. I get it. I do. I mean, as much as I could.” Nicki looked up now. “But if you go to Texas–if Ron gets you that job–I want to come with you.”

Mitch didn’t say anything, for a while. He cleared his throat once, took another sip of his beer. Nicki fought to keep her hands from shaking, so she clasped them together and pressed them into her lap. She could feel her fingernails digging into her skin, and she focused on the pain to keep herself from shouting or crying or running to him, pleading to go with him, to end her suffering and her silence.

“I didn’t know you felt that way.” His voice was soft, and he looked at her with an intensity she hadn’t seen in a long time. Gone was his dull, hazy stare of apathy.

“I do.” Her hands relaxed, just a little.

“Well,” He paused again, “Okay. Let’s give it a shot.”

In one coordinated motion, they stood, moved to one another, and embraced.

 

#36

Cassie had planned for everything. From needing a rake the first week they moved in, to their bags perfectly packed with every essential needed for the first weekend of chaos. She had meals planned, the fridge filled with exact amounts of ingredients to measure out each recipe.

But Cassie could not plan for the garbage company failing to empty their garbage can.

“What do you mean, we were skipped?” She asked the garbage company’s representative over the phone.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, sometimes this happens with new addresses on a route. We’ll get someone out as soon as we can.”

“Well when will that be?” Cassie thought about the harsh taste of a Marlboro Red, remembering the burn in her mouth and throat as the smoke pulled into her lungs.

“The earliest we can get someone out there would be Thursday.” The voice on the phone was bored.

“But it’s Monday. That’s almost a week away.” The exhale would be the best part, the blue-grey stream of smoke funneled out of her like a sideways tornado, twisting as it righted itself into the air around her.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, that’s the best we can do.”

When Jacob came home from work that night, Cassie didn’t say anything about the trash can. It stood at the end of their driveway, its lid propped open by the bulging white plastic bags.

“How was your day?” He asked, his mouth full of the perfectly planned for spaghetti and meatballs.

“Good.” Cassie said, spinning her spaghetti noodles into her spoon exactly three times.

“The place is really coming together.” Jacob said, intentionally looking at her face until she looked back at him. He wasn’t sure if he could smell cigarettes on her breath when he kissed her earlier.

“Thank you.” Cassie blinked three times at him, pulled the corners of her mouth up slightly, and went back to counting spaghetti twirls. She thought about menthols, and their cool-hot minty flavor settling on the back of her tongue like a slowly dissolving mint.

The next day, a pile around the garbage can began to form. As boxes and bags were unpacked, the pile grew. Jacob had to drive around it to get to the garage when he came home, but Cassie still said nothing.

“Anything exciting happen today?” He asked that evening over beef tips and garlic mashed potatoes.

“Nope.” Cassie said, stabbing a carefully cut beef tip with her fork, dipping it in gravy twice before bringing it to her mouth. “Same old same old. I’m still so amazed at how much stuff we’ve accumulated over the past two years.”

“Huh. Yeah, I guess it doesn’t really feel that way to me. We’ve barely put anything in the garage attic.” Jacob drank loudly from his glass of water, avoiding her eyes. That cigarette smell was still hanging around, but it felt old, not fresh.

“Mm.” Cassie held her fork between her pointer and middle finger, tapped it against her plate, and thought about the red hot look of a lit cigarette, its tip grey and chalky from needing to be ashed.

The garbage continued to pile. And then Thursday came. Cassie sat outside on the front stoop all morning, waiting for the truck to rumble up the street. After Jacob had left for work, she walked to the corner store and purchased two packs of cigarettes, Marlboro Reds and Camel Menthol Crushes. She sat, smoking slowly, alternating between Reds and menthols, her lungs and mouth and tongue and lungs burning.

After the truck drove away, the can empty and mountain of trash now gone, Cassie remained where she was. She sat and smoked until she saw the familiar headlights of their Chevy Malibu turn onto the street. She was smoking her last cigarette as Jacob got out of the car and walked to the front steps. He looked at her as she crushed the butt against the cement, her heel slowly twisting around the smoking remains three times.

She met his eyes and blinked twice.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

Jacob thought for a second, then said “The garbage finally came,” and walked past her into the house.

#35

It was sometime in 2012 that they died. One was naked, running through a field. Stripped of his clothes, the last thing he could control, trying to stop it stop it stop it. His own mind his worst enemy, flashing thoughts and images and together to became a new terrifying reality of death.

My cousin’s roommate tried to tell us once that you couldn’t overdose on hallucinogens, that the only effects were psychadelic. But what isn’t psychedelic? Our brains take the information it is given and translates it into what we see and feel and hear and understand. And if your brain is telling you you’re dead, surrounded by death and fear and horrors, then how could that not be true? My cousin told his roommate that he was wrong.

My cousin’s roommate was the one who sold them the drugs.

I imagine their hearts exploded, like in the end of Balto. Crossing the finish line, Balto pushed and gave everything he had, and then his heart just gave out. Except these two boys were pushing, giving everything they had, to escape their own minds. “This will never end,” they thought as the panic of the thought coursed through them.

It didn’t start that way though, I’m sure. I’m sure it started with a comfortable, warm sensation in their fingertips, running up through fingers into wrists and elbows and shoulders, into their jawbone, around their eyeballs and back down the spine into their toes. The walls would shift, like honey, slowly molding into droplets that turned to look at them and smile.

But then garish teeth emerged from the mouths on the walls, and it was all a little too much. A rasping, clanging, screaming, agony of sounds banged between their ears, and visions of skeletons and vomit and teeth gnashing flashed in their head. One boy would stand up, hoping the sudden increase in elevation would clear his head, and it would, for an agonizing second. Look in the mirror, get a hold of yourself. Terrified by what he saw, he sat back down and looked at his friend, now reduced to the trembling mass of a frightened monster.

I can only imagine the horror that pushed them to flee from their home, strip their clothes off, and die in a field aside I-29. The linen delivery driver told me he saw them on his route earlier that morning, running down University Avenue. Those poor souls, tortured to death by their own minds, their last moments only terror and agony.

I don’t know how to end this one.

#34

On my 26th birthday I realized that I had, somewhere along the way, gotten quite fearful. It’s hard to pinpoint something like that, you know? At what point did I start to choose to back away, to not try, to give up, to hide? Was it a series of small decisions, seemingly so insignificant I didn’t even notice, or was it a jarring moment of giving in that felt so good I didn’t even realize I was changing? I used to raise my gauntlet to the challenges, stare my own fears in the face with an unflinching glare of determination, and then do whatever the hell I wanted to.

But then I thought maybe this is just how I remember being–and that it isn’t true at all. That my reckless behavior was just that: reckless. Not defiant or thought-out or intentional, but a flimsy side-effect of wanting to do everything however I wanted to. Maybe I’ve been afraid the whole time, and the way in which I’ve hidden it has just changed to something a little less obvious.

It’s just so much more exhausting to be afraid. I’m tired of being tired of it.

#33

It was windy the day I met David. I crossed the street in front of a truck stopped at the crosswalk. The driver was handsome, with dark eyes and eyebrows and a nice looking nose. He smiled at me as the wind whipped my skirt against my knees, then tossed them up, revealing God-knows-what, and the man laughed at me. I smiled and glared, swinging open the door to the coffee shop dramatically to hide my embarrassment. After settling into a corner chair, the door chime rang and in walked the man from the pickup truck.


That was the moment I knew, I would whisper to him on the night of our fiftieth wedding anniversary. Knew what? He would roll over and look at me, his dark eyes still just as beautiful as the first day I saw him. Knew we were going to be together forever, I would explain. Laura. The way he would say my name would be perfect. You’re still bad at lying. I’m not lying! I would exclaim. The way you laughed at my skirt was just perfect. Just the right amount of pity. Pity? You knew I was dying, I would say. Now how would I know that? David would be kissing my fingers, maybe the palms of my hands. You just knew, somehow, I would say. And then we would kiss and make love and I’d fall asleep with my naked back against his chest and we would grow older and older until one of us died of the most natural causes, and then the other would live for a few days before deciding it wasn’t worth it without the other.


It was a windy day when I went to the coffee shop before my appointment with Dr. Grace. I walked across the crosswalk, the wind blowing my skirt every which way, with one final gust that made the man in the pickup truck laugh at me. I smiled and glared, dramatically opening the door of the coffee shop to hide my embarrassment. I curled into a corner chair, sipping my mocha.

“The cancer has spread to your pancreas,” Dr. Grace had said. I nodded, imagining what David would say to that. You’ve got this. He would say, and I would believe him.

#32

The day of my birth was quite a commotion. Mom told me how they couldn’t make it to the hospital, so I imagine they had just dealt with an oven fire or something when the couple trying to get divorced who lived across the street came over, yelling about a bear they saw in the backyard. It must have been a bear, because I don’t know what else would get my dad in such a state.

“Dammit, Maria, what do you want from me?” My dad loved how “Dammit, Maria” sounded, so he says it a lot.

I know women make lots of noise when having a baby, at least on TV they do. So she probably would have just yelled a bunch instead of answering his “Dammit, Maria” question.

It was around 4am when I arrived. The orange couch in the living room was never quite the same, because it didn’t show up in family photos after I was born. I’m not sure exactly what that meant, so I’m assuming the bear was somehow involved.

Anyway, the day I was born was a big deal.