#31

Nicki took the job in Washington state in the ninth month of their relationship.

She broke the news over dinner. “I’m sorry, Mitch. I’ll probably never get an offer like this again. It feels like it’s now or never.”

“It’s okay, Nick. I would have done the same.” Mitch was relieved at how reasonable he sounded, though he regretted saying that last part–he would never have done this. But he looked at her and smiled.

Nicki reached for his hands from across the table, her elbows pulling the white linen tablecloth and tottering their water glasses. He pulled his hands away to steady the glasses.

“I really hope we’ll stay in touch,” She said.

“Me too,” He said back. But his head was echoing with blurred memories that forced themselves to the forefront of his vision, clouding his ability to respond to her. The rest of the meal was a blur, and he was barely aware of paying the check, out of habit, he didn’t remember her response or if she tried to pay her half, stumbling outside, finding his car, driving home, untying his tie, taking off socks and shoes, falling into bed and instinctively feeling for her warmth.

The next few months were a painful blur of too much wine, not enough sleep, and trying to not think about her. Of course he helped her pack up, move, and even offered to help in the long drive out West, to which she politely declined with sincere gratitude. His smiles and nods must have fit the role of whatever she was expecting of him, because she not once questioned his state of mind.

After she was gone, he started talking to her when he was alone in her apartment. He found pictures of her, pictures of them, pictures she took, and taped them to the wall next to the window in his apartment. The collection slowly overtook the window, and now only slivers of light sliced through the cracks of the memories he enshrined.

“You should try running,” His neighbor said to him one afternoon as Mitch wrestled with the key in his mailbox.

“What do you mean?” Mitch couldn’t remember this neighbor’s name–Al, or Andrew, or something. They had talked about board games at the last apartment social.

“Running,” Al or Andrew said again. “Nicki left you, right?”

The words hit Mitch like a punch in the stomach, and he felt the air in lungs leave in what he hoped sounded like a sigh.

“Yyyyyes.” It was hard to say.

“Pick up running,” Al or Andrew said. “Trust me.” He patted the back of his shoulder, and walked away.

Mitch felt of his shoulder that had been touched. He didn’t realize how long it had been since he had a friendly, normal interaction with someone. The spot on his shoulder felt warm, and the heat slowly spread across his back, through his arms, and into his fingertips.

“Running,” Mitch tried it out outloud. What did he have to lose?

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#30

“What should we do about Molly’s birthday party?” Diana asked her husband, pulling off her black work slacks, her sock halfway off from the effort, nearly tripping with the final yank.

“Elise is too young, don’t you think?” Dan was a tall man who held himself as straight as possible, even as he bent to examine his toenails.

“I don’t know, I was thinking it would be okay. How old were you when you went to your first slumber party?” Diana was working on her top now.

“I was about her age,” Dan said, picking through the drawer in his nightstand for a nail clippers. “But things are different now than they were forty years ago. Don’t you think?”

Diana, top successfully removed, her hair staticky, sat on the edge of the bed facing away from him.

“We can’t make our decision based on fear, Dan.” She held her voice as still as she could.

“I’m not.” He said coolly, sitting on the opposite side of the bed. He had found the nail clippers, and began methodically trimming his nails. “I just want to learn from our mistakes.”

“Those are similar things.” Diana wanted to remove her bra, but didn’t want to change the subject. “We can’t control the actions of others.”

“So that means being reckless? Blindly shutting our eyes and hoping for the best? Yes, Di, that sounds brilliant.”

“Dan.”

“What? That’s what you’re suggesting right now.” Dan finished with his toenails, and carefully returned the clippers to where he had found them.

“You know I’m not. Don’t twist my words. Don’t punish Elise just because of what happened to Allan.” Diana wanted to stand, but could only sit and stare at the wall, the bluish grey color they agonized over for weeks. They finished painting the week before The Incident. Their son Allan’s summer long soccer camp seemed like such a good idea at the time.

“It’s not punishment, Diana, it’s just the reality of our family now.” Dan clicked off the lamp on his side and slid under the covers. “Are you coming to bed?”

“No. Yes. In a little bit.” Diana unclipped her bra and felt the darkness on her skin as she turned off her light. A dry sob rose out of her throat. She heard Dan slide across the bed to her side, and then his hand on her back. “What didn’t This take from us?” Diana cried. “Is there no part of us that is free?” Dan pulled her closer, his skin warm against hers.

“We’re in this fight together,” He whispered to her. “We’ll get through this.” In their awkward embrace, as he drifted off to sleep, she lie awake and alarmed. She would choose to believe him, even if she couldn’t feel it.

#29

Marion picked up a garbage bag, her shoulders slumped in premature defeat as she gazed at the room before us. The state of the one room apartment looked like the result of a wild and angry animal.

“Well,” She looked at me. “I guess we’d better get started.”

I nodded, slipping on gloves and bent to examine a broken picture that leaned against the wall, presumably not having been touched since its fall. Our parents had gone out in flames, almost literally.

“Should we go through it piece by piece?” I wasn’t sure what I wanted Marion’s answer to be, but braced myself for not liking it.

“What? No. Let’s toss it all, right now.” She was stuffing her garbage bag with what looked to be the contents of a down comforter, thick wet chunks of feathers and strips of deep blue satin. Marion treated every obstacle like a band-aid that needed to be ripped off as quickly as possible.

“What about this?” I held up the broken picture.

Marion stopped stuffing, beads of sweat just beginning to form around her red face. She took the picture from me, slowly, carefully, shards of glass tinkling down to our feet. The picture was of our family, taken about fifteen years ago in the JC Penney photo studio. We all looked happy, smiling, our matching jeans and white sweaters a believable facade for who we actually were. There was no evidence of the screaming and hitting and throwing and hiding and crying and just wanting love, love, love.

“I didn’t know they still had this,” She said, trying out a few facial expressions. Angry, sad, touched, then cold and unfeeling. “Toss it.” She said.

“I’m keeping it,” I said, pulling the photograph out of the broken frame.

“Whatever,” Marion said, resuming her violent stuffing.

I folded the photograph and slid it into my pocket, realizing I was wearing the same pair of jeans as in the photograph. Sighing, I reached for a garbage bag and tossed the frame inside, the corners pushing out the plastic restraint in sharp protest. I felt sympathetic, and snapped the frame into pieces to better fit, then felt even worse. I grabbed an empty vase, vomited quickly, and straightened.

“You good?” Marion asked, glancing back at me.

“Yeah.”

#28

“Should I come in?” Nicki was still holding his hand in the darkness of her Jeep. His house looked so lonely at this hour.

It took him a second, and he turned his head slightly and looked at her. “What do you mean?” His tone was kind but confused.

“Never mind,” Nicki kissed his cheek and unlocked the doors, smiling quickly.

He inhaled. “I’ll see you.” She watched him walk slowly back into his house, pausing just for a moment before the door. She imagined he looked as if he might turn around, and it might have been real, but then he swung the screen door open and stepped inside the dark house.

Nicki sat there for another minute, wrestling her thoughts. Did she just ruin everything?

#27

She told me over lunch one afternoon how I ought to not trust banks. I ought to keep my money in cash, hidden, tucked away underneath my mattress or in my coffee tin or even in the ceiling tiles or baseboards. She told me that I ought to do this right away when I get home. I nodded occasionally, at the moments where I felt like it would make the most amount of sense, even though I felt like not much was making sense as we sat underneath a Spring sun with an umbrella propped next to our table, its folds of sunbleached fabric fluttering occasionally with the breeze. Just because she’s an aunt, she told me, perhaps for the hundredth time, doesn’t mean I get to ignore her advice. She then told me that she wasn’t my mother, but that my mother ought to know better than to let me go off for an entire afternoon in the city with an aunt that barely speaks to the family. I thought this was a strange thing to say, but I ordered another iced tea and settled into my chair for more hiding place ideas for my loads and loads of cash I would soon withdraw.

#26

“I can’t help it that I’m more pretty than she is, and that don’t mean I have to make her feel better about herself by lookin’ worse myself on account of her mother dyin’.”


 

“Liza dear, now let’s carry those trays a bit slower now, hmm? Yes, that’s much better, thank you child, ahh–oop! Careful with that saucer there dear, yes, oh my what an improvement since yesterday, such an improvement. Your mother might just be proud of you by the end of your time here, darling, as long as you–oh no, not the knife, dear, use the teaspoon for that.”


 

“Mother,” she said slowly, “I don’t care what father would think. To be tied up in some romantic affair across continents and oceans, my hair tousled by ocean spray, complexion ruined by a poor diet or strange food–it all sounds exactly perfect.”


 

“Look out!” He cried. “You can’t be runnin’ around here wit no shoes on, gal. Dint spect to see anyone out heah anyhoo.”


 

“A simple ‘hello’ would have sufficed, but no, you had to go and make a point,” Marla was breathing heavily from her sprint across the street. “I just wanted to let you know that I really, really hate you.”

#25

Dad offhandedly mentioned that he told you the story, but I thought I’d take a minute or two to set the record straight.

To give you some context, it was a really cold winter. While you might be asking what that has to do with the story, consider how few things there are to do in Minnesota when the windchill brings the temperature below -70F. Anything you would do becomes way more about survival than it does about having fun.

So that night, when Jonathan suggested we try to make our own fireworks, it really seemed like a good idea at the time. Please excuse the cliche, dear cousin, but there isn’t a better way to put it than that.

We assumed that since everything was covered in snow, it meant that everything was fireproof. Snow is water, after all.

The only reason the fire marshall didn’t charge us with negligent arson was on account of how cold it was. Not because he was feeling merciful, but because his pen wouldn’t write. He made us stand outside the whole time they were putting out the blaze, gave us a long glare that made us think he was quite capable of murder, and that was that.

Any mention of us laughing, joking, teasing the marshall, dancing around the flames, or requesting that we do it again, are all gross exaggerations. We took the matter quite seriously, and have never attended an Independence Day celebration out of reverence.

See you at Christmas,

Lou