blogging, community, Encouragement, friendship, Mental Health, The Invisible Moth, writing

Short Story Day Part Two: Me and You

First published in March 2016. As before, all content (except for the song lyrics written/sung by professional musicians) is copyright The Invisible Moth. 

I

“Just let me try, and I will be good to you… Just let me try, and I will be there for you… I’ll show you why there’s so much more than good enough.”

Sarah McLachlan, “Good Enough”

 

Meg tosses a piece of paper in front of my cereal bowl. “Mrs. McKell called for you again.”

Nodding at my Cheerios, I avoid letting my eyes settle on the phone number. I had it memorized by last semester.

“You don’t have to go back to school,” Meg goes on. “You can come to work with me.”

She’s already tried this line.

“Meg,” Mom urges gently from somewhere else in the kitchen.

“Okay, bye, everybody.” At least she knows not to push her luck.

When she’s out the door, in the driveway, defrosting her car, Mom says quietly, “ Do I need to remind you to make that call?”

Sighing, I shake my head. “I’ll decide what to do soon.”

“Dad’s more than happy to go with you to the registrar.”

“I know, Mom.” Not snippy or tolerating her. Just too much on my mind.

She seems about to speak again, then just starts loading the dishwasher. She’s learning, too.

How can you focus on finishing your independent study when your whole life has been ripped to shreds? When your heart is a tangled mess of disjointed emotions, dislocated dreams, and aching memories?

And you can’t stop poking it all with a stick. Regrets. Second guesses. Anger. Self-justification.

It’s his fault. His choice, his mistake.

          Could I have changed anything?

          Good riddance.

          Please let him take me back.

          No matter how much I don’t want it to, my brain keeps returning to that fateful morning. The email. The fight. Sitting on the bus with my luggage, texting my parents and my sisters. Breaking down in my advisor’s office, when I told her I needed to take some time off.

I think my husband’s been having an affair.

          Is it easier when you don’t know for sure? Can you chalk it up to jealous paranoia and go on with your life, determining it never happened?

“We haven’t done anything yet, I swear, Jerri! Please believe me!”

          “So you wanted to? Did you plan to? How could you?!”

          Like most of the last few days, my recall is getting a little fuzzy. Who accused first?

“She’s been there for me. She can open up. You’ve been so distant. Working all the time.”

          “So tell me that! Not her! She doesn’t do that for you, she does it for her! She uses people! Don’t you remember what I told you?!”

          Is it even harder because I know her? She was my friend in my junior year of high school.

Not since then. We haven’t spoken in years. Never did I wish her ill.

But now I’m entertaining lush, and dangerous, fantasies of going to her house and beating her to a pulp.

Meg rushes in the front door, having forgotten her work shoes. Mom and I stay silent as she runs up the stairs, yells something at a wall, dashes back past us carrying her slip-ons. “Bye, bye, bye!” she calls, shutting the door.

We watch her car actually leave. Mom smiles.

“Do you need anything in town?” she asks me.

“No, thanks.” I take my phone and go upstairs.

Constance McKell, the chair of the Creative Writing Department, is away from her desk or in class. I can leave a message with my contact details and she’ll get back to me soon.

No, thanks.

Staying in my childhood bedroom is so weird. Mom redecorated years ago, so the posters of Degas’ ballerinas and Monet’s water lilies are long gone; the daybed covered with a patchwork quilt, not a Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag. But the memories of dancing to Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan in here, of re-reading Little Women and Through the Looking Glass, are suddenly much more powerful than they used to be.

My phone rings. I jump, then answer. “Jerrilyn Dempsey.”

“Why so formal, sis? It’s just me.”

Claudia.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t check.”

“Oh. Well, I have a proposal for you. Lucas, get down!”

Lucas is my four-year-old nephew.

“Sure, go ahead,” I say patiently.

“Let’s go out tonight. You, me, Meg. Thai food. A little wine. I’ll make Patrick and Tara babysit.”

Patrick is my brother-in-law; Tara is his workstudy assistant. He’s a professor, like Dad.

“Okay.”

“Really?” Claudia sounds genuinely surprised.

“If I say no, you’ll come over here and force me into heels and makeup and a dress I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”

“Ahh, smart girl.”

“There are ground rules, though.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“No fancy dress. No old friends. No vodka.”

“Right-y-oh, captain!”

“And do not ask me what I’m going to do.”

“Of course not.” In the background, there’s a crash. “Annabelle, stop!”

Annabelle is my two-year-old niece.

“I’ll be there around 7:00. Bye, sis.”

“Bye.”

Turning off my phone, I close my eyes and wish for a way to get out of what I’ve just committed to.

When I open my eyes, there’s a young man sitting next to me on the bed; he’s smiling with kind eyes, and a familiar face, posture, and a backstory I knew all too well.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” I remind him.

He hasn’t changed one bit in ten years.

Well, he wouldn’t. He’s dead, after all.

 

II

“What have I gotta do? Do I gotta get water from the moon? …to make you love me? Do I gotta turn the sand into the sea? Is that what you want from me?”

Celine Dion, “Water from the Moon”

 

When I was sixteen (going on seventeen – my birthday’s in June), I was in a car accident the week before the junior prom.

It started as a pretty normal Friday night, for that spring. Claudia was nineteen then, a student at Chamberlin Community College (where Dad works, and where Meg and I also went later). Meg was only thirteen, not even in high school yet. We were hanging out upstairs, in her room, while Mom and Dad just crashed in front of the TV, and Claudia was out with Patrick (before they were married).

This was the spring Claire Stensen (now Brecht) was my friend. That night, she was on speakerphone with Meg, while I looked out the window, towards the neighbor’s house, as I did every Friday night. I was waiting for Leo Sullivan to pick up Anita Cruz, for their regularly scheduled date. Anita Cruz was our next door neighbor; Leo Sullivan was my intense crush that year.

Claire and I had made plans to go to the prom with Zach Taylor and Brandon Mercer. Nice guys; not my idea. We’d acquired dresses and hair things and matching earrings. Claire yammered on to Meg about the whole thing; Meg was always more into that stuff than I.

As usual, Leo pulled up in his old Camaro (Mr. Sullivan owned the only used car dealership in our small town). As usual, Leo went to the Cruzes’ front door and knocked and waited. And waited. That was odd.

Despite it being April in upstate New York, I pushed open Meg’s window a little.

Leo gingerly stepped into the Cruzes’ mud room and called to Anita. His tentative voice was drowned out by his girlfriend and her mother yelling at each other.

I couldn’t hear any of the actual words, but Leo did. Something he heard made him run outside, to his car.

I didn’t think. I just bolted.

Meg took off after me. “Jerri!”

I ran into the street of our quiet cul-de-sac, where Leo’s Camaro was backing up.

Jerrilyn!” Poor Meg.

I practically fell on the Camaro’s passenger side window. Shocked, Leo looked at me. “What the…!”

“Don’t go!” I gasped.

He hesitated. Anita had appeared in her driveway, stunned. Leo didn’t see her. “Get in!”

I yanked open the car door and flung myself into the seat. Leo accelerated onto the main road.

Buckling my seatbelt with a shaking hand, I concentrated on slowing my breathing. My sister, my parents…Anita…left behind like that… What were they thinking?

Leo focused on the road; we were headed towards the north side of town, into farmland.

“Where are you going?” I asked, my heart pounding.

“I’m just driving,” he said quietly. “What are you doing?” Not irritated, just curious.

“You’re upset,” I said. “I thought you shouldn’t be alone.”

Kind of true. Mostly I just couldn’t bear to see him leave so fast, so harried…without knowing if he’d be all right later.

Leo shrugged, checked the rearview mirror. We were going 60; it was a state route, and the speed limit this close to town was 45.

“I’m sorry,” he said, slowing down a little. “I don’t even remember your name.”

Why would he? He played sports; I so did not. He took Advanced Placement courses; I was a good, but pretty average, student. We did have one class together –tech lab.

“Jerri,” I told him. “Jerrilyn Hollace.”

“Right! Right…” He glanced sideways at me. “Thanks.”

“For what?” He thanked me! Leo Sullivan!

It really began to sink in that not only was I actually sitting in Leo’s car, with him, having a conversation – that I had no right to be here.

This was Anita’s place. He was her boyfriend. Me, he barely recognized.

What was I doing?

“Well, I am…upset. This is…what she…” Leo shook his head.

Anita’s fight with her mother.

None of my business.

“Sorry,” he said. “You probably don’t – Anita would kill me…”

About to ask what he meant, my question was sidelined by the far more urgent exclamation of, “Look out!”

It was twilight, mostly dark; in the headlights, I just now saw a bunch of cows running into the road, coming from a farm with a broken fence.

Leo slammed on the brakes and swerved. I screamed. There was some kind of impact (cows, I found out later). No airbags; the car was a 1970s model.

My seatbelt snapped. For some reason, I grabbed the door handle and wrenched. The car slid, squeaking, shuddering. I flung myself forward, into barely visible grass.

Cowardice? Self-preservation? Keep myself alive to help Leo later?

I’ll never know.

Maybe I lost consciousness. What I remembered next was a sudden rush of chill evening air, and the sound of a fire crackling.

Leo…oh, God…Leo?

          On the grass. Sore, but not in pain. Rolling over, pushing up…everything worked.

Lights ahead; stopped cars; cows mooing.

On the road…a figure, arms and legs bent at unnatural angles…

Leo. Oh, God.

          Sirens in the distance. An ambulance.

People hurrying towards me, towards him.

I sprinted. Call it adrenaline. Call it teenage passion.

He lie close to a streetlight, so I could see him better. The car – well, the crushed hunk of metal and rubber in the ditch – was burning. The fire cast orangey light onto Leo’s face. Bloodied, tired, scared face.

Kneeling next to him, I wanted to touch, comfort, give him hope. But he barely blinked, and his breathing was shallow, ragged.

He had a sister, Marissa, and his parents. Anita. I wanted to tell him to hold on, please hold on.

I didn’t want to watch someone die.

Police officers, paramedics were suddenly there, pulling me away. Bright lights. Sirens grew closer, then stopped. A fire truck. Oh, right, the burning car.

I sat in an ambulance as it drove me to the hospital. I answered an EMT’s questions. In the ER, I let a nurse check me over. Nothing. I was fine. Thrown from a speeding car, and walked away without a scratch.

While Leo died.

Mom, Dad, and Claudia came to the hospital to get me. Meg waited at Patrick’s parents’ house (not by choice).

My imagination ran wild about running across Leo’s family, or Anita’s, or both, in the waiting room. Seeing a doctor talking to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan. Seeing them crying, melting down.

None of that happened.

Over the next few days, I refused to eat beef, drink milk, or go to school. Mom and Dad let me be despondent.

The Cruzes sent Anita to a relative in the next county. After a few weeks, a FOR SALE sign appeared outside their house.

Leo’s obituary was in the local newspaper. Short and sweet – age 17, beloved son, honor student, star athlete. He will be missed.

Claire was so much more upset that I’d decided not to go to the prom. Somehow the fact I’d been in a car accident, one that took the life of someone I knew, no less, was nothing to get in the way of prom.

That was when I stopped talking to Claire.

On the Saturday I was supposed to be in a fancy dress at a fancy hotel, faking having fun, Claudia stormed into my room and dragged me downstairs.

Patrick drove us to the cemetery where Leo had just been buried.

They sat in the car and waited patiently while I cried and yelled at the gravesite.

I did feel better.

Until I was getting ready for bed that same night. And Leo appeared, sitting in the rocking chair. He looked very alive, very real.

I chalked it up to a hallucination brought on by grief.

It would pass.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?” I found myself asking the hallucination.

He wore the same clothes he had the night of the accident. But now there was no blood, no broken bones.

“For you needing to go through all this. The…afterwards.”

“What about you? You’re dead.”

“It was my time. It doesn’t bother me. And you can’t let it bother you. You have your life to live.”

“And you shouldn’t be here for that to happen,” I pointed out.

“You may need me to help you move on,” the couldn’t-be-Leo said. “I want to help. You were there for me.”

“Because I was selfish. Jealous of Anita.”

“Well, I really hope that’s not still true.”

It wasn’t.

 

III

“Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?Are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear?”

Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”

 

Many nights in my senior year of high school, I stayed up late, talking to Leo. We sat on my bed, my head in his lap, him rubbing my temples; or my shoulder fit to his chest, and my hand in his. It was intimate, but never weird, or uncomfortable. He was always even-tempered, a good listener.

“Is this how you really were?” I once felt compelled to ask. “I mean, personality-wise?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I always feel so calm, so patient now.”

“Is it…peaceful?”

He smiled. “Yes. I hope you’ll find peace, too.”

One day before I was 18, I realized I hadn’t seen Leo for at least a week. And that it didn’t bother me.

After a while, the weeks became months. The accident, Leo, the nighttime visits, all faded, grew more neutral to my heart and memories.

All of that was years ago. Why is he here now? Why would I need him? Especially when I’m separated from my husband, and worrying about the past is the last thing I need to be doing?

“Give me a few minutes,” Leo says, lifting his hands. “You may learn something.”

“That I’m going nuts? No thanks.”

“You’re not losing your sanity, Jerrilyn. You need me. You do right now.”

“For what?”

“I can help you resolve this. You want to know how far Aaron crossed the line in his fidelity. Yes?”

I freeze. How does he know…anything?

“You’ve been avoiding confronting the matter logically, trying to figure out what’s in your heart and get it to your head.”

“Who can blame me?” I snap.

“But you can’t carry on like this for too long. You want to go back to Aaron, you want to try to save your marriage.”

I do. How… “And you’d be the expert on relationship success?”

Leo chuckles. “Not at all. But since I’ve…well, I’m good at rational problem solving. Whatever choices you make won’t affect me one bit. So I can be impartial easier than you could.”

“And you want to help me, why?”

I’m standing in my childhood bedroom, talking quite possibly to myself, and imagining Leo Sullivan, who died…

“You’re not imagining any of this, Jerri, you never have. Yes, I’m totally dead, and, yes, somehow I’m here. When you need me. After the accident, you needed me. You healed. Now you’re…hurting again, unsure of what to do next. I do want to help. Please let me.”

It’s hard to breathe. This can’t be real. Mom hasn’t left for work yet. Can she hear me…this…?

My phone rings. I jump a foot, and stare at the screen. Meg. I answer, turning away from the daybed.

“What’s up?”

“Claudia,” Meg just says.

“Let’s just go and make her happy, Meg. She won’t bug us again for a while.”

“You owe me, Jerri. You know she’s going to worm her way in to the men issues we specifically told her to lay off.”

“I know.”

“She wants me to meet you guys in Euclid, at some place called The Pig in a Poke.”

“It’s a tavern at EU.” Euclid University – the big campus in the county seat, a ten-minute drive south for us. Meg’s working at the mall between Chamberlin and Euclid, at the Hallmark there.

“Oh, all right. You so owe me, though.”

“Yes, Megan Nicole.”

“No middle names! See you later. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Taking a deep breath, I turn around.

Leo’s gone.

 

IV

“Now that she’s back in the atmosphere, with drops of Jupiter in her hair… She acts like summer and walks like rain, reminds me that there’s time to change.”

Train, “Drops of Jupiter”

 

Claudia comes at 6:45 to drag me off to the torture session. She’s in an all-purpose basic black dress, tights, and pumps, a frilly red sort-of-half sweater covering her shoulders and most of her arms. (It is February, after all.) She looks at my khakis and navy blue button-down shirt, and raises an eyebrow.

“You are not wearing that.”

“No fancy stuff, remember.”

“I lied.” She marches me upstairs to Meg’s closet. I hear Mom and Dad fail at covering their chuckles in the kitchen.

Claudia assigns me a lavender silky blouse and a long dark brown skirt, the kind that twirls out around you if you spin. She finds matching strappy heels and a pair of dangly silver earrings that remind me of icicles. But in a pretty way.

This feels nice, I have to admit. Aaron and I haven’t gone out, all dressed up, in, well, months. We’re so busy lately, between his working full time now, at an elementary school in Granville (the other side of Chamberlin), where our apartment is, and my independent study. It’s to gain a certificate in both the Creative Writing and the Humanities programs without having to audit certain classes that overlap. (I sort of designed my own major. Just like Jerri, Aaron would say.)

So, anyway, romance has kind of gone on the back burner.

Aaron loves me. I’m pretty sure he does. He wants me to feel close. I want the same from him. He’s so tired these days, trying to get used to his new responsibilities. He’s subbing all semester for a teacher who had to have emergency surgery and will be out till next fall.

This isn’t the life we envisioned, though. Aaron’s an artist, a photographer; he took some teaching courses in college to round out his Humanities major. He wants to pursue photography in ways other than framing our wedding pictures. He’s glad to have a good salary as a temporary art teacher. But that’s not the same as happy. Not the same as making the most of his gift, his passions.

What are we going to do?

How long have I been ignoring him?

He felt pushed aside. He thought Claire would listen to him, appreciate him more.

Claire?! Really!?! She was never truly my friend; she knew Brandon Mercer liked me, but she liked him; so she agreed to go to the prom with his friend, Zach Taylor – if I’d go with Brandon. The perfect double-date-bait-and-switch.

I guess it did hurt. I always convinced myself it was fine. Her fault, not mine.

She did accompany Zach to the prom. Brandon called my house while I was at the cemetery with Claudia and Patrick. He told Mom he hoped I was feeling better. Like I said, nice guy.

Claire never did nab him.

Now she’s after my husband?!

I still want to beat her up.

How could Aaron fall for her?!

Have I really been terrible to him?

Yeah, we fight a lot lately. I don’t feel like cooking; he doesn’t like leftovers. He thinks we should start having kids soon; I want to wait until I finish my degree and my book.

I can’t even work on either right now.

“Jerri,” Claudia says gently.

I realize I’ve just been staring into the upper right hand corner of Meg’s mirror. Claudia’s swept my hair up in a silvery clip resembling a conch shell. It’s nice.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Come on, Meg’ll be waiting for us.” Claudia’s all businesslike again. I know it’s how she copes in difficult situations. Like Mom and Dad. Level-headed.

Somebody has to be, right?

In her mini SUV, Claudia turns on the radio – 1920s jazz on NPR – and lets me be silent. She tells me the plan – a couple of cocktails at this nice pub, go up the street to this cool Thai place she and Patrick like, then grab coffee on the way back to the parking garage.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say dryly. Claudia smiles.

Meg’s at the bar, looking nervous as she sips a glass of white wine. She’s wearing a tight black dress I don’t recognize.

“Thank heavens!” She rushes over to us, skittering a little in heels that seem too high for her taste.

“Where did you get all that?” I ask.

“Felicia helped me after work.” Felicia is one of the sales associates at Hallmark, and an EU student. “She probably wants to find me a boyfriend almost as much as you do, Claude.”

“She has a good touch,” Claudia says approvingly. “You look hot.”

Meg rolls her eyes. “Zinfandel, Jerri?”

“Oh, yes, please.”

Claudia orders a round of vodka shots. Sigh.

“Liar,” I snap at her.

“It’s for a good cause, Jerrilyn Anne.”

“No middle names!” Meg and I chorus, lifting the shot glasses to our lips.

 

V

“Let me photograph you in this light, in case it is the last time that we might be exactly like we were before we realized…”

Adele, “When We Were Young”

 

People used to have a hard time believing Claudia, Meg and I are sisters. Oh, we have similar facial features, body language, height; Claudia has Mom’s dark hair and brown eyes, Meg and I share Dad’s blonde hair and blue eyes (but Meg’s hair is dyed red – since she was 18). The doubt came from the fact we’re so different in personality, hobbies, and preferences.

Where Claudia’s bold and extroverted, Meg and I are quieter, less outgoing. Claudia switched her major from nursing to culinary arts, and is all the better for it. Also very computer savvy, she gets paid to write a blog and articles on creative cooking for kids (Lucas and Annabelle are her guinea pigs). She married Patrick – a historian nearly ten years her senior – after only eight months of dating. (Mom and Dad panicked that she was pregnant on her wedding day; she wasn’t.) She’s a proud, self-proclaimed “sci-fi nerd,” and doesn’t really listen to any music released after the start of the new millennium.

Meg’s a more modern girl, streamlined in fashion, current bestsellers, and was a Communications major. She’s principled, but not preachy; for example, she’ll give me advice about college, but not my marriage – she’s single, what would she know about it?

Since I left Aaron four days ago – ignoring several texts from him – Claudia has been remarkably restrained. I know she not only wants to discuss the gory details, but offer tons of unsolicited advice. Oh, she means well; she wants to be there for me, and for me to feel better. She says I can have her guest room if I need it. She’ll call a divorce lawyer, or a therapist, or a hitman, whatever I wish.

I have no idea what I wish yet.

Wait, that’s not totally true. I wish none of this was happening. I wish we could go back to how things were. Before I saw that email.

Why did he give her that address? Why did he feel that comfortable?

What did I do? How could I? I must’ve betrayed him horribly.

Why wouldn’t he tell me?

But he was so apologetic, so insistent they hadn’t done anything that actually broke our vows. I really prayed that was true.

Then there was hope, right?

“So, Meg,” Claudia says after our second glass of wine, “remind me again why you can rock a look like this and you choose not to date.”

“It isn’t just about whether guys think I’m great,” Meg says. “It’s more about what I want – from them, for myself. I’m 23 and trying to find a way to use my degree that will actually earn me money.”

Deep down, Meg wishes she could speak four languages and travel the world, working with charities and exploring the stories of ordinary people everywhere. That kind of stuff has always interested her. But she’s struggled with academics since junior high. Yeah, she graduated from an Associates program, but it took her an extra year, and that fact hasn’t helped to bolster her confidence lately.

“Do what I did,” Claudia presses. “Think outside the box. Get creative. Life is different than when Mom and Dad were our age. It’s no longer as simple as go to college and get a job at some company offering benefits.”

“Don’t we know it,” Meg grumbles.

“But that’s what makes it more exciting! Gosh, can you imagine me trying to do a nine-to-five gig?”

“That sounds more like a nightmare,” Meg remarks.

“Or the plot of a sitcom,” I comment.

Claudia laughs. That’s her all over, the bright side.

I wish I could get there.

I wish I could figure out how to fix everything.

That’s me, a fixer.

So why can’t I?

You’re not looking at it logically, the not-real-and-still-dead Leo had said.

Of course not! I found a very personal email from my former “friend” to my husband, using phrases like “I have to see you” and “it doesn’t feel right but I can’t help it.” Oh, God, it was awful. Unbearable. Torture. A feeling of falling through the earth, of not understanding what was going on, flailing…

“You should have kids.” Claudia’s voice reaches me.

“What?” I blanch. “I may be about to split up with Aaron.”

“No, you aren’t. Trust me. There’s too much worth trying to save.”

I blink at her. “That’s your sage advice?”

“No, that’s how you feel. I know you, Jerri, just for your whole life.”

“And before we’ve even started down this hopeful path to reconciliation, you’re suggesting I aim to bring another person into this mess?”

“No! Duh, when it isn’t a mess anymore.” Claudia finishes her wine. Meg glances at her. “One more round of shots.”

Meg nods and goes back to the bar.

“It’s what you both want,” Claudia continues. “You’re just scared you won’t be a good parent. So was I. So was Patrick. So were Mom and Dad.”

“Mom and Dad?” This is news. My parents are very unflappable. Yeah, they were upset when I told them about Aaron and me; they worried about me, naturally. But they didn’t get mad or yell or cry; they hugged me and offered their help, whatever I needed. No dramatics; no sense of fear from them.

“Oh, yeah! They about passed out when I married Patrick so soon, when Meg first dyed her hair, when you were in that accident…”

Meg returns with a tray of shots; I have never been so happy to see vodka.

“All parents experience moments of extreme pressure,” Claudia’s saying. “Goodness knows I’m not exempt. When Lucas was born three weeks early, when Annabelle fell off that bench…”

It was a hard day. Annabelle wasn’t even a year old then. She was fine, but Claudia and Patrick spent a long time at the hospital, getting her checked out, while Mom and Dad watched a sad and worried Lucas.

“But, Jerri, don’t let that get in the way of your life. What’s waiting for you. For both of you. All of you.” Grinning, Claudia tosses back her shot. “Whew! I have definitely had enough.”

Meg follows suit. “Me, too.”

I stare at the drink, and suddenly hate it.

Does Aaron think I’m avoiding making our lives better…closer, more – fulfilling? He claimed I’m hiding in my work – am I?

“Jerri?” Meg tries to catch my attention.

“Uh, I’m just going to run to the ladies’ room before we go.”

I shut myself in a stall and just stand there, my hands pressed against the narrow metal door. No one else is in here. From down the corridor comes the muted noise of the bar, laughter and background music, a jumble of voices and semi-familiar sounds. It all feels so far away.

I tilt back and forth in my pumps, rhythmically clicking them up and down. Thanks to years of dance lessons, I can walk easily in heels even after weeks of not wearing them. Tonight the confining feel to my toes actually seems comforting, bringing back fond memories of hours spent in the studio in pointe shoes, spinning and jumping.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.

          Let me help. Leo.

Aaron.

Aaron.

We met at a party held by mutual acquaintances, five years ago. Neither of us really wanted to be there, and we were both trying to leave discreetly, through the same door at the same time. He politely offered to get me a drink to make up for stepping on my foot in the attempted escape. I suggested coffee, somewhere else. We ran for it.

We walked into the nearest coffee shop in the middle of a poetry reading night. Not wanting to be rude, we quietly got our cappuccino (him) and chai latte (me), and sat at a corner table, and endured some of the worst live poetry ever invented.

For about two minutes. Then we slipped out the back, actually stealing the coffee shop’s mugs.

“I’m pretty sure that counts as torture under the Geneva Convention,” Aaron said.

“Vogon poetry,” I muttered.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” he said immediately. “You’ve read it?”

“Seen the movie. My sister’s a big Douglas Adams fan,” I explained.

We stood in the alley, finishing our hot drinks on a chilly March night, learning about each other – families, interests, the usual. Eventually I realized I was shivering. He draped his coat over mine and led me to a pizza place down the block.

About six weeks later, we were officially a couple – meeting the families, spending way too much time on the phone, sharing secrets. But it took me until we’d been together nearly a year to feel really at ease.

Aaron thought it was just sad that no one spared concern for me after the accident. People focused so much on Leo, and his family, and Anita – none of whom were in fact in the car, except him, and me. Yes, Leo died; yes, their loss was tragic. But so was mine. The loss of innocence, of security. “A hell of a way to grow up fast,” Aaron had put it.

It was true. I wasn’t even mentioned in the police blotter in the newspaper – just “one fatality in a head-on collision” – referring to the telephone pole Leo’s car struck after I jumped out of it. Claire didn’t care about anything other than the prom. The Sullivans never even knew their son didn’t die alone. The police didn’t even ask me for a statement.

The farmer whose cows got loose went to Leo’s funeral; it was all over school. The Sullivans forgave him, of course; typical Hallmark ending (no offense, Meg).

Except I spent the next several months conversing with a ghost.

Mom kept in touch with Mrs. Cruz on a Christmas card basis. Anita had been fine, too – she made it through school, even to college, and not just a new boyfriend, but a fiancé. After a few years of no cards, I had Meg secretly hunt down Anita on social media. She became a nurse, and married an engineer. They live in Ohio.

People started a memorial fund in Leo’s name, for sports scholarships.

Me, no one knew me.

“I know you,” Aaron had said. “And I want to know only you. Not who you think other people think you are. Or who you should be. Because you should only be yourself.”

That’s my Aaron.

We’ve been married for three and a half years. We watch old movies on rainy weekends. We browse Goodwill together, me in Clothing, Bric-a-Brac and Books, he in Games and Tools. We play Scrabble and Chinese Checkers. We love to cook Indian food on Easter.

I remind him to pay the bills on time, and he has me do it, anyway. He helps me figure out computer software, and I decide to stick with the old program for now.

When we go out for drinks or to a party, he compliments me, smoothes any loose hair, fastens a necklace, straightens a collar or hem. His parents like me.

What do they think of all this? Has he told them anything?

I took vows. I changed my name. I let him into my heart.

Please tell me it wasn’t all in vain.

Someone else comes into the restroom, and the sudden noise startles me. I leave the stall and go to the sinks, check my hair in the mirror.

The lights catch it just right, and the diamonds in my wedding ring sparkle. I realize I never took it off.

Well, why should I? It’s not a definite split. Yet.

Ever?

Help.

 

VI

“Say what you want to say, and let the words fall out… Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”

Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

 

Squaring my shoulders, I walk out of the ladies’ room and back towards the bar.

And almost smash right into Aaron.

“Oh, my god,” he says, and I just say, “What?!”

We stare at each other. He’s wearing a polo shirt and new jeans (at least, I don’t recognize them). He’s cleanshaven, but his eyes are a little bloodshot, his cheeks a bit flushed. Maybe he’s tired, or nervous about seeing me this way?

Nervous about seeing me? I’m his wife, for crying out loud.

Well, I left. I wanted a separation. Needed it, I’d said.

This was scaring me, too. Why wouldn’t he be?

“Hi,” I manage.

“Hi?!” he gasps. “Jerri, I…” Running a hand through his hair, he shifts his weight and glances away. It hits me, really hard, that I’m being a total, insensitive jerk. I haven’t called him or anything, and now, without warning, I’m right in front of him.

After saying I was leaving.

Is he mad? Sad? Both?

Does he feel the same way I do? Raw, numb, afraid?

“I’m sorry,” I blurt out.

He looks at me, almost shy, kind of ashamed. “Me, too.” I hear in his voice the indication that he can’t truly express how much, how deeply.

High heels click on the floor, and Meg rounds the corner. “Jerri, finally! We – oh. Oh, my.”

No one speaks for a few heartbeats.

“Here.” Meg scoots past Aaron – who stiffly edges aside – and passes me my phone. Oh, yeah, I left it at our table. “Just call us.”

I nod, watching Aaron look at her, then at the wall. He probably thinks she hates him. He was all alone, in our apartment, worrying about what I was telling my family. On his own. By himself, in what had been our life.

He’d left me voicemails, sent me emails, texts. I’d ignored them all.

“Hi, Aaron,” Meg says gently as she’s leaving. “I love you.”

I melt inside. “Thanks, Meg,” Aaron smiles. “Love you, too.”

He completely means it. I melt even more.

“Please, can we talk?” he asks me.

I just nod.

“I’m here with Patrick,” he says, taking out his phone. “Just let me…”

“Patrick?” I echo.

Patrick’s at home, watching my niece and nephew, so I can be in this tavern with my sisters.

Claudia.

“We’ve been set up!” I exclaim.

Aaron looks up from his phone. “Huh?”

“Claudia brought Meg and me here,” I clarify.

“Oh, my gosh. They tag-teamed us.” He takes a good, long look at me. I feel my face turn hot. “Who dressed you?”

“The traitor. Claudia.”

He chuckles briefly. “She did a good job.”

Now I’m really confused.

“Come on.” Aaron reaches for my hand. I hesitate. “Jerri. Please.”

I give in and let him steer me back to the bar. My coat’s hanging on a chair at a corner table, opposite side from where I sat with Meg and Claudia. They are nowhere to be seen. Nor is Patrick.

“What can I get you?” Aaron’s unsure, almost formally polite. I know just how it feels – like we might not know each other anymore.

“Actually, we were about to go to dinner,” I say, awkwardly.

“Dinner it is, then.” He hurries to help me with my coat. “What are you in the mood for?”

Biting my lip, closing my eyes, I relish the warmth of his hands on my arms, of his touch. Until this moment, I haven’t allowed myself to think about missing that. About missing him.

“Jerri? Babe?”

Tears sting the corners of my eyes. I can’t break down right here, with all these people around…

“Oh, honey…” He hugs me, maybe as an automatic reaction, but I instantly want to lean in to him. “Jerri, I…”

Don’t cry, come on, get it together…

          Why? You need him. Admit it.

          “Please, please forgive me,” he whispers in my ear. “I love you so much.”

I want to forgive him. I want all this trauma to be over. To just be able to move on.

Aaron kisses the top of my head, sending shivers down my scalp. “Come on, let’s go.”

I just follow him in a sort of stupor. Tears still thicken my throat and blur my vision a bit.

It’s cold outside. The sudden chill air shocks my system, waking me up a little more. We’re in the heart of Collegetown, multiple-storey student apartment buildings down the street, restaurants of several ethnic varieties all around us. For a moment, I wonder if my sisters and brother-in-law slipped into that Thai place mentioned to me earlier tonight.

Aaron takes us to a pretty Japanese restaurant I’ve been wanting to try. He knows I love sushi.

How can I eat?

To heck with that, I should. He wants a chance to talk, to aim for things to become normal again. I want that, too. And maybe it’s the wine and vodka, but I also want sushi.

We order and wait quietly. This feels strange, not comfortable, not as if we’re married. How quickly things can change.

Aaron inhales long and slow, and stares at the table. “I wish you’d let me know you were okay.”

“Okay? What in the world made you think I was okay?” I scoff. “I’d just found out you betrayed me – with someone I know, no less.”

“I crossed the line, but I swear it wasn’t like that!” Aaron fires back, trying to keep his voice down. “She was going that far, not me, and I told her it wasn’t happening.”

“But she sure had that idea.” I feel absolutely justified. He wronged me, not the other way around.

“That’s her, not me. Yeah, I let things go in the worst direction, but I never actually – would never have…”

The waitress arrives, causing Aaron to stop and clear his throat. I start on my California roll and wait patiently.

After a few minutes of chewing, Aaron says, “I messed up. Bad. But you didn’t let me…you just left.”

Setting down my chopsticks, I say evenly, “What would you have done, if our positions were reversed?”

It crosses his face all in a rush – pain, revelation, discouragement, guilt. I can read him. He’s so open, just himself; he was easy to learn.

“I trusted you, with my whole heart,” I say. “And you knew my heart had been broken before, and still you…”

He deflates. Guilt pokes at my ribs.

“I think I had a right to go to my parents’ house and not talk to you,” I finish.

“Probably,” he sighs. “But I’m really glad you’re here now.” A small smile plays at his mouth.

For some reason, I suddenly wish I felt like kissing him. “What did happen with her, with Claire?”

Aaron sighs. “She’s a sub in kindergarten. She’s separated from her husband.”

Tony Brecht. I remember their wedding announcement. Mom and Meg saw it in the newspaper and tried to hide it from me; Claudia told me about it upfront.

“We just started talking, too much, on lunch breaks,” Aaron goes on. “Then we were texting, and she sent me a few emails on the school server…nothing inappropriate, just sharing…”

He meant it. He’d just wanted someone to listen to him, make him feel important, cared for.

I just wanted to finish my courses strongly. I wanted to be done with college, and moving on to other things, to the rest of my life.

The rest of our lives.

Buying a house. Kids.

There is a publishing company interested in my book. I haven’t even told him yet. I’ve been waiting for the right time.

Which may never come.

“Jerri?” He looks at me, concerned. “Are you okay?”

I realize I’ve shut out his voice, his explanation, his defense, his apology for Claire. It strikes me that it doesn’t matter anymore. Oh, it matters that he’s sorry. But the fact is, hating Claire for behaving the way I expected her to won’t do a damn thing to fix my marriage.

“How do I know I can trust you?” I ask, point blank.

He sighs heavily. “You just have to believe you can.”

“And wait to see if something like this happens again?”

“Or doesn’t.” It’s in his face, his tone, how badly he wants me to accept his promise. “Everything in life is a risk. It doesn’t mean you just hide from life.”

He’d said something similar when he proposed. He’d worried I’d say no, because of taking the risk of loving wholeheartedly, of getting hurt.

I haven’t decided what to do about the publishing company because of the risk. Sure, they like my submitted draft now, but what about when they decide to shove a bunch of revisions down my throat, cutting to ribbons the piece I worked so hard on – put real feeling, real myself into? Could I handle that? Will I really believe them, that it’s to make my creation better? How do they know for sure?

How do I know they wouldn’t be right?

“Will you come home with me tonight?” Aaron reaches across the table for my hand. I let him take it.

There’s no reason not to. Okay, the tiny reason of my clothes and toothbrush and shampoo are presently at my parents’ house.

Who cares? If I go with Aaron now, to our home, then I’ll know if the rest of our lives starts tonight.

I glance down at my hand in his, at my wedding ring, at his ring.

“Yes,” I say.


If you’ve enjoyed this story, and want to know more about what happens to these characters, please consider ordering the printed booklet of my short story collection, which includes an extended version of “Me and You”, plus author’s notes on all the entries. A donation of $10 is requested. Send an email to daley.downing@gmail.com for more information.

 

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2 thoughts on “Short Story Day Part Two: Me and You”

  1. I love this story. I was so engaged that while I was reading it, I felt like these people were real. I so want them to work this out and to fill their lives with joy.

    Liked by 1 person

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