It’s October, but I have no idea what day it is. I am still a ghost of myself. The sky is hopelessly black, with only a couple dim streetlights to shine the stairway up the hill to Lo Coco’s, where I’m meeting Pete. I find myself stumbling on the way to the restaurant, the one I know by heart but just can’t bear to show my face. Here, we had been happy once.
Pete is sitting at the table I would’ve picked, closest to the exit. I take my place across from him, preserving the wide-open distance between us, although this means I’ll have to lean in to be heard. He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes; I know he’s silently cursing me for being thoughtlessly late. He’d left messages for me all afternoon, but I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them until it was already past seven o’clock.
“You want some wine?” Pete says sharply, with his head is buried in the menu. I never liked the sweetness of rosé, but I let Pete order a glass for me anyway. His face looks pale, rough, and unshaven since I last saw him. My mind traces back to our last encounter at our friend Kelly’s wedding this summer, back when we were pretending we weren’t dead broke. I was playing the tired old charade of happy wife, and he was giving the toast about how to make marriage last. It was weeks later before I could bring myself to confess my deception to my friends, after I’d spent so long spinning this story of my enchanted existence.
There’s a little sip of watered-down whiskey he saves in his glass, refusing to get another. Out the corner of my eye, I can see his long fingers tracing the rim of the glass. I can tell he’s thinking, maybe about what to say next or whether to make meaningless small talk to fill the time. The failure in finding the right words, it’s always hanging between us. I think about the things we should’ve said in the beginning, when there might have been time to change.
I feel so childish burying my hands under my legs, but I have to brace myself for what’s coming. The trembling in my limbs eventually subsides, my fingertips become
powerless and sweaty. Being numb is the closest thing to comfort, not much more than an ice cube for a broken bone. It was unintentionally cruel of him, and cowardly of me, to agree to meet like this. He made it look so effortless, leaning his arm on the back of his chair, taking his time. Pretending we hadn’t been eating here every Friday night the first year we got married, drinking and dreaming endlessly in each other’s arms. It was our best Christmas, ages ago it seems, when we had everything. He whispered the words “marry me” gently as a secret in my ear. We drank expensive champagne. He led me by the hand to his hotel room overlooking the bay. I fell into the deep satin sheets, the long days wrapped up in his gentle and beautiful hands, the calm of his heartbeat. I realized how easily I could slip into such a new and perfect life, rewriting my old one, just by saying yes.
“I’m tired, Amy. We have been talking around this forever, and I know you want to wait,” he pauses, waiting for me to meet his eyes for once. “Look at me. It’s time, we should get this over with.” I let the words rush over me in one crushing wave, trying not to show how painful it was to hear. He looks away, as if he’s taken back by his own abrupt words.
“I don’t know. I keep thinking that I can’t remember the last time I was ever happy.” Pete is leaning in close to me, his hand almost touching mine. Did he really say that? The darkness is swallowing me whole now. I can only sink into it without a fight. I think of the times Pete had been happy, all the good days when I’d look over at Pete, so I would know I wasn’t dreaming and he had been happy and in love too. If only I could find that precise moment, for the both of us, when our life together fell apart before it had really begun. Slowly, I glance up to see his face, the weariness that has replaced joy. I know he wants me to finally give in, but I can only muster the strength to walk away.
In my bed I lay on my back, watching the slow motion of the fan blades above me until I drift off. I dream about the summer we met. I was almost eighteen, pale-skinned and freckle-faced, with raven-black dyed hair tied on top with a rubber band. I was incarcerated in a small beach town with my vile parents, whose years of malice toward each other only spread like a disease in my adolescent years. I was sneaking out late every night to smoke cigarettes and get drunk on Malibu rum, while the rest of the town slept. We were the farthest from home, back in the Oklahoma panhandle, the last place on earth anyone would want to be. I’d had so many fleeting moments where I could just slip out in the dark to a new life, any life other than mine. Flat on my back, I instead covered myself with sand head to toe, helpless as the stars and the sky spun slowly around me. Pete was down the shore from me, strumming his ten-dollar guitar and letting the salty ocean water wash up to his knees. I closed my eyes, held my breath as he continued to play, so I wouldn’t disrupt this dream—a dream so pure and seductive, it made me all the more determined to latch onto a man I hardly knew.
It’s a few weeks later, when Pete is filling up my life with emails and voicemails again. I know him better than myself by now, and he’s not the sentimental type except when he’s writing. The first few start out very dry and factual, like a shopping list for separation, and I can’t see the point of responding. But he’s thinking about me, which is the closest inch of compassion to make me fall back into my old self. I poke cautiously, as I am curious to know what happened after he left me behind. Somehow he’s decided to take the deplorable teaching job with Robert at the Guitar Emporium, the first of many concessions he swore he’d never make. We’ll see how it goes, he says. I am at a loss on what I should say, shocked that he would tell me, of all people.
I’m digging deep down in the bare cupboards of the apartment, there’s just some ramen and cheap canned tuna. My life isn’t all that changed since I was twenty-one, living in our tiny studio in northeast L.A. Except now that I’ve sobered up, I am waking up to a very different reality, stuck in the driest corner of the central valley close to the desert. The air is hostile and dry, and it’s so much worse than the dust storms back in Oklahoma. And between working fast food graveyard shifts and scrubbing toilets at the strip club, I barely piece enough together to pay rent.
It’s hard to imagine how we carried on for so many months, burying ourselves in debt so quickly after we left the east bay. With all our credit cards maxed out, we hardly had any friendships left where we hadn’t squeezed out every last favor, even if it was only five bucks. I figured it out first, but convinced myself that we had plenty of time to make up for our extravagance. Pete was playing odd jobs, hole-in-the-wall bars that paid his band in peanuts, but we were happy. He was writing again. Even if we had to scrape together every nickel and dime to make the life he imagined, I still couldn’t bear to leave his side. I can’t really say for sure which had burned us out of L.A. first—between the Santa Ana’s merciless winds, the brush fires that hit our block first that summer, or the creditors hounding us.
I don’t wanna fight anymore, Pete began saying all the time, after we had to head farther away from the coast, and into the brown, lifeless landscapes past the Sacramento Valley. He wasn’t a famous rock star yet, and I still smelled like french fry grease at the end of the day. The tips of his fingers got soft again, the calluses from years of guitar playing were practically gone. Once, I regrettably introduced him to my friend Robert, who had recently abandoned his rock and roll life to sell kids’ guitars at the Emporium in Modesto. I was desperate to find a single thread of inspiration to help him become himself again, but no matter what I said, I was pushing his dream away from his grasp. I didn’t have the nerve to ask about his guitar. Whether it was lost in the fire or he sold it at a pawn shop, I’ll never know.
Christmas comes back around, and it’s the worst one. Pete arrives at the apartment to take away his last few boxes, the few things we hadn’t managed to sell, have stolen, or lose in the fire. He’s here to call it quits, and I wish I could’ve seen that moment he first knew he’d be giving up on me. I manage to answer the door without falling apart.
“So what now?” I wrap my arms around my stomach, leaning in the doorway. “Where will you go?” My legs are weak again, and I don’t know how to fix this feeling that I am falling, with no ground below to stop me.
“I don’t know,” he says. I can tell he means it. He’s digging with both hands in a box filled with CDs, the Beatles at the very top. He goes for the white album, his favorite.
“Are you moving again?” I am watching how he turns the CD over in his hands, with incredible tenderness. I wonder if he still hears the music, feels it playing in his fingers after all this time. Hopefully, some things are too sacred to change.
“What do you want to keep? Maybe you should go through these first.” Pete is looking at me, when a rush of uncertainty suddenly hits him. “You want the Dave Matthews? Or The Doors?”
“Oh, it’s OK. Whatever, if you don’t have room for them.” I take one small step to get a closer look in the box.
“What about Pearl Jam?” He pauses for a long time. “I guess I don’t know what you liked.” I don’t know the answer either.
About the Author: Angie is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories explore contemporary themes of identity, isolation, and helplessness in the Midwest. She is the award-winning screenwriter and director behind “Redmonton,” a new web series inspired by her hometown, and has published stories in various journals including Cutthroat, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Helix, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Griffin, and Stirring. Her short story “Things We Should’ve Said” received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. In early 2017, she will be releasing a new book of short stories, Anywhere But Here. To learn more, visit her website at AuthorAngieWalls.com.
Artwork: Lorenzo Tianero