In Meeting Myself

I discover raspberries blooming under my fingernails
and my hair turns to drops of honey when it falls onto my pillow
my skin sings sweetly when strummed, my teeth pull on pink

I love looking in the mirror with mascara and the fourth outfit I tried
I love seeing myself as a beautiful woman

By the time day rolls over my hair is tangled wheat
my skin itches and my lips are chapped & chewed
I avoid meeting my eye in the mirror, tiny bald eyes

My status as a woman is lessened because the girls on tv are laughing
and I’m laying here with a double chin and cheeto dust

When the sky is back to sunny side up
I make waffles
because my therapist said it will help

I call my mom but she doesn’t understand—
she has been a woman longer so it sticks to her better
she forgets how it feels to buy it from catalogs

I look for more women,
tangerines, eye cream, sunshine on pools
someone I can make myself at home in

The next day I call my doctor
she recommends meditation
unfathomable quiet

I am skeptic and have never seen still water
I cross my legs on my dollar store yoga mat
I place feathers on my intruding thoughts

In my reflection I smile at my unwashed hair
I remember a joke and I laugh without looking
honey, wheat and pink

I begin to bake my femininity daily
in my silent chest, soaking in sunlight, stealing seconds back
from the woman I am expected to want to be

I make myself a home
pour iced tea, squeeze lemons, crush ice
it’s the little things that show I care

I live there and lock the front door
I no longer crave company to tell me my curtains compliment the carpet
I know they do

These days I am more idea than woman
I close my eyes and see myself wrapped in gossamer and tulle
indistinguishable and exquisite — elegant and eternal

The first apology of the day

Like a snake,

I am shedding the flaky layer

of my estranged past.

 

It has hard to keep things straight-

when people press into my pain,

and say they relate to my work.

 

I forget what grievances I am still paying off

 

and I crawl on my belly

as penance to the sins of my mother

Eve.

 

Long have I suffered

the painful tear

of her teeth in the flesh of my fruit.

 

A constant echo

of guilt

swimming in my ears in the morning .

 

I carry this weight

that I did not pick up,

but had it gingerly placed in my palms.

 

My mother warned me to look before crossing the street,

but she could not have known that the things that trip me

live in a history book that I have not yet written.

 

Each morning I wake

and the sun licks my elbow

and begs for breakfast.

 

I mumble through the folds in my pillow-

 

“yes, yes I am alive-

despite my skin laying beside me.”

Crumbs

Must I spend my whole life begging

for the crumbs of your affection?

 

I follow you trying to remain

quiet and unnoticed,

 

a person who has become nothing is difficult to grab

with the snares of hatred.

 

My plate is never full,

even when I pile the scraps in the center-

 

a monument to hunger.

 

Each day I awake to the rupturing of my stomach

as it pulls me towards you again and again.

 

A beggar learns that their place is in the aftermath,

once everything that breathes has had their pick.

 

Fulfillment does not come from a half-eaten peach

or the gristle that still clings to a thigh bone.

 

This is a way to make a person into not a person-

to teach them that they deserve the leftovers of another’s desire.

 

Do I not deserve a bounty?

 

A table overflowing and a place setting

with my name on it.

A Trip Like No Other

The year is sometime in the distant past and our setting is a quiet suburban town. The crime rates are low and the resident satisfaction is high. All the children know each other and families sleep with their doors unlocked. If you come at just the right time, you will likely see a few pies cooling on freshly scrubbed windowsills. Nothing out of the ordinary happens in this completely ordinary town which is why this came as such a surprise to us all.

————————————————————————————————-

 

Rob reached his hand across the rippling sheets to his wives which was dappled in the fresh sunlight. She murmured and rolled over to face him. “Good morning.” she whispered.

He forced a smile, “I’m really glad you let me sleep in the bed last night Patricia, the couch was getting awfully lonely.” he said with a half-hearted chuckle.

Patricia sighed, “Yeah Rob, that was the point. But we’ll figure out next steps later, right now I have to pack.” She sat up and smoothed her hair before pushing off the sheets and walking towards their closet.

“When are you coming back again?”

“Depends how long these negotiations take but probably no more than a week.”

“While you’re out there, you should see your sister. You haven’t talked to Betty in ages,” he said as he propped himself up on his forearm.

“Yeah, I might just do that.”

A few minutes later Avery and Scottie were roused from their beds as their mother cooked them breakfast and packed their lunches. “Rob, can you take them to school? I really have to head to the airport.”

“Of course honey.” He walked Patricia to the door where they hugged but she tilted her head so his kiss landed upon her cheek rather than her lips.

“I’ll see you guys in a few days, I love you,” she called into the kitchen as the front door closed behind her.

 

After her first meeting on the second day of her trip, Patricia went to her hotel room where she decided she would indeed reach out to her sister. She looked up the number for the Bellevue psychiatric unit and found out their visiting hours. After napping and freshening up she called a car to take her.

“Who are you here to see?” the receptionist asked as she gnawed the cap of her ballpoint pen.

“Beatrice Parker. And I was informed that I’d be able to visit her in her room, is that still the case? I want her to feel comfortable.”

“I’m sorry ma’am but Betty had an incident earlier this morning that no longer permits her to have visitors in her room but we do provide a common area for visitors to spend time with our guests.”

“Okay, then I suppose that will suffice,” Patricia answered reluctantly as she signed into the visitor log.

“Right through those double doors there, second door on your right. If you get lost or someone bothers you just press one of the red buzzers in the hallway.”

“Thank you.”

 

Patricia sat on the faded green sofa and waited for her sister to appear. Suddenly she felt hands on her shoulders and she leapt off the tattered cushion. Her heartbeat felt as though it had recently been swallowed and hadn’t had the time yet to move to its proper place in her chest. Standing behind the couch was someone wearing her own face but the cheekbones were slightly more hollow and below the face was baggy sweats and slippered feet. Patricia laughed nervously, “Betty, why would you scare me like that?”

Her twin laughed, “Hiya sis, it’s been awhile. What brings you to my neck of the woods?” Betty moved to sit an old armchair across from the couch as Patricia settled back into her seat.

“Yeah, yeah it’s been awhile. I’m here for a business trip actually, it was supposed to be no more than a couple days but the negotiations seem to be taking longer than we thought. I’m glad I could come see you while I’m here though, I’m staying at the Hilton on Fourth street and it would just be silly to be that close to you and not stop by. How’ve you been?” she folded her hands in her lap and tried to make herself very small in this chaotic room in the hopes she wouldn’t be noticed and labeled as an outsider.

“Been good, yeah really good actually. They take good care of me here, way better than mom ever did- God rest her soul.” The two took a moment of thoughtful silence to remember the screaming in the hallways that plagued their nightmares as children. The nights at the dinner table where their mother couldn’t tell them apart or thought they weren’t her children at all were especially prevalent in Patricia’s mind as she stared into the reflection that was her sister.

“That’s good, I’m glad to hear it. And you’ve been keeping up with your medications and everything?”

“Yes indeed definitely. They’re real sticklers about that here,” Betty leaned in and winked as if the two shared an inside joke. If there was ever a joke to be shared in that knowing look, Patricia had long since forgotten it. “But enough about me, how’re you? How are Rob and the kids? I just love getting your letters, helps me to stay updated with the goings on,” and then in air-quotes, “out there.”

“We’ve been good. Rob just became a partner at the firm which has put us under a lot of stress but I know he feels accomplished. It’s been tough because he hasn’t been able to be around as much and I’m trying to further my own career at the same time but we’ll figure something out. The kids are doing well in school- Scottie gets a little distracted but baseball has been great to use up his extra energy. I’m really sorry that I haven’t been able to send you any letters these past few months, things have just been really crazy at home.”

“I wondered why you stopped, I really do so look forward to those letters. It gets kind of boring in here.” Betty looked to her sister’s face for sympathy, where she found none.

“I’m sorry Betty, I do the best I can.”

“Yeah well that was always good enough for you, wasn’t it?”

“What are you talking about?”

Betty stood and leaned in towards her sister, “You always got whatever you wanted. You’re the good twin, the pretty twin, the smart twin and you leave me to rot in this hell hole. It’s not fair! It’s never been fair!”

Patricia looked around nervously as the other patients seemed to be completely oblivious to this sudden outburst.

“I liked Rob! You knew I did! But he wanted to take the better twin to prom and you said yes. And now you’re perfectly married with your perfect kids in your perfect house with your perfect life and what do I get? A Dixie cup full of pills three times a day and food served to me on a plastic tray! I don’t belong in here and you know it.”

Suddenly two orderlies appeared and held Betty by the arms, “Come on Betty, let’s go back to your room for some quiet time.”

As she was escorted away she called out over her shoulder, “It’s not fair! It’s not!”

 

Patricia’s hands shook on the drive back to the hotel and when she closed the car door, she felt her arm strain with the effort. Meanwhile, across town, Betty paced in her room.

“You can’t take that! It’s my personal property! I still have rights you know.” Betty yelled as the nurse carried two cardboard boxes with her out the door. The nurse turned down the hallway and entered a room filled with confiscated items. Another employee was putting a baggie onto one of the shelves and turned as the door open, “Hey Carol- is that more stuff from Betty?”

“Unfortunately. Mike this stuff is really weird and getting weirder- do you think we should be worried?”

Mike took one of the boxes from her arms and began to sift through the contents, “It’s definitely strange but I don’t know. Being a twin can be hard on some people I suppose, kind of hard to be yourself when there’s someone who’s doing it better.” He picked up a photo from amongst the dozens that littered the bottom of the box, “Where does she get all these pictures anyways?”

“Her sister used to send them in the mail, a whole film stip every couple weeks. Such a shame she ruins them like this though.” The picture Mike was holding was a family photo of Patricia, Rob, Scottie and Avery sitting on their front porch. Light came through the picture where Betty had cut out Patricia’s eyes. The box was full of photos of similarly blinded Patricia’s.

 

The next morning Rob was awakened by a figure sliding into bed next to him. He rubbed his eyes as he slowly adjusted to the morning light, “Oh hey honey. You’re back early?”

Betty’s red lipstick sliced a smile in her porcelain face, “Yeah I was able to wrap things up last night and I took the first flight home to come surprise you. I know we’ve been in a bit of a rough patch as of late and I just want to say I’m sorry, I’m really proud of you and all you’ve been able to accomplish at the firm. I know it means you can’t be around as much but I’m rethought things and I’m more than willing to take a step back at work so I can be here for you and the kids.”

Rob smiled and put his arm around her, kissing her forehead “Thank you so much Patricia, that really means the world to me. I’m glad we could finally agree. Besides, your place is meant to be here with the kids anyways.”

Betty kissed him passionately, “I couldn’t agree more.”

 

An hour later, Betty made her way downstairs where she cooked a lavish breakfast. After feeding her sister’s husband and children she kissed Rob goodbye as he left for work and shuffled the kids into the car. As she began to back out of the driveway, she realized she had no idea where either of their schools were. She doubted they would be able to give her directions either so instead, she thought quickly, “Who wants to skip school today?”

“Me! Me! Me!” they both chirped from the backseat.

“Great! We can make Daddy his favorite dinner for when he comes home.” She pulled the car back into the driveway and the kids ran into the house. After dropping their backpacks in the hallway, Scottie went to play in the backyard and Avery went upstairs. Betty took a nap on the couch, tired by her long evening of travel. When she woke she turned on the television and tuned into a news story already in progress. The reporter was sitting at a polished desk and holding a photo of her, “-ran away from the Bellevue psychiatric unit sometime last night. If you have any information regarding her whereabouts please call the number on the bottom of the screen. Staff at Bellevue has labeled this patient as delusional and potentially dangerous so please, help us find her and return her to the care she needs.” Betty frowned, wrote the number down on the back of a rogue receipt laying on the coffee table and clicked the television off. “Rob should be home in a few hours, if I start making dinner now I’ll likely have enough time to make something special for dessert,” she thought to herself.

In the kitchen Betty opened cupboard after cupboard looking for a pot, “I hope that spaghetti is still his favorite,” she muttered to herself. After she had completed the fourth step of the recipe, she realized she had made a mistake. Her entire figure began to reverberate with rage until she finally exploded and dumped the pan into the trash while releasing a series of various curses and cusses. “It has to be perfect so that I can be the perfect wife and this can be my perfect family and my perfect life. Patricia has gotten away with one-upping me for far too long,” she muttered to herself as she began the recipe again.

 

That night the four of them sat at the dining room table, enjoying their meal. “It’s delicious honey but I thought you hated spaghetti.” Rob looks questioningly at Betty as she chewed an especially robust bite of salad.

“I figured I’d give it another chance,” she smiled tightly as a voice in her head scolded her for being so careless, “I think it turned out quite good.”

Rob smiled, the fog of inquisition passing as quickly as it had arrived, “Well I’m glad you’ve changed your mind. It’s been my favorite meal since high school.”

“Oh really? I had no idea.”

After tucking the children into bed, Betty changed into a lace slip dress that she was sure Rob would adore. Sure enough, her entrance through their door was met with, “Honey, you look great.” He pulled her towards him and he began planting kisses along her neck.

“One second, I have to make a quick call.” she said as she pulled away and slunk quickly downstairs. She snatched the receipt from the coffee table and dialed the number on the kitchen phone.

A perky voice answered on the other side, “NYPD anonymous tip hotline, how can I help you?”

“The runaway from Bellevue, Beatrice Parker, she’s staying at the Hilton on Fourth Street.” Betty whispered into the phone before forcing it back onto the hook. She smiled to herself and started up the stairs.

The Space Between

your lips on the soles on of my feet

the dissolving of a border

a boundary

a degree of separation removed

 

we danced until sunrise

the soft carpet unfurling to catch our toes

velvet dresses licked knees

your pants hugged your thighs

 

you scrambled eggs

the smell made me throw up

i have never liked eggs

i have always liked you

A widening gap

Bandaids and stitches and chewed wads of bubble gum

but nothing was enough to pull together

the gap that stretched between us.

 

I remember the first time I knew it wouldn’t last,

and my aggressive optimism immediately following.

 

I believed that if I loved you enough,

hung onto every word as if it was your last,

held you close enough-

that I would be given the results I craved so deeply.

 

But it was never about me,

it was always about you.

 

From the very beginning,

you made me feel as though I was fighting a losing battle

and your troops kept advancing.

 

“This won’t work.”

“I don’t feel the same way.”

“I never cared about you at all.”

“Everything was a lie.”

 

And for the grand finale,

“You’re crazy and I’m scared of you.”

 

It’s impossible to pull a person to shore

if they desperately want to drown in the shallows.

The highest price

people brush past me and bump into me

everyone in a rush

everyone in a hurry

 

all these people with their own stories

even if i spent my entire lifetime,

it’s not possible to know them all

 

so we capture the ones we can

we hold them in our soft palms

we promise to be gentle

 

the trouble comes when we push ours into unyielding fists

we hope that one day they will want it

but that hoping drains the heart

 

it leaks her until she is empty

and we wonder what we have bought

with this high price

 

and we realize we were paying for something

that the seller never agreed to sell

 

so they drink the juice of your heart

and shrug and kick you out of their shop

 

“i never asked you to do that”

they say

 

and yet they accept the payment

as you leave empty-handed

The Heaviest Gallon

As I sit in my half-packed bedroom smoke leaks out my mouth as the warm liquid pushes its way inside. My first drink in four years and my first smoke in double that.

 

“Doris, what’s the big deal? I want to get fat free milk.” This was the moment where everything collided and for the first time, this outcome seemed somehow completely inevitable.

_________________________________

 

Her skin prickled and she wasn’t sure if it was from the mechanical chill pumping out the open door or the broiling anger that swelled inside her. Carl watched her, waiting for a response. His eyes looked right through her, how long had they done that? Not through her but past her – towards something else, someone else.

“Yeah okay, put it in the cart.” Doris muttered.

“What? I can tell you’re thinking something honey.”

“We’ve just always gotten two percent.” She began to push the cart towards the next aisle.

Carl laughed, “Seriously, that’s why you’re upset? What’s wrong with an old man just trying to straighten up his diet?”

“I just don’t understand why you’re choosing now is all.”

_________________________________

 

I wonder exactly how blind he thinks I am. Does he honestly believe I haven’t noticed him coming home progressively later and later with a wolfish grin on his face? The past few years he has crept around the house, ducking behind corners to avoid me when possible. He’s like a boy who believes he has gotten away with snatching a cookie off the counter before dinner. The lipstick on his sleeve was the hardest to ignore. But still, I dutifully scrubbed the shirt clean and hung it in his closet so he could wear it to their next meeting.

My husband used to love me, I know he did. Maybe it wasn’t exactly how he imagined it would be but I know he did. We were so excited for our first- he used to talk to my belly so the baby would know his voice and he never missed a doctor’s appointment. We were so young then, only 28, married for only three years. He once missed a big meeting for one such appointment and as a result, lost an important client and when I expressed how sorry I was, he said this mattered more. Then the night that I woke up and everything felt warm and sticky. He woke up with me and turned on the light. That’s when I saw the red. Red on the sheets and on my pants and on the insides of my eyelids. He drove so fast but it was too late, we lost him.

After that, he slept a little further away and by the time the second one came around he missed appointments claiming he couldn’t miss a meeting with a client. I know he was hurting but so was I and instead of anchoring me to our life together, he cast me away to float on my own. I became smaller and smaller until he hardly had to side-step me to go call her on the back porch. He thought I didn’t notice or couldn’t hear- the way he whispered to her, the way he used to whisper to me. But he was wrong, I had never heard a sound more deafening in my entire life.

_________________________________

 

Doris pushed the cart to the next aisle before waiting for a response from him. The lies were heavy and she did not need more weight to bear. She wondered if they were as heavy on him or if they slid off his skin as slick as silk. From years of practice and the promise of something more worth his time, someone worth more than her at the other end of the lie.

“I keep forgetting to tell you but I have to travel for work this weekend, is that okay?” Carl asked.

“I guess that’s fine if you have to go. Brianna was talking about coming home though, might be nice for you to spend some time with her, she misses you.” Doris said. She hoped that maybe the promise of seeing his daughter would be enough to convince him to stay. The thought of him being with her poolside at some expensive hotel all weekend was just too much to stomach.

“Shoot, I miss her too but I really can’t miss this trip.”

“Let me guess, an important client will be there?”

“Doris, don’t do this. I hate when work takes away from family time just as much as you do, but this is an important trip. Someone has to pay for all those expensive shoes you love so much.” He chuckled and jokingly nudged her.

Doris sighed, “I guess if you have to go, then you have to go. I’ll tell Brianna you said hi.”

_________________________________

 

I wonder if they’ll move in together now, now that he’s finally freed of the obligations that wrapped around him all those years. I wonder if she’ll cook and clean as diligently as I have – something tells me that she’s not the type. I wonder if he’ll introduce her to Brianna and what they’ll think of each other. Helping her move to college was a hard day, for all three of us. I mean, it’s hard for all parents I think. He held me that night and drove home when I couldn’t see through my tears. It began to break me after that, realizing that my sorrow was the only thing that was enough to bring him close enough. I began to let little things upset me, if only so he would notice me. The creeping around and the late night phone calls didn’t stop but they didn’t increase either. I figured at least this way, when he was around it felt like he was really mine again. It’s been a year since Brianna left and the house has only gotten lonelier.

 

I guess I should face the fact that I’ll have to go back to work. Replace PTA meetings with a real briefcase – do people even carry those anymore? Funny to think how so many years ago I wanted to work, I was even offered a CEO position at the company. But I turned it down, teary-eyed, because it seemed like the right thing to do. I still remember that phone call.

“We just think you would be an incredible asset to the company. I wish you would reconsider Doris.”

“I’m really sorry, I just don’t think now is the best time for me to take on such a big position.” Doris held her breath so the woman on the other end of the phone wouldn’t hear her tearful whimpers.

“Look, I’ve been there. When I started climbing the corporate ladder my sons were in elementary school and I didn’t know how I would balance it but I talked to my husband and we came up with a plan and we managed. You have to think of your life after your children too, Doris. I consider us friends and I just don’t want to see you become one of those moms that are so consumed by their children’s lives that they’re empty when they leave.”

“I know, I know. Thank you Alison, that means a lot- I just think I have to follow a different path right now.”

“Okay well just know there’s always a place for you here and reach out if you ever need a reference or want to grab coffee or something.”

“Thank you, yes I’ll…I’ll  do that.”

 

I hung up the phone and cried in that Walmart parking lot for a good thirty minutes before heading home. When I got there, Carl asked me how my day was. Fine, was the answer I gave him. I just couldn’t find it in me to tell him what I had just done. I was worried he’d feel guilty or that I had sacrificed too much. I didn’t want his pity, no matter how much I probably deserved it. If only I had known how this would all crumble regardless.

_________________________________

Doris pushed the cart down the spices aisle as a young woman approached Carl.

“Excuse me.” She directed her attention towards Carl while Doris watched out of the corner of her eye.

“Yeah?”

“Can you get something for me?” She smiled sheepishly and looked down at her feet, “I just can’t reach it.”

“Yeah of course.” Carl said through smiling teeth.

Doria watched as his body stretched to reach the spice and to placed it in her soft palm.

“Thanks a bunch.”

“Yeah no problem at all.”

_________________________________

I remember so vividly the first moment I saw her and wondered if she saw me back. Carl took me to an office Christmas party, the first one he attended. Was she the reason he finally decided to go after all those years? I wore a simple black dress and hers was red and low-cut. Every eye in the room glassed over as her ornamented hips waltzed across the room. Carl stayed with me for an hour or so- introducing me around and handing me drinks- until he excused himself to go to the bathroom. I saw him slip into a back office with her and I drank another three champagnes until he emerged again. I measured the time in handshakes and small talk until I felt his hand on the small of my back as if I wouldn’t notice the scent of her perfume on his neck. I smiled through the night and then began planning. Whenever someone thought of the epitome of the perfect wife, my face would come to mind and in that way, I would win.

“Is this length okay?”

 

“Yeah I like it, maybe a little blonder,” I instructed the hair stylist.

 

I walked into the house that night and served Carl dinner, flipping my new hair around and hating every second of it. Finally, as he sat hunched over his plate with his phone in his lap, I caved, “Notice anything different?”

“Like what? With the dinner? Yeah, I guess it’s more… flavorful than usual.”

The wince at the end of his sentence showed how clearly he knew he was playing a dangerous game with a scorned woman.

“No.”

“With what then?”,the self-righteous smirk he normally wore had melted into shifting eyes of unease.

“Nevermind.”

I took his plate before he was done and began washing the dishes. He came to me and hugged me while I pretended to not notice his reflection in the window before me. In the weeks that followed I began trying different things. I began having people over to the house, I took up painting, I got a tattoo on my ankle that I always wanted and still, nothing seemed large enough to steal the spotlight that focused so strongly on her. I felt like the walking embodiment of a cliche, the woman who tries endlessly to win over her cheating husband’s attention, and yet I found it near impossible to stop.

_________________________________

The pair loaded the groceries into the car and got in the front seat. Carl reached for Doris’ hand and her mascara began to run down her cheeks.

“Honey, if you really don’t want me to go on that trip then I won’t go. I didn’t know it meant that much to you that I be home this weekend.”

“Carl..”

“Yeah, yeah what is it?”

“What’s her name?” Doris looked over at him with gentle eyes. Eyes that were searching for answers that she didn’t know if she wanted to find.

“Who?” Carl’s eyes began to dart around the car like a shark, flitting in and out of the filtered light in deep waters, looking anywhere but at his wife.

Doris turned completely towards him, her eyes now dry, “Don’t give me that crap, you know that I know. You know me Carl, we’ve been together twenty years. There’s no way in hell that you honestly believed I haven’t noticed.”

“I just…I just thought- ”

“What? What did you think?”

“I thought it would be over by now, I thought it wouldn’t last this long, I thought I was just living out some mid-life crisis and once I got it out of my system I would be able to be better, for you.” Carl seemed slightly out of breath.

“Well?” Doris asked.

“Well what?”

“Well what happened to derail you from that plan?”

“Well I fell in l- ”

Doris suddenly began to laugh, “Oh my god don’t say it. Don’t even say it. You’re a goddamn statistic do you know that Carl? You’re so typical, falling in love with the young receptionist. It doesn’t get more cliche than that. You always fought against stereotypes and always resisted following conformity just to fit in but now look at you – you’ve fallen into the worst one of them all.”

“I’m so sorry Doris, I honestly didn- ”

“It’s fine, really it is. My heart accepted this a long time ago, I just don’t know why my head took this long to finally realize that the inevitable is happening. The rapture, the end of times, life as we knew it falling apart before my very eyes- it’s here, at long last.”

The two sat in silence for a couple minutes and Doris turned back towards the front windshield.

“So what do we do now?” Carl asked.

“We’re going to go home and you’re going to call your daughter and tell her what you’ve done, what you’ve been doing. Then you’re going to pack your things and take your milk and get out of the house. We can discuss the paperwork and legal shit next week. For now I just want you gone.”

“I really do love you, you know. I always have.” Carl said with damp eyes.

“Yeah, yeah I know.” Doris whispered and he wasn’t sure if it was meant for him or for the man she married all those years ago.

 

Something Off

Clammy hands claw at the hooded figure that drags the night-gowned woman across the damp grass. Muffled screams for help are quickly silenced by the hooded man’s sudden pressing of a small blade against the woman’s cheek. “You’re going to want to keep that pretty mouth shut, sweetheart. I don’t think Steven would appreciate getting you back with any parts missing.” Her eyes widen and her jaw clamps shut as he chuckles. “That’s much better.” The door of a waiting black van slides open as the pair approaches and another hooded figure helps lift the woman inside. The brakes squeal as the van slowly starts down the street and into the hours of early morning.

——-

Steven wakes a few hours after sunrise and rolls over in bed, his reaching hand expecting to meet the soft skin of his wife’s arms. It crawls between the sheets but hits only empty space. Steven muses aloud, “She probably went downstairs to make some coffee.” He gets out of bed and pulls on plaid pants before heading down the stairs, expecting to see his wife in the kitchen. He sees only an elderly woman in a bathrobe. “Mom, have you seen Alison? She never wakes up this early but she was gone when I woke up.”

“I can’t say that I have. She probably went to some cafe, you know how much she hates my coffee. Not good enough for you big city folks I suppose.”

“Mom she doesn’t hate your coffee, stop saying that.”, Steven peers out the window towards the driveway, “The car is still here.”

“Well, I don’t know Steven, babysitting your wife isn’t one of my responsibilities – which are many by the way. Speaking of, I was thinking of taking Billy and Sally to the zoo today, what do you think of that?”

“Huh? Zoo? Sure mom, yeah sure.”, Steven distractedly replies while searching his phone.

His mom smiles and takes her bagel out of the toaster and sits at the small breakfast nook. “I’m sure it’s fine Steven. You worry too much.” Steven sighs and heads back upstairs. Upon entering his room he notices Alison’s purse sitting undisturbed on the bedside table just as she had left it the night before. He shakes his head, “It’s probably nothing. Maybe she went for a walk.” Steven selects a suit off a hanger and dons it before heading downstairs. “I’m going to work Mom, let me know if you hear from her.” She nods without taking her eyes off her book.

——-

Steven’s eyes glass over as he leads the couple through the various bedrooms and bathrooms, making sure to highlight the unique features. He wonders how many times he has mentioned the “farmhouse style kitchen sinks” and “dual showerheads”. What would he do with all that time if he had it back? He had always imagined a more exciting life for himself. That’s right- while all the other little boys were playing cowboys and Indians (now called Native Americans thanks to the tirade political correct-ness warriors rampaged the country) Steven dreamed of someday being a mob boss to his own team of henchmen. The dark world of secret codes, drop spots, and hit men had always reached towards him with its shadowy tendrils, reeking of cigar smoke and dollar bills. It is funny, Steven thinks to himself, how money had that certain smell that was so distinctly recognizable. Nothing else smelled like that piece of paper and cotton that had passed through maybe billions of hands and had possibly been in who knows how many strippers’ bras, nestled just so between her warm, heaving breasts.

“Steven … Steven!”

Reality rushes back into Steven’s mind just in time for him to see a woman’s face alarmingly close to his. He takes a step back. “Yeah Madison, what is it?” She checks her watch, “Your phone has been ringing for the past ten minutes. You should answer it, we can show ourselves around for a little.” “Great, thanks.” He steps onto the back patio, still distracted by both his wife’s absence and his mobster daydreams. The ringing phone finds its way to his ear.

“This is Steven.”

“Steven Anderson, we have your wife.”

The small metal and glass device falls to the floor and Steven quickly scrambles to retrieve it and press it to his ear.

“What do you mean you have my wife?”

“We have your wife. She is unharmed for now but there is no possibility of escape. The only way you will see her again is to meet our demands. They are unique so you might want to grab a pen… ready?”

“Yeah, yeah I’m ready. Go ahead.”

“There is a shipment that we are interested in. A shipment that is going to be made in one short month by the Lombardi family, I take it that you have heard of them?”

“Yeah, of course, everyone knows that the Lombardi’s run this town. But I don’t understand -”

“You are going to help us find out the location of this shipment. You can assemble your own small team to assist you in gathering information from contacts that we will reveal the names of once we gain them.”

“So you’re keeping Alison until I do all this?”

“No, no – we aren’t monsters. A month is quite a long time for Billy and Sally to be without their mother.”

“How did you…”

“Do not underestimate us, Mr. Anderson, we know far more than you can imagine. On our team is world renowned brain surgeon, Charles Doheny. Have you heard of him? No matter. He has developed an implant that effectively erases one’s defiant character traits and makes them as pliable as putty. They recognize one figure in place of this dominant trait and thus, they follow this figure’s every command and fulfill their every desire.”

“You bastard.”

“No need for profanity Mr. Anderson, I am not that kind of man. I have no desire for your wife’s body, only her eyes. She will be released back to your care and each morning she will report your every move back to me. If you are not following our agreement then I will be forced to destruct the chip, rendering her brain a useless puddle.”

——-

A flowered oven mitt pulls the casserole from the oven. The aproned woman stands in a monochrome blue kitchen suffocating with sunlight. A man sits on the lower end of middle-aged sits at the plated formica table across the room wearing a dark blue suit. He is studying a newspaper that he’s read twice already. “Steven, can you grab us water please?” He sighs heavily and gets a glass of water and a beer for himself. She places a full plate in front of him and a light plate in front of herself at the table. He sips the beer and begins eating.

“Is is good?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”, he responded without looking up from his plate.

“Just fine?”

“Goddamnit Alison I don’t know what else you want me say. It’s just as good as all the other casseroles you’ve made. No better, no worse- just fine.”

“Okay.”

A young boy and girl lay in the carpeted hallway peer in between the stair railings over the living room. “I think they’ve forgotten us again”, the boy says. “I don’t think so. Maybe they just haven’t invited us down yet.” The boy frowns and pushes himself off the ground. He runs down the stairs, the girl reaches for the ankles to stop him but is too slow.

“Hey mom were you planning on feeding Sally and I tonight or are we being left to fend for ourselves again?” The woman looks up from the table with wide, startled eyes and says nothing. Billy walks into the kitchen and gathers things to make PBJ sandwiches. His father grabs his arm as he’s leaving.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going with that?”

“I’m making dinners for Sally and I since mom apparently doesn’t plan on feeding us … again.”, Billy squirms under his father’s fingers.

“I paid for this food. Your mother is in charge of deciding who eats it. You have not contributed and she has decided that you and Sally are not eating it tonight. So you’re not eating it tonight.”

“Come on dad, I really think she just forgot.”

The two look towards Alison, one with pleading eyes and the other with a hard-set jawline and steeled eyes. She looks down and picks at her food. He snatches the bread and jars from Billy’s arm as Billy slithers from his grip and runs upstairs. He tackles his bed and begins to cry into his pillow. “Billy, it’s okay. You tried. You really did.”, the voice comes from Sally in the doorway. Her comforting words are met only by soft sobs muffled by Billy’s Star Wars pillow.

Downstairs Alison begins to clear the plates and clean up the kitchen. As the sun set outside she went to sit on the flowered couch next to Steven who had taken off his sport coat at some point. He scrolled through news apps on his phone while she flipped through channels on an antennaed television set. 

——–

The grocery cart lists to the right side as it pushes along the faded linoleum flooring. Harsh lights illuminate the isles from frozen shelving compartments. Sally carries a torn piece of paper and collects things in her small arms to toss over the high sides of the cart. Billy hangs off the side of the cart, being pushed by their mother. A women with a short blonde bob in a tea-length floral dress rounds the corner into their isle. “Oh hello Alison, I didn’t know you were back out and about.”

“Hello Karen. Yes I am, thank you for your concern.”

“Oh, you misunderstand. I never said I was concerned.”

Karen walks through the isle without picking up anything and exits at the opposite end. Billy looks at Sally, a question in his cocked eyebrow. She shakes her head, dismissing the discussion before it can ever happen. Sally speaks up, “Mom maybe we can help you make spaghetti for dinner tonight. Does that sound good?” Alison looks down at her and shakes her head, seemingly confused to see her standing there next to the cart. “Yeah sure. Yes, we can make spaghetti”, she smiles then and looks back  and forth at her children, “Yes, spaghetti. All together like how it used to be. That sounds nice.”

——-

They pull up the driveway in a faded brown station wagon. The children exit from the rear-facing third row and round the car to help carry groceries from the second row. They push open the front door with a rustling of plastic bags to see Steven sitting in the living room. Four burly men sit near him with open notebooks. Steven’s head sharply turns- annoyed at the obvious interruption. Alison mumbles a quiet apology and ushers the children into the kitchen and pulls the curtains that lead to the living room together.

——–

“Jesus Neev, go easy on those turns. We don’t want to lose him just yet.”

“Hey Steven, how much longer?”

Steven rolls his eyes and speaks through his sigh “No more than 10 minutes.”

His ragtag group was obviously new in the world of crime that he was quick inducting them to. He relents to himself internally, well I did round them up from Craigslist- a cheap substitute for the gang squad he had always dreamed of. 

The black ford impala tears down the empty road that leads straight to the docks, which were currently being licked by the dark waters that reflected the moon the way the ocean only did at three in the morning. The car shudders to an abrupt stop at the entrance to the dock; all four doors open and five pairs of black boots hit the gravel, kicking up the small pebbles as they walk together towards the dented bumper of  the car.

“Hey Steven, I know this isn’t the best moment to be sayin this but I really gotta piss.”

“Fine. Whatever. Go piss off the dock or something and try not to draw too much attention to yourself.”

One pair of black boots heads down the salt soaked wood planks to the dock while the other four pairs remain huddled around the trunk.

“I think you should open it Steven”, the other pairs of boots ardently agree with this suggestion.

“Fine. I’ll open it- just don’t fuck this up for me okay? If this is going to work out for us then this needs to go well.”

The boots nod their reassurances of expected good behavior. Steven heaves open the heavy trunk to unveil the middle aged man resting inside- eyes wide with hands and feet bound like a freshly hunted boar.

“So Russell, are you ready to tell me what you know about the Lombardi shipments now?”

The body in the trunk, presumably Russell, shakes his head in defiance and curses around the gag in his mouth.

“That’s a shame Russell, that’s really quite a shame. I thought all this trouble that I’ve gone through would be made worth it by your confession of closely held family secrets.”

Steven sighs deeply, “Well, Se La Vie. Dump him.”

Steven walks back towards the front of the car and gets into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind him. The boots work together to life struggling Russell out of the trunk and walk him down the dock – past Neev who is still peeing somehow – and toss him in the water. Neev’s stream peters out and they all return to the Impala together. “We did it boss. He’ll be swimming with the fishes in no time.”

“You idiot, the phrase is ‘sleeping with the fishes’, not swimming. He’s not turning into a goddamn mermaid.”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

“No. No, it’s not. Did you put the weights around his ankles or his wrists?”

“What weights?”

Steven contorts his body so he is facing the man speaking from the backseat, “The weights in the trunk. The weights that will pull Russell to the bottom of the ocean so he will no longer be our problem. the weights that will make sure he drowns before he figures out how to untie himself.”

“Oh, those weights.”

“Yes, those weights. Where did you tie them?”

“They’re still in the trunk.”

Another boot speaks up, “Guess he might be swimming with the fishes after all eh Steven?” The grin on his face quickly dissolves once Steven’s full rage breaks through his mask of understanding.

“THE TRUNK?! They’re still in the GODDAMN TRUNK?! You have got to be fucking kidding me right now. Please, for the love of all things good and holy, tell me you are fucking kidding me right now.”

“No boss, I’m real sorry though. Maybe we can get him back and tie the weights on?”

“Get out.”, Steven’s face has turned bright red and it looks as though the pressure in his head might make his eyes pop out like bullets aimed at their target.

“What?”

“Get. Out. Get out of this motherfucking car and walk home you morons.”

“But-”

“No. Get out.”

The boots grumble in anger as they reluctantly slide out of the car. Steven shifts into the driver’s seat and whips around the Impala at full speed, spewing gravel in a soft arch towards the four men who watch him go.

“Well what the hell are we supposed to do now?”

——-

Soft light from the hallway slicing through the solid darkness of the bedroom as Steven slinks through the small opening. Alison stirs in bed as he sheds his suit and drapes it over the corner armchair. “How was work?”, she whispers from underneath the mountain of blankets. “It did not go according to plan.”

“Oh I’m sorry. Did the couple not like house? You really went out of your way for this deal, showing it to them at an hour like this. What did you say they did for work again?”

“They work as personal assistants to some higher ups at a bank.”

“And that’s why they were only available to see the house at 3 in the morning?”

“Yeah. They aren’t off the clock until the bankers go to bed and they stay up very late counting money.”, Steven reported while taking perching on the side of the bed to remove his shoes.

“Okay that makes sense.”

“Of course it does.”

He slips into bed beside her and rolls away from her expectant puckered lips. She sighs and shifts to lay on her side facing the framed family portrait on the wall.

——–

“Sally did you hear that?”

Billy’s question is met only with silence. He lifts his legs and pushes against the bottom of her bed, a few feet above his own. She shifts under her blankets and he kicks the bed again. “What Billy?”, she mumbles, still heavily under the influence of sleep.

“Dad just came home.”

“Okay, so what?”

“Doesn’t that seem weird to you?”, Billy gets out of bed and stands on the side railing so he is eye-level with Sally.

“I don’t know…what time is it?”

“A little after five.”

“Are you sure he didn’t just wake up early?”, her voice was more clear, having shaken off the last dustings of sleep.

“I’m pretty sure, he just now came upstairs and he wasn’t here when mom went to bed.”

“I’m sure it’s fine Billy.”

“Yeah but it doesn’t seem weird to you? Mom’s forgotten to feed us three times this past week and Dad keeps having those weird guys over and it’s just weird, it’s definitely weird I think. Things just haven’t been the same since we got back from grandmas.”

“I guess but I think it’ll be fine Billy, just go to bed. You have a spelling test tomorrow.”

Billy sighs and gets back into his bed while Sally folds her hands over her chest and stares up at the ceiling- searching for shapes in the plaster and a reason for her father’s actions in her mind.

Coping

He stepped forward into the nothing. I think I screamed but now all I can remember is that sudden sound of the emptiness. It seemed like the place that he was just standing in was quivering in his wake, ripping apart as time seemed to jump. How was it true? How did we get to this place? A month ago we had our anniversary dinner on this rooftop with candles and blankets and kisses all over. And now there is a violent absence: the deep rasp of his voice, the spicy bite of his cologne, his hair blowing in the soft breeze. And now what do I do? How do I honor his memory? I grocery shop and watch films and go to work and try to pretend it didn’t happen. Try to pretend he didn’t happen. My brain is still short-circuiting the loss.

“Can you come over? I think I need to clean out his things and I just don’t know how. I don’t know if the clothes should go to his family or to Goodwill..” I was rambling again. Olivia knew this and cut me off, “Of course, I’m free all afternoon so I’ll be right over. Can I bring anything? Never mind that, I’ll just bring some coffee.” She rarely lets me answer these days because she knows I’ll go on forever without actually getting anywhere. An hour later and she was at my doorstep, she’s always getting distracted by things and runs late because of this tendency. Our friendship works because I understand and am never actually ready when I ask her to come over anyways. She looks at me deeply, searching for an answer to a question not yet satisfied, “How are you?”

This question will never make sense to me. How am I? My husband decided that diving into slick asphalt from twenty stories up was a more appealing choice than spending another day in the life that we had built together. If you can go through and not be in a constantly shitty state of mind then please write a book or go on a speaking tour because I know lots of folks who would love to know your secret. “I’m fine, thanks.”

When the apartment looked sufficiently like we had to wade through boxes to get through the front door we decided to take a break for lunch. Olivia suggested a new cafe downtown and I didn’t have an opinion so that’s where we decided to go. With her mouth half full of sandwich she began in, “So are you thinking you’ll stay in the place or move? I’ve seen a bunch of cute studios in midtown for sale. Maybe that would be good for you Margs, a fresh start.”

“Maybe yeah. I don’t know Liv, it just seems so fast. His family hasn’t even been out to the place since everything, it might be too soon to just up and leave don’t you think? I would hate for them to come and try to settle things just to find it empty and you know as well as anyone how completely unhelpful the landlord is, he would never be able to direct them to their new place. What if…”

“Yeah I suppose that’s true logistically. I’m just thinking of you here. You have to deal with it in the best way for you Margo, you have just as much right to grieve over him as anyone else.” She sighed into her coffee cup.

“What?”

“I just worry about you that’s all – you seem to be internalizing a lot of this.”

“Well I don’t exactly have the luxury of laying in bed all day crying.”

“I know, I know, I’m not suggesting that. I don’t know…” Olivia trailed off as she absently traced the edge of the table with her finger, “You just don’t seem to be acting the way the most people do.”

“Oh is that what you think?”

“Don’t get mad Margs, I’m just worried.”

I got angry and my face grew hot. I was furious she would say such a thing and frustrated with myself because I knew she was right. Suddenly, my cheeks grew sticky with warm tears.

“Sometimes I wake up and reach across the bed still expecting to find him there. My fingers grab and pull at the sheets even after I remember. They look anyways in the hopes that my head is wrong, that I’m remembering wrong. Sometimes I watch tv and make a snarky comment and jump a little when it’s met with only silence. Then I shrug it off and try to pretend it didn’t happen and that I’m fine because you know what? Sometimes I get so mad at him that if he came knocking on my door I don’t even know if I would open it. I want to scream at him and throw things and make him hurt. I want him to realize how fucking selfish he was. I want him to realize that his leaving was only half of it, he left me here alone. He bought a ticket and went on a trip without telling me to pack my bags.” Olivia reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “And then the worst part is the guilt. I yell at the empty places and cry and pull at my hair and then it’s all out and then I feel so awful. I think I must be the worst person in the world to hate someone I love more than I miss them. And it’s true Liv, there are moments where I really do think I hate him. How is that okay? How do I live with that? If he hadn’t gone and done what he did then I had vowed to love him forever but instead he’s gone early and I hate him sometimes more than I love him. That isn’t how I’m supposed to feel. That isn’t how normal people feel in these situations.”

I collapsed into the wall and Olivia slid in next to me, placing her arm around my shoulders. She let me cry for a few minutes – the ugly kind where my nose ran and my chest heaved and I didn’t even try to fix my makeup. “I don’t know how people are supposed to feel in this situation but I think you’re going to be just fine. He took away the most important thing in the world to you and that was a shitty thing to do. One of my exes – Tommy, you remember him right?” I sniffled and nodded. “Well when we broke up he took my favorite candle just to spite me, I know he doesn’t even burn candles. I still hate his guts for it and I didn’t love him half as much as you love Richie so I can only imagine the level of passion there. Look what I’m trying to say is that I think that you shouldn’t worry about what’s ‘normal’. I’m sorry about what I said earlier, I didn’t mean it that way. You feel whatever you need to feel to get through this.”

I don’t know when I stopped reaching across the sheets or talking to ghosts in the soft light of the television. I don’t remember when the anger faded but I remember that it did. One day I was reaching for a box of cereal in the grocery store and realized I wasn’t angry anymore. I still don’t understand why he did what he did and I’m still working on being okay with that but I know that day will come too.