A Little Life
As Tom stared at his coffee, gazing deep into the brown swirls and the translucent steam steadily rising from its surface and warming his face, it slowly began to dawn on him that he had forgotten. It was as if waking from a dream that he knew he should remember but for the life of him could not. How he had come to be sitting erect at the kitchen table, in front of a plate of burnt eggs and undercooked bacon, he could not recall. It was a rather unusual feeling, to have forgotten what must have happened, given the evidence before him. And however bizarre the situation was, he didn’t feel odd physically, so he highly doubted he’d been struck with amnesia like that girl in the car crash he’d read about in The New York Times--
Ah. So he’d already read the morning paper. Oh, well.
He folded the newspaper and chucked it across the table, imagining it flying through the air and striking that damned vase Eliza had bought years before—on a birthday perhaps, or some unremarkable holiday—he saw the fracturing of those ugly geometric shapes of gray and green into even uglier jagged pieces, the vase itself spilling its dying contents over the edge of the table and collapsing in a grand finale on the opposite chair.
The newspaper, however, landed unceremoniously on the runner.
His shoulders sank with disappointment.
No, it was a careless forgetfulness, the sort that might fall upon someone when entering a room and retracing their steps in the hope to recall the conversation they’d had with themselves only seconds before. Or the sort of forgetting like last Saturday, when a hurried escape from brunch with his ancient oak of a mother resulted in a ramshackled house and, hours later, victorious shouts upon the discovery of car keys, still in the ignition. It was a thoughtless sort of forgetting, and one, he supposed, that was by no fault of his own.
And yet, still it perplexed him. It, the itch in the corner of his mind he just couldn’t angle in the right way so as to scratch, gnawed at him, provoked him. It scared him, and that in turn only thickened the cloud of his uncertainty.
Tom picked up his fork, the metal heavy in his long fingers, knuckles bulging where time had stretched his skin taught. He nudged the eggs a bit, wondering if he should pick out the charred bits and sort them into equal piles, before he threw the fork away from him, as if he’d been bitten, and thrust the plate violently to the center of the table.
No. No, he wouldn’t fall apart like this now.
He sat there for a while, still, listening to nothing and seeing everything and remembering only a haze. He stared at the coffee again, wishing he could dive into the dark abyss and never come out again. Whatever he had forgotten, he reasoned, might not be something he would want to remember.
And then it came to him.
This was his chance. He couldn’t remember, and wasn’t that a good thing? He couldn’t remember!
It was a very freeing idea, and he decided he rather liked it, so he picked up his fork again and played with the rubbery bacon and rough scrambled eggs. Lips, dry and split, stretched into an upturned shape they had not formed for months. Ah, well, he thought as he began to shovel in the eggs, in these fifty some-odd years, he never had been much of a cook anyway. Perhaps tomorrow morning he would try something different, or he would try his best to not make the same mistakes he’d made this morning; except, he supposed, since he’d forgotten the mistakes, he might very well make them again.
But as he brought his coffee to his lips, he was struck somehow, and a shadow fell over him. He remembered the mug well enough, the one he’d picked up on a trip to Milwaukee, the one that said in comic sans font: “Tears of My Students”, with little blue droplets on either side of the text. He’d brought it to a faculty meeting the following Monday, and even old Principal Williams had cracked a smile. It had been years since he had used it, and months since he’d uncovered it, utterly forgotten in one lone cardboard box in the garage...
So why was it sitting in front of him, freshly cleaned and filled to the brim with piping hot, black coffee?
He pulled back and hissed when coffee began to spill over the edge and onto his jittery hand. Memories threatened to wash over him, but the details were vague, and he couldn’t fully make out the scenes in front of him. But there was a sound. Something loud and sharp and constant and--
He was jerked back to the present, his dark eyes staring at now reddened fingers holding the mug in a firm grasp, the perpetual ringing of the phone on his desk from the opposite side of the kitchen resonating in his ears. One, two, three times now it rang, and Tom was still staring down at the mug, as if he were suspended in the space between what he could not remember and what was happening in front of him.
The ringing stopped. He breathed out a sigh of relief he hadn’t known he would feel, but when the caller hadn’t chosen to run along to the answering machine, and instead, began calling again, he stood up, mug in hand, and picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” he said.
“Tom! Oh, Tom, you idiot, thank goodness! When you didn’t pick up, well, you know me, always thinking the worst—”
Her voice sounded odd, as if it were hers, but not hers. He would always recognize the plummy tones of her speech, but they sounded different in his ear. Like they’d been scrubbed roughly and now dangled raw.
“There’s gratitude for you. Of course it’s me, Tom. Who else would possibly call you on a day like today? Honest to goodness... Tom? Are you there? You know, Eileen told me not to call, she said you would do this, but ‘Eileen,’ I said, ‘Eileen, you just don’t know what it’s like, do you? Can you imagine?’ And would you believe she said she could? Of all the things to say.”
“Of all the things,” he repeated, utterly lost.
“Exactly! I mean, I hardly think a sixty-year-old glorified secretary with two cats and a goldfish can even begin to imagine what it must be like, being alone on today.”
He nodded, praying she would take his silence as agreement.
“That’s why I wanted to call,” she continued, “Because I know, yes, I know things between us are...ugly. They’re ugly, and that’s just the word to use for it. But I don’t want you to think you’re alone, not on today.”
“They were never ugly before you made them ugly,” he found himself saying.
The memory was beginning to wash over him again, as if the tide was coming in, and he had yet to search for higher ground. The dark contours of the coffee in his mug had him mesmerized.
“Tom,” Eliza said after a moment, “You might not hear from me again in a while. I’m serious. You heard what the lawyer said. But I just had to call, don’t you see? Katie wouldn’t want it like that. She would...she would want us to...well. She would want us to be happy, I think. I don’t know if I can manage that, but my therapist said to ‘do what you think is right,’ and so this is me... Hopefully. Hopefully doing what’s right. Tom?”
Oh, God, he was drowning. He lifted a hand to his face and stared at the wetness on his fingers.
“I guess,” said Eliza, “I guess I should go now. Goodbye, Tom. But-but look, I never wanted what was once between us to end, and I... I still don’t. Ha. Not that either of us really know why. I still... That is, I hope you find whatever it is...well. You know.”
There was a click, and then the line went dead. Slowly, he placed the phone back in its cradle, and sat down at the table.
No; he wasn’t drowning.
Katie. The memories were bubbling up to the surface and breaking through into daylight. Memories of salty breezes and rays of sun catching the seagrass, glowing gold against the bright blue sky. Their house on the beach slowly coming into view as they three, arms full of baskets and towels and a large red umbrella, walked down the strip. He remembered looking down at her face—all toothy and full of smiles and eyes squinting in the light—and becoming overwhelmed with so much of her joy. The nights where they would build forts on the sand with blankets and driftwood and she would tell him the only secrets children could hold from their parents—that, one day, she wanted to be just like him.
Those summers in Nantucket full of bubblegum and ice cream, bike rides and fireworks. These were the memories he swore he would never forget.
No, no! There was something more.
His mind raced in hysteria. 32. Yes, 32, she would have been 32 by now. Oh Lord, ten years. Had it really been ten years ago that she’d surprised him, shown up out of the blue with those same smiles, had left him with a breakfast fit for kings and dug out his old teacher’s mug for just the occasion?
Ten years since that very same phone had rung a day later, to fill his heart with false truths? He shook his head. Even her future students believed those damned lies, their faces a mixture of confusion and indifference as they and their parents, some of whom had been in his own class decades before, “paid their respects,” or whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. What amount could they possibly pay that would be worth the whole of Katie?
Was it his fault, he had wondered. Had he pushed her too much to be more like him? He heard these words from somewhere off in the distance...Eliza. How could the voice that had once so captivated him now hold him prisoner with one simple phrase?
But how could he have known—how could any of them have known—that before she’d even stepped foot into that damned classroom, her hard work and stapled posters hanging like paintings in a museum on the walls, that she would be gone...forever?
No, all those handshakes and apologies (and why would he need an apology from a stranger?) and cards that came late in the mail, they were all in vain, he concluded. Because if it were true, if she really was gone, then a part of him was gone, too.
He eyed the remains of the meal before him, the bacon suddenly far too plastic and the eggs far too brown. Something in his chest filled him with unease, and he offhandedly imagined his cardiologist’s fuzzy eyebrows scrunched in a fury at the coffee, now cold in its mug.
The little teardrops on either side of the text sliced his heart in half.
“Morning, Dad!” he heard her say behind him. He knew she was smiling. “I see you’ve made yourself breakfast. Fancy a new one?”
The simplicity of his situation astounded him. It was Sunday, that’s all. Their Sunday.
He had forgotten their Sunday.
“It’s you and me, Katie-girl,” he said to the empty room, reaching forward to grab The Times from the corner of the table, “Didn’t I always say? You and me against the world.”
“Sure,” she replied. He could hear her turn the knob at the sink with a creak and run water over his pile of used dishes. “Seriously though, how do you keep overcooking the eggs?”
He shrugged. “I had to wait until the bacon was done. But then the eggs started burning, so I—”
“You fry them in the same pan? At the same time?”
“I take it I’m…not supposed to?”
Katie laughed. “I guess I don’t remember you cooking much growing up.”
“Didn’t have to, what with your mother’s many talents.”
“Yeah,” she said, growing silent. “There’s a story in there,” she said, much clearer, “in the paper, about that girl, have you read it?”
“There’s lots of stories in the news.”
“Yeah, but...” He heard her turn the tap off, scrub a dish, turn it back on, “It... I don’t know. It made me think about a lot.”
He turned around. “Like what?”
He’d missed her. So badly. She was leaning back against the kitchen sink, that familiar floral dress she would wear after church hanging loosely from her frame, her arms outstretched and head tilted back, a smile on her pretty face he knew so well. “Life,” she finally said, head falling forward and grinning at him with bright amber eyes, “To live a little life. Isn’t that what we all want?”
“That’s oddly philosophical for ten in the morning.”
“Dad!” she laughed. “I’m serious.”
“Well why not a big life? Your Mom would like the sound of that.”
“No, no, I don’t mean small. Well, maybe I do. But there’s a difference between living and living, you know? Its length is nothing to its content. Kind of like high school papers, do you remember? We can fit so much in just a few minutes when we try to live a little life.”
Her words played over and over in Tom’s mind. He wanted to reach out and touch them, pocket them all up, hide them in his chest: her last words to him.
“And,” he started, knitting his fingers together, “Why bring this up now?”
“Because it ends,” she said, hands now lightly gripping his shoulders, “Everything ends, in the end. And it doesn’t end, at the same time. But there needs to be an end so that there can be a new beginning, don’t you see? They’re not opposites; one can’t exist without the other. But it’s living that makes all the difference.”
His ears were ringing with the sound of the tap that was not, in fact, running.
“Aw, don’t look at me like that,” she smiled, kissing his thinning head of gray, “They’re just some thoughts I’ve been having. Anyway, I’ll come by next week, I promise! But Sundays might be tricky this year. You know. Lesson planning and grading and alllll that fun stuff. It’s a new beginning!”
Of course, he told himself. Yes, he knew too well what that was like. Of course. He was breathing again.
“See you later, Dad!” she said, blonde figure slowly gliding by him as if trapped underwater. He reached out to catch the skirt of her dress, but it blew away like foam.
Tom closed his eyes.
He could hear her laughter bubble up from somewhere inside him, the image of being led by her small hand at the beach and of the seagulls crying overhead filling his vision. Her hair, catching the light; those streaks of gold playing with the shadows of the setting sun. It was bright. And she was smiling.
And when he opened his eyes, he was sitting alone at his kitchen table. Water steadily dripped from the faucet at the sink over mismatched dishes caked with the remnants of take-out Chinese and canned soups and a lasagna someone from church had left on his doorstep last week. He looked around at the strewn-about papers and unopened letters scattered on the table and on the chairs, at the dying lilies in that ugly vase Eliza had bought so long ago on vacation in Nantucket, at the dust bunnies collecting on the floor and cobwebs in every corner of the ceiling. He reached down and took his old teacher’s mug in both hands.
He didn’t start when the phone began to ring once more, and instead, eyed it quietly.
When was the moment he had forgotten to live?
I just like to write.