The bus passed in front of me, a cloud of hot steam and the smell of gasoline flooding my senses as I could make out what I thought was an advertisement for a new radio station, the host's teeth flashing white once in front of my eyes before it, too, rounded a corner and disappeared down the busy city street.
I was gulping in lungfuls of bitter air, the handles on my bag slipping through my fingers as I let it fall on the sidewalk with a loud plunk. The space the bus had once occupied seemed so void—how could it be that just seconds before, I would have been a part of that very space, that I, right now, could be traveling 30 miles an hour, would glance at my watch and thank God that I had minutes to spare.
Now, of course, the space was empty and I was still, hands on my knees, out of breath and heart pounding with fervor.
“Next one comes in fifteen.”
I turned around and came face to face with an old woman perched on a bench so delicately that I had to check twice to make sure she wasn’t sitting on a doily.
She looked me up and down. “I hope you weren’t…in a rush.”
Given that I was still panting like a marathon runner who came in last, I could only offer a noncommittal “eh,” take up my bag, and sit down beside her.
“I’ve got a grandson,” she started—I mentally prepared myself—“just about your age. Hasn’t got his foot in the door yet, but smart, though. Real smart. Just hasn’t found his place though, hasn't found it, you know. But he will.”
“Find it?” I asked, vaguely wondering how much a taxi would put me back.
“It,” she said, turning to me.
Probably would cost me the next few dinners, but if I called now, I could still–
“Well, you know. IT!”
I didn’t know IT. I didn’t even know why she bothered talking to me.
“I keep on telling him that it will come to him. BAM! One day, it’s suddenly there, and nothing else will be the same for him.”
“What, you mean, you mean, like destiny or something?”
The old woman tossed her head back and laughed, muttering to herself something about “kids and their New Age fancies.” “No, I mean IT! It will totally change his life if he can find it. Or if IT finds him. I suppose it doesn’t matter much which way it happens, just so long as it does.”
I checked my watch.
“Ten more minutes,” the woman said, shaking her phone in my face. “I’ve got the app.”
“Thanks. So, uh, this IT,” I said, rubbing my knees, “Do you think it’s out there for everyone?”
Shock spread over her face. “Of course! Lordy, it would be awful if it wasn’t.”
“Oh,” she practically cooed, “You’re trying to look for IT too, aren’t you?”
Fifteen minutes late to a meeting while chatting up an old lady about metaphysics on a bench at a bus stop, and I could see no possible reality in which she wasn’t wrong.
“I guess so, I mean, I dunno,” I said.
She laid a hand on my shoulder. “Try not to worry so much. You’ll find IT. And if you need a place to get started, there’s an Apple store hiring on 48th. My grandson's tried there, but he hasn't had much luck, and I hear that the whole industry is—”
I jerked back. “Oh my god, do you mean ‘I.T.’!?”
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 painted my toenails red.
I painted my toenails red to match the color of my fingernails.
I don't even like the color red.
But fancy ladies in those fancy magazines
On the table at the dentist's office--
And yes, Mommy, I'll stop eating sweets--
They wear the color
Like it isn't a color,
Like it means something.
There must be something to the color red.
Every time I look down at my nails,
I see the firetruck red of the crayons
I used today in class,
I see the red of the little girl's hat
On the cover of the book
The Librarian read to us,
Us huddled in a circle
In hushed voices
Like we were sharing secrets
The adults couldn't know.
I like the color blue.
Blue is the color of the sky above me,
The color of the sea below me,
Blue is the color of my eyes, of my books,
Of the light of the projector,
Of the markers for the whiteboard
That always seem to be lost.
Maybe I will paint my toenails blue tomorrow,
That is, if I can discover,
How to wash the red away.
Every morning I am faced
With the back of your head.
Your freckles and your sunburnt tans--
I saw them all.
When the little hairs at the nape of your neck grew long,
It was an average head,
As far as heads go,
And although we never once spoke,
And I never saw your face,
I knew the back of your head better than anybody,
So I'm sorry
For the intimacy behind my eyes
The day you finally turned around.
Even in the silence, I can hear music. My pen scratching on paper; the wind wailing at the bay window; snowflakes sticking to the ground and beginning to pile in the field beyond. The words I write, in those letters I’ll never send, are music to my own ears.
And I am the conductor, constantly leaning into the sound, my hands willing and prying the music from the woodwinds, then the strings. If I close my eyes long enough, I can still see his hands at the piano, playing that a symphony of emotions alive in my head, with a trembling vibrato and burning crescendo. And as the movement draws to a close, as the fermata holds that last glistening note--
“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night.”
…Virginia Woolf? Probably.
I set my pen down, eyes staring blankly at the world outside. My own reflection gazed back at me, and for a moment, I couldn’t recognize myself. My features were mine, but also not mine. I raised a hand to touch my face, the skin dry and cracked; but I recognized the structure underneath. The window had been a mirror, foggy after a scorching shower—yes. It’s clear now. There she is. Somewhere behind the steam.
Is it possible for someone to change so much without having done anything at all?
Or, I suppose, a better question:
Is it such a terrible thing to mourn the dead when they themselves have not yet died?
Well. He’s dead to me, I suppose. Gone. Never coming back. So it’s the same thing, really. Maybe I should write a eulogy, or an epitaph, really set his death in stone. I chuckled a bit despite myself, leaning back in the chair and stretching. The leather desk chair screeched in protest, waking Licorice with a jolt from his nap on the windowsill. I could see the indignation in his yellow eyes as he yawned, reminding me of his sharp teeth, and resettled himself.
Serves him right.
I jumped in my chair with a start. Licorice snarled at the noise—I really should just buy a new one—and he hopped down from his seat and walked away, black tail raised in the air.
“Sorry?” I managed to say, swiveling the leather chair around dramatically, like I was some nameless Bogartian gumshoe who always swung his desk chair around dramatically.
“You said, ‘Serves him right,’” said Heather, suddenly before me.
“Oh,” I said, having not heard her come in. “I didn’t know I said it out loud.”
Heather offered me a small smile.
I hated it. It was gorgeous for one thing, and always painted a bright red apple color, for another. Tempting, I bet, to certain people.
She stepped further into the room, the shadows of snowflakes falling down her pale face. “But you weren’t just talking about the cat, were you?”
I folded my arms, swiveling the chair back around. I could almost hear Heather wince from behind me at its groan.
“You know, you could just buy another chair. God knows you can afford it.”
I absently picked at the worn leather. “Nah, think I’ll keep it. Growing on me.”
A few seconds passed, and I could tell that she hadn’t moved away. “No,” I said at last. “I wasn’t talking about the cat. Well, I was, but also…yeah. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Heather sighed. “It would be easier if you just told me what was going on. I’m worried about you!”
I had to laugh. “You. Worried?”
“We’re all worried,” she said, heels clacking on the white oak floor as she stood beside me at the desk and placed her hands on my shoulder. “You look awful."
"No, no—I just mean, well...regardless of what you might think... I do care."
"Sure," I said.
"Damn it, Charlotte! God, we're not kids anymore. Please, just tell me what—what's this?”
I slammed my arm down on the desk with more force than I intended, surprising us both. “Don’t.”
“I said, don’t.”
“And why not?” she asked, a smirk disfiguring her pretty face.
“They’re personal. Need any other reason?”
“...I was just curious. You don’t have to bite my head off.”
“Ha!” I said, gathering my letters in my hands, straightening them and sliding them in the drawer. “I wouldn’t if you dared me. Disgusting.”
“You’re so weird.”
“You know, Mom used to said the same thing, but who is it that's now paying her bills?"
Heather flicked my shoulder with a far too-perfect, apple-colored fingernail, but said nothing.
Acrylic had never really been my thing; they ruined your real nails, with all the glue and filing. But I supposed they looked nice enough. To some people.
We both stared out the large windows into the snowy abyss. The day was nearing its end, the woods at the edge of the field deep blue-black silhouettes against the darkening sky. The snow kept piling up, fitting the pine trees in white dresses. My world, like the keys on his piano, black and white. How could I be both colors at once? But it was dangerous to let my mind drift like the snow, so I tried to remember what the weatherman had said this morning on the radio, how many more inches? Eight? Twelve? Too much, I had thought. Or not enough? Everything was still so foggy.
But then I heard the music in my letters calling me, and I twirled my baton—no, my pen—in my fingers.
"You know," said Heather, in a voice that sounded very far away, "This kind of reminds me of the Adirondacks, with all the snow."
"Really?" I said, grip on the pen growing tighter.
"It's fitting, don't you think?"
"The...irony...is not lost on me, no."
"We should go up there again! Just the three of us, this time. I mean, unless you would want to bring someone—"
"Fine. It's fine. I'm fine."
She batted her eyelashes, nudging my arm with hers, "And you're sure about that? From what I remember, you certainly had more color in your cheeks on that last trip. Was it that ski instructor, where was he from, Switzer-"
"I said it's fine."
"...Okay." Heather shivered. “Have you really been in here all day?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not really. But it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?” She giggled a bit, "Not exactly like the Charlotte I knew, you know?"
“I guess you’ve just never been depressed then.”
“No. I can't say I have. But I can imagine—"
“Imagining is never the same as the real thing. Look, did you come here for a reason?”
“Just checking up on you. Did you even go to bed last night?”
“What's it to you?” I said at last, "I'm sure you have so many other things on your mind that need attention—"
As if she had been holding it in all along, she blurted in a garble, “I’m-so-sorry-about-David!”
It was like one of those moments on cheesy medical dramas, you know, where they tell you that your favorite character has terminal cancer, but it’s not like you believe them at first, and maybe the diagnosis is wrong and it’s just to draw in more viewers. But then the audio starts playing Snow Patrol’s "Chasing Cars", and all of a sudden, the reality hits you all at once. I didn’t move. I couldn’t.
“Was that it? Is that why you're acting so funny?”
She was sorry about David? Really and truly?
But then, what did she expect for me to say? Thank you for being sorry for bringing him home with your friends your first Christmas at Pratt? Sorry that after that skiing trip in the Adirondacks, the one where you stood around like a helpless snow bunny, that he bought me a coffee? That we grew close? That I was so lonely I accidentally fell in love with the man you’re marrying next week? Sorry, that I had to watch from the sidelines as you drew him in with your apple lipstick? Sorry that he wasn’t who I thought he was? That I wasn’t who I thought I was? That I'm not...That I don't know... I thought about my reflection, and the shock I'd been greeted with.
I sucked in a deep breath, collecting up my thoughts alphabetically and stuffing them somewhere else. He was dead; dead, dead, dead. Death is a permanent affair, and I could no more prevent it than reinvent it. But did she know that? Did she know he was dead, dead to me? She wasn't meant to know...
“I mean," said Heather, "I know he didn’t mean it when he made that comment last night during dinner. What you made was lovely. Really. He has such a wicked sense of humor!”
Dinner? Dinner? Well, that hadn't been the D word I'd been expecting, but--
"You're right," I said, "What a sense of humor. What a wicked sense of humor. I'm so glad you think so, because last night, you were the only one who laughed."
"But I just told you. He has a sense of humor, so I laughed."
"It wasn't a joke."
"Anyway,” she continued, cheeks reddening, “Thanks so much for putting us up here for the weekend. I love your place. It's gorgeous. God, I hope we can buy a house like this when we’re your age.”
“I’m not that much older,” I said automatically.
“Sure,” Heather said, kissing my head, “Keep telling yourself that, Sis.”
I hadn’t realized she’d left the room until I heard a car pulling out of the gravel driveway. By then, it had already been too late. I was glad she didn't know. Really; I was. I think I was.
It wasn't until I heard a Licorice's high-pitched cries from downstairs that I looked up and realized it was fully dark now. I switched on my desk lamp, blinking twice, and carefully withdrew the letters one by one. Letters dating back months, years, all to the same person and all never sent. Vulnerability requires courage, which I never had, which was why he would never know how much of myself I had spilled onto those pages; how much music I had composed that would never be heard. But there was a distortion now between the music I heard and the music in the words I wrote.
I had loved him, even when I realized that I couldn't anymore. I had thought he was so many things, that I could be so many things, too. But there are some bridges even my imagination can't cross.
And so, taking in a deep breath that made my lungs feel cold and heavy, I stuffed the letters underneath forgotten manilla folders in the bottom drawer, and locked it shut.
What matters is what is real.
I chuckled again, leaning back and relishing in the deafening groan of my shabby desk chair.