The day of the Breakneck Lake fire I was in the middle of doing my laundry. Jeff had left the night before, and all week I’d saved up my dirty clothes, knowing I’d need something to keep me busy, keep my hands from hanging limply at my side while my thoughts followed him across the country. He was headed west, and I stood at a change machine jamming dollar bills into the slit before the green light was completely illuminated.
“Goddammit,” I said. The woman next to me had a kid with her and shot me a glance to communicate her anger at my use of such language. “Fucking machine,” I said.
I returned the woman’s stare then, hoping for a confrontation, a light for my fuse. My cork had slowly been wriggling out of place in the months since Jeff announced he was leaving.
“I gotta finish school,” he’d said. His lips were greasy from lo mein leftovers, and I had handed him a napkin, waiting for an invitation to join him in San Fransisco. Even after he’d finished eating the rest of the Chinese food, my appetite having suddenly waned, after the little paper boxes had been stuffed into the overflowing trash can and he’d finished the peanut m&ms in the glass bowl I kept on the coffee table for a quick breakfast on the way out the door, the invitation did not come. It was then, in the Laundromatic several blocks from our apartment, that I knew it would never come. I was not asked to join, nor would I be asked to follow.
The woman retreated to the other corner of the laundromat while her daughter checked all of the coin machines for orphaned quarters.
Tonight we came home to this scene: The front door, ajar. Our things – clothing, books, dishes (broken), and those tiny milk glass figurines I’d been collecting since I was in high school – strewn about. I leaned against the door frame, staring, thinking about all of the words I would use to describe this: Agape, ajar, strewn, shattered, nausea. Dennis whispered commands at me: Get back! Call the police! Get your cell phone! Don’t touch anything! The more he hissed, the heavier I became, pushing against that door frame like a life support. In the end, it was he who rummaged through my purse to find my cell phone. He had to hang up twice and redial because he was fidgeting and shaking so much he couldn’t dial 9-1-1.
By the time the police arrived, Dennis had dragged me into the yard, standing close to the truck so we could make a quick getaway in case the “people who did this” decided to exit through the front door and chase us. We stood in silence as the sirens and the lights singled us out to the neighborhood. Heads poked out of houses, blinds slid open, and cars driving by slowed. And all I could think – as the officers walked through the house and Dennis, taking inventory, barked the things we were missing at them – was about that weekend I went camping with my dad when I was 12. We had just pulled up to the campsite, the sun had set and he was in a bad mood because traffic had delayed us. He hated pitching a tent in the dark, but still, he whistled while he did it. Perhaps it was his whistling that roused the buck nearby, who came charging out of the woods at such a speed I couldn’t help but stand and stare at it, wondering at the way I couldn’t make out its hooves. The only thing I’ve ever seen that has matched the speed of that deer was my father, who picked me up and threw me in the truck so fast that my shoulder popped out of its socket. The buck head butted the driver’s side door, making a dent that looked like a sculpture. My father drove up about a half mile from the campsite where he put my shoulder back in place and let me drink some of his soda with whiskey in it. When we went back to the camp site a few minutes later, my tears dried and sticky on my face, the tent was in shreds and our cooler of food was on its side, sandwiches and ice cream bars mushed into an unrecognizable pile. I sat quietly, thinking about cleaning up all that mess, when my dad put the truck back into drive and pulled away. “It’s just stuff,” he said when I sniffled.
These days I’m drinking tea to stay warm. The water takes so long to boil, but the anticipation warms in its own way. Mama would be upset to see how I’ve let her house grow cold; she worked so hard to make it warm. The quilts have faded, but her stitches refuse to fray, even with my nightly clenching and thrashing among them. The winter lemons are blooming, but I cannot bring myself to pick them, let alone squeeze them into my food or drinks. I know this tea wouldn’t be so bland with their help, but the back door will not budge against the packed snow. I have not bought a shovel in years, and the basement is much too cold to go scavenging.
All in all, I am doing well, though my descriptions may be bleak. I live amongst memories, and this is always as I pictured myself. When others would thrive in sunshine, I held out for overcast days when I could sit next to the window, staring out for hours. There is nothing left for me to look forward to, and my eyes welcome the rest from strain.
Give my love to the children and to Ren,
There were tables full of food at the wake for Jay’s dad, from the church, from his coworkers. Mrs. Eldman’s book club brought desserts and fresh fruit sliced to look like flowers and tiny animals. Mrs. Eldman stood at the open front door looking like she wanted to shut it or run through it. She greeted friends of her late husband. They used words like “condolences” while they carried trays of meats and casseroles, party food that insulted her lack of appetite.
Jay and Melissa ate pineapple because they’d heard that it helped you digest meat. It was something Jay’s dad had told them, after a barbecue, their diaphragms pinched from fullness. Melissa had watched his hands, always speckled with paint splatters, as they held firmly the knife that sliced downward toward the picnic table. The juice gathered in rivulets, escaping with ease through the gaps in the planks of the homemade picnic table. Mr. Eldman’s hands had made that table.
She is pregnant, but she won’t be pregnant for long. She sits on the 83 bus with her hand on her abdomen like she’s seen more-pregnant women do. The man in front of her smells strongly of cigarettes, or is it only a faint dusting of tar and chemicals on his jacket? Has he only walked quickly through the cloud of someone else’s exhale, her senses somehow stronger than before this minor change, which she will now change back? That is also a possibility.
The robotic voice with its hint of feminine qualities announces her stop. She smiles at the side of the bus driver’s face and says thank you, because she is thankful that she has not been made to walk. Later she will be groggy and say thank you after the nurses smile at her and give her pamphlets with instructions that she will tuck next to prescriptions in her purse. There is a bottle of water in there that she anticipated needing, and she does. Her mouth is so dry. It will feel dry for days.
She stands on the sidewalk as the bus pulls away, pushing warm air that smells like the city at her.
There is nothing left for people here. Our livers are no longer coddled, valued, saved. The lobby of the home is fresh and styled. There are no posters hung haphazardly, no empty bottles lining the tops of fridges or the perimeters of trash cans. When I get to the home, I drop off the fifth of gin in my pocket at the front desk. Emma wields a thick black marker, writing the names of the drunks on their bottles. We are contained in those glass enclosures on the table behind the welcome desk; we drop ourselves off and pick ourselves back up. We are not allowed to drink in the rooms, and so we do not linger there. Though there are televisions and beds more comfortable than I have known or afforded in my lifetime, I do not linger either.
The back porch is where the voices are, the warm bodies, made warmer by the booze. Faces flushed red navigate the cigarette smoke. Conversation is lively, there is usually laughter, though everyone knows how quickly laughter can turn into something else, something to defend against. Then there are the sirens and flashing lights. But those nights are fewer and farther between than before we lived here; our defenses have cooled a bit now that we are no longer in mixed company. Only three people have died since I have come here, though I know that my spot on the waiting list didn’t open because of a building expansion. There are men with yellow eyes and loose clothing. I stay away from them because there is nothing left to cultivate. Their laughter is frightening – it is weak and wheezy – and it kills my own.
I can say this much: I am calmer now. There is less that is riding on my success or my failure or any of my decisions. I watch the sunrise and the sunset from this patio, and I am no longer guilty.
I have eaten fresh bread, hot from the oven. I have scalded my tongue with peppers ripe from the garden that I have planted. I have felt the stinger of a honey bee lodged in my skin and watched the poor tiny body swerve its way to a grounded death. I have later plucked the hard poison from my own red skin, numbing the area with a piece of ice that melted as it soothed. I have read that book you left on your nightstand, cover to cover, and I have cried into its pages when the husband decides to leave his wife but changes his mind after he is alone on a train headed somewhere else. I have broken promises to myself: Wake up early and go for a run; take a shower daily; make a hearty meal and eat it all; don’t stop loving things we loved together. I have kept promises as well, broken them again, kept them again. I have changed in ways that friends describe to me over tea and cookies that I have baked. I have dusted the spots on top of the tallest shelves. I have used a rubberband to open the lids on tightly sealed jars and bottles. I have cried when the rubberband doesn’t work, thrown things against walls hoping they will burst. I have moved pictures to cover dents in the walls where thrown objects have burst. I have thrown out that jar of pickled beets we bought in the Berkshires that we used to eat with pink fingers on the back porch. I have rearranged the back porch, and reupholstered the cushions on the patio furniture. Nothing is the same color anymore, nor is anything sitting in the same place.