Talia had always been bad at goodbyes. When she was a little girl, she had been squashed into hugs and set down to turn and run, to leave without looking back. When you’re a little kid that’s okay. When she got older, she never learned.

She finished all her finals, turned in the last term paper and went to her last class. Her teachers nodded and waved at her. One of them gave her a hug. He tried to pat her shoulder just as she turned to leave, and he swiped lightly instead at the bare flesh of her back, the skin peeking from her underarm. Mostly she ducked out of their classrooms without a word, just a cool relief that spread through her veins slow and heavy, like honey.

Elizabeth was leaving, transferring to another school across the country, and there was a party on Thursday night. She and Sam went, holding hands tight, knuckles pale on flushed hands. Everyone there was laughing, drinking, singing in low silly voices that clattered and banged together. It was loud, and they couldn’t hear one another talk. Talia got a drink, ginger ale in a plastic cup, and watched the bubbles rise to the top and then pop away. Sam watched her looking at the fizz of her soda, and he sighed. She couldn’t hear him, and she ignored the droop of his hand in hers. She was going away next year, studying in England for both semesters. He was staying.

The music pounded into the air, suddenly and without warning. Talia’s pulse jumped in her throat and she squeezed Sam’s hand. He pulled at her, so she set her cup down and they danced. He held her close, hands low on her back, pulling her sweaty skin to his. She looked over his shoulder. People were all wriggling and jumping, twirling and smiling. Elizabeth grinned from across the room, and crooked a finger at Talia. They met in the middle of the dancing masses and swayed together for a moment. Talia leaned forward to hug Elizabeth, who turned to kiss her cheek. Their clumsy embraces collided, and Elizabeth’s lips touched the soft thin skin under her ear. She let go of the hug, and they swayed for another minute before she went back to Sam.

They were quiet that night. They kissed and clung in the darkness. He was going home the next day, his parents driving all the way to collect him and his stuff. The morning was going to be bare and awkward. Talia knew already. He pressed at her back as they lay in bed, their breathing the only sound in the still room. His hand was draped over her waist, his fingers twined into the space beneath her ribs, light on her skin. They fell asleep like that, barely touching in the heat, closing their eyes against the silence.


Moving Out/On

She was a leftover sort of beautiful that morning. Her makeup was in dark clouds about her eyes and her hair was straggling down in wisps from a hasty bun. When she rang the doorbell and I opened my door, she was standing still and the sight of her sent a cold shock to my skin. It had just occurred to me that she wasn’t coming back at all.

I stood back and let her pass, and she walked in, just the way she had last week. Everything was piled in the living room, and she stopped short to see the stacks. I stood, silent, trying to notice if there was a perceptible smell of must from the kitchen. She stooped to pick up the biggest box at the bottom, swaying a bit as she stood to keep the two on top of it balanced.

I opened the door again, letting it grind long and squeaky on the hinges as it swung. She hefted the boxes in her arms again, and didn’t look at me. Neither of us spoke, and the quiet crackled.

She struggled with the boxes as she fit herself through the door, clutching the cardboard as it wobbled and tipped, threatening to fall. I didn’t offer to help. I just watched her go.

Being Surprised by Grief

Anna was hurrying home, because she thought she was going to cry. Probably nobody would notice anyway, since in this dark she could barely see her feet moving over the sidewalk. Even so, she felt she’d be much more comfortable dissolving in tears on her own bed, rather than sniffling awkwardly as she walked down the street.

Her phone buzzed against her side, and with a wriggle she pulled it from her pocket. A message scrolled across the top: PATRICK hi sweetie you ok? how about you come have dinner with us tomorrow at 7 let me know. She shoved the phone back, clicking it off, and tucked her head to her chest. When she got to the stairway at the end of the block, she clamped a hand on the railing as if it were all that was holding her upright.

She felt she was sliding down the stairs and if she leaned a little too far she would just fold forward and crumple, bend, her knees collapsing until she sunk into a heap gently slipping downwards. To keep that from happening, Anna narrowed her eyes and concentrated on getting down the stairs. A moment later she was surprised to find herself at the bottom, no stairs left, and her knees still locked and straight.

When Anna arrived at the door to her apartment she was surprised again, fumbling for the key and then realizing what she was doing. It was lucky, she observed to herself, that her body knew what to do without her having to think about it at all. She was done unlocking the door by the time she finished thinking this, and floated into the room wondering at herself.

Before she even formed the thought Anna was in her bedroom, the lights flicked on and her bag draped over the chair. She sat heavily on her bed and leaned her head into her arms. She sat like that for a long time, thinking about crying, waiting for the tears to come. She was surprised again when they didn’t, and she was doing nothing more than sitting on her bed, eyes dry and burning, with her arms wrapped around her head and her heart aching.

Computer Confession

The screen stared back at him, stark and bright. The words stood out, in black careful shapes, and glared at him. Just the curve and dip of each letter looked like betrayal.

He knew he loved her. He was sure. He typed it with slow, deliberate strokes: “I know I love her.”

The screen agreed with him, letters scrolling onto the page. It was two lines down from the paragraph he’d finished five minutes before, of which the last line read, “it’s just that when I leave and she stays I don’t think I’ll be sad.”

The cursor blinked at him, accusing. On and off, the thin black line disappeared and flashed on again, daring him to write more. To say something he knew he’d regret. That was ridiculous, he told himself. He wasn’t going to regret typing something on a screen where she would never see it.

When he highlighted the whole thing with a couple taps on the keyboard, the letters lit white on the black background. He stared, rereading what he’d written. His eyes traced over the word again, catching on a few. “Tired,” “love,” “pointless,” “sandwich.”

He hit the arrows and watched the cursor flare on and off again at the start of a new line, dark against the white and then gone. Leaning forward, he wrote, “Maybe we weren’t meant to be. Except of course I don’t believe in that crap. I just want to know if what I can have with someone I haven’t even met yet might be better. Maybe.”

It looked silly to him. Now that he’d typed it out, the words seemed shallow and empty. They unfolded in his head again, though, and he sighed. The thoughts that had been prickling at his restless mind were now spelled out on his computer screen, in a jumble of awkward sentences, but that didn’t banish them from his head. They were still itching, thoughts that he wanted to crush and paint over until he couldn’t see anything but the bumps where they used to be. Instead, the color melted off and they still stood there, as if bold and black pressed against the gritty white of his skull. Try as he might, they wouldn’t go away.

“Maybe it’ll get better. Maybe this is just a phase, sort of like a I don’t know this is stupid. Maybe I’m just being stupid and then later when we’re together even longer then maybe I’ll love her again like I did before and maybe it will stay that time.”

Every time his finger fell on a letter he wanted to wince, and he looked at the sentences he’d just typed like children who were promising they wouldn’t take an extra cookie. He bit his lip, and heaved a breath. Then with another rapid poke at the keyboard he highlighted all the text again and looked at it shining from the darkness that contained it. His hand hovered over the delete button – he just wanted it all to go away. He let his finger drop and watched the words vanish, leaving a clean bright page in its place, pure and beautiful. It was perfect.

Another Fight

The door slammed so hard it bounced open again, quivering, before it swayed back again and closed with a click. Rose was left sitting on the couch with tears clotting her eyes and her hands shaking. It always seemed to go like this – she would get upset, and somehow end up sitting alone after he wouldn’t accept her apology. She had been stammering sorries as he left, sniffling. This time, though, it was worse.

When she’d walked in at first they’d sprung up from the couch. Sure, they had gone through this so many times already, and from each of them, but they had just had this conversation. Just last week. They’d had a long conversation about trust and love and commitment and all those tired words, only for her to walk in on Helen squirming on top of them, right on their living room couch. She’d shrieked. Helen had twisted and leaped back, scrambled for her clothes and fled still clutching the bundle of sweater and jeans to her chest. John had just lain there, looking baleful at her. Then she’d started screaming at him.

It had gone like all the other fights. She’d yelled, shouted until her throat was scraped by the words, and he’d, well, mostly rolled his eyes at her. Then he’d started accusing – he’d say, “sweetheart, don’t you even trust me?” and “well it’s not like you’ve never done this, darling.” Sounding reasonable and affectionate as if she hadn’t walked in on it twenty minutes before. Then he’d switch tones – “my God though, Rose, you’re practically suffocating me. You just need to give me some space, you know that.” When she protested, he’d revert to “this relationship will never work if you can’t even trust me. Come on, baby, a little effort wouldn’t kill you.” She started to stutter and sob while he glared at her, contemptuous, and then he got louder and angrier until he stormed out. It was like a repeat of the fight they’d had so often. Except much louder, of course, and this time instead of staring bewildered at his retreating back, she was curled on the couch and sobbing as though her heart was breaking. Maybe it was.

She didn’t see John for another three days. She went to work and the grocery store, numb, until she came home and he was in the bedroom. He was seated on the bed, tossing clothes all tumbled into a cardboard box, humming. His head snapped up when she came in, to see her standing there in the doorway still hugging a paper bag of toilet paper and canned beans to her chest. They’d both started talking at once, and she had laughed a little when they stopped short. She stopped laughing after that.

He said, “Hey there, though, I’m getting my stuff. I’m going. I can’t take this anymore.”

“Take what?” Her voice was already weak. She hated herself in those moments.

“You, baby.” He smiled. “This relationship is a goddamn death trap. I should’ve done this ages ago. God, you should’ve done this ages ago. I just don’t even like you very much even. You do this to me – ”

“Me to you?” She interrupted. Often perhaps she had let him say this, tell her that his betrayals were all her fault, but it was too raw and she was too angry to let it twist that way before it reached her. “Me to you, John? I’m not doing anything to you, you asshole, you’re hurting me and I’m so done letting you. Jesus, I can’t believe you.”

He frowned now, and stood up. His arms came up and she flinched, so he paused. “You are just awful. I’m glad I’m finally leaving.”

She sprang forward at that, anger flashing up to her face like a wave of heat, her hands rising without her thought.
She slapped him across the face, and when he put his fingers to his cheek and looked at her, astonished, she hit him again. He brought his arms up and she just kept hitting him, hands curled into fists now and knocking into his face with a satisfying thwap each time. He backed up, turned around, and then he ran from the apartment bent forward. She chased him for a few steps before giving up.

The door swung shut and clicked closed just like the last time he’d run out of the apartment. Rose walked back into the bedroom and knocked his box of clothes off the bed, and sat heavily down. The sound of her breathing slowed and evened, and she closed her eyes. Her hands ached, but she stopped feeling them after a few minutes. Then there was nothing left but a small dry hurt in her chest, and nothing else.