A Woman Named June

June never liked to be in anyone’s face. She was the type who would be in the room so quiet you didn’t even notice her. Her therapist liked to talk about this tendency for “passivity. A kind of introversion that lets you fade into the background. Your relationship with Matthew shows me this desire to, you know, not be any bother. You don’t want to be trouble to anyone so you take it all on yourself.” It’s very comforting to hear her life explained to her like this. June sits in her therapist’s office and nods. She doesn’t want to disagree, and she wouldn’t know what to say if she did.

When she walked up High Street last week she ran into Matthew. She can’t stop thinking about it. He was surprised to see her, hey June I haven’t seen you in ages how are you doing I hope everything’s going well. Matthew always did manage to talk a lot without communicating much of anything. She said she was doing fine, thanks, and asked how he was. He rattled on for a while, and she nodded. He said it was great to see her, and she nodded. He hugged her goodbye and she froze, stiff and unresponsive and too startled to bring her arms up around him until he was already pulling away. That’s how it had always been with them anyway.

When she told her therapist about this encounter, her therapist’s mouth twisted and her eyes gleamed with speculation. June could just feel the analysis waiting to rush out. She didn’t hear any of it, though. She heard her therapist’s voice tumbling over her and caught the odd word–aggression–anonymous–relationship–depression. June’s mind was roaming, though, and she nodded and nodded without taking in any of the explanation of her life.

When she left her therapist’s office, she sat in her car in the parking lot. She put the key in the ignition but she didn’t start the car. The expectant light on her dashboard faded, disappointed. June folded her hands in her lap and stared ahead. She didn’t know how long it had been (five minutes? thirty?) when she was jerked from the reverie by a tapping. Matthew was outside her window, smiling his well-isn’t-this-funny smile. She rolled down the window and he burst into speech. Hey June so funny to see you again twice in a week after a whole year seems strange doesn’t it what are you doing here? She looked up at his eager face, the sweat shining on his forehead and his abashed smile. June said, “I feel like a robot.”

“Yeah,” said Matthew. “I know what you mean.”

June nodded, then she got in her car and drove away.

In the Rain

It was raining the kind of rain that slicked the pavement so that the road was a glistening black mirror stretched out before her. The stoplights and the signs screamed out in brilliant reflections down the highway, and everything in the night was a bright mass of light against darkness. She drove on.

It wasn’t that much farther to get home. The problem was just that everybody was paralyzed in the downpour. They crawled along at ten miles per hour under the speed limit, except for the madmen who raced by in the left land and hurled water from their tires onto everyone’s windshield. It was a highway without a barrier between lanes, and Jill was terrified that she was going to keep driving without really being able to see where she was going until she was just casually barreling down the wrong side of the road in the rain.

There was a stoplight coming up, so she eased her foot down on the brake. Somewhere in the middle of slowing down she sped through a puddle. Her tires slipped and crunched on the road, and she was seized with the horrible feeling of half-floating while the car spun away from her. Then the puddle was past and her panic was over. The cars lined up at the stoplight and its flare against the black sky had a deadly kind of beauty.

Jill looked around, her eyes drinking in the slippery lovely sight of it all even though her brain was shrieking. There was a car to her left, and a man peering at her from behind its steering wheel. He was probably her age, but she could mostly see his dark eyes looking at her through the streaking rain on the windows. She smiled at him, her practiced hello-stranger smile, and then the light turned green. The man in his car turned left, and she went on straight. It wasn’t until she was past two more stoplights that she realized.

The man at whom she had smiled a polite smile, he was familiar. What was his name? Alex, maybe? Jill couldn’t remember where she knew him from, but the set of his jaw was familiar. She definitely recognized his scruff of hair. His eyes, though, were unmistakable. Through the blur of rain and time she remembered that stare.

God, it must have been high school when she’d last seen him. She squinted at the sprawling mess of rain and traffic in front of her, trying to remember. She couldn’t tell if he had recognized her as well. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t recognized him at once. She’d thought she was so in love with him, in high school. Her teenaged self had sighed and gazed about him. He’d been her first love, her first sex dream, her first almost-boyfriend, her first almost-sex. He’d broken her heart, of course. The rain seemed to let up now, finally, but she was almost home. Her car pulled off the highway and she was on her street in minutes. Because of the rain, probably, there was no parking. She circled the block twice until she wedged herself between two others, and then covered her head with her jacket and ran inside.

Jill sat in the kitchen for a while after she got in, her forehead against the chill of the window and her eyes unfocused. Outside, the rain calmed to a dull drizzle, but everything still gleamed. Absentmindedly, she ate scrambled eggs. There was nothing else to do, so she went to bed. The sheets were cold, so she put socks on. The world outside seemed to quiet a bit once she was under the covers again, until it was a subdued buzz hovering outside. She thought about Alex as she fell asleep, how she’d smiled tightly at his dark eyes and would probably never see him again. Oh well, she thought, as the rain beat a steady patter on the roof and dripped down the fire escape. Too bad. He’d driven off in a different direction, and that was it.

When she woke up, she was confused. There was a bad taste in her mouth, a muddle in her head, and a knocking at the door. She shuffled out of bed, getting caught in her blanket, and stumbled all the way until she could pull the door open. It stuck and protested until she yanked, and then she looked up at Alex.

Unsatisfying Encounters

Ned hadn’t talked to Sarah for a long time. When he saw her, pondering three brands of spaghetti, he stared for a long minute before he realized who she was. She looked up, with that crooked eyebrow he remembered, skeptical about the strange man eyeing her in the supermarket. When she saw him her face brightened and she smiled, until she seemed to remember and the gladness dampened a bit. He grinned, steeled himself, and lunged for a hug. She let him, though her arms were stiff and she pulled away too soon.

“Sarah, my God, I haven’t seen you for ages. How have you been?” His voice wavered with the question.

“Pretty good, all things considered. You know, working and things. I’m really busy lately, actually, which is nice. How are you?”

Ned nodded. “Pretty good too. I actually just moved back around here, I’m about half an hour away but I work near here. Never did go back to school.” Her wry grin crinkled at the corners just the way it used to.

“Well,’ she said, “you’re working, you’re doing okay, right? So I guess you never needed to.”

“Guess not. Sometimes I wish I had. What about you?”

“You mean, do I wish I had? I did. Or were you asking something else? I mean, that’s what I would have wished, if I hadn’t. Oh, that’s all confused. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think so,” he said. He didn’t, but he didn’t think it mattered.

Sarah snatched a box of pasta off the shelf and tucked it into her basket, starting off down the aisle. She said, “Listen, I actually have to run. Good talking to you.”

Ned wheeled. He called after her retreating back, “I’d love to catch up sometime, if you have a moment, you know.” He cursed his tongue-tied fumbling. That felt familiar. “I mean, we haven’t seen one another for a good while. It’s been too long.”

She looked at him. “Has it, though?”

Nine Reasons You Should Break Up With Your Girlfriend

  1. You called your dad to tell him you had a new girlfriend. He sighed and said, “Oh, another one?” You felt a flare of self-righteous defiant falling-in-love, just to spite him. You filled yourself with a determination for the new romance that lasted at least a month.
  2. When you met her, she smiled at you. Across a crowded room, no kidding. She’d made you feel like you were special, and that you mattered to her. She could hold your gaze and you were weightless. When you met a year ago you felt like you were floating when you looked in her eyes. You were mesmerized by the gleam, the shine in the way she looked at you. Now in a crowded room you can’t read her glance, if she’s looking at you at all.
  3. Sometimes she’ll say something. Call you “honey” out of habit, or laugh too loud at a joke you’ve already told. Those times you feel a rush of warmth, a love that suffuses your tired heart and rushes up to flush your face. After a while it goes away again.
  4. It took you months to put any of this unease into words. Now they’re words you’ve hidden away, folded and tucked into a crack between thoughts, because you don’t want to have to look at them.
  5. Your best friend got a sweater when you were at some department store together. It was cashmere or something fancy, warm and soft. You’d loved it, been jealous, because it was your favorite color. A sort of gray-green, a soft pretty color. She bought you a sweater for your birthday. It was red, and when you opened the present the smile you showed her felt familiar.
  6. You spent two hours talking to someone about how you felt. A new friend, maybe, and you felt like you were saying something important even when you were quiet, just looking at her. It was probably just that it was different, would have been forbidden if it had been anything. Even so she’d fallen asleep with her head on your shoulder and her hand on your leg, and you’d lain awake feeling wistful for something that never existed.
  7. Sometimes you have whole conversations with your girlfriend and you get by just guessing when to say “uh huh” and “you’re kidding.” You don’t feel bad. Sometimes you can tell she does the same thing when you talk. Often.
  8. Last week you saw that new friend. When she smiled at you – it might have just been your imagination – she looked wistful too.
  9. Yesterday you and your girlfriend argued. It was about something stupid. It’s always about something stupid. You apologized. She said, “I know. It’s okay. I love you.” You didn’t believe her and you said, “Okay. I love you too.” You don’t think she believed you either.

Faded Light

The setting sun gilded the city before them, from where they saw it tucked into the green hiding spot of the park. Pale golden light fell on everything – high rises, skyscrapers, rows of windows and columns of concrete. Under the rain of dying sun the city was briefly as beautiful as he remembered, the streets lined with light and the people dappled with the brightness of the day’s end.

Charlotte was in the path of the sun. She reflected it, refracted it, sparkled and shone against the horizon until she was brilliant and sparkling with sunlight. She couldn’t keep the grin off of her face, and her cheeks caught a rosy sheen. Her eyes glinted, the white light against their darkness. She was looking at him.

Martin was looking at her, absentminded. She was very lovely, especially now with the light playing against the shadow on all the contours of her face. He thought about her beauty, watching her stand smiling against the sunset. Charlotte didn’t let him think about it for long, though. She reached for him, grabbed him to pull him over to her, wrapped his arm around her.

They stood together, facing the pink-tinged sky. It seemed for almost an instant that they were alone there, though the murmurs and cries of everyone else in the park were all around them. The tourists and their cameras, the children chasing pigeons, the harried parents and the frisky dogs stopped existing.

He glanced around. A couple sat against the tree, apparently overcome by the setting sun and kissing enthusiastically. Their squirming made Martin’s shoulders tense, and he turned away. Charlotte nestled into his shoulder, and then moved. He looked down at her. She was holding her face up to him to be kissed. After a moment, he bent his head and complied. She made a disappointed noise that he’d left so soon, but then she leaned on his shoulder again.

The sun was almost gone now, the brightness dimmed and fading. Martin’s arm was stiff. He wanted to let go, but he thought Charlotte would be disappointed. The sky had flared a bit, showy as the light left. The pink mingled with orange and yellow, a watercolor palette washed over the horizon, staining the sky. He was sure it was very romantic. Charlotte sighed, watching the sunset against him. She loved this sort of thing. He remembered once, last year – well, he thought, that sunset was different. It was a different time. He had reached for her and kissed her, ignoring everything else. Things had changed since then.

He shivered a little, though the evening was still warm. He felt traitorous, thinking this next to her. She hadn’t changed at all. She was still the quiet girl who’d first smiled at him so sweetly, the fuzzy photograph of a person he remembered loving so fiercely then. Not that he didn’t love her now, of course. Of course. He didn’t think he’d changed so much, either. It was only that whatever had been there, the yank at his gut in the first months when she’d raised her face for him to kiss – the desperation, or the passion – was gone. Or faded, perhaps. Maybe it would come back to him.

Charlotte murmured against him now. He didn’t hear what she said, but he answered, “Let’s go, okay?” She looked up at him, and he felt a tired, familiar affection warm him. She nodded, slipping her hand into his, and they left the park together.

Exit Only

I’m driving with Sarah when my dad calls, and my phone lights up. The road is just shifting into darkness now, my headlights spreading timid light on the pavement of the highway. The brightness of the screen is distracting, a tiny beacon pulling my gaze from the road ahead. Sarah taps the screen before I can stop her, and picks up the phone. I shoot her a look and turn my eyes back to the road. She covers the phone with one hand, and whispers, “You need to tell him we’re moving. Hurry up then.” Then she clicks on speakerphone and lays the phone down, where my father’s voice spills into the air between us.

He starts talking almost at once, telling me that he wishes he’d called me back sooner and he meant to tell me they’d thought it would be nice to have us over for dinner and they could really try to give Sarah another chance, as long as I wasn’t too silly about anything.

“Dad.” I can hear my own voice crackle on the line, little bits of static darting in like sparks.

“-you know how your mother is, of course we’ll get back to you on that. Nice to talk to you, Sam.” He’s still rushing over me, words clattering. Sarah moves the phone to slip into the cup holder and my dad’s voice is suddenly floating in the air by my ear, the sound thin and strained now.

“Dad,” I say louder. “Listen!”

He stops, and I stumble in the sudden silence. “I wanted to talk to you. I mean talk, can I talk for a minute?”

I can hear his sigh puff against the phone. He’s nodding, I bet. “Sure, sweetie, go ahead.”

“Um, okay,” I say, the words stark and loud now. The quiet stretches and stays. He sighs again.

How do I form the words? When he heard I had a new girlfriend he didn’t call me back for a week. He avoided asking where I lived or what I did. He pretended she didn’t exist, and now he wanted to have us over for dinner. Maybe, I thought, he would be okay with this. Maybe he would be okay with this if I weren’t about to move across the country with my girlfriend, hours away with a new job, a new house, and a new family.

I’m distracted now. I suck in a breath and let it slide out between my teeth, turning my attention back to the road amongst the gray shapes of the cars and the shadows enveloping everything. The lines between us and the rest of the highway are lengthening, coming together to block us off, and there’s a sign we’re about to pass – EXIT ONLY, it says, Exit 21 to Scarsdale. I don’t want to go that way. I signal and move into the next lane, fitting neatly between a clunky old car and a sleek little sedan.

My dad is still waiting on the phone, the silence stretching long and flat. “I don’t know, Dad,” I say. “I guess I forgot, we’ll talk later though. Sarah and I would love to come over for dinner. Can I call you back once I get home, since I’m in the car?”

“Sure,” he says, “talk to you in a little while then.” The phone beeps and goes quiet, and I can feel Sarah’s stare on me. I snatch a glance and she’s frowning. She doesn’t even need to ask. I know she thinks something’s wrong, because I didn’t tell him we were leaving.

“Oh,” I tell her. “It’s fine. I’ll tell him later.”

Reading a Letter

Martin’s eyes lingered on the familiar handwriting. It was cramped, hurried, the lines looped over and through one another. They seemed to convey the urgency of the message, and he read it over again one more time.

“My dear,

It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you, and I know things have been difficult. We’ve barely spoken for a while, yes, but I wanted to let you know that you’re still in my thoughts. More than that – I wanted to tell you that I love you. I never stopped and I don’t think I possibly ever will. I don’t know how you feel, obviously, but I’m letting myself hope that you feel the same way.”

Martin paused here to reread that last sentence. Just looking at the words made his heart flutter in his chest. He swallowed the emotion welling in his throat and read on, mouthing the now-familiar words.

“At least that you won’t be shocked and disgusted and annoyed by this. It can’t be a surprise, I suppose. But I’m waiting to hear back from you, my love, so please send a response as quickly as you can. I’m waiting for it, every part of me waiting for you. Just send me one message to tell me that you love me too, and I will be happy.

With so much love,
Martin”

He folded the paper again and slipped it back into the envelope. There was something sickening in his throat that he thought he might choke on, and his fingers caressed the words stamped onto the envelope: RETURN TO SENDER.