Unapologetic

“I’m sorry about the fight.”

“Yeah. I know. Me too.”

They sat in companionable, relieved silence for a minute.

“It’s just that it’s your fault.”

“What? You started the argument.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Okay. If you say so.”

“Whatever. It’s not like it really matters.”

“Sure. Of course not.”

They sat in spiky, broiling silence for a minute.

“I have to go.”

“Bye.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

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Truce

She is an old woman, querulous and domineering. He is a gruff timid old man, sometimes biting dry words into splintered shards. She snaps at him, shrilly plies plaints of empty supermarket shelves and rude waiters. He winces at each grating note, flinches when she begins to speak. And mostly he stays quiet, until he can listen no more, and hears a second of silence to speak, and grumbles a complaint of his own– then the cycle begins again. Every so often, he would be quiet for a long time after one of her tirades. She would look at him, and then her voice would be brittle and bright as she recounted some event from the news. Every so often, she would frown and turn away when his voice was too rough and impatient aimed at her. He would put a hand on her shoulder, and hold it there for a moment, before creaking up to standing and walking away.

Sunlight Stealing

Sunlight slipped through the window like a thief easing his way into their bedroom. Laura flinched from the brightness pressing at her eyelids, flaring in her half-sleeping sight.

She was just about to face the end of it. Falling asleep, she’d been brooding on their fight. Andy had curled up on his side of the bed, so she’d huddled on hers and run the lines through her head over and over like a script she was memorizing. She had been sure she was right, he was wrong, he should have called, she should be angry. Then she repeated the argument and she doubted. Later, though she couldn’t remember it, she was certain that the fight looping in her mind was the reason for the dreams.

Sleep swallowed her up while her lips were still moving around the angry words, and she dreamed. She found herself alone, in a vast and flat wasteland. There was nothing but desert sand and a wind that billowed and swirled around her. It pushed Laura, unyielding, until she dropped behind a hill. There was a cave there, lit from within. The sky was dark then, the sand near invisible, so she went inside. As she entered she saw that the cave glowed, an unearthly light from the crystals embedded in the walls. It was a tunnel, deep underground, and it wound and wove as she walked on.

There was the brief sensation that she had turned upside down. Laura knew she could feel it in her stomach, the quick twist from left to right, down to up. There was sky now, in the space she thought had just been the floor. It loomed above her head. It was lower, angrier, than the sky was normally, and it was a dull orange. She nearly brushed her nose on it when she looked up at the stars. The area around her was narrow, a long cramped room with the sky opening above it. Andy was there, and an elf, and a talking raccoon. They turned to her, and they said, “Hello, Laura, are you ready?”

She squeaked, “Ready for what?”

They did not answer her. Instead they turned, her lover and the talking raccoon, and gestured onward. At the end of the cramped room under the low dusty sky there was a door. It was nothing but wood planks, bound by iron and adorned with only a latch. Light shimmered around its edges. She reached for it, and it swung open. Andy walked up to stand next to her, at her right hand, and the raccoon appeared at her left. Andy said, “It’s an adventure, love. We’re going to face it together, just like everything else.”

She smiled, weakly, and the raccoon snarled, “Gods above, but dreamers in love make me sick. Come on, you humans, let’s go defeat the evil already.” She smiled at him too, and together they stepped forward.

When the mist cleared from around them, they were in a fair. There were balloons clamoring together in the sky and a little girl with a cloud of cotton candy. There was a giraffe walking past them and a clown flying by. Laura knew that the fight lay at the end of the lane, and with Andy and the raccoon beside her she walked bravely toward it.

Laura groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. The movement only jostled her awake, though. The pale stealthy light of the sun had already made its way into the room, and it had robbed her of her dream. She turned, and saw Andy. He was frowning in his sleep, probably still angry from the night before. She glared, annoyed, at the sunshine. She wanted the rest of her dream, the end of her story. She sat up instead, because the sun had come up before she could finish it. Her hands fumbled, her eyes still bleary, but she found her glasses on the nightstand and set them on her face so that she could see clearly. The dream was already fading as she shook the sleep from her head. The room around her was pale, just traced with enough light to see by in the waking day.

The General’s Dream

The general tossed in his sleep that night, plagued with a bad dream. He rose with the sun and rubbed the crackle of sleep from his eyes. He walked out to where the men were waiting. They looked so clean and smart in their pressed uniforms and their straight serious faces. They were very dear, he thought, and he felt a pang. Generals of armies were not supposed to think words like “dear,” least of all about their own young soldiers. But the sensation was there and it was growing, so the general began to speak.

The sunlight shining through these clouds in E...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This was supposed to be his stirring speech, readying them all for battle, lifting the sodden soldierly spirits up to the brightness of the sun that must be shining somewhere above all that foggy grey. Instead, he told them to wait until the sun came out on its own. There was no reason they had to die on this dark day, without ever feeling the sunlight sift on their faces again. They were free, forgiven of any loyalty to the army, just go. Go, he urged them, and watched doubt creep onto those rigid faces. Go, he said again, and the first broke away. One by one they scattered, and he watched them huddle into their tents with a pinprick of pride. Then he went to the other side, and here things got blurry.The general went to talk to the opposing army, to the surprised faces that awaited him there. He wasn’t sure what happened. He explained what he had done, and why, and recounted several important events in the war as though they hadn’t been present – though they hadn’t, he supposed, for his version of them. He wasn’t sure if that was when light began to dawn, or when he was taken out by a lone shot. Either way, the early sunlight was filtering its rays onto his face and into his eyes, so he blinked awake. The dream ended abruptly and there was no peace being brokered, as yet no fatal shot, no young lives saved.

The general dressed quickly and went to meet the soldiers, filing into line with fear in their expressions. The smell of soap and dread mingled, and the morning’s cold stole into their bones. The general recited his stirring speech, the last comma memorized and intoned to them. Then they went to battle.

Perfect and Falling

Everyone told them that they had such a good marriage. Emma was thinking about this as she stirred, her hand drawing empty circles in the air, dragging the wooden spoon through the bowl. Her thoughts were wandering as Jared talked, though her eyes were fixed. She was staring at the picture of the two of them that sat on the table near the door. In it, they were clasping one another close and beaming at the camera, bright against the dappled grey background. That felt like so long ago, even though it was only a year. It was a lovely picture, though.

“Are you even listening to me?” Jared’s voice snapped her back to him.

She shook her head as if to loosen it. “Sorry, honey, what was that?”

His mouth tightened. “Nothing. I was just telling you about my day, was all. Nothing important.”

“No,” Emma protested. “I’m sorry, I was drifting. Tell me, darling.”

He folded his arms across his chest, dark eyes smoldering. “I went to work. I came home.”

She bit back a sigh, holding the breath locked in her chest so she wouldn’t puff into his irritation and blow it bigger. He hated when she did that. “Sweetheart, please. I really want to know, I didn’t mean to get distracted.”

Jared crooked his eyebrows at her, almost appeased. “You got distracted from me by a cake?”

Berry soufflé.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

She frowned at him. “It’s a soufflé.” His shoulders sagged and she cursed at herself. Now he was annoyed again.

“Whatever. Soufflé.”

Emma stirred in silence, listening to the sound of her breath rustle in and out. She mixed, poured, and moved while Jared leaned against the wall, watching wordlessly.

They ate quietly. Jared told her about his day again, and she heard most of it. They would just have time – she had calculated the baking time so that it would be done ten minutes before they had to leave. They were going to Janet’s, and she’d promised to bring dessert. It was going to be a wonderful evening, she was sure. Their conversation meandered around the party, loitering at the subject of the guest list and skipping over Janet’s mother’s new illness.

Emma got up twice to check on the soufflé. It looked gorgeous, she thought. It was puffing up ever so gently, just peeking over the rim of the pan. The smell of it, delicate and sweet, spread through the kitchen. When she and Jared were more or less finished eating she swept the plates up and into the sink, sliding the food into the trash and leaving all the dishes in a neat stack. Jared came up behind her.

“I wasn’t done with dinner.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry, dear, I thought you were. It looked like you were just picking at what was left – ”

“Emma, you always do that.” His voice rose and bellowed at her, and she flinched. “You always just decide what you want to be true and then pretend it is. I wasn’t done eating!”

She shrank away. “Sweetie, it’s just dinner. There’s some left in the pot, I’ll get you more. It’s not such a big deal.”

“Of course not.” His voice was flat now, controlled. “It’s never a big deal when it’s something I’m upset about.”

“Really,” she persisted. “It’s just food. It actually doesn’t matter much.”

“No,” he said. “But if it were the other way around you’d glare at me like I’d betrayed you.”

She pounced on that. “I wouldn’t yell and make a fuss though.”

“You wouldn’t,” he agreed. “You wouldn’t make a scene, but you’d make me feel awful. As though I’d done something unforgivable. It’s always like that, like you have to have things exactly as you think they ought to be and if they’re not it’s my fault either way. You have this picture in your head of what I am and what you are and what this goddamn marriage is and you can’t stand anything that smudges the picture.”

She stared at him. “Jared. It’s just dinner. I just threw out your leftovers that I wasn’t supposed to. Goodness.”

“Stop it!” He was shouting again. “Stop acting like nothing is wrong. The dinner isn’t the problem. The problem is that you always do this and it’s driving me nuts. We have to eat dinner over polite conversation and be done when you say and arrive all stylish at Janet’s with a beautiful goddamn cake. You don’t even pay attention to me.”

She shook her head against his words, clinging to her, but they wouldn’t shake off. “No.” She looked at him, fuming, his face close to hers. She said, “soufflé.”

“What?”

“Soufflé. Not cake.” Her voice was level, sensible.

Jared’s hands sprung up and quivered in the air in front of him, and then he spun. He snatched his coat from the hook and turned to the oven, where the screen was counting down seconds; 39, 38, 37. He shot a vindictive look at the fuzzy shape inside and stamped his foot down, hard. Emma felt it send a quake through the whole house, a soft dull crash, but she stood frozen and still. As the door slammed behind Jared, she buried her face in her hands and cried.

Together

Every time a fork clinks on the edge of a plate, Evelyn tenses to keep from shivering. She can tell that Michael’s keeping an eye on her, and she can almost feel the weight of his disapproving stare when she hunches forward. His parents are oblivious, chattering away about the last time they were at this restaurant, and hasn’t Joan just gotten so tacky with all that big jewelry. She smiles as politely as she can, feeling her lips stretch all strained and aching over clenched teeth.

Michael’s mother is a heavy, overbearing sort of woman. They’ve never really liked one another, though they get on well enough. At least, Evelyn doesn’t think they like each other. It’s too warm in this restaurant, and the buzz of conversation keeps building to a suffocating pitch. Michael’s looking away from her now, he’s talking about Joan’s recent illness. Evelyn relaxes a bit, easing her shoulders down and laying her hands on the tablecloth. She’s done with her salad.

By the time dessert comes, she’s biting her lip so hard that she’s surprised it’s not bloody. His parents are at the end of a twenty-minute tirade about the state of things in this country, and Evelyn’s lungs seemed filed with a syrupy dread. When she met Michael’s parents, back when they were first dating, she had been struck with an uneasy sort of premonition. He was so unlike his mother and father, she’d thought, but Jesus save her from a marriage like that. It had made her glad for the easy, graceful relationship they had. After leaving she’d reconsidered, and thought that perhaps she’d been too harsh. His parents seemed nice enough, all told.

Every time they saw his parents, though, the feeling came back. Being around them made her heart pound in a ragged staccato beat and her lips curl in, skin catching on her teeth. She looks at Michael and he’s watching her, his eyes wells of gleaming dark in the dim lighting. He mouths, “Are you okay?” and she shrugs.

When they get home, she slips her coat and dress off at once. He smiles and pulls her toward him, but she ducks away. She sees the hurt on his face and thinks how ridiculous it is that he looks wounded over something so small, and she says, “That was an odd meal, sweetie. You know I don’t have the best time with your parents.”

He frowns and reaches for the remote where he tossed it on the bed earlier. The television flickers on, and his voice jumps to be heard over the end of a crime show, where the body’s being wrapped up and the detectives pat each others’ shoulders. Her eyes are drawn to it as she half-listens to him tell her about being disrespectful and understanding, which she apparently does in the wrong order. She nods, tries to smile at him, and says, “Okay, yes, I’m sorry. Could we avoid a fight right now? I’m just really tired.”

The frown eases, and he nods. The television is spewing noise into the air, someone advertising the next show over the music of the credits. They both slide onto the mattress from opposite sides and sit to watch for a while, slumped against the headboard, barely touching.

There’s silence except for the noise of the next show and the occasional shout from the street below the window. After a few more minutes they go to bed pressed up against one another, as usual. It feels like something they’ve done forever, except that she’s restless under the pressing covers. She shrinks from him ever so slightly, curls forward around the empty air in front of her, and he lays a wrist lightly over her waist, where it grates against the bone of her hip.

An ad for an online matchmaking service bounces onto the television, hearts wafting about the smiling faces of the spokescouple. They lean into one another and look boldly into the camera. “I’m so glad,” says the woman sitting on the left, “because without it I never would have found the love of my life. We’ve been married two years now, and I’m looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together.” They both flash bright grins and the screen fades to text. The words repeat in Evelyn’s head, taking on a queer bumping rhythm.

“For the rest of our lives together,” she repeats softly, her fingers over her mouth, feeling the words escape warm and soft on her skin. “The rest of our lives, then.”

 

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.