Empty Chambers

For Rent: Two chambers of the heart belonging to a 31-y-o woman, available for lease or sublet, mostly furnished, very clean and spacious. Please contact Meredith Elton, 839-2983 or email meredith.love@hotmail.com.

There were often long stretches when nobody answered the ad. Meredith got busy during those times. She reorganized the kitchen and swept clean the tiled floor. She wiped down the counters and table and she did loads upon loads of laundry. She sat in front of her computer and hit “refresh” while the same page disappeared and returned, still with no answers. Usually it was a while before she heard anything, but usually too there was an inquiry from someone before she started to seriously worry. Only once did the waiting go on long enough that she had no laundry left to do and no reconfiguration of cabinets to try. It had been so long that Meredith was probably less careful than she should have been. When a new email finally slipped into her inbox, her pulse stuttered. She flew up and sat herself back down. Her fingers twitched and hurried over the keyboard.

They set up a time to meet for an interview the following week. When she walked into the café, she recognized her new tenant at once. It was a man this time, a lanky bearded man with blue eyes and dark hair. He smiled when he saw her. She sat across from him and they had a pleasant conversation. The words shivered and dropped into the air between them like coins into water, shimmering to some distance away and then resting at the bottom. The words didn’t matter so much. Meredith had already decided that this would work.

The man moved in at the start of the next month. She helped him. It was difficult at first, between the heavy furniture and the boxes filled with the miscellany of his life, but it all seemed to fit, more or less. She was sure that even the oddities would find a home on a shelf somewhere. He seemed very glad at first to be there. He looked into her with a smile she knew would grow familiar, and she trusted him. She gave him the keys and a brief lecture on things he shouldn’t do, though she told him she was sure she didn’t need to say these things. They rested their tired shoulders against the bare wall and watched the light filter in through the windows.

She was often wary about people staying in the chambers of her heart. After they left, the lease done with and ripped up and the keys returned, there was work to do. She had to scrub the traces of them from the rooms they had just left. She had to pick up the litter they left crumpled in the corners. She had to decide what to do with the movie posters, the folk music CDs and the canned black beans left hiding around corners like thieves. Then she had to get used to her empty heart again. She walked through the rooms that echoed with each footfall and paused in the hall, knowing that nobody could see her there with her hand caught in half a caress of the doorframe and her fingers fitted to the bumps in the molding.

With this new man Meredith was not wary. She didn’t worry about the scuff marks of his shoes on the floors or the scrapes he might leave on the counters. He settled himself into her heart and she let him without reservations. He looked like he belonged there. She thought the color of the carpet in the bedroom was just the same shade as his eyes. The windows were the right height for him to look from and his bookshelves fit across the living room wall as though made for them. He walked into her heart and belonged there like nobody else had done.

When he left it was a surprise. They were halfway through the lease. She knocked one day and nobody answered. When she went back for her spare keys and let herself in, worried, there was nobody there. She found a note taped to the refrigerator with too few words on it. She let herself sink in sadness against its cold smooth surface. She’d thought this one might stay. He’d taken most of his things. She walked through the rooms, forcing herself to step through each doorway and look at the neatly made bed, the swept floors, the empty bookcases he must have decided to leave. He hadn’t left her anything to do. It was all clean, without even a whisper of him. Her heart was left empty.

Meredith had to be busy, so she did her own laundry. She cleaned her kitchen and she swept her floors. She stayed out of the chambers of her heart. She had nothing to do there. She spent her time crinkling her forehead at stains and resting her aching back. She hasn’t decided yet whether she will let out her heart to someone else again.

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Apart

I said goodbye to you without crying. I left what remained on the sidewalk there with you to be run over, stepped on and kicked aside. There wasn’t much left anyway.

Ours was a relationship that crumbled. We held it tight in our sweaty hands, clasped together, but it was seeping slowly through the cracks. We tried to catch it and let it pile again, make a shape, build on our palms. All it did was run over our skin. It was smooth as it dripped and slipped and slid away, it was soft and lovely, and then it was gone.

Perhaps, someday, we will find one again. A relationship, a life, something. We will never find those powdery remnants of love that was. Those are lost. Maybe someday we will find a new place, a new way, and it will be something too strong and solid to ever crack. It will never crumble. We will never have to grasp, frantic and falling, at one another to hold it together.

Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.

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.

Goodbyes

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.

Familiar Shifts

Kate was uncomfortable as she walked over to meet her father. Her new shoes were rubbing blisters around her heels and she could see the skin already reddening. He was waiting when she got to the cafe, his coffee already half empty.

He looked up, and gave her a flat grim smile. “Hello, sweetheart.”

“Hi Dad,” she said, sliding herself into the seat opposite him. “Joey’s all unpacked.”

He scowled at once. “I was hoping we could have some nice conversation before we started fighting about this, Kate.”

She pushed out her lower lip. “Well, we can’t,” she said, using her best firm-but-clear voice. “I’m not going to change my mind, so you just have to get used to it. You should just talk to him already, this is dumb.”

“No,” her father said. He leaned onto the table, folding his arms over each other and looking straight at her. “He comes to his senses, or we don’t talk to him. You know that’s how that is, and I’m surprised at you that you’d go against us like this.”

“Really?” She felt suddenly upset, heat flushing up her face. “You’re surprised I’m doing something that you didn’t tell me to do first? God, Dad, he is my brother and he is your son whether you’re mad at him or not. And you’re mad at him, I’m not.”

“We’re not angry with him, Kate, but he needs to change before we’re willing to talk to him again.”

Kate folded her arms back at him. The anger built in her chest, boiling and overflowing until she spit it out at him. “You can stop talking to me too then. I’m done with you.” She said it and watched his face drop into sadness, and then she left.

She started home earlier than she’d expected. She had to help her brother settle in, after all.

Closed

Lee couldn’t open the box. It was small, the length of his index finger. The little strips of gleaming wood fit tightly together in neat stripes, and his hands looked round and awkward trying to pry open its smooth angles. Rachel was watching him, her pale eyes fixed on his face. They were icy blue in the sunlight, closed and blank. He never knew what she was thinking. The market around them was busy and loud, but his eyes were drawn to her amongst the chaos.

He handed the box to her. It fit into her small hands like it was the right size, as if they were made to go together. She put her fingers delicately on the corners and tugged, and the box slid right open. It was a little drawer with a dried flower inside, but Lee only got a glimpse of the sky-colored petals before she snapped it shut again.

When she handed the box back to him, her fingers brushed his palm. Rachel smiled into his face. He could feel the touch of her skin on his, even though her hand was no longer on his. Stop, he told himself. He was being very silly. This was the sort of thing that happened all the time. He was prone to closing his eyes when she nudged him, as if her movement shone on him like the sun on his face. He would let the warmth sink in, and then shake himself and keep on. And then tell himself he was being silly, probably, because when she touched him it didn’t look like she even noticed. Every graze or poke electrified him, but her face was always empty. Impassive.

There had been one time that he treasured, one moment of uncertainty. Lee folded his fingers around the edges of the box again and pulled, but nothing moved. Rachel was shifting now, impatient, and Lee glanced up at her and remembered that moment. They had been watching a movie, he thought, and he had looked over at her as she sat transfixed. The music onscreen was jumping and rising, and she’d turned to see him, the longing written on his face. For only a second, her expression had come undone and her eyes had opened wide, before she turned back to the screen and closed herself off to him again. For a breath, though, they had been looking clearly at one another.

Lee yanked on the box, frustrated. It wasn’t budging, and his enthusiasm was wavering. He passed the box over to Rachel again, hoping to watch how she opened it. She didn’t, though. She just placed it on the table again, between the Rubik’s cubes and the spinning tops. It looked small and innocuous there in the clutter of toys, but the light gleam of the wood still caught his eye. Rachel’s movement flashed in the corner of his vision, and he turned to follow her as she ducked back into the crowd.

He sighed at his own folly as he wove through the market, keeping his gaze on the blue of her sweater and started after her.