Annie told him it was over. The weight of the words could be seen on his shoulders. They sunk in, slowly, until he shriveled. His face melted in disbelief. His jowls and brow fell, and his ears turned red as though stung. He sat back on the couch, turning away from her and stared through the blank black screen of the television.
She stayed silent for a minute. She wanted to talk, the silence was so uncomfortable. It was a full minute later before she whispered, “John?”
He exhaled. A sound, not a sigh, not a groan, but a tiny death rattle, guttural and weak.
“I just…know. I just — know that it’s not — going where we need to — go. I know you don’t feel the same way.”
“Of course I don’t. I picked out a… how could…“
“That’s what I mean— I know you don’t feel the same way. I just couldn’t stop it— I didn’t know how.”
“I just know. I know it’s not going to work for me. I’m too young, I’m not done with school, I still live with my parents— I just— there’s too many things. You’re 30 now, you’re an Atheist, you’re still in the same apartment, the same job.”
“Wait— what? All those things were the same a year ago. My age, my religion, you living with your parents, my house, my job, it’s all the same. Why now? What changed?”
“That’s — I mean — I did. I changed.”
As John walked to his car, he felt his shoulders continue to shrink. His shirtsleeves felt heavy. His steps slowed. The night was quiet. The walk to the car took hours; he was standing its door, staring at nothing. He put the key in his pocket and kept walking past.
The night was cool. Cool nights were rare, and the night was dark enough that the bugs were gone. The moon was only a sliver. His steps were slow and light; as his body fell into itself its lightness allowed him to levitate. He was floating, free from anchor, weighted by nothing, the atoms spinning and bouncing bouncing so fast that he moved like a spectre.
He felt a buzz in his pocket and his head snapped. His left hand twitched and he unclenched his fists. He grabbed his phone and looked at the screen. A message from his brother. He clicked the phone dark and put it back. He looked up and around to see how far he had walked. The trees were denser and the lots were larger, the houses set back just a bit more and looking so dark and far away. It was only 10:30, but on a winter night, it felt like light had disappeared a day ago.
The houses were all ranch houses, wide and flat fronts that smiled at passerby. Most of the windows were dark, save for the occasional single bulb behind closed curtains. John’s gaze floated from window to window, dark to light to dark. Occasionally a bay window would offer a painting of the room inside, lit from some other source, a hallway or kitchen light, and the shapes of the room would tell a story. Long lampshades were spectators to the grappling match between silhouettes made by couches and tables. A wall of photos enshrouded by darkness but enshrined by a halo of secondary light. The drama and comedy that these scenes offered was not lost on him. He saw all the endings to all the stories at once: openings and embraces, estrangements and deaths.
He walked on.
When he first saw them through the window they appeared to be still, but their body language told him they were locked in a battle. Three paces apart and entirely focused on one another. When John joined the story her arms were straight out and 20 degrees from her body, hands splayed out with long fingers taut. His head was bowed ever so slightly and the shadows his brow and nose cast accentuated his despair. John stopped walking and turned toward the window silently, his shoulders square against it from 60 feet away. A stone pine covered him in shadow.
The silence in the room was evident from outside. His head eventually lifted and her hips shifted as he began to talk. Her splayed hands turned to loose fists and she squeezed them softly in and out. His hands offered apologies and recriminations at the same time, one hand open and flat palmed while the other pointed sternly down. As their conversation continued, John studied what he could make out of the pictures, family shots on a background of greenery, solo shots of the kids in school and sport uniforms.
Even focusing on the small details, his distance from the scene allowed him to read the stories they were telling each other. He could see that they were telling truths. The strain in the faces, maybe the defeat shifting from her stance to his and back again, but there were no lies between them. Nothing hidden, nothing spared in the language of their hands and arms and eyes and lungs. Just shifting awareness and understanding.
Eventually they settled in, sitting. At first on opposite ends of the long couch, then turned toward one another, then leaning in. At some point he got on his knees in front of her on the couch and she rested her hands on his shoulders, then they embraced.
John retched and heaved. All at once his mouth filled with bile. He spit a mouthful onto the grass and sidewalk, stared at it for a moment. He wiped his mouth, then turned back the direction he had come from.
John’s phone buzzed.
It was five days later, 7:30 in the morning. He looked at it, then swiped it to read the message she had sent.
(I wanted to check in. How are you?)
(i’m fucked) he typed, then deleted it. (i’m ok)
(I didn’t know if we were going to talk more. I know you’re hurt and I didn’t want to pressure you)
(yeah. i don’t know what to say)
(Can I stop by so i can see how you’re doing?)
(sure. i’ll be getting ready for work soon)
(I’ll be there in 20 minutes.)
John stood up from the bed and looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. He had already showered, but was in gym shorts and a worn t-shirt with a band logo on it. He shrugged, walked to the living room and parked on the couch. He turned on the TV, settled on a poker game and left the sound off.
There was a quiet knock on the door.
He opened the door and Annie nodded lightly, then stepped past him. She was in her uniform, from the restaurant across from his work, where they had met. She sat down in the chair. He sat on the end of the couch closest to her, as she glanced at the screen and saw an insurance commercial. They sat in silence for 90 seconds as she looked at him and he stared at the wall above the television.
Her white sleeve with the button collar was riding up her right arm and he saw something on the inside of her wrist. They were shiny and small and he couldn’t read them, he could only recognize the crosses that bracketed them.
“Oh, yeah, I got it Monday. Just a reminder of Grammy.” John realized that the words he couldn’t read were a set of dates.
“I haven’t seen you this week.”
“I had two days off, and I ate in the lunch room twice. I wasn’t quite ready to see you.”
“I know that we’re going to see each other, and I don’t want it to be awkward.”
“Well, it’s going to be. At least for me…at least for a while.”
“I know and I’m sorry.”
John turned and looked at Annie. The tears started, welling in the corners of his eyes. She blurred in his vision and he blinked. He was silent, looking at her and blinking, as she looked down.
He stood up silently, and walked to the bathroom. He wiped his eyes, then came back past her and walked to the door and opened it. She stood and walked past him, a light touch of her hand on his shoulder. His flinch was barely perceptible.
John waited another week before he started going back to her restaurant. He ate there three times that week and never saw her. The following week he was there three times and never saw her. On Friday, after he signed the check, he looked at the pen in his hand.
He looked at the pen, and set his left wrist up on the table. He wrote two dates on the inside of his wrist and bracketed them with Xs. He set the pen down, got up and walked out of the restaurant.