I can’t stop thinking about him. I can’t stand being like this, even if just a memory has a shadow cast upon it by how he might be connected to the moment. It was okay for me to walk away from him because I’d been justified, but to hold out the olive branch of friendship only to have it slapped away? And what exactly is wrong with me? I still look mostly the same. Maybe too much the same. Maybe he wants me to look older, uglier, ill-used by all the years. Maybe he doesn’t want to forget what time we’re in and what we’ve gone through.
Maybe he just can’t stand being near me if he can’t be with me. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to say or how to even begin to talk to me anymore. That was always our problem: he couldn’t talk to me. Over the phone, when he was far away looking for work, he would dote on me like he would never see me again. The minute he got work that was local, our conversations stopped. He was too tired, too frustrated, too drunk, too everything but in love with me.
But some divorcees just can’t be friends. That makes perfect sense, our chemistry stopped ages ago, but that’s no reason to go to my father’s funeral and then refuse to see me later outside of the cemetery. Why not just send a note, make a phone call, or leave the flowers at his grave some other time? I don’t understand him. I suppose I never really have.
I can’t let this go though. I’ve tried for days, but I can’t get him out of my head. I feel like if I turn it around enough, I might finally figure it out, like staring at a Rubik’s cube long enough to finally understand that a few twists with align the colored blocks and make everything so simple.
It’s stupid to obsess about it this long though. All I really need to do in order to figure it out is go over to his house and ask him myself. But I don’t know where he lives. I could just ask around, but… No, that would just be a stupid idea. And it’s not so easy that I can just wander around looking at mailboxes.
If I am going to suck up my pride enough to go see him, I might as well just make the call that I’ve been dreading. I’ve been avoiding Damien for years, barely making eye contact at family occasions, but there’s no reason for us to let our personal issues get in the way now. It’s always been a problem with me, not him.
His phone rings excessively, and I start to worry that he’s not going to answer. He could be screening his calls, and if so, I’m sure I would be one of the last people he would want to talk to randomly. Or maybe he would. He’s always been a bit unpredictable like that.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite cousin,” he says down the line, and I can hear the amusement in his voice as there’s some sort of glass clinking. Seems to be a bit early for things to be crazy at the bar, but I know better than to ever try to predict how people are going to act when their alcohol is involved. “Immediate relatives get too frustrating for you?”
I’m sure that he knows about my father, but the two of them were never close enough to actually be on friendly terms. Still, it grates on my nerves to know that he could throw a remark like that out there after the loss that I’ve suffered. “Look, I just need to ask a simple favor of you, okay? And it’s nothing that you haven’t done before.”
“Is that so? I seem to remember what your ‘simple favors’ tend to entail. It’s simple for you because you just sit back and watch people do exactly what you want, and then you decide what you want from there.”
I’m a bit startled by the outburst, and my natural response is to assume that he must be drunk. There can be no other explanation for him being that aggressive that quickly. Why would he harbor such aggression otherwise? It’s been years. What is everyone’s problem in just letting go and knowing when to move on? “Why are you acting this way?”
“Because I’m tired of you getting to call the shots.” There’s more clatter in the background, and I hear his hand roughly cover the receiver so he can shout something. Great, so not only is he rude, he’s having this conversation in front of others. That’s just lovely of him. “I don’t know if you can grasp the full extent to which you’ve fucked up lives over the last twenty years or more, so let me just break it down for you. You make Dustin leave everything behind and marry you, even though you don’t break ties yourself. You get mad when he tries to support you, but you don’t do anything to actually tell him this when he’s standing right in front of your face. You let your friends mock him, humiliate him, beat the shit out of him while you just stand by and then beat the shit out of his heart. You put me in a position where my friend can hardly trust me because I’ve been lying to him for so long, and I can’t even blame him for it because he’s right. So who can I blame? How about the person who’s been looking out for her own happiness since day one?”
I wish phones still had cords so I could fiddle with mine, something to do with my hands while I stand dumbfounded and try to catch my breath. “That’s not true.” It’s all I can think to say, and I know it’s weak and lame, but it’s all I have.
“Isn’t it though? All you seem to do is break hearts while other people look to make sure that you’re happy. Can’t you think of anyone else but yourself? Even now, why are you calling me? After all this time? You’ve already said that you want a favor. It’s about Dustin, isn’t it?” He barely gives me a beat to reply, and when I don’t fill that space, he’s immediately ranting again. “I thought so. I’ve spent long enough trying to help that boy get over you. You don’t need to go prancing into his life again and fucking with his head.”
“I’ve already seen him. He was at the funeral. He—”
“It could have been his funeral.” The words are hissed with such aggression that even he seems to be a bit startled by the force, quieting down until I can only hear his breathing.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just an expression.”
“Not really an expression I’ve heard before.”
“You want to know? Fine. I guess your network of Jesus-loving housewives can’t tell you everything. After you left, when he was going through all your stuff trying to clean it out and finally move on, he took a bottle of your pills. Good thing I went to check up on him, or God knows what might have happened. You swore to him you’d be there in sickness and in health. Really all that you’ve accomplished is to show interest when it’s easy or when it suits you. Get over yourself, and don’t call me anymore. I have nothing to say to you and nothing that I could possibly want to share with you to help you with your own agenda.”
I hang up before he can, and I quickly slip my shoes on and race out the front door. I don’t know where I’m going, but the air is too stale inside the house. I feel the need to get away, an urgency that hasn’t really been this strong inside me since I was a teenager. I feel lost, like I’ve spent years of my life fighting on the inside but never actually making a move when it was necessary. What if he’s right? Is there any way to redeem myself?
I find myself stumbling through the front doors of the library. It’s not crowded yet, the kids are still in school and the odd homeless person tends to get herded out around lunch, but I still don’t see Dustin hanging around the computers. I march up to the front desk and see a wild-eyed librarian. Is that really a way to greet people?
“Dustin. I need to see him.”
“Excuse me. And you are…?”
“I just need to know where he lives. Please. It’s an emergency. It’s a…family thing. I don’t have his address, and I’ve lost his phone number. I need to go see him right now before he has to work.”
The woman looks scared. Really, I don’t know how she can put forward a good public face when she has to act like that when people actually need help. It’s just a bit silly of her. Still, I have to give her credit. She grabs a pen and scribbles down an address, even going so far as to add the cross-streets. She stops short of sharing his phone number with me, but that’s okay. I can find out from him.
The place he’s staying is only a few blocks away, but I run there anyway. I don’t want people to get a good look at me and my tears. I don’t want to be comforted anymore. I don’t want other people spotting the flaws in my life and telling me the one simple change I have to make in order to attain true happiness. I’ve tried to be good and pious, patient and true, and what has any of it gotten me? A divorce, a job I could have inherited from the family as soon as I graduated from high school, and living with my brother like we’re both still children. How have I grown from any of this?
When I reach the front walk, I’m breathless and have to rest my hands on my knees just to get some sense of balance. I keep my back to the street; it’s better for them to get a look at my backside and make comments about that rather than to see my face and remark on who I am and what I’m doing here, what I’m going through. They have no idea who I am or who I was, not really. How could they? How can I show anyone the whole of me when I’m still just a girl really?
His apartment is actually the basement of a two-storey house. The place resembles our old house, and I wonder if he ever managed to sell it. Last I heard, the church girls back there had been talking about pooling together some funds to transform it into some sort of home for the disadvantaged, a battered women’s shelter or something. Is he living this modestly because it’s all he needs as a bachelor, or is he still paying for our mistakes? I’ve never really stopped to think about that. Just because I didn’t ask him for support doesn’t mean that he’s free from any sort of financial burden.
Summoning up the courage to knock on the door feels more difficult than deciding to walk out all those years ago. I suppose back then I had a support system at the very least. And why wouldn’t people encourage me to leave him? All I did was cry and complain about the bad times. There was no reason to tell them about the way he’d stare at me even in the most crowded rooms, the way he’d hold my hand first thing in the morning, the way he’d leave notes that never left any doubt in my mind that he loved me. I just didn’t know if love could give me what I needed. But what did I need, and am I really better off?
I can feel the minutes dragging their companions along, and panic begins to brew as I picture him opening his front door to see me standing here, wringing my hands together and squeezing my eyes shut to pretend like I’m invisible. Walking away is more embarrassing than rejection because it means that I’ll have to come back with failure on my shoulders. I suppose that means all I have to do is knock.
The wood feels rough against my knuckles, and I wonder if he gets many visitors down here. Back in the other town, he wasn’t exactly a popular figure. He shouldn’t be here, not after what we did and how people blamed him for us disappearing, but I suppose my view hasn’t always been the most informed.
The door opens, and he peeks around with sleep in his eyes. It must be a day off. I immediately feel a blush rise in my cheeks because I remember what it was like to wake up to that expression. He would blink at me and then break into a glowing smile. That doesn’t happen this time, and I realize that I miss it more than I can even hope to say.
“Karen?” he asks, and I wonder if he thinks this is all a dream. Maybe it would be easier if he got that impression. Maybe I can encourage him. But before I can even speak, he holds the door open wider. “I’m sorry about the mess, but you can come in.”
This is far more intimate than meeting up in a café or something, but I suppose it’s private. He’d always hated airing our business in public. Things really aren’t so bad, mostly papers with Dewey decimals and that kind of stuff, but the occasional article of clothing has made its home on the floor or draped over a piece of furniture when he has a perfectly functional coat rack in the corner. I start to bend over to move a shirt before I remember that it’s no longer my place to pick up after him. I use the weird position to shrug out of my jacket. If he thinks it’s odd, he doesn’t let on.
He pulls out a chair for me at the table that’s in the undefined area between the kitchen and the living room. It’s all one big, open room except for the bathroom and the bedroom, neither of which I can see past closed doors. The other chair there doesn’t seem quite as steady, but he sits toward the front legs and leans just a little. I feel like a set should have four, but this is all that he has.
“I know why you’re here,” he tells me, and I should be startled more than I am. It would figure that he would be able to see through me and understand that I wasn’t content to be blown off the way that I had been. He brushes a few pieces of paper aside on the table, and then he uncovers it.
The leather cover is battered, some of the onionskin pages bent and torn, but it’s unmistakable: it’s the Bible that I left behind when I fled. I hadn’t packed much, and by the time I realized that I hadn’t taken it with me, it was too late to go back for it. I knew that if I did, I might not ever gather up the courage to leave again. Besides, leaving it behind would be some symbol of hope for him. I wanted to leave him, but I didn’t want to break his heart. It was at least something that he could cling to, and maybe he could find a lesson or something that would guide him and give him comfort through the endless nights apart.
“I’ve been reading it. I don’t know that I believe any of it, but it’s filled with so many stories. I still don’t get where you pulled half of those lessons or morals from, but I guess that’s your relationship with it, not mine. I can get my own copy though. I know that you want this one back, now that you know that I’m here.”
I stare down at it, the finality of this moment shaking me from the inside out. If I had sat down in his chair rather than this one, I’m sure I would go sprawling on the floor. “It’s not about that. You can keep it. I have another now.”
“Really, I want you to have it back. I should have just mailed it to you, but you didn’t leave an address, and I didn’t want you to know that I knew where you were. But then I turned up and it seemed too awkward to just come over and hand it to you.” His hand is smoothing over the surface like he can patch the damage done by all the years that have been so hard on the book. If the Bible can survive so long, surely people are just as resilient. I try to test that theory in my mind, but I can’t actually make myself believe in it. Not like I believe in what’s inside. “But if you didn’t come for this, what do you want from me?”
The last two words make me wince, like I actually pose a threat of some sort to the world that he’s been building. In a way, I suppose I do. I could so easily tear apart all the work he’s done to get away from me. And yet that’s kind of what I want. I don’t like the idea of there being a Dustin that exists out there without needing me in some sense. Slowly, just in case he has the sense to pull away, I set my hand overtop his. He doesn’t flatten out his palm to rest on the book’s title, but he doesn’t flinch either. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
His eyes slowly drop to our hands together, as though he can’t actually feel the connection of our bodies. He seems confused. Not pleased, not displeased, just confused. “Why would you possibly be sorry?”
“Because I let you think that everything was always your fault. Because I turned my back on so much. Because…” How can he even make out what I’m saying through the tears? Surely he’s seen me cry before, he’s brushed back my hair and kissed the stained trails away my cheeks. But not this time. “Because I never should have agreed to marry you.”
“Do you really feel like that?”
“I don’t think that we gave it enough time.” It feels funny, admitting it after so long. So much could have been avoided if I had just been a bit reasonable. We could have found out whether we were compatible. We could have lived together a bit, learned each other’s ins and outs. He wouldn’t have felt so obligated to take care of me, and I wouldn’t have resented him so much for failing to understand me. Maybe we could have grown tired of each other, but maybe we could have been friends first.
“Well, when passions ignite like that, it’s easy to go from love to hate.” I can hear him swallow thickly as he tries to make excuses for me. Maybe he’s always done that. Maybe he’s always blamed himself.
I press my lips against his cheek. The stubble is rough and immediately irritates my skin, but it’s the most refreshing thing that I’ve felt in ages. It’s the first time I’ve felt alive since I stepped out the door. “I never hated you,” I swear to him, and it’s the truth. “I just didn’t know how to share you with the world when I ran away to be with you.”
“Maybe there’s time to learn,” he suggests, giving me that shy smile that has always said that he doesn’t believe a word that he’s saying.
“Did you have any plans for the next twenty years?”
“Going to work in a few hours. But I can quit.” And there’s that mischievous grin again, the one he gave me so long ago when he unveiled a gun and I foolishly believed that it could be real. Back when I thought a boy and his toy could change my life forever.
“What would you do if you did that?”
“We’ll figure it out.”