fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
It was three months before we moved out that our cigarette smoking, pillowcase wearing, downstairs neighbor named Susanna started to die. You will remember the person but not what she meant to me. The nights when our soft footsteps on the second floor caused her to thrash her ceiling with the handle end of her broom became fewer and farther between. She stopped loitering outside the locked laundry room, standing barefoot in the yellow grass while her flimsy nightgown fluttered, looking on at anyone nearby with bloodshot eyes and a heavily wrinkled scowl. Her son, a tree trunk with a beard, knocked on her door less and carried plastic bags filled with over-the-counter drugs and cigarettes less, but he appeared more, idling in his car before softly turning the knob with his gnarled hands to step inside.

Our surprise that old women really did tap their ceilings and cuss at their upstairs neighbors was halted by the silence of her thin body occasionally wheeling an I.V. stand out to her son’s car. After that, she started coughing. The back of her bed or favorite chair must have been pressed against a wall, because we could feel the spasms of her diaphragm through the legs of our own bed as we laid together, and we could hear those coughs turn into gagging and vomiting through the vent in the bathroom before we closed that door.

Winter was over. It was the first day of May and the last flurries of the year’s last snow cut through air, mocking the red flowers that decided to bloom during the first warm spell. We were heading back from school after studying for our finals for most of the night. You went up to unlock the door and start making hot cocoa while I checked the mail. Did I ever tell you what Susanna told me when she met me at the foot of the stairs, right next to her door? I doubt it; you were irate with me then, as you were with me often when we first lived together. Her rheumy blue eyes glanced through me and appraised someone long gone while her white knuckles clutched the rail to the second floor. I could have pushed or slipped through, but her look stopped me.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“What?” I replied. No one who lived at that apartment ever talked to another person directly. If we could avoid it, we avoided eye contact also.

“I said ‘where have you been?’”

“Just at the library working.”

“It doesn’t matter. You’re always somewhere. Always busy.”

“Sorry?”

“You don’t have to apologize. I understand.”

She lit a cigarette and didn’t move.

“You never have any time for me,” she whispered while inhaling.

“I don’t think-”

“Your son is here with me, and you’re always looking at other women. I know you’re unhappy here, Cary.”

Smoke clogged my thoughts.

“If you need to leave, you can. It might be time for you to live by yourself. There will be child support, but you seem like you could use your own space.”

I started to push past her, but her gaze followed me.

“I loved you from the first time I saw you, but you don’t need to be rearing Wesley just because you’re committed to not having him grow up like you did, fatherless.”

She grabbed my arm through my coat sleeve.

“It would be worse for him to grow up loveless, Cary.”

I pried her cold fingers free and continued up the stairs.

“Where are you going? I’m talking to you!” she snapped.

“I live up here. My name is not Cary. Goodnight.”

The hue of her eyes shifted as she started to process what I told her. I stopped looking at her conflicting feelings when I rounded the corner onto the walkway outside our apartment.

Years have passed and that May snow would be a reminder of change and fixed expectations being frozen to death whenever they dared bloom into something majestic. We had many firsts but children were mercifully not among them. I vividly recall the day I dropped pieces of your unicorn puzzle on the grass outside that apartment, as I recall choosing to discard seasonings you believed would still be fresh years after we returned from teaching overseas together, as I recall breaking the sake cup given by your best friend, and as I will recall staring down this paperwork for separation after watching you return from your own job, after months away, a different person every time. I thank you for giving me the indicators of distance and disinterest I needed. I thank you for giving me the signals I needed to realize that a cold wind could return us all to the start, new plants in a new season.

Someday, when I’m clutching a rail with white knuckles while staring with pale eyes wracked with disease at you, dressed in the skin of a stranger, I will thank you for prioritizing your own destiny even at the dissolution of our partnership of over seven years. The stranger will know that even “forever” is a transient concept then, and the stranger will prepare more wisely than we did.

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fodschwazzle

May 2017

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