The party expanded in size, growing, as if resting on a bubble, bigger and bigger with every breath. Just when the room seemed to be brimming beyond capacity, the door smashed open, giving the human gaggle air enough to bellow the name of the first face spotted at the door, in a chorus.
I felt something of a bug tickle but couldn’t distinguish the source from within the hive. Someone touched my arm, lightly, just enough to get my attention. On the left someone I had never met before, my eyes moved right, followed by my head, and then my heart beating with the blaze of a firecracker, strong at first and then simmering down, landing in my toes.
I said words in my head, but they remained unspoken in my mouth; lies all of them. I said something like I’m fine, I’m well for the most part. The crowd moved with the sway of a rock stadium show, requiring white-water rafting balance skills to stay face-to-face. We cannot talk properly here, Laura said in my ear, let’s meet for lunch, let’s meet tomorrow. I nodded quickly, as she mentioned a place we both knew well. She melted back into the buzz, swept up in the waves, bopping in and out of focus. She reappeared in a flash as silhouette along the long bay windows and into the dim light of a picturesque amber sunset, which only the cat seemed to notice.
The restaurant so ripped apart, half closed, signs everywhere with pointed arrows leading customers away from the ugliness of stripped plaster and torn up rugs, the repulsion of change. Laura sat at a table underneath a large fern plant, draped in white light that didn’t look natural. She rose, tall and erect as a new lead pencil, waving me to the back of the long and narrow restaurant. Right away her freckled face and long ginger hair standing out amongst a sea of blond, and black, and brown, and smiling so widely it made me anxious. I marched forward, slower as I approached, pausing for something dreadful to happen, as if to trip on the icy tile floor, careening head first down the long aisle to her feet. I gave her some sort of a half embrace, half holding onto my large leather bag as an anchor.
She was surprised to run into me the other day, she said, then went on quickly with bullet speed telling me she was now working at an art school. The waiter’s ballet continued around us, twisting with grace to avoid our heads and shoulders while passing menus and plunking down condiments.
I nodded approvingly, but inside, I wondered why I’d accepted this invitation. Did I want closure of some sort, or for her to tell me it was just a senseless cliché five years ago, leaving me for my friend and writing partner, stealing all the gift cards and cash from our engagement party, where nearly 200 people toasted us and our upcoming wedding that fall? Did she want me back, or did she need money?
Her words all confetti, here and everywhere, I grasped only bits and pieces. All these ideas that deserved to be their own, now one long expression, one long sentence, and in all this togetherness her sentiments were incomplete.
One could say the volume in the restaurant was the problem, conversations fizzing from each table, yet the only other voices were that of the plasterers sitting on large tubs eating sandwiches, not seen but through the sheer tarp that moved with the breeze when someone walked past. Loudness from the outside was absent, but I heard it clearly: I heard the shrill of anger in my ears — fiery hot, once hitting my eardrum it burned there and disappeared into ash. It’s a sound I will never unhear.
She left me. She left me to explain and tell our sad story countless times on the street to friends and their accompanying strangers of how she’d moved away, leaving me with the cat and rent. The friend, after listening to the tale, would open their arms, reeling me into a hug that lasted too long, forcing me to break the release. Those hugs make everyone feel uneasy. The strangers only looked at their shoes.
I called to beg her home, please come back, but there was always a party in Silver Lake that needed attending, and a girl waiting in the car.
If only, she said now recounting the past, in the restaurant camouflaged in rented vegetation, if her paintings sold, we’d be off to Paris right now. “It was meant as a joke,” she said quickly. When did she learn how to do this, flip her treasons into sport, as if the other person was somehow stiff or needed to lighten up? I thought it the equivalent of men saying “smile” when passing a girl, demanding we change mood on command.
A rough changing of gear, head down almost in prayer, eyes a little closed, she told me my writing partner never really wrote, and she knew it was me all along with the brains and get-up. I was the one, said almost in song, it was me. The near apology made her thirsty, gulping water enough for a marathon run.
She pledged to pay me back, all of it, selling what she could and giving me all the money, vowing to return all she took. I see her now, a woman with artist’s dreams, yet never willing to work hard enough to live an artist’s life, alone and isolated, for the most part. Her face poised as she said the words, rolling up and down her arm a troupe of silver bracelets, worn to give her fingers a distraction. Scraping her feet to and fro, sandpapering the floor, the gaps between her words stretched. She was waiting for liberation, for me to tell her it was all fine like so many times before. Similar to the years I was attendant to so many of her masks, different each day, depending on her whim. Her casual way of slipping into role, promising this time she would see something through, until it was me she was done with.
In the newly painted air, through the haze of dust and soot, I realized her only profession was living astonishing adventures, and that those who loved her were required only to watch her have them and pretend they were more than daydreams. That was the love affair, after all; she was in love with herself and her stories.
We’d met in a bookstore, an old-fashioned shop sandwiched between a Starbucks and a Pilates studio, so small that from the street it was just a front door. Laura knew nothing of books, or running a store, but she baked small sugar cookies for the patrons and talked about the art section of the Times, so Diana, the owner, kept her around. Laura also pasted flyers all over the back wall of the store, so people came in to look for guitar lessons or a roommate. Diana loved the foot traffic.
I went in every Tuesday, waiting in the back and watching Laura glide from front counter to back room, as if on skis, side to side. Her jeans and sweater always a little too small and short for her body.
I drank two shots of rum that one Tuesday, walked to the store, and asked her right then to lunch the next day. She said she had a girlfriend, but they were nearly done, so she could go with me.
Sitting here with her now, after all this time, I wanted to see more age in her face, but her skin glowed with its normal pink-rose quality, and her eyes greener in the color scheme of pastels around us. When she leaned in, I backed away, slightly.
She appeared to be now thinner than I would have liked; not frail, but certainly not sturdy. The oversized gray knit sweater she wore swallowed her. Her voice cracked here and there, nowhere near as bullish as it had been, not the voice that made its way through the world with honor and a hint of dalliance.
I found myself only watching her lips, the way you do when you concentrate so hard and find yourself zooming in on something with microscope precision. These lips were cracked slightly in the middle, and the upper one so deep it may have bled recently. Her voice, coming through the crevices, telling of her advances in the art world, mentioning a menu of names I did not know. I nodded, I felt silly for not recognizing any of them; they all sounded special or famous.
She had met a hot new artist who only paints women with half a breast, and somehow this had a political meaning that impressed Laura. Whispering some of the words, as if she didn’t want me to hear all of them, for they were only amplifications of mundane happenings, and if said quietly enough, might not be discovered to be the worst thing of all—ordinary.
Her father passed away last year. Immediately I shuddered, the way you do when you hear someone died whom you never liked. I wanted to be sorry, for her, at that moment. He didn’t suffer, even though the cancer was all throughout his body at the end. He proposed to the woman he dated for years in his final days, and they had a small ceremony in the hospital with a few friends and the nurses on duty. He didn’t want to die alone, Laura said, and his new wife wanted the house.
The house, I remembered it well. A narrow house, with a stamp-like front yard entrapped by an aging wire gate, and a front door painted purple to try to make it look less ordinary. Her father’s pickup truck in the driveway, still with the plow on it, ready for the winter, with the name “The Old Pro” calligraphed on the door.
Just a few steps into a large living room a big brown cushy sofa, one you could swim in, soft now with age, more of a beanbag in its later life. The sofa we found ourselves on as we’d waited for her dad to come home to take us to dinner, but arriving early, he’d walked in on us half-dressed.
He threw us out, screaming for us to never come back. Tossed our things onto the lawn into a yard sale, throwing shoes so far over the fence they nested in the neighbor’s shrubs. Flaming red face, as he lobbed clothes, books, shampoo and bags, time and again, his double chin oozing lava.
Laura never cried, never reacted but to chuck him the finger as he slammed the purple door. Poised and cold, all six feet of herself, she grabbed her favorite boots and her prized bag of lotions, and carefully placed them in the mud-stained canvas knapsack. She took her time assembling all our things, while I cried and played dead in the corner of the yard, on the dust and straw that wished it could be beautiful blades of grass, if only for rain.
When he died she was barely speaking to him.
I realized I said very little during our lunch; I had done more watching. I had endured a hateful father, the half-start at an artist’s career, a playfulness about anything and everything, important or small, the nuisance of intellectual parties, her night terrors, the constant journaling, and the vegan cookies. All this, I suffered, for the way she looked at me – once upon a time.
We walked down the street like two soldiers, left then right in unison with each other. I noticed it, but she was too busy searching for a cab. She made a quick exit, kissed me lightly on the check and ran to avoid the mist, soon to be downpour. I waved at her, as she darted away from me, and without thinking in life’s half-second, I blew a kiss.
I felt unsettled, the taste of metal, the minute my hand left my mouth.
The morning light was calm through the white linen curtains. It wasn’t the alarm that woke me, but my neighbor practicing his trombone. It was a song I knew but never liked; it felt like it had too many notes. I tried to be careful with my thoughts, attentive with myself, delicate in my self-judgment. There were papers to grade, and summer was making her way into everyone’s plans, a listless energy of being half in the task and half out.
Friends tell me Laura left again, off to Argentina to teach English and work on her painting. A colleague and Laura’s childhood next-door neighbor revealed her photo to me over tuna fish sandwiches. Her hair up in a straw hat, wide glasses and a flowing blue and white dress, long to the floor, with matching flip-flops. A young man by her side, handsome, with almost white hair and dark brows. She is wrapped around him, holding him by the waist with both hands. A group of young students surrounds them, looking up into their eyes.
I picture her there in front of her class, students watching her write words on a small blackboard, waiting for what she might do next. My anxiousness lifted. This time I was left, but not in a windstorm of confusion but with a calmness fueled by self-forgiveness.
Pamela J. Picard works as a television producer and media director in Boston. She has an MA from Emerson College in media and visual arts. She is at work on a number of stories and a novel. Twitter @pamjpicard.
Photo by Callum Skelton for Unsplash.com.
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