Here’s a short story I wrote a few years back and I am still not sure what to do with it. This is part one and I will publish the second part next week. I hope you like it.
We were sitting in the remains of the living room, one sofa was missing already, and she uncorked a bottle of wine and poured herself a glass. She motioned it toward me.
“Mrs. Livesee, are you trying to seduce me?”
She rolled her eyes.
“This is not how I expected my year to go, Garrison,” she said, rising from her chair, and moving absently to the farthest wall where she faced a painting of the Moeraki Boulders. She stared at the forlorn rocks for a long time, perhaps trying to understand their purpose, or why they looked so sad. “Why did you sneak in?”
I hesitated for a moment, hoping she would go back to trying to seduce me, as that was a much easier conversation.
“Do you remember the last time I saw you?” I asked.
“The coffee pot incident?”
“Yes, the coffee pot incident. When you lost your mind and threw it at your ex-husband and nailed the side of his car. I couldn’t tell if you were aiming at me or him.”
“Divorce is hard,” she said.
I thought for a moment. “I guess he wasn’t exactly an angel either.”
“No. No he wasn’t.”
She finished her glass of wine and poured another and continued strolling around the living room with the casual ease of a preoccupied child. Her hand swung loosely by her side and she cupped her glass in the other, occasionally sipping from it, but now with less voraciousness. Her mind seemed to be millions of miles away, but her eyes kept straying to the walls and ceiling and occasionally to my goony face, as I stared at her from the recliner.
“You guys ran into some shit, huh?” I asked.
She gave me a crooked sort of smile and sighed a deep, heavy sigh that severely damaged one of the dense walls I had built up around my ability to feel emotions. “As soon as his mom started feeling the effects of Alzheimer’s, he dropped her in a nursing home,” she said. “It was so him. He was an easy man to fall out of love with.”
“That’s not exactly unusual for someone to do considering the circumstances,” I said.
“Yea, but he knew I didn’t like it. He knew I didn’t mind having her in our home, but he didn’t care. He thought about himself mostly.”
Did I want a lecture about human morality? Not really. Did I want her to call the cops and get me in on a B and E? Obviously not. So, I was willing to listen.
“No kids, but are you even surprised at this point?” she asked. “Not me. He wanted to wait, or he just decided on his own that he didn’t want children after all, as if having one was going to be the final rope that lashed him down.”
“Are you trying to convince me that Professor Sutherland was a piece of crap?” I asked.
“Henry,” she said.
“His name was Henry.”
“Henry Sutherland,” I worded. “His name was Henry Sutherland. That’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.” A warranted silence followed, as she gave me a strange look. “I know you’ve had your hardships, but let’s not forget that the guy drug me through Northern Michigan on a geological foray into who knows where, and then took my final and died.” I caught myself after it was too late and covered my mouth. It’s one thing to think that someone is dead, but it’s an entirely other thing to say that they’re dead.
She sat down with a huff and put her now empty glass of wine on the table.
“How do you even get a botfly in your head?” she asked and stared at me seriously from across the room.
“I guess it happens,” I said.
For a moment, I considered whether I would tell her the truth or not, and then the stress of graduation, my future, and the crime that I had committed caused a Krakatoa-level explosion and I just kind of blurted it out: “Um, I think I killed him.”
She looked at me, her chin down and her eyes pointed forward and slowly her brows raised. I kind of expected that reaction.
I tried to correct myself as best I could: “Like, I didn’t stab him or shoot him or anything … you know, because of the autopsy … but when we were out inspecting sandbars and cut banks this summer, we were also collecting fishflies for his biologist friend … Samuel something something … and I grabbed this fat juicy one that was a bit squirmy, and I put it in a jar thinking his friend would get a kick out of it and then I didn’t think about it again.”
She was still looking at me curiously.
“Well, he said he was keeping them in his basement until Samuel whatever-his-name-was collected them, and I think it must have gotten out, and it’s my fault, and I haven’t really had time to register that, and I feel pretty horrible.”
“Garrison,” she said quietly. “Shut up.”
When I started my independent study for Professor Henry Sutherland, though, I never imagined collecting rocks from dirty swamps and outcroppings, knee-deep in sludge, poking at less-than interesting stones underneath the deep-brown mud, while Dr. Sutherland lambasted me with terminology.
“We are going to do some geological mapping … blah blah … and create some topographic maps … blah blah.…”
Professor Henry Sutherland could kneel and pretend to be introspective over something as banal as rocks or soil, but I could really care less. Yet, unlike me, he always seemed so overjoyed. He could prod some dampness with a pen and then pull a stone from the dirt with glee and place it in his pocket while jotting down notes, and he was happy. I think he had been published in a magazine before—something about a new classification of rock that he and nine hundred other professors of geology had spent hours of work and toil feigning interest over. But, he WAS happy. And that’s all I knew about him really. I never saw this other side. I only saw all the annoying success and dedication.
“Do you know what it’s like to go to bed without their touch?” Heather asked. “Without the one person you promised to love forever because they were too busy with their passions, with their hobbies … with their jobs?”
I thought about Maggie, but rather than being uncaring or distant, she was always there when I needed her. When I got really sick with a virus over a year ago, she doted on me with the kind affection of a mother. I was sweating, coughing, and, worst of all, contagious, but she could care less. She bought me medicine, jammed soup down my throat, and kissed my damp forehead. It was such unconditional love, which I mistook for peremptory control, but I hadn’t been aware enough to notice. My thoughts jumped to when my parents kicked me out of the house on my first offense, and Maggie was there in minutes. She drove me to the liquor store for cheap whiskey and even cheaper beer. She even cuddled me after I yelled at her, drunk, and too emotional to consider the people around me. No, I didn’t have the problem of an uncaring, distant lover. Because I was one.
“I think after I found out he was sleeping with someone else I knew there was no repairing our relationship,” Heather said. “If you’re so distant and self-involved, how is someone supposed to get through to you? He had this wall around him that he wouldn’t let me break down, and when I tried he would turn into this horrible monster—someone who I barely recognized anymore. I couldn’t talk to him or reason with him, and then suddenly his hands had been on somebody else. His lips on her skin. I could just throw up thinking about it….”
As if to stifle a retch, she drank more wine and we sat in silence.
“Garrison?” Heather asked, after slow minutes had passed between us. “Will you do something for me?”
I’m not going to lie, at this point the guilt was setting in pretty hard. “Yea, yea, anything. What do you need?”
“Promise me that when you’re done dicking-off with the stoner attitude, you move on with your life, you never forget about the other people around you. That girl you are dating, for instance, be nice to her … if you love her. Don’t forget that there’s more to this world than just your success.”
Of course, I had forgotten the people around me. Maggie was the first person I called when I got into it with my father, and she was the first person I thought of when I was stressed out and overwhelmed with course work. I always thought about her in those moments of dire necessity, and I guess that was important. With experience, you tend to learn things. So, I mean, I guess I kind of avoided her when she called to talk about her feelings. But those conversations always drag on and I always forget about what we discussed immediately after because I have a habit of not listening as intently as I could. True, I never discussed our relationship goals either, because sometimes when we argued I didn’t really want a future with her. So why set goals? I guess I also always waited for her to apologize to me, and I suppose I always put my own interests and feelings first. Was I just an enabler of my own self-interest? Couldn’t be. I could get mad at her, but I missed her when she was gone, and I still liked her company. I loved her company. I loved her.
I guess I saw Heather’s point: I had been kind of a dick to Maggie for most of our relationship.
I sat there stupidly, realizing that this final project had completely consumed me, and I had ignored Maggie and I had really messed up. I had all of Professor Henry Sutherland’s qualities and none of his success, which either way was a fast trip to failure. I had somehow turned into or perhaps always was this guy I didn’t like very much.
Heather got up from her chair. “I know why you’re here. I found your project in his bag and put it in a box in our bedroom. I’m going to get it for you, but you’re going to promise me first.”
“I promise,” I stammered. The jittery words rolled out of my mouth like marbles. I was terrible under pressure, really.
She left the room and I sat quietly thinking about Maggie. I was trying to figure out how to make it better, as though the immediacy of an epiphany would forgive years of carelessness. Sure, I could go buy flowers for her, maybe a present, but how does that not reek of a contrived apology? Heather was gone for excessively long minutes, as if Father Time were pulling each second out like a thread of string and making me endure the added calamity of reproachful silence. There was a shuffling sound, a curse word, and then silence as she dug quietly through a box.
Heather didn’t have to say it, but she hated it—being a caretaker of the dead. Her actions, how she sighed, how she drank. Everything repulsed her. She hadn’t been able to escape Professor Henry Sutherland completely, and she was brought home by her own inability to understand a man who was far more complex than the superficial character that I had thought he was. It made me think that we could all be villains in our own relationships and maybe just due to emotional inattentiveness. Maybe some of us care too much and others too little. Maybe some of us just have to try a little harder than others.
Heather returned, still sighing in her roundabout way, and handed me my project. I took it. It was graded. I had passed. But, it didn’t mean as much anymore, as my main interest had suddenly shifted from me to someone else. I gave Heather an awkward hug as more of a means to console her than any real attempt at connection and left quickly with a jumble of thoughts in my head.
I darted out into the darkness, across the street and down the road.
Sure, maybe buying Maggie flowers would be contrived, but it was a start, I thought, as I ran into the nighttime air… and maybe I’ll buy her some pistachio ice cream, too. I knew she would like that.