When she leaned down to retrieve her bag from the passenger floorboard she caught a glimpse of movement in the side mirror. She smiled crookedly as she opened the door, waiting for him to wrap his arms around her, holding her close in that special way that kept her warm in the cold northern nights.
He didn’t, and she turned around, a question on her face. He wasn’t there at all. The movement must have been more of the falling leaves that blanketed the ground as far as she could see, except for her pair of tire tracks weaving among the trees.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and slammed the car door. A tear tracked its way down her left cheek as she stepped carefully around to the back of the truck to gather the grocery bags. Some days, it felt like he’d been gone at least a hundred years, and some days like he had just stepped outside for a quick smoke.
Two bags swinging softly in each hand, she trekked through the yard and onto the front porch, where she spun once, scanning the acres between her steps and the long dirt road to nowhere.
Not a soul.
She sniffed, and rubbed the tear from her face with the back of her hand.
As she unpacked the groceries she realized that she’d bought his favorites once again: mac and cheese and those stupidly expensive all-beef bun-length hot dogs. She left everything where it was on the kitchen counter and walked, head down, to their–her–bedroom to throw herself down on the mattress and sob and sob and sob until she was red and puffy.
It was the next morning when she woke with swollen eyes and a throbbing headache. She opened her eyes and stared at the thin strip of sunlight tapering across the wallpaper next to the bathroom door.
His voice echoed in her head, “just where it gets in my eyes when I try to shave.”
She closed her own eyes again, squeezing them until all she saw was the brilliant kaleidoscope of pressure on her optic nerves. This time, when she opened her eyes, his presence was completely gone.
She kicked off her shoes and went downstairs to finish putting the food away, but had to stop and laugh at the wreck the neighbor’s dog had made of her kitchen. She knew it was old Rider; the devil was lying underneath her kitchen table, tongue hanging out on the floor, shreds of fancy hot dog wrapper scattered around his swollen gut.
“I didn’t give the front door that extra push, did I, boy?” She laughed again, louder. “I forgot how poorly you resist temptation.”
Rider startled awake at the sound of her voice, and began to scramble guiltily to his feet, but she knelt to scratch behind his ears.
“Good boy, Rider. Good boy.”
Rebecca winked at the small girl at the other end of the aisle. The small girl’s eyes widened in surprise and she quickly ducked around the corner, hiding from view. The momentary bit of levity lifted Rebecca’s spirits as little had lately. The sudden loss of her constant companion left a faint gray film over the entire world.
She sniffled and continued her half-hearted search for store-brand antihistamines.
I felt off when I clocked out at work last night. It didn’t wipe the end-of-my-shift-screw-you-guys grin off my face, but there was still this tiny collapsing place inside my chest where things should have been perfectly normal. It didn’t go away when I got home, either.
I sat on the couch until four o’clock in the morning eating ice cream straight from the carton and watching YouTube videos on how to groom llamas, which is normally a surefire crowd pleaser in this household, thankyouverymuch, but it didn’t work.
I say I only sat there until four because that’s my best estimate of when I passed out and dropped the ice cream to melt onto my favorite rug. That kind of pissed me off when I woke up with a crick in my neck and my ice cream spoon rattling against my molars. The spot of warmth snuggled up in the crook of my knees told me that my cat, Amelia, hadn’t given up on me just yet, though.
I sat up and swung my feet to the floor, and that’s when I found the ice cream. I made sure to thank Amelia for slacking in the dark of night. She meowed and walked away. I always knew she didn’t care about that rug. She pukes on it nearly every day. This morning the only thing on the rug was ice cream, so I guess I should have counted myself lucky. But I didn’t.
I stood up and felt that hollow space inside my chest again, aching for attention, but I didn’t know what kind of attention to give it. It didn’t feel like loneliness, or panic, or anxiety, or depression, or any one of the hundred bad things I had experience with.
So I did what I rend to do in these situations.
I ignored it.
I stumbled into the kitchen to grab a towel for the ice cream, but first I opened the fridge and took a good slug of OJ straight from the jug. I don’t have a lot to do with plates and bowls at home. I do know how to behave in public, though, so don’t worry about that. When I put the orange juice back on the top shelf of the fridge, I noticed that I still had an egg carton sitting there, which was weird.
I could have sworn that I’d eaten the last egg a couple days earlier, so I pulled the carton out and set it on the counter. I didn’t bother to open it. The weight already told me that it was empty, that I’d simply been too lazy or inattentive to throw it away instead of putting it back into the fridge to tease myself with the promise of eggs.
I’m such an asshole sometimes.
Amelia meowed at my feet and rubbed against my leg, and I leaned down to pet her and noticed that she waws only announcing that she had recently vomited on the very edge of the carpet, millimeters from the much more easily cleaned linoleum. That cat, I swear. She’s going to be the death of me one day. Probably in some highly unusual way.
I grabbed the dishtowel from the counter and took a step toward the living room to clean up the ice cream, and that’s when it hit me. It was my damn birthday. That’s what that feeling in my chest was all about. Now that I’d realized it was my birthday, I did recognize its unique emptiness and flutterings of nobody cares-ness.
I tried to shrug it off. Nobody knew or cared about my birthday anymore. I had no family and no friends, and i wouldn’t let any of my coworkers get close enough to me to know if I’d worn the same shirt the day before. For some reason, this year it didn’t work. I tried to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and continued to the living room.
I scrubbed the ice cream stain for a few moments, my knees reddening from the rough carpet fibers grinding into the tender skin. Finally , I dropped the towel and turned to plop myself on the couch, where I dropped my head into my hands and sobbed. As usual, Amelia failed to come and offer me any hint of comfort. She watched me from the opposite corner of the couch, expressionless as only a cat can be.
Claude pressed the door closed behind him, gently, so gently. The silence in his apartment was a heavy blanket that he came home to every night, once warm and comforting, now growing threadbare and itchy. He laid his keys softly in the wooden bowl on the table by the door.
Six steps to the end of the couch and a right turn. two steps and a left into the cubbyhole of a kitchen. A single glass from the cabinet above the dishwasher, a single paper plate from the neighboring cabinet. Claude stared at the paper plate a moment before returning it to the cabinet, his lack of hunger making the decision easy.
Ice from the freezer clattered into the glass, the sound shattering the silence with its knife-sharp assault on Claude’s eardrums. He cringed and weighed the bottle of whisky in his hand before twisting the cap off and filling the glass halfway. The grating of the metal cap on the glass bottle felt like fingernails on a chalkboard, but it was the price he paid to get to sleep at night. He tugged on the refrigerator door at the proper angle to keep the handle from coming off and topped off his glass with Coke.
The first sip was cold and bitter; Claude made the same face he’s made a thousand times before, wincing away from the taste, but compelled to return for more. He placed the glass back on the counter and leaned forward, eyes closed, his hands to either side of the glass, until his forehead touched the coolness of the cabinet door. The posture brought him no comfort, and he stood upright again. He took the glass with him to sit in his recliner.
A right out of the kitchen, three steps to the end table, and one more to his chair, soft and inviting. He sank down into its welcoming embrace and began to drink away the loneliness that threatened to engulf him completely in its darkness. Left foot, then right foot, he hooked his toes into the backs of his shoes and kicked them off, letting them fall to the floor, tumbling to rest against the base of the low coffee table that had never seen a cup of coffee.
And he wept, gently, so gently, fearing more than anything to disturb the blanket of silence under which he had lived for so long.
Her judgmental eyes follow the strangers innocently walking by. They will never feel the burn of her dismissal, but it’s there, nonetheless. No one will ever be good enough.
She sniffs dismissively and picks up her bag as she rises, her heels clicking all the way to her car. It reeks of solitude and superiority.
No one is home to greet her. Neither loved one nor pet, for she has none.
Because she’s better than that.
Her smirk is her only company.