This is a story I started a couple of weeks ago. I’m just getting back into things, so I’m unsure of it, but I’ve had fun with it so far. Let me know what you think.
When I believed in the power of hugs and butterflies I was young and naïve. I believed that an apology could cure all and that forgive and forget was an easy way of life. I thought that a smile and courtesy would get you by more often than not.
In other words, I was crazy.
There are few things in life that are certain. Some say death and taxes. Though it’s a clever line, it’s a less than stellar observation. You can fail to pay taxes simply by failing to make any money. Sure you’ll have sales tax, but no one was talking about that when they made that statement. As for death, well, death is certain, but it’s not in life. It’s at the end of it. So I doubt that counts.
What is certain, though? Is certain the fact that no matter how full your hands are, you will always use the wrong key in the door? Is certain the knowledge that you will remember a good comeback far too late after the incident to actually use it? Or is it just the truth that moving on is hard and is truly never complete?
Probably all three. I can’t explain the first two, but I can tell you a bit about the last one. And it is there that our story will begin.
The door slammed on Anna’s ’95 Corolla with a thud.
“That damn seatbelt!” she yelled as she walked back to the car yet again. She had already made the return trip twice—once to retrieve her purse and once to roll up the windows. This third time was almost an insult.
She opened the door, placed the seatbelt back into the car and closed the door again. From the parking lot in front of her building she could see her dog, Master, staring out the window at her, it’s tail knocking into the curtains to each side of him. Master never did seem to understand the power of his muscular tail and it had been the destructing force behind many a knick-knack in its five years.
“Mast—I’m on my way.”
Her phone rang. Why was it she could not seem to complete simple tasks today? From the moment she opened her eyes until the moment her phone rang everything has gone wrong. She lost her wallet for approximately fifty minutes this morning only to find it and realize she forgot to pay her credit card bill. That really set the tone for the day.
“Hello?” She didn’t even look at the caller ID.
She dropped her keys and her purse.
“Hello? Anna?” The voice continued.
She always thought she’d remember this voice. Little did she know the voice would catch her at a bad time.
“Yeah? What?” she answered as she bent over to pick up her keys and purse.
“Who is this?”
“Anna…you disappoint me—“
“It wouldn’t be the first time today.”
“You don’t know who this is?”
“If I did, would I be asking?” At this point she was getting angry. Too angry to let the comment go unrebuked, but not long enough to hang up the phone.
She dropped her keys again. There was a long pause. She stared down at her keys and attempted to regain some composure.”
“Sean Lawrence…” the voice went on almost sarcastically.
“I realize what Sean, thanks.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure there for a minute”
She felt like saying that she still wasn’t sure, but instead Anna took a deep breath.
“What do you need, Sean?”
“Well, there’s no love lost there, I can—“
Anna interrupted abruptly seeing an opening that could not be refused. “Nope, there really is no love lost anymore.”
The silence came again. She contemplated hitting the end button as she bent over and picked up her keys for the third time.
“Anna, I need a favor.”
“I’m shocked.” Her sarcasm prevented him from hearing the trembling she felt in every syllable that her voice sounded. “You usually need something.”
“Anna…give me a chance.”
Anna thought about the word “chance”. It was chance that she dropped her keys. It was chance that she was craving cheesecake the day it was on sale at the bakery. It was chance that allowed her to win the fourth grade spelling bee. This, however, was not chance at all.
“Well, here’s the deal. I need to meet with you.”
“Give me a minute to explain…” he waited for her to chime in, but she stood silent, now leaning on her car. “Anna, I’m in rehab.”
She didn’t know whether to be surprised, happy or sad. The fact that Sean was involved with some sort of substance abuse problem was not surprising. The fact that he was getting help for it was.
“And one of my steps…”
“Of the twelve?” She couldn’t help it.
“Yes, of the twelve. Well one of them is to make a mends. You know…apologize.”
“That’s a novel idea, Sean.”
“Yeah…well…I guess I deserve that.”
She allowed the silence to act as her concurrence.
He began again, gathering breath as if it were strength to be had, “And I feel that maybe this apology should be in person. So I was thinking—“
“Listen, Sean. This is all very sweet and sentimental. And an apology would have been great like five years ago. I know you may not know this, but I’m not much in the mood for reminiscing as of late.” She re-opened the car door and sat down. Obviously she wasn’t getting out of this one any time soon.
“I know.” He sighed. “I know about what happened.”
He knew? That was a relief and a searing pain in the ass at the same time. She wasn’t ready to talk about it and yet she was upset that he knew anything about her anymore. People shouldn’t be allowed to know about you once you’ve moved on. It should be written somewhere and the parties should agree upon it when the decision is made to move on. And penalties for breaking it should be large and…
“Anna. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bring it up.”
“Just let it go.”
She swung her legs around and looked in the review mirror. Her round face was frozen in a grimace that even scared her. She opened her mouth and made her lips into a big oval and then quenched them into a small pursed opening. Focusing on her teeth she avoided the inevitable question.
“So?” he asked finally.
She had to answer. “So when would this meeting be?”
“There’s visiting hours Saturday. Eleven until two.”
“Where are you, anyhow?”
“It’s a small private place. I’ll send you the directions.”
“Fine. Noon. Saturday. You have twenty minutes.”
“Yeah. Well. Thanks.”
She garnered the courage to hang up the phone. This was one of those rare occasions she missed having a good old rotary phone. The phone slam doesn’t translate to mobile devices.
She closed the door to her left.
After all of these years…after everything that happened, he wanted to apologize. As nice as an apology sounded, Anna wasn’t convinced that it was genuine. More importantly, she was far from convinced that it was a good idea. Sometimes the past belongs to things that are better left unsaid.
A loud crash sounded from her window.
“Damn it, Mast.” She opened the car door and got out without thinking. She climbed the stairs to her second floor apartment, counting the steps to avoid thinking.
It wasn’t working. She remembered that day at the zoo.
It was raining. She was cold. The zoo was empty but for the animals and the two of them.
She opened the apartment door after fiddling with the key that always stuck in the door. She needed to remember to get that fixed.
Master jumped on her and grabbed his leash off the chair next to the door.
“I know, man. I know.”
She fastened it to his collar and dropped her purse by the door. Closing the door behind her, she struggled to restrain Master as he leaped forward against the pull of the leash. She would be lucky if he didn’t leave a gift for her in the living room after watching her from the window for so long.
She walked back down the stairs, counting in reverse to keep her mind clear.
How was she going to explain her trip on Saturday? Just going to see an old pal in rehab. Which one? Oh you know…
Don’t you remember? Oh, he was so sweet. You must remember.
The one who conned her into falling in love and then took everything away. The one who lied throughout the length of their acquaintance and beyond. The one who was a really good liar but a really bad man.
The one who took her borrowed money and ran.
The one who left her pregnant, single, in debt and shattered.
This better be one hell of an apology.
Anna stood at the window overlooking the pond.
She shrugged her shoulders in a surprised fashion. “Sorry,” she said turning around. “Yes?”
In her doorway stood a young girl, probably nineteen—maybe twenty. The afternoon sun seemed to make her auburn hair glow in its presence.
“I don’t think you know me. I’m Jessica Martin.”
“I don’t. Nice to meet you, Ms. Martin.” Anna reached out her hand to the girl. She accepted it and Anna noticed her hand was cold.
“Thanks. I mean…nice to meet you, too.” Jessica mumbled.
“Have a seat,” Anna said pointing towards the only chair that wasn’t already holding up a stack of papers or books. “Sorry about the selection.”
The girl smiled. “That’s okay.”
“What can I do you for, Ms. Martin?” Anna glanced over at the window—the ducks that once sat on the surface of the water were now waddling towards the boat house.
“Well, technically you’re my advisor.”
Of course. Anna never mustered the strength to really advise these students that came across the threshold of her office. Most of them wanted nothing to do with the resident radical, liberal, feminist political science professor that they were unwillingly assigned upon registration. Frankly, she really didn’t want anything with them either.
“And you need me to sign something, I suppose?”
“Oh…no. You already did that once.”
Damn, she hated it when she forgot a face. It wasn’t that she felt bad for the person not remembered, but she just found it tedious to keep up with the multitude of faces that graced her vision each day.
“Sorry…I’m bad with that.”
“It’s okay. Anyhow, the reason I’m here is because I thought you might be able to help me with a project.”
Ah–her second least favorite thing. She was always getting students asking her opinion on some “women’s issue” at the urging of an advisor elsewhere, usually in the Sociology Department, in connection with a paper or assignment. How she became the authority on any so-called “women’s issue” was unknown to her. Obviously it was her background, but still, there were plenty of other card carrying feminists at the university.
“What type of project?
“Well, I wanted to do an independent study. I wanted to do research on single mothers…”
“Professor Smith in the Social Work Department would be great for that…”
“Actually, I talked to her and she told me to see you.”
Damn it, Donna. Donna was her arch nemesis at the university. How two concerned and caring women became such enemies escaped her.
“Go on then…”
“Well, I wanted to research potential policies that legislators have turned down in the past decade that might have helped single mothers.”
This girl was good, Anna thought.
“That’s a really creative idea, Jessica.” The girl beamed and straightened her shoulders. “But I’m only a lecturer. I’m only on campus two days a week. And you need a full professor to sponsor such an endeavor.”
“Professor Smith offered to officially sponsor me, but she wanted you to have input.”
Damn it, Donna. She did it again.
“And really…I kind of want your help more than hers anyhow.”
“Well, I’d love to help you. But with my limited schedule on campus, we’ll have to get as much done when we meet as possible.”
“Of course,” Jessica said, her shoulders becoming broader and stronger at once. Clearly the girl was scared to ask.
“So why don’t we do this. Why don’t you draft a proposal—nothing big, just a couple of pages—about the research you want to do and what you expect to find. Then we’ll meet when I’m back here on Tuesday.”
“And we’ll go from there.”
“Tell Professor Smith I said hello.”
“Oh, of course. She said the same to me about you.”
I’m sure she did, thought Anna.
Sometimes Anna wondered why she got herself into things. Perhaps she just wanted to help people too much. Her calendar was beginning to fill up with entries that were dedicated purely to helping others. Saturday she was meeting with Sean—a proposal she has only emptily accepted in theory only. And now there was Tuesday with Jessica, the bright-eyed girl she secretly wondered if Donna had sent to toy with her.
“What’s next?” Anna gasped as she closed her laptop.
“I was hoping for dinner, but I’d settle for knowing why you’re talking to yourself,” said a thin, tall, dark haired man at the door.
Anna jumped from her seat.
“Damn it, Jon,” she said in one quick staccato breath. “You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”
“That is if you don’t go insane first,” he said. “Who were you talking to?”
Anna shrugged sheepishly. “Myself?”
“Ah, Professor Shallz. You might want to have that checked out.”
Jon smiled his half-million dollar smile and Anna relaxed again. Jon was a professor in the Communications Department and, in a part time capacity, was Anna’s best friend. Jon and Anna went through their undergraduate years together—him discovering himself and his sexuality and her defending it. The bond cemented itself over margaritas one night when Jon admitted—after much coercing—that Dick York was the better Darren on Bewitched. It wasn’t as much the admission (though Anna’s position in favor of York helped), but it was that Jon was so willing to play the game.
“You ready to go?” Jon asked. Every Thursday, Anna took the bus to campus and Jon drove her home, ostensibly for the sole purpose of repeating that first margarita madness Thursday.
“Yeah. Let me grab my mail on the way out.”
Anna walked out after Jon and shut her door, locking it from the inside.
“You’ll never believe who called me today…” Jon started.
“Oddly enough, I have nearly the same comment. But go on…”
“Someone called yesterday and I was going to tell you abou—never mind, just tell your story.” Anna retracted as she knew how frustrated Jon got when she took the focus off of his story and placed it on her.
“Thank you,” he said giving her a sideways glare. She wasn’t sure if it was of contempt or gratitude. “Mark.”
“Mark what?” she asked confusedly looking at the papers she was gathering on her way out the door.
“No, Mark is who called.”
“Jon, I could have guessed that.”
“But you won’t believe what he said.”
“I’ll play this game…”
He glared at her again. This time it was contempt for sure. She ignored it and stared at the wall of teacher-style mailboxes to look for her name. She never could find it as they were always moving the non-tenured people around.
“He wanted to see how I was…he asked about you by the way…and he asked if we could meet up for coffee.”
Anna was right…she wasn’t surprised.
“And you told him…?”
“I told him that I didn’t appreciate the tug-o-war we were engaging in and that coffee doesn’t lead to breakfast.” Jon smiled and stood taller, reminding Anna of the young girl from earlier.
“And he said he understands and he just wanted to talk.”
“To which you said…?”
“To which I said ‘yes’” Jon’s defeat was as evident in his posture as it was in his voice.
“Oh, Jon.” She almost had to phone the empathy in at this point. Mark was little more than an acquaintance of hers, but had been in and out of Jon’s life for months now. “Be careful.”
“Someone’s got to…”she trailed off as she found her box and saw that for once, there was something in there. She lifted the ivory envelope out and looked at the return address. Who did she know in Philadelphia?
Oblivious to the fact that she didn’t complete her sentence, Jon continued talking about the last time Mark called and how it ended disastrously. It always did.
Anna had demolished the flap holding the envelope together. She was always so reckless when it came to things normal people were careful about. She pulled out a white sheet of paper…some sort of letterhead.
“Annie?” Jon was obviously worried if he called her that. He only called her that on three occasions: (1) he was really excited (as in there was a major sale at Neiman Marcus and he also managed to get a phone number on his trip there), (2) he was mad at her and wanted her to squirm, or (3) he was genuinely worried.
She looked at the letter…it wasn’t letterhead after all. It was a piece of paper in all-too-familiar handwriting. Another smaller piece of paper flew out from the folds and made its way to the floor. Jon picked it up.
“Philadelphia?” Jon asked, looking at the smaller piece of paper.
“Huh?” Anna replied.
“This is a map of some address outside of Philadelphia.”
Anna read the letter. At first she only saw the handwriting and froze. Then she saw that there was only one sentence and a signature.
Thank you for agreeing to come. –Sean
Jon grew impatient and ripped the letter from her hands.
“Give that to me.”
“I will not!” Jon said indignantly. “First of all, why is Sean writing you? And what is this map of a place in Philadelphia?” Jon held the map in his left hand and the letter in his right—just out of Anna’s short reach.
“Damn it, Jon. Just give it to me.”
“What is this all about?”
“It’s about a buck three-ninety-eight,” Anna said using a line her father used to use. “Just give it to me.”
Jon handed her the map, but held tight to the letter.
“Thank you for agreeing to come?” Jon read aloud. “Come WHERE?”
“That’s who called,” Anna replied to a different question.
“A call and a letter?!”
“Anna, please don’t tell me you’re meeting with this creep in Philadelphia and planning on running away with him.”
“Well, I can say that you’re incorrect.”
Jon knew better. “Which part is incorrect, Anna?”
“The last part.”
“Well, I’d like to be happy with that, but that means the rest is true, right?”
Anna looked at the map and bowed her head.
“Damn it, Anna.”
Damn it, Anna, indeed.
The Margarita Thursday didn’t last long. Jon had an outfit to prepare for his coffee date and, though she wouldn’t admit it, Anna wasn’t in the mood to drink anything fruity or sweet. She needed the hard stuff, if anything, to get her through these next few days.
Philadelphia! Philadelphia of all places. That was a six hour drive on a good day. Given Anna’s lead foot it might take a bit less, but never more unless there was a blizzard, a hurricane or the apocalypse. But why was he in Philadelphia? And why didn’t he tell her that on the phone.
Anna new the answer to that was simple. He knew she would never agree to come so far to see him. It would be a miracle getting her to come to see him even if he were next door. Being hours away wasn’t a selling point.
She walked in the door after taking Master out. He smiled at her appreciatively and retreated to his water dish. She pulled the ivory envelope out of her pocket and rubbed it in between her fingers. It’s textured cotton tickled her fingertips as she moved her hand back and forth over what was left of the flap.
“Philadelphia it is, Mast.”
The dog looked up half-heartedly from his rawhide and then returned to his previous endeavor just as quickly. Dogs had no concept of geography.
Anna took off her cardigan and placed it on the back of her olive green kitchen chairs. Retro was cool; these were beyond retro. A hand-me down from her parents, Anna always loved the fact that the table had a wide drop-leaf and never could bring herself to rid any apartment of it, notwithstanding urging by friends and family to the contrary. Who would throw away a perfectly good table, she’d ask.
Moving swiftly but quietly, she floated to the back of the apartment where her bedroom was and shuffled her feet at the bedroom door to remove her socks. She walked as if she didn’t have a purpose, but she only was able to pull off the look momentarily. Once she reached the closet she rushed fearlessly into its muddled contents looking for the right box. She tried to hide it from herself in order to conceal the memories from everyday view like a set of wires from a television or a garbage can. It only stayed buried for so long.
She found it without much hassle behind her grandmother’s green sweater. She didn’t know if this was fitting or insulting. Without deciding the argument she placed the sweater over her shoulders and slipped her arms into it, the sleeves falling far below her wrists, and carried the box to her bed.
Anna was greeted on the bed by her cat Sam—short for Samantha. Sam was getting up there in years and didn’t greet her at the door like Master did. She simply waited on the bed or the couch until Anna approached her, as any good and proper cat would do. Sam sniffed the box and Anna could swear she rolled her eyes as if to ask if she had to be present for the opening. Anna looked at her to convey the message that she did, but Sam was busy cleaning herself.
The box was a simple clear plastic container bought in any big box store. From the outside the contents were a mess. But Anna left it this way for a reason—to obstruct the view of anything that may be inside.
She lifted the lid and sighed. If this box were a human it would have let out a sigh as well. She pulled out the first piece of paper…
Together with their parents, Anna Kaye Shallz and James Joseph Lawrence invite you to join them…
Anna held the gold invitation to her heart. She instantly remembered forgetting her vows in front of her entire family and laughing nervously until she remembered them. Her dad never did let her forget that. Not that she could…or that she’d want to…anyway.
James—not Jim—made no secret of the fact that he fell for her early on in their courtship. He took on the role of defining the relationship as he often took on projects—with great zeal for coming to a conclusion and reaching a settlement. Anna wasn’t as sure, but she felt right for the first time in a long time, so she let it go. Soon she was engaged and then married.
She didn’t realize that she had left the invitation on top. Usually that was closer to the middle. It was almost as if someone had came to rearrange the contents of her box while she was away to make everything a surprise. Sometimes it was nice to be surprised. Sometimes it just made the task all that more difficult.
Next was her first Valentine card from him. For being such a romantic, he hated getting cards. He only saw them as wasted paper. She somehow knew that looking through a box like this one day would be somehow therapeutic. She had hoped the therapy would be for a mid-life crisis, not for remembering the dead.
The messages in all of his greeting cards were short and sweet and to the point. James had the desire for clarity and fruity words about love were unnecessary in his opinion. Anna had begged for a card one Valentine’s day. It wasn’t that he didn’t celebrate it. It wasn’t even that he forgot it or just played it down. It was simply that he hated picking out cards.
This one was simple. A heart and an ‘I love you’. But she remembered crying when she got it.
“Anna?” She heard the door close and the dog move towards it, his tags hitting the metal piece in his collar as he moved. “You there?”
“Yeah, I’ll be out in a minute.”
Darren almost always knew what this meant. She was in that damn box again. As much as he hated it, he only did so because he hated to see her cry. And crying is inevitable with a box full of memories like that one.
“Okay. I’m going to take a shower,” he said, figuring it’d give her time to compose herself gracefully.
Anna turned back to her box and decided now was not the time. Over the years since James died she had developed an ability to go from having to look over every last piece of the puzzle to just being able to look at a few. She wondered if one day she’d need the box at all. But it left her empty just to think of it not being there. So she kept it for days like today.
The sound of water pouring from the faucet and then the showerhead startled her. She placed the lid on the box and slid it across the floor towards the closet. Now may not be the time, but that didn’t mean she was done either. She pat Sam on the head and moved across the room, sliding her bare feet across the carpet, towards the bathroom.
“How was your day?” she asked looking at her face in the mirror.
“Long…” he said in between rinsing his hair. He thought about asking her about her day, but figured that conversation was entitled to at least a face-to-face level of care. “How is Jon?” he asked instead.
“He’s crazy…fine…crazy and fine.”
“Yeah.” She grabbed an elastic from the drawer and pulled her auburn hair up into a loose knot on the back of her head. The mirror began to fog, interrupting her steadfast review of her pores. “You hungry?”
“Starving.” He had actually hoped she wanted to go out to eat, but knowing the box was out he didn’t ask.
“You want to go grab something? I know you just got in the shower…”
“Yeah. I was going to ask you that, actually.”
“Let me know when you’re ready,” Anna said as she left the bathroom and walked towards Master in the kitchen.
By the time Darren was done and dressed Anna had fed Master and had started to sink into the couch eying the remote, but declining to do anything about it as she was too tired to move. Darren walked out and stared at her for a minute before saying anything.
“You alright there?”
“Just tired. And lazy.” She pointed towards the remote and laughed. It instantaneously seemed hilarious to her. Not only was she too lazy to get up and get it, but she was too lazy to even ask for it or mention it by name. Sometime she wondered if living with Darren, such a strong and able person without a lazy bone in his body, was good for her. It seemed as though she overcompensated for his ability.
“You ready to go?” Darren asked, hoping she hadn’t changed her mind, but sensing that she might have.
“Yep. Let’s get out of here.”
Darren stood shocked for a minute. He shook his head in disbelief not for exaggeration, but out of sheer amazement.
He contemplated telling her that he thought she’d be in a funk for the rest of the night and probably the week. That her offer to go out to eat was nice, but not necessary and that he’d sit in here with the dog while she reviewed the contents of the box with the cat. That he didn’t mind waiting to talk to her as long as it was the Anna he knew that he got to talk to in the end.
He decided now was not the time to derail this train.
“Nothing. Let’s go.”