by: T.E. Cowell
Two offerings of fiction that examine the strains put on our relationships by time and space…
It was my anniversary at work. I knew the day was coming up, but I didn’t know the exact day until that morning, while walking from my car towards the delivery van I drove. I was tipped off when I saw the decorations through the windshield, blue and white paper streamers running this way and that. I slid open the passenger door and put my lunchbox and water bottle inside the van as usual, then glimpsed a piece of paper taped to the steering wheel with the words “Happy Anniversary! Two Years Going Strong! Thanks For All Your Hard Work!” written on it in big bold letters. I took the paper off the steering wheel, crumpled it up, and put it in the plastic bag in the van that I used for trash. Two years already. I couldn’t believe it. Well, I both could and couldn’t. I felt like a failure. For the past year I’d been searching for a different job damn near every day, but none of the available jobs I’d found seemed right for me, or sounded better to me than the job I had. Maybe I was just too picky, or too cautious. Maybe I was lazy, or scared to try something new. Maybe I was all of these things and more. Probably.
Two years. Two years and I already felt tired. I already felt sick of it all and I already felt washed up. I didn’t have the strength most people had, it seemed, the longevity and determination, the constant level-headed cheeriness. How did people manage to stay so upbeat, so positive all of the time? I couldn’t figure it out. It was just one more thing about life that eluded me.
Down the length of the van, from the dashboard to the back doors, the paper streamers zig-zagged randomly about. I tried to raise my arms, but they felt heavy. Still, I managed. With my arms raised I walked through those streamers, breaking every last taut one of them with my stomach and chest like I imagined a runner would do after coming in first after a race. When I was done I steeled myself for the words of encouragement I knew some of my coworkers, the ones who were brainwashed, would say to me without irony. “Happy Anniversary!” I know they’d all shout, and in return I would mutter “Thanks,” so as not to appear rude or morosely depressed.
When his girlfriend called he could hear her sobbing uncontrollably. “What is it? Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked.
He heard her say something but couldn’t make out what.
“What?” he said. “I can’t hear you. Can you slow it down some?”
“My dad,” she sobbed. “He’s dead.”
“What?” he said, though this time he’d heard her clearly.
“My dad’s dead,” she said in between more sobs.
“Oh no,” he said.
“He had a heart attack,” he heard her say. “I’m going home. I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I don’t know how long I’ll be away for. I’ll call you later. Don’t try and call me though because I probably won’t answer. Bye.”
“Wait,” he said, “I’m––” but she’d already hung up. “Sorry.”
Home for her was the other side of the country. She called him a few days later and sounded better––at least she was no longer bawling––but he could tell she was still very sad. She told him when the funeral was planned for, but little else. She said she was sorry she’d had to leave so suddenly but that she’d felt she had to be back with her family, especially her mother. She said her mother was in worse shape than she herself was in. He told her he was sorry, she said thanks, and not long after that they hung up.
The days began to pass, then the weeks, then a month had gone by. He talked to her on the phone a few times a week and each time he tried to get her to come back to him, but she wouldn’t. Her mother, she said, needed her support right now. He understood, he said. Take your time, he said. He sympathized how it must be hard not just for her mother, but for her as well, and she responded it was hard, very hard.
It seemed to him that in the midst of this tragedy, their relationship stopped progressing, and was in fact, regressing. Or maybe it had only stalled. He liked to think it had only stalled and that when his girlfriend finally got over her father’s death, what they had together would pick up smoothly where it’d left off.
Another month passed and he found himself masturbating frequently. Masturbating was no comparison to actual sex, no matter how enticing the porn was. He thought of the act of masturbating as demeaning though essential to satisfy his urges. He felt somewhat like a lesser man after masturbating, but he did it all the same because he didn’t see a way around it without cheating on his girlfriend, which was something he didn’t want to do.
Yet another month passed. The last time they talked on the phone, she’d told him she was thinking about staying with her mother indefinitely, and something cold shot through him when he heard her say this.
“What about us?” he asked, his voice almost cracking.
“I don’t know,” she said. A second or two passed where neither of them said anything. He heard her sniffle, and then say, “It’s just that I feel I need to be here right now. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. If you want to try the long-distance thing I’m up for it, but if you don’t want to, I’ll understand. I’ve been in a long-distance relationship before and to put it bluntly, it sucked. But maybe it’ll work out this time. Who knows? Either way, I’m willing to give it a try if you are.”
Because he didn’t want to lose her they tried the long-distance thing. She was right though, it did suck. He saw her just twice in a year. Getting across the country wasn’t easy. It took planning and money, the latter being something that neither of them had a surplus of. She visited him first after four months, stayed with him for a week and a half, and then he visited her five months later for a week and a half. He stayed with her in her mother’s house. They had sex in her childhood bedroom, taking pains to be quiet when her mother was home. Her mother stayed mostly in her bedroom, though for dinner she made an appearance. She didn’t speak often, nor did she eat much. She seemed to drink more than she ate, two or more glasses of wine at a time. Around the house were pictures of the deceased. There was his girlfriend’s father at the beach, or at a fancy restaurant with a birthday cake in front of him. In almost all of the pictures, the man was smiling happily.
Towards the end of his stay with his girlfriend, he tried to get her to think seriously about flying back across the country with him and picking up where they’d left off. To his disappointment and frustration, she told him that she couldn’t, that it just wasn’t possible yet, and that it wasn’t fair to her mother.
So he returned to the other side of the country and went back to masturbating. They continued to talk once or twice a week on the phone, though they seemed to have less and less to say to each other. He began to despise her for not returning to him, for choosing her mother over him. He blamed her for putting her mother’s feelings before his. He blamed her mother, even, for taking so long to get over her husband’s death. He even blamed his girlfriend’s father for dying in the first place.
The last time he talked to her on the phone he said, “It’s over. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m tired of waiting for you to come back. I’m tired of masturbating. I need to move on.”
“I understand,” she said. “I’m actually glad you just said what you did because I was thinking of breaking up with you and sort of dreading it.”
“Great minds think alike.”
“Guess so,” she said. “Anyways, I’m sorry for all I’ve put you through and I hope we can still be friends.”
“Long-distance friends?” he quipped.
“You’re right,” she said. “It wouldn’t work, would it? It was a nice thought though, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said, and then he said goodbye and she said goodbye and he hung up and that was that.