A short story inspired by the thought-provoking question: Is it better to see someone for who they are or for who you know they can be? A work with longing, fondness, and nostalgia all wrapped in one…
by: Natalie Nee
The red life oozed from me, from us, every drip a reminder that a lie, once spoken, never remained white. Sirens raced toward me, screaming their way through the winding mountain pass. I turned my head to the water, mesmerized by the growing rings on the glassy surface, disturbed by this intruder; a visceral reminder that mistruths, even uttered with good intent, caused ripples of destruction to everything they touched. Once tainted, we can never go back.
“Sweetheart, have you seen the news?” Neil asked me as he scooped his gourmet beans into the machine, his back facing me. He started each day with his coffee in hand. Black, one Stevia. Routine. My life could be boiled down to that single, ordinary word and I hated it.
And just like that, I was thinking about him again. His hands, calloused with his love for writing the old fashioned way, twisting in my shirt to pull me to his lips. I relished the tiny scratches made when he would fiddle with the gold ring on my left hand, abrasive like the bittersweet smile and dash of disappointment staring back at me. Or maybe it was judgement. Those pleading eyes that said he no longer wanted to be kept a secret. When he finally vocalized those facial expressions, I ended things. Although it was the right thing to do, I couldn’t help but relive those days where I was anything but predictable.
“Sweetheart?” he asked again, emptying that familiar green packet into his steaming law school mug before turning around. An audible sip preceded his first swallow as I closed my eyes and barricaded behind the refrigerator door I was standing behind, my head hidden inside.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” I forced those memories far back into the cavernous parts of my brain that once housed interesting rhetoric and personality.
“You okay?” he prompted, his eyebrows pinched together, the scar from his brother’s childhood sled more prominent when he did. Is there anything I don’t know about him? I nodded in response and re-tied the bow on my robe just so I had something to do with my shaking hands.
He took another drink while watching me grab my tea container out of the cupboard. Maybe his sips were noisier now that I know something different. These small things have begun to spark resentment for a reason I can’t place. A rattle in the car, a squeaky wheel. Once you’ve noticed it, it exists with the sole purpose to drive you mad. I nodded again, relieved that my behavior somehow passed snuff.
“Did you hear what I said about the storm? Every channel is reporting on it. Do you have anything going on later this afternoon?”
No, I didn’t hear you, I was busy thinking about Cal. “Yes, sorry I was thinking about the book. And no plans, except with my red marker and that horrendous rough draft waiting for me over there,” I managed with a smile, looking in the direction of our home office. Sorry spills out of my mouth yet again, subconsciously attempting to atone for my betrayal. For not being who he wants me to be. For my mistakes.
He took two large strides and planted a delicate kiss on my forehead, his aftershave filling the small pocket of air between us. The same one he’s worn since law school. Routine flashed in my mind once more. He pulled away and smiled, pardoning me for being in my own head. I drank his forgiveness I thirsted for.
“Good. I’ll be a little late for dinner, I have a deposition at four but I’ll be home as soon as it’s over. Be safe today. Maybe look into getting a new editor like you had mentioned so you can spend more time doing what you love. Good luck to you and Rojo.” His eyes crinkled again at the corners that tally the years we’ve been together which now outweigh the years we’ve been apart.
“Thanks, we’ll be needing it,” I replied, forcing back on the mask of the happy wife that he wanted. I ignored the topic of his suggestion altogether, afraid that I may slip the actual reason I can no longer work with the editor I love.
He drained the remainder of his coffee, kissed my cheek, and shut the front door behind him. My gaze remained fixed on the door for what felt like lifetimes. Is this what all my days would look like until we retired? Or until we died? I can pretend to escape in my work but in reality, I’m trapped in this Groundhog Day that has now, both suddenly and gradually, become my life.
The warm water eased the tension in my neck, a chronic ailment of the countless hours of laboring over books, laptops, and manuscripts. As a little girl, the only way I could escape my reality was through pages of a book. I read often and widely, discovering things about parents and love that one should learn through their own family. Loneliness was the only constant in my life, and still is, other than Neil.
But Neil sees me for my potential. He remembers me at the high points and uses those as guide posts, or mile markers to which we can return to if ever I get side-tracked. Yes, he refers to my depression as being side-tracked. Which is both darling and demeaning, as if my mental state equates to taking a wrong turn somewhere. A misstep. Perhaps Neil thinks I can retreat to a more stable state if I simply walk backward to happier times. And it’s this exact response that drew me to Cal in the first place.
Cal sees me. Not just for who I can be but for who I am. Right here and right now. He sees me, inside out with the tag visible and doesn’t try to tuck it away or tell me to fix my shirt. He sees my missteps and it makes him smile, like my flaws are what makes me lovable. Not in spite of them but because of them. Cal sees the whole me and I don’t feel like I have to hide anything or make myself more presentable to be with him.
Sometimes I want to ask Neil if he loves me now. Not just the accumulation of the memories of us from when I was fourteen, but the person standing in front of him. If he were to meet me today, would he still want me to be his wife? I avoided my own gaze in the mirror as I brushed out the evidence of my insomnia. Judging by the state of my hair, I’m confident the circles punctuating my eyes are darker today. My phone lit up near my makeup bag while I blended in the concealer to mask my tiredness.
Meeting at 5 to review edits?
The number and corresponding name were no longer programmed in my phone, but I couldn’t forget that particular number sequence if I tried. After months apart, of course he would reach out on the day I feel most plagued with memories of him. I flipped over the offending screen while I applied my eyeliner and mascara, trying to ignore my reactionary heart and its desires. I shoved the wand back in my mascara and missed, accidentally marking my hand with my own onyx version of a scarlet A.
My bare feet directed me into the office. I straightened up the books so their spines were aligned. I paid the bills awaiting my attention atop the desk, filing away their corresponding slips. Papers were ripped, some shredded. Pens were straightened like soldiers awaiting marching orders. I drummed my bitten fingernails on the wooden desk, looking for other tasks to distract my cheating mind.
Laundry, dishes, and vacuuming only seemed to make the mess inside me worse. Saudade flashed through my mind, a word I came across when reading about Portuguese culture that meant profoundly missing someone that you cared about. It described the feelings of sadness for their absence but also hopefulness about the good times you’ve shared. It’s longing, fondness, and nostalgia all wrapped in one. It has no English translation, per say, but it encompassed the presence of someone’s absence beautifully. As an author, it’s easy for me to document how my characters are feeling. As a person, however, I find expressing my feelings exceptionally challenging. My traitorous fingers reached for my phone with a mind of their own.
I typed Saudade, knowing he would take the time to research and appreciate its meaning instead of asking me directly. He and Neil were different that way. Cal didn’t mind that I wasn’t as straightforward as the law. In fact, he craved it. He was willing to put in the work. He made me feel worth it. He saw my wonky shirt and pulled me in anyway.
Minutes later, my phone lit up again, perpetually on silent.
JK to Brawne, 1819.
JK, I read aloud, stumped. Brawne, I repeated and narrowed my eyes on the bookshelf for some visual clue. Why did that sound familiar? I copied the message into my browser. John Keats’ famous letter to Fanny Brawne popped up immediately. Nostalgia nearly suffocated me as I read the last line I know he was speaking to me: “My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.”
His love is selfish. Meaning he cannot share. Again, therein lies the problem with our entire relationship. I swiped out of my messages and called my husband.
“Hey there,” he answered on the first ring. Guilt gnawed at my empty stomach as I remembered my tea that had been seeping for hours on end. I moved to the kitchen to dump it out and fill the kettle again, wedging the phone between my ear and shoulder. A fresh start. If only relationships were that easy.
“Hey, just checking in. How are you doing? Sorry I was distracted earlier this morning.”
“I know how you get when you’re revising, no need to apologize. I can tell when you’re elsewhere by now and I should learn to wait until you’re done playing the story through your mind,” he answered. I can picture his smile.
“No, that’s not fair to you. What you say is important. You’re important. You should know that.”
“Thank you, I feel the same about you. How’s Rojo doing?”
“Rojo is brutally cutting the endless adverbs I wasn’t even aware I used in the first draft.”
He laughed. “Stephen King would be proud.”
“You remembered?” I asked, in awe.
“That, ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs’ line? One does not forget a quote like that. And here I thought the road to hell was paved with good intentions.”
A laugh escaped. “Thank you, Neil. I hope your deposition goes well.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. See you later.”
I hung up the phone and let it drop to my side, feeling emptier than I had before the call. My phone rang and I’m shocked to see Cal’s number. I don’t know what possesses me to answer but I do. It’s like the first hit of a cigarette you’ve been craving; so good that it makes you question why you gave up the vice to begin with.
“Magnolia,” he said in a voice like velvet. My heart moved from first to fifth gear in a matter of three syllables.
“He never says my name,” I muttered so softly that it’s barely audible, the realization dawning on me.
“He should,” Cal said and I can picture him tightening his jaw by the pronunciation of his words. “Can I see you today?”
“For book edits?” I asked with an indignant snort.
“For whatever reason you choose to tell him. But because I want to see you. Need to see you.”
“Cal,” I said warningly.
“Just to speak with you, although we do have work to do. If you still want to work with me, that is. You left so abruptly I could barely wrap my mind around what you had said last time.”
I said nothing, trying to lasso my feelings and assign them words but they’re running like spooked cattle in every direction, seeking calmer pastures.
“Please,” he pleaded while I’m lost in thought.
“I’ll meet you at your house. Five o’clock,” I mumbled and checked over my shoulder, despite knowing I’m alone.
“Can’t wait,” he said before hanging up. I pushed up my baggy sweater to look at the time. That only left me an hour to shoot off an email to my agent, get dressed, prep dinner, and get out the door.
Most of the hour had passed and I was ready to walk out the door with my hiking gear on. The crockpot was boiling, occasionally bumping the lid as the contents bubbled inside. Cumin and chili powder perfumed the air. I grabbed my notepad from the office and sat at the kitchen island.
I hope your day at work went well. The crockpot has some soup cooking that will be done around six. It’s the recipe that you loved from last month. Don’t forget to add the cheese and avocados! I chopped up some lettuce and peppers if you would like a salad as well.
I’ll be back soon. I needed a walk to clear my head and take a break from the book. Please feel free to start eating without me, I shouldn’t be too far behind you!
I started to write Your sweetheart out of habit but changed my mind and crossed through it twice. Instead, I signed Magnolia with gusto, reminding myself that I have an identity outside of being Neil’s wife, whether Neil remembers it or not. With that, I grabbed my car keys and locked the door behind me.
Twenty minutes and a rainstorm later, my tires crunched up Cal’s driveway that stretched out below a modest cabin. Everything is just how I left it, except here, everything is unexpected. Cal opened the oak door with one hand in his pocket in an attempt at a casual greeting but his eyes are anything but. When I shut the door behind me, I feel like I’ve already made my choice. I pulled out my manuscript from my bag, suddenly nervous. He beckoned me to his worn reading chair and I crawled between his legs, my back to him. Being with him is as simple as breathing. An instinct. Cal wrapped his arms around me like the heat from the crackling fire and we read together. He reached for his blue marker from the side table, bit the lid off with his eyes on mine, and marked everything he loved. His laugh reverberated through me as he drew hearts around the adverbs I had previously crossed out. It was the equivalent of pulling the tag out of my shirt. I exhaled for what felt like the first time in months, laying against him. Feeling seen.
Later, I rolled over and panic seared through me when I saw six missed calls on my watch that was resting on the bedside table. Cal’s calloused hand rubbed my back. I threw the sheets off when I saw the time.
“Shit, I should be home by now!”
Cal propped himself on his elbows, waiting for me to explain why I have to leave him yet again while I raced to pull on my hiking clothes. The shirt miraculously fits over the growing lump in my throat. My outfit is nothing but a costume to play the part of an honest wife. One that sought the outdoors to clear her mind and not another man. Good intentions, my mind sneers.
“When can I see you again?” he asked as I yanked on my heavy boots.
“Cal, I don’t know. God, he’s probably worried about me. I’ll let you know, okay?”
He didn’t answer but instead laid back down in defeat. “He doesn’t see the real you, Mag. Stay.”
“I have to go, I’m sorry.” Apologizing again. For my actions. For my desires. For my indecision and selfishness that makes him suffer too.
“I love you. As you are. Please stay, it’s nasty outside.”
With one last pleading look, I rushed out the door, fumbling to unlock my car in the torrential downpour. My car slid down the steep driveway as I reversed, racing to get home.
The cell service teetered but I managed to call Neil. It rang for only a second before he picked up. Always available for whatever I needed. The tea in my stomach inched its way up my throat.
“Hey, I lost track of time. I’m so sorry.”
“Are you okay?” He asked while I rounded a steep corner pass and my car began to hydroplane. “I have been out looking for you since you–”
An ear splitting sound ensued and I felt a blow to the side of my car that was somehow echoed through my speakers. My vision faltered. Minutes or hours passed before I awoke, dazed, numb, and shivering. The rain had gained in intensity, pounding on my now-broken window, webbed with cracks. I shoved the airbag down, punching and biting it as I saw my call with Neil was still active. I yelled for him to call an ambulance, and that I’d been in an accident. Silence roared in my ears while I turned on my hazards.
I tried escaping my car, shoving my shoulder against the jammed door. Once freed, I reached for my phone, now on the dash. My hand touched my scalp where I felt the warm blood trickling down my face from God knows where. I called Neil’s name several more times before ending the call, only to call him again. Still no answer. Confused, and no doubt concussed, I spun around to locate the source of the impact, only to find tire marks that continued to the edge of the pavement. My heart thundered in my chest, as if it knew something I didn’t, like an anticipatory drumroll; a dramatic build before the climax.
I ran to the edge of the hairpin turn and slid on my bottom, praying for the first time in years. Praying for a miracle. Praying for Neil to know I’m okay and not to worry. Praying that those tire marks were only mine up on the road, but the flattened trees along this hill narrated an entirely different story.
At the bottom was Neil’s car and Neil, twenty feet away. If I didn’t know any better, he looked like he did every morning as he slept peacefully next to me. I screamed his name, sobbing, as I ran to him, but knew this was the end of act three in what I now understood to be a work of tragedy.
Neil, the perfect husband who saw me for what I could be instead of the mess I was. Wanted the best for me yet loved me anyway. He saw my potential, the real me.
My fingers fumbled to call 9-1-1 as I rocked him, holding him tightly to my chest, trying to warm him with my body heat. I kissed his bloody face, kissed away the pain, whispering my guttural apologies.
The red life oozed from me, from us, every drip a reminder that lies, once spoken, never remained white. The sirens raced toward me, screaming their way through the winding mountain pass. I turned my head to the water, mesmerized by the growing rings on the glassy surface, disturbed by this intruder; a visceral reminder that mistruths, even uttered with good intent, caused ripples of destruction to everything they touched. Once tainted, we can never go back.
“Saudade, my sweetheart,” I cried, heard only by the storm.