“But in losing myself, I gained a conscience, and was able to finally feel other people’s pain for the first time in my life.” A work of fiction that argues sometimes we can’t change without first being destroyed…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
“Have you decided to go?” Tim asked a naked Abby, who had her back turned as he reclined upright beside her in bed, trying to make pleasant conversation with a woman he was secretly shagging from the university where they’d both worked, she as a professor of Women’s Literature and he, the Dean of Students.
“I haven’t decided yet,” replied a miffed Abby.
Her distant body language conveyed that she was troubled about something other than the invitation. Abby was three years deep into this work affair, and felt like a hamster running aimlessly on its fixed wheel, going nowhere — fast. At the end of the day, he’d still go back to his harpy, materialistic wife and bratty teenage daughter, whom he promised to leave as soon as their only child went off to college.
Abby kept a “Tim calendar” hidden underneath a stack of sweaters in her closet where she wrote a big, fat X inside every square-box to denote the times that they’d met up to make love. At the bottom of each month, she’d write down a running tally. For January, there were a total of five X’s. February, four X’s. For March, there were twelve X’s as that was the month his wife took Bianca to Paris for Spring break. April, two X’s. Tim’s Calendar would also denote the date of Bianca’s high school graduation, June 5th, as it signaled to Abby that the end of his marriage was near.
She had fallen in love with Tim shortly after he sat in on one of her senior classes. Their affair started out innocent enough with weekly on-campus meet-ups for coffee that soon involved binge watching back-to-back Monty Python films at Abby’s apartment to makeout sessions on her Queen Anne-style sofa to full-on sex in Abby’s bed.
“You know,” Abby said, “there should be a natural law for having affairs just like there is a natural law for gravity and entropy: What goes up must come down. When left alone in natural states, eventually everything goes into disorder. When he says he’s going to leave his wife, don’t believe him.”
“I will leave her Abby,” promised Tim as he put his navy suit back on, including a crisp-white linen shirt and patterned tie before heading back to his four bedroom, nondescript house out in the boring, predictable suburbs.
“In two weeks, Sheryl and Bianca are going to look at one last college out West, which means I will have four days free to spend with you. I was thinking maybe we can rent an Airbnb on the beach. What do you think?”
“That sounds nice,” replied Abby with a half-smile.
“Have you decided to take up the invitation?” Tim asked again.
“Still on the fence.”
“I think you should go. Face your demons, and put this old rivalry to bed. Thirty years is a long time for people to change, to become better,” suggested Tim.
“Talia change? She will be frozen in time thanks to the latest advancements in plastic surgery. I’m sure she is as nasty and manipulative as she ever was. People don’t change.”
Out of eight billion people in the world, Abby would reserve an abhorrence for only one — Talia Yorke-Robach, a trust fund baby, member of Kappa Delta Sigma, model good looks, and married to the man of Abby’s girlhood dreams. They hadn’t seen one another in thirty years. Even with three decades of unspoken distance between them, Abby would feel, at times, that Talia was a part of her in the same way as an invisible, dominant Siamese twin, a parasite, or a bad omen.
She’d first meet Talia in middle school. Abby came from the less affluent side of town, the only child of a single mother, who’d hold down two jobs in order to pay for rent on their one bedroom apartment and put food on the table. Talia, however, lived in Crescent Point, where all the rich people lived with their big, shiny houses and first class foreign cars parked in rows on their circular driveways. These were the same kids who’d get brand new cars wrapped in big, obnoxious red bows for their Sweet Sixteen, and given private tennis lessons from a semi-pro player named Lars or Anders.
“You’ll be surprised,” said Tim.
Just then, he walked over to Abby, still naked under the covers, to give her a soft kiss goodbye.
“I’ll text you later,” he said as he left her one bedroom cottage apartment that sat far back from the matching main house, where an old lady lived with her three cats. Abby would sometimes stare out from behind her window at the big brick house in front of her, and wonder if her future held the same fate as her landlord’s, a life spent alone with three cats for companionship, minus her inherited wealth.
Abby reached out for the opened invitation resting on her night table. She’d sniff the high-quality paper like a police dog sniffing for traces of drugs, or traces of human scent from the missing. She would read Talia’s handwritten note again, tracing some of the letters with her fingers:
It has been too long. I think about you, about us, often. Would you please come for a visit on Saturday, May 5th? There’s so much I want to tell you. My address is enclosed:
9598 Orchid Lane
Mystic, CT 18154
The last time Abby would face off with Talia was at her wedding thirty years prior. She’d marry Abby’s first crush, her study and lab partner, Ethan Robach. He was a pimply, weak geek back in middle school. No girls would look his way, except for Abby. But by their senior year of high school, Ethan would morph into an absolute hunk, albeit a brilliant one, who’d finally get Talia’s attention. Abby had likened her arch nemesis to a spoiled child who wanted the same boytoy, yanking it out of her hands by way of charm, sophistication, and sex appeal.
Abby already knew how special Ethan Robach was from all the way back in middle school, when Talia would tease her, making loud kissy noises whenever she’d pass her in the hallway, literally looking down on Abby from her five feet, nine-inch model frame. He was the only boy who’d make Abby feel comfortable in her own skin. She enjoyed his company as well, and their long, tedious conversations around physics and the existence of God. Ethan was a devout, born-again Christian. Abby, not so much. But his spiritual arguments got her to a place where she went from deism to theism, from atheist to agnostic.
Maybe people do change, thought Abby. Mystic, Connecticut was a four hour drive from her mid-sized college town in the middle of New Jersey. She could swing the drive, if she left early in the morning.
Abby picked out a black, slim-fitting outfit to wear, her go-to color to look ten pounds thinner. She did a full blow-out and pulled out the curling iron to add some soft curls around her heart-shaped face. Abby could easily pass for forty-five instead of her actual age of fifty-six. She took one hard look in the mirror.
“I’m ready for you, Talia Yorke-Robach,” she muttered under her breath like a street-fighter before turning off the bathroom light and heading out the front door toward her fire-engine red Mini Cooper parked out front of her rented cottage.
During the drive to Mystic, Abby’s thoughts would drift before subsiding into a kind of kaleidoscope pattern between calls from Tim and GPS interruptions.
“In fifty feet, take Exit 2 to South Pike Road,” a robotic feminine voice would chime in from her iPhone speaker.
Memories of her youth would flood back the closer she got to Mystic. She wondered would a young Abby be proud of the old Abby today. She wondered would she’d get to see Ethan Robach while visiting Talia. She wondered if he was still a born-again Christian. The last time she looked up Talia and Ethan on Facebook was twelve years ago. They’d look the same but older. It was a Christmas photo of Ethan, Talia, and their two children: a daughter, who looked to be around nine or ten and a son who looked to be around twelve. Beautiful children she remembered. They were standing in front of a grand fireplace with stone and wood features, and candles were burning on the mantel behind them. A perfect family to match their perfect life, thought Abby. She decided, right then, that it was unhealthy to look up old crushes and old rivals on Facebook, and then deleted her Facebook profile altogether.
“Stay on 95 North for ten more minutes,” chimed the robotic voice again. Just then her phone rang. Abby recognized the number as Tim’s.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi, my love. Where are you?”
“I’m about twenty minutes away from my destination.”
“OK, just wanted to call to let you know that I’m thinking of you.”
“Do you really think people can change?” asked Abby.
“Absolutely,” replied Tim.
“Got to go,” said Abby, before ending their call abruptly.
Abby could feel her heart beating faster the closer she got to 9598 Orchid Lane. The homes got more and more grand as she moved from street to street away from the highway ramp. She would stop her car when she saw Talia’s massive home, a French Tudor outlined in boxwood and dogwood trees. It was the style of house that she’d envisioned a grown-up Talia to live in, making Martha Stewart proud. Abby rang the doorbell.
“Oh, hello. I’m Abby Birch. I am here to see Talia Yorke-Robach.”
“Hi, Abby. I’m Justine, Talia’s younger sister,” said a woman in her mid-forties, who looked a lot like Talia, but shorter.
“The last time I saw you was at Talia’s wedding. You were one of her bridesmaids.”
“I was seventeen back then,” said Justine.
“Wow…time really flies by fast,” replied Abby.
“Talia lives in my guesthouse at the back of the house. She is expecting you,” said Justine, pointing in the direction of the winding path at the side of her house.
Abby began to follow the flagstone path to Justine’s guest house around back. She would turn off her cell phone right before she rang the doorbell. The doorbell’s chime was to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a favorite of hers.
“Hello, you must be Abby,” said a young woman in teddy-bear-decal nursing scrubs.
“I’m Suzanne, Talia’s hospice nurse. She’s waiting for you in the living room.”
“Hospice nurse?” quizzed Abby.
“You don’t know about Talia’s health situation?” asked Nurse Suzanne.
“No, I don’t,” replied Abby.
“Perhaps, she should tell you herself. When was the last time you’d seen Talia?”
“Not since her wedding, thirty years ago.”
“You two have a lot to catch up on,” said Nurse Suzanne as she rolled open the two sliding pocket doors that led to a cozy living room.
Reclining in an extra-large hospital bed was Talia Yorke-Robach, but she was a 600-pound, fun-house version of her usually svelte self. Abby couldn’t believe her eyes. Talia was attached to an oxygen tank with straw-like tubes that rested just inside her nose. She would often wheeze between breaths. Her skin was ashen in color. She looked like the personification of death.
“Abby Birch, is that really you? How long has it been?”
“Thirty years,” she replied.
“I guess you weren’t prepared to see me in this state?” asked Talia.
“To be honest, no. I had no idea of your health challenges. I am sorry you’re having to go through this,” replied Abby as she reached out to hold Talia’s pale swollen hand.
“So you probably don’t know what happened to my Charlotte?” asked Talia.
“I lost Charlotte to an aggressive form of leukemia when she was ten years old. Her death devastated me. Ethan and I grieved in different ways. He would lean on his Christian faith to get him through it while I leaned on the numbness of alcohol. I would become a functional alcoholic for a while until I could no longer hide my addiction.” She paused to let that sink in. “Ethan divorced me while I was in rehab, taking full custody of Sammy, our surviving child. Next, he sold our house, splitting the proceeds of the sale, and then moved a town over from Mystic, starting a new life. I felt gutted. First by the loss of my Charlotte, and then the loss of our family.”
Talia continued her story:
“I purchased a two-bedroom condo and was eventually able to work out a custody arrangement with Ethan where I got to spend every other weekend with Sammy, unsupervised. By now, Sammy was fifteen, and was becoming more and more distant. He was still grieving the loss of his little sister. Then, over time, Sammy’s visits would stop altogether. Ethan blamed it on his active social life, and told me not to take it personally, that he was going through a “I hate my parents” stage. Out of my sadness and loneliness, I turned to binge eating instead of alcohol, trading one addiction for another. I ate my emotions day and night; swallowing my anger, my grief, my fear, my loneliness, my feelings of abandonment, my feelings of regret, and how I treated people throughout my life. I got bigger and bigger, and then became a shut-in, a full-blown recluse. Within three years, I was bed-bound and depended on the generosity of my little sister after I lost my condo in a foreclosure. And here we are today. I have congestive heart failure and am not expected to live past the year. That’s why you’re here today.”
“Do you mean the invitation?” asked a confused Abby.
“For the past several months, I’ve been meeting one-on-one with people who I have hurt in my lifetime. I want them to get the satisfaction of seeing me in this brutal state. I was a bully after all, and enjoyed making people feel small. I took pleasure in my beauty, especially how I was able to control everyone around me with just a look of interest, or a look of disgust. I had the power to make or break someone’s day. I was drunk on that power, on that ego, for many years, and hurt so many people. The Talia Yorke today would have been mercilessly bullied by the Talia Yorke from back in the day. The irony.”
Just then, Suzanne interrupted their conversation to give Talia a sip of water from an extra long straw.
“Some people never responded to my invitation. They probably thought to themselves, good riddance, and I don’t blame them one bit. You were the last invitation to go out in the mail. So I am so happy you came today.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Talia. We were all messed up back then,” replied Abby.
“But I purposely stole Ethan away from you. I was only interested in him because I knew you loved him. I took great pleasure in seducing him, of stealing his virginity that he said he was saving for you. When we were at university, I told him I was pregnant when I sensed him pulling away from me, which was a lie. And then feigned a miscarriage. I emotionally abused him until I had absolute control. That all changed after we lost our Charlotte, and I totally lost myself. But in losing myself, I gained a conscience, and was able to finally feel other people’s pain for the first time in my life. That’s why I didn’t protest the divorce or custody arrangement. Ethan deserved a better wife and Sammy, for sure, a better mother.”
Talia paused, then took a deep breath.
“So please forgive me, Abby, for hurting you.”
Just then, Abby stood up from the wooden chair that was right next to Talia’s bed. She leaned into Talia for a half-embrace, her arms barely reaching the width of Talia’s massive shoulders. Abby looked waif-thin when standing next to Talia. The former sworn frenemies cried together.
Nurse Suzanne interrupted their tear-fest with a box of Kleenex. Both women took a tissue each before Abby sat back down, still clutching Talia’s ballooned-hand.
“Can I get you a cup of tea or coffee?” asked Nurse Suzanne.
“Yes, please. Coffee, black,” replied Abby.
“I want to ask you a favor, Abby.”
“What is it?” asked Abby, now curious.
“I would like you to reach out to Ethan, to try and reconnect. He still holds a torch for you after all these years.”
Abby starts shaking her head, No, No, No, No, No.
“Ethan’s phone number and email address is written down on a sheet of paper atop the side table. Please take it before you leave today. And promise me that you will reach out to him.”
“That ship sailed a long time ago, Talia. We were kids back then. We’re no longer kids,” protested Abby.
“I don’t have a lot of time left. I need to know that you will reach out to Ethan, sooner rather than later. Please promise me,” she wheezed.
Right then, Talia started to have a vicious coughing spell before Nurse Suzanne rushed back in to suction out the thick mucus that had accumulated from deep inside her oral cavity.
“Yes, yes. I promise,” said a fervent Abby, saying anything to make her scary coughing fit go away.
“Thank you, Abby,” said a drained Talia.
In the hours after Abby’s promise to Talia, Nurse Suzanne would bring the two former frenemies salads made from Justine’s garden, and a slice of her homemade lemon cream cake. Abby got Talia up-to-speed on her life as well, from forgoing marriage and children for a life spent dedicated to academics to her three-year secret affair with Tim. She’d share how he promised to leave his wife by the Fall, when their daughter goes off to college.
“He won’t leave her,” piped-up Talia.
“Why do you say that?” asked a surprised Abby.
“Because if he was going to leave her, he would have already done so by now. Mark my words. By the Fall, when his daughter flies the nest, there will be another imaginary hurdle to have to overcome. Maybe the next hurdle will be his wife getting sick, and how he feels obligated to care of her because only an asshole-prick would leave his sick wife of twenty-five years for a compartmentalized mistress. He’s been stringing you along for three years. Three years that you will never get back. And if he cheated on her, what makes you think he won’t cheat on you?”
Abby sat there in silence, taking in Talia’s common sense.
“I’m sorry, Abby,” said Talia, breaking the silence.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt, or waste precious time. If you want to know about time, just ask a person who is dying. Time is no joke. Time is stealthy as a submarine.”
“No, you’re right,” replied Abby. “Thank you for being honest with me.”
The two held hands until Abby had to say her goodbyes.
“This is not a goodbye, but a see you later,” reminded Abby, knowing full well that Talia may not make it past the month.
Before leaving, Abby reached down and kissed Talia on her forehead the way a parent would kiss a child. Nurse Suzanne and Justine waited on the opposite side of the rolling pocket doors, thanking Abby for accepting Talia’s invitation.
“This meant the world to her,” said Justine as she held Abby’s hands gently inside of her own like a double prayer.
“Your visit will lift up her spirit for days,” confirmed Nurse Suzanne.
Abby hugged both women, before walking the winding flagstone path back to her fire-engine red Mini Cooper parked in the circular driveway.
Before taking off, Abby would turn her phone back on. She saw that she had four missed calls from Tim, not including three text messages. Ignoring them all, Abby would begin to scroll through the choices of local hotels, before selecting one. Just then, the feminine robotic GPS voice returned:
“Take a right onto Orchard Lane.”
Abby watched Justine’s beautiful house disappear in the rear-view mirror as she drove away, not knowing if she would ever see Talia again.
After Abby washed her face and brushed her teeth, she’d open up her laptop to her email account before she took out the folded piece of paper with Ethan’s contact information.
“A promise is a promise,” muttered Abby.
She began to compose her email:
It has been a long time, too long if you ask me. I’ve often wondered about you over the years…like…are you still a devout Christian? I miss our talks, more like arguments, on physics and God. So much to catch up on.
I am the last person to receive Talia’s invitation. We had a glorious cry today and came to a mutual understanding. I am in Mystic for one more night and wondered if you would like to meet up for coffee while I’m here? I would love to see you again after all these years.
She’d hovered over the email for some time before finally hitting send.
Nurse Suzanne went to record Talia’s vitals one last time before the night nurse arrived.
“Is there a piece of paper still on the side table?” asked Talia.
“No. It’s gone,” replied Nurse Suzanne as she listened to her lungs with a stethoscope.
A big smile flashed across Talia’s huge, ashen-colored face.
Carolynn Kingyens is the author of two poetry collections: Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound and the newly released Coupling, both published by Kelsay Books (Coupling is available on Amazon). In addition to poetry, Kingyens writes essays, book and film reviews, micro fiction, and short stories. Today, she lives in New York and Canada with her husband and two amazing daughters.