I find it strange that you still live there, in the house your mother told us not to buy because the roof was falling in and the sink crawled with cockroaches. I remember the look on your face as you disobeyed her for the first time, a mix of exhilaration and fear. You put your half of the deposit down the next day and I did the same, even though it left me with $40 to my name. We were childhood sweethearts, and we thought this was us growing up. A week later, you moved your belongings out of your mother’s house and wouldn’t see her again for a year. I sent her a letter every month to let her know you were okay. Sometimes it was a lie. Besides, she never wrote back. She blamed me.
That house was the first of your many rebellions. It gave you a thrill, a shot of ecstasy. You wanted to feel that again, in bigger and bigger doses. You whisked me away for weekend breaks in Memphis and Portland, filled the house with roses, bought a new set of kitchenware to cook me breakfast in bed. You couldn’t see the patterns, but I could. Eventually, you began leaving me behind. Once a year, as if there was a calendar in your head ticking off the days, you would leave house without a word and disappear for as long as you saw fit. You would never tell me where you’d been, but I found one of the plane tickets once, to a place called Montgomery, Alabama. Is that where you met her?
When the thrill of those trips wasn’t enough you quit your job. They’d put up with your yearly disappearances and mood swings, covered your cases, stepped in for your court appearances and never asked you to explain or apologize. You stormed into your boss’ office that day and slammed down your letter of resignation. He’d been our friend for five years. Now he barely nods at me when I see him in the store.
This time the feeling of ecstasy didn’t follow. You spent weeks in bed, staring at the ceiling, waiting for that rush.
You said you were going to make money the ‘old-fashioned way’, bought a three-hundred-pound ride-on lawnmower and some soil for our fifteen-foot by twenty-foot garden. The mower never left the garage, you said it’s turning circle wasn’t good enough. Still, you refused to sell it even when we defaulted on the mortgage. You set to work by hand. Your face lit up like a child when you harvested your first red tomato. We cut it into slices and laid it on a bed of lettuce from the grocery store. You savored each slice. Is the mower still sitting in your garage, or did you sell it to buy her a ring?
As I picked up shifts at Kroger’s, you spent hours measuring out the perfect amount of water to pour on each of your plants. I came home tired, weak, dejected but at least your plants were hydrated. You bought a set of glass jars and a stack of science textbooks. One day I snuck a peek in your office and, next to my dismantled sewing machine, stripped for parts for another scheme, I saw the title: ‘Mixing Your Own Pesticides from Home’. Your plants all died within a matter of weeks.
I thought another trip might help your itchy feet. I bought every travel magazine in the store and found pages on the ‘un-explored US’. I left them open on the kitchen table
with a pen, so you would feel this was your own decision. I packed our bags and put them by the door. When you returned home that evening you said you’d scanned the bottom of Lake Vermilion with a metal detector and found a can of cola from 2001. You sat at the kitchen table for hours, circling pictures of towns with gravel roads, deciding where next to conquer. I woke up the next day and you were gone.
You caught a tan on your trip, so I reckoned you’d gone West. Not that you’d tell me. You left in April and returned in June, although you swore it was still May. I thought you came back because you’d missed me. I’d kept the house ready for your return for weeks; the fridge stocked, your pajamas neatly folded under your pillow, your new set of plants watered. Eventually, I stopped. You came back and the first thing you said to me was what the hell am I supposed to eat. Then, don’t you know I’ve been on a bus for fourteen hours?
When we were setting the table for dinner, you told me that you had met someone else. I cut up a tomato from the store and laid it on a bed of lettuce. Over dinner, we talked about how frogs are pulled towards water even if they’re miles away. I thought we were talking in code about your woman. Now I think you truly were talking about frogs.
The thing that hurt the most was that you hadn’t met her on this most recent trip. You’d met her years before, and never told me. You said you’d thought about her every day. Have you thought about me once since?
I woke up a few weeks later and found all my belongings packed into boxes, stacked by the front door. You said you’d help me get them into the car, but I refused. You made a cup of tea as I walked back and forth loading my truck and waved through the window as I drove away.
I bumped into your mother about a year later at the farmer’s market. She was buying your wife some flowers. Sunflowers, her favorite. She said you were working in a law firm as a researcher. I couldn’t imagine you back in an office, dressed in a suit and tie, reading over cases in brown files. She said you were happy. Your wife was an accountant. Perhaps she’s letting
me know you’re okay like I did for her all those years ago. Or perhaps she’s saying it to spite me. Part of me hopes she’s lying.
I still work at Kroger. I sold the truck. I rent a cockroach-ridden apartment on Main Street and I take a detour to work to avoid walking past our house. It adds another ten minutes, but I get to see kids playing in the park before school and it stops me from peering in through your windows to see if she’s painted over my favorite lilac walls. Some days I plot how to kill you. I imagine pinching your keys from the hook by the front door and ramming your lawn mower into the living room. Mowing down you and your accountant. Some days I pick flowers from our garden and put them in a vase in my kitchen. Some days I cry. Sadness, pain, happiness, the tears are the same. I won’t tell you what you put me through in those years, I’d bet my last dime that you don’t ‘remember’ a bit of it. Have you told your new wife that I was uncaring, that I didn’t stock the fridge after your trips, that I was unexciting, working all hours, that I didn’t make enough effort, that your mum never liked me? Or do you remember I existed at all? When a cockroach runs across my path, I lift my foot and crush it into the ground and think, thank God you took that trip to Alabama.
by Bethany Russell