Katarzyna Suchodolska (2nd place. Fiction. Fall 2011 Writing Contest)
-We need to talk.
He didn’t even notice that her voice was slightly different. Standing in front of him, hands on her voluptuous hips, Jane repeated, a little louder.
-We really need to talk.
Bob nodded unconsciously while his fingers were still running through the keyboard. He could hear her voice coming from a distant place but wasn’t able to focus long enough to distinguish her words. He nodded a few more times time to make the voice go away. It usually worked. He stretched his legs and took another sip of whiskey.
Jane went to the kitchen and reached for a broken mug: its existence was justified only by the lack of a proper ashtray or maybe by the fact that almost everything in their apartment was broken, damaged or just old. It took her five long silent minutes to light the cigarette; her hands were still shaking. With her wrinkled fist, she hit the coffee machine, but it still made more noise than coffee. She poured herself a glass of tomato juice.
Jane tried to delay facing the reality and focused on the faded picture of her once happy family hanging unevenly on the wall. She turn on the old radio, lit another cigarette and, contemplating the grey smoke, smiled to her memories.
Come on, come on, come on, come on, now touch me, baby…
She is 17 again, well, almost 17, but that’s what she’s been telling everyone. She’s 17 and madly in love and she’s walking on the streets of a tiny port town lost in the swamps of Louisiana.
She is singing and laughing, careless and beautiful. The only thing she’s worried about is what to wear tonight and how to convince the old Algerian woman to finally sell her the bottle of tequila so she can sit on the sandy, velvety beach at night and discuss love and predict destiny and kiss. He was a sailor, that’s what he said, and she fell in love with his deep dark eyes and didn’t need to know anymore. Why would someone waste the precious time in talking?
Till the stars fall from the sky for you and I…
The music stopped suddenly and Jane was 45 again. That summer love so many years ago was quickly interrupted by morning nausea; he had left her an envelope with cash and the rest of the tequila. She never saw him after that.
-Oh, no. Not again.
Jane opened the metal tin where they used to put bread and poppy thyme crackers. On those rare occasions when she decided to finally quit smoking, she would also hide there her last pack of cigarettes. It never really worked; she couldn’t start her day without lighting up a smoke. She felt that she needed one now. The crackers were all gone and bread was covered in a velvety white mold. It almost looked like an Easter rabbit, all furry and fuzzy. She didn’t like rabbits.
She shouldn’t be surprised and yet she was, every single time it happened. Bob was supposed to buy the groceries and, as always, he forgot. Jane didn’t even want to talk to him, what for?, the same conversation over and over again. Well, she did want to talk to him, but just to finally tell him that she didn’t love him anymore, that she had ruined the best years of her life by staying with him, no, that he had ruined the best years, that everyone told her that she could have done better than that, but instead she didn’t listen and had married him secretly anyway. Now he wouldn’t listen to her.
Things were slightly different when the kids were still living with them. Jane would try to talk to him, and even if it usually ended in a bigger fight, she had hope that they would work it out. She used to turn on the vacuum cleaner to mute the arguing between them and to preserve the happy family image her grandmother had taught her, but the kids must have noticed their hostility anyway as they grew older. Jane thought they were the only reason she had stayed so many years, but after the youngest moved out she wasn’t sure anymore. And now another…?
Jane grabbed the pack of cigarettes and went outside. She knew she should quit now; it wasn’t good for the little one to inhale this cloud of cheap grey smoke. She was still hesitant to go to the doctor for the final confirmation, but deep inside her heart she knew she was expecting. After four pregnancies, she had learned to read her body pretty well.
Lucky for her, Bob didn’t learn anything. She still had a lot of time before she would have to talk to him. It gave her some freedom to figure out what to do. She lit another cigarette. Sitting motionless, she felt that she had to move, go, explore. Thoughts racing through her mind didn’t match her still body. She finished the cigarette and headed towards the supermarket nearby. After all, she had to buy the bread.
Jane entered the store and walked around the soup section in wonder. Everything was so bright and colorful; she felt lightheaded. She tried to focus on one item to stop the stream of thoughts rushing through her head. A can of chicken soup. They were stocked in an orderly manner on the shelves, such precision. Precision, control, care, the flood of thoughts once again. She had to stop for a second.
A freshly cleaned floor smelled like lemon and thyme: a strange combination that made her think of the childhood days at her grandmother’s house. She remembered the laziness of the afternoons when after all the chores they would sit on the porch, she and her grandmother, and drink lemonade; no rushing, no talking, just the sugary taste under the warm Texas sun. With all her family responsibilities she rarely had time to refresh her memories or to realize how much she missed that carefree period. She closed her eyes, took one more deep breath of the lemony aroma and left the store.
Not feeling ready to head back home and face Bob, she put the loaf of bread into her purse and decided to visit her sister, far on the west side of town. She started fast, as if with every energetic step would want to crash her feelings and thoughts. The uneven pavement slowed her down and made her carefully examine her route.
Jane knew this path very well. The first year of her marriage she would run to her sister Erica after every argument; later on, she wouldn’t bother. Busy, upset or angry, she rarely paid attention to the scenery. Now she tried to focus on the little details to reset her mind.
As she walked on, the rusted trashcans were slowly replaced by bold colorful flowers, gracefully planted in the front yards. Their intense aroma made her stop to admire their subtle beauty and to recall their names. Jepsonia, Primula hortensis, Myosotis sylvatica… Jane tried to imagine how her life, her dreams would be different if she too had a tiny garden with perfectly green grass and a fancy flower encyclopedia on her coffee table. She rarely complained about what she had or maybe rather what she didn’t, but as the neighborhood changed gradually, so did her mood. The houses grew bigger and wider, the paint got brighter, and the attentive, skinny pit-bulls transformed into fat labs lying carelessly on front porches.
Few people nodded and smiled as she walked by. Jane tried to remember the last time when she had actually smiled or talked to her neighbors. Two, maybe three years ago? For sure, it must have been before Junior’s funeral. After that people started to avoid her even more. Who could blame them? She wouldn’t know what to say either.
Jane turned onto her sister’s street. Suddenly an intense pain inside her head made her stop. “That’s probably all those flowers…” she tried to excuse herself, but she knew that it wasn’t an allergy. A nice-looking neighborhood; friendly, waving parents walking their kids; butterflies and flowers she loved so much…and yet she felt so alone, isolated and scared. “No one here can help me,” she realized, “I have to face it on my own, in my own world.”
The smell of flowers brought back memories of her wedding day, a warm rainy morning in late May. Erica was the first person with whom Jane shared her joyful decision to get married; she was the only guest present at the wedding. Jane smiled at her reminiscences: how simple her life appeared to be that day and how stunning Bob had looked in his black tuxedo. She wondered if that was it, a mere physical attraction that had brought them together and maybe a shared love for settling in a little too early.
Erica offered her help and support whenever Jane was in trouble, starting with that summer romance in Louisiana and continuing through her rocky marriage. Jane appreciated her sister not being judgmental or critical towards her problems and decisions; unlike most of their family Erica never reprimanded Jane. She was concerned with Jane’s life choices, but later she grew apathetic and immune to the drama. While she still promised to do whatever she could to help out, Jane made up her mind. Knocking on Erica’s door, she decided to keep her pregnancy a secret as long as she had to so she could figure things out by herself.
Bob liked to smash a fat mosquito from time to time. Smash with his bare hand and observe the blood spots on the wall and pretend to be one of those smart guys investigating a top priority crime scene and he would feel in power and in control and… And then Jane would probably start screaming and yelling and she would start insisting that they change the channel and instead of CSI they should watch The March of the Penguins like he could stand birds walking back and forth for two hours. He would rather take a nap.
He opened his eyes just to watch her bend and twist in front of a mirror, like a broken puppet. She used to be attractive, maybe even beautiful, but had faded pretty quickly and he had to replace her exotic beauty with an extended collection of Bulgarian porn films he got at the mall.
They tried to make it work: the marriage, the family, the dream. Bob had to admit: they had shared few good moments. On their wedding day he was truly excited; for the first time in his life he actually believed in something. The second he held their first kid in his arms he thought he had got it all; he had married the prettiest girl who had given him a loudly crying boy, the pride and joy of every father in the maternity ward of the free inner-city clinic. The baby had brought them closer for a while, but the crying was louder and louder and she never lost those stretch marks on her belly. He should have married her childless sister.
Almost all his life he has been living in the apartments located on the streets named after heroes of the revolution: stupid young men who didn’t do anything useful for the society, but had died. Now he lived on a street named after a mall, and he thought that this might be an excellent simile for his life, but he was never very good at English and couldn’t really distinguish a simile from a metaphor. He was never very good at anything. And he had gotten to like the mall after all.
He used to be a good truck driver. Not a very good one, so eventually he lost his license after a yet another incident. He liked the job, though: the absolute solitude of the road or the stream of car lights that made him think of glow-worms. He even liked the poetry broadcast he often heard on the radio, even if he never quite understood why they used so many long, unnecessary words. He enjoyed the melody of the voice reciting the poems, and something about the fact that usually it was surprisingly well-timed with a headless deer on the shoulder of the highway. He could have been a great poet too, or maybe a director, no, a cinematographer, and he would make a close-up on those decapitated animals while playing somber music. A bassoon, maybe?
But he wasn’t an artist, not even a truck driver anymore and all he could do now was to lie in bed, motionless. The air got thicker from the cigarette and even the smallest move provoked a giant headache. In a corner of the room, a spider created its web and patiently waited for a fat mosquito.