By Stephanie Johnson
I figure she'll be greeting prospective buyers at the front door, so I let myself in the back. For Sale By Owner, no realtors involved. It's just like her to think she can do everything on her own. She's baked cookies, and classical music is playing. The house feels cozy and warm, nothing like when I lived here.
I stand behind the doorframe of the kitchen watching her. She's at the door, greeting a young couple. Newlyweds, they tell her, looking for their first home together. This warms her up. She likes love. She thinks she's good at it. I'm the one who's not.
I slip down the hall and wait for the lovebirds in the bathroom. I give myself the once-over in the mirror, then position myself by the shower doors. I stare at the ceiling. The faux-finish looks like curdled milk. It's bumpy and uneven, a project gone awry. At some point, she stopped investing in me and put her energy into the house.
When the couple comes in, I don't turn around. If they want to check the water pressure, they'll have to talk to me first.
Sure enough, the little missus taps me on the shoulder. "Excuse me," she says. I turn toward her slightly. Her cheeks are pink, wholesome. Her honey hair is in a thick, conservative braid. "Could we turn on the shower?"
"Gotta make sure the shower has power," her husband says. He wraps an arm around her waist and rests his chin her shoulder. His smile is crooked and he needs a haircut.
I could give them a glimpse of their future, tell them where love like theirs will get them, but I don't. "Water's not the problem," I say. I point to the ceiling over the shower. "That's mold. Stuff can mess up your lungs."
"Mold?" she says.
"Are you handy?" I ask him, thinking he probably hasn't seen a toolbox in his life. "That'll keep you busy with maintenance."
He looks blankly at me. She squeezes his arm. She probably knows he's not a handy man.
"Make sure you look at the roof, too," I add. "Squirrels nest by the chimney. Come summer, the babies drop like rocks on the deck."
"Are they okay?" the girl asks. Concern is evident in her wet, wide eyes. A nature lover, this one.
"Stunned. They go back up the tree and rain down all over again, a plague of raining squirrels. If she ever moves her nest into the chimney, you'll have real problems."
The girl looks uneasy. "Okay," she says. "Thanks."
They're looking to make a quick exit. I give them two years of wedded bliss, three at most.
"Wait," I say. "Want to check the water pressure?"
"No," he says. "No thanks."
They disappear down the hall. I wait for the front door to close behind them and move to the bedroom. It's mostly the same as I remember it. She's painted the walls and added curtains, but the bed's in the same place. Same nightstand and ugly reading lamp.
I kick off my shoes and plop on the bed. I wrinkle the duvet and push a dent into the pillow with my head. She hates it when people sleep on decorative pillows, as if that makes any sense. What's a pillow for if not to rest your weary head? Decorative pillows feel like putting on airs. I've told her that, too. She knows where I stand.
I hear her coming down the hall, no doubt alerted by the youngsters about the guy in the bathroom who escaped her meet and greet. She's got the loudest footfall of any woman I've ever met. Whether she's in heels or barefoot, she's like a whole team of Clydesdales.
When she sees me, her lips are pinched. "I should have known," she says.
"Surprise," I say, but she isn't. Nothing I do surprises her anymore.
Her hands are on her hips and she stands in the doorway, neither coming in nor going out. She leans against the doorframe.
"Looking to buy this house?" she asks. She puts on her hostess smile, as if I'm a stranger she's found lying on her bed. Both of us know that's not why I'm here, but she's playing her hand close to her chest. That's why she was good for me: she's not impulsive, but she's not judgmental of those of us who are.
"I wanted to talk to you," I say. I sit up on the edge of the bed.
"You didn't have to sneak into my home to accomplish that."
"I was in the neighborhood."
She sighs. "What do you want," she says.
"How have you been?" I feel as though I should have brought her something, something small. A single daisy, a book of poems by that Latin-American poet she likes if I could remember his name. Maybe just a card.
"Cut the crap," she says. She scrunches her black hair into a bun on the back of her head that she'll hold for a minute and then let fall. "For five years, nothing. Then, here you are. What do you want?"
"I miss you," I say. It's not much, but it's honest.
She winces. Her hair drops back to her shoulders. "That's it? You scared off a potential buyer for that? Look," she says, "we're divorced. I'm not your wife. I don't have to deal with whatever you're going through anymore. I've moved on."
"Whose first marriage works out anymore?" I say. "It was a learning experience."
"Plastic," she says. "That's what I've learned from you. Buy plastic."
"Those kids," I say, "they're happy. It wasn't all bad for us."
"I'm surprised you even remember we were married."
"I quit," I say. I could tell her I've changed, but she's heard that one too many times. "We could try. We could be friends."
"Friends?" She snorts. "Is that what this is about?" Her eyes move down and I'm silent. "History," she says, "you're history."
Her foot's tapping and her eyebrows depress in the middle until they almost touch.
"Don't try to be the good guy in this," she says. "You're not a good guy. Do you hear me? You're not a good guy."
She pauses and breathes deeply. Her nostrils flare and she chews on her lower lip. She's gearing up. Next thing you know, we'll scream at each other out in the yard, just like the old days.
"Love," she says, "most men—decent men—put in overtime, they build nest eggs, they want to make their families' lives easier. Real love changes things. What do you know about love? To you, love is too time-consuming."
I don't say anything. I look at my shoes, then at my hands. Finally, I meet her eyes. "I understand if you're angry."
"You understand? You abandoned me, but you never let me abandon you, and believe me, no one would have blamed me. I tried to make this work."
"Don't sell the house," I say. "It's our house."
She crosses her arms over her chest. "Was I supposed to wait for you to clean up your act? Tell me how this one ends. Is there a happily-ever-after in your version of this story?"
"I'm seeing someone," I tell her. "But…" I cross the room and drop to one knee. I'm kneeling before her.
She puts her hands out before her and takes a step back into the hallway. "Don't tell me," she says, "I don't care. I hope she has enough energy for a project. Because that's what she's got: a project."
"Let me scrape off the faux-stucco in the bathroom. It looks like shit."
"Remember that time," I say, "at the cabin up north. We slept outside and wished on stars. Did your wish come true?"
She looks at me. Really looks at me. "If it did, it waited so long that I'd entirely forgotten what it was I'd wanted so badly."
But I've always known what she wanted.
"Get out," she says. She pulls at my hand. Her skin is soft but her grasp firm. "Get out, or I'll pull you out." She's struggling, throwing her weight into it, but it's not working.
"Let go," I say. "I can't get my balance with you pulling me."
"Okay," she says. "But you have to go."
As soon as I stand, her hands are on me again. She's pushing me toward the door. "This isn't your house anymore. I want you to leave."
I slip out of her hands. I dive on the bed, landing spread eagle. The duvet balls up beneath me. She follows, beating her fists against me. Her face is red. Her hair hangs loose. Her breathing is fast.
"Get out," she screams. For a moment, it's as though we've never been apart.
I grab her wrists and fling her over me on the bed. She lands hard, crying now, her head thudding against the headboard. She's fighting me, but I throw my weight on top of her. I pin her to the bed until she wears herself out fighting me.
"Just lay here," I say.
"You're hurting me."
I roll off her and stare at the ceiling. She's quiet now, lying beside me exhausted. She rolls onto her side, faces the wall. She's crying, but when she speaks her voice is low and calm. "I want you to go," she says. "Please, just go. Haven't we been through enough?" She looks at me over her shoulder. "The house is mine," she says. "You gave it to me in the divorce."
I did give her the house. The drunk me gave up without a fight, but I could still move through this house like I know it.
"What happened to you?" she says. "Even drunk, you had some sense. Have you completely lost it? Are you so desperate you had to mention the squirrels?"
She's so close I could touch her. "You were scared the first time they fell, but you got used to it," I say.
"I'm not the dumb girl who married you," she says.
I want to touch her hair. Years ago, I'd stumble to bed and study her, how she'd fallen asleep, her reading glasses on her nose. I thought then she was waiting for me. I'd lift the book from her chest. Sometimes she'd stir and I wanted to wake her, to tell her I was home, but I never did. I was afraid that if I woke her I wouldn't remember what I wanted to say.
"I just want to forget I ever knew you." Her face now is wakeful but soft, a fraction of her slumbering self. She reaches for my hand, and I let her take it. Her fingers are smooth and cool. I run my thumb along the jagged top of her index finger. She still chews her nails.
"I wish you could forget me, too," I say. I don't mean it. Even if she sells this house, she can't shake our bittersweet decline. I don't want her to sell it, but I don't want to buy it from her either.
I should go, I think. With their eyes open, people see only misery. I should let her dream. But instead, I squeeze her fingers tight, holding on to every waking moment.
Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Rambler, Lily, Keyhole Magazine, Fickle Muses, Boston Literary Magazine, R-KV-R-Y, and Idlewheel. Her essays have regularly appeared in The Rambler in her column "No Do-Overs."
Photo "The Big Bang" courtesy of Gavin Mills, Halifax, Canada.
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