The stone was always cool on Cara’s back, even in the dead of summer. On the hottest day of the year, the chill would brush through the thin cotton of her shirt like icy fingers, leaving its prints on her shoulder blades and all of the way down her spine. It was like a scoop of frozen lemonade or the first bite of a Tornado Freeze from Sugar Bear’s. The best part of the sweltering day.
She sat there now, her butt planted firmly on the hard ground and her back against the cool slab of granite. She was spending her time with Bethany today. Bethany O’Neil.
She stretched out her legs, kicking off her flip flops. They sat bright orange and silent in the grass, a neon life that really shouldn’t have been there. Her toes almost touched the back of the stone in front of her, so she wiggled them, stretching, aching for the cold drink against the bottoms of her feet. She couldn’t reach, though, and so she relaxed, bringing her knees up to her chest, instead, and digging her toes into the grass. She propped her notebook up on her knees.
June 21, 2007.
Bethany was a figure skater, at heart. She was glitter and ice chips through and through, not even cut out for the hot sun and sandals. There were indoor ice rinks, sure, but nothing like the winter. In the winter, the air was cold and red on her cheeks, and the rink downtown was packed with laughter, with hats and mittens and couples holding hands. She was life down there, from November to March, and the summer breeze left her stagnant. “I need to breathe,” she’d say, and the screen door would float to a close behind her as she left for the rink.
Tucking a strand of her short red hair behind her ear, Cara dropped her pen and leaned her head against the stone. Her hair wasn’t red like paprika or carrots, but it was a bloody, pomegranate red that she had just painted that way from a box, and it made her feel strong and pretty. Daniel hadn’t even noticed.
She liked to practice writing her name in the ice, when she had the rink to herself. Carving a little piece of herself into the place, if only until the next sweep of the Zamboni. The T was the hardest. She never quite figured out how to cross it without making a mess of it all. On busy days, when parents brought their kids and teenagers practiced their hockey, she skated the perimeter, around and around. She could almost do it with her eyes closed, turning when the hollow echo of shouts was just so and again when the clang of the hockey sticks was just a little too far behind her.
Sometimes, she stayed there late into the night, until the rink closed and she had to leave. She was so happy there, at home, with no one to distract her and nowhere that she’d rather be. She spun and she flew and she breathed, nothing but free.
Cara stretched her legs, creeping her toes back into her flip flops. She always knew when it was time to move on. That perfect little moment when she understood someone just right.
She capped her pen, sliding it into her purse, and she folded her journal closed, running her fingers over the soft leather cover. It was nearly half full, already, one page per person. She flipped through it, sometimes, remembering Robert Sherwood and his pet lizards or Lisa Marinelli and the way that she always got the bartender to give her at least one drink on the house. It was her giggle, more than anything.
The sun was bright in the sky, straight overhead, and Cara wound her way through the plush carpet of grass, feeling the soft green crush beneath her weight with each step. Daniel didn’t know that she came there, that she spent most of her afternoons there, that it was her favorite place. But then, Daniel didn’t know much about her at all, anymore.
The best part about teaching was the imagination. It was everywhere. In the questions that they asked, the excuses that they came up, the glittered and crayoned construction paper projects that they stacked on Cara’s desk at the end of the day.
She laughed out loud, now, as the sun crept its way out of sight and night fell through the window. Grading spelling tests and vocabulary quizzes wasn’t always fun, but creative writing was her favorite. She saved it for Sunday nights, when she looked forward to sitting cross-legged in her desk chair and working her way through a glass or two of chardonnay, winding down the weekend.
Jimbo the crab ate bananas for breakfast and sloppy Joes for lunch. Not just sometimes but every single day because bananas and sloppy Joes were his favorite foods.
She smiled, picturing Jimbo the banana-and-sloppy-Joe-eating crab in her head, and she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She uncrossed her legs, settling back into her chair and drawing her eyes up from the papers.
She saw Daniel coming before she heard him, of course. He moved more quietly than anyone she knew, soft and stealth in a six-foot frame. She used to think it was sexy, when he wrapped his arms around her from behind and she hadn’t even known that he was there.
She ran her eyes over him, now, up and down. Polo shirt, untucked. Cargo pants. His favorite tennis shoes. Still sexy, but not the same.
“How’s it going?”
He shrugged and flopped himself down onto the armchair in the corner, her favorite reading chair. Her copy of Gone with the Wind slipped over the arm and fell with a thud to the floor.
It was going the same as it always seemed to be going, of course.
She walked over to the chair and picked up the book. Smoothing the cover, she slid it into the bookshelf with the rest. She sat down on the arm of the chair.
“You want to talk about it?”
He didn’t answer her, but then she knew that he wouldn’t. He just slumped further into the chair, his eyes looking straight on through her. When they had first started dating, his eyes had always made her feel like a little girl. They listened to her better than any pair of ears ever had.
She walked back to her desk, piling up her papers and tucking them under her arm. She couldn’t deal with it that night. Grabbing her glass of wine, she walked past him and through the door. He didn’t look up at her, didn’t acknowledge her, didn’t tell her that he wouldn’t be in to bed that night. But then, he didn’t have to. She would find him there in the morning, slumped and sleeping in the chair.
She left him there, and as she creaked down the hallway, tears prickled in his eyelashes and fell down his cheeks before he silently wiped them away.
July 18, 2007.
Annette slept in the grass during the springtime. A lot of people say that they might like to do things like that, but then they worry about ants crawling up their sleeves or birds crapping in their hair, and they know inside that they’re just not the sleeping-on-the-grass type, no matter what they may say. But Annette was the real thing. She didn’t see sleep as a waste of time but as such an invigorating use of it.
Every Sunday afternoon she flopped down in her back yard at a quarter to two and woke up at half past three, goose-bumped on the cooler days, but always fresh and alive. Her hair felt lighter, and her face felt more relaxed, and her insides felt just a little cooler, like a wisp of air had crept in while she was asleep and was now swirling around, stirring things up.
She liked to lay and look at the sky, right out of her dreams, because it was always bluer and cleaner than she remembered it to be. She thought of dragons living up there, swooping and soaring above the clouds, scarlet red and tangerine orange.
Sometimes she stayed there all afternoon, just by herself, until the dark crept behind the clouds and colored them too dark to see. Just thinking and smiling and dreaming, somewhere so fluid and close to the top being all that she ever wanted to be.
The teacher’s dinner in August was always just one of those things. The conference room was on the first floor, right down the hall from the principal’s office, and every year it was stuffy and stagnant after the long summer break. Cara and Daniel always went, of course, and every year they both wore uncomfortable clothes and ate overcooked salmon with plastic forks.
For whatever reason, and it was usually no good reason at all, Daniel was in a good mood. He chatted with the other teachers, and he pulled out chairs, and it was almost like everything was proper and in its place again. He wore black suit pants and a dress shirt, tucked in, of course, but unbuttoned at the top with no tie. He looked like she always imagined him to look. Crisp, clean, sexy. It was just what he had been wearing when they had first met, actually, on his first day at the school a few years back. He had been confident then, self-assured, walking into the teacher’s lounge with a Starbucks cup in one hand and a frozen pizza in the other. Who brought frozen pizzas for lunch? She had asked him, and he had said, “It’s deep dish.” No other explanation needed.
“So when’s the date, you two?”
Cara turned around, twirling the stem of her wine glass. Janis was nice enough. She taught art and design, and she was brown shoes and tucked in white blouses and, as always, misplaced enthusiasm.
“Oh, you know. We’ll see what happens.” Cara smiled. “It’s good to see you again, Janis. How was your summer?”
Janis smiled back, smoothing her thin hair with a thin hand. “Oh, summer was wonderful, as always. You know, you two should pick a date in the summer. It would be just beautiful. And hey, I’ll help with the invitations, and all.” She sighed a happy sigh, patting Cara on the arm. “I’m so happy for you. You’ve always been just so perfect and happy together.” And shifting her glance to Daniel, she blushed and held up her empty wine glass. Batting her eyes, she excused herself with a giggle.
Daniel turned his attention to Cara, and just for a second his brown eyes were hers again. They were exactly what he was thinking and exactly what she was thinking and a laugh that wanted to escape between them. She hit him in the ribcage with her elbow, and he laughed, and so did she.
She held the moment between her hands like she always did, closed between her fingers, protected.
Sometimes, it was something typical, like the weather or the work day, but most days it was something less suspect, something hidden, and it showed itself in five o’clock shadows and saltines for breakfast.
Today, Cara got up early and pulled out the sauté pans and the griddle. She peeled strips of bacon from the package and scrambled eggs with the tines of a fork and shredded cheddar cheese on the box grater. The early morning was already defined by sunshine that slit through the blinds in horizontal stripes and bounced through the half-moon window high above the sink. The bacon sizzled and the tile was cool beneath her bare feet.
Daniel wore navy blue pajama pants to bed each night, a bare chest and bare feet, but he walked into the kitchen having added socks and a hooded sweatshirt. Detroit Red Wings.
“Red Wings, huh? Only a couple of months till their season starts up, right?” Cara flipped the bacon with a pair of kitchen tongs.
Daniel looked down at his sweatshirt. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
She had always liked his voice. It was sexy, like gravel and sandpaper. Even on broken days like today; days that were split right in half and empty inside.
“You cold? It’s going to be a gorgeous day out there.”
Daniel folded himself down onto one of the kitchen stools, rounding his back and burrowing his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt. He propped his feet up onto the rungs. “Not really cold, no. I’m alright.”
“Good. I hope you’re hungry; I’m making all of your favorites.” She turned and smiled, and he smiled back at her, but it was just the same way that she had seen so many times before. Exhaustion and pity, all wrapped up in formality.
She piled the bacon onto a plate, flipped off the burner, turned around. “Daniel, what are we going to do?” She sighed, propping herself down onto the stool next to him. “I mean, the sun’s shining. Do you see that? It’s the brightest day of the year. The birds are singing. The smell of breakfast probably woke you up. What could be wrong about that?”
She knew what was wrong about it, of course. She always knew that on days like today, the sun was the same as the clouds, bacon strips were the same as stale cereal, she was the same as the old woman down the road who took her morning walk everyday at 6:00 AM or the jerk next door who let his dog run through their yard. There really just wasn’t anything wrong, and that was the problem.
She stood up again, back to the stove. “I’ll make you a plate, okay?” Daniel nodded, and in her head, Cara made her plans for the day. She needed to go to the graveyard.
August 25, 2007.
Jenny painted pictures in the sand with her toes and drew patterns on the mirror after taking a shower. When it was time for dinner at night, she cooked by the rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green. Sometimes purple, but rarely blue. She didn’t have many blue foods that she liked to eat besides blueberries, but then they were really purple, anyway.
Some days she wore glasses with pink frames, and other days not. She dressed in patterned skirts and dark blue jeans and plaid shorts, depending on the day. When snow fell outside, she bundled up with her kids and made snowmen, snowcats, snowdogs. She painted her mailbox bright yellow in the winter and watermelon pink in the summer, and sometimes she painted her front door to match.
She was an artist. A painter, a sculptor, a fashion designer. She could make anything at all into whatever she wanted it to be.
She could never leave him, of course. There were too many moments protected between her fingertips. And one day, one ordinary, partly cloudy day, things would snap back right again inside of him, anyway. It was just a matter of time.
It was why she didn’t know what to do when, on a Saturday afternoon, she came home from grocery shopping and found half of herself gone.
She didn’t notice at first, of course. She changed into her workout clothes and did her yoga. She took a shower, started to prepare dinner, checked the clock. He was always home from the gym by 6:00, but then that day he wasn’t. And he wasn’t home by 7:00, or 8:00. And when she finally gave him a call, he picked up, and he told her that he wasn’t coming home, that he just couldn’t do it to her anymore. It was then that she started to notice that so many little pieces were gone. His shoes by the door. His socks under the coffee table.
She wandered the house top to bottom, searching for anything that was distinctly his. Not the furniture, the game systems, the electronics, the things that were theirs, but just the things that read Daniel from right to left. She found his toothbrush in the bathroom, sitting in the holder. His razor under the sink. In the kitchen, there was his jar of peanut butter. She was allergic.
She walked up the stairs to her office, sat down in her reading chair, pulled his Red Wings sweatshirt over her legs. It was late into the evening, the kind of dark summer silence that sang to her from behind the curtains. She curled her feet up beneath her legs, and as the night ticked slowly forward, she fell asleep.
April 10, 2009.
Victoria didn’t know how to drive. She took the subway everywhere that she needed to, though sometimes she bummed a ride from a neighbor. Mostly, though, she walked. She walked to the grocery store every afternoon after work, carrying one brown bag on her hip on the way home, sometimes struggling with a gallon of milk dangling from her fingertips. She walked to the park on the weekends, and then she walked through the park, past the kids playing in the playground and around the scummy pond and beneath the leafless trees. She walked down the road to the post box, when she even had anything to mail, and though she had to take the subway to get to the mall, she walked its corridors through and through, not even buying anything but just shopping the windows.
When she went to bed at night, her legs itched and ached, and when she got up in the mornings she walked down the stairs and up the stairs, making her coffee, getting dressed, eating her muffin, brushing her teeth. Sometimes, she got up an hour or two early just because her legs were ready to go, and she walked all of the way to work in the dark.
The whole world was at her fingertips this way, if she thought about it. She could walk anywhere that she wanted to.
But when she got to the mall or home from the mall or through the park or up the stairs, there was never anything there, nothing at all, and so she walked somewhere else. Sometimes, she let herself dream what it would be like to sit in the summer grass for an afternoon, but then she hurt again all over and had to find somewhere new to go, anywhere with a different color that just might let her feel okay again.
Carrie Bachler is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2010, Carrie Bachler