“You knew I was coming and it takes you twenty minutes to open the fucking door? Thanks, Diana,” he said, walking in, walking past her, down the short hallway into their small living room.
“Nice to see you too, Hal,” Diana said, closing the door. “You could have used your key.” She wondered if the neighbor was home. Everything was so close together here. When they’d bought this place, it had been the perfect little starter. But now it felt crowded, the house too small. The perfect young couple perfectly undone.
He sat down on the love seat in his usual spot at the end and began obsessively pulling at the frayed denim material on the arm with his fingers. The cardboard boxes surrounded them, marked in her florid hand and stacked against the walls.
She sat down across from him in her overstuffed chair. The hope chest occupied the space between them, the oak surface gleaming.
“You started smoking again,” he said, his hazel eyes slate blue, the vein crossing his left temple raised. “Nasty habit. I can smell it, you know.”
“You want some coffee?”
“I want this over,” he said. “Packing?”
“Almost done. Hope you don’t mind if I do.”
The coffee had been made, so she stepped quickly into the galley kitchen, poured herself a cup, and came back to the living room. She sat back down, mug in hand, tucking her long, narrow legs underneath her, trying to look unflappable. Her heart pounded.
“I don’t see why there’s any question about this,” he said, sitting up now, elbows on his knees. He had on the blue flannel shirt she’d given him for Christmas. She wondered if he remembered that. Only two months ago, they thought they were so happy. They were, weren’t they?
“If you want it over, then it’s simple,” she said. “You leave it here and we’re done.”
“Why is this even a question? It was my grandmother’s for Christ’s sake. What gives you the right to keep it?”
“She gave it to me when we got married, remember? You should be able to remember that. You weren’t all that drunk at the time.”
“Good one,” he said. “She gave it to us, not you, and we’re not together anymore, so now it’s mine.”
“Who decided that?” she said. “It’s a hope chest. That means it’s the bride’s, not the groom’s.”
“Hope is a curse. That’s what the Greeks thought. Did you know that?”
“You are an idiot. Did you know that?”
“Look, it’s the only thing I want. You can have everything else,” he said.
“Did you tell Grandma Dor? That you fucked it up?”
“I don’t need reminding. And she doesn’t need to know. I never would have if you hadn’t been such a turd.”
“When did you decide you’d married a turd? And what does that make you?”
“Sorry. That came out wrong.” He pushed his thin brown hair back away from his face and looked up at her. “You drive me crazy when you’re like this.”
He seemed shorter today than his six feet and thinner, smaller overall. He looked haggard and she wondered suddenly if he had been eating well. It had been three weeks since he’d left, but she felt as if she were looking at someone she’d never seen before.
“You just meant it’s my fault, right?” she asked, because that’s what every woman wondered, wasn’t it? If you can’t keep ’em happy at home… Wasn’t that how that cliché went?
He looked down at his hands. A streak of red crept up past the collar of his shirt. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? Does that make a difference? I’m sorry it happened. I wish it hadn’t, but I can’t take it back now.”
“So—what? What does that mean? That we just go ‘Oh well,’ next?”
“I could just take it, you know. I could just pick it up and carry it out of here. What are you going to do?”
She took a long sip of coffee and then put the cup down on the chest, slipping a coaster underneath. “Stop you.”
He stared at her. She could tell he was thinking about it but knew he’d never do that. He wasn’t physical in that way even when angry.
“There has to be an answer, Di. We can’t just keep doing this.”
“You could just tell me why. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
He grimaced. “I’ve already told you. I don’t know why. It’s a guy thing. Just happened.”
“Not good enough.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Maybe that she seduced you? You were intensely drunk? That you couldn’t get it up? That it never happened. Maybe that you don’t love me anymore? You never did?”
“You know that’s not true. I did love you,” he stumbled.
Past tense, she thought. “How do I know, Hal? How? Because it’s just what people in love do, right? Sleep with somebody from work and come home and confess? Just—oh, by the way, I had this affair with this woman, and now it’s over. And I think I’ll move out, and can I have Grandma’s hope chest back?”
“God damn it, Di!” His fist came down on the chest and made the cup jump, the black coffee spilling over the side and out onto the wood. “How long are you going to punish me for this?”
“Good job,” she said, grabbing the cup and rushing to the kitchen for a towel. “As long as it takes,” she yelled back at him, coming back to clean up, wiping the chest and then drying it off.
He put his face into his hands and shook his head before taking a deep breath and looking at her. “You want to know about it? I remember this moment I was dropping Karen off at her apartment when she put her hand on my arm and then we were kissing and then we were together. And the weird thing was, at that point I don’t think I even liked her. I liked what she was doing to me, but it was a mechanical thing.” He chuckled then. “Know the funny part? Since I left you, I haven’t touched her. She’s been whining to me about that. Fucked up, right? I leave you and now I can’t stand to be near her. So is that what you needed, Di?”
Diana shook her head. She’d been so careful. She hadn’t married the first man she loved, waited until she was twenty-eight, dated Hal for three years. She loved the way he laughed, the way he rolled a quarter over his knuckles and back again, the way he touched her hair, the way he enveloped her in his arms, the plans they’d made, all the places they’d go and see together. That part had been simple. But after all that planning, they were done, just like that.
She tried to rub the chill from her arms, but it didn’t work. She couldn’t say anything. It felt as if the center of her existence had already collapsed and she was sniffing at the rubble for signs of life.
Diana stared at him for a long, long time. She examined the dark wells beneath his eyes, the light stubble across his cheeks, and the square set of his jaw. She’d loved all that once. How quickly things could change. “I thought you could be honest with me.”
“And I have been,” he said. “I could have lied, but I didn’t. Would you rather not have known?”
“You did it to hurt me, so here we are.”
“I wanted to be honest,” he said.
“Did you ever think about me? While you were with her?”
“You’re fucking crazy,” he said, looking at her like she really was. “You want me to leave. That’s been evident for weeks now.”
“You haven’t been here for weeks,” she said, and it was true. She’d been alone to decide. They hadn’t talked on the phone.
“Is there any more coffee? I want some coffee,” he said.
“You know where it is,” she said, and she saw the surprise.
“Oh, it’s like that now.”
“Evidently,” she said, finishing the cold slug in her cup while he went into the kitchen. She could hear him rattling cups, opening and closing cabinets. “Where’s the sugar?” he called.
“In front of you,” she said. He never could find things. The sugar bowl clinked distinctively on the counter. This was getting them nowhere.
Diana moved her cup off the hope chest and set it down on one of the boxes by the window. She lifted the lid, which yawned wide, sweeping all the way back, and crouched down in front of it. She didn’t look up when Hal came back into the room.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“If you want it, I have to empty it out,” she said, peeling back the top layer, a linen tablecloth they’d bought in Mexico. She placed it on the floor. Hal sat down on the couch across from her and watched.
He swept his hand through his hair. “Can’t we just dump it out?”
“There are fragile things in here.”
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” Diana said.
She lifted out a set of napkins, green with small embroidered lilies. Silver napkin rings. There hadn’t been time or money for dinner parties. There were place mats, two silver trays, a silver nut dish, the handles shaped like tiny squirrels. Diana lifted them out gently piece by piece and laid them on the floor.
“Make yourself useful,” she said, handing the last of these to Hal. “Put these on the counter in the kitchen.”
Silently he complied, came back in, and sat down.
“Remember when your mother gave this to us?” she asked, handing him an album of photographs from their wedding. On the front cover was a picture of the two of them looking as if they were in love. They were the perfect couple, Diana with the long dark hair, almost as tall as he, and Hal with his hazel eyes. They looked green that day.
“I do,” Hal said. “I was surprised. Mom’s not the sentimental type.”
“She was moving. They couldn’t fit everything into the condo.”
Diana wondered where she’d put it now, where she’d put all this stuff. Did she really want to drag all this to Chicago? If she gave the chest to him, where would he put it? Would he show it to Karen? Have a good laugh? “Did you tell your mother?”
He shook his head. “I haven’t told anyone. I was going to give it back to Grandma Dor,” Hal said.
She felt heaviness grow in her chest, but she kept her eyes on what was next. She lifted out the gold-colored box, the one she had sized to the fit.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s my wedding dress,” she said. She’d had it professionally cleaned; amazed they’d been able to get the red wine spot out, the one his cousin Larry had spilled on the front.
Hal said nothing. His fingers played with the material at the edge of the couch arm.
“Your wedding suit is in there too if you want it back,” she said.
“Really?” he said, surprised. “Why did you keep it?”
“I had this idea that, twenty years from now, we’d pull these things out and try them on and laugh because by then we’d be too fat to pull them up beyond our knees.”
“That would have been funny,” Hal said, finishing his coffee and putting the mug on the floor.
“It was such a nice wedding, wasn’t it?” she asked.
He nodded. “What’s that?” He reached over and grabbed the envelope in her hand, a large manila envelope that had a white sticker label on it with Diana’s name typed out right below the clinic logo. Her discharge papers.
“It’s nothing,” she said. But he didn’t let go. She did.
She uttered a deep sigh. She hadn’t forgotten it was in there; she somehow never thought he’d look at it, but then she never thought they’d be doing this today.
“What is this?” he asked, staring at the top of the pages he’d just pulled out, a crease deepening between his eyes.
“Pretty obvious, isn’t it?” She surveyed the remaining contents of the chest. At the very bottom she had a matching bowl and two-handled cup that had been hers when she was a little girl, the picture of Peter Rabbit still vivid in the center of each piece. She lifted them out and carried them to the bedroom, where she put them on the dresser. She came back in and sat back down.
“When did you do this?” He asked.
“A week after you moved out.”
His face had lost its color. “You should have told me.”
“Do you remember what you said the last time you were here?”
“But this? Really?” He asked holding up the forms.
“I don’t know why I married you, Diana. I shouldn’t have. The whole thing has been a mistake, and maybe we should just get on with our lives.’ Did I get it right?”
“Shit, Diana. Fucking shit. You killed it.”
“We did that together.”
He put his face in his hands, and for a moment she thought he could be crying. She’d never seen him cry before.
He stayed like that for a long time and she let him. She didn’t have anything to say. The emptiness had hardened within her since her visit to the clinic, and she realized at some point on the ride home that it wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. The only thing left in the chest was a small teddy bear, a white one with a red checked bow tie that she’d won for him at an arcade in Tucson, Arizona, on their only road trip. She left it there, sitting in the corner of the box, stark against the golden-colored wood. She didn’t want it anymore.
“That’s it,” she said, closing the lid gently. “I think I’ll have to help you get it to the car.” It wasn’t that heavy, but it was awkward and old, something that could easily be dented, scratched or broken.
When he looked up at her, his eyes were red.
“You could have told me,” he said. His voice felt soothing. Not the voice he’d used in the recent past. Not the horrid one, but the old voice, the one he’d taken to church, the one he’d used in bed.
“And what would you have said?”
He didn’t answer for a while. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” Thinking what a strange yet touching question. “And I’m not.”
He looked down at his hands. “Do you know what it was?”
“It wasn’t anything yet,” she said. Just like them.
She got up and closed the lid, moving the stuff away from their path. “You want help with this, right?”
He looked at her. “A baby would have changed everything,” he said.
She sat back down. He was so convinced of that, so infantile. She shook her head.
“A baby didn’t belong in this,” she said, feeling so empty.
“You don’t have family, so what do you know,” he said, anger hovering at the edge of his mouth.
“I know that much,” she said, and he knew it too.
Maybe that’s what had all gone so wrong. She’d fallen in love with the idea that he came from a place where women handed down hope chests to put their lives inside, and hers would be shared with all of them, their histories permanently intertwined and somehow unbreakable.
Silently, he opened the chest and put the envelope on the bottom. One by one, he picked up the things they’d taken out and carefully put them back inside.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He didn’t answer her. The napkin rings, the nut dishes, the tablecloth, even the wedding clothes. When everything was back inside, he closed the lid and sat back down.
“We could try again,” he said, looking up at her from his place on the couch. “I am so sorry, Di. So sorry.”
She winced. Of all the things he’d said, that felt like a slap. She’d thought of this possibility, remembering him beside her in bed, the smell of him as she rested her head on his shoulder.
She put her hands on the chest, feeling the smoothness of the oak. He reached out and put a hand on hers. She felt the warmth of him wrap itself around her, and for a moment she almost faltered. Then slowly, she pulled away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Chicago. I’ve rented an apartment on Jarvis. You can see the lake from the kitchen window.”
“I’ve never been there,” he said.
That was the point, she thought.
“I am sorry, Diana,” he said.
“I wish that changed things.”
She walked him to the door and he kissed her good-bye, the smell of him, unwashed, lingering. She stood for a long time with her back against it, listening to his steps fade, willing herself not to go after him, forcing herself to breathe.
She grabbed another cup of coffee, along with a cigarette, and sat down in her chair, putting her stockinged feet up on the chest.
In the morning the moving men would be coming. She knew then that she’d leave the chest here. He’d be surprised when he found it, she supposed, but she didn’t want it anymore. She could actually imagine it, sitting alone in the center of the living room, its oak surface shining, a relic even if not a holy one.
Maybe the Greeks had been right, but it no longer mattered. She knew very well what remained in the chest and was already gone.
B.P. Greenbaum holds a B.A. in English from the University of Hartford, an M.A. in secondary education from St. Joseph College, and an M.F.A. from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast. Presently, she is the creative writing teacher at a public magnet arts high school in Willimantic, Connecticut. In 2011, she was awarded a Teaching Arts Fellowship from Surdna, now known as the National Arts Teachers Fellowship (NATF), to develop a memoir. Her poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction have been published in The Louisville Review, Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Alembic, Forge, Pearl, Willow Review, Underwood Review, The Dos Passos Review, Fiction Fix, Noctua Review and Penmen Review.
© 2016, B.P. Greenbaum