“Will you marry me?” He’s smiling. It’s not his crooked smile, uncensored as the grin climbs the left side of his face, crescent eyes and so many teeth. It’s a small smile, chompers hidden and eyes bright, yet, somehow, untouched. There he is, down on one knee; offering extended towards you. You examine his face – a day’s stubble; thick, enticing lips; a hint of crow’s feet; and laugh lines of your own making. His features are warmed by the glow escaping the yellow shade of the hall lamp, the one you lit what must have been – what? Only seconds ago? You had scrambled for the old beaded chain, one hand on the door frame, the other grasping in the darkness, searching for the familiar rusted stand – this you had experienced in a world before.
Your weary brain had been back at the bar, back on your interactions of the evening, your wins and – primarily – lack thereof. In the dark, as you pulled your scarf from your neck, you were still surrounded by bottles and coins and old wooden counters – Wipe, pour, smile, laugh, wipe, pour, cash, change, card – debit or credit? – bill, pour, smile, smile, smile, laugh, eye contact – not too much but just enough – laugh, smile, pour, cash, tip?, bill, laugh, smile, laugh, laugh, laugh…
You hadn’t finished the breathing part when the light opened on this kneeling, waiting, aging version of Jeffrey.
Slipping off worn leather boots (the laces of which have not, as far as can be remembered, been untied), you place heavily-socked feet – left (toes to sole to heel), then right (heel to sole to toes) – onto warped floorboards. These socks came in pairs of two. You have one pair, the green-toed ones, and Laura has the red. Or she used to, in senior year. That was back when you each minded a kind of inventory of each other’s lives – clothes, boys, grades, dreams. That was before.
Laura was a constant. Constants are comfortable; Laura’s strangling embrace as welcome as Jeff’s stubble on your bare shoulder – a reminder that he had neglected to shave (even now, in this life-defining moment, he had neglected to shave), a reminder that you hadn’t either – his heat making the cold of the high-ceilinged apartment a bitter welcome each morning. It was hard to choose, hard to name a date to remember Laura’s departure from your little circle of constants – but you’ve always been partly aware of when she no longer held you in hers. You remember when Laura turned all white.
White. Everything was so… white. Not in a clean, Apple store kind of way – more in a rich aunt who insists on lacy white curtains kind of way. There were rose gold rings clasping pleated white napkins, and you remember recognizing the pale pink flower arrangements from a magazine Laura had shown you – and laughed at – in high school. You remember the stiff material of Jeff’s jacket, how it irritated your inner arm and stuck out like a sore thumb, darker and looser fitting than any other suit in the room. There was a chandelier, although the ceiling was too low for it, and layers of sheer curtains pulled loosely back from full-wall windows, allowing for a soft glow of afternoon light – the whole thing like a ghastly scene out of Bridesmaids. Arm still wrapped around Jeff’s, sweat collecting under breast, you remember searching amongst distantly familiar faces for your better half. You had found her camouflaged amongst the rest, hair in soft, dark curls above creamy bare shoulders, pale blue dress floating on petite breasts. Her lips, painted dark and full, had curved upwards upon seeing you, revealing pearly white teeth. Eyes smiling, she had emerged from her entourage to tell you that she “couldn’t believe you had made it!” and that she was “so happy” to see you, and to “everyone” she had announced that “this was her high school best friend, Noa!” and with that, you were suddenly an item of the past.
The past swims around you still – what is now and what was then unclear, undefined, un… changed. Examining the person before you – his arms, bulky, a man’s; the lines, wearing prematurely on your high school boyfriend’s face; the smile, growing wider at the touch of your gaze – you rub your arm along your flat, almost concave stomach, underneath layers of sweaters and shirts, feeling the slanting lines of your rib cage and how it curves in along the middle. This boy, this man… has he become the better half? There’s an ache in your torso; empty, hungry – you haven’t eaten since noon. Your wandering eyes meet Jeffrey’s. His sky-blue gaze is small, self-satisfied, unaffected. Your brown eyes slip away from his waiting, wanting features; you let them glide down his torso. The ring box looks like a child’s toy, gripped by oversized, calloused, grease-stained fingers.
Blue light creeps through open windows, cool air drifting across the room. The orange light warming Jeff’s features fades before the blue one commences, separating the apartment in two. You long to walk past him, away from him, through him – leave this ghost and tuck your toes into couch pillows in the blue light of the moon, tuck them in deep and grow roots there. The cold would seep in but you would be warm, impenetrable, blanket upon blanket wrapped around your shoulders and the couch would swallow you whole, Jeffrey pacing back and forth in the amber light of the front hall – where had she gone? Maybe he could forget, and then remember. If only everyone could just re-remember, perhaps you could be new, fresh – something more than a shadow of a pretty high school face.
You’ve torn your eyes away from the boy, the question. The thick woolen socks you covet are unable to hide the frailty of your ankles, the bones of your feet. Kneecaps protrude from long, tired legs; they hit each other sometimes when you walk, like a rattling old skeleton, unprotected by flesh. You are old, and exhausted, and weak. This is your twenty-seven.
Sometimes, glancing at Jeff, you would miss the slight wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, the limp hair and thinning muscle, and you would see him as the kind of boy he had been ten years ago. The kind with neat, golden hair, the kind who would thank teachers by name after each class. He had been the kind of boy with an easy smile and subtly toned forearms – the kind who would push his sleeves up those forearms and use words like “teamwork” in lieu of doing much else. Sometimes you looked at Jeff and you’d see that boy who had been widely loved, the kind for whom life had come easily. The kind who had, to you, represented all of the injustices in the world; the kind who you had let slip into your life anyway, his road paved by smiles and flowers, and by quietly spoken humour designed for your ears alone. That kind of boy had moved into what was, then, a big, airy apartment with his high school sweetheart, and started working at a garage. And from then on, that kind of boy proceeded to stop proceeding – and fade, and wilt, and simply… halt.
A wine bottle and two glasses sit on the table to your left and you curl your toes over the edge of a warped floorboard, the wood cutting through your socks. There’s a hole in the left one and, with a small amount of wiggling, your pinky toe is able to escape into the floor’s crack, into a universe beyond your knowledge, your control, your… reach. You wonder how that kind of boy will digest the confusion produced by the word no. You wonder how long he’ll take to forget.
Abigail Schafer recently graduated from Marianopolis College in the Arts, Literature and Communications program. She has a variety of artistic interests, primarily in writing and visual arts, and would like to pursue one, if not both of these fields in the future.
Copyright © 2018 by Abigail Schafer. All rights reserved.