You told me about David, a boxer you had dated. He fucked like he fought—graceful, passionate, hard. You said his syllables were so long you thought you’d trip over them. I wondered how I compared to David. What made you leave him and was I making the same fatal mistakes?
“If I wanted David, I wouldn’t be here with you, Sammy,” you said. We had only been together a few short weeks, and you were testing out nicknames. I didn’t know what to do with Sarah. It was already so classic, so simple. I didn’t dare call you sweetheart. You weren’t sweet or sugarcoated.
That was the day I fell in trust with you.
You would tell me many hard truths (I was: too sensitive, not assertive enough, and I didn’t like sushi), and I would divulge some of my own (You were: hyperactive, opinionated, and you collected craft projects left unfinished on the kitchen table). You were, however, not Kristen, who had mocked my depression and stolen my dog the night she left me. You were not Olivia or Morgan or Beth, who labored under my inflated hopes long enough to grow tired of my moods. You weren’t even Chloe, whose name felt like honey on my tongue.
You were Sarah, and I was learning that I didn’t want anyone else.
Sometimes it feels like it never happened—like those dreary months we spent hiding from the neighbors and the weather—were figments of someone else’s existence. We would only go grocery shopping at night. My brain seemed to shut off when you disappeared for nine hours out of the day. I worked from home, but I was never sure how my work was getting done. I only know my boss offered me a promotion that I hastily accepted. My job kept me wired into the Internet and thus the world. My heart beat in binary while you were at work.
Yours beat to the sounds of the outside. You would come home smelling like your public transit commute, eat cold chicken from the fridge, and crawl into bed. On weekend mornings, you poured coffee out of the French press into dirty mugs and turned down the thermostat so we were as miserable as the storms raging outside. We would curl around each other, and while you read aloud from your stack of books at the bedside, I contemplated the ceiling.
Then someone, I can’t remember who, invited us to a dinner at a chain restaurant that sold giant cookies in a pie tin, fresh out of the oven and heaped tall with ice cream. While everyone grabbed spoons, you grabbed my hand. You kissed the back of my knuckles and smiled at me like I’d given you something precious. I wanted more of that smile. So we said yes to a double date with Karen and Eileen.
We went bowling with the group. Both of us drank warm beer out of plastic cups. You fed me nachos and felt me up in the taxi on the ride home. We made love, our feet stinking of aerosol disinfectant; we eventually crept toward the shower and washed each other clean.
Another date, this time just the two of us, but we drank wine and ate pasta until neither of us could breathe. That night, you turned up the thermostat and brought me medicine for my stomach. You told me a story about when you were younger, how you wanted to run away on a train to New Mexico. You told me about the time your brothers cut your hair.
A week later, you cut your hair.
You offered to shave my head, an offer I accepted if only so I could share in the solidarity of a new identity. You sat on the sink in the bathroom, buzzing my hair with a pair of old clippers. You ran your fingers over the stubble and grinned and kissed the bumps on my head as if you could feel the swirling disquiet of my thoughts.
“We’re going to live forever,” you said, as if the topographical map of my skull was giving you divine secrets of the universe.
“What if we die tomorrow?” I asked.
“Don’t be morbid,” you said in a tone as light as a puff of dandelion. You dragged me to bed. The sheets were new, but they learned our bodies through everything we did on the giant mattress — reading, writing, and Sudoku on Sundays. We wrapped ourselves in Egyptian cotton, and our mutual dreams made us comfortable, made us warm.
On the last, coldest day of winter, you coaxed me out of bed to go running. We ran all the way to the bridge and then back around to the apartment. I promised when we met that I would quit smoking, and I was glad of that decision now because I wanted to chase you until the sun annihilated us.
Spring came, whispers of wind blowing secrets from the trees. I told you about being molested by a childhood friend. You cried in that silent way you always did. Running your fingers through my hair, you asked if he got sawed in half and eaten by maggots. I shook my head feebly, whispered, “I think he’s a mailman now.”
You told me how you used to set things on fire—homework and kindling and old shacks in the woods by your house—until one day a spark caught a ride on a big gust of wind and it took thirty days for them to put the fire out. You said you felt like God as people evacuated their houses. Efforts to contain the blaze had initially failed, and you panicked the closer it came to civilization. No one but the birds and the bears lost their homes, but you’d never been near a flame since. I remembered then how I had always lit our candles and how packs of matches went missing in those first few months of our relationship. I imagined a burial ground in my old garden where cheap matchbooks were decomposing along with the skeletons in your closet.
You said our terrible flaws make us whole—fractured, but whole. You ran your fingers over my eyebrows until you fell asleep, and I pondered on my flaws until the sun came up.
Still spring, you bought a houndstooth scarf. You read The Scandal in Bohemia while we ate cold lasagna in bed. When you finished, you proclaimed in your dreamy voice, “I want to be Sherlock Holmes.”
“Does that make me Watson?” I asked.
“No, idiot, you’re the One. You’re Irene.”
“I don’t think my parents will agree to call me that,” I said
“They’re going to have to. Let’s get drunk and solve some crimes.”
We barely left the house all May. My hair was growing back longer than before. I tended a miniature succulent garden that we kept between the toaster and the sink. I could tell you were not as agreeable to lock yourself up in my tower, but I hoped to distract you with stories and playacting. Maybe I could get you to stay.
I loved you.
“Go without me,” I said. Your youngest brother had just earned a degree in business. I strained to remember our previous conversations regarding his upcoming graduation.
“Come on,” you said and pulled on my arms to help me stand. You brushed my hair and sifted through some clothes on the floor. You handed me a pair of slacks.
I dropped them, looked right at you, and said, “I’m not going.” I watched the flames ignite in your eyes and knew I would lose this battle, but I wanted the fight. It exhausted me to think of spending the night with your family, celebrating with a group of loud and social people who made me feel inadequate for all the ways they had proved they were functional adults.
“I love you, Sam, but I’m not doing this with you right now. You know how much this means to my family. Nicky worked hard for this, and we’re going.”
“You may be going, but I’m not,” I said.
“Fine. Don’t go. I don’t care,” you said, voice echoing darkly like the sound of a pistol.
I had never heard you lie before.
I barely even had a chance to contemplate it before you were storming into the closet to change—a red dress for your red mood. You gathered your purse and your heels from the floor and made it to the door before turning around to look at me. Your hand was shaking on the doorknob.
“If you aren’t there, I’m considering it your resignation from this relationship,” you said.
“That’s not fair, Sarah.”
“Life’s not fair!” You slammed the door on your way out.
Anger swept aside enough of my creeping thoughts to give me clarity. I caught fire in your wake and decided I wouldn’t put up with you treating me like a child. I would no longer require you barreling in and out of my life like some steam engine without brakes. I made it to the closet and stared at our shared luggage.
Grabbing the bigger suitcase, I spread it out on the floor and started throwing things into it. I pulled shirts off the hangers and tossed them in, not even noticing they were mostly slacks and button-up shirts. All my other clothes were in a melancholy slump in front of our dresser. As I was being particularly violent toward a blue blazer, I noticed something sticking out of the pocket.
A packet of seeds. One of our recent fights had been about our lack of space. I had no room for gardening in our cramped apartment, and though it had been partially my choice to move somewhere closer to your work, I regretted not taking time to find a place with window boxes or a community garden nearby. I searched through all the pockets in my wardrobe and found no less than fifty packets of seeds. I would have stayed mad at you if I didn’t understand so well what you were saying. Where better than here? When better than now?
In truth, I was distancing myself from you because I kept expecting you to leave. At the very least, I kept expecting you to never come back. Meanwhile, you’d been planting a garden in our closet that might grow if only I had paid any attention.
I put on some semi-decent clothes. I brushed my teeth and washed my face. Put on some cologne I didn’t even remember owning, but it smelled like new beginnings. I grabbed your pink bicycle off the wall mount and left the house. You had often complained of this commute to your parents after we sold the car; grueling was the word you’d used. For the first time, I was making that grueling trip alone, and it felt like I was finally earning something of my own. I had never given much thought to trusting myself, but I had to start somewhere. I wanted to trust in my own motivations and my own judgment.
I turned cowardly when I got there. I avoided you by offering to hold someone’s stinking, crying baby. He grabbed my fist, and even though I knew it was a reflex, it felt meaningful. I hid my smile from everyone except the baby. He flapped his hands like some incompetent bird. I’m not quite sure how long I sat there smiling with him, but you found me.
“I saw that, Irene,” you said. You always knew when I was at my weakest, but you didn’t exploit it. You knew how to gently stoke a spark into a flame.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been–”
“Don’t apologize. I know it’s been hard.”
“You don’t have to make excuses for me.”
“I’m not. I accept your apology, but I had to know you wanted to be here.”
“I do. I really do.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re here, and you didn’t have to be. Just for the record, I’m really glad you came.”
The only sounds between us for a few long minutes were the ones the baby was making. He mewled and burped and orchestrated all variations of onomatopoeia while the air hung heavy between us. I looked at him and wondered if maybe this is why people had kids. Did children act as Band-Aids on battle wounds?
“Think we could be parents?” I asked. You would be honest if I was being unreasonable.
“Sure. Doesn’t look that hard. I hear they raise themselves after the first eighteen years.”
“I am. We’ve been together two years. If you want to try, I’m willing to try.”
“That’s it? No questions asked?”
“Well, no, it isn’t that simple. We need to start sorting stuff out. We might try therapy.”
“I’ve actually been thinking about that for a while now.”
“I know you’re depressed, and I’ll never hold that against you.”
You sat down with me on the couch and rolled the baby’s fat knee between your fingers. The baby squawked and spat. I noticed your naked fingers and wondered if I should buy you a ring to go with the baby proposal.
I asked, “Aren’t you going to try and negotiate a proposal out of me?”
You grabbed the newspaper off the coffee table and smacked me on the nose with it. “Bad puppy.”
“Okay. Okay. Let’s be better.”
You hadn’t been pregnant six weeks before the morning sickness started. You yelled at me as I chewed on a chicken sandwich, “Why are you always eating chicken?”
By weeks seven, eight, nine, you had outlawed the following grocery items: meat (especially poultry), pickles (vinegar is awful), bread (Fuck, Irene, it smells like a bakery in here), and bananas (you’re killing me!). You survived for weeks on whipped cream and fresh berries. You ate yogurt by the quart.
At the doctor’s office, as we stared at the positive pregnancy test, I thought about leaving you for a horrible second. I did not want to fail at being a father. Twelve minutes later, we had named the kid after your grandfather and swore to keep it secret from the world until it was born. I would never leave the two of you. They would have to sew me into the stars so I could watch over you forever.
Your clothes started getting tighter; mine started getting looser. What if I relapsed into sorrow? What if I couldn’t find the exit door? What if the ocean swallowed me whole and took me very far away from my newly formed idea of family? I worried through mortgage negotiations and endless therapy sessions.
Months later, we were spending all our free time nesting in our new house. We planted something new in the garden for every tough emotion my therapist forced me to confront. Basil for the abandonment I felt after my brother left for Iraq, jalapeños for the fear and anger and self-hatred I wallowed in after I got molested, and cucumbers for the losses I’d suffered. I planted rosemary and thyme for everything I’d gained since I met you. Your mother painted us window boxes, and a pram with a daisy on it.
Because of you, I was learning to trust that I was capable of all the exciting new adventures that came along with beginning a family. I learned to trust that I could set manageable goals and fight the doldrums with our routines. I lit citrus-scented candles while you filled out Sudoku puzzles. Hell, we even listened to Mozart because that’s what all the baby books were saying would foster early fetal neural development.
We built a world where we could grow without fear of judgment, fear of neglect, fear of abandonment. It was a place where the paint lines weren’t straight and the bathroom sink leaked. But it was perfect, because I never wanted the whole world. I only wanted a world I could share with you.
Charlee R. Moseley is a Creative Writing major at Arizona State University. She has lived in Arizona all her life, and before attending ASU, she obtained a nursing degree from a local college. Her nursing career served to illustrate the importance of storytelling and the ways in which art can function as therapy. Now she uses her art to serve and inspire others as well as to motivate herself to become more empathic and compassionate. This is her first major publication.