Complicated Grief

Fiction
Ashley Lewin


Photo Credit: Christopher St. John/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Regina spends layovers analyzing the way people walk, imagining the grudges of couples sitting silently together, and judging the way parents interact with their children. At the gate for her connecting flight from Dallas to Amarillo sits a man repeatedly taking photos of himself on his phone. He is in his early twenties, wearing crisp, spotless Levi’s and a baby-blue polo tucked in behind a shiny, oversized belt buckle. The buckle presses into the young man’s protruding belly in a way that looks painful. Regina guesses he is a former football player who drinks too much. The man examines the latest photo on his phone’s screen, tugs at a chunk of hair sticking up from his forehead, then takes another photo. He begins to pick his nose without checking to see if anyone is watching. Regina chuckles. Why worry about your hair if you don’t care about picking your nose in public? She combs her hair away from her face with both hands.

At least twice a month, for her job as an independent consultant, she sits in airports on her way to audit one facility or another. She travels to new places and companies pay her to tell them everything their employees are doing wrong. Regina finds the job very satisfying, especially the anonymity of airports.

A woman strolls along the walkway through the terminal gazing at the restaurant selection opposite the waiting area. She catches herself before tripping over an obstacle in her path. Smiling, she lifts a small plush creature from the floor, gives the toy a shake in Regina’s direction when she sees her watching, laughs and winks. Regina smiles in return but is disappointed by the missed opportunity to witness someone else’s humiliation. Her girlfriend, Karina, hates this about her. They’ve dated on and off for three years. Currently on, Karina wants to marry and have kids. Regina imagines kids in her future. She knows the words she wants to say but always feels like someone’s hand is over her mouth when she opens it. The vital moments slip away as she breathes.

The sticky blue vinyl bench Regina perches on isn’t comfortable but allows her to sit cross-legged and spread her jacket across her lap to hide her knobby knees. ‘Giraffe legs’ her father called them and that’s still all Regina can see. She’s halfway through the trip to Amarillo, not for work this time but for her twentieth high school reunion. Surely, by now it will be safe. Beverly assured her that Lesley had not RSVPed for the reunion. The reunion’s organizer, Bev, is the only person from Amarillo who Regina keeps in touch with. Her parents moved away the year she graduated, one to the bleakness of Seattle, the other to frenetic Miami. Bev is the only friend she had in Texas, so she shouldn’t break her promise.

Regina realizes that others from her class might be waiting for the same mid-morning flight. She scans the gate area, glancing from one distracted face to another. By the windows, face upturned toward the sky and Louis Vuitton carry-on luggage at her feet, stands Lesley. She looks exactly the same as Regina remembers. Long, light brown hair, pulled back from her round face by a turquoise barrette, sets off soft bangs arching down her forehead. A light denim jacket over an indigo denim skirt gives her a Mennonite appearance. Regina’s ears fill with a deafening thrum. One hand flattens across her chest to check the organ isn’t ripping through the cotton of her T-shirt.

Overhead, a garbled voice announces the boarding of first class. Lesley plucks up her bags and disappears into the crowd obscuring the gate’s entrance. Regina considers leaving. She has plenty of frequent flyer miles to abandon the adventure and go home. It would be easy to stay on her same old track and not challenge the past. Karina would be disappointed in her. Karina is all about personal growth. An acid taste coats the back of her throat and she hums to herself quietly, a nervous habit from childhood. The stream of people boarding the flight flows on and her knees become wobbly balloons of hot liquid as she walks toward the gate attendant. Perhaps Lesley will be napping or focused on her phone. Regina enters the plane and a numbing grey haze drops over her vision. Her feet drag along the worn blue carpet of the aisle that stretches the gauntlet that is the narrow plane and she stumbles. A flight attendant catches her shoulders from behind.

“Thank you. Sorry.”

Annoyed faces glare from the first class seats. No Lesley, but there are empty seats. Counting out steady, even breaths, Regina walks to her seat at the back of the plane. She must be wrong about spotting Lesley. She flops into her seat and feels the leaden weight of disappointment. I still wish I could talk to her.

*

Starting at Amarillo high school, in the fall of 1991, meant a larger building with multiple bathrooms and more hiding places than the smaller middle school. Regina earned a spot in the advanced classes and, she hoped, out of Lesley’s reach. She scanned the lunchroom through the din of jabbering teens and clanking trays. Macy waved to her from one of the round, putty-colored tables with the rest of the girls from the track team. Regina was their newest alternate. She sat and unzipped her insulated lunch bag. Years of fear began to loosen their clutch on her heart. She inhaled deeply, filling her nose with the scent of creamed corn and burnt tater tots. Macy continued her description of Prince’s new music video for the song “Cream” on MTV. The girls giggled together at Macy’s imitation.

Two large hands dropped onto Regina’s shoulders in a grip that would last the rest of high school.

“Hey there, sporty ladies.”

Lesley’s boyfriend sneered as he rested his chin atop Regina’s head. His broad shoulders, long arms, dishwater hair, and smug grin were a Texas high school football stereotype. Bile rose into Regina’s throat, heat flooded her face. The cafeteria racket became a muted drone in her throbbing ears. She bit her lip. Macy rolled her eyes. The other girls stared with bored eyes.

“I saw you lovely ladies sitting here with this dyke and I wanted to make sure you knew who your new friend really was. Are you ladies changing teams on me?”

His fingertips dug into the flesh below Regina’s shoulders. She winced. The soft bread of her sandwich became a placid escape, a calm pond on the table in front of her. The other girls grabbed their lunches and darted away from the table as if it had burst into flame. Regina looked up at Macy as hot tears gathered in her eyes. Macy’s glossy pink lips were contorted into a tight grimace. She opened her mouth, then snatched her lunch from the tabletop and turned to follow her friends. She turned back briefly.

“Sorry.”

Lesley’s boyfriend released Regina’s shoulders. Her gaze returned to her sandwich. She began to count the minuscule holes along the crust and hummed to herself. She heard the tap, tap, tap of cowboy boots across the linoleum floor as Lesley’s boyfriend strutted back to the football players’ table. Laughter rippled across the cafeteria.

*

The flight from Dallas to Amarillo is an hour long arc over the brown flatness of Texas ranchland. Every time Regina passes over this western patchwork she thinks of Lesley: older, married, leading the PTA, driving daughters to cheerleading practice. She looks up the cramped aisle to the curtain that partitions first class from the rest of the passengers. Curved walls drive her gaze like a telescope. I should go up there. She can’t hurt me on a plane. I’ll just walk up there, say ‘Hi,’ as if we’re normal adults who knew each other as kids, because we are, then come back to my seat. Her fingers drum the armrests as she gathers courage. We’re just normal adults. A pale hand with manicured nails reaches around the curtain and jerks it open several inches. Lesley’s face pops into the void and turns back and forth as she surveys the field of passengers between her and Regina.

She’s looking for me. We can talk like adults now. Convinced, Regina grasps the ends of both armrests and thrusts herself out of her aisle seat as Lesley’s face sinks back behind the deep blue curtain. The floor of the plane seems to move like the rotating barrel in a carnival funhouse. She grasps onto headrests along the way to balance herself, focusing on the nubby fabric under her fingers and counting her breaths. She shoves the curtain out of her way. The metallic scrape of its hangers in their track makes several irritated faces turn her way. None are Lesley. She continues toward the cockpit. With a determined inhalation she pivots to face the first class population. Still, no Lesley. She looks left and right to examine the lavatory signs. Both are vacant. The same flight attendant who kept her from falling face first when she boarded the plane places a hand on her arm with a look of concern.

“We’re descending to land soon. Do you think you can return to your seat now?”

“Yes.”

Embarrassed and confused, Regina traverses the length of the plane again and plops into her seat.

*

The summer of 1986 had started like any other, with the three inseparable neighbor girls, Beverly, Lesley, and Regina, attending a week of Camp Fire Girls camp in Palo Duro Canyon. It wasn’t nearly enough time for the thin trail that scarred the highly irrigated lawns, and joined the three houses, to grow over. The well-worn trail would remain for years after the girls ceased its use. A painful reminder. A week after camp Lesley rang Regina’s doorbell. An afternoon prediction of thunderstorms kept the girls home and away from the local pool. The sky overhead was a wide swath of cerulean but heavy purple clouds hung at the horizon, made their lumbering buffalo approach. When Regina answered the door Lesley grabbed her arm.

“Come on, you have to see what we found.”

Regina yanked the door closed behind her, paused to tug Lesley in the opposite direction.

“Shouldn’t we get Bev?”

“No, just you and me. Come on!”

She didn’t let go of Regina’s arm until they collapsed, giggling and panting, on the thick, aqua-colored carpet of Lesley’s bedroom. Lesley rolled onto her side to face Regina. Her hands formed a pillow between her plump cheek and the carpet. Her breath was hot cilantro and cumin as she whisper-shouted into Regina’s face.

“My sisters and I were cleaning the den for punishment and we found a dirty video tape behind the bookcase.”

A few weeks before school ended, a classmate had brought his father’s Hustler to school and Lesley had stolen it out of his backpack. Beverly, Regina, and Lesley had been so engrossed, crowded together in the farthest corner of the sports field, that they hadn’t heard the bell to end recess. When they heard their teacher call, “Girls, what are you doing?” as she stomped angrily across the field, Lesley tossed the magazine up into the air over their heads. The blustery Amarillo wind sailed the pornographic pages over the school’s fence and they ran to class, red-faced and laughing.

Lesley jumped up, darted to the bedroom door to peer up and down the hallway. She pushed the door closed. It susurrated through the high pile until it found its home in the jamb. Lesley twisted the lock on the knob and offered her other hand to pull Regina from the floor.

“Come here, I’m going to show you what they do.”

*

The plane lands in Amarillo and Regina is an anxious boar stampeding through the crowd, stepping on people, knocking them in the head with her bag. She races through the terminal down to baggage claim, even though she has none to retrieve. No Lesley claims a suitcase. No Lesley rents a car, waits for a taxi, or wanders the parking lot. Hours later, Regina stands at the reunion’s cash bar staring at Lesley through the jovial crowd. It seems impossible they’re both here, in the same gym where Lesley tripped her during basketball games and walloped her with volleyballs years ago. Beverly has transformed the space for the reunion with a catered buffet, high-top tables, and multicolored string lights. She joins Regina at the bar.

“I’d given up hope you’d come to one of these.”

“It’s the twenty-first century. Even Texas has to get better, right?”

“Kicking and screaming. No Karina?”

“She had a work thing. Next time.”

“So, you are back together?”

“Yeah, if I can keep from screwing it up.”

“You always sound happier when you’re with her.”

“I saw Lesley on the plane.”

Beverly places her hand on Regina’s forearm and gives a gentle squeeze.

“What did she say?”

“We didn’t talk.”

Regina doesn’t go into the details that will make her sound unstable. She wraps one arm around Beverly, leaning her head onto her short friend and they stand side by side against the bar and watch the crowd hovering around the buffet. Lesley has her denim-covered back to them. Two men in cowboy hats and tight jeans, with vaguely familiar faces, stand on either side of Lesley. Her head turns from one, to the other, and back again as they talk and slap each other on the shoulders. She rotates to set her beer bottle on a table and her eyes meet Regina’s. Without a word to the cowboys, she weaves her way around people and tables toward the bathrooms.

“Did you see Lesley look at me?”

“She’s here?”

“She’s heading for the bathrooms.”

“You should go talk to her.”

The confidence Regina found on the plane has evaporated.

“We’re adults now.”

*

Regina was pleased to see Lesley had waited for her outside the elementary school on their first day back but that pleasure was sucked away, like monsoon rain running downhill, when Lesley dragged her by the wrist to the side of the building.

“God says we’re bad. My sister will tell my parents if she sees us together. They’ll send me to a special camp. We can’t be friends anymore.”

A wound began to burn through the center of Regina’s chest. The stupefying ache spread to encompass her whole body in a shame her young mind never imagined possible.

“We’ll still sit together, right?”

“No.”

Regina blinked. Her mouth felt like it was full of sand.

“Can we play after school at my house?”

“I’m not your friend anymore, Regina. Stay away from me.”

*

Regina almost catches up before Lesley disappears inside the girl’s bathroom. Regina leans against the wall outside the door. Beverly approaches with three men who turn out to be the other members of their high school photography club. Hugs are shared all around. Photography club had been their misfits’ sanctuary from a high school universe that revolved around football. She hasn’t thought of them in years.

“Are us out-of-towners staying through the weekend? Let’s go do all the touristy crap. Big Texan, Cadillac Ranch. We can drive through Palo Duro too. Come on, it’ll be fun!”

“Is the skate park still there?”

“R.I.P. We’ll drive by where it used to be and mourn.”

The guys place a hand over their hearts.

“So many broken bones, surprisingly, no lawsuits.”

It dawns on her that she had more friends than her scarred brain has allowed her to believe.

Regina turns to Beverly.

“I guess I’ll have to go in. I feel like we’re holding her prisoner.”

“Have you been waiting for Lesley all this time? Good luck.”

With one hand on the bathroom door, gummy-looking from layers of cheap paint, Regina takes a deep breath and steels herself for a hostile response. Until the day she left for college, she had imagined Lesley would ring the bell at her parents’ front door, stand among their terracotta pots of orange and yellow marigolds, and ask for Regina’s forgiveness. In the week that followed that afternoon in Lesley’s bedroom, she had leaned to kiss Lesley, as they trailed her mother through the grocery store, and Lesley turned, leaving Regina to fall face-first into rows of instant oatmeal. Despite that, she had still assumed Lesley’s heart was as full of excitement and wonder as hers. That belief was dashed the day school had started.

Not one of the colorless stall doors discloses feet beneath it. The air is stale and sweat-scented in the windowless gym bathroom. In disbelief, she checks each of the stall doors with a little shove as she circles the dim room. The horizontal length of mirror, above white institutional sinks along the back wall, reflects a wavy and water-spotted woman back to Regina. The distortion alternately elongates and compresses as she watches. Her reflection looks aged, haggard. Cold disorientation nearly knocks her onto the stained, grey tile floor. She shudders and bangs out through the gummy door. She passes a man she recognizes from algebra.

“Have you seen Lesley?”

“Not for years. And why would you want to?”

A glacial weight lifts off her body as she slams through the gym door and steps into the parking lot. The guys from photography club wave to her from the open door of an Uber. The driver looks exasperated but says nothing as she piles into the back seat with the three men. They are all staying in the same downtown hotel and after a couple of drinks at the bar go up to the rooftop to watch the late summer sunset. They chat about their lives while magnificent reds and oranges sweep across an endless sky that reminds Regina of lakeside picnics and camping in the canyon. She had forgotten how pretty the Texas panhandle could be. Karina would like this. The group makes plans before they depart for their rooms—sleep in, brunch at the hotel restaurant, then drive past all their teenage haunts, followed by dinner at The Big Texan.

In her hotel room, Regina gazes into the nothingness of the grey-green ceiling from the expanse of white-sheeted, king-sized bed. Maybe in five years Karina and I will come here with our children. Her eyes close. She tries to relax into sleep. A soft knock at her door barely reaches her ears. She raises her head from the pillow to stare at the door in sleepy disbelief. There is not enough space between the edge of the door and the velvety emerald, low pile carpet to see anything on the other side but she thinks there is a shadow of movement. The knock comes again. Regina rolls off the bed, slips on T-shirt and boxers from a crumpled lump on the bedside table. With one set of clumsy fingers she confirms the chain guard is in place while the others fumble the bolt lock open. A pillar of white light blinds her through the crack of door and jamb. A figure takes shape: round face, brown bangs arching gracefully down the forehead, lips curled in a mischievous smile. Regina has imagined how this face could age countless times. Lesley speaks scarcely above a whisper.

“Let me in.”

Regina slides the chain guard out of the way and steps back, pulling the door with her, and Lesley is inside her hotel room. Regina leans against the papered wall of olives and sage leaves. Her fingertips graze over the relief of their outlines.

“Why are you here?”

Lesley is by the bed now. She kicks her socked feet out of her clogs. The white ocean of bed silently gives way beneath one denim-covered knee and then the other. She pulls the turquoise barrette from the back of her hair and sets it gently on the bedside table. Metal tinkles, almost like bells, as Lesley tears the snaps of her jacket apart. She lets her jacket slide off her arms to the floor and then composes herself on a pillow with her hands under her face. The mischievous smile becomes peaceful. One arm reaches out, her hand pats the other side of the bed.

“I tried to talk to you today,” Regina says.

The long, perfectly manicured fingers rise slowly above the sheet and then rapidly pat it several times for emphasis. She tucks both hands under her round, smiling face. Regina goes to the bed and lies opposite Lesley so that they face each other, curled up like matching bookends. Faint light from downtown Amarillo leaks into the room from around the edges of the thick, verdant curtains. Even in the dim room, the flawless white sheets seem to glow ethereal. She thinks she should feel nervous, like on the flight that seems days rather than hours ago, but she is relaxed and suddenly so sleepy. Her mouth is heavy and slow.

“I was bullied by my best friend. You made me miserable.”

The serene smile never leaves Lesley’s lips.

“I’m sorry. I knew I hurt you. I was scared, weak. I was afraid to be different. You’ve made your own way.”

Regina allows her eyelids to close. Cool flesh caresses her cheek and the faintest scent of cilantro and cumin tickles her nose.

“I still miss you,” Regina mumbles as she drifts to sleep.

In the morning Regina searches every inch of the room but finds no evidence of Lesley’s visit. A text from Beverly waits on the screen of her phone. From the shower, she hears her phone chime again and again. Everyone is heading for brunch. Hastily dressed, she slides the chain guard off and unbolts the door. The guys cheer from the open elevator when she steps into the hall. Regina laughs and jogs down the hall to join them.

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Ashley Lewin is originally from Nashville, Tennessee but has lived in several states. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Sky Island Journal. She taught literature and writing to college freshmen but now writes and farms in Belen, New Mexico. Twitter: @tipsydoefarm Email: ashleylewin[at]gmail.com

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