Long Time Going

Fiction
Kimberly Greene


Rock House Front Porch View HDR
Photo Credit: Susan Sharpless Smith

It seemed like such a simple concept, really. Grab some essentials, toss them into a bag, and leave. Leaving was the important part. Everything else could be sorted later. But as I looked around, I felt my resolve slipping away, as it had so many times in the past. It wasn’t as if I really wanted to leave—because I didn’t, not really. But it had gotten to the point that every time I woke up, I felt unstable and off-kilter. I didn’t recognize myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. I put down my duffel bag and reached into the closet, catching whiffs of laundry detergent and whatever it was that the wind had blown into the weave of fabrics when they’d been left out on the clothesline. Was this all there was? I couldn’t decide if it was stupid not to let this thing run its course, or if it was smart to actively follow a path that I hoped would lead to a better place for me. Deciding to leave or deciding to stay, well, that was something. That was real. Failing to make a decision just wasn’t an option.

We moved into the house three years ago last spring. It wasn’t a complete fixer-upper, but it was far from ideal. We ripped up the linoleum and searched high and low for reasonably priced reclaimed hardwood flooring, we steamed and vinegared enough flowered wallpaper to make me dizzy, we inhaled enough paint fumes to cause damage to an infant—and that was the simple stuff. What no one ever tells you about renovations, even purely cosmetic ones, is that they take forever to do yourself. So for the two of us working amateurs, it took the better part of a year to do all the stuff that our realtor assured us could be “easily changed.” Couldn’t blame her for the hard sell, really; we had stars in our eyes from the moment she showed us the listing. And we got a great deal. Still, we often spent Saturday mornings bemoaning all of the work left to do while happily biding our time on the front porch. We loved that porch. We planted flowers, we bought rocking chairs, we hung windchimes. The warm Carolina summer evenings meant sipping sweet tea on the porch until it was so dark we couldn’t see each other and the bugs started to eat away at our legs. I began to miss those evenings even before the fall chill crept into the morning air, knowing that anything could happen in the months before their return.

Sam’s mother got very ill very quickly. Sam flew out to Pennsylvania and stayed for several months, calling with updates at least once a day. I missed the extra warmth in bed, the voice calling to me from the other room. We moved from Ohio when Sam received a promotion in the way of a transfer, and although we hadn’t been together that long and enjoyed our separate spaces and circles, we left our individual lives behind for a better life together. I figured it was as good a time as any to get serious about what I wanted out of life, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what that was, exactly. But when Sam was gone, just a few short months after we were starting to get settled, I was faced with the fact that this first step may have been a misstep. For the first time in my life, I felt truly lonely. I was waiting to be assigned a classroom, and I was spending my days obsessively checking my email and going for walks around the new neighborhood. In spite of how many times I told people that “the air down here is unbelievable!” or “it’s just so nice to make a fresh start,” my decision was beginning to weigh me down. I’d always enjoyed being alone, but here, in this place, I almost felt like hiking a trail and never looking back, or taking my shoes off and walking into the ocean until I could no longer walk. Unbelievable air down here, indeed. When Sam called, needing me, I was on my way to the airport in less than half an hour, just as much for my own reasons as for anything else. No one should be alone when their mother is dying, and no one should be alone in a big empty house when they’re needed somewhere else.

When we flew back to North Carolina three weeks later, I was convinced that we still smelled like the cardiac care unit of Mercy Hospital. I loved Mrs. Nash. I was convinced that I would always be thinking of something we could’ve done better for her, something more we could’ve done to make the end of her life—and yes, her death—more bearable. What’s more, I was convinced that I’d never get that piece of Sam back that was left behind the minute we headed back south. I was convinced it was now my job to take care of Sam, and that no one could ever do a better job.

Things got better. My students, while not the best I’d ever had, certainly showed the most improvement of any class I’d ever taught. I couldn’t help but think that it was partly because I was on a mission. I was on a mission to make the best out of things, to shake off the weight I’d felt since we returned. To erase the guilt I felt over my situation when Sam had been sleeping in hospital chairs for weeks on end. To make Sam comfortable and happy here, instead of wishing for a life back in Ohio, a life that no longer existed. With a bit of effort from both of us, things eased a little at a time, to the point where, if we weren’t content, we were at least comfortable. And often, we were happy. The nights of tossing and turning didn’t happen much, and the fights were never long enough or strong enough that they wouldn’t fizzle out within a few hours. We raked leaves, put out the garbage, left the bed unmade, baked double chunk chocolate cookies, laughed at bad movies, made love less than we should’ve, argued about what to have for dinner and who to invite when we had a party. We passed the weekend in pajamas or in the park, slept late and went to bed early. Planned lots of vacations that we knew would never happen. Drank lots of wine.

I woke up at 2:06 a.m., without knowing why. The television was on, as were the lights. And then I heard it: three raps on the front door. I lept off the couch and my first thought was to grab the heaviest thing I could find, which just happened to be the poker next to the fireplace. It never occurred to me that someone coming to do harm probably wouldn’t knock. No, it’s the good guys who knock on your door in the middle of the night. The good guys take off their hats and, after verifying your identity, ask to come in. They say words like “accident” and throw in phrases like “the ravine off of route 15” and “rushed to the hospital.” They appear to be genuinely concerned while still managing to look authoritative. They don’t act surprised when you cover your mouth to keep from vomiting all over the dark reclaimed hardwoods. They speak quietly when they ask to take you to the hospital and identify the body. They help you put on your coat. They don’t make small talk in the car.

I peeked into the spare room serving as an office, wondering if Sam had read all of the books on the bookshelf. I’d never asked, just assumed. There were a lot of things that I’d never asked. I walked downstairs, deciding that I had to have the piano shipped. I couldn’t forget about that. Did I need to take all of the pictures on the mantelpiece? Which ones couldn’t I love without? Which ones would have to wait, perhaps indefinitely? My stomach began to clench, to twist in on itself. And it hurt. Everything hurt.

I first thought about leaving when last summer began to wind down. I’d gone to visit my family and greeted them all with open arms and a wide smile, assuring everyone that I was “doing okay down there by myself” and that I’d “really come to love the place.” Which was true, in a way. I was doing okay, I was getting by. I was functioning. But every time I walked back into that house, stuffy and still and quiet, I knew that I missed myself. I missed who I had been with Sam. I missed us. And in our house, us was everywhere. Us hit me in the face when I woke in the big bed every morning, teased me when I ate dinner in front of the television, poked me when I weeded the garden. I went to the neighborhood barbeques, I volunteered. I let the bugs bite my legs. I tried to rebuild. Isn’t that what they tell you? To find a way to make your life fit again? Moving on and all that? When school resumed after winter break, I’d told the principal that I’d be resigning at the end of the school year. And I did. But here it was, another August, and all I’d managed to do over the past couple of months was wander through the rooms, memorizing every inch, every color on every wall, every painting, the view from every window, everything that we’d changed and everything that was still on our list to do.

I was running down the street. My T-shirt was soaked with sweat, and I couldn’t make out the numbers on any of the houses that I passed. The sky was a grayish-green and the air was heavy with water, almost suffocating me as I gasped for each breath. But I couldn’t stop running; if I stopped, I’d never start again. Somehow you always know certain things in dreams, and I knew I’d never again look for whatever it was that I knew I’d find. I didn’t get back to sleep after that, and when I got out of bed sometime after daybreak, it was over. I didn’t really decide, you see. It was decided for me. If I had to live without her, I wanted to live my life, not our life. It didn’t feel as mighty as it should’ve felt, and I still didn’t know who I was.

I just knew who I wasn’t anymore.

pencil

Kimberly’s work has appeared on Brave New Traveler, as well as in the New York Resident and Fine Art Magazine. She currently works in the publishing industry and is busy trying to keep her sanity intact while navigating the pitfalls of immigrating to a new country. This is her first submission to Toasted Cheese. Email: kimberly.d.greene[at]gmail.com