Today I worked on edits for my story in the Five Minutes in Hotel Stormcove anthology (I can’t wait for you guys to read it!). Revisiting the short story format gave me another idea for something I’ve been kicking around but haven’t quite known how to write. It’s a bit of an orphan story, not written with any market in mind, so I thought I’d share it here with you instead. Here it is:
“I think we should break up,” he said.
Mary ran slim fingers through the side of her pageboy hair, pale lashes cast down over her unlined face. There was a rumbling inside her, like the quake a large sand castle might make if it crumbled just as you were putting the finishing touches on it. After their two years together, this was unexpected.
“You could be right,” she said.
He looked taken aback by this. He leaned back, ankles crossed, and waited.
“I mean, obviously the existence of the thought means there is probably ample reason,” she said. If he had expected tears – there had been tears at other times – he wasn’t getting them. “I think we should make a list.”
He scrunched his brow. This seemed to appeal to his analytical mind. “Like a pros and cons list?”
She shook her head. She wasn’t sure where the idea had come from. It had arrived, fully formed.
“It’s just,” she said, “that I so hate unfinished business. And I know you well enough to know you do too. And don’t you remember we have your Uncle Herbert’s birthday on Saturday? I don’t imagine it makes sense to trouble someone on his eightieth birthday. You know how old Herbie always loved the thought of us. I’d say let’s make it through that, and then we can decide. What do you say?”
He had to admit it seemed reasonable. There was no need to upset one of his favorite relatives, and Uncle Herbie did always have such a fondness for her.
“Oh, and another thing,” she said. “The weekend after that, there’s that soccer match and those excellent tickets you were able to get for us. Surely it can’t seem all that unpleasant to go to that with me, no matter how things turn out. Suppose we go to Uncle Herbie’s, and the soccer match, and then we talk this through.”
It was such a sensible request, so calmly made, he couldn’t think of a reason to deny it.
“That sounds fair,” he said.
“Excellent,” she said. She reached inside her purse and pulled out a small notebook that she used for grocery lists. She turned carefully to the back and ripped out a perforated page. On it she wrote the two events they’d just agreed to in the neat and even penmanship that had scored her such points with her grade school teachers.
The next day, she phoned him as she always did on her lunch hour. It was a time he was between law school classes, and it had become their appointed hour. If he was surprised to hear from her despite their impending break-up, he didn’t show it. He told her about a Con Law class that he was finding particularly challenging, and his irascible professor, and she laughed in all the right places. Right before they hung up, he said, “We forgot something on that list. The mixer for the third years.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I’ll add it.”
By the time they met to go to Uncle Herbert’s birthday party, the list had grown to eight things they would do before their break-up. There was a roller-skating date they’d been putting off, and what was the sense of ending things with unfinished business? There was a shopping trip both of them preferred not to do alone, and a rooftop party they’d been looking forward to.
By the time the rooftop party came along, the list had grown to fifteen.
The break-up was not forgotten. Sometimes it was discussed. There were reasons. He had a love of pet snakes she simply could not share. She insisted on hot-air ballooning every year on her birthday, a thing he found preposterous. Theirs was not a smoky, hot love, the kind that leads to poems or appearances on the evening news. It was a quiet thing, the Uncle Herbert’s birthday of love affairs.
The list grew to twenty-one items by the time he graduated from law school, and it was at thirty-five the month he passed the bar.
They began to share an apartment. It was just cheaper that way. She opened up a basket shop, and, in its second year, added handmade dreamcatchers that people drove for miles to acquire. He worked long hours at a big city firm, but, after five years, hung out a shingle just down the road from the basket shop in a brick building she pointed him to.
He found a gray hair on his temple. She was feeding his pet snake when she heard him call out from in front of the mirror over their dresser. She came to see, and told him it made him look distinguished. Then she went on her way out the door to drop off his suits at the cleaners. A few years later, when the one gray hair had turned to a smattering, she told him she preferred his hair that way. The next day, he brought home a fistful of daisies he’d picked for her himself.
The list usually stayed at around twenty items, the small and vast things in life, from grand European vacations to a chamber music concert at the local VFW hall. It had long ago graduated from a torn sheet of paper to its own notebook, then another. They were now on their seventh. One year, a dark one the autumn after her mother died, the list got down to just two items. She cried as she held the blue-covered book.
He found her on the back porch of the house they’d bought some years back when they both decided the apartment was too small, and took the list from her hand. He sat in the rocking chair across from her, slowly, his knees creaky now, and pulled out the ballpoint pen he always kept in his jacket pocket. He added one item, then another, and another, well into the dusk, until that page and half of the next was filled.
Years later, he retired. He took her on a long riverboat cruise and called her his girl. They came home. He walked slowly now, and then, one day, not at all. She smoothed out white covers over his frail body, and gently laid out his veiny hands on top just the way he liked it.
“This is it, you know,” he said. “I’ve no more fight left in me.”
She nodded in understanding. He had never had as much fight as she had. She took the notebook from the nightstand. They’d nearly filled this one to the last page. The other ones, filled with a lifetime of reasons to stay together, all neatly checked off, were in bookshelf under the window seat.
“What’s left then?” he said.
She looked. Somehow, in the bustle of visits to the doctors and dealing with breaking in the new night nurse, nothing new had been added for weeks. There was a movie they’d wanted to see, but which had long since left theaters, and a visit to the tulip garden, although it had been weeks since the tulips had been in bloom.
She didn’t want to tell him. But she didn’t have to. A lifetime of reading her eyes told him everything he needed to know.
“So it’s time, then, my love.”
She shook her head. “There’s one more thing.”
“What?” he asked, his voice growing faint.
“I’m writing down: wait for me on the other side.”
He shook his head almost imperceptibly. “You know I don’t believe in all that,” he said.
“Then it will stay on the list for a very long time,” she replied, squeezing his cold hand. The sun had just started its way through the cedar trees on the far end of their property when he let go for good, still holding her hand.
She had to call someone, she knew. But not just yet. She lit a candle against the growing dimness, and lowered her old body down to the floor by the bookcase by the window seat. She intended to put the final book in the spot that had been waiting for it. But the books were so plentiful, and some so old now, bought when she was young and still liked to show her knees in dresses, that something moved her to take the first one out. It was a sunny yellow, with lemon slices on its cloth cover, an almost impossibly hopeful thing for what had, at the time, seemed a most hopeless task. She turned on the lamp. There it was, her youthful hand. Dance contest at Margie’s. French cooking class. Trip to Niagara Falls. The first of fifty hot air balloon rides he would take with her, reluctantly at first, then gladly. When it had come time for this last one, he’d looked so frail that she thought to suggest they skip it this year. But he was so excited for it, she didn’t have the heart.
One by one, she read their long and happy years together, strung together one promise at a time. There had been no reason for them to stay together, no grand plan, no perfect match. There was just this: the promise of the next, and a quiet love that lasted a lifetime.