Take Me With You

They were in that stage of a breakup where they still did things together, even though the end of the road was in sight.

 A dead end.    

He decided to take a much-needed one-day get away to Lake Michigan, hoping to clear his head in the crisp, autumn air.

The threat of rain did not deter him. In fact, it was fitting in a poetic sort of way. Every other time they had come here had been bright sunny.

The night before his trip, he went to bed in the guest room, as he done for the past couple of months. Once again, his snores did him in.

When his alarm went off the next morning, he noticed a note on his bedside table with one sentence:

Take me with you.

As much as he needed to take this trip alone, he couldn’t possibly say no. He didn’t want to break her heart any more than he already had. He would have plenty of time to take a solo trip.

This trip would be their eulogy. An epilogue at the end of bittersweet love story.

As he stared at the note, he imagined her standing in the door way as he slept, hoping he would wake up, before leaving the note, then retreating to the bed that they once shared.

 How many nights did he pretend to be asleep, knowing that she stood there, seeking reconciliation and comfort?

When there was a still a chance to make things right.

Like that time she put her hand on his back when it was turned from her.  

And he pretended to keep sleeping, trying to restore their shared promise of forever. A promise that no not quite dead, was still on life support.

Did she know he was awake?

How many times did he ignore her presence? Would things have turned out any differently if he didn’t? He didn’t initially ignore her. Usually, it would lead to regrettable sex. Not because it wasn’t good, but rather the act itself only delayed the inevitable, giving false hope.? Deep down, he knew it was too late. So why prolong the inevitable?

He had already hurt her enough. It was bad enough they were both stuck co-habitating for a few more weeks until he could move into his new place.

He still couldn’t help but wonder to himself: what if it wouldn’t have been false hope? What if they somehow could have fixed things? He was still living there, at all.

Of course, he was still living there because his new place wouldn’t be available for a couple more weeks. At which point, her new roommate moved in.

It seemed just like yesterday that they were moving in here.

Their fresh start they both so needed.

A place to call their own.

When the embraced in the kitchen the day they took possession of the placed. He cried. Because for the first time in a long time, he felt like he was home again.

Now, they were nothing more than roommates. And no longer soul mates. Going through the motions until he could finally move out.

He reminded himself that they never officially broke up. But what else could this possibly be? He used to think that a break-up was both sudden and finite. He knew better now.

He reminded himself that they technically never officially broke up. Neither could pinpoint the exact moment it was truly over. Yet, they both knew. What else could it be?

Their denial ensured a long, prolonged death.          

Take me with you.

Day trips and weekend getaways were a significant part of their relationship. Neither had enjoyed traveling with someone else as much as they did with one another.

But right now, what he needed more than anything was to travel solo – to the town they used to dream about owning a summer cottage together someday.  

Take me with you.      

They would make one lasting memory.

Following months of unhappy ones.

They would make this memory one that they could hold on to that existed outside of the context their sad timeline.

A bittersweet coda, with no turning back. Because they were too stubborn to try.

Despite the miserable weather, they would make the most out of it.

Just like they used to do. When being together was all that mattered.

When they dreamed of one day owning a summer cottage on Lake Michigan.

As they drove, they listened to their “infinite playlist”, which had been finite for quite some time now. Neither one remembered when the last time a song was added, let alone what song it was.  

This would be the last time either one of them would listen to it.

But neither one of them would delete it, either.

Take me with you.      

When they arrived, they headed straight to mostly empty beach – especially in comparison with the packed beaches they were used to.

They stared out at the open water enveloped in a foreboding fog, mixed with a misty drizzle, and a whirling, whipping wind.

The lack of sun gave the illusion of a world of black and white like one of old French films they used to fall asleep to together.

Even the red lighthouse jutting out in the distance was bleached out like a ghostly figure shrouded in fog, as violent waves splashed against it.

Though neither did anything about it, they both secretly longed to hold one another,

as both shelter from the cold, and a last chance to salvage themselves, before they faded forever into the mist.

Take me with you.

Sometimes, things are too late, even when you don’t want it to be.

At least they would have one last memory to keep in their pocket.

A welcome respite from arguing and the resulting lingering sadness.

A memory as sweet and beautiful as their first, but steeped in melancholy.

One last memory to keep in their pocket.      

Like the final note she left for him:

Take me with you.

He moved out as planned a few weeks later.

They stayed in touch, here and there, but over time, even that ended.

In truth, it was too painful.

They eventually moved on as best they could.

But the ghost of their life would stay with them.

He held on to her note for the rest of his days.

A promise fulfilled.

Just not in the way they had promised once upon a time.

As these things so often go.

Wrapper

“What is this?” Sara said, holding up what looked like a torn, gold piece of a wrapper in front of Joe’s face.

“Looks like a wrapper to me.”

“I found it in your pocket when I was doing laundry,” Sara said.

“Sorry. At least it wasn’t Kleenex this time.”

“Don’t play dumb.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, confused. “But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 “Don’t lie to me.”

“What is this all about?”

“It’s a condom wrapper.”

“It’s a candy wrapper!”

“Bullshit.”

“I can prove it!”

 “How?”

  And then he remembered. Haribo gummy bears. With golden packaging! He ate some just the other day.  

 “I ate a package of gummy bears the other day.”

“You and your damn candy.”

“I’ll get another bag and you will see it’s the same color!”

“How would that prove that it’s not a condom?”

There was only way to prove it.

Despite never giving her reason any reason not to trust him, she was always suspecting of something he never did.  

The great irony of always being accused of crimes he didn’t commit, of course, is that Joe took great pride by living life by a strong moral code. He didn’t have an ego about it. It was just how he was wired. But for some reason, she thought his holier than thou attitude was just an act. But it wasn’t an act. Or, an attitude.  Pure and simple, Joe was a devoted family man, only drank for social occasions (and never too much), always said no to drugs and most importantly, never cheated on his wife. In fact, his only vice was a voracious sweet tooth, but otherwise ate clean and healthy. And his only vice was the very thing that nearly did him in.

  And now here he was, about to dig through trash to prove his innocence.

He opened up the trash cupboard, before realizing he had already taken the trash outside. Which would mean it would be in his building’s dumpster. At least trash pick-up wasn’t until tomorrow.

He headed outside and proceeded to go through his apartment building’s dumpster. Was he really going to do this?

Yes.

At least it was cold enough to keep things from stinking too much.

Through process of elimination based on bag type and color, he narrowed it down to three likely candidates before finally finding the right one. He immediately began sorting through it until lo and behold: Eureka! He struck gold (wrapper)!

He quickly threw his mess back into the dumpster, then raced back inside to prove his innocence, like the prince with Cinderella’s shoe. 

The pieces were a perfect match. He was acquitted and praised for his efforts to prove his innocence in order to save their marriage.

 That is how much it meant to him.

Turn the Light Off

“Oh, can you turn the light off?” she asked Billy, after they climbed into bed.

“No.”

She certainly didn’t expect that answer.

It seemed like a fair enough request.

Was he joking?

Of course, she didn’t really know him as much as she might have thought. This was only their third date. But he certainly didn’t strike her as much of a jokester. He had a sense of humor. But not like that.

“Seriously?” she finally asked.

“Yeah. I am.”

Up until then, she was excited to have finally found someone who didn’t immediately come into her life waving a red flag. But she also knew that sometimes, the flags are kept folded out of sight, before they gradually unfold themselves.

It was always only a matter of time. She preferred the ones who displayed their crimson flags right away, as not to waste too much of her time.

In short, the endless stream of disappointment that had been her dating life was just so…exhausting. She had grown tired of it.

But she had a feeling that Billy would somehow be…different.

She was the first to admit that she wasn’t perfect herself.

She had plenty of red flags of her own. She was by no means perfect. She was the first to admit that.

But how early did she reveal her warts? She really wasn’t sure. She was the one who usually did the dumping.

The trick was finding someone who could not only tolerate your flaws, but barely even notice them…if at all.

Flaws were one thing, of course. Red flags were often another. Though, there was often an overlap.

 She wasn’t naïve to think that Billy was perfect.  Nobody was. But he certainly seemed like an upgrade above the endless stream of other suitors.

She certainly didn’t expect…this.

Like most of her date, she met him on a dating site. Unlike so many guys, he didn’t come on too strong. In fact, it seemed there was no hint of flirtation at all in their initial text exchanges. He just seem genuinely interested in what she had to say, which was a rarity. At least, in her experience. She also really loved enjoying what he had to say. Of course, it helped that she found him very handsome, though if  a guy was interesting, or funny, or creative enough, she could get past looks…to an extent.

Aside from the general lack of flirtation, there was also the absence of the superficial “getting to know you” stuff. The stuff that felt more like a job interview. With Billy, they both started with the very core of one another’s essence and allowed the superficial stuff to reveal itself organically, rather than a stilted, forced way.

They had prolonged,, stream-of-consciousness tangential conversations across the spectrum that seemed to flow with seamless transition from topic-to-topic. This more than made up for the lack of flirting, too. In fact, the way she saw it, their deep conversations were flirting. And she was excited to see how it would transpire in the real world.

As it turned out, very well.

After nearly two weeks of intense texting – the kind that makes your fingers and wrists sore – she was surprised that he hadn’t actually asked to take her out yet. But she would remain patient.

And sure enough, he finally came around to ask her to meet for coffee.

Most guys asked for a drink.

Naturally, she analyzed this to death:  

Did he not drink, or was this part of some grand gentlemanly strategy?

She tried not to overthink it. At the end of the day, she was certain he would turn out to be a creep and/or jerk like all the others. In fact, she was so tired of it, she nearly deleted her dating apps entirely, on the heels of so many first (i.e. last) dates and bad experiences. But like every gambler, she couldn’t help but think that just maybe, next time, she would get lucky and hit the jackpot.

And then came along Billy.

In fact, she felt so confident, she decided to respond to his invite for coffee with a request of her own:

“How about a drink?”

 “Even better!’

She usually wasn’t this assertive. But it was something she had been working on.

Drinks soon became dinner plans.

Their first date went beyond well, ending with a cherry on top in the form of a sweet kiss on the side of her mouth        

Along with the promise of a second date (which was pretty much a given from the start of their date).

On their second date, they made out, but didn’t go all the way.

Later that night, she invited him into her bedroom.   

“Oh, can you turn the light off?.”

“No.”

“Please?” she asked.

If he wasn’t joking, she was hoping to diffuse the situation.

“I said no.”

 She suddenly regretted inviting him into his bed. Because if this was his idea of a joke, it had quickly worn out its welcome. And it wasn’t a joke, then he was planting his red flag at the worst possible time.

Perhaps she could just tell him she wanted to go to sleep. She was hopeful he would respect that.

Was he really going to let such a simple matter get in the way of what had otherwise been a spectacular evening? On the heels of two other amazing dates.

She would give him one more chance to right this ship – if it wasn’t already too late.

“Why not?” she finally asked, forcing the issue.

“I like to see everything.”

“But I’m really self-conscious,” she countered, once again exercising newfound assertiveness. “But I do have a night-light!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But the light has to stay on.”

Okay, now she was beginning to get creeped out.

What kind of guy would risk not getting laid over a stubborn refusal to keep a fucking light on?

This guy apparently.

She thought about asking him to explain his intentions, but her growing concerns about his stability made her not want to make a bad situation potentially worse.

“Maybe we should just go to sleep.”

“Seriously, because of a stupid light?” he asked, offended.

“I should be asking you the same question!”

  “You are so beautiful. And I want to be able to see you.”

Perhaps had it been his room, it would be different. But this was her room. Her rules.

Lights out, put out.

No lights out, no put out.

But he wouldn’t back down, showering her with compliments about how beautiful she was and how she deserved to be “both seen by the light and bathed by the light.”

This is the exact same sort of bullshit men say when they are trying to get what they want. Only, the disconnect here was that she was already willing and ready to let him have it.  

 Was.

So, what gives?

At this point, it no longer mattered.

Light on, or light off, it was too late.

“I think you need to go,” she finally declared.

“Please. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come across in such a bad light.”

Was she jumping the gun?                 

Should she give him a second chance?

After all, he really did seem like a great guy.

Was she really going to throw it all way over something as trivial as this?

She should be asking him.

Deep down, she knew she could never recover from this. She couldn’t help but feel…violated.

Perhaps she would give him another chance.

But just not tonight.

Maybe it was time to give up on dating altogether.

She was tired of all the disappointment and all the too-good-to-be-trues.    

At first, it seemed as though he was going to refuse to leave, but then he finally got out of bed.

“I had a really wonderful time,” he said with no trace of irony or cynicism.

“Me, too…until, well to be honest, this whole light thing is really weird.”

“Do you want to know the truth?”

Oh boy.

“Of course.”

She braced herself for what she assumed was going to be a bullshit answer.

And the answer she got threw her through a major loop.

“I wouldn’t normally admit to this. At least not this early on. But I like you. A lot. And, well…”

She waited on pins and needles.

“I’m afraid of the dark.”

She froze, unable to begin to even process this.

“Are you serious?”

“I am.”

She wasn’t sure what was worse: if this was truth…or a lie?

He looked so pathetic and vulnerable that she couldn’t fathom it being anything other than the truth. So much so, that she considered inviting him to stay.

And who was she to judge, anyway? She still didn’t let her limbs dangle her bed, out of fear that a monster would eat them. And truth be told, she was always a little bit afraid of the dark, which was a secondary reason for having a night light.

Nobody is without quirks and flaws, beneath their shiny veneer.

But sometimes, you just have to know when to fold ‘em.

He knew it. And she knew it.

“Guess I’ll get going,” he finally conceded. “Again, I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.”

He then headed out the door with his tail between his legs.

Into the dark of night.

 As she lay in bed, she regretted not letting him stay. If only to talk. Or, maybe watch a movie. He really didn’t do anything wrong, especially after his explanation.

Again, she could always give him a second chance.

Another date.

But there wouldn’t be.

There rarely ever was.

She took care of herself, then drifted off to sleep.

The Pig

The Pig was born chubby.

The Pig was an even chubbier toddler.

And then a fat kid.

And even fatter adult.

The Pig never had an issue with it. It was everyone else who did.

From the time she started school, she was taunted and jeered.

Out loud.

To her face.

And in whispers behind her back.

Somehow, the whispers were always worse.

Like daggers.

She was nicknamed ‘The Pig’ in the third grade.

Not just ‘Pig’.

But ‘The Pig’.

It wasn’t long before more knew her by her nickname than her actual name

But she learned to live with it, much like someone learns to live with illness, or a disability. She was simply too nice to do anything about it.

It wasn’t so much that their insults bounced right off her plus-sized body, as it was that she could quickly get back up on her feet.

But she never seemed to show it outwardly.

To reiterate, she wasn’t ashamed of how she looked. Not one tiny bit. Nor, was she naive about she looked.

Though the jaunts hurt, the nickname never seemed to phase her. After all, she liked pigs. They were her favorite animal from the time she was a baby. In fact, it was her first word,.

Pigs were sweet and innocent creatures. Intelligent and loving.

  So where was the insult?

But deep down, she knew it was.

Why couldn’t they be her friend, rather than choosing not to be?

She always thought she would be a good friend to have

Maybe someday, she would be able to prove it.

 So she would continue to wait patiently.

Her nickname followed her into middle school, along with all the other insults, despite the addition of new peers.

Puberty came as expected. Neither too early, nor too late.

But maturity sadly did not follow suit as far as her classmates were concerned. The taunts remained, as did her weight. In fact, her weight only continued to go up. And it wasn’t that she didn’t try. She ate mostly healthy and the only time she overly indulged were on the particular rough days. Which were many.

The bullying eased up in high school, but her nickname lived on. Fortunately, she finally made a couple of friends. Social misfits like her. They never called her The Pig. Sophomore year, she was even asked to a dance. But just as friends, of course. It didn’t stop her from having a crush on him. He would later come out as gay.

As high school dragged on it, so did her nickname.,

It wasn’t until her senior year that she decided to finally do something about it. But what? She was never a vindictive person, so it wouldn’t be too mean-spirited. But she hoped whatever it was would be just as effective.

And then it finally came to her. So simple, but hopefully effective.

It would happen at the upcoming Halloween-themed Homecoming dance.

She would arrive at the dance, dressed as a pig.

She never waivered from her commitment to get the last laugh.

And when she finally did, nobody knew what to say.

An awkward tension filled the air the rest of the night.

Nobody ever called her The Pig after that night.

Her only regret was that she didn’t do think of this years before.

Better late than never, she supposed.

It was the best night of Peggy Smith’s life.

One of Your Stories

They matched on a dating app, but in reality met in real life about 10 years ago. They had been social media friends ever since with the occasional interaction in the form of comments, but nevr sliding into DM territory. 

Once they matched, it quickly became one of those “oh, hey, I guess we should go on a date!” situations. An unwritten rule of the digital dating world. When drowning in horny strangers vying for your attention, there is a rather comforting feeling of familiarity lacking from matches with strangers. Of course, for most of those years, he had been married so the idea of dating anybody else would have been a huge stretch. In fact, Liz was rather surprised he was back on the market. Pleasantly surprised even (or, so he hoped).

Of course, he entered the dating market just in time for Covid, so the pickings were pretty slim. He figured if someone was desperate enough to date during Covid (like himself), then it might be worth a shot. If he recalled correctly, he wasn’t exactly impressed with her personality. She had sort of a pompous air about her, which wasn’t a good sign. But it was a long time ago. And people change. Sometimes.

They quickly agreed to go out the following weekend. She proposed a picnic in the park, which would have been great if it weren’t for the fact that it was going to be a 43-degree spring day. It was, after all, March in Michigan. But he would suck it up and dress accordingly.

His only qualm as her suggestion they get carry out from the fanciest restaurant in town. He agreed to it, but then immediately regretted it.

He was fine with the picnic portion, despite the forecast. His only issue was the choice of restaurant. For one thing, he had never been there before, but had always wanted to go. He would have preferred his first time be a dine-in experience. Secondly, this was the kind of restaurant you go to for a special occasion. Like Valentine’s Day, or an anniversary.

Certainly not a first date.

And certainly not in a park when it’s that cold.

He figured there was no turning back at this point, so he would he would just go with the flow. Something he had been trying to make more of a habit. This was a perfect early test.

He had agreed to place the order. She would bring the wine and dessert. He received her order: duck.

Duck!

He tried not to judge. But how could he not?

As he perused the menu, most of the offerings might as well have been in a foreign language. And the ones he did understand had little appeal to him. So, he settled on a burger, which didn’t exactly pair with well duck. But fuck it.

As the day dragged on, his reservations about the whole situation really ate at him. Nothing sat right with him.

He had also just entered a “you only live once/live in the moment” phase, so he stuck to the game plan.

But as the day wore on, it continued to eat at him. And then he sent her a simple text.

“Hi. Would you be okay if we scale back a bit on the dinner front?”

Quite some time passed before she replied back. He tried not to read too much into it. Perhaps she was one of those people who didn’t check her phone constantly.

“Why?”

“Just wondering if we could do something a little less expensive.”

“Are you kidding me?

“Just to scale back a bit. I’m not saying we still can’t do something nice – just not that nice.”  

As he thought about how to respond, his phone rang.  

“Hello?”

“I can’t believe this.”

“I’m sorry. I—”

“I bought a dessert and a wine to pair with my duck!”

“It’s just that, I have never eaten there before. And I would prefer my first time be in person. And maybe not for a first date. Besides, it’s so cold—”

“In other words…I’m not good enough.”

 “No. That isn’t it at all. And it’s not like I suggested Applebee’s. We can still do something nice. Just not…that.

In truth, he would have been totally fine with Applebee’s.

“My time is very precious and limited. I am very selective with who I speak to, and especially who I go out with. And right now, you are wasting my time.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“I don’t know if I even want to see you now.”

“I understand.”

He really didn’t.

“Look. Let’s start over,” he offered, but knowing deep down it was too late.

“I don’t know if we can.”

“I truly was excited for our date. And honestly, I don’t really care where we eat. I’m just trying to be more careful with my money.”

“Again, you don’t think I’m worthy.”

“No! That’s not it.”

“Again, you are wasting my time.”

“I am not trying to waste your time. We can still stick to our plan.”

“Too late, buster.”

Buster?!

“Because of the fact we are having this very conversation.”

“We can still right this ship.”

“Don’t even bother.”

“What if we tried it another time? We can still do a picnic, but maybe on a warmer day.”

“No. I already invested too much in to this relationship. It clearly wasn’t meant to be.”

“Okay, well take care.”

She had already hung up.

Did this really just happen?  

In typical fashion, he couldn’t help but feel like a jerk. That he screwed something potentially beautiful up.

He was immediately searching for ways to make things right, rather than just moving on. He should have known better.

As he struggled to process everything, he received one final communication from her a few minutes later:  

“Please don’t turn this into one of your stories.”

Left Swipe

i.

“Shit!” he said to himself, as he lay on the couch alongside his faithful terrier.

He fumbled with his phone, trying to undo his costly error.

But he knew better.

There was nothing that could be done.

He didn’t pay for the premium service. It was his cross to bear. 

If only he wasn’t too cheap to pay premium.

Lesson learned.

Without premium, you get only so many allotted swipes a day. So he was judicious. He had to be. He had been in the midst of a prolonged left swipe streak, operating on auto pilot.

That was when he realized he left swiped on someone he knew was an absolute super-like (which are also limited without the premium).

In both the immediate and long-term aftermath, he obsessed over this mishap way longer than necessary.

Who was to say she would have matched with him anyway?

But that reminder did little to ease his regret.

Even if they did match, chances are nothing would have come out of it. Even if they did actually meet, chances are, it would join the cesspool of awkward, disastrous one and done dates.

Even with rational thoughts such as these in mind, he still continued to obsess over it. 

As he continued to do so for as long as he was single.

Which was for the rest of his life.

ii.

Of course, in reality, had he met her, he would realize how much he missed out on.

Because if they did meet, they would have hit it off instantly.

Their chats would be endless.

Their first date would be absolute perfection.

Their first kiss would be amazing.

Their sex beyond anything they had ever experienced.

They would be happily married ever after.

They would have beautiful children and grandchildren.

And they would die in their sleep.

Holding hands.

As they did for most of their life.

iii.

Across town, another local single was making the biggest mistake of her life. She accidentally swiped left on someone who she could she would vibe with like no other.

If only she hadn’t canceled her premium membership just last month. She never once used any of its perks, including the coveted rewind button. So, she canceled.

She never obsessed over a missed connection in her life.

Or, really, anyone period.

That is, not until now.

She knew obsessing over it wasn’t going to get her anywhere.

That it all in her head.

But that still didn’t stop her.

Deep down, she knew.

A feeling that would grow even deeper for as long as stayed single.

Which was for the rest of her days.

Twin Flames

“Give it a try. What do you have to lose?”

Words of encouragement from her best friend Jackie.

The “it” in reference was getting back into the dating game.

What do I have to lose?

“Guilt, regret, embarrassment…should I go on?” Emily responded.

“I understand, but think of it as practice.”

“Practice for what?”

“Your future.”

“Maybe at some point down the road. But I don’t think now’s the time. And where would I even begin to look?”

“Dating apps.”

“Eww, no.”

“Why not?”

“Who knows what kind of creeps are out there?”

“How is it any different than a bar?”

“True. But not exactly a fan of that, either. But at least at a bar, you see them in person.

“There’s this guy I work with…” Jackie began.

“No.”  

“Let me at least tell you about him.”

“You can tell me, but that doesn’t mean I’m interested.”

“Recently divorced. Two kids. Cute, but in a nerdy way.”

“And you think this is my type?”
“It isn’t?”
“Okay. I’m sold.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

“Really? Wow. That’s great!”

“I’m so proud you!”

“Let’s wait until the smoke clears before you congratulate me.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you can’t get mad at me if I end up changing my mind.”

“You won’t.”

“Promise.”

“Okay. But you won’t. Should I give him your number?”

“Sure.”

  “And you will tell him about…?”
  “I already have.”

“Great.  Now I’m a charity case.”

“He’s really interested. And he’s broken also. His divorce was finalized less than two months ago. His name is Todd.”

Ugh. Todd.

“So two charity cases. What could go wrong?”

“At least you’re in the same boat.”

   “The Titanic?”

Two weeks passed and she hadn’t heard from Todd. And honestly, she was totally okay with this. She promised herself not to bring it up – unless Jackie did.

Have you heard from Todd?” Jackie text her out of the blue.

“Nope,” Emily replied back.

A few minutes later, she got another text.     

  “He said he’ll call tonight.”

Great.

But he didn’t.

Nor, the night after.

“Did he call?” Jackie inquired.

 “Nope. But don’t ask him again.”

“Aww, okay. I’m sorry. At least you took a major step.”

 “Yeah, sure. A bunch of anxiety for nothing.”

 “Baby steps.”

  But then two days later, a call from an unknown number.

She rarely picked up numbers she didn’t recognize. She always just assumed it was probably a telemarketer. This time, something compelled her to pick up anyway.

   “Hello?”

  “Hi, Emily?”

   “Yes.”

   She knew this was no telemarketer from the complete lack of confidence permeating from the other end. And lack of an accent.

  “Yes. This is she.”

“Oh, good. This is, um, Todd. Um, Jackie’s friend.”

  “Hi, Todd. I was wondering if you’d call.”

 “Sorry. Umm, I wanted to. But…”

“It’s okay. I’m happy you called.”

“Oh, good.”

A long awkward pause.

 “I’m sorry. I’m awful at this,” he said.

 “I know the feeling.”

“It’s just that…it’s been so long. But for the record, you’re doing fine.”

“Oh, thanks,” she said. “You, too.”

 “Honestly, I never liked talking on the phone.”

  “Me, neither.”

 They already had so much in common.

  “I’m so nervous,” he said,

 This guy’s worse than me!

Or, maybe just a tie.

She admitted to herself, she found his shy awkwardness extremely endearing, stopping just short of telling him this.

“You don’t sound nervous to me,” she said. “At least, not like how I must sound.”

  “You don’t.”

“Really?”        

“Anyway, I’m sorry to make you nervous. But I’m glad – anyway, would you like to get a coffee some time?”

“How about dinner?” she countered.

“Even better!”

“No pressure. Just coffee is also fine.”

“None taken.”

Two days later, they had their first date.

And those two days couldn’t go by any slower.

 But time has no choice but to pass.  And so it did.

Emily got ready way too early, despite feeling like she running behind the entire time. But when it was all said and done, she was ready over a half hour early. To avoid messing up her hair, or wrinkling her clothes she sat on the couch looking out the window like a dog.

He showed up right on time.  

So far, so good.

She avoided watching him through the window, so as not jump the gun and appear too overeager. She would wait for the doorbell, at which point she greeted him. He stood there, flowers in hand.

“Emily?” he said.

“That’s me. And you must be Todd?”

“That’s me,” he said, handing her the flowers – a mixed bouquet.

These are for you.

“Aww, thanks!”

She was touched. But also wondering if he was perhaps laying it on too thick?

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know I didn’t.

“That is very sweet of you.”

At least he didn’t get her roses. Not on a first date. She wasn’t much of a rose girl anyway. They died too quickly for something that cost that much.

 “Can I get you anything? Something to drink?”

“No, thank you.  I got some water in the car. We should probably get going if we’re going to make our reservation.”

“Oh, okay, let me just grab my jacket.”

Much like the flowers, the idea of a reservation seemed a bit too much for a first date. Yet at the same time, she was enjoying the long-lost feeling of being pampered.

They headed out. And just like her husband used to do, he opened the car door for her.

They had the most wonderful time. A perfect first date, Perhaps the best first date she ever had, especially after the got through comparing notes on their respective tragedies.

The perfect date ended with a prefect kiss in his car before they said goodnight, promising one another a second date.

 When she got settled inside, she noticed a text Jackie had sent hours before: “How’d it go?”

 She replied back: “Really well!’

 She climbed into bed, still abuzz from her date, overwhelmed with the strange and usual feeling of realizing that perhaps, greener pastures lay ahead.

She suddenly felt conflicted. That perhaps she wasn’t quite ready for something like this.

Yet at the same time, she also realized that ending it might be throwing away another chance at happiness.

By the next day, her mind was made up…she wasn’t ready. She couldn’t help but feel she was somehow cheating on her husband, who by no fault of his own went down with the Trade Center.

She debated calling him, but decided she would wait for him to call first, delaying the inevitable.

Two days later, he called. 

“I had such a wonderful time with you the other night…” he began innocuously enough. However, she could tell that there was something about his tone that implied that this was just a preface to something else.

“I did, too,” she said, playing along.

“But, the thing is…”

 He sounded distressed.

She could hear him taking a deep breath, before coming right on out with it.

“I just don’t think I’m ready for this sort of thing. I thought I was—”

“It’s okay,” she said, cutting him off, overwhelmed with relief. “I feel the exact same way.”

“Oh, wow,” he said, expressing the same relief.

 “Yeah.”

She couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps being on the same page was a sign that perhaps they shouldn’t pull the plug.

She heard him weeping on the other end.

She joined him.

Then she realized she was also crying.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah. You?

“Yeah.”

Another long pause.

 “Twin flames,” he said.

 “Twin flames?”

“Two halves of the same soul that are sort of like mirrors to one another.”

“You mean us?”

  “Yeah.”

“Like soul mates?”

“Similar, but different. Soul mates are two souls coming together, but twin flames are often unified by our shared trauma. We both came into one another’s life at a time when we were coping with our mutual grief. But not meant to last beyond. Even if together or just a short period, the bond is always there. No matter what happens in their lives down the road. That is how I feel about you.”

“That is so sad, but cheesy” Emily said. “And yet, so beautiful.”

“Do you know what I’m saying?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Maybe somewhere down the road if we are both single, we can continue where we left off.”

“Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Best of luck to you,” Emily said.
“You, as well.”

“I hope you know that I am pretty sure I am going to regret this.”

“Me, too,” she laughed through her tears.

And that was that.

In the months to come, they would think of one another often.

Both came close to calling the other on numerous occasions, but decided that somethings were best left in the past.

A year later, she ran into him at Kohl’s. Hand in hand with someone who must have entered into this life at the right time.

He seemed happy. But when he looked at her, she could tell that he felt the same sadness she felt.

As twin flames always do.

Only Time (excerpt)

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

 “I packed your black socks,” Emily said to her husband, who was packing in another room for yet another business trip.

 “Have you seen my toiletry bag?” James asked.

“It’s not in your suitcase?” she said, annoyed by his unnecessary helplessness. She used to have more patience for this sort of shit. But her patience was increasingly growing thin. 

“No,” he said, with a layer of panic in his voice. “Oh, wait,” he said, pulling his toiletry bag out of his suitcase. “Found it.”

So typical…

To an outsider looking in, the Smiths seemed just like any other suburban couple – certainly not the type of couple that that harbored dark secrets behind their white picket fence.

Then again, every couple has secrets. Just not every couple has a fence.  

But if there was any couple that would be described by outsiders as “perfect” –it would certainly be them.

Up until a year ago, things really were smooth sailing.

Before the incident.

Previous to that, their lives had morphed from carefree, kindred spirits and into the rut of domestic purgatory known as parenting. Of course, it didn’t help that James traveled to work on an almost weekly basis – sometimes, for the entire week.

What started out as a “dream job” quickly became the greatest fissure in their relationship. Not to mention, the impetus for the incident itself.

 At first, it was on account of James’s travel schedule, but his salary at least partially made up for it, giving them the comfortable suburban existence that once upon a time, they used to detest – in fact, it was on the things that made them fall for one another to begin.

On the surface, James hated the traveling component as much as she did – especially after Jimmy Jr. was born. But five years later, a nagging reality had morphed into a devastating one.

An affair.

The incident.

 A year later and Emily was still reeling. And teetering back and forth between leaving him, or toughing it out – not just for her sake – but for the sake of their son, Jimmy.

For the sake of the family.

Where her heart and mind stood really depended on the day, or which way the wind was blowing. One day, she couldn’t fathom putting their son through a divorce. Other days, it seemed like the only logical choice.

The urge to leave him was like a bad cough that you couldn’t quite shake, long after its onset.

            Of course, he was ready to put it all behind him and move on– as suggested by his umpteenth apology – a thinly-veiled attempt to get off the very hook he hanged himself upon to begin with. She wanted to believe him that it was only one time. And for the most part, she did. But how could she really be sure? Did she want to spend the rest of her life…wondering?

            She, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to move on. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. It was that she simply couldn’t.

At first, his apologies did little to convince her to stay. Nor, did pleas from her mother who didn’t want to see their grandson become a victim of divorce, encouraging her to “ride out the storm.”

“For the sake of the family.”

Followed by: “People don’t get divorced in our family.”

Of course, James could do no wrong in her mother’s eyes. And up until the incident, her mother’s assessment of him was accurate. Sure, he was wasn’t perfect. But, neither was she. Nobody was. But they were perfect for one another. And still could be if she could just…forgive.

And there was no questioning James’s resolve to make things right, including his promise to find a job that wouldn’t require travel. (Then again, it wasn’t so much a promise on his end, as it was a mandate on her part, even though he tried to spin it into a decision made on his own terms).  She was grateful he was willing to find another job, despite absolutely loving the one he had – even if the travel frustrated him at times (or, so he let on…after the incident she wasn’t so sure).

             Despite limited job prospects and the likelihood of a pay cut, he was determined to make it happen. To make things right. In fact, the previous week, he had a very promising interview at Ford Motor Company – right in the safe confines of suburban Dearborn where they lived.

Landing this job would mean, of course, no more travel. And therefore not having to cast suspicion every time he got on a plane. It would mean no longer having to lie awake every moment of the night, wondering who her husband was fucking at that very moment. They were both willing to sacrifice a little income in exchange for domestic security.

Yet, even if he got the job, it didn’t automatically mean she was staying put. He was well aware of this, but they both knew finding the job certainly couldn’t hurt their chances.

Meanwhile, here she was on the eve of their anniversary, helping him pack – still considering tearing down the white picket fence.

As a matter of principle.

            Jimmy entered, holding his favorite toy – a plane James bought him on his last trip. Jimmy hated the fact his dad left all the time, but the guilt gifts he got each time made up for it.

“Daddy?” Jimmy asked in syrupy sweet tone.

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Why do you always have to leave?”

“Because my work makes me. That’s why Daddy is looking for a new job.”           

 “But when will you get a new one?” Jimmy asked.

“Soon. Now go give Mommy a kiss so I can tuck you in.” Jimmy ran to give his mother a kiss.

“Goodnight, Mommy.”

“Goodnight, sweetheart. Sweet dreams.”

“You, too!” Charlie exclaimed, before running full-speed back to his dad. James picked him up and carried him over his shoulder, causing Jimmy to drop his plane.

            “My plane!”

            Still holding Jimmy, James crouched down to pick it up,

They then entered Jimmy’s Detroit Tigers-themed bedroom. As James tucked Jimmy into bed, Emily listened down the hallway.

Despite the issues between them, there was never a doubt about the kind of father he was. Sure, he did things that annoyed her, or that she didn’t always agree with (like taking Jimmy to the movies more than she would have preferred), but it was during times such as this that the scales of their relationship were tipping in its favor. Whenever she found herself leaning too much in favor of leaving him, she always came back to this:

            The family…

            Was she really willing to give all of this up? 

            She never one thought she was capable of even considering such a thing. 

            Once again, she reminded herself that he was the one who cheated. Not her.

 “I’ll see you in three days,” she heard James tell their son. “Take good care of Mommy.”

“I will.

“Daddy?” Jimmy said as James was about to head down the hall to finish packing.

“Yeah?” James said.

“I’ll miss you,” Jimmy said, before breaking down into tears. “I wish you didn’t always have to leave.”

“I know.”

Emily bit her lip to prevent tears of her own.

 “I’ll miss you, too,” James said. “But it will go by so fast, you won’t even realize I’m gone. And you know what else?”

“What?” Jimmy asked.

“I’ll still be able to see you, even if you can’t see me.”

“How?

“Because I’ll be in the tallest building in New York. It’s so high, I’ll be able to see our house and right into your bedroom as you sleep.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Will you call me from there?”

“I promise.”

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

            “But even if you don’t call, I don’t want you to die.”

“Deal” James said, chuckling.           

 “Daddy?”

“Yeah?”

 “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

As James headed back to the master bedroom to finish packing, Emily sat on the couch in front of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes overlooking Lake Michigan – one of their favorite spots.

 She attempted to fit a few pieces of her puzzle together, but couldn’t concentrate. She used to dread his business trips even before the incident. Now, there was an added suffocating layer of jealousy. She was never prone to jealousy before. It angered her that he gave her reason to feel this way.

As much as he assured her that it wouldn’t happen again, she couldn’t help but be suspicious.

Of everything.

The fact that it happened at all was exactly the problem. The seal of trust was forever broken.

James came down the stairs and sat next to her. By instinct, she moved further away from him – it was subtle, but noticeable. It’s possible he didn’t notice, but it was much more likely that simply pretended not to.

He knew that there was nothing he could say right now to quell her fears and make her feel better. Not until he was back in his own bed. Or better yet, landed a new job.

“When I get home, we’re finishing that damn puzzle,” James finally said.

“That’s what you said last time.”  

“This time, no excuses.”

            “Right,” she said, having her doubts.

“You could always finish it yourself,” James said.

“I want to finish it with you.”

“I know and we will. You know I always finish what I started.”

            “They couldn’t let you stay home for our anniversary?” Emily asked, her eyes swelling with tears. She promised she wouldn’t bring that up again. Yet, she couldn’t help herself.

            James moved in and put his arm around her.

Much to her surprise, she let him.

            “If I could have, I would have.”

            “You could have pretended to be sick.”

            “Trust me, if I could have gotten out of this, I would have.”

            She wondered if he meant it.

Did he even try?

And even if he was able to stay home, would it have made any difference?

            “Why can’t they ever send someone else for once?”
            “Because I’m the most reliable.”

            “Then why don’t they hire more reliable people? Or, pay you more?”

            “It’s only three days.”

            “But one of those days is our anniversary.”

            She was growing more and more frustrated with herself. Yes, it was their anniversary. But she was still so angry at him, she had no desire to celebrate it. It wasn’t that she wanted to be angry at him. But she couldn’t help it. Perhaps guilting him about their anniversary an attempt at forcing herself to find some normalcy again.

            “You know how hard I’m trying to get another job. The Ford interview went really well and should have a decision by the end of the week. They might not offer as much, but at least I won’t have to miss another anniversary.”

            As angry as she still was, perhaps that would be the fresh start they needed.   

“And I promise we’ll celebrate Wednesday night. In fact, I already made reservations. And remember, if things go as planned, we’ll never spend another anniversary apart.”

            Although she didn’t show it, this made her feel at least a little better. She didn’t think she wanted anything to do with their anniversary, having already passed on their original plan of taking the trip up north they were supposed to do last year.  

“And we still have tonight,” James added, with a seductive glint in his eye, triggering a nauseating feeling in the pit of Emily’s stomach – a feeling she connected with sex ever since her husband’s indiscretion.

Prior to the incident, if someone were to ask Emily how their sex life was, she would cheekily describe it with one of her favorite old-timey phrases:

“Fair to middling.”

The quality of their love making was never in question, however there was no question that the quantity had waned in the years that followed their son’s birth.

Post incident, they could count on less than one hand how many times they had sex over the course of the past year. And quite frankly, she wasn’t sure if that would ever change any time soon, even if they stayed together.

Even in those rare times they had sex, it certainly wasn’t the same.  Prior to the incident, climaxing was never an issue for her. In fact, they usually climaxed together, in perfect two-part harmony. Now, she felt hardly sensation at all. This was nothing new to her. She had lost sensation for a brief period after Jimmy was born, but then returned to form. But now, all she could do was picture him being inside the “other”.

Or,was it “others”?

There was only one that she knew of. He claimed there was only one. There was no way she could ever really know.

So, she preferred not to do it at all

“We don’t have to,” he said.

We don’t have to.

            She hated when he said. Of course, she didn’t have to. At least he didn’t beg. He understood. Just once look at her face and he understood. And as easy as it was to reject him, she would subsequently awake all night, battling a mixture of guilt and conflicting feelings. Perhaps this trip would give her the clarity she needed. Then again, she thought that before his last trip a few weeks ago and the many trips before that. 

            At some point, something would have to give.

The night slowly passed as sleep continued to elude her. An unexpected dread grew deep within her soul. Almost like a premonition.

When the alarm went off at 4:15, she was still wide-awake.

James shut off the alarm, then kissed Emily softly on the cheek, whispering “Happy Anniversary” into her ear.

It felt fake.

Phony.

She realized that it wasn’t that he didn’t sincerely mean it. It was that she didn’t want to accept it.

As he climbed out of bed, she wondered: Does he even have any idea I didn’t sleep?

Too exhausted to get out of bed, she waited as James showered, waiting to fall asleep. There was nothing she wanted more. And soon, Jimmy would wake up and she wouldn’t be able to sleep even if she wanted to.

James returned from the shower, unaware that Emily was watching him dress, looking at his moderately-toned body that used to instantly turn on. Back when it was all hers. Once again, she couldn’t help but imagine his other all over him, even though she had no idea what she even looked like. Nor, did she have any desire to.  

When James finished getting dressed, she dragged herself downstairs to join him for breakfast. But she had no appetite. She hadn’t had an appetite for months.

She stared into her soggy cereal bowl. 

            “It’ll go by quickly,” James tried to reassure her, oblivious to the root of what was really ailing her. Or, perhaps not oblivious, but thinking her mood was more impacted by the fact he was leaving, rather than the elephant in the room.  

            “For you,” Emily said. “You aren’t here dealing with a five-year-old all day and all night.”

            “Trust me, I would much rather be helping out with Jimmy, rather than going over data in a PowerPoint presentation.”

            Did he though?                      

            There was no question he loved being with his son, but she did sometimes wonder if it was only because he felt like he always had lost time to make up for. It bugged her more and more that James got to always be the “fun parent”, while she was left behind doing all the work that wasn’t fun. Sure, there were plenty of fun times for her, too. But James was so often off the hook when it came to the heavy domestic lifting since he was gone so much.

She could tell James was searching for additional words of encouragement, but Hallmark sentiments were rarely effective on her – especially now. There was nothing he could say that could make things any better.   

Only time.

And even that was uncertain

She couldn’t fault him for trying. If anything, he tried too hard, as though trying to cover up the multiple layers of guilt that she assumed – hoped? – was consuming him.

            As James finished off his second cup of coffee and headed upstairs to gather his things, Emily suddenly wanted nothing more but to see him leave the house. His presence was suffocating and wanted to breathe again.

            This feeling caught her completely off guard. In fact, it both saddened…and frightened her. When Chris came back down, he attempted to hug her, but she pulled back. He respected her wishes and backed off.

“Well, I better hit the road…or, the friendly skies.”

She sensed he expected a smile out of her. But she didn’t find his attempts at “being cute” endearing anymore. That used to be one of the things she liked about him most. Now, it made her one to puke her fucking guts out

            “Just in case, same place as last time – the Courtyard Marriot.”

            “Gotcha,” Emily said, seeing him to the door.  “Please be careful.”

            Her words felt empty. Without meaning. Because she realized she was simply going through the motions.

“You don’t have to worry. About anything.”

She knew what he meant and as much as she wanted to believe him, she couldn’t.

Emily spotted his wallet sitting on the end table.

“Forgetting something?” she asked, retrieving the wallet.

“What would I do without you?” James responded.

Maybe someday you’ll find out.

She hated herself for thinking that. Yet, she couldn’t help it.

“I love you,” he said.

She fought off her instinctual desire to respond and stood mute. She could tell it bothered him, but once again, he didn’t let on. And though she knew it bothered him deep inside, he deserved it. And would get over it.  

“Don’t be late,” she urged him toward the door.

“You wouldn’t want me to miss my flight now, would you?” James said with a wink.

“God forbid,” Emily said in return, catching herself off guard for expressing a sentiment that she was going to miss him.

Yet, coated with a thick layer of resentment.

Did he even notice?

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said, almost as a half-baked afterthought, before finally turning to leave.

            Such a blanket statement.

And so easy for him to say.

As James headed toward his car, Emily stepped out onto the porch, under a cloudless sky that was perfect shade of blue as though painted by hand. It felt more like late May, than early-September. Then again, in Michigan, both months were two sides of the same coin, really.

Birds chirped gleefully. An American flag hung from the porch, gently blowing the wind.

A perfect day to fly.

James blew her a kiss. As she blew him one back, an unexpected chill ran through her. As he pulled out of the driveway, the flag drooped at a perfect, poetic standstill.

She waited until James was out of sight, before she slowly closed the door behind her. The chill was gone. She sat down on the couch, anticipating the usual rush of sadness she experienced whenever James left. Now, she felt an overwhelming sense of…relief. Like a giant weight had been lifted off her chest.

Maybe now, she could actually get some sleep before Jimmy had to get up for school.

“Good morning, Mommy!” Jimmy’s high-pitched voice rang out behind her.

She turned around, startled.

So much for that.

“You scared me!”

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Jimmy said.

She stooped down to hug him.

“Someday, you are going to learn the joy of sleeping in as long as possible.”

“Sleep is boring.”

She laughed. She could always count on Jimmy for a unique perspective on things.

Though he usually woke up earlier than he had to, this was earlier than usual

            “Let’s get you some breakfast.”

            Jimmy followed her into the kitchen.

            “Go take your pull-up of. And go potty.”

            They were really hoping he would be able to sleep in underpants without peeing his bed, especially now that he finished kindergarten. She was tired of constantly having to wash sheets, despite wearing pull-ups. She would never seem to understand how it never seemed to bother him. If it were up to him, he would go all day in a soaking wet pull-up if he could.

As Emily prepared his breakfast, she turned on Good Morning America half-listening to an update on a senator’s missing intern.

            “Mommy!!” Jimmy shouted from the bathroom.

            She headed over to the bathroom.

            And there he was, standing in a puddle of his own pee.

            “Jimmy! You’re stepping in it!”

            Then there was that issue.

            “Sorry, mommy.”

“You need to get it in the toilet! Not the floor! You’re a big boy now.

            “I promise.”

            “Now hop into the bath tub. You need to wash your feet.”

            She ran the water.

            The shit James never had to do deal with.

            “Get in.”

            He dipped his toes in.

            “It’s hot!” Jimmy screamed.              

            She felt it. It was far from “hot”, but she was trying harder to pick her battles.

            She added some cold water.

            “Suit your fancy?”

            He tried again. “Yes.”

            “Why did you make it so hot?”

            “It was an accident. Just like you should have been before you peed on the floor.”

            He couldn’t argue with that. He finished rinsing off his feet.

            “Can I get out now?”

            “Yes.”

            She dried off his feet.

            Next up: breakfast, leaving an hour to spare before she had to take him to school.

            “Can I watch Lion King?” he asked after he was done.

 “How about you play for a little while?”

            “Please?”

            Once again, she found herself being the bad guy. James would say yes in a heartbeat with some sort of rationalization that movies encouraged imagination and taught life lessons.

            “But so do books,” Emily would say.

            “And so do movies. Neither one has to be better than the other. It’s all about quality. I am not going to let him watch a bunch of garbage.”

            And on and on. She saw no end in sight.

            The Lion King was his favorite movie. In fact, the only one he ever wanted to watch. So much so, the VHS tape was beginning to wear out and degrade. It was time to get the DVD. Christmas wasn’t far away.

            “Please, mommy?”

            And per usual, she gave in. Because she didn’t want to be the bad guy…again.

She looked around for the tape, before realizing it was already in the player. Of course, it was in there! She hit play. It was somewhere in the middle of the movie.

“Do you want to watch it from here? Or, should I rewind it?”

“Here’s okay.”

            She remembered the first time he watched it. He was so traumatized. And she couldn’t blame him. It was similar to when she watched Dumbo and Bambi as a kid.

What was Disney’s problem?

            While watching it with him for the first time, it dawned on her that Jimmy never had to deal with death in any concrete way and she wondered how far he would get through life before he had to.

Mufasa’s death was the first death he encountered. And of course, there were questions.

            “Why happens when you die?”

“It’s like going to sleep forever.”

“That sounds boring.”

“It’s peaceful.”

“But what about heaven.”

Right. Heaven.

“Yes. You get to rest in heaven.”

She wished it didn’t feel like lying.

“That’s it? That sounds boring.”

 “And you get to be with all your friends and family.”

“Will they be dead, too?”

“Yes.”
“Are you and daddy going to die?”

“Everyone dies.”

“But I mean when I’m little.”

“No.”

“Promise?”

She wished she could.

“Nobody can promise such a thing. But what we can promise is that it’s the last thing mommy and daddy would ever want to happen.”

That seemed to satisfy him.

The last several times he watched it, he fast forwarded the scene when Mufasa died. He realized awhile back that he didn’t have to subject that to himself. He could simply skip it.

If only we could do that in real life.

Then again, how much of our life would we skip past if we could?

Too much.

Even though Jimmy knew Mufasa was dead, he didn’t like to see it happen. Plus, he could get to the funny parts with Timon and Pumbaa sooner!

But today, he didn’t forward through it.

Guess he was ready to handle it now.

            As he watched, she used the time to gather laundry. Though she tried to limit it, TV time was usually the only time she could be productive…or, in some cases, take a nap. He demanded so much attention and without a sibling, she really couldn’t blame him. If he wasn’t watching a TV during her nap, chances are, he was going to wake her up. Either by asking for something, or just making a general racket while playing.  TV was the one way to keep him still and distracted. Of course, James blamed her for not putting her foot down. He had a point. But it drove her nuts how he always seemed to have a simple solution for things he never even had to deal with.

Of course, she would have preferred that Jimmy slept in, but was too tired to put up a battle.

            As she folder the laundry, she was reminded that it was this exact domestic chore that yielded her first piece of evidence: a torn-off corner of a condom wrapper. As though she needed one more reason to hate laundry.

            Before she could finish, it was time to take Jimmy to school. In fact, she was so lost in thought, they were almost late.

            En route to school, Emily passed a school bus filled with laughing children.

            “Mommy, why don’t I ever get to take the bus?”

            “Because some kids don’t have a mommy or daddy who can take them to school. Many mommies work. But since daddy makes good money, mommy can spend more time with you.”

            In truth, she was lately itching to make a change in her life. As much as she loved being there with Jimmy, now that he was in school, she was thinking that maybe it was time to get back out there in the “real” world. Even if only a part-time job at an art gallery. She even considered being a barista just for the experience. But James was adamant that she stay home, under the illusion that she preferred it this way. For the longest time, she did. But between Jimmy starting school…and the incident…she felt like it was time for a change.

            “But the bus looks fun,” Jimmy continued to plead his case.

            “But if you took the bus, you would have to leave earlier and it would take a lot longer to get to school.”

            “But then I’d be with friends.”

“And if you took the bus, who would take you out for donuts or ice cream after school sometimes? Or, take you to the bookstore?”

            “Well, you still could still take me when I got home.”

 “You got me there!” she laughed, as they pulled into the school.   

This kid is going to be a lawyer.

“And maybe one day, we could work it out so you can take the bus. Sound good?”

“Sounds good. I still prefer you driving me. Especially when you take me for ice cream. Can we go today?”

HE ASKS WHEN SHE PICKS HIM UP

“I don’t see why not.

She gave him a hug.

“Have a good day! I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He got out of the van. Halfway to the entrance, he turned around and blew his mother a kiss.

Like father, like son.

Emily blew him one back.

Though he was only in kindergarten, she couldn’t help but think about the fact that one day, he would outgrow this gesture. This made her turn suddenly sad.

As she watched Jimmy turn around and head into school, she began to tear up, then regained her composure.

Where was this even coming from?

She reminded himself that he just started kindergarten (which in itself was a Pandora’s Box of emotion that she was still getting over). Yet, she knew nothing that it wouldn’t last forever. She was always like this. Rather than enjoying the moment, she would fixate on the inevitably that nothing lasts forever, whether a vacation, a special occasion, or – in this case – childhood. She knew that it made it so much harder to enjoy the moment. And as much as she tried to stop it, the more she seemed to dwell on it. She didn’t know what it was about this morning in particular, but she felt a permeating sadness engulfing her. She realized most of this feeling was the result of not just James leaving, not just that they were missing their anniversary, but everything surrounding the incident.

The current lack of stability in her life.

She had to keep reminding herself that she had full control over the situation.

It was up to her to stay…or, to go.

Two options. And the ball was totally in her court, which is what she found most terrifying. 

She was the one who was contemplating divorce. The ball was totally in her court, which is exactly what terrified her. The more she thought about it, it seemed like the more she was getting away from making a decision.

Something would have to give. Or else, she would be in a holding pattern forever.  It already felt that way.

            Emily headed home, determined to take a nap before picking Jimmy up at noon. Once inside, she realized she no longer felt tired and decided to finish folding the laundry as Good Morning America played in the background.

Suddenly, something caught her eye: a huge, flaming hole in one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Wait…

…James had a meeting scheduled in that very building.

She looked at the time: 8:48. His plane would have landed an hour ago, but would he have already made it across town?

Unlikely.

She picked up the cordless phone and quickly dialed James. It went straight to voicemail.

 “James, please call me. I just saw the news on TV. God, I’m so worried.”

            She hung up the phone and paced back and forth, before she dialed him again. Voicemail.

“Why isn’t your phone on?” she said with a fusion of annoyance, panic, and suspicion. She would have gladly discovered that he was safely in bed with another woman, rather than in that building.

 “Call me. Please.”

She hung up. Seconds later, the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number. Normally, she would ignore unknown calls, but this time, she wasn’t leaving anything to chance. 

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Cindy calling from DTE. I wanted to let you—”

She hung up and dialed James again. No luck. She hung up and gave his office a try.  

“Freedom Marketing please hold,” said the receptionist. Ingratiating hold music played.

            “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” Emily said as she waited.

Finally, the receptionist picked back up.

“Thank you for holding. How can I—”

“Susan, it’s Emily Smith. Did you see the news?”

“Yes, we just heard. Have you—”

“…heard from James? No. I was hoping that maybe you have.”

“We’ve been trying to contact him,” the receptionist said.

“Do you know what time his meeting was?” Emily asked.

“8:30.”

“Do you know which tower he’s in?”

“The South,” the receptionist said.

“Which tower was hit?”
“The North.”

“Thank God,” Emily said overcome with potential fool’s gold relief, before adding: “But you haven’t heard from him?”

“No,” the receptionist said. “If you do get a hold of him will you please call us?”

“Please do the same,” Emily begged.

“Well, if anybody will find a way out of this, it’s James,” the receptionist said. “Please let us know if you hear from him. And we’ll do the same.”

They hung up.

If there’s anybody that would wait until everyone else got out first, it’s James.

Emily stared at the phone, as though willing it to ring. After a few moments, she redialed James’s number.

Voicemail again.

She ran her hands through her hair, watching the nightmare unfold on T.V., struggling to fathom the fact that this was reality and not a disaster movie.

The phone rang. She answered it without even looking at who was calling.

“Hello?”

“Anything good on T.V.?”

“You’re alive!” she blurted out, irritated by his cavalier nature.

“I’m alive.”

Emily was too stunned to speak.

“Emily?” James said after a beat.

“I thought you were dead.”

“I’m okay, baby. I’m okay.”

“Why wasn’t your phone on?”

“It was. The phone lines must be jammed. But I’m fine. And today’s still our anniversary.”

Why is he so calm?

“Where are you?”

Again, she couldn’t help but feel suspicious about his whereabouts. She hated this feeling.    

“At the office. I can see the flames across from my window. And the smell—”

“Why aren’t you leaving?” Emily asked, more as a demand than a question. She realized she believed him. He had had proven to be sneaky, but there was no way in hell he would go to this length.

“They asked us to stay put.”

“I want you out of there.”

“Everything’s under control,” James assured her.

“How do you know? Do you even know what’s going on?”

“No one’s panicking.”

“Everyone’s probably in shock. Please, leave.”

“I told you, we got orders—”

“Well, I’m your wife and I’m ordering you to leave.”

            “Okay, okay, I’ll leave,” James finally said, irritated.

“Promise me.”

“I’m grabbing my briefcase as I speak. I’ll call you when I get back to the hotel.”

“You call me as soon as you step outside.”

“Okay, okay.”

“I love–”

But he hung up before she could finish.

“–you.” She realized that was the first time she said it since the incident. In fact, she couldn’t remember exactly when. She thought about calling him back, but didn’t want to delay him getting the hell out of there.

All she could now was wait. She took a speck of comfort in the fact that she at least heard from him. But until she heard back, she could only rely on the news. But just as she turned around to look, the second plane hit the South Tower.

This wasn’t an accident. It was murder.

She screamed – shrieked – in absolute, pure terror, dropping the phone onto the hardwood floor. She couldn’t remove her eyes from the TV, suspended in the horror of the moment until she was able to stoop down to pick up her phone to dial James. It was useless to even try.

She slumped onto the couch and stared at the TV, rocking back and forth in stunned disbelief, repeating over and over again:

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

The phone rang.

Dear God, please be James.

But it wasn’t. It was her mother, calling from Florida. Emily picked it up, but found herself unable to speak.

 “Hello?” Rose said on the other end.

 “Mom, James, I, I can’t—” Emily struggled to articulate her thoughts.

“Emily? Are you okay? Do you have the news on? All those people—”

“When I hung up, the second plane! – oh my God! – the second plane!”

“It’s just awful,” Rose said in response, with no clue what her daughter was getting at.

Emily finally managed to form a full sentence.  

“James is – was –  in the Trade Center.”

After a slight pause, Rose responded:

“Oh, dear.”

“What do I do? What do I do?” Emily kept repeating, on the border of hysteria.

“Have you heard from him?” she asked.       

“Yes, and he was fine, but then I hung up and the second plane, oh God, the second plane!”

“What floor was he on?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’ll call you back.”

            Emily hung up before Rose could even reply and dialed James’s phone once again. It actually rang this time. And then voicemail. She went ahead and left him a message, as though in doing so, it would somehow force fate to keep him alive in order for him to receive it. But deep down, she knew better.

            “Hi, James. It’s me,” she said, trying to hold back tears to no avail. “I really hope you get this—” she was disconnected before she could finish her sentence.

She called back James’s office.

“Freedom Marketing –”

“This is Emily Smith again. What floor was James working on?”

“The 80th,” the receptionist said, with panic in her voice; the sound of chaos all around her.

“Above or below the crash site?”
            “We’re still looking into it,” the receptionist said. “You still haven’t heard from him?”

Emily hung up and raced to her computer, regretting that they never updated their modem – one of many things put on hold in recent months.

She frantically searched for information relaying the impact zone of the South Tower. There was a lot of contradictory info, but it seemed most likely that the point of impact was around the 78th floor

This information left her swirling in a whirlpool of hope, panic, and confusion. On one hand, she knew he wasn’t directly hit. But by the same token, he could be trapped.

The phone rang again. It was her mother again.

            “Have you heard from him?” Rose asked.

“No. But he was above the crash site.”

“Then he must be on his way down.”

“What if he’s trapped? Why isn’t he calling me?”

“I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he gets out.”

“Why can’t I reach him?”

“Maybe the signal’s jammed.”

“Why is this happening?”

            “I don’t know, sweetheart. I’m not even sure God knows.”

            Her mother knew her daughter’s stance on religion: she was a borderline atheist. But even Emily was taken aback by her statement. Ordinarily, she expected to hear something along the lines of “put your trust in God”, or “God will help you through this.”

            Her more pessimistic tone certainly took her by surprise.  

“Is there somebody that can come over?” her mom asked. “You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

            “Not really. And honestly, not sure if I would want anybody here right now.”

            “You know I would hop on the first plane I could, but who knows when anybody will be able to fly again.”

            “I know you would, Mom.”

            “But what about Jimmy?””

            “He’s at school.”

            “But I mean, picking him up. And taking care of him. Nobody would blame you if you asked for some help.”

            “I know. What do I even tell him?

     “The truth.”

            “That daddy’s dead.”

            “That his daddy is missing.”

            “Then you’ll have to tell him the truth.”

            “That his daddy’s dead?”

“That his daddy’s missing.”

“He’s gone, mom. I just know it. I feel it.”

     “You can’t be 100% sure about that…that the worst outcome has happened.”

Both James and her mother were co-chairs of an unspoken Optimist Club. And it drove her nuts, if only because she usually felt double-teamed.  

But this wasn’t the time for optimism.

 It wasn’t that Emily was a flat-out pessimist. She considered herself to be moderately positive, just as she was moderately, well, agnostic (though, she certainly leaned more toward full-blown atheism following the incident.

            “Now is not the time to lose hope,” Rose reminded her, returning to her familiar optimism.

            “I’ll call you later, Mom. This isn’t helping.”

            “You know I’m here for you,” Rose added.

            “I know mom,” Emily said, hanging up and turning her attention back to the TV, greeted by an image of the smoldering Pentagon  

            The phone rang. It was James.

“Oh my God, I thought I lost you. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. And I’m out.”

She had never felt a greater sense of relief in her life. They still had one another and from here on out, that was all that was going to matter.

They would get a clean start. All it took was the near murder of her husband.

“Thank God! Where are you now?”

“I just walked out the lobby. There’s debris and bodies everywhere – oh my God, a body just landed 10 feet from me! This is unbelievable. This is insane. But I’m okay, baby. I’m okay. I love—” 

Suddenly, a deafening roar drowned out James’s voice.

Drowned out everything.        

“James?” Emily panicked.

She turned around to look at the TV, just as one of the towers of the World Trade Center come crumbling down. As she watched it in seemingly slow motion, she never felt more helpless in her life.

She could come to only one conclusion.

James was gone.  

It was more than simply being a witness to the destruction that made her think this. She felt a cord – the lifeline connecting her heart to his – snap and break into two.  

            And all she could feel inside was…

            Emptiness.

One More Episode

“One more episode.”

An almost nightly re-run.

 How many late nights were made even later after succumbing to just one more episode? Followed by another. And another

Binging shows together was their “thing” from the start. Their first date was a movie night. He held her hand for the first time. But made no other moves, even though she was hoping he would. When he left, she was worried that he wasn’t interested after all. She would later admit this. And he would admit how much he wanted to do more than hold her hand, but he promised himself that he would be a gentleman. And that made her like him even more.

Watching TV together was not their only thing, but certainly the one they enjoyed the most – if only for its low key, simplicity. They equally discovering new shows together, re-watching shared favorites, or introducing individual favorites.

 Combined, they had access to all the streaming services, even sharing the same password across them all.

Then came along a global pandemic, which took their binging to a whole new level, especially during the first couple of months. They could not only get through more shows faster…but carve in time for new ones.

 The apex of their pandemic binging was by far The Sopranos – a show that they had both wanted to watch ever since it first came out, but somehow never found the time for until now.

No more excuses.

They chugged along at a steady pace, sometimes switching to another show, or two, for some variety, including that train wreck that was Tiger King.

As the seasons progressed, the unthinkable happened: their relationship began to slowly erode. Before it quickly crumbled. At first, they failed to even notice. But eventually, once the denial wore off, it became painfully obvious that they were heading down a one-way street to a dead end. And once it go to that point, it seemed that there was nothing they could do to stop it. Or, perhaps more accurately, they didn’t know how.

In the weeks and even months to come, the one constant source of stability and unification in their dying relationship was The Sopranos, which played against the backdrop and upheaval of their real-life drama.  

They both admitted it was now their favorite show of all time, eclipsing Mad Men and Twin Peaks.

And despite the fact their love was crumbling all around them, their usual refrain remained untarnished:

“One more episode.”

 Before they would go off to their own separate beds

It seemed like the only thing keeping their relationship alive – or, at least on life support – was the show itself. Perhaps deep down, they knew that once the series was over…so would they. It was almost as though they knew they couldn’t possibly break up until they finished the series. And what about the unfinished audiobooks and podcasts that they had started, but never finished? They couldn’t rest their entire relationship on the backbone of mass media, could they?

They continued to stretched it out as long as possible, continuing to mix in other shows, or an occasional movie. 

Dreading not just ending a show that they loved so much, but the inevitable real-life ending.    

Not a fade to black.

But an abrupt hard cut of a relationship they thought was foolproof.

The first relationship either one of them felt that way about.

But it was over now.

And all that was left in its wake was one more episode.       

How could they not have finished the last episode of a show they loved so much? Together. After nearly six full seasons. And three years of happiness together.

Despite all the uncertainty leading up to the sad ending, they never questioned their ability to at least finish what they started.   

How was it possible that they were over, anyway? This wasn’t supposed to happen. Their meet-cute romantic comedy was never supposed to end. With all the uncertainty in their lives and the world at large, that was supposed to be the one thing they could count on. They had promised one another that.

They were supposed to be cancel proof.

But sometimes, the network executives, the universe, fate, God, whatever you choose to believe has other plans.

Neither one felt right about watching the last episode without the other. So, neither did, clinging to the irrational hope that they would somehow find their way back to each other. That they would one day soon laugh at this accidental hiatus, which would only make their love stronger.

But days soon turned into weeks and weeks turned into months.

And yet, they both clung to the hope that someday, the would be back together again.

And could finally finish what they started.

Because it wasn’t supposed to be end like this.

Or, so they said. And thought. And believed.

A sad, unsatisfying series finale.

Ending both a show and a relationship the right way is one of the hardest things to pull off.

Other relationships would come and go. After all, what is life but one ending after another?

They would continue to hold on to that one last episode until their dying day, thinking about it from time to time, but never finding closure.

If only to ensure that at least something didn’t have to come to an end.

That some things could last forever.

Even if incomplete.

And without resolution.