Common Sense Factor

“It is a matter of common sense. Surely, you know that.” His eyebrows are arched and his nose is elevated as he says the words that are drizzled with disdain towards her. The sound of his voice vibrates in the air as if the echo is meant to offer more credence to his know-it-all statement.

“Common sense is subjective, Nathaniel. It’s open to interpretation. It’s based on one person’s perspective and is the accumulation of one’s experiences. But everyone is shaped by different life events.  A rich man or woman can tell someone who’s poor, they shouldn’t steal food because they’ll break the law, and if they get caught, they’ll go to jail. But for someone who’s starving, common sense says that if they don’t eat, they’ll die.”

“You are talking about a specific case. But we are not talking about individuals; we are talking about the general population. It should be the common man’s experience that allows a person to make a decision. That is common sense.”

“You mean – the common sense of an affluent, white man’s experience?”

“I did not say that.”

“Funny – you talk like a pompous white man from the early 1900’s.”

“Why do you believe that?”

“Well, why did you say, I did not say that? You could have said, I didn’t say that.”

“Contractions are a lazy person’s way.”

“They’re more efficient, effective, and relatable. Contractions get the job done without taking up more space than needed. Also, they make words more relatable to the general population.”

His arms are clasped behind his back and he stiffens at the general population comment. “Never begin a sentence with, also,” his voice crackles sharply at her.

It’s exhausting this conversation; watching every word spoken to a man who believes himself the expert on all matters. “Why?” she asks tilting her head.

“It is not proper English. When speaking with others they make assumptions based on your language skills? They will believe you are daft.”

“Daft!” she shrieks with final exasperation.  “Where am I? What time period are you from? So, what you’re actually saying is: I’m dumb?”

“Dumb is a word said by those with little vocabulary skills.  If you are seeking another word – perhaps – dim-witted, would be a better choice?”

A shrill laugh escapes from her. She rubs her right hand over her eyebrow to smooth out the twitching in her eye that commenced with this conversation with Nathaniel. This exchange has already lasted longer than she wanted it to and there appears no hope of a quick resolution on the horizon. “So far you’ve said….”

“Never, begin a sentence with so,” Nathaniel’s cheekbones twitch. She’s sure the twitching in his face is because he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“So,” she starts again emphasizing the word more than ever this time around. It’s as if she’s picking a scab on his leg, and yes, she’s doing it deliberately trying to make it bleed by picking it. “You believe that common sense is derived from a common man’s experience, that contractions are a lazy person’s way, and that I’m dim-witted because I begin sentences with also, and so?”

“The point of my observations about your use of language was simply to instruct you. You must be aware of how others would perceive you in conversation.”

“Others? You mean, you?”

“Well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant…”

“Oh no, why stop now?”

“I do have an Intelligence Quotient (it is better known as the IQ test) that ranks in the same levels as Einstein.”

“Oh, do you? Well, I have a common woman’s brain. And I like it that way. I think it keeps me more likely to assume my position isn’t always correct, and open to other people’s perspectives. You know,” she smiles at him for beginning the sentence with you know because she’s certain he won’t like it, “it makes me more common, and hopefully, a little more connected to others.”

Black Moon Rising

Empty bank account, barren fridge, tattered clothes and I brace against the ever-greying windy October skies. Summer seems so long ago with heat that reddened my delicate skin in less than ten minutes. I also miss that yellow fireball that kept me warm. But the sun has shrunk back distancing itself from earth. I shiver in the cold.

Cold has descended on this part of the world. I watch in quiet agitation as the frigid air has turned many people into impatient drivers that press their palms to horns. It’s a scream at the operator in another vehicle for a mistake made or worse yet, just because the palm-pressing-horn-blower left too late and will now be late for work. I know this to be true: because I’m one of those people. This city where cars race up and down streets, parkways, and highways are everywhere. We are in a rush to get nowhere.

This is a difficult time of year for everyone but I dread this month most.  It’s October – a time of year when everything changes; leaves shift with colour and people become more entrenched in back-to-work and back-to-school routines.

But for me, this month is the worst. Triple heartbreaks of loved ones who were diagnosed with something that meant their lives were at risk; or in a cruel sense of irony, one of them I had no idea was sick. He died suddenly with a 3:45 am wake-up call that said he was gone. No time for I’m sorry, or last good-byes. Just a call that said: He died tonight.

Tonight, there is blackness that I have never felt before. I turn my eyes upwards in search of the Black Moon.  I don’t find it. But what I find is a cold breeze that licks my face and sweeps my hair everywhere. The stars are however, brighter than I’ve ever noticed before. My eyes move back to the pavement where I watch as leaves hold hands together and are swept around in circles like Greeks do when they dance.

I secretly wish that I could be the moon and hide away from everything. It seems unfair that it gets to have some time to take a break for one night and then reappear brighter tomorrow. I wish I could get some quiet time: to breathe, to think, to feel. Instead, my days are spent checking off never-ending tasks and to-do-lists that leave me short of breath and stuck on a treadmill.

But maybe, that’s for the best.    

“What’s going on with you?” He asks red-faced and half-smiling at me.

“Nothing,” I answer defensively. I stare down at the ground avoiding his eyes. I hate it when he just pops in unexpectedly.

He’s watching me. I know it. It’s really a silly question on his part, because he knows what’s going on with me. I spin around and revise my answer to his question and in a crisp, growl of a  voice I say, “I hate October!”

“Why?” He asks with that mischievous grin. It’s the same look he had when he knew the answer to the question he just asked, but wanted you to say it.

I’ve decided I’m calling him out and answer, “You know why!”

“I’m not here. You know that, right, kiddo?”

“Yes you are,” I answer lifting my chin in defiance. I’ve locked the swelling tears in my eyes in and hold them back like floodgates. If the floodgates are released it will be a catastrophe. Someone will drown.

“Kiddo, just use your blue, happy-light. That’ll work,” he says chuckling.

I turn and face him saying, “I hate that you know about my blue light.”

“So, you’re not suffering from SAD then?” He’s stopped laughing now and scrunches his face in my direction. I notice the crinkle in his nose. The lingering remnants of mischief sit at the corners of his lips and it’s the same look he had whenever he was making fun of me. His eyes swirl with trouble. He’s a little more red-faced than a few minutes ago and full of life.

It’s the way I remember him.

He just wants me to say it. He wants to hear those words. But he can’t make me do anything now.

“Leave me alone,” I say deflated.

He’s suddenly serious and he softly says, “You know it will be alright, right, sis?”

“Only if I decide to keep going,” I retort. I look down at the ground and stare at small rocks that are sprinkled along the payment.

“October’s a triple whammy for you. But you’re made of tougher stuff.”

My head snaps up in his direction as I square off with him again. If he were here, I would put him in a headlock right now. Or, I would try to. I would probably lose. He was close to 6 feet tall, 200 lbs, and worked in construction. I am 5 feet 2 inches, 140 lbs, and am a slightly pudgy office worker.  He’s bigger and older than me. The cards are stacked against me. But I would try just the same. We’re siblings. It’s what we do. We fight.

My five-year-old has returned and I say, “Why does everything have to be so hard for me?”

“Hard for you?” He questions me in a tone that reminds me of Dad. It’s the tone of: You’re being a spoiled brat.

With his look, I turn my eyes away from him and say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.” His words sting me and it leaves the lingering burnt sensation as if I’ve had my knuckles rapped by the headmaster.

When we were kids, I absolutely believed I stood on higher ground than my brother. (That’s the way I saw it back then. I fully acknowledge now, there’s a good chance I was wrong.) But in the last few years of his life, my brother was brilliant, still funny, and much more resilient than me. He also had a better understanding of the world: what mattered, what didn’t, and how not to brood about your shitty luck. And today, he’s calling me out for sounding ungrateful when my life isn’t always that bad: just parts of it. I miss him.

I miss all of them.

“How’s Dad?” I ask changing the subject like my family always does. It’s a defence mechanism: Let’s not talk about the serious stuff like death, loss, and grief.

“Good,” he says quickly and without any hesitation. “He’s smoking as much as he wants to now without you nagging him,” he answers as he swings his head back and claps his hands together. Clearly, he’s entertained by his own joke.

In a few moments, he’s gathered himself and continues, “Oh, speaking of which….” he pauses for a second as he fumbles in his coat pocket, pulls a cigarette out of the package, flicks his lighter open, lights a cigarette, and inhales on it.

I half-smile and turn my head away from him. Mumbling, I sarcastically say, “Nice.”

He deliberately blows smoke in my face and throws his head back in laughter. I can’t smell the tobacco smoke. For that reason, it doesn’t set off my allergies. In that moment, I know he’s right. He’s not here. This realization makes my chest contract and my face crumbles.

I blurt out, “I miss you guys.”

The floodgates have opened.  

His cigarette dangles between his two fingers and rests relaxed by his side. He’s serious and says, “Triple whammy for you, sis.”

I breathe out and watch as white wisps of my exhale float in the darkness as droplets of water tumble down my cheeks.

“Hey, sis?”

I answer in a whisper of a voice as I try to gather my emotions, “Yeah.”

“Tomorrow night, the moon will be back.”

With his statement, I turn my gaze to the twinkling stars that sit above us and use my gloved hand to wipe the dribbling from my nose.  I quietly continue my gaze upwards for a moment longer, and then turn back and look at him. I’m smiling now, and with a giggle, I answer all the questions he asked me earlier that I either gave a smart-ass answer to, or never answered, while also providing a reply to his statement about the moon.

My answer is this: “I know”.

Anywhere

I slurp the icy Pina Colada through the straw and stringy bits become threaded between my teeth. Just then, I watch him swagger by SHIRTLESS. Every muscle in his shoulders and arms ripples as he strides by with confidence in every step. Mouth gaping, I stare at his tanned, chiseled abs.

Damn. I knew I should have gone with a one piece. I am an aquatic mammal nicknamed Ms. Beluga minus the perpetual toothy smile stretched out here on the Hawaiian beach.

Please don’t notice me. Please don’t notice me. Oh no, he’s noticed me. But I’m certain not in a good way.

Or, maybe he has?

“Hi,” he says, “are you using the copier?”

“What?” I stammer spinning around wildly to face the voice behind me.  Embarrassingly, I now know that my printing job may have finished some time ago and I’ve been busted staring blankly at the copier.

“Yes! But all done now!” I blurt out triumphantly and with a glowing smile. It’s my best effort to convince Mr. Davidson that I was NOT daydreaming.

Quickly, I reach for my papers and then with a swoosh, watch helplessly as they sail down fanning out across the worn blue carpeted floor.  “Damn,” I unconsciously mutter as my face burns from so many corporate blunders.

Mr. Davidson is one of the nicest people in our office but has no resemblance to the man I imagined on the beach: red-rimmed glasses, long wavy dark hair that’s peppered with grey, and his beard looks like it longs to be trimmed. On this particular day, Mr. Davidson is wearing a plaid shirt with green pants. Nice man that he is, he helps me gather my pages while chatting with me about a new restaurant that just opened.

I want to disappear. There must be a way to assemble these pages to form a boat so that I can sail away to Hawaii. RIGHT NOW.  Of course, my lack of an engineering degree may prove problematic in the construction. Then there’s the other issue that the paper is much too thin. I’m certain I would sink.

TRAPPED.

***

Parachute strapped on my shoulders, goggles on my eyes, cold wind pushes me backwards onto the plane. I vaguely remember some instructions about pulling some chord but can’t recall the specifics. Right now, I am too busy holding onto the edge of the plane and screaming to no one in particular, “For heaven’s sake’s! I can do this!”

Suddenly, some random clip I saw years ago floods my little brain: I’m remembering back to an incident involving an eighty-year-old woman who attempted a tandem jump and slipped out of the parachute.  Thank goodness it didn’t end badly for her but…

“Sarah, have you submitted your report?” my manager, Esmeralda, asks.  (I’m really not kidding. That’s her name.) Her voice snaps me back to my current location: and that current spot is my stagnant, dry-aired workstation with the black blinking cursor that signals the report is still a work in progress. With two lines written, it’s a barely-there report.

How does she do that? Every time I’m drifting off into fantasy land she comes in and literally “pops” my thought bubble. No fun permitted at work, should be Esmeralda’s work motto.  I could make her a bumper sticker. I’m sure she has a webcam on me. 

“Not yet,” I hesitate and continue, “but it will be ready in the next ten minutes,” I say in my most authoritative, in-control voice, and with my broadest smile. She frowns at me and she instantaneously looks ninety-nine years old as wrinkles crack throughout her face before she saunters out the same way she came in without a further word.

Clearly, she’s impressed with me.

“Yes, why don’t people start early with their bucket lists,” I grumble as I stare at the flashing cursor. I breathe out hard and then try to inhale refreshing air. But it can’t be found here. I sigh. Then I punch at the keys in front of me in an effort to write my delinquent report.

***

It’s late July and I am in Churchill, Manitoba. The temperature is around 18 degrees Celsius and it feels more like a warm spring day than the middle of summer. I am prepping my kayak! I am so excited! FINALLY! I will be kayaking with beluga whales! They are nicknamed “sea canaries” because of the constant whistling, chirping, and clicking sounds that they are famous for making. There are tens of thousands of them out there as they come up to feed, give birth, and take care of their young in the Churchill River. Or so, the “Town of Churchill” website said. It will be a beluga sing-along party.

Belugas have mushroom white faces that are long and yet, round at the same time. Also, they ALWAYS look like they’re smiling. They have the smallest teeth on any whale I’ve ever seen. I ADORE THEM. It seems impossible that they could bite you. Even if they did – their teeth are so small it would probably be like a puppy biting you. Now that I think about it a bit more, sometimes when puppies bite it hurts. They have razer-sharp teeth.

Never mind. Belugas can’t hurt anyone! JUST LOOK AT THEM!

With that, I step my right foot into the kayak and it lists heavily to the right side. I try to step in again but the whole kayak shifts under my weight. I step back. This kayak seems a little tipsy and I’ve never been kayaking before. I have gone snorkeling…

Let’s change that.  I’m standing in front of a mirror in a black, ultra-tight dry suit that I can barely breathe in; but it’s worth it to go snorkeling with the sea canaries. Advantage: it’s much more intimate. Why wouldn’t I get as close to the belugas as possible? I’ll never get this chance again.

Another benefit of snorkeling: I have full coverage on my body. While I can’t breathe, the suit does hold in all my jelly rolls. The best part – NO UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT INVOLVING A BIKINI! My mind drifts a bit and I start to wonder, can belugas accidentally bump you and kill you?

“Sarah, are you ready for lunch?” My best friend Rachel swings her head over my work station startling me. She stares at me inquisitively with her famous Han Solo lop-sided smile as she asks, “Daydreaming again, my friend?”

“Yes,” I mope.

“Where do you want to go today?” I ask her reluctantly.

“Same place as usual?”

“Of course,” I flatly respond.

***

Damp moisture invades my body and sends a small chill down my spine. The wind blows against my face sweeping my hair off my shoulders and it dances on the wind. Large soft snow flakes fall on me and this beautiful city. I am standing at the top of the Empire State building in New York City just before 1 am. With the snow it works in unison with the events that I experienced today to signal the start of the Christmas season.

I look across the city with lights that seem to wink in acknowledgement of me, the first-time traveller. It has been a perfect day: prime viewing of the Macy’s Christmas parade, Ellen’s Stardust Diner for turkey dinner, AND THE WAIT STAFF SANG TO US! I watch the new fallen snow blanket the city coating the buildings with what look like marshmallows, brightening a little more, this already bright city.

“Sarah,” Rachel turns and looks at me. She continues saying, “They’ll be closing the building soon. We need to go.”

“Alright,” I say dreamily.

Rachel stares at me for a long moment, tilting her head, and then she turns to face the New York skyline too. Finally, she turns again to me and says, “Any thoughts on where we should go for breakfast? I’m hungry!”

Still staring out at the view in front of me, I whisper, “Anywhere.”

 

The Remarkable

“What makes you special?” He asks as he pushes his eyeglasses back that are perched on his nose.

“Nothing,” Gwen answers as she gazes out the window of the room where they sit across from each other. Her arms are clasped around her legs. She unconsciously pulls them closer to her chest as she answers his question. Gwen’s bare feet rest on the leather couch and the coldness caused from the air conditioning blasting makes her shiver. Such a cliché: her sitting on a leather sofa and him sitting over there.  It’s what you would expect.

“What makes you different? Unique?” he asks again.

A small smile crosses Gwen’s lips and she says, “One breast is larger than the other.”

Dr. Tadani nods his head and replies, “That’s not that unusual.”

“Great. Even the things that I think, make me special, aren’t.”  Her chin lifts up a little, and there’s something in her eyes. She’s challenging him, trying to prove he’s wrong, and he knows it. But she hasn’t won yet.

“I noticed a scar on your elbow. How did you get that?” he asks resting his pen on his notepad.

“Oh,” she says turning her elbow over and looking at the scar again for the first time in years.  “Fell off my mountain bike cycling down this big-ass hill,” she says smiling at the memory. Hot sun, wind, and dust flew up from the dirt path making it difficult to see. But she’d done that path and hill so many times without one scratch. On that day though, she raised one hand to brush the dirt away from her eyes at the exact moment her wheel lifted up into the air. It was the way she started coming back down. She saw that spikey rock that she should have cleared before her tire nose-dived. It was too soon. She knew it. When she crashed to the ground and skidded along the rocks it hurt. There was lots of blood. Gwen picked herself up, dabbed the wound with a finger for a little bit, laughed it off, got back on her bike, walked up the hill, and took on that downhill slope again. That time she didn’t let anything distract her: she landed perfectly.

“You like to go mountain biking?” the doctor asks.

“I did, when I was younger. I haven’t done it in years now.” Gwen’s eyes turn towards the window again, turning away from the present, and the future. She’s fixated on the past: the good ol’ days.

“So, the scar,” Dr. Tadani says, “is it special to you?”

“Yeah,” she says. “It reminds me of how brave I was and how much fun I had when I was a kid. When…” her voice trails off and a then a few moments pass. “When-n-n thin-ings were good,” she finally finishes through splintered words.

“Does anything else make you special?”

“No,” Gwen says. Her mind is blank. There’s nothing else.

“Nothing?”

“I already told you, there’s nothing.” Her lips purse together locking in words she doesn’t want to say to him. Her cheeks flame hot with rage. Why is he asking these stupid questions?

“What about your paintings?”

“What about them?” she says stubbornly. “I’m not Vincent van Gogh.”

“He was never successful in his lifetime,” Dr. Tadani says.

“I know,” she says miserably at her blunder. She needed a name and pulled the first one out that she could think of. But she knows his story.

“You don’t think you’re paintings are special?”

Gwen doesn’t want to play this game anymore. “I don’t know,” she huffs with annoyance.

“Then why do it? Why paint?”

The hair on Gwen’s arms stand up straight. Muscles around her shoulders tighten. What does he want her to say? Her work sucks? No one will ever buy it?  She’s wasting everyone’s time?

Just like a lioness with her cub, she’s protective of her work. It might not be perfect, but it’s hers. She bore it, nurtured it, and continues to work at it.

“Gwen?” Why do it?”

Gwen releases her legs and plants her feet on the carpet. Back straightens. She sits taller than she’s sat in a long time. “Because, I think maybe I can reach others through my paintings. Maybe I will awaken something in them, and they’ll see what I see. I won’t feel alone. And other people won’t either.”

“That’s the reason for your painting called, Aftermath?” Dr. Tadani asks in a soft voice.

Gwen stares at him. Mouth drops open. She’s mentioned she paints in passing. But, how does he know about that painting? Sure, it’s in a gallery, one of the few she’s sold. But she’s never mentioned it to him.

“It’s a beautiful portrait of what people leave behind,” Dr. Tadani announces. “The woman at the front of the painting seems to be sleeping. That is, until you notice the empty bottles of pills that are beside her. All around her, above her, beside her, are people crying, some shouting, and many of them dressed in black with tears streaming down their faces. It’s brilliant.” He pauses and answers her unspoken question, “I’ve seen it at the new gallery that just opened. My wife likes art.”

Gwen’s head bobs up and down.  Her throat fills with mucus.  She takes a deep breath in, and drops her chin so she doesn’t have to look at her doctor. Muffled words come from her as she sniffles and says, “My mom – she left us a note, said we’d be better off without her. She was wrong.”

Gwen hears the doctor reach for something. A Kleenex box appears before her still downward cast eyes. She glimpses up at him and takes a tissue.

Dr. Tadani smiles at Gwen as gently as he can. Gwen never mentioned her mom’s suicide before. But now a lot of the other conversations they’ve had make sense.

“Have you ever read, Hector and the Search for Happiness?”

Gwen giggles and says, “I saw the movie.”

“The movie was similar. Message was the same. As you probably remember, the basic premise is that we’re always looking for happiness. Hector goes off to find it in the usual places. Studies have been done that show data that you’ll be happy if you exercise, if you’re rich, if you’re not rich, if you do what you love, if you have a family, etc., etc…the list is really quiet endless. Sure, many of those things may work. But everyone’s different. Having a family may not make some people happy, and running marathons every weekend may not work either. After all, no two people are the same. But the book and the movie both say that you need the bad stuff, as well as the good stuff, to be happy and that those terrible experiences allow us to better recognize happiness. That sadness is a necessary emotion too. Not that anyone deserves to be miserable,” he finishes with one eyebrow raised and with one of his rare chuckles.

Gwen smiles back at her spectacle-eyed doctor with the frizzy curly hair and the eight o’clock shadow. She’s still uncertain how the book/movie ties into how she’s special.

Dr. Tadani places his book on the coffee table. “I would go further and say that it’s the sum of all our different parts of who we are that make us special.  Sure, physiological differences in pairs of body parts make you unique. But that, in combination with the scar-clad, mountain biking woman, who paints to raise awareness about difficult issues and tries to connect people through her paintings, well – that’s what makes you special, Gwen.”

REMEMBERING AUNT BECKY

Dear Aunt Becky,

Mom and I are both writing letters to you. Mom thinks it might help us. I hope so.

I want to say how grateful I am for all those times you took me to practice for basketball, volleyball, and ice hockey when mom wasn’t able to. Too busy she says now, inching her way up that corporate ladder. She’s sorry she bailed on you last time for lunch. Stupid, useless meeting, she said. It will probably be in her letter.

I’m thinking back Auntie Becky to when I was five years old and at soccer. Do you remember that?  You drove me to practice that day and I got kicked in the face by a soccer ball.  I tried so hard not to cry.  But I did cry. Blake’s mom called me a baby not just once, but over and over again. She said:  You shouldn’t play if you can’t handle getting hurt. 

Aunt Becky, you heard her. I know you did, even though you always denied it. I saw you walk away and left me standing there by myself as Blake’s mom rubbed her eyes, whined like a baby would, and stuck her lower lip out. I was so mad at you at the time because you abandoned me like that. Then a soccer ball thundered across the field from the sidelines and crashed into her glasses. Her spectacles became slanted on her face.

Blake’s mom looked around, not sure where the ball came from. You strode across the grass, arms swinging by your side, nose elevated and said: Sorry about that. I was just checking the balls to make sure they weren’t too low. We have to make sure they’re inflated enough for the team.

Blake’s mom was angry with and you and screamed, you did that on purpose! And you said, who me? Don’t be so paranoid. But I guess you shouldn’t come out to cheer your kid on if you can’t handle a little punch in the face by a stray soccer ball.

Blake’s mom scowled at you.

We went for ice cream afterwards.

I always knew you were there for me. That’s why a couple of years ago I called you when the first guy I ever liked Eric, brought me to my the Spring dance and dumped me there. Eric was all nice and sweet at our house buying me a corsage, pinning it to me, and then us chatting together when we were in the backseat of his mom’s car. But when we got there he wanted to dance the first song with Felicity. He asked if it was alright with me. I wanted to be a “cool” girlfriend and thought it’s only one song, so I said, sure. Felicity was taller than me, with bigger breasts, and juicier lips. They kissed during that song. I ran out of the gym in tears and called you.

I didn’t call mom and dad. Because you were my best friend and the one I could always depend on. When you got there, you said that you were going to go onto the dance floor and pull Eric out by his ear. I begged you not to. Instead, we went shopping. You bought me a new pair of jeans and a shirt that I could wear that night. Then we had dinner and saw a movie.  After dinner you said, I need a cigarette.

I shouldn’t have bothered you about smoking. I just wanted you to stay forever.

Aunt Becky, I’m furious for a lot of reasons. One reason is because you drove me to basketball practice on Tuesday night, stayed, drove me home, and that I forgot my bag in your car.

I’m also angry that the last thing you said to me was: I’ll see you on Saturday. Well, I saw you on that Saturday. But you weren’t you.

Someone decided that your hair should be curled; your face was white-white with red blush marks streaked across your cheeks that made you look like a clown. There was red lipstick on your lips.  Your eyes were closed and your fingers were weaved together. They sat on top of your chest.

It wasn’t you.

Why did they do that? Why didn’t they put you in that black cocktail dress that you loved so much? You know the one. It was the one you wore to every occasion. And they should have used your light bronze gloss instead. You hated red lipstick.

I’m sorry Aunt Becky I didn’t get too close to you the last time I saw you. I couldn’t.

After you dropped me off on Tuesday you should have gone home and had a glass of red wine from Australia with Uncle Pat. Then you probably would have had another cigarette in the garage. Uncle Pat always disliked your silly habit. He banned you from smoking inside for his health and the health of others.

You should know that Uncle Pat insisted that he help with the wooden box. His wife, he said. He looked like he was being crushed by the weight of the coffin; shoulders were hunched forward, and his eyes were red-rimmed.  Uncle Pat looked as if he prematurely aged ten years that day.

Not that you were heavy. I remember the way Uncle Pat picked you up, twirled you around, and threw you over his shoulder. Auntie, your head bobbed up and down and you snorted with laughter and said: I’m not your cavewoman! Uncle Pat always said: caveman-meet-feminist-smoking-hot-woman. Caveman-win-woman-with-caveman-charm.  

I forgot my bag in your car. I had a report that was due the next day.

When I called you on your cell phone, you turned your car around.

I told Mom, it’s my fault. Stupid bag. Stupid report.

Mom says it’s not my fault: That man was drunk. He ran that light. It was poor judgement on his part. The rest of it: Becky being at that intersection, at that time – just bad luck.

I dreamt last night that we were laughing and walking on a beach in Australia, (Remember? You said you would take me when I turned 18?) sun setting, salty waves crashing on the beach lulling me into a sense of blissful peace. For no reason, you stopped all of a sudden, smiled at me, and gently kissed me on both cheeks and walked away towards the ocean.

I started to scream and cry: Aunt Becky, where are you going? You can’t leave me here by myself! You brought me thousands of miles away from home, and I have no idea how to get back! I stomped my feet in the sand and asked you: How could you do this to me?

You turned around and said: Call your mom and dad, or Uncle Pat. I would love to stay, but I can’t.

You gave me one last wave and a smile. Then I watched you wade into the water. I watched right until your head disappeared over the waves.

I waited on the shoreline for a little while longer, hoping you would come back.

When I finally turned around and looked behind me, mom was there. I ran towards mom crying so hard while screaming something towards her; but I slurped on my words and they were a jumbled mess of: Becky, not here, ocean. I made absolutely no sense. Mom immediately took off in a sprint towards me. As we got closer, I could see that Mom was crying just like me, and her arms were outstretched. When we reached each other, she didn’t even hesitate – she wrapped her arms around me tightly.

It’s been a few months and mom and I are closer now. But, I still miss you. I felt bad telling mom that, but I did. And she said: Of course you do. Great people are missed.

We’re both writing letters to you and burning them. Not because we’re trying to purge the thought of you. That will never happen. But this gives us a chance to say the things we didn’t. Mom also thinks that if we burn the pages they will float to heaven and it will be as if we’ve mailed our letters to you. I don’t know if it’s true, but the thought makes me smile.

Love Always,

Cassie

The Better Man

“How many times did she ask you that?” Brett asks while his fingers tug on the Budweiser label. It shreds a little more and another part of the label falls to the counter.

“Man, it was only a couple of times. But it was like she didn’t believe a word I said: like I was building a different life behind her back while she was at home making mac n’ cheese for Brianna and David.” My fingers slide down the cold Labatt Blue bottle as I shake my head. Tina Turner’s, What’s Love Got To Do With It, plays in the background of Jackson’s.

This bar, Jackson’s, is a dingy joint with dark lighting. The women here walk by us with dresses too short, and wear pants and shirts that are too tight.  My eyes casually pass over a blonde woman as she walks past us wearing a black dress and stilettos.

My thumb pokes at the label of the bottle. I’ve been fighting this fight for a decade. I’m sick of it.

“Maybe you should buy her some flowers, or something? Make sure she feels appreciated for the stuff she does. Puts up with your belly-aching and all?” Brett says as he throws his head back and takes another slug of his beer hiding his smile.

“Who are you, Dr. Phil?” I snicker at Brett. I swivel around on my bar stool adding in, “and, who’s side are you on anyways?” I ask as I peer over at my best friend. I’ve known him since eighth grade when we went to school together and played hockey. We lost contact for a couple of years when he went off to College. But now he’s back. Brett was also the best man at my wedding. I’ve had lots of good times with him. I can tell him almost anything.

My phone buzzes. I flip it over from the bar counter.

The text reads:

Kaitlyn: Where are you?

“Look,” I say while shaking my head. “I can’t even go out for a drink with a friend before the warden’s checking in on me.”

Brett’s eyes quickly pass over the text message. He half nods in my direction when he finishes reading the message.

“Well,” he says standing up, “I’ve got to get home. Jessica needs me home by 8:30 to watch the kids. It’s her book club night.”

I snort at him saying, “What the hell, man? Who’s in charge of your relationship?” My mouth twitches into a half smile.

He looks past me, smiles, and says, “Make no mistake. It’s her.”

“Fine,” I say as I pull out two twenty bills and shout at Mike, “hey, is that enough?”

Mike moves towards us, flicks his eyes over the money, and says, “Yeah. That’s good. Want change?”

“Nope, we’re good.”

Brett and I walk out the door together and I pull out the package of cigarettes in the pocket of my jacket and light a smoke. While holding the cigarette between my lips I mumble, “Want one?”

“Nope,” Brett says with a wave of his hand. “I’m trying to quit.”

My phone buzzes again. “Who’s that now?” My cheeks twitch in response to the annoyance. I wave my hand at Brett that holds the cigarette and say, “Go ahead! It’s probably Kaitlyn again.”

Brett gives a laugh, nods and says, “Okay, we’ll see you later.” Then he turns and runs through the snow to his car.

My phone shows this:

457-892-3675: Are you coming over tonight?

I type: Yeah. Leaving Jackson’s now. Be there in 10 minutes.

My fingers punch at the keys. After I’ve sent the message I delete both of them. Then I take a slow drag on my cigarette.

 

 

 

The Time It Takes

Four days, three hours and ten seconds was all the time I needed.

I bite my lower lip opening the crack. A red stream of blood runs along the lines of my swollen mouth mapping every part of it. Scarlet water drips down my chin in an attempt to escape its host: ME.

I’m unrecognizable. Five days earlier I was a different woman who was proud, strong, and fearless. I lean forward into the mirror and wonder, where’s that girl now? 

In The Rain

Water drips from my hair, my cheek, and the end of my nose. Where’s my umbrella?

“Why do you walk so far?” Marie asks. Then she blurts out, “Parking’s available closer to the office.”

Should I tell her? Or will it create a moment of: I can hear a paper clip hit the carpeting on the other side of the floor?

My friend slipped off a stool. It wasn’t a bungee jumping incident or skydiving accident. She’s short, and wanted to get oregano from the top shelf.

“It’s a good form of exercise,” I say.

Part III: If I Could Only Breathe

“Mom-mmy, Mommy, Mommm-mmm-y!”

Mom took me to my horseback riding lessons. After, we would go for soft serve chocolate ice cream. It’s our favorite.

“Mommy!!!!!”

Her smile is the last thing I see at night. She moves in close to me with the sweet smell of her perfume surrounding me. Then mom pulls the sheets tight around me, cocooning me in my duvet. Once I’m tightly wrapped, she tries to plant one hundred goodnight kisses on my cheek. I always stopped her at fifteen. When I was little, I always let her go to one hundred. But at some point, I didn’t. I was too cool to have my mom smother me with all those kisses, even though no one else was there.

I don’t know why I stopped her.

“Mommy!!!” I scream through blurry eyes. I’m too frightened to turn away from Momma’s pale white face for fear I’ll never see her again. But at the same time, I don’t want to see her like this anymore. I want to see her smile.

“Alvina, Alvina, Alvina….”

I blink at the man’s voice who knows my name. I don’t know who he is.

Now, he’s dragging me away by the hand from momma.

“Mommy!” I hiccup through my tears. Drool escapes from my lips. My nose drips onto the carpet where my wide-eyed mother lies.

“Alvina, baby,” the man’s voice cracks apart like soil does in summertime when it hasn’t rained for several weeks.  The man’s lower lip trembles. I feel his hand shake inside of my hand. Small streams of water fall from the corners of his eyes.

How did I not know who the man was?

“Daddy!”  I shout as fear and comfort collide together inside of me. I thought I was alone. But now that I know he’s here, I’m relieved and yet, even more frightened at the same time. Daddy’s arms wrap around me and he lifts me up. I drop my head onto his shoulder and bury my face into the space between his neck and shoulders.

I’m being carried away from mom.

“Do you know how long she’s been like this?” a man asks who wears a paramedic’s uniform.

I blink at him. When did he get here?

Daddy places me on the ground. I stand beside him not quite certain what else to do. He continues to hold my hand. It’s comforting. But it doesn’t feel quite right. We never hold hands. It’s mom’s job.

I know this is bad.

I’ve got nothing else to do, so I stare at dad’s face. Water drips from his nose and he wipes it away with his free hand. Dad’s eyes are red. I hear him say, “I don’t know. I found her like this. I was working late.”

“What’s your wife’s name?” a bald paramedic asks with dark brown eyes and bushy eyebrows.

“Be-Beth,” Dad says stuttering.

Dad never stutters. He owns his company, and he says: he’s the man in charge.

I take a deep breath in and summon all the strength I have inside of me. Daddy needs me to be brave now. I squeeze dad’s hand so he knows I’m still here. Nothing is worse than feeling like you’re all alone.

Dad’s eyes glance down at me. His face contorts in a twisted expression of emotion. Water pours from his eyes, over his lips, and out his nose all at the same time.  His breath is laboured as he sobs for a few seconds.

From where mom is I hear, “Beth, can you hear me?” a dark haired woman paramedic asks.

I notice that at some point the paramedics moved mom to a stretcher and they’ve placed an oxygen mask over her lips.  As they wheel her past me and dad, her eyes roll over to where we’re standing next to a policeman.

I don’t remember seeing the policeman. Where did the paramedic go? But he’s the bald guy with bushy eyebrows. He wasn’t a paramedic. He was always a policeman. How did I mix up their uniforms?

I can’t believe I was upset over a grade earlier today. Stupid history test.  One grade. I can’t believe a few hours ago, that’s all that mattered to me.

My lower lip begins to tremble. But when I look up at dad, I stop it.  I notice dad’s calm now too.

“Come on, Alvina. Let’s find out what hospital they’re taking your mother to,” Dad says as he fumbles for his keys in his pocket.

We walk behind mom with our hands clasped together. Dad’s focused on mom. My eyes flip over to the window. Outside, I see the twenty acres of woods my parents own. I search there for one second of peace in the leafy branches. Because when I’m upset, it’s where I always go.

Through the window panes, I see a faint outline of a woman. The woman has long dark hair, and wears a plaid shirt, and blue jeans.

There, Gudrun waits, for my return.