Steps — Caroline Read

When he says he wants to see you again, it will take a moment of reorganizing your thoughts to understand that he is being propelled forward by the Steps. You are halfway up the stairs with a laundry basket and you are taken off guard but not completely surprised it’s his voice on the end of an unknown number. He will say, steady and warm, that he would like another chance to apologize. The please isn’t said but somehow implied, a phantom word that appears in the softness of his drawl. You should be familiar with how he manages to press his advantage every time you give a little. You are familiar with Step 9; you should remember that when you give him a little, he usually ends up with a lot.

You had met at a party where everyone was pressed together too tightly in a crumbling kitchen the middle of your freshman spring. His laugh vibrated through the crowd, underscoring the heavy bass rambling out of the speakers. It hooked onto you, his laugh. The few friends you had come with had evaporated into various corners: the beer pong table, the smokers’ patio outside, the bathroom to vomit up the abusively cheap vodka you all had pre-gamed with. Alone, fiddling with your plastic cup, you debated throwing it away and going home. Your carefully drawn eyeliner felt ridiculous. Turning to leave, you ran into him. Solidly. The remnants of your cup splattering on his expensively vintage band T-shirt. There. That laugh again as he steadied you, hands on your elbows.

“Going somewhere fast?” he had asked, his smile cutting through the dense party noise so that all you could focus on was him.

“Apparently not.”

“I haven’t seen you around before.”

“You’ve been missing out then.” You were surprised at your boldness, this version of you buoyed by this unknown boy’s dimples as he grinned down at you.

“Seems like I have. Let’s get you another drink and we can fix that.” His hand at your elbow, he steered you through the crowd, your heart quickening at the touch. You sat outside, talking close and low; his observations were laced with cynicism and you laughed. You discovered you were both from that town, had attended neighboring high schools, had loose circles of friends that overlapped. He smoked cigarette after cigarette and you stared at his fingers, long and thin. You wanted them on you, in you, and by the end of the night, after he walked you home knocking his hips into yours along the way, they were.

Seasons melted into each other as you met his family, he met yours, and you carefully shaped your future to fit into his. You began to absorb his wounds, the ones that somehow always eclipsed yours. His father had a poisonous ego, one that led him to taunt his mother about the young women in his adjunct professor classes that lingered in office hours to flirt. His mother never rose to the bait, slipping a Xanax and lounging by their large pool or chewing Adderall and furiously redesigning one of the palatial rooms in their home. He alone had to weather his parent’s artillery attacks, his sister too young to notice, he would explain. The narcissism, he decried. The disrespect! Doesn’t matter if my dad is having affairs, a constant threat is the same as the follow-through. Mom just takes it though, let’s him fucking run the show. It wasn’t until you finally completed a substantial amount of therapy that you were able to see the irony.

He wasn’t the first boy you fell in love with, but he was the first you actually fumbled with the idea of forever with. Taking up entire rooms, his personality was shiny and entrancing. He called you “baby” which you were embarrassed to admit you loved and he felt his own emotions so deeply that you didn’t always notice when he steamrolled yours. Even when your relationship became murky—when he wrapped anger defensively around his shoulders to distract you from the heaven-arching highs he was pursuing behind your back—his bed was your favorite place to be. You learned to ignore the absences, the nights he disappeared from you. You like your independence, he’d say if you ever confronted him, I like mine, that’s why we work so well, baby. Let me show you how well we work. His hands were more communicative than his words and it wasn’t until the summer after your senior year, when it became too warm to wear long sleeves without looking odd, that you realized the liar he had blossomed into.

You realize now how hard he worked to keep it up, somehow managing to keep a hold on it, even as it got more complicated and layered and so he built it gradually, the excuses constructed to keep you from looking closely at his decaying schedule. He stopped going to class, stopped hanging out with friends, stopped spending nights in your bed; you nervously checked its structure as time went on and it began to rot away, crumbling and collapsing until all that was left was the truth.

You think about how he called you from the airport on the way to the expensive rehab in Florida. He stole a moment to reassure you that he would call often, would write as many letters as possible, that he loved you so much.

His voice cracking over those promises, you sometimes manage to forget under the weight of all your reminiscing, he only called a handful of times and the poem he claimed he sent you must have gotten lost in the mail. You found out later from his mom that less than twenty minutes after hanging up, he took off before his plane did, shooting up one more time in the bathroom outside security.

***

His number was deleted, swiped off your phone by your best friend while you drove her to the airport one afternoon. You mentioned, as you changed lanes, that mutual friends told you about seeing him at a bar, teetering between sloshed and smashed, and asking if anyone had coke. Exasperated that he still clung to the edges of your conversation, she grabbed your phone. Declared you freed. When you go out for dinner with her soon after his most recent call, you struggle to tilt the conversation away from yourself.

She is a best friend from high school, who was one of the few who escaped to an out-of-state school while you shuttled down the road to the college you both had grown up in the shadow of. Your best friend travels a lot for work and ends up in your hometown, where you still live, often. As the server tops off your glass, you wonder how far the fallout zone would reach if your best friend knew about the scattering of check-in messages he sends you, that your relationship is a thread that continues to unravel even if it’s been a while since you’ve seen him. He careens his orbital path into yours haphazardly. Sometimes, he reaches out frequently and other times when his name falls into conversation, you realize you haven’t heard from him in months. Usually though, his texts morph into late night phone calls and you are always alarmed at how you are still magnetized to him.

It has been a few years since you last saw him, shortly after you graduated the college both of you attended. Until he dropped out your junior year, you had thought of the photo you two would take on the college’s front lawn, shiny bright blue robes flapping in the wind, both of your smiles stretched wide. Instead, you graduated and he resurfaced in your life a month later. His “hi how are you thinking about you” messages are floating debris you keep grasping onto, as if the open-line of communication proves you are okay, healing, peaceful with your past.

Successfully, through all the rounds of overpriced appetizers and half-price bottles of wine, you never outright lie to your friend, just skirt the edges of truth. Halfway through the second bottle, she looks up quickly, catches your hand on the table and says earnestly how proud she is that you seem to be so happy. The evening sinks into night, the late spring breeze cooling your flushed cheeks as you nod, smile, cementing your happiness. All while your phone buzzes softly in your lap, texts lighting up the screen, sent by an unsaved number.

***

“Zoe, I just don’t really understand what you gain from this,” shrugs your roommate. Knees bent under her, she regards you skeptically over her mug of tea from the slouchy yellow armchair dominating the corner of your small living room. You’ve just told her about his request, rolling it around in your mouth for days, keeping it tucked under your tongue. He’ll be in town next weekend, stopping by to visit his younger sister who attends the same college you did.

“He said he has something to say to me.”

You peer into the bubbling pot of soup on the stove, stirring it harshly. Meticulously you followed the instructions from an Instafamous food blogger, but the color doesn’t seem right. Scrolling through the comments, you attempt to decipher if other followers had the same issue or if it’s somehow only you who managed to mess up the “Under 30 Minute Dish Designed to be Your New Weeknight Favorite.” Your roommate is quiet, pulling on her tea bag string, letting it bob up and down like a fishing lure.

“Okay,” she says slowly. “But what would he say that would make anything even slightly better? He can’t fix what happened.”

The lease on your apartment is only two years old, your roommate is a girl you met online who didn’t know anything about your ex-boyfriend. When he goes to rehab a second time, when he’s found slumped over in his parents’ front yard early on a Thanksgiving morning, when he joins the local rock-climbing club only to be kicked out for stealing equipment to sell for extra cash; it’s your name always tacked on at the end of the headline. You are the girl who didn’t know her “serious college boyfriend of two years” was someone whose predilection for substances that dulled his anxiety, had mushroomed into a heroin addiction. Somehow whenever these details get excavated, people always mention they knew “something was up” but didn’t realize how “serious” the drugs were. You are always reminded that you were the last to know.

Your roommate thinks your nanny job is dead-end (it is) and beneath you (maybe not) and you are convinced she doesn’t know how to sit still because of her breakneck paced commercial real-estate job. She is convinced you’ll meet someone in another industry that will spark an interest, encourage you to quit and find a new job so she drags you to various networking events around the city. For the most part, you don’t mind the nanny gig, don’t mind getting to exercise your tendency to be neurotically organized with the kids’ and parents’ overlapping schedules and you like talking to children. You like how seriously they take the world.

“I think I deserve to hear what he has to say.” More stock maybe, would fix the soup.

“Yeah, well I think he doesn’t deserve to say anything to you. This is just another attempt in a long line of sad attempts to shuttle-launch his way back into your life. And I guarantee it’s going to end the exact same way.” Miming an explosion, her hands coming together and releasing, you watch as a wave of tea rocks over the lip of the mug and crashes onto the floor. “I mean, have you even talked about it with your new boyfriend? How does he feel about you grabbing coffee with your ex who ruined your life?”

“We’ve just started seeing each other. I don’t even know if he’s my boyfriend.”

“You spend two nights a week at his place. Semantics.”

“Besides he didn’t ruin it. I mean, yeah I was messed up for a while.”

“Delicate way of phrasing it.”

“Why do you say it like that?

“Say what?

“‘Grabbing coffee.’ In that tone. Like it’s some sordid affair.” The soup is finally lightening into the right color and you turn the stove low, satisfied with your problem-solving.

“Everything about him is sordid. I don’t trust him when it comes to you.” She grabs a paper towel to mop up her puddle of tea, furiously wiping so that more tea spills until she is finally forced to put the mug on the table. You wonder if she suspects that you aren’t always truthful about what’s happened between you and him over the years, if what she really meant was that she doesn’t trust you when it comes to him. Sometimes, your timeline shifts imperceptibly, slightly rearranging the story of what happened since the initial implosion of your relationship. Her eyes always narrow as if tracking your slight missteps. She knows that you discovered his drug use during your sophomore year and that his parents, who also lived in the same town, were able to arrange an expensive rehab which he quietly entered. You don’t know how to tell your roommate that each time he reaches out, you don’t hear the voice of the man who has spent most of his twenties sifting through debris of his own making but rather the voice of the boy who used to hum into your hair before you drifted off to sleep in his twin dorm bed.

“It’s just coffee. We’re both adults. I’ll hear what he has to say and then I’ll finally put it all to rest.”

“Zoe, if that’s your attitude, you’re fucked. Sometimes you have to just slam the door and leave the bed unmade.”

You nod, ladling the soup into a bowl. Flashing a bright smile, you placate her worries with the promise you can take care of yourself and launch into a collection of stories about the children you nanny. One is now convinced he’s an astronaut so won’t take his bike helmet off in case he goes to space at any moment and the other sibling bit you again. Your roommate shakes her head while laughing and offers her refrain, that you should get into a job you like instead of being a rich kid’s chew toy. Rubbing the heel of your hand, you imagine you can still feel the faint imprints of baby teeth in your skin.

***

You reoriented your world around his lies, his words you swallowed as truth. His protests, his sharp anger that slashed through the room the first time you carefully asked if he was high (how the fuck could you even think I would do that?) his slithering sweet words that wound around you, easing the pressure off your chest as you leaned into his assurances (you know, baby, you know I would never do shit like that). It wasn’t until weeks later, after it’s all come spilling out and you are sifting through the rubble that you light upon the fact he never leaned specificity to his denials. You wonder if it’s because giving it a name would have made the lie too hollow to sound substantial. You should know. It took you almost seven months after he went to rehab for you to accept that your persistent insomnia that only gave way to sweat-sticky nightmares, your inability to finish a meal without deconstructing your food into shrapnel, your deflated interest in everything wasn’t just the typical muddling through a heartbreak but the instinctual survival of a trauma. Naming it made it impossible to ignore. It was a relief, to ground your feelings in a concrete definition. Depression. Anxiety. PTSD. All those words still clanged in your head years later.

Sometimes, you think about the night he admitted he had been doing heroin for the past five months. You had been sitting in his car in the parking lot behind the church, a place everyone from your high school met to get away with things they couldn’t under their parents’ roofs. You had walked to meet him, excited to see him after a whole weekend at a friend’s lake house. It had been weeks since the last time you had sex, him always rolling over and saying he was too tired. You were tingling with the thought of it. It was summer, the air taut with tension, the heat made you feel like you could crawl out of your skin, like you could crawl under his. Something was off as soon as you slid into the passenger seat.

He confessed it slowly, stumbling, about all the times of locking himself in the bathroom after you had gone to sleep, dropping you off after class saying he had to study but instead driving to his dealer, telling you he was going out with his friends when in reality he would spend the night corroding his veins, dissolving into fractured particles of himself. His sharp blue eyes were dull and relaxed, his head lolling to the side as he worked to push the words out. Not because it was difficult for him to finally admit, it dawned on you, but because his tongue was unwieldy and thick from drugs. You were wearing a sundress he loved; he loved skimming the hem with his fingertips, gliding up your thigh as he drove, looking at the road but making it clear he was thinking about you. Now, his hand was rubbing his neck, a habit he had when working to fill a silence. How ingrained it must be in his muscle memory, you observed, for him to still be doing it.

You cracked the window, his car stuffy. Cicadas trilled as dusk slipped between the trees. Your thighs stick to the leather seat, as you pressed yourself against the window, the door handle digging into your sunburned back. Staring at him, the boy you could have sworn you knew as well as yourself, you pushed farther into the door, gulping for air as you realized that the roaring in your ears was intensifying and suddenly, the heat was goddamn oppressive. You yanked the door open and tumbled out onto the asphalt, all knees and elbows and sharp angles and you stayed there, pressing your hands so hard into the ground that it took your body a moment to realize that it wasn’t your heartbeat causing you to shake. It was your sobs.

Still, you don’t know how long you were there—long enough for the heat to smother your crying into something manageable, long enough for the roaring to subside so you could hear the nearby highway, long enough to realize that he was still in the car, drifting somewhere else. Slowly, you unlocked your spine vertebra by vertebra and reached back in the car to yank the keys out of the ignition.

Are you mad, baby? His eyes slit open. Didn’t know how to tell you, I tried lottsa times. Thought maybe I had it under control. Was only supposed to be once. Maybe twice. But everything changed.

You don’t even know how he navigated his car here. You found your phone, called his mom. It took several times to stutter out the words that changed everything.

***

You haven’t even told your new boyfriend—if he is that—about your ex. Allusions have been made, vaguely and half-heartedly, about trust issues that dangle like cobwebs from all your past relationships. In some ways, the shape of you—of him, of you both—feels too horribly awkward to unfurl in the open. How to explain that you didn’t realize your boyfriend was more high than not, how to defend yourself for never noticing while also struggling with the weight of knowing you should have or how to map out someone else’s decisions to clearly demonstrate their shattering effect on you. For the longest time, when your ex was in rehab, he made you tell everyone he was on a service trip in South America. “Sorry, no phone service,” you would respond to everyone who spent that whole summer asking where he was, upset their friend had been radio silent for months. How do you explain to someone new that the pressure of being the gatekeeper transformed your trauma into a sacrifice, explain that everything became about him, even you? How do you encompass the entirety of how absolutely fucked up you are when the old you was smashed completely that you feel like you’re forever searching on hands and knees for missing pieces? That you can barely admit you’re broken because that requires a recognition of a past wholeness.

Despite your hesitance to fully tether yourself to someone, this new guy’s liked you from the first moment you met at one of those events your roommate drags you to. Fluent in spreadsheets and buzzy economic terms, he is an analyst that manages to glaze boredom onto every conversation his job is brought into. You try to steer him away from work talk, avoid talking about your own so he doesn’t feel compelled to share more about his. When that doesn’t do the trick, you distract him with sex which is good when you’re sober and better when you’re not. He has plans for the future, something you’re unaccustomed to, and by the way he makes you a cup of coffee each morning while you’re still in the shower, steaming gently on the kitchen counter, tells you that he’s writing you into them. Recently, you’ve been pouring the coffee down the sink, annoyed it’s there waiting for you.

“He’s a good one,” your best friend had reported back to you after meeting him. Sorting through your thoughts, you attempt to string together the idea that it’s hard to know what a relationship that’s not a mosaic of highs, lows, fights, angry fucking and slow sex should be like. You’re unused to the democratic love process, familiar with a more dictatorial style, fully dependent on the generosity of one person. In the end, you don’t say anything and accept her invitation to do a couples’ trip with her and her fiancé in the fall.

After he reaches out to you, the messages inevitably flow into a regular correspondence—casual chat, loose thread thoughts about music, movies, politics. You begin to hide your phone when you’re at his place, tilting the screen away from his eyes. What originally had been stiff exchanges bend into what it’s always been between you two, warm and fluid. When you lay on the couch one evening, toes digging into your new man’s thighs, watching a documentary on innovations for a sustainable future, your mind wanders into your closet, skimming your hangers as you consider what you should wear when you see him next week.

***

That morning, as you flutter around the kitchen, emptying your untouched spoonfuls of honey-drenched non-fat Greek yogurt down the sink, your roommate watches you with raised eyebrows.

“Nervous?”

“No. I mean, it’s not a big deal.”

“It’s okay to be.” She is leaning against the railing of the miniscule Juliet balcony off your kitchen. Smoke leaks into the room from the cigarette between her fingers. “Listen. I don’t like that you’re doing this, but you can talk to me about it, you know? Don’t get all dark and twisty and silent. I just think he has this insane power to spectacularly fuck you up.”

 “I’m okay. It’ll be good for me, I think.”

As you drive to the coffee shop, you consider your roommate’s worry. In cartographing your internal landscape, in renaming the scars you worked so hard to avoid for so long (this steep crag is “trauma,” that salt flat is “denial,” watch out for the cavernous marine trench you call “heartbreak”) you still struggle what to name it. It is a decrepit slope undergoing an erosion that some days you are acutely aware of and sometimes weeks pass before you realize that a whole memory of him, of your relationship, has sloughed off. It is violent and unstable and then remarkably dormant and unmoving. What do you call it, this new landform jutting out, looming perilously in your vision every time he reaches out?

Now, you twirl the paper straw in your iced coffee between your index finger and thumb. The coffee shop is freezing, the air conditioning clicking away furiously, and dense with people on laptops, battling over the limited outlets. He’s late, though you made it a point to get there with enough time to order and choose a table. When he walks through the door, sunlight spilling in around him, you realize your roommate was right to worry. His easy walk, his broad shoulders, his hair the color of golden seagrass. Classically handsome, it’s his cocked head and intense gaze, as if you’re the most important thing he’s seen, that draws stares. All the texts you’ve been exchanging in the past couple weeks collapse under the reality of seeing him in person. You struggle to define who he is to you now when it’s always been easier to define him as the boy who scribbled poems on the inside of book covers and who brought you pancakes from your favorite diner—a butter-soaked early morning love letter—on the morning of your twenty-first birthday.

“Hey,” he says, a hand on the back of the empty chair across from you. His mouth tilts up in a smile and you are slammed with the countless memories of tracing his lips with your finger. For a moment, you panic, wondering how to greet him and so you do nothing to smooth the awkwardness brewing between you two. He nods before finally dropping into the seat opposite you, his long legs sprawled out into the aisle between tables. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“No big deal.” You tamp down the corners of your mouth as they rise to answer his smile. It’s a reflex you’re annoyed has flared up.

“Feels like it might be.”

“It’s not.” Sharp, your voice slices through the space between you and him, thudding onto the table. Startling you both. 

“Well. I appreciate it. I do. I probably don’t deserve your time. I know that.” He rubs a hand across the back of his neck, wavy blond hair falling into his face. You watch his wrist, empty where his grandfather’s watch used to be. Before he went to rehab the first time, he moved back in with his parents. Confessing to you while he was gone, his mother told you she snuck the watch from his bedside table one night, terrified he would sell it for drug money. He looks bare without it and you wonder where it is now. “Shit. Let me get a coffee, hold on.”

While he orders at the counter, you scratch at a mosquito bite on your arm, considering how unlike the other apology tours he’s conducted, his pupils are normally sized and his words aren’t slanted and slurring. You wonder how many others get repeat conversations like this, if his parents are included time and time again. Sometimes you still see his parents around the city, and the tension stretches between you. A year after he first went to rehab, his father approached you outside a grocery store and demanded to know where the drugs had come from, convinced you must have been part of the chain. Though you tried to say you didn’t know—had no idea the entire time he was using—the louder his father’s voice ricocheted, the clumsier your explanation fell. Eventually, you were both screaming in the parking lot. You cried the whole drive home, tears pushing your mascara into the hollows under your eyes. That summer had been steeped in desperation and eventually mellowed into resignation, or something similar in flavor. 

 “You look really good,” he says, sitting back down. The clothes you picked out carefully now feel like they’re trying too hard. White linen skirt and yellow button-down top were weak attempts at seeming summer-easy and carefree, a dissolving façade now that he’s in the same room as you. You had forgotten how heavy his eyes felt when they landed on you.

“Thanks,” you say. Wearing athletic shorts, he looks as if this is a quick detour on his errand run. You can see the ridge of his collarbone through his faded shirt.

“Yeah, just to see some friends. If I can be truthful, it’s hard to be here sometimes. Reminds me of the shit I’ve done, you know?”

“Oh, really?” You are surprised by the acid that drips off your words.

“It just reminds me of, well, everything. I’ve been through a lot.” A pause, you see a blush spreading up his neck. “I don’t have to tell you that.”

Shaking your head, you suck the last dredges of your drink as it clicks that you’ve been invited, once more, to be his audience. He jolts into current events regarding himself; job is something he really enjoys which is great because his last job had an asshole boss; his buddy who he met in AA has an old beat up car he wants him to help fix up; he might get a dog; he’s gotten really into meditating and yoga but may run a marathon next year, who knows? He’s playing it by ear, he explains, living life to its fullest, embracing each new day.

“I’ve just had such a clarity since being clean.”

“You have?”

“I’m really clean this time. I don’t even drink anymore. Don’t smoke either. For the most part.”

You are supposed to assure him here. A sneaky cig is nothing in the grand scheme, you are supposed to say, maybe tease him, possibly smile. He is expecting it. You say nothing.

“That’s why I’m here. It’s important to my recovery that I make amends and I need a strong go at it this time. So it sticks.” He twists his coffee-cup sleeve back and forth, head bent studying it. “So I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for all the things I put you through.” His words drag themselves over to you as you sit, waiting. More words tumble off his lips as the silence lengthens, stretching tight between you. He twists faster.

“I don’t want to go through a whole monologue or recite some bullshit memorized stuff at you, I want to be real. Honest. So yeah, I’m really sorry.”

“You don’t want to go through a monologue?”

“Yes. I’m just incredibly sorry for all the things that have happened between us. I was an idiot.”

“This is you being real?” You cannot seem to stop echoing his words back to him. Reflection, that’s all you seem to be. His script in your voice.  

Shaking, you are yanked through all the years of aftershocks you’ve been weathering. The months he was in rehab you spent inhaling, exhaling, inhaling gathering yourself up in the bar bathroom on nights out, relentlessly cornered by people, drunk and careless, insistent in their questions; where was he, when he would be back in school, how did a “normal guy” like him start using heroin and, voices dropping, did you get involved in it? All the times that in order to avoid the endless questions, you avoided anywhere you may know someone. How for the longest time sleep seemed to be only time you weren’t sad, how your parents whispered worriedly about you during the holidays, how a friend pulled you aside one day on campus and asked you gently if you had thought of talking to someone professional; how you finally did but it took seasons of exhausting work to feel like you could take a breath without drowning. The weeks, the days, the years you have spent trying to empty the weight of the ocean that settled in your lungs.

Digging your nails into your pebbled skin, you are overwhelmed with the desire to break something. You are slammed with temptation to yank away his coffee and throw it on the floor, to silence the scratching noise the cardboard rubs around the cup as he continues to twist, twist, twist. The sun refracts off the gleaming counter, bending strangely through the late-afternoon air.

“What an incredibly small apology for everything you’ve put me through.”

“What?” His hands still. “I don’t really know what else I can say. You have no idea how many times it’s gotten fucked up. My life is only just now back on track.” Gazing at you somberly, his eyes wide, he drops his voice.  “I need things to be right between us.”

“What does that even mean?”  

 “For us to be cool. Who knows? Maybe we can figure this out.” He gestures at the space between you two, leaning forward on his elbows, stretching a hand out to reach for your elbow. A gesture he’s made thousands of times—the Morse code linking back to that first night. A ghostly impression of his fingertips to remind you he’s still there. “C’mon, baby. There’s something still here, right? There has to be something here.”

 Nothing will change. It hangs there in the air, this realization that to him, you will always be the girl from back then. His fingertips, still pressing coldly and insistently at your elbow, make you shudder. What, you wonder, is here besides a wasteland of “could-have-beens,” besides yourself so furrowed with hope and regret and guilt, you had become hollowed out?

“I am not your baby.” Uncrossing your legs, the chair shrieks against the floor as you push away from him. “You ruined everything.”

“I know, I get it.”

“No you don’t. You really fucking don’t.” Gathering your purse off the ground, head ringing with anger, you straighten up and begin to walk out.

“What the fuck, Zoe?” His voice skips up an octave, disbelief inflating it. You shake your head, shake off his words, shake off your name in his voice.

“Every time you get to say your piece and I always end up making you feel better about everything. That’s not truthful really, to either of us, is it? Maybe you don’t think I deserve a monologue from you but we both deserve the truth. There’s nothing worth saving between us, hasn’t been for a while.” Your voice is low and steady and you feel warm, despite the A/C, despite his eyes slit into a knife’s edge. “You don’t want a future with me. I think you just want absolution. So here it is. Take care. And take my name off your list.”

You leave him sitting alone at the table, leave him in the dark café with his hand on his neck to sift through your words. Pushing the heavy door open onto the sidewalk, the sun smothers your goose bumps and embraces your skin. Inside you, there is an erosion, a softening, and you press your face up. Eyes closed, a smile spreads across your face to match the sky, endless and wide and yours. 

***
Caroline Read
is a current MFA student at The University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Hothouse, The Nocturnal, and Texas’ Best Emerging Poets Anthology.