“We can’t keep going on like this,” I say as Ann comes in from the shower.
“I just got up, and this is how you want to start?” She doesn’t look at me as she rummages in the drawer for pantyhose. There was a time, not long ago, when she looked at me with amazement, as if she could not believe I was real.
“You’re too tired at night, you’re too busy in the morning¾when is a good time?”
“I don’t know why you just can’t stay.” She drops the towel on the bed next to me, yanking up the pantyhose. I want to touch her, her hip, her elbow. “I mean, you’ve stayed this long. Why can’t you just stay?”
“You know it’s not the same.” I hold up my hand as if to prove my point. “I can’t even touch you anymore.”
“It’ll never be the same, but it’s better than nothing.” She reaches to weave her fingers through mine but shakes her head, her lips tight, before walking away.
I watch her get dressed, then listen to the sounds of her morning routine in the apartment. When I hear her keys being lifted off the hook, I stand at the front door.
“What am I supposed to do with myself?” I meet her eyes. They fill quickly with tears, and I wish I hadn’t.
“If you love me, you’ll find something.” She blinks and slips around me into the hallway.
Although there’s nowhere I can go, I’m not a prisoner, exactly. I can leave whenever I want. Sometimes I get two, three steps down the hallway and the light warms the window panes at the end, growing brighter and more welcoming. But I don’t want to leave until she’s okay with it. She may never be, my mother says. That is not for you to decide.
My dear sweet, mother, who’s waiting for me to come. My father. Larry from college. Still, another day, another week, maybe Ann will be okay with it.
I am learning how to pass the time. All the things I wanted to do before but couldn’t I’m giving a shot. Not that I can do them now, at least not in the same way.
“Listen.” I focus my energy on the piano keys. After a few seconds, the “C” key sinks downward, then the “D.”
“Have you been scaring Pixie all day?” She laughs at our Siamese, arched on the couch. “What’ll the neighbors think?”
“If I can do this.” I move my eyes from the piano keys to her cheek. “The possibilities are endless.”
“I told you we could make it work,” she says. Then she forgets, tries to throw her arms around me, and falls over on the piano bench. Pixie dives off the couch and scatters across the hardwood floor.
“Shh.” I put my finger to my lips, trying not to laugh. “The neighbors will think we’re being haunted.”
Sometimes I visit my friends, although not often. It’s physically taxing on me to travel so far, and I find it makes them uncomfortable, anyway.
“I guess it’s cool you’re staying, but I don’t see how it can be good for either of you,” my friend Janet says. She took a Xanax when I tapped on her window sill, and her fingers still tremble as they grasp the stem of her wineglass. “Don’t get me wrong—I miss you so much. But there’s got to be more for you than this.”
“If Ann’s not with me, does it really matter?” I concentrate on a bowl of olives on the table. A olive atop the mound rolls down the side and bounces out of the bowl.
“What if she moves on?” Janet cups her hand on the fugitive olive. She throws it at me. “And stop freaking me out.”
I tell her about Ann’s friends who come to visit her. They sit on the couch and pour over our photo albums. Pictures of our wedding, a trip to Puget Sound. I looked so full of life then, rosy cheeks, full lips.
It’s only a knitting group. Ann’s friend Sarah says, closing the photo album from my and Ann’s trip to Germany. No one’s going to replace Margaret. But you should get out a little, have fun.
How am I supposed to have fun? Ann lays her head back on the couch, her eyes closed. When Margaret can’t do anything anymore? We were going to go to Italy. How am I supposed to go to Italy when Margaret can’t?
I tell Janet if I concentrate hard enough, I feel something when I touch my lips to Ann’s. I’m feeling alive again, I explain.
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Janet answers. Wine splashes over the rim of her glass as she pours a third.
Ann is spending more time outside the apartment. Not much—a lecture, a symphony with a friend—but enough that I am lonely. Now would be a good time to leave, I think. Ann should be okay with it now. But when I try to remember why I wanted to leave in the first place, I can’t. It’s just what you’re supposed to do. There’s no choice in it, no thought. It’s time to move on when it’s time to move on. But where will I go? For the first time, I wonder what will happen if I reach the doorway at the end of the hall, let the light envelope me. What if I regret leaving Ann, what we have, even if it’s not much anymore? What if I can’t change my mind and come back? It’s better to stay here, control what I can control. In this way, my friends can’t move on without me, Ann can’t move on without me. Not that she would.
Zoe is a new friend, from Ann’s knitting group, who comes once a week. Zoe is teaching Ann something new, two-color picking. I’m all for Ann learning new things, just as I am (sort of) learning new things, but tonight they sat close on the couch together, their thighs nearly touching. Ann played Nina Simone on the stereo.
“Nina Simone is mine,” I tell her later, while we’re in bed. “Can’t you listen to someone else?” At least, I think, she still sleeps on her own side, lets me have mine.
“I listened to Nina Simone before you.” Ann’s back is to me. “It’s unfair that Nina Simone should die with you.”
“Maybe I should go, then.” I sit up. I consider showing Ann one of the new things I’ve learned. Stomping. I’ve been practicing while she’s at work, and I can stomp ten whole steps now.
“I don’t want you to go.” Ann turns over. She grabs my pillow. “Please don’t.”
“Do you have feelings for her?” I concentrate, lifting my foot in space where I think it would be.
“I don’t know.” She slumps over, her shoulders heaving. “I just want you. But we’ll never have what we once had. I miss holding you, kissing you. Going out with you.”
“It’s not fair to hold those things against me.” I bring my foot down onto the floor, feeling the loud, satisfying thump vibrate through me. “I’m staying here for you.”
“If you’re unhappy, I don’t want to keep you,” she says after a while. She looks up.
“I’m not unhappy.” I sit at the edge of the bed. I don’t know what I am. Literally. I concentrate and press my head against her chest. But later that night, I go into the living room and concentrate really hard. Even though it’s a first-edition pressing, one of my prized records, I scratch Billie Holiday’s Jazz At The Philharmonic.
“Sorry.” I look at Pixie hiding under the couch. “I’ll guess you’ll have to take one for the team.”
Zoe doesn’t come for a few weeks, and I’m relieved, although Ann is away more often, so I’m alternatingly suspicious. At night, Ann cries more.
“Are you okay?” I hover over her shoulder. “Is it about Billie Holiday?”
“No.” Her voice is muffled in the pillow.
“Is it about Zoe?”
“Sort of,” she answers after a minute, and I am relieved. They have broken up—not that they were ever together. The possibility of them, however, has been broken up, and now maybe Ann will be home more often, and I won’t have to think about how bored I am, how I took five steps down the hall the other day, just to see what would happen—at some point, would you feel a vacuum pulling you toward the light? Would you see people you know in the other doorways, urging you along?
But none of that happened, and now I don’t know what to think. Maybe I did something wrong, and if I leave, I’ll definitely be in a bad place.
When it’s time, you’ll know, my mother says.
But how does she know? One day she was making coffee, and the next she’s on the kitchen floor, massive coronary event.
When Zoe comes one night, I am already mad at Ann. She’s been cooking all afternoon. There are lit candles in the dining room. No Billie Holiday on the stereo but Gwen Stefani instead. Who the hell likes Gwen Stefani?
“Gwen Stefani¾my favorite!” Zoe beams as she unfurls her scarf, shakes off her peacoat. I watch from the crack of the closet door, where I have been pouting for hours, watch them hug, talk in low voices as they head to the kitchen. I won’t watch and then I can’t watch because Ann closes the closet door on the way. If I concentrate hard enough I can slip out, see what they’re laughing about now in the living room, see why Ann hasn’t picked up the needle on the record player, see why they’re so quiet all of the sudden. Instead I listen to them slip by the closet and into the bedroom. I listen to the bedroom door close. I stay in the dark and cry.
Later that night, I hear someone pad down the hall. I concentrate really hard, because if it’s Zoe I’m going to scare her so bad when she opens the door to grab her things that she’ll never come back here. She won’t even come back to this city, this zip code. I think of the scariest thing I’ve seen in a movie and feel the form envelope me (something new I’ve learned) and wait.
But the footsteps pass the closet and head into the living room. I slip out under the door and huddle underneath the kitchen bar, ready to pop up and terrify her. But it’s then I hear Ann crying.
I peer over the bar. Ann’s in her favorite nightie, her sexy one, and my heart, what’s left of it, feels like a bag of broken bottles. She holds herself tightly, trying to cry quietly, but I hear the gulps of breath, my name, “Margaret, oh Margaret.” I concentrate really hard. If I concentrate hard enough, if she concentrates hard enough, maybe she can bring me back, maybe I can come back, and things will be as they were.
“Ann?” Zoe appears in the light of the living room. Before I can do anything, Zoe goes to Ann, pulls her into her arms, holds her tight. They rock, rock, rock, until Ann is quiet.
“It feels so good to be held,” Ann says after a while, and Zoe kisses her head. “It feels so good you’re here. But I miss her so much.”
I’m still here, I think. But I’m not. Even if I concentrate hard enough.
Ann goes back to the bedroom. I’m not even mad that Zoe goes with her. In fact, maybe I’m a little relieved. Not relieved—grateful.
We can’t keep going on like this. If I concentrate hard enough, before I step into the hallway. I can pick up the needle on the record. I can open the photo album on the coffee table. I can turn the pages until there is a blank one, leave it. I can slip through the door so quietly it’s like I was never here.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press 2013), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press, forthcoming), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books 2013), and three collections of fiction (The Company of Strangers, forthcoming; From Here,2014; and Close Encounters, 2007). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She is the editor in chief of the online lit weekly jmww.