by Nicholas Siegel
At first, I didn’t think much of it. We’d had problems in the recent months, and I recalled times she’d broken up with me in the past, all bluffs. The voice that came out of my mouth surprised me. It was rough—deeper than usual. I took her hand.
“Julia,” I said. “You know this is a mistake. Let’s talk about it and we can work through this like we always do.”
She looked down at her feet, still holding my hand, like she’d practiced for this moment a hundred times. Then she looked back up at me—the muscles around her eyes relaxed in a way I’d never seen before.
“No, this time is different. We need to stop.”
What a word, I thought. It didn’t seem powerful enough to conclude what we’d had. A car stopped. Dog’s stopped barking. Rain stopped. Traffic stopped. Our story, one that began when we were still in law school, didn’t stop.
“What a shitty way to put it,” I said.
She lowered her arm until our hands naturally separated, a laceration in a union I’d once thought of as unbreakable. I could hear the clock ticking on the wall, a clock my sister had given Julia for her birthday a few years earlier. I could tell Julia was serious, and I could tell that this time it really was different.
“So that’s it?” I said. “Now I leave and you never see me again?”
She nodded, no tears, and part of me resented her for not crying. Then I realized that I wasn’t either.
Julia’s dalmatian, Mercury, was resting with his head flat on the ground next to the couch. He looked up at me but remained still, his usual energy depleted. I patted my thigh and called him. He stood and stretched, then glanced up at Julia as if asking permission to approach me. That moment changed how I saw dogs for the rest of my life.
I rubbed my fingers behind his ears, and he closed his eyes. As I studied the spots on the back of his head, I recalled the day Julia and I picked him up from the pound three years earlier. Then I cried.
Julia put a hand on my shoulder, and I quickly regained composure—I had to leave. I realized that would be the last time I would ever see the inside of her door with the “Zuhause” sign she’d bought on a trip to Germany, and I thought about all the nights I’d slept on her couch, or laid with her playing board games, or watching television, taking for granted the fact that I was welcome.
As I closed the door behind me, I heard the lock click into place, the final punctuation mark of our story. It was a brutal detail, but one I accepted as inadvertent.
I sat in my car for a long time. I tried turning on the radio, but my mind couldn’t focus on the rhythms of music. Then I got back out and walked up the short sidewalk to her door. It was on the bottom right of a small duplex. I stood to the side in case she heard me and was looking through the peephole, and I held my fist out, ready to knock, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I went back to the car, opened all four windows and the sunroof and pulled out of the complex for the last time.
I avoided the highways for a while, thinking the back roads would be more romantic—more fitting for my emotional anguish. I wanted to take as long as possible to get home, and the back roads were an adequate excuse.
At one point, I pulled into a gas station. I had a full tank, but I thought buying something would be a helpful distraction.
I’ve always had a stronger than average emotional connection to places. That gas station was so devoid of any type of happiness, I thought I could curl up on the grimy, tile floor and die, leaving the charmless Indian man behind the counter in charge of whatever was to be done with my corpse.
“Good evening,” I said, as I walked in.
The man was reading a magazine and didn’t look up.
Pacing the isles of snack food, beef jerky, gum, and mints, I realized there was a lump in the back of my throat that wouldn’t go away. I kept gasping for air, short of breath, like I was drowning.
Eventually, I walked up to the counter and asked for a pack of cigarettes. I noticed the magazine the clerk was reading was the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. He handed me the pack of cigarettes, and I gave him a ten-dollar bill and walked away from the counter, disregarding the change. He didn’t try to stop me.
It was raining, and I stood up against the wall under the roof of the gas station and unwrapped the cellophane around the pack of cigarettes. It clung to my hand with a frustrating static electricity, and I shook it loose onto the freshly wet pavement, where it flattened, invisible. I popped open the box and pulled a cigarette halfway out, and like my hand had frozen when I tried to knock on Julia’s door, it froze again. I realized I didn’t want a cigarette. I didn’t know what I wanted. I slipped it back into its place in the box and threw the entire thing into the garbage.
After circling the few blocks around my apartment for about a half an hour, I decided to drive, aimlessly if necessary, through the city. Without a destination in mind, I pulled onto the highway and paid little attention to the speed limit. Every once in a while, headlights would appear on the horizon like fireflies. Then they would eventually zoom past me and disappear as red dots in my rear-view mirror. I seemed to be the only driver headed west.
Each exit sign had a unique memory attached to it of something Julia and I had done together—a winery, a movie theatre, a clothes store, a camp site, a favorite restaurant. I had been driving for nearly an hour, and I realized her father’s house was coming up. Automatically, I turned on my blinker and took exit 56 towards his house.
My car hadn’t rolled through that subdivision since a few months earlier at Christmas, and I wondered how her father would react to me showing up at his door, uninvited and without his daughter. I pulled in to the very end of the driveway and closed my car door as slowly as I could, I wanted the doorbell to signal my arrival, not a slammed door.
I pressed the circular bell button, and as I pulled my finger away I imagined the fingerprint it left behind. How long would it stay there? It wasn’t raining hard enough to reach the doorbell, and there was no wind. How many future fingerprints would it take to ruin mine? Probably just one.
I’m sure it was only moments before he answered the door, but it felt like forever, and I still have vivid recollections of what I thought, as I stood there, indifferent to the cold and the rain. I thought about punching him in the nose just for being her co-creator. Of course, I would never have done that. I had no reason to. But my mind was running in crazy loops, looking for anyone or anything to blame for something no one was to blame for.
The door creaked open, and her father revealed himself.
He smiled. That was a good sign.
“Well hey there, come on in,” he said. “Is everything alright?”
I saw him glancing around in the dark behind me, maybe not wanting to acknowledge the fact that my being alone was odd.
“What can I do for ya, sport?”
I told him I was in the neighborhood and thought I would stop by.
“Have you heard from Julia tonight?” I said.
“I haven’t, she can be bad about staying in touch sometimes. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you.” He laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “You want to have a beer? Maybe a smoke? The rain makes it nice to sit out on the porch.”
I told him I’d like that.
He had an indoor porch that looked out onto his backyard. There were tall windows that opened up into screens that covered the far wall, and the yard backed up to a small woods. I sat in a rocking chair with a cushion that made it hard not to slide forward and waited. Her father was right. The rain was nice. I made a mental note that I felt a moment of happiness there, so in the coming days I could remind myself that it was still possible.
He came back out onto the porch carrying a six-pack of beer and a box of cigars.
“I hope you can do cigars,” he said.
I lied and told him I loved them.
He popped the caps off two beers, and placed one on a table by my rocking chair. Then he gave me a cigar and lit it for me. It was stronger than what I was used to smoking and made my throat hurt.
He sat down on a loveseat and propped his feet up on an armoire. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph.
“I meant to show you at Christmas, look at this picture of Rebecca’s son.”
He handed me the picture, and as I feigned interest in my ex-nephew in law, I felt the beginnings of a migraine coming.
“Adorable,” I said, and handed the picture back.
“Isn’t he? How’s work?” He took a swig of beer.
I told him work was going well, and it really was. My last few cases had all been successful, and I was in the middle of one at the time that would result in a lot of money my way if it worked out. Julia and I rarely talked work with each other, but it was something her father was always interested in hearing about.
“Where’s Julia tonight?” he said.
“At her apartment. She’s stressed out about work but she’ll be all right. I was over there earlier.” It was all true.
“Shhh,” her father said, setting his beer down on a side table. He pointed out the window.
The first thing I noticed was the reflection of his finger pointing back at me, but once my eyes adjusted, I could see a deer peeking its head through some trees at the back of the yard.
“I’d dim the lights, but if we keep our voices down and stay still, it might come into the yard,” he said.
And it did. After sitting in silence for a few minutes, a silence I realized I was still comfortable with, the deer ambled into the yard and started nibbling at piles of birdseed under a central feeder that spouted from the ground like a giant tulip. We sat there watching the deer for nearly five minutes, neither one of us talking. It was hard to focus on the animal. I kept thinking about the day we adopted Mercury.
“They’re beautiful, but now I know what keeps eating all my damn birdseed.”
As soon as he spoke, the deer looked up at the window, frozen, and then turned and trotted back into the woods. I was surprised it could hear us through the distance and glass.
I wondered how long Julia’s father would let me sit there before telling me he had to be off to bed. I wondered how long I would stay there, out on the porch, before telling him I needed to call it a night. Surely, if he retired first, he’d offer for me to stay in the guest room, and surely I would decline.
“You know,” he said. “I rarely see you without Julia.” He paused to think. “I never see you without Julia. I’ve been considering something for a few years, and now might be the perfect time to bring it up.” He told me to stay where I was and that he would be right back. The floors creaked as he made his way deep into the house and the creaking eventually faded like a track off one of my old records. Now I was alone, and I wondered if the deer was still out there in the woods. With the back porch illuminated, it would be far easier for it to watch me.
Studying the porch, over-decorated with statues of the Virgin Mary, shelves of books, plants, a signed football and an ominous painting of a wild boar, I noticed the telephone. I got up and yanked the cord from the wall, then returned to my seat.
When Julia’s father came back, he was carrying a small, wooden box. He’d always enjoyed puzzles. Whatever he had probably didn’t deserve such a nice container. The box had a polished, glossy finish and looked more expensive than the rain-soaked suit I was wearing.
I didn’t ask what was inside; I waited for him to tell me.
“Well, sport,” he said. “This is gonna be a little tough, so bare with me.” He cleared his throat and wiped the dust off the top and sides of the box with his hands. He continued brushing, even after there wasn’t a speck of dust left, like a broken machine. He flipped the latch up on the front and lifted the lid of the box so the back of it was facing toward me. Then he reached both of his hands in and removed a smaller, red box.
He popped it open with one hand and looked inside. It seemed, for a moment, that he forgot I was in the room, forgot his reason for retrieving the thing in the first place. Then he looked up at me and I could see he had tears in his eyes.
“Sorry, sport,” he said. He rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. “This was the ring I gave Clarissa when I asked her to marry me.” He removed the diamond ring between the tips of his pointer finger and thumb like he was pinching the wing of a butterfly and twisted it back and forth so the light would catch it and make it shine.
“I want you to have it,” he said.
My throat contracted, and I faked a cough to hide the fact that I was choking.
I told him I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t. I took the ring and thanked him. I took it because it was the easiest thing to do.
His driveway was the second one I sat in for far too long that evening. It was still raining, and I could hear the droplets increase in size as the plops on the roof of my car grew more aggressive. Eventually I decided I had nothing left to do but go home, so I started the car and left.
At home, I brewed a strong cup of coffee and spiked it with a couple shots of Scotch. I’d always heard it was a bad idea to listen to sad music after a breakup, but I was young and stupid. I ran a finger down the spine of my record collection on a high shelf, and a line of dust cascaded behind it like a fading smoke signal. I slid out Johnny Cash’s All Aboard the Blue Train and laid it into place on the record player. I sat in my recliner a while, listening to Johnny Cash and shifting the ring back and forth between my fingers, trying to replicate the shimmer from earlier, but I couldn’t seem to get it right.