The plink-thwank-plink of the cheap plastic ceiling fan. Not making it any cooler. He stares as the blades–dust on the edges he knows he won’t clean though he should–blur into a dull gray haze. There is an unpleasant tickle in his throat, not enough to call in sick, though he could if he wanted. Only then he’d have to find something to take the edge off the daylight hours, before the first shot of bourbon. At six.
He throws off the thin cotton blanket (masculine green, army almost), puts his bare feet onto velvety-soft rug, the last gift from Mom. The only thing in this house worth a damn.
He smiles at the memory of it, Mom rushing into the newly whitewashed church (Laurel and him thinking it so very fitting then, as if they’d painted it for them–an ushering of sorts into a new life), a rolled up tube on her shoulder, looking heavy. The way she limped, slanting to one side, but her eyes…. They gleamed with childlike delight as she took him in, standing at the altar, adrenaline hot in his veins, having just watched his bride walk through those same heavy doors.
When Mom handed him the rug–just after the ceremony, right there on the church steps–he’d been embarrassed. She had freed the thing from its housing of burlap and rolled it out right there, amidst the shiny shoes and the painted toes and the swirling lace–crimson, with intricate gold and green patterns. “It’s an Oriental, Sam, one of a kind,” she’d said, breathless, her face afire with one of her rare sane smiles, though of course she wasn’t all that sane anymore. She hadn’t been for years.
But he’d also been happy in that moment, taking in mom’s eyes, shining with tears but joyful too, and there was something of pride in them, the kind that felt more right than when he’d gotten a good enough SAT score to get into Brown, or anything else he’d done before or since.
Laurel had pulled him away, her long-fingered hand (a just-large-enough diamond, princess cut, simple, elegant but not to be missed, sparkling brightly) tugging and tugging at his tux sleeve from the side his mom couldn’t see. Laurel smiled at his mother in a strange way then, the way one who dislikes children smiles at a child in public, so as not to be thought ill of, and it had soured him.
He trudges to the bathroom, the tiles cold under his bare feet, but he is yet too young to want to buy those grandpa slippers, even if nobody but him would know. He looks at the toilet and wonders how long until he’d be getting up a dozen times a night to take a piss. Should be a decade or more, but he knows it’s coming. All of it is coming.
He shaves carefully, noting every patch of uneven skin, his fingers tracing the lines around his lips. He’d never been handsome exactly, but he did alright. After college, in any event.
He splashes warm water on his face, spits a foamy mess of toothpaste into the stained porcelain sink. Everything in the small house is in need of cleaning, but he can’t bring himself to do it yet. He’s not an untidy person, but cleaning on purpose, the thing Laurel always did while listening to music (phone stuck into the butt pocket of her too-tight jeans, long cord trailing up her compact body, earbuds lost behind the mess of over-bleached hair) he hadn’t learned how to do that yet. But he liked watching her in those moments as she floated over the carpet, the shiny tiles, the too-narrow hallway as if the act of cleaning was a ritual she needed. One he dared not intrude on.
It was Laurel who finally, after months of not broaching the subject, told him one night ‘that ugly fucking rug’ couldn’t stay, not anyplace someone could see it. They’d fought for the first time, her pointing to all the design mags on the chrome and glass coffee table, him wanting to get up and leave, wanting to not have this conversation, instead, sitting stiffly not quite looking at her, letting her keep going about the colors and styles clashing and how it’s just not done this way, finally looking at the rug, the bright silky red of it, piercing amidst all the white and beige and metallic, a dirty spot amidst all the clean. Mom’s eyes aglow when she unspooled it, a meadow of color and warmth on the church steps. A hot toddy on a cold night when his chest ached from all the coughing. Mom’s warm, silky hand running through his hair (sweaty, clinging to his scalp in an itchy way), her voice hushing him.
He’d gotten up and moved the table and the uncomfortable chair with the askew legs (‘so in now’), rolled up the rug and tucked it into the closet, past his five suits, into the very corner where she’d not have any reason to look at it. “I’m going out for a bit,” he’d said to her when it was done, and there was a thing in her eyes, a bit of hurt. He walked just around the block, feeling guilty, on edge, but also, as if he’d been slapped. A childish bully slap, open-handed, in front of other kids, always in front of other kids, so that his face would burn from the horror of it, the humiliation of not being the kind to throw punches, but not wanting to seem a coward and block something as small as a slap.
Only this felt bigger than those, deadlier in the sheer innocence of it, and the inevitable I’m sorry and I didn’t mean to make you upset that he knew would follow. He didn’t want that from Laurel, for, of course, she’d meant it. He saw the flicker of something ugly in her eyes every time she looked at that rug, and it wasn’t just that it didn’t belong. He felt it, the fear of, or maybe the wonder, if he, too, would one day stomp into a church or a store or someone’s garden, wearing only his boxers, carrying something so incongruous that people wouldn’t help but notice, his eyes dancing in delight, a toddler’s joy at his first butterfly. A teenager’s first whiff of soft vanilla from the shiny waves in front of him, a feeling so intense, it hurt to breathe but he’d wanted to hold on to it and would imagine it later, in the quiet of his dark bedroom, door locked, that smell, the delicacy of the small swath of skin with blood ticking through a tiny blue vein beneath it–a hummingbird’s flutter he was terrified to miss if he’d blinked.
He smiles into the streaked mirror, a longing for the intensity of it, the aliveness, hitting him square in the gut. He turns the shower on to colder than he likes, and scrubs himself clean.
He shouldn’t have gotten rid of that damn invitation, but Laurel was still with him then, and she wouldn’t have wanted to go there. She’d always hated how provincial it was, only, of course, it wasn’t provincial at all. Just poor and more rural than the white-picket-fence suburbia she’d grown up in. But their house was alright, the street sloping up just so, the windows tall and large enough to see the stars through, the smell of the wood-burning fire and cloves (Mother loved cloves in winter) reaching him even now on his awake but too tired to do anything nights.
Amber. No, Abigail…. Abigail S-something. His hand shakes as he grabs the phone, putting in the number by memory, having had to call it so many times in the last year of school, he was certain he’d never not remember it.
Two days from now. A Friday. Yes, of course, he’d like to prepay online or however else they want him to. Is there…. Is there a way to find out who else would be attending? No, it’s alright. He understands. Could he, was there a chance he could just get a list of names? No, he never bought his yearbook. He is sorry about that.
Stevens, Abigail Stevens, the girl who smelled of vanilla, whose face he can’t recall well enough except for a certain softness to the skin on her cheek, a peach-like fuzz glittering delicately along the line of her jaw, the two tiny freckles on her right earlobe–unpierced–the way she smiled shyly at something she was reading in her notebook when she didn’t think anybody was looking. Only, he was always looking at her, willing himself not to, feeling ashamed at inhaling her perfume or body wash or whatever that mesmerizing smell was. He’d smelled vanilla perfume on other girls, and hers wasn’t like that at all, but softer, purer somehow.
He clears his throat and dials the number–a Baltimore exchange, of all things.
“Hello?” A man’s voice, scratchy, older.
“May…. Can I speak to Abigail, please?” He clears his throat again, takes a sip of lukewarm water, chlorine smell making his nose twitch. The silence stretches. Finally: “I’m sorry, son. But…Abby. Abby died a year ago.” A grating metallic sound of the ice maker, tinkling against the glass, the voice, less scratchy and quiet, “Cancer. How do you…ahem. How’d you know Abby?”
“I…Uhm. I didn’t really. We just went to school together. I’m truly sorry,” he says quickly and hangs up.
And he is. Sorry. For Abby dying so young. For not going to the last reunion. For not knowing she’d been Abby to those who loved her. Not Amber, not Abigail. For not getting to tell her he’d imprinted her every feature on his memory and how he’d always looked for that flutter of a small vein in the few women he thought he loved, the delicate softness of golden hairs along the jawline, the heavy waves of shiny brown hair, gilded in streaks, as if alive. And that soft vanilla smell.
And he is sorry for how the woman he’d married was a blonde waif of a girl with over-tanned skin and boyishly blunt hair, and she’d smelled of something expensive from the department store, a different thing every year, nothing he could keep track of. And mostly, he is sorry he’d not been brave enough then or since, not in any real way.
The ghost of it now wafts into the sparsely furnished post-modern monstrosity of his living room, a dull ache of having aged without much joy or sadness, without feeling anything too intensely. Lately, without feeling much of anything at all. He pictures Abby’s slender neck, the delicate earlobe with its two imperfect dots, the softness of her shy smile, wishing he wasn’t so terrified of her seeing him then….
And somehow he knows deep down, feels in his gut that Abby would have kept mother’s rug right in the middle of this sterile space, would have been proud of its one-of-a-kindness, the in-your-face brightness of unfashionable reds and greens and golds.
If only he’d been brave enough.