Past

Past

Weak morning light streams in through parted curtains onto a table cluttered with mugs, rimmed with iridescent drips of coffee. The squirrels on the fire escape outside move in spastic motions, an infinite silent film. Carmen traces her fingers in the water rings left on the table, the pockmarked wood retaining the condensation.

She wonders how long it will be before he leaves her. Already she can hear his breath quickening in the next room, the delicate sheets rustling, the fluttering of his eyelids.
She thinks to herself how in five minutes he will awake, fumble into the kitchen with his clumsy morning feet, ask her how she slept. And she will answer, tell him about the dream she’d had, wait for him to make breakfast on the hot plate they have never bothered to replace. Then they will watch the morning news together, make snide remarks about the traffic lady’s hair.
“Looks like a fucking bird nest,” he will say.
She’ll smile at him, sip her coffee, and he’ll glance sheepishly at his toast. They’ll sit in silence for a while, until the next commercial break, when they’ll mute the advertisements and talk in louder than normal voices to conceal their discomfort.
“I heard there’s a sale on cereal at the grocery on 8th,” she’ll say, and he’ll nod.
“It’s always so expensive.”
“I know, that’s why we should buy it when it goes on sale.”
It won’t be important, what they will say. Nothing of consequence, just routine familiarity. The squirrel on the fire escape outside will stare, unblinking, secure behind the glass windowpanes.
Then they’ll unmute the television, chew in silence beneath the glow of the early winter sun. And eventually, they’ll finish their breakfasts, look at each other.
“I guess it’s time to get ready,” he’ll say, and she’ll nod, again.
They will pick up their dishes, put them in the sink, go back to the bedroom to get dressed for work. He’ll bend down to open the bottom drawer, that strange blemish she has always loved hovering above his shoulder blade. They’ll dress quickly, impersonally. She’ll look out over the fire escape, stare at the clutter on her dresser. Carmen will desperately want a cigarette—she had quit for him, but the ache remained, especially in the winter. She’ll stifle the urge, put on her jacket, kiss him goodbye, and walk down the rickety apartment steps.
Carmen, still lost in thought, wraps her foot around the legs of her chair, and encircles her finger with a strand of hair. She can practically feel the regular rhythm of his sleeping breath. The squirrel on the fire escape was nibbling on a nut, its unseeing eyes fixed on her. Carmen muses absently, noting that it’s getting late and she should probably wake him so he’s not late for work.

Carmen and Dean had met just after she graduated high school. She could never remember exactly where, or even when. Dean had pursued her with an almost obsessed ardor, which Carmen had found slightly distasteful. But then, she had never been in love before, and she’d assumed that Dean, who was six years older, knew what he meant when he said “love” the night of their fifth date.
Carmen had always resented that she’d fumbled out, “I love you too,” when she didn’t mean it at all, didn’t have any idea what she had meant. But he’d beamed at her, and she’d convinced herself that she wasn’t in the position to be choosy.
She convinced herself she loved him because he was exciting—which he was. He had served in the army before college, just light infantry, but enough to get his feet wet, as he said. When she met him, he was working on getting his pilot’s license in the hopes of working for the Air Force, but in the meantime, he was working morning shifts at a Greek diner downtown and evening shifts at his friend’s bar.
She had loved him. At first, she had loved him. Often, she thought she’d never loved him. But then she convinced herself that was stupid, she wasn’t an idiot, how could she have gotten herself in so deep if she didn’t love him?

Carmen chips away at her nail polish. The room spins, but she thinks she is ready. She clutches her coffee mug, digs her finger into the wooden table until she can see splinters fall away, feel the prick of the wood as it breaks her skin.
She thinks of the inevitability to which he will wake, the infinite inevitability of the inevitable. She will tell him she resents his detachment, the fact that he comes home late Friday nights and smells like beer even though she knows it’s his job but still, he reeks, and that is only attractive up to a certain point. She resents the way he makes her feel, the way he has taken her youth, the way he has made her boring.
The squirrel darts down the ladder of the fire escape, and Carmen sighs slowly. He should have woken up hours ago; she needs a last look at his sorry pleading face. But first, she needs a cigarette. She needs a fucking cigarette.
Carmen untangles herself from her chair, tasting the acidity of her breath. She stumbles out of the kitchen, past the pile of his dirty laundry that he expects her to do, the pile that she will end up dutifully washing and folding. She stops in front of the bedroom. The air outside the closed door is painfully still.
Carmen listens to her own shallow, gulping breaths, and she leans her ear softly against the cracked wooden doorframe. Gently, she eases open the door. She can already taste the smoky satisfaction. She can already see his pathetic face as he listens to her “I’m leaving.”
As she makes her way to her dresser, she stops, looking at the iron double bed, his heavy knuckled fingers, splayed; arms tossed carelessly in sheets; dusky blue face illuminated by a stripe of sunlight. She studies his face in almost childlike wonder as he lies exactly as she had left him the night before, his eternally unblinking eyes vacant, gray, distant.

Now she is ready.

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