Untitled, Zachary Vaughn
My walk home would be pleasant—would be rather beautiful, really, with the sunset turning the sky all sorts of colors—if it weren’t for the damned bells ringing from the town hall. They only ring for six minutes—from 5:00pm to 5:06pm—but it takes me fifteen minutes to get home from my receptionist job at the town’s dentist office, so they ring for more than a third of my walk. I think they’re supposed to be nice, give the town a quaint feel, but they’re loud and off-pitch and they give me a headache.
Tonight when I leave work, the rusty bells, combined with the towering magnolia trees in the park and the fog that’s suddenly sprung up, make everything feel eerie. The November air is heavy with a strange August-like humidity. When I arrive home, I nod to my neighbor’s cat as I walk through the front door and enter the dark, cold townhouse my fiancé and I were renting together until everything kind of blew up last week and he packed his bags and left.
It didn’t have to be a big deal—I tried to tell him this. It’s just that I realized, a month or two ago, that I’m not actually sexually attracted to men. It was a general realization. I don’t really know why I’d never thought of it sooner—I think I just went along with the sex because that was the thing to do and women have sex with men and that’s the way it goes. But one day I was re-reading a book of poems by Adrienne Rich and I realized that, while of course I knew there were lesbians out there, I’d never really considered whether or not I could possibly be a lesbian and then, in a rush of light and acid reflux, everything sort of clicked into place. I remembered all the friends I had growing up who I sometimes, often, wanted to kiss; at the time I always laughed it off. I’d kissed some girls in college—always just for fun, on a dare, or to liven the party—and afterwards, going back to kissing men always felt dull in comparison, but I’d attributed it to alcohol, and novelty, and, let’s face it, girls are pretty.
It had nothing to do with my fiancé—I tried to tell him this—but of course he was upset. It’s not like I tricked him or something. It was a bit of a surprise for me, too. But a nice surprise. A surprise like when, in college, I took a class on a whim and realized I was destined to major in anthropology. For him, I guess the surprise was more like when you’re little and your mom tells you she’s driving you to the ice cream shop but you end up at the doctor’s office.
Today is the first day I’ve come home from work to an empty house. The rooms look bigger than I remember them. It feels strange, because on the one hand I feel rather settled now, rather relieved, but on the other hand it’s not like I didn’t love him—I just didn’t love him in the way that he needed me to.
Most nights coming home I would change into sweatpants and wait on the couch with a book for my fiancé to arrive so we could make dinner together—usually just potatoes with frozen turkey burgers, but we arranged it nicely on the plate and sometimes added parsley to make it seem fancy. Some nights we’d open a bottle of wine and laugh and laugh. Tonight, instead, I turn on the TV for some background noise, put on pajamas, and start making some microwavable noodles for myself.
I wish I had a cat to keep me company, some living thing indifferent to what kind of person I am as long as I feed and pet him once in awhile. I still haven’t told my mother that I will not be getting married in the near future. I don’t have the energy to explain myself yet. Besides, it’s only been four days. I wonder who else I could call, could try explaining myself to for practice, someone who could tell me whether or not I’m crazy for doing what I’ve done. But I find that I already let myself settle into life with just the two of us. I can’t think of anybody I’ve talked to, really talked to, recently enough that I could call them with such weighty questions. Really, I want to call my fiancé. But he hasn’t called or texted me since he left, and I don’t feel like the decision to get back in touch is on me.
When I finally climb into bed that night and the comforter settles over me, the weight of what I’ve done presses against my body with the blanket. It was going all right so far—I could have kept the friendship with the caveat of blasé sex once in a while. I’ve never dated a woman; there was nobody waiting for me. I don’t even know how to initiate dating a woman—how do you know if someone is a lesbian? I turn on the light.
I need to exhaust myself before I’ll be able to sleep. I could read a book, or watch TV, but for some reason—and I told myself I wouldn’t do this but I do it anyway—I take the photo albums off the bookshelf and flip through pictures of my fiancé and me at the Grand Canyon, the photo album from my mother’s sixtieth birthday party where we both have pink frosting smeared on the tips of our noses, and the last, smallest, book—filled with pictures we took of each other when the other person wasn’t looking. I find my favorite picture of him: he’s lying on the bed holding a book, but he’s not reading—he’s looking past the book into the bedside mirror, and you can see my reflection, holding the camera over my face, and his eyes are looking directly into the mirror, out of the photo, while he’s smiling in a soft sort of way.
My fiancé is the one who printed the photos instead of just loading them onto the computer. He said he didn’t want them just to be made of zeros and ones: he wanted them to be made of ink and paper, of tangible things. He said this made them real, but just now I realize he left them here on the shelf instead of packing them in his suitcase, and guilt swells like a wave in my stomach so I close the albums and lay them back on the shelves. When I finally turn off the light, the bed feels larger than the ocean, and just as cold.
The next morning, my alarm goes off before the sun rises. Everything outside my window is dark, except for the window in the house next to mine where a young woman close to my age lives. Her light is on, and she doesn’t bother to close her curtains. I’ve never formally met her, though we’ve nodded to each other a few times while bringing our trash out to the dumpster in the parking lot. I think she lives alone. I see her through the window this morning, like most mornings, getting dressed. And she looks soft and round—her edges aren’t sharp. I know I shouldn’t be looking, but she leaves her shades open and our windows are right across from each other. I’ve started leaving my curtains open too, hoping one night she might look in and fall in love with me. I know this is nearly impossible, but I leave them open anyway, just in case.
My clothes feel like they weigh a hundred pounds. I put on my pants and I nearly have to sit down they’re so heavy. I pull my sweater over my head and practically crawl to the kitchen. My head is pounding. It took me hours to fall asleep, and even when I did it wasn’t restful—I dreamt I was stuck in a bathtub of honey and I couldn’t move my arms or legs.
I make coffee, even though I don’t usually drink coffee. I’ve gotten used to the smell in the morning. He forgot to take his coffee maker with him. I drink it quickly and pour another cup. I don’t eat breakfast, though I know it would probably make me feel a little better. I grab a handful of chocolate chips to eat on the walk to work, but before I’m even to the road they melt in the unseasonable heat and my hands end up brown and sticky.
I leave work early at two o’clock. I was getting a migraine and overall not doing a great job talking to people—it was hard for me to understand what they were saying. My coworker eventually said, “Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’ll cover for the rest of the day. You gotta go home.” I packed my things and on the way out the door she called, “Hey, you owe me one.”
Everything feels like it’s moving very fast. That could be the coffee, which my body isn’t used to. I walk home, and even though it’s nice that the bells aren’t ringing, the sun also isn’t setting, so actually it’s not as beautiful as usual.
When I get to my front door, I notice my neighbor’s cat sitting on the ground next to the porch. I nod, like I usually do, and she meows, and I put my key in the lock, and then I stop and look at her again. What harm would it be if I took her inside for just a few minutes? Just so when I walked inside I wouldn’t be alone? I could have her back outside long before six o’clock when the woman next door calls her in for dinner.
I crouch down and make kissy noises with my mouth. “Come here, kitty.” She trots right over and meows again. I scratch behind her ears and say, “Hello,” not really knowing how you’re supposed to talk to a cat. I try to pick her up, but she hisses. I stop and wonder what I’m doing, but when I glance up at my dark windows it hits me again that I don’t want to walk in there alone. I keep my hand near the ground as I walk up the steps. The cat follows me. I open the door, still making kissy noises, and we both step inside.
Two hours later, I’m sitting on the couch with the cat in my lap, watching TV, when a voice outside starts calling, “Marbie, Marbie.” The cat meows. I look at my watch—it’s only four o’clock. She shouldn’t be home yet.
My head feels light. I get up and walk to the back door with my hand near the floor, whispering, “Marbie. Marbie, come on.”
Thank God, she follows. I open the sliding door, but she just looks at me, so I push her outside, ignoring the hiss. The cat trots away from the house toward the strip of woods in the backyard.
I try to go back to the TV, but every time the camera makes a cut the light changes and makes my headache worse. I remember when I was a kid and I’d sneak down to sit on the stairs after my parents tucked me into bed, and I’d watch the blue light from the TV brighten and dim against the door of the front closet—I could see that light just now, only I was looking at the TV. I turn it off and go into the bedroom to lie down. I feel even more alone than I did before, having shoved my only current friend out the back door.
I lie down on my side, and of course I’m looking right at the bookshelf with the photo albums. I don’t want to pick them up, but I do pick them up and I lay them out all over the bed—and I don’t understand why I’m so upset because I didn’t love him in a way that made me want to marry him. But I did love him enough to entertain the idea of marrying him at one point in time, and now I feel like I was lying the whole time and really being manipulative, even though I didn’t mean to, and sure, figuring out what I figured out did feel good and right, but then I remember that even though majoring in anthropology felt like exactly what I was meant to do, now I’m a secretary at a dentist’s office, so it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would, which is not to say I regret it because I don’t, it’s just that these things eventually betray you and leave you in the weeds to fend for yourself.
The woman next door calls for Marbie again. I get out of bed, gather all the photo albums into a paper grocery bag, and open the front door. The woman from the window is standing on the porch beside mine. I start to walk toward the street, but she calls, “Excuse me?” and I turn around.
“Have you happened to see my cat anywhere?” she asks. “She’s light brown with some darker markings on her back.” She gestures to her back.
It feels like she’s miles away from me. I try to look concerned. “Sorry,” I say. “I haven’t seen her.”
The woman shrugs, “Okay, thanks anyway.” I’m about to ask her if she wants to get coffee or something, I feel detached enough to be that brave, but the woman continues, “I usually call her in later, so she’s probably just not around. I have a date tonight, and I was hoping to get her inside before I leave.”
“Oh,” I say, and for some infuriating reason my stomach sinks in disappointment that she has a date. “Well, good luck.”
The woman’s eyes shine in the setting sun. “Thank you,” she calls, “Hopefully she turns up soon. I don’t want to leave him waiting at the restaurant.” She smiles knowingly, the way women smile at each other behind the backs of men at bars when a clean-cut man starts talking to the friend they came with.
I walk to the park next to the town hall, which is where the bench is where I told my fiancé I wouldn’t be marrying him after all and that I’m actually attracted to women, the bench where I sat for half an hour while he went back to the house and packed his things and disappeared. I should have planned better, because it’s also the park where he and I had lovely picnics together under the magnolia trees—so see, I’ve ruined everything, because now the park is where we ended things and not where we grew to love each other.
I duck under the branches of the biggest magnolia tree in the park. They’re long and dense enough that nobody can see me. I crouch down and find a stick in the leaves, use it to dig a medium-sized hole in the ground. People push baby carriages down the sidewalk on the other side of the branches.
I take the photo albums out of their bag and place them in the dirt. I don’t want to see them anymore and I don’t want them in my house, but I do still want them to exist, because they were real—and I wish I could tell him it was real, that this ending doesn’t make it any less real, but I don’t know that he’d believe me. I pile the dirt back over the hole and brush the dried, fallen leaves over the ground. Everything starts to feel settled again. The world starts moving at a more manageable pace.
I don’t want to go home just yet. It feels good to have these things out of the way, but I feel empty, too, like the feeling you get after you’ve sobbed for an hour and just can’t cry any more. I look up, and the magnolia branches look good for climbing: they’re thick and close to one another, the bark smooth. I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a kid. I step onto the lowest branch, reach up to the one above it, and pull myself up. The branches are thick and sturdy, but for some reason I expect them to break underneath me.
I stop climbing at a lower point than I’d anticipated, because it seems like a longer fall now than it did from the ground. It’s not a bad spot to stop for a while, though. It offers a nice view of the park. Through the leaves I see a woman reading a newspaper on a bench across the path, a man throwing a tennis ball to his dog. The sadness settles, quieter now, and I relax into the trunk of the tree, smooth as silk bed sheets against my back. I close my eyes and feel like maybe things will start to make sense soon. Who knows if that’s true, but for now it feels good—I almost feel ready to start over as a different sort of person—and I worry less about the branch giving way underneath me because it’s holding me pretty nicely right now, and then the five o’clock bells start ringing from the town hall, so I climb out of the tree and walk home.
About the Author
Emily DeMaio Newton · Elon University
Emily DeMaioNewton is a senior English major at Elon University. Emily’s work has also been featured in Persephone’s Daughters and the Modern Love column of the New York Times. Her story, “A Sense of August,” first appeared in Issue 68 of Colonnades.
About the Artist
Zachary Vaughn · Oberlin College
Originally from Vacaville, California, Zachary Vaughn studied at Oberlin College. This piece first appeared in Plum Creek Review.