I unwrap the heirloom china, stacking each plate nervously one on top of the other. You rearrange the couches into infinite configurations, repeatedly stopping to place your hands on your hips, determining if it lives up to what you pictured in your head.
I guess I didn’t realize how much work this would be, you say to the air.
Me neither, but I think we’re doing okay, I reply.
You turn back and smile at me, and I hope you can’t tell how cold my feet are–– how scared I am that this is all too serious and too sudden. I wonder if I am like the furniture–– do I keep falling short of who you expected me to be? What parts of us need to be reorganized, rethought?
I’m not being mindful of what I’m doing and drop a plate. Despite hitting the tile, it somehow stays intact. You laugh and tell me to be careful.
Hey, do you know where the address book is? I need to ship a couple things back home to my sister, you throw over your shoulder while opening up the last few boxes aimlessly.
You mix home into your sentences so slyly, like a mother putting cough syrup in juice. It emphasizes that this is not home. Maybe it never will be. You’ve been saying things like this since we loaded up the car. And of course I have no godforsaken idea where it is! I am dating someone who puts tea towels in the same box as loose hangers and old postcards and drink coasters!
I sigh and say No, I’m sorry, but what I really mean is It’s long gone by now.
You hold the dustpan while I sweep up broken dishes.
You wipe my tears and say sorry, but we both know none of this is your fault.
We get a cat to keep us company, but I also believe it’s a last ditch effort to keep us together. The couch has quickly been lost under a sea of blankets and pillows. Is that why you wanted so badly for the living room to look perfect? Because you knew you’d end up sleeping in here most nights?
I’m not mad at you, baby, you just keep tossing and turning at night. I go into work exhausted. This makes sense–– we haven’t fought in weeks, but it’s just like me to assume a goodbye will come out of nowhere.
One night, I fall asleep watching cartoons in bed–– a childish habit of mine–– then wake up at 2 a.m. to the smell of ramen on the stove. Shrimp. I can smell it through the door. I walk out and sit on the counter, where you already have two bowls pulled from the cabinet. It feels like there’s a wall between us, for we cannot seem to meet eyes.
You hate shrimp, I say blowing on my noodles.
Yeah, you slurp.
We decide to name the cat Billy Pilgrim–– because you love science fiction, and because I keep praying for a way to travel back in time.
The coat closet is bloated with tweed blazers and parkas and wool scarves. We could do an entire load of laundry of just the fuzzy socks we’ve collected to layer under heavy boots.
Standing in front of the apartment door, you button up my puffer coat and kiss my forehead, while I brace myself for the blustering wind. We both grew up in the cold, but I left it so long ago it’s been hard to come back. You tell me, You’ll adjust to it! It’s gonna be so beautiful in the winter, you remember!, and I try so hard to believe you.
I think back to being a kid–– when my family would rake rainbow leaves into piles on the front lawn. My mother would hold my hand, and we would jump in together, like diving into a pool with a partner when you’re too scared to go alone.
But things are different now. You and I squeeze into the car and go around, raking the multi-colored corpses into black garbage bags. The couples who live in these houses are old and rich and white. The men look at you funny. Their wives shoot me big doe eyes. And they pay us chump change compared to what they can afford.
Maybe it was a mistake to move here. Maybe as the seasons change so will our feelings. When we get home, I cannot tell if you are angry that I am the only person in this city you know, or if you’re just frustrated that it’s late October, and you already need mittens.
My family is afraid of things they cannot quite place, and from far away you look like a mirage to them. Grandfather keeps asking you where you’re from, and when you say New Jersey, same as you, sir, he doesn’t believe it. You squeeze my hand under the table everytime they say something sexist, and I squeeze yours when they say something racist. We make a little game of it, until my cousin starts flipping through the television, stops on a K-drama, and asks you to translate. I’m Burmese, you whisper. This time, you’re the one squeezing my hand.
When we get home, Billy Pilgrim has run away. You’d been smoking out the window and left it open. Maybe he’s on Tralfamadore?, you ask jokingly. As mad as I am, I cannot help but giggle through the tears.
We pile leftovers from my grandparents’ on a plate. While you work on a ‘missing’ poster, I take turns feeding myself, then feeding you.
Rent is now divided 60/40, but we both know it will quickly become 70/30. The assistantship stipend doesn’t cover much, and although you seem happy and proud to support me, I’m afraid you’re secretly resentful. So while you’re at work, I spend the early mornings pacing around the apartment, biting my nails, and searching through odd-job postings online until I have to head to class. Everything would be different if I wasn’t so shy, so afraid to tell you how inadequate I feel.
How easily frustrated I get at myself.
How ashamed I am for getting easily frustrated at you.
It is a Friday night–– one of the few nights our schedules don’t conflict anymore–– and as we are leaving the apartment to go downtown, Billy is on the doorstep. He looks starved. It’s not too late for him, but I wonder if it is for us.
I hold him close and whisper, what did you see when you came unstuck in time?, and he sinks his claws into my blouse.
You take the china from the cabinet and cut the coconut cake into large pieces. I get shy about getting older, as if I am undeserving of whatever new responsibilities and experiences come with aging. As if all I am at twenty-three is all I’ll ever be.
We get full and take a nap on the couch. When we wake, you hand me an envelope. Inside there is a piece of paper. It says Peru. I kiss you until my lips are numb and bruised–– until I convince myself that twenty-four really will be different.
We never take the trip.
There is a plane ticket on the counter when I come home from class. An overstuffed suitcase seems to swallow the small foyer it sits in. It looks like you’re taking everything with you. Except for me. I am too afraid to ask when you’re coming back, because I know when I say when, what I really mean is if, and you’ll see right through me.
You say, I love you, when you leave.
And I wash the dishes alone.
Abigail Wells, 20, was raised in Arizona’s East Valley and is a senior at Middle Tennessee State University, where she studies English literature. She has been published in Collage Magazine, Off Center Magazine, Outrageous Fortune, and Girls Right the World international literary journal. Wells was a selected poetry finalist representing MTSU for the 2021 Southern Literary Festival and is an essay and poetry finalist this year. She was a recipient of the 2021 Richard C. & Virginia Peck Award for her creative writing.