I show up at our apartment with a bunch of boxes.
It’s still our apartment, that’s what we call it, but I haven’t been living there. I haven’t been living anywhere really. Moving somewhere during all of this would’ve felt like giving up, and I’m not. Neither is Debra. We haven’t broken up, but we’re not exactly together. Stuck somewhere in between, today it feels like we’re moving backward. Our lease is up in a week and she’s getting her own place. Something about this makes me feel like it’s over, as if our apartment is the only thing holding us together. I almost didn’t pick up boxes.
“Thanks for getting these,” she says. “I have a million things to do.”
“How much were they?”
“$300, but for you, $275.”
“I’ll have to write you a check,” she says, and smiles.
“Do you need help?” I ask.
“Are you kidding? Look at this place,” she says, pointing to the living room with her entire arm like a game show host showing me the prize I’ve just won. I don’t jump around clapping and screaming.
“What can I do?”
“You can start by getting your things out of here.”
I haven’t thought about not living together in those terms, that some things are hers and some are mine. I want to tell her we should keep everything together, but don’t want to hear her response.
“Can you do that, Rick?”
“Yeah, yeah. Do you have anything to drink?”
“Are you going to help me or get drunk?”
“I’m going to have a drink while I help you,” I say. “Open a bottle of wine. I’ll put some music on and we’ll get this done.”
Packing, it feels like we’re making progress. But looking around later, the apartment is still a mess. Barely any boxes have been taped shut and labeled. The partially packed boxes everywhere make the apartment look even more cluttered than when we started.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “I don’t think I can do anymore tonight. I’m a little drunk.”
“I could eat.”
“Eggs? I’ll make eggs. There’s really nothing left but eggs.”
In the kitchen, she uses the stove’s blue flame to light a cigarette. With her back turned to me, she smokes and makes fried eggs and bacon and talks. I listen, drink more wine. Watch her cook. So many nights I’ve sat here and watched her in front of the stove—fixated on the beautiful contrast between her dark hair and freckleless, milky white skin.
She keeps turning around while she cooks. I take this as a positive sign, that she wants to look at me when I say things to her. Lately, I’ve been looking for signs in everything. It’s tiring as hell, and I take that I’m doing this so obsessively as the worst sign I’ve noticed.
The eggs are overcooked, the yolks have hardened and the bottoms are crispy and brown, but I eat them anyway. I eat most of hers too, and a lot of bacon. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, if cold Pop Tarts count as breakfast.
“I ever tell you about the day my family moved to Chicago?”
“Probably,” she answers, lights another cigarette.
“When the movers came, I went in the backyard and sat in my sandbox. I thought if I stayed there, they couldn’t take the sandbox, and if they couldn’t take the sandbox, we couldn’t move.”
“I think it was pretty smart.”
“Sandboxes are really important to five year olds. I just didn’t realize they weren’t important to adults and that they weren’t planning on bringing it.”
“Or that they could just lift you out of it.”
“Your parents could have easily picked you up to get you out of the sandbox.”
“No way. I would’ve kicked and screamed like crazy,” I say. “They weren’t coming near me.”
“So how’d they get you out of the sandbox?”
“They told me they were leaving, and that they’d come back and visit me in a few months.”
“That’s so mean,” she says, laughing. “I’m going to bed. What are you doing tomorrow?”
“If you want to do some packing during the day, knock yourself out.”
“I think I’d rather just knock myself out.”
“Will you come home after work?”
“Do you want me to?”
“I just asked you to.”
“Ok,” I say, “I’ll come.”
We hug and kiss goodnight, then she goes into the bedroom without me.
I don’t wait long, maybe five minutes, to take the cushions off the couch and pull out the sofabed, and I’m not quiet about it, either. I don’t care anymore. I feel like we’re doomed, past the point where we can work everything out. I grab the bottle of Canadian Club that was in the folded mattress and then put the couch back the way it was.
I drink a lot fast, then grab a pillow from the couch and lay in the center of the room, on the soft purple carpet, directly under the fan. I look up at it, spinning. The same fan is spinning in our bedroom. That one has white panels. This one has black. That’s the only difference. Debra’s lying underneath that one while I’m under this one, like so many nights before. Rarely, though, because of fights. We never really fight anymore. She’s been working full-time for two years now and this fall she’ll start her second year of grad school. I’m still delivering pizzas and working on undergrad. My grades are fine, for the most part, but I’m on my third college and sometimes stop going to classes. This is just one of the ways I feel like she’s leaving me behind, and now she’s getting her own place. Anyway, once she started working, we stopped going to bed at the same time every night. Maybe we stopped earlier than that, but that’s when it became noticeable.
I get up and grab the bottle, go stand by the open windows. I look out at the purple awning of the coffee shop across the street.
The way the air smells reminds me of this night in May a few years ago, when Debra was living with Rachel and Trina in the apartment off of Fullerton near DePaul, back when we always went to bed together. I came over after work and Debra wanted to rearrange the furniture in her room so the bed was pushed against the room’s only window. The window looked out to the street, but the view was mostly blocked by trees.
“It’s going to get hot soon,” she said. “Then we’ll need the bed by the window.”
We had been dating for four months and almost from the start I spent every night at her apartment. Back then, making love was like drinking coffee for her and after she’d need the TV to put her asleep. It was the opposite for me, but I’ve never been able to fall asleep with the TV going, even if I don’t have any interest in what’s on. Because she had to be up earlier than me, we’d watch TV together in bed and she’d fall asleep in the middle of an episode of whatever we were watching, then I’d turn off the TV and watch her sleep and in no time I’d be sleeping too.
That first morning after we moved her bed I woke up early, freezing, and shut the window.
“Grab another blanket, baby,” she said with her eyes closed, mostly asleep. “Leave the window open.”
And so for the rest of May, until summer came, I’d wake up every morning and put another blanket over us and we’d sleep in each other’s arms with the window open and the cool, spring morning air coming through. I never wanted to get out of bed.
I don’t know when we lost that, and I don’t know how we’re going to get it back if we’re not living together, or if we can ever get it back, or if we’ll ever have anything else like that, something that I could never have, or want, with anyone else, that later on will keep me from sleeping and make me look out a window all night drinking, begging to have it back.
The bedroom door opens. It creaks loudly. I never fixed it like I said I would. Two years here and I never fixed it. I never fixed anything.
I turn around and see Debra walk into the living room. She takes the bottle from me, sets it on the coffee table, comes back and hugs me.
“It’s going to be okay,” she says. “It’ll be better to work everything out if we have some space. It’s like we talked about—”
I tilt her chin up and kiss her, and we kiss, and we make love on the purple carpet, under the fan, and it is love, like it’s always been. Even the first time it was love, and that’s how I knew it’d be different with her, and that everything was going to be better from then on, that I’d found the biggest missing piece and even if I never figured out the rest of it, I’d have her and it didn’t matter if nothing else ever came together for me.
Debra grabs a blanket from the couch and lies back down next to me and puts it over us. The fan’s still spinning and the windows are open. There’s nothing going on outside, no cars, no voices, no wind moving the branches and leaves. Soon, Debra falls asleep, but I can’t. I can’t stop looking at all the damn boxes. I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen to us.
I get up and grab the bottle and go into the kitchen and smoke one of Debra’s cigarettes and drink. I look out the window and see a rabbit eating something in the neighbor’s garden. I watch it put its head down and chew furiously, then lift its head and stand statue-like, seeing if anything is approaching, then go back down for more. I drink and watch until it runs away.
There’s not much left in the bottle. I hate to do it because it’ll taste terrible tomorrow, but I consider putting water in it. But that’s not the issue with this one. In the morning she’ll ask where it came from. She looked past it tonight, but the mornings are different. Making love hasn’t changed, but in the morning something always comes to the surface.
I walk into the living room and see her sleeping with a little smile on her face. She can always fall asleep, no matter the circumstance. I hate that she can. It’s like she never cares enough about what’s going on to have it keep her up at night. I’m always up all night. She falls asleep and leaves me awake to deal with everything alone.
I go into the bedroom and turn on the TV and sit up in bed. I’m tired. I’m on two or three hours of sleep. But I don’t want to turn off the TV. I don’t want tomorrow to come any faster than it already is.
Will Radke is from Oak Park, Illinois. His fiction has appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine and Spelk.