"Yours is the Empty One"

I left on a Thursday, because you always said Thursdays accomplish. Wednesdays anticipate, and Fridays leave things undone. Thursdays tie up loose ends, square away, settle. Mother always knows best, of course. So I ironed Evan’s black dress pants for his meeting with the district manager, washed the dishes in the sink, called Cindy Monroe and asked if Nikki could carpool. I got dinner out of the freezer – beef tips in gravy, pre-packaged, microwave for fifteen minutes, Evan’s favorite – and vacuumed the living room. Then I did the crossword from Tuesday’s News Democrat, found and circled all the typos in the local pages. I could’ve been a copy editor for that paper, could’ve done a better job than whoever works there now. After that I picked Nikki up from school, asked about her day, dropped her off at a friend’s house to play. I wrote a note when I got home, so Evan wouldn’t worry. Left it right on the stove so he’d see it. I hung Nikki’s art project on the refrigerator, so he’d see that, too. I told Evan where I was going. I wasn’t trying to hide.

Christine wasn’t home from work when I got there, but I found a post-it on the front door that told me to relax, unpack, make myself at home. Yours is the empty one, it said, with a smiley face. Those same smiley faces she drew next to her name when she was a kid. Big loopy letters and cartoon smiles. Maria’s so smart, you used to tell everyone. So mature. She’s the older sister at heart. Christine could learn a thing or two. Take a page from her sister’s book. Grow up.

Christine’s apartment isn’t big, just a little kitchen and a living room, two bedrooms, one bath. She has this thirteen inch TV and an old stereo just sitting on the floor, under some modern looking kind of art on the wall. No landscapes or fruit bowls, just colored lines, circles, brushstrokes all jumbled together in patterns Christine always says she can see and I never can. She has maroon throw pillows with cheap, dangly plastic beads sitting at each end of this gaudy gold couch. I hated it. I didn’t want to be there. The guest room was empty, white walls and an old blue mattress lying right in the middle of the floor. I planned on keeping it that way. I hung my clothes in the closet, short-sleeves on one end, sweaters on the other, everything else in-between. Panties, bras, socks in the top dresser drawer. T-shirts in the middle. Pants on bottom. Just like at home. Just like always. In the bathroom, I put just my toothpaste and birth control in the medicine cabinet. And I only took the birth control so when I got home, everything could pick up right where it left off. I put my toothbrush in the holder next to the faucet. Those holders, they all come with four separate holes so when you have guests, they have a place to put their toothbrush. I put my shampoo in the shower and didn’t recognize the label on Christine’s. Something French and expensive sounding, something impractical I would never buy.

I left the rest of my things packed. Hair products and books, jewelry and picture frames, I left all that in the suitcase. I brought the picture frames so I wouldn’t get homesick. I’ve never been away from Nikki for more than a week, and I wanted to see her face while I was away. But I left them in the suitcase, because I knew I wouldn’t stay long enough to need them. After that, I sat on the couch and read a book that was sitting on the coffee table. I don’t even remember the title. Christine came home about an hour later and gave me a big hug, told me she was so glad to have me. I hadn’t seen Christine in a while, must’ve been at least six months, maybe more, so of course she was happy to see me. She didn’t look much different. Her hair might’ve been a little darker, maybe a little longer, but messy as ever, even pulled back out of her face. She still wears those stupid hoop earrings, huge and obnoxious, and layers of those long necklaces that hang down to your stomach. She asked if I wanted to go out to dinner, and I said no, because Evan would probably call and I didn’t want to risk losing reception.

Evan called, but Christine had friends over and I could barely hear him over the awful music they were playing. He asked if I was with Christine. He said he read the note, but didn’t understand. So I explained to him that I had been stressed for the past couple of weeks, and I needed some time for myself. Just a little time out of the house. That’s when he started yelling. Probably because the music was so loud. Evan never yells. I told him I couldn’t hear very well. I’m sure that’s why. I thought he was angry at the time, though, so I got upset. I said things I probably shouldn’t have. I told him I wasn’t coming home for a while. That wasn’t true. I wanted to come home as soon as possible, but Evan yelled stupid things at me, horrible things. “How can you do this?” he said. “How can you leave your child? No decent mother picks up and leaves her own daughter. Without saying goodbye. How can you be so selfish?” Can you believe that? He had no right to say those things. I’ve never done anything to deserve that. So I told him to shoulder the responsibility for a while. I said he could learn what it felt like to look after another human life twenty-four hours a day. He needs to learn. He doesn’t understand. He said he has a job to do, but I have the hardest job in the world. You understand that, don’t you? I said he didn’t appreciate me. I didn’t mean that. I was upset.

Evan hung up after that. I don’t blame him. The music was so annoying and you know how ridiculous I get when I’m upset. Christine’s friends were gone, so I went into the living room and Christine offered me a beer. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I needed to relax. So I drank a beer with Christine, and we talked for a while. It was nice to catch up. We talked about stuff that happened when we were kids, like the time Rick Fletcher cut half my ponytail off with his safety scissors and Christine tied him to the basketball hoop with a jump rope. Or the time I saw her kissing Scott Carpenter on the front lawn and I thought she wasn’t breathing. I know you hadn’t spoken to Christine since she dropped out, but those stories used to make you laugh. They made me laugh too, until Evan called back. I didn’t check the number and I was laughing when I answered my phone. He didn’t like it. He asked how I could laugh while Nikki was waiting for her bedtime story. She wouldn’t sleep until she heard it from Mommy. He said he was glad abandonment brought me so much joy. He asked how I felt about burdening his mother with the responsibility of watching Nikki after school while he tried to provide for the family and I swapped stories with my deadbeat sister. Those were his exact words. He wouldn’t even let me talk. He wouldn’t let me laugh. What kind of husband doesn’t want his wife to laugh?

You see where this all started getting out of hand, right? It’s miscommunication. I try to talk and Evan doesn’t listen. He misinterpreted the situation and wouldn’t let me correct him. He thought I sat around all night, drinking and laughing and having a wonderful time. Right off the bat, he thought I took some kind of vacation, like I enjoyed leaving, like I wanted to leave. How can he know what I want if he won’t listen? It wasn’t a vacation. I went out the next day and got a job, an actual job, selling hand lotion from one of those carts at the mall. I threw myself at people and begged them to try the hand lotion, and they ignored me. They avoided me. They pretended to talk on their cell phones just so they wouldn’t have to look at me. It was horrible. I wasn’t happy, and it wasn’t a vacation. But Evan thought it was, just because I laughed when I answered the phone. He blew it out of proportion. He blew everything out of proportion.

I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t get so worked up. I’m just frustrated, because I know now where everything went horribly wrong, and I’m so mad at myself for not seeing it then. But I knew if I told you, you'd see it too. You’d realize this whole thing was just a big accident, one big mistake. Once you hear the whole story, you’ll understand, and you’ll help him understand.

I went with Christine to work the next day, because the people at the hand lotion cart only needed me every other day, and Christine didn’t want me sulking around the apartment alone. Christine works at a coffee shop now, serving all those bleary-eyed college kids on their laptops. All those doctors and engineers, authors, accountants, all sitting together feeding a caffeine addiction. Learning together. Poor Christine has to sit and watch them all finish what she started. It must hurt, but she pretends like it doesn’t. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she loves her job. She’s that good at smiling it away.

But I went with her, and I sat down and started reading that book again, the one I told you about. The one from Christine’s coffee table. And about an hour later, someone tapped me on the shoulder. So I turned around and – you know when you recognize someone but can’t remember how you know them? This woman said hello and started asking me how I’ve been, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out who she was. I made small talk for a while, and thankfully a man came up behind her and told her she was late for something, and she hurried off. And I was curious, I knew it would drive me crazy if I never remembered who she was, so I grabbed the man’s wrist and pulled him back towards my table. It kind of surprised him, I guess, because he tripped and bumped the table with his hip and knocked my book onto the floor. It was funny, because all I wanted to do was ask the name of his friend, and I caused this big scene. You know how much I hate it when people stare at me, and everyone in the shop was looking at us. That’s why I blushed, because I hated the attention. He was only laughing because it was so awkward, so bizarre that some stranger grabbed his hand. Grabbed his wrist and pulled him over just to ask a stupid question, making a complete fool of herself. He introduced himself to be polite. Wouldn’t you introduce yourself to someone after nearly knocking them to the ground? His name was Sam.

The woman was his sister, Lisa McManus. Her maiden name was Dell. She went to my high school. Her mother Charlotte ran the concession stand at basketball games.

Christine said she saw what happened, but it was lunchtime and the shop was busy. There must’ve been at least twelve people in line. It wasn’t like she was standing around doing nothing. She doesn’t know what happened. You know how Christine gets. She makes such a big deal out of everything. I even told her the whole story when she asked. I didn’t have anything to hide. I didn’t do anything wrong. But Christine sees what she wants to see. It’s not my fault she’s unhappy. We’re all unhappy. That doesn’t mean we need to go around telling lies.

I tried to call Evan that night, but he wouldn’t answer his phone. I thought I’d give him a few days to cool off before I tried again. I couldn’t force him to talk to me. There was nothing I could do.

I planned on taking all the money I made at the hand lotion cart and spending it on Nikki when I got home. The man in charge told me I was a natural salesperson. He said I could make a good living selling things if I wanted. They only needed me every other day, though, so I went to the coffee shop on my days off. What else was I supposed to do? I would’ve made myself sick sitting alone all day, thinking about Nikki and Evan and how unhappy they were because of me. I would’ve gone home right then, but Evan didn’t want to speak to me, let alone see me. So I went to the coffee shop, just to pass the time, and the man who knocked my book over – you remember, Sam – he was there again. I told you about Sam, Lisa McManus’s brother. He’s taking some courses at the community college, so he comes in for coffee every once in a while. He saw me and wanted to apologize again. He sat down because he had a little time before class and he liked the book I was reading. Like I said, I don’t even remember the title. It wasn’t an interesting book. Christine only found it in my bag because I wanted to finish reading it at home. I never stop reading a book in the middle, even if I hate it. Like you always said, it’s wasteful to not finish what you’ve started.

Sam and I didn’t talk long. He asked how I was enjoying the book, asked if I had any classes that afternoon. He thought I was a student. It was flattering. I guess if I had gone to college, I would’ve been in grad school by now. Sam’s not a full time student. He’s in the Army and going to Iraq in January. He’s a nice man. A nice kid. He’s only nineteen, practically still a child. Still learning.

I don’t have many friends, you know. The mothers of Nikki’s classmates, they think I’m so young. I don’t speak to any of my old high school friends. You remember how busy I was right after Nikki was born. And they were busy too, planning graduation parties and getting ready for college. It’s hard to keep in touch. It’s hard to make friends. Evan’s working so often and Nikki hates every babysitter I hire and there’s nothing wrong with making new friends at a coffee shop. Every day, people have coffee with other people they barely know. It’s normal. Sam’s not even a friend. He’s an acquaintance. I saw him three times. I’ll never see him again. It happens all the time.

You’d understand if you met Christine’s friends. I know she’s an adult, and she has every right to choose who she wants to spend time with and how she wants to spend it. But she’s exactly the same person she was in college. She hasn’t changed one bit. I asked if she ever thought about going back, finishing her degree, and she laughed it off. She said she makes enough money working at the coffee shop and selling her sketches to keep her happy. A few of her friends take classes at the college, and she won’t even consider it. Maybe staying at Christine’s was a mistake. I just wanted to rest for a few days, but she had friends over almost every night. She had guys over, and her bedroom was right next to mine. The walls were so thin I could hear everything. It made my skin crawl. I felt like I had bugs all over me. You can’t expect me to sleep like that. You can’t blame me for leaving. I just wanted to take a walk. It’s not a huge city, and Christine lives right downtown, right across from every bar every college kid goes to on the weekends. Running into people on the street isn’t even a coincidence there. It’s expected.

I didn’t expect it, of course, because I don’t live there. There’s no way I could’ve known. I sat down on a bench and I guess it must’ve been around two o’clock, when all the bars close, because whole groups of people started stumbling out at the same time. I wasn’t paying attention, but I heard someone call my name, so I looked up and saw Sam crossing the street. Sam from the coffee shop. I told you, he’s a nice guy. He saw me and wanted to say hi because he’s a nice guy. He likes to make people feel good by remembering their faces from coffee shops and saying hello when he sees them on the weekends. I’m sure he does it all the time. He didn’t have anywhere to be, and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so we talked for a while.

And this is where you really need to pay attention. You have to listen, because no one else will listen to me. Everyone believes what they want to believe because they think I’m young and stupid. I made one mistake five years ago. I was a good kid, I made one mistake, and no one trusts me anymore. I never lie to you. I’ve always done what you thought was best. I married Evan when he asked. I stayed at home with Nikki so he could work. I’ve given everything to my family. So you have to understand. Believe me.

I felt sorry for Sam. He asked if he could send me letters from Iraq. He doesn’t have anyone else. His mother’s dead, he doesn’t talk with his father. His sister’s so busy with school. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. But he’s scared. He told me he doesn’t usually talk about it, because if he doesn’t talk about how scared he feels, he can pretend there’s no reason to be scared in the first place. All he wanted to do was send me a letter. What kind of person would I be if I said no? I couldn’t live with myself if I said no. I gave him my phone number. I told him to call me before he left so I could give him my address. I didn’t know if I’d be back home by then. Evan wasn’t speaking to me. I would’ve explained everything, but Evan wouldn’t pick up the damn phone.

Christine jumped to conclusions. She didn’t know I had left the apartment. I walked in at three in the morning and she just assumed. The picture she found in the book the next day, Sam gave it to me because he had a spare in his wallet. It was one of those pictures with the flag in the background. He was proud of it. He wanted to give it to a friend that night, but she never showed up, so he gave it to me instead. He wrote his number on the back in case he couldn’t reach me. You have a picture of Gary Convey fishing at Table Rock. You have his number in your address book. Does that mean you don’t love Daddy anymore? Christine’s a spoiled child who doesn’t think actions have consequences for anyone but herself. She writes stories in her head, just like the ones she wrote in high school, but for God’s sake, we’re not kids anymore. She can’t just reach down and take what’s mine because she’s older. It’s not about what’s fair or unfair. It’s about my husband and my daughter, and I won’t ignore it this time. She wants a family and I’m not allowed to have what she wants. It’s always been that way.

I can’t go home now. Not yet. I’m not afraid of Evan. I know he believes Christine right now, but I’m not really afraid he’ll leave me. Evan loves me. He always has. If he knew the whole story, he’d forgive me. For leaving. But no one knows the truth. If I show my face now, no one will look at me the same way. The mothers at Nikki’s school, her teacher, women in the grocery store, the man at the post office. They’ll talk to me like always, but I know what they’ll be thinking. I’ll see it in their eyes. No one will hear me over their own judgments. Everything will change.

I’ve given my whole life to Evan. I had his child and I married him and I love him and all I wanted was a little time to myself. A week, at the most. Why would I throw everything away for a boy I just met? Don’t you think I have more sense than that? Haven’t I always been the smart one? Haven’t I always been mature for my age? I love Nikki more than anything. More than everything. I can’t lose her. You have to talk to Evan. Make him understand. He has to believe me.

You believe me, don’t you?