This story is by Nancy Myers Rust and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
His hands were shaking as he shut the door and his keys clattered onto the stoop. Bending to retrieve them, the morning air met DeSean’s neck and he turned up the collar of his coat. His breath was visible as he willed his hands steady, locked the door and set off in the direction of the train.
He took the same route every day. Four blocks north and two blocks west with a quick stop at the espresso shop on the corner. Today DeSean sat on one of the bar stools near the window and sipped his coffee while he waited for the 6:47 train. So immersed was he in thoughts of the evening ahead, his scone sat untouched and he nearly forgot to take to take it with him when he stood to leave.
Pushing in his stool DeSean caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window. He leaned in and straightened his tie, something he did without thinking, even on the weekends when there wasn’t a tie to straighten, and ran a hand over his hair. It was cropped neat and close, as always, and he was reminded suddenly of the time, just after he took the job at the firm, when Gloria had convinced him to grow his hair out. Don’t worry, baby, we’ll keep it tidy. You’ll still be a serious lawyer. She took obvious delight in his reluctance and her cajoling and teasing had ultimately convinced him to cancel his appointment with his barber. To Gloria’s dismay, though, he only lasted a mere four months before cutting it short again.
DeSean boarded the train and took his usual seat by the window and let the memory of Gloria warm him as the train started to move. He always saved his thoughts of Gloria for his morning commute. He liked to imagine himself planting her, like a bulb in dark soil, way down deep inside himself where he could pluck her out and reanimate her for a short time before depositing her back into the ground of his safe-keeping. It felt safe on the train. Safe from the scrutiny of others; from the prying questions about how he was doing and the whispers behind cupped hands at the office. The train felt to him the only place where he could allow Gloria to reemerge and expand within him. He wondered what she would think of his plans; what she would make of what was going to happen tonight when he got home from the office.
The trees outside his window rushed past him, brown and desolate. Just last week his morning commute had been a blur of late October reds and oranges. Now it was a wasteland and DeSean felt his chest seize as he remembered Gloria laughing and teasing him as he had meticulously manicured his growing hair before work every morning. Despite the many admonishments to move on and knowing that it was time, DeSean still felt within himself the same barrenness as the trees outside his window.
There were two memories that DeSean liked to dig up most often. The first was one year before the accident. DeSean had been working late all week preparing for a deposition and Gloria had been rushing to meet a deadline for a local gallery. Exhausted, they had ordered take-out on Friday night and stayed up late watching bad tv. The show itself wasn’t remarkable but something in the program had struck the the two of them as particularly funny – what, DeSean could not now recall – and they had laughed until tears streamed down their faces and they were gasping for air, still clutching their chopsticks and take-out containers. Gloria laughed so hard she nearly fell off the couch and for days afterwards even the slightest reminder of the doomed tv show was enough to set them off again.
The second memory was just six days before she died. When they got the long-awaited call from the adoption agency telling them they had been matched at last. A baby boy was waiting for them. DeSean had watched in wonder as Gloria’s face shed seven years of longing and pain, seven years of miscarriages and misery and failed rounds of in vitro fertilization, to take on the mantle of something new. The two of them had jumped up and down and screamed and fallen to their knees in the kitchen, clutching each other, and rocking back and forth and weeping for all they had been through and the anticipation of happiness that would now be theirs. How they had walked on air after that phone call, full of a joy so capacious that DeSean wondered if it might carry them away.
One week later Gloria was dead. Hit by a car on her morning jog and gone before the paramedics had even pulled out the stretcher. Now, two years, three months and seven days later, DeSean swayed in his seat on the train as he considered what he was about to do. He wasn’t sure he was ready. Just thinking about it was enough to make his hands clammy and his mouth dry.
He made it, somehow, through the work day, with several of the guys and even one of the partners stopping by his office to wish him luck. His best friend, Steve, took him out to lunch. He and Steve started at the firm the same year and while most of his other friends avoided talking about Gloria, Steve talked about her often and with ease. It struck DeSean as curious, the way that folks wouldn’t mention Gloria in his presence. As though they thought that saying her name would somehow add to his pain or push him further into the throes of agonizing recollection. As though there was ever a day that he wasn’t already thinking about her already and their silence, well-intentioned though it was, only served to inflict an additional wound.
Steve and his wife, Wendi, had been helping DeSean get ready and he seemed to intuit that today DeSean didn’t need any more convincing pep talks. The two of them sat together at their favorite deli in an easy silence, DeSean grateful for his friend’s tacit presence. When they finished their meal, Steve put his hand over DeSean’s, looked him in the eye and said quietly,
“We’re rooting for ya. We’ll be by in the morning like we planned.”
DeSean nodded. “Right… Yeah… Thanks.”
On the train home from work, DeSean for once didn’t think of Gloria. His left leg was bouncing up and down and his breathing was coming fast. He swallowed hard, consumed with the self-doubt that had plagued him throughout the entire process. He wasn’t the person he had been before. What if he couldn’t do it? What if Gloria’s death had altered him in such a way as to render him incapable of such a task? Again, the empty trees raced past him and he knew, from years of riding the train through every season, that against all odds, in a few months time these same trees would be aflame with flowers; their rebirth only possible once every leaf had fallen.
At home DeSean paced the house. His dinner sat untouched. He checked and double-checked the room. He checked and double-checked his appearance in the bathroom mirror and leveled the already-level pictures on the wall in the living room. When the doorbell finally rang, he was resolute. Ready. His hand was steady as he reached for the doorknob but he paused, allowing himself the space for a slow, deep breath. Then he pulled the door open.
DeSean could not tell you now whether it was light or dark when he opened the door. He could not tell you what the social worker looked like or what words were spoken. All he can tell you is how he felt. It wasn’t the tidal wave of emotion that he expected nor was it the flooding fear of the uninitiated. As he looked at the baby in her arms and reached, for the first time, to hold his daughter, he felt rather the subtle stretching of something long dormant in his heart; the seismic shifting of something he had believed dead now, miraculously, stirring once more to life inside him.