This story is by Karen Crawford and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was the first day of Spring, after a week of thunderous rain. I awoke to a sliver of sunshine, caressing my face through a tiny crinkle in the blinds. I was sure it was a sign, and I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe he’d stay home tonight. Maybe we’d cook dinner, play music, maybe even talk.
Then I saw the note.
And just like that, my little bit of sunshine disappeared into the clouds of yesterday’s rain.
He’d placed it on the dining room table, its headline scrawled and underscored in big scratchy letters: GRIPES ABOUT MARY.
I can still feel the pinpricks of fiery heat that flashed across my face after I read it.
I stared at the litany of gripes for hours, memorizing each and every one with a rock in my stomach. I felt like ripping that note to shreds, but I put it in my memory box for safekeeping instead.
My room was the spare room with a single bed pushed against the wall. It was quiet here. Like someone put a pillow over my face and stuffed my ears with cotton. The ceiling was white. The walls were white. They may as well have been padded. I lit up the joint I’d found on his dresser and took a long healthy drag. I needed something to help me gripe about the gripes that had ruined my day.
Gripe #1: She leaves her room a disgusting mess.
OK, it did look like a tornado had swept the room, but at least it felt lived-in. I mean, this place was like a museum. If it weren’t for the feet stomping around in the apartment above, there wouldn’t be any signs of life at all. I had no friends in this neighborhood. And except for school, there hadn’t been much human contact since I moved here three months ago.
Gripe #2: She uses my belongings and does not replace them.
Well, I had taken to borrowing things, like his robe and his deodorant, but he was never here. He was either sleeping late, working late, or out on a date with Jessica, Julie or Jane. And I loved his robe. It smelled like Old Spice and reminded me of when I was little. I used to crawl under the crook of his arm. It was my safety zone. Back when we were a real family. I missed loud music. I missed noisy dinners. I missed. So much.
Gripe #’s 3, 4, 5, and 6: She doesn’t wash the dishes, cleans incompletely, leaves makeup stains in the bathroom sink, takes no initiative to food shop…
Blah, blah, blah. The list went on and on until, ta-dah.
He DOESN’T like sharing a space with me.
I better change in a HURRY!
He has no PATIENCE to deal with my behavior at this stage in his life.
He feels abused and put upon and will not TOLERATE it.
And then, there was this:
It’s clear the inhabitant DISLIKES herself.
Wow, really? My therapist could have told you that. Or better yet, maybe the cuts on my arms.
The truth is, his words squeezed the air from my lungs. My heart felt like a wrung-out dishrag, like the one I apparently never used. I wanted to crawl into a fetal position and cradle myself in a pool of blood so I could feel my heart beat again. Mom had a new husband, and now I was here. I would have cried if I didn’t have the munchies so bad.
It was early evening when he got home. He tossed his keys like coins on the table and took four long strides down the narrow hallway towards the shower. He was getting ready for one of the three J’s, no doubt. Had he even noticed the note was gone? I was sure he wouldn’t want to talk about it. Wasn’t that the point of leaving one?
I felt an angry growl in my belly.
Then I made a total fool of myself. I thought I could sneak out while he was in the shower, like a rocky raccoon foraging through the cupboards, but then he came out looking all Gregory Peck. He didn’t notice me at first. Just glanced down at the table without so much as a flinch. And there I stood, invisible as always. I opened the refrigerator, and he looked up startled, this arctic freeze between us.
“Mary. How are you?” He asked.
I felt so small at that moment like my voice was not my own. It had taken on a timid childish quality, and “lonely” is what eeked out.
“What’s that?” He was pushing the mail around on the small table by the entryway, looking for his keys. It was the only messy area in the apartment, aside from the spare room.
“Well?” The wave of his hand spoke volumes.
And this is the part I wish I could take back. The words fell from my mouth, feet first into a rushing stream.
“I’m so lonely, Dad. You’re never here. It’s just me and these four empty walls. It’s like I’m burrowing inside myself, getting smaller and smaller. Alone with my thoughts, and they are eating me up from the inside out. We never talk. I thought we could talk…”
With keys in hand, he turned around, shifting from one foot to the next, his brow becoming one. The dark flitting eyes, the clipped inhale, I knew that look well. It was a pressure cooker of impatience, steaming at the burden that stood between him and the door. I felt a hot burn in my eyes. I was staring at my toes, trying hard to blink back the moisture coating my lashes.
“It’s OK, I sound pathetic. I’m fine. Really.”
An exhale left his nose like a bull losing steam. He kissed me on the forehead and said, “I love you, hon. We’ll talk tomorrow, OK?”
The door closed behind him with a click.
I stood there for the longest time, smothered by a wet blanket of silence. Until I heard, tick-tock, tick-tock. Quiet at first, then growing louder until it filled my ears, my head, the room. And I lost it. A torrential reign of tears, cleansing every dirty thought, dirty mood, dirty cut.
I’ve been sitting on this soft velvet couch ever since. The cushion is quite hard. It probably hasn’t felt a rear-end since it first graced the living room. I’m digging my toes into the Asian wool rug that covers the perfect parquet floors. It feels like a Mason Pearson brush on the soles of my feet, giving me a makeover. Maybe I should stand up and check myself in the hand-carved antique mirror. Pinch my cheeks. See if my eyes are still melting.
The couple upstairs is playing the stereo. I like that song. They have company. I hear their laughter coming in through the radiator, and I can’t help but smile. The clock on the wall starts to chime.
Maybe it’s time to clean my room.