The March Of Minutes

A string of pearls, listless and bemused,

hangs languidly from the hands of the clock,

striking slowly with little intent.

Pointedly, the hands drag and stalk the Hours,

marking the March of Minutes.

And I wait.

I take a step, with precision and exactness.

Then I wait some more,

the tightrope I walk swinging and swaying.

Gently. Tense.

Slender beneath my feet.

I inch forward, tickling the wire a fraction at a time,

then I stop. I am poised. Listening to the creak of the string, swaying.

And I’m waiting.

Again.

 

 

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Date Night

In the passing lights of the highway, the glint from his wedding ring catches my attention as we drive to the coast for a quiet dinner together. A dinner with no children, no diaper bags, no whining. Just us.

I tuck my hand into his as he speaks of his clients that day. Of the menial details of his Monday. The conversation is light and airy, flowing between us as we share the little things we forget during the weekly hustle at home due to the homework assignments that need to be checked and the bathtime antics that need to be mediated.

I lean back against the headrest and let his voice carry me down the motorway towards the grey sky of November hanging above us. He hasn’t told me where we are going but I know. It’s our place. A little harbor restaurant tucked away between the boats and jetties where we can dine on seafood and wine with real linens and a small candle lit between us. Tonight there is no worry of little curious fingers finding their way into the glass sconces or markers making a permanent drawing of Big Bird on the snow white table cloth.

Tonight there will be no kid’s menu and no macaroni and cheese to cool down with our gentle whispers. No hamburgers to order with only meat and cheese between two buns, preferably without seeds. No sippie cups or lidded cups of any kind to avoid spills. No fighting over the crayons brought to the table to placate the children as they wait for their food.

Instead I’m in my purple sweater dress. The one that hangs perfectly off my curves that are usually hidden beneath my comfortable, worn jeans and careless tee-shirts. I managed to dig up a pair of black nylons and heels to match so that I’m warm yet dressed up. And though we rushed from work to the bathrooms to ready ourselves to sit in traffic on our way to the shore after the exchange of offspring from parents to grandparents, I managed to put on makeup and let down my hair.

His smooth voice brings me back and I realize I miss hearing him speak without whispering after bedtime or raising his tone to be heard over the din. I laugh at his jokes and he asks me about work. He shares his opinion about a song on the radio and I joke about the video I saw at lunch. Then, without warning, a silent blanket falls around us as we coast along the ebbing sea of glowing taillights. Small rain drops pitter against the windshield as the tires beneath lull us into a comfortable silence.

And there between us, our hands clasped casually over the center console full of nurse rhymes on CD and pacifiers, we fall in love all over again. In that brief moment of silence with only our palms resting together do we remember why we are here. Without a word, only a sigh from both of us, we find our romance tucked within the crumb covered seats, a lone shoe, and the toys that have been “lost”.

Inheritance

When I was a young boy, like all other curious children, I was attracted to my parents’ bedroom. Whether it was the larger than life bed made perfectly for bouncing on or the whispering darkness of the large closets housing my mother’s long sweeping dresses and my father’s perfectly ironed fancy shirts, I was always fascinated with all the mystery and magic that was held within the four walls of their master bedroom.

Coins hid beneath the neatly folded towels waiting to be stashed away in the hallway linen closet. My father’s large, shiny dress shoes lined the wall for me to hope from one to the other like I was in a military boot camp making my way through an obstacle course. Even though I was a boy through and through, I was very intrigued by my mother’s makeup vanity in which I would sit and powder my nose like a vaudeville actor about to take the stage. So many colors and tubes and wands of magical elixirs drew my attention on many trips into their room to wait while they dressed for a date.

But what attracted me most was different than most boys. Many would share stories in our middle school years of the raunchy girlie magazines they’d find tactfully hidden in a nightstand or under the bed on their father’s side. They’d boast about pages of women wearing next to nothing with large breasts and suggestively placed hands down panties of lace and silk. We all listened with our full attention to their harrowing stories of sneaking in to get a better look at the cover of video boxes and other adult items stashed away. And the best part was always when someone got too close and was almost caught in the act by their mother or father. It was in their narrow escape that we all held our breath, waiting to know if they would be caught and punished or if they would live to see another day of freedom.

When it came time for me to share stories of my adventures into my parents’ room, I shrugged and said I had nothing exciting to share. But that wasn’t true.

I never found scantly clad ladies or men taking advantage of large breasted women laying carelessly with their bodies exposed as if they were a Siren sending out an enticing call. Instead my discovery was a stack of comic books lying on the top shelf of a shoe condo tucked off to the side of my mother’s closet.

When I first discovered them as a young elementary school child, it scared me and drew me in simultaneously. The gory pictures of horrific demons and brightly illustrated superheroes both stunned me in their beauty and repelled me in disgust. The pages and pages of images drew me in and I found it hard to look away. I became afraid of the upstairs rooms at night and put my parents’ through many painful nightly battles at bedtime. I’d ask that they read another story or leave lights on throughout the hallway so that I could see the demons and aliens from my mother’s comic books as they came to life from the bowels of her closet.

My father’s poor haggard face still swims through my memory as I relive the nights that I cried for comfort and complained of monsters beneath my bed, all very real to me. My parents never stopped tucking me in and reassuring me that things were fine. My mother always kissed my forehead and held me close, reminding me that everything was ok and that they were always just around the corner, never far away. And yet I never stopped myself from leaving my warm, comfortable bed with my flashlight in hand to seek out the terrifying stories I knew were the origin of my nighttime fears. Those books, piles of them, called to me even though I never wanted to see what was inside again.

I tortured myself for single summer, flipping through the pages of stories laced with gore and violence and death. I’d sneak into her closet and claim a book to read. As I crouched down beside their large bed I’d listen to the sounds beneath me in the living room, checking to make sure they hadn’t caught on to my missing form from my room. I’d light the pages before me with a flashlight I kept under my mattress and I’d soak in every detail, making sure I missed nothing. It was like watching a train wreck. You didn’t want to see the carnage but you also didn’t want to miss a detail.

For months my parents would put me to bed and fight with me about the lights being left on or allowing me to sleep with one more stuffed toy. It got to a point where they started interrogating me and my sitter and grandparents, asking what I was watching or reading. Then, I cracked one night after a long drawn out battle of tears and frustration. I blurted out that I had found my mother’s Hellboy comic books and I was afraid of the bad guys comings up from hell to steal away my soul.

I remember the silence that followed my shameful confession. My heart steadily beat faster beneath my dinosaur pajama shirt as I waited for them to respond. Yet, as I sat there hiccupping with emotional exhaustion from arguing, I tried to read their expressions, to figure them out and know what to expect next. Were they upset? Disappointed? Ready to loan me out to a labor camp to break rocks? Were they about to start yelling at me? Would I be spanked and put to bed with a promise of no TV or freedom for a week? Maybe even two weeks?

Then they started to laugh. It wasn’t what I was expecting and I suddenly felt very afraid. My parents had snapped. My mother doubled over, clutching her stomach while my father placed a large hand on her back and wiped at his steady tears with the other hand. I didn’t understand and I wasn’t sure if I should laugh too or if I should just keep on crying.

After that night and my confessing to secretly reading violent things far above my maturity level long after I was supposed to be sleeping, the stack of comic books was suddenly nowhere to be found. I spent a few nights venturing from my bed, armed with my flashlight, in search of them, the craving to be terrified still aching within me. But I never found them again. And soon I was sleeping through the night without an issue and without any extra lights to comfort me.

It wasn’t until I started high school that I mentioned the comic books to my mother. One day, as we sat in the kitchen together, I asked her what had happened to all those issues of Hellboy after I confessed to reading them in secret. She smiled at me and shook her head, the memories of those long forgotten nights surfacing one by one. She told me they had been stored away for me one day. That they were always meant to be mine when the time was right.

I stared in awe. This wasn’t the answer I had been prepared for and I still didn’t quite understand. With her long fingers that played the piano almost as beautifully as she played the guitar, my mother brushed the hair from my eyes and kissed my forehead, promising me she’d tell me all about it after school.

That night, after football practice and dinner, I went off to my room to finish my homework in the steady quiet of my sanctuary. There, on the edge of my bed, was a box. It was taped shut and marked in black ink. “For Jacob” it said. Slowly I lowered onto the mattress next to the box, staring at it intently. I knew what it was. I knew what was inside.

Carefully, I lifted a loose corner of tape and began to pull, gently. As the last corner of tape came free, I reached over and opened the nearest flap. And there, in the slant of light filtering down through the flaps of cardboard sat the books I remembered and a few I didn’t. One by one I pulled them out and stacked them beside me on the bed.

Memories of the long forgotten nights in the dark flipping through pages of these comic books flooded back with an intense rush of emotions. The fear the demons created in me was palatable yet the love and trust in the heroes and heroines wrapped me in comfort. As I lifted the last edition and placed it on my lap, I realized my mother was leaning against the doorjamb. The mother that dressed up every Halloween and could cook a gourmet meal with anything she found in the kitchen.

There she stood, the same loving mother I’d known all those years and yet she looked different to me in that moment. I looked at her and suddenly I wondered what she was like at my age. I wanted to know her beyond her role in my life as my mom. I wanted to hear her stories and know why these books and characters meant so much to her. I suddenly wanted to know everything about her.

She smiled and chuckled to herself.

“The night you told us that you had been reading these books in our room,” she began, “we couldn’t believe it. All that trouble to get you to bed and it was because you were doing it to yourself. It was even more hysterical to us because I had been telling your father that one day I wanted these to be yours.”

Stepping into my room, she made her way to the bed. She walked around my duffle bag ready for practice tomorrow and a pile of clean clothes needing to be put away. When she made it to my side she sat down and leaned against me, playfully ribbing me with her elbow.

“We didn’t mean for you to find them then. We thought we were being clever keeping them in my closet knowing how afraid of the dark you were. But you foiled us and found them. I was worried you’d be ruined forever and wouldn’t want them when you got older.”

She watched me intently as I fingered the pages in my hand. I flipped steadily through from beginning to end, watching the flicker of reds and blacks and yellows and deep greys file past my eyes.

“So?” she asked. “Do you want them?”

I looked away from the glorious stack of action packed pages and nodded. Yes I wanted them. They were my inheritance! A part of my mom that would always remind me of those nights that she comforted me and tried to calm my fears. They would always be the key into the mystery of who she was beyond her motherly duties and a window into her interests I would never fully understand but would try to replicate in myself.

These stories and characters were us, our bond.

“Good,” she responded, smiling from the corners of her mouth to the lines at the edges of her eyes. “Enjoy!”

Standing she walked to the door when I called out to her, stopping her from turning out of my room. She turned to faced me with that calm waiting look that I knew so well. I stood and crossed the room to her, taking her into my arms and hugging her with a thanks. Her voice stumbled and she squeezed me tightly. Stepping back, I saw a mist circle her eyes as she drew a breath and held me out at an arms length.

“You are very welcomed, hun,” she forced out. “And don’t forget to use this.”

She pulled from her pocket a small keychain flashlight and placed it in my hand. Then, she cupped my face and looked straight at me. There, in the deep brown centers of her clear, bright eyes I saw myself. It was then I knew that she understood the pull of these imaginary worlds and characters. We were one and the same, two peas in a pod.

That night she gave me a part of her. That piece of her that kept her young and fresh, full of creativity and fancy. She gave me her inner whimsical child and made it ok for me to cherish my own larger than life imagination.

She gave me my inheritance.

Missing Sunglasses

My sunglasses were missing. I couldn’t recall the last time I saw them or when I’d worn them recently. But I suddenly found myself needing them that morning and realized they were not where they should have been.

Standing in my room with my blouse on but untucked and my work trousers unbuttoned around my waist, I scanned the surfaces around me, hoping to spot them staring back at me with a look of disapproval at my state of undress and my room’s lack of organization.

My nightstand stood by my unmade bed, a book I was trying to finish reading resting on top of it in front of my alarm clock. A lamp my friends  decorated for me as a house warming gift when I moved in stood behind my book, surrounded by a thin layer of dust. But no sunglasses were waiting for me there.

A tall beaten bookshelf stood snugly in the corner of my room across from my bed. It had been my grandmother’s and I vowed to never let it be donated or sold. My grandmother, much like myself, had been an avid reader and her bookshelf was always full to the brim with literature and poetry, books of all shapes and sizes. As a young child I loved it; the smell of the pages and the piles of reading a delight to snoop through on warm summer evenings when I stayed with her. She would sneak in books for me along the bottom shelf and, like a game of hide and seek, I’d thumb through the stacks to find my hidden treasure. Finding it, the only children’s literature among the rows of fiction and classic stories, I’d scurry to her side where she waited in her arm chair, her knitting in her hands and yarn rolling about her feet. I’d wave the book at her, beaming proudly and she’d reach out to me into her lap and read from my find.

I scanned the ground, a smile on my face as I let the memory of my grandmother fade, and noted that a day of picking up the laundry and organizing my project folders might do me some good. After a steady glance around, ,y littered floor showed no signs of relinquishing my hidden glasses so I knelt down and began to search.

My hand scraped along the carpet, wincing as my skin brushed against the fibers. I unearthed a long lost book, a few dollar bills, a hair-tie and some mismatched socks probably considered long gone and lost in the dryer. But no glasses.

After spending a small chunk of time in a fruitless search of my room for the carelessly misplaced glasses that I desperately needed this particular morning, I realized I was getting frustrated. Soon the tears welled up and I could feel the hot pressure of anger ballooning behind my eyes. I stifled the streams as I pushed and piled things around my room in a hurried whirlwind of motions. I was now running late and the fact that I knew my sunglasses to be close by but could not find them was about to drive me mad.

Absolutely mad.

Soon the pressure released with a small choked sob from the back of my throat and a streak of warmth ran down my cheek. Now I was crying? Over sunglasses?

But I knew it had little to do with my glasses and that I was searching for something else, something lost that I knew could never be found.

Suddenly I reached down and grasped a handful of clothing and tossed them behind me. I reached again and again, pulling up everything I could get my hands on and throwing them around in frustration. I was flinging more than just clothing. Curses and words of resentment flew through the air to pile on top of the useless items I had laying around. I sniffled and sobbed, grabbing at anything within reach and throwing them about, making what was already a mess even bigger.

The morning slowly passed around my flurry of anger and after awhile I found myself spent. My face was slick with sadness and my hair was sticking to the ruins of my makeup, a blonde streak of color tangled with in my view here or there. My back rested against the edge of my bed and my shoulders hung limply as I slowed my breathing and tried to stem the flow from my nose.

She was gone and there was nothing I could do or say to make it better. Trust had been broken, threads snipped and memories sullied.My family would never be the same.

My head was heavy and throbbed. I could barely breathe through my nose and as I lifted my eyes to survey the damage, a headache echoed through my skull. And there they were, sitting at the mouth of my handbag, glaring back at me with disdain and a hoity look of aloofness. My glasses had been there all along.

Standing gently, tears quietly dropping now that my tantrum was over, I reached for my cell phone and dialed the office. Sherry answered and expressed concern at my congested tone. I told her I was ill and needed a day off. She cooed and told me to drink tea and rest up, her honest concern for my health making my tears flow again.

Like a child, I wiped at my eyes with the edge of my silk sleeve, leaving a stained trail of grief and half applied mascara along my arm. I agreed to take care of myself and hung up. The phone leaped from my hand and made a dull smack as it landed in a soft pile of laundry at my feet.

Slinking to my bed, my unbuttoned slacks fell away and I pulled off my blouse in a single motion. Reaching down into the fray on my floor, I grabbed a pair of worn sweatpants and a tee-shirt from my varsity days. In a fluid motion, I dressed myself and then rolled into bed, pulling up my comforter till I was huddled deep beneath its folds.

And there, under the comfort and warmth of my bed, I cried myself to sleep.

 

The Ring

The ring tumbled between her fingers as she shuffled and rolled it from the top of her hands down to her pinkies. It rolled and sparkled, the tall center diamond catching the late afternoon sunlight and reflecting a prism of colors and rainbows across her skin. The band was made of brushed gold and had warped and bent over time after years of dish washings and loads of laundry made their way through her mother’s hands.

Catching the band around her fingers as it methodically traveled up and down between her hands, she let her thoughts go and watched as the ring clung and curled around her fingers tips and knuckles. As it made its way to the last of her fingers, she pinched it and slid it down her fourth finger, letting it rest against the middle knuckle.

Sighing, she slowly pushed the ring down over the creased skin of her finger and let it settle at the base. It fit right and looked beautiful, not a bit out of place. The tears began to roll coolly down her cheeks and she stifled a sob.

It wasn’t meant to be. And honestly, she was glad her mother was no longer alive to see her fail. To see the ring go unused.

The silence ripped open as she let out a deep, broken hearted cry. Her face crumpled and she let go everything she had been holding back. Unrelenting, the tears wet her arms and hands as they fell. Her throat began to hurt from the sobs as they wrenched from her body and her limbs began to shake from the exertion of releasing so much pain.

Closing her eyes, she leaned over and fell onto her pillow, the coolness of the cotton soothing against her wet, flushed cheek. Her deep painful sobs began to subside and soon only the slightest whimper escaped. In the silent cool air of her room, alone with her thoughts, the tears continued to trickle. They streamed down her face, over the valleys of her dimples to create puddles on her pillow.

Any energy she had was gone and she remained in one place, still and listless as the tears collected in pools of deep sadness and grief. Of loss and broken promises. The light began to fade away and soon she was asleep, drain and empty.

*

 Darkness met her groggy eyes as she drifted up from the deepest levels of emotional exhaustion her body was capable of. Lifting her heavy, swollen lids she sat up slowly, feeling hungover and sore. A balloon was filling up the inside of her head and she was unable to move much without feeling achy and ill.

At first, she couldn’t decide if the darkness was because of the swollen state of her eyes. She was groggy and disorientated. Soon, after allowing her mind to recover from her nap, she realized it was dark because the day was over and she had slept for over 3 hours.

Groaning, she flopped back on her bed. So much time had been lost and there was still so much to do around the house. The cleaning and the laundry. Dishes to be put away and a litter box to be emptied.

With a sandbag on her shoulders and a heavy heart, she got up and began her chores. Within an hour, the house was more manageable and the list of to-do was cut in half. The physical pain of her break down had faded, replaced by a deep muscle soreness brought on by scrubbing and vacuuming.

It was cathartic.

Soon her mind was clearer and her heart, though still in pain, was no longer at the forefront of her thoughts. The heart break of her new single status was no longer the first thought in her mind. Instead she focused on the grout between the tile on the floor of the guest bathroom.

It was now well past midnight and the house sparkled with a manic gleam. The house was clean, spotless and her body was exhausted again, this time from the  physical exertion of cleaning her home. No tears streamed down her face, instead a salty trickle of sweat glimmered down to her chin.

Taking a look around the sparkling bathroom, she smiled. It was clean, cleansed, unsullied by germs and grime. It felt good to sit and see every surface shimmer back in appreciation of its glowing appearance.

Removing the gloves from her hands, she dabbed at her forehead and reached up to whip back the loose locks of hair curling against her damp skin.

That was when she realized it was gone.

The ring she’d placed so lovingly on her hand was not there. The worn golden band adored by her mother’s engagement diamond was not resting against the webs on either side of her finger. Instead her skin was bare, vulnerable and naked.

A gasp of surprise and fear forced its way from her throat as she frantically scanned the bathroom and the glove she was wearing. Where had it gone? How had she not noticed?

In her haste to forget her broken heart, she had scoured her home from top to bottom and not once in the hours of sweat and tears had she realized the ring was missing.

Soon her cleaned and beautiful home was strewn with papers and towels. Trash bins were emptied and searched. Dishes once put away were now pulled from cabinets and stacked precariously around the kitchen sink. She canvased every room and left nothing unchecked.

The ring was gone.

Standing in her bathroom, hands clutching the sink, she felt her body give way to another attack of gut wrenching panic. It was gone. Gone from her finger and no where to be found.

She dipped her head and waited for the tears but they didn’t come. She had cried herself dry and now all that was left was the empty echoing of her listless sobs. Her head drooped and she closed her eyes. Today was not turning out to be salvageable at all. Her heart had been broken and now her mother’s engagement ring was gone.

Opening her eyes she sighed. There was nothing else she could think of. And that’s when it hit her. She gasped and swallowed hard, staring down at her sink. The drain cover was missing. And in its place was a gaping black hole.

The panic rose in her throat and soon she was gulping for air has she emptied the cabinet beneath the sink. Her thoughts were set and firm, she would find that ring even if it meant pulling apart the sink piece by piece.

So much had been lost already.

But the ring would not be one of them.

Not today.

For The Best

Pebbles shifted and rolled silently along the pavement as her shoes struck the ground. The rhythmic in and out of her breathing broke the silent air around her as she trudged loyally along the path she ran daily.

Dusk was becoming her favorite time to run. With the setting sun and the crisp golden horizon behind her, she ran towards the oncoming darkness of the fall night. The air was turning cold and sharp in her lungs as she breathed slow and deep. Her legs, lean and strong, bent and fueled her run along the forgotten path outside the county park.

No one came here. There were no bicyclist to wrestle for lane room and no mothers with their mini caravan strollers hollering for an open lane on the right or left. Little did she see any wild life and anything they left behind, giving her little reason to search the ground or clear space in her path.

It was just her. And her thoughts.

The orange haze of dusk settled around the horizon and hugged the hills as she trotted off at a slow beginning pace. Simple and measured, she stretched her legs and warmed up her muscles, allowing her body to feel the rhythm in her stride as she set out to clear her mind. Her breathing fell into pace with her arms at her side, pumping in time to the fall of her step.

Soon her heartbeat was up and the whooshing waves of pumping blood clouded her hearing and focused her senses. She was running now, a faster pace. Her stride was at it’s full length and her lungs worked harder to breathe in. Breathe out. A steady pace. No one breath bigger or longer than the others.

Her focused mind worked through the file of daily thoughts and regular to-dos. Checking off each as she thought about them, soon her mind was blank as she hit her second mile. The aches and pains of the first mile were behind her and now her legs hit their peak and the path stayed steady and smooth. Strong and forcefully, her steps hit quickly as her pace improved and her mind wandered.

It was for the best.

Decisions to end things were never easy. Even in the hardest of situations, all endings are painful and have some bittersweet qualities to them. This one was no different.

She still loved him, but his feeling for her would never be enough. She knew it and he denied it. And his inability to see the areas that needed improvement, to see the work that needed to be done to fill in the gaps in their relationship, was the crack beneath them threatening to open up and swallow them whole.

Sweat beaded against her brow and her breathing was coming in through her nose sharply, stinging her as it passed through her lungs and forced its way past her lips, whispering into the cooling night air. The ground titled upwards as she began to climb the one hill of the whole course. She was prepared for the steep incline and the change in her pace. Without pause she dug in her toes, pitching slightly forward, her shoulders parallel to the sloping ground.

For months she struggled through the daily niceties, the hugs and kisses, the conversations over dinner about work and friends. The distance between them lengthened as she thought more about what was missing. And what she still felt for him.

And for him, nothing changed. He still viewed their relationship as whole. As complete. He wanted it to stay the same, always. A fact she knew was impossible for no human begin could stop growing, changing. Things would shift and grow between them whether he wanted it to happen or not.

His denial was suffocating them.

The hill reached onwards as her breathing intensified and her legs reached harder for that next step. Every muscle in her body burned and her lungs squeezed tighter. On fire and threatening to give up, her lungs worked endlessly to focus her breath out and draw more of the crisp night air in. She ached and yearned to stop, to quit. To give up. It was too much.

She was too tired.

Then she remember the logic behind this run. By the time she hit the hill, over three miles were behind her, and once she stood atop that obstacle viewing the city from the very peak, there was only one mile to finish, most of it downhill and simple. A breeze after the first four.

This hill, this blockage in her path, was only a small fraction of the whole journey.

Using the last ounce of strength left in her legs, she propelled her listless body upwards. Head down, breathing sharp, sweat pouring into her eyes and leaving small craters of moisture on the dry, dirt path, she felt a yell of fierce determination funnel from her chest and out into the silence.

And then there was the silence again. Her foot met the top of the hill, the dirt wafting up from the print of her shoe on the ground. The creeping night air, cold and comforting hovered over the calm city lights that lay before her. She walked in circles, letting her lung catch up and slowing her heart rate to a steady beat. Reaching up she batted away the sweat and tears mingling on her skin, trickling down her cheeks and hanging from her jaw.

There was no obstacle she couldn’t overcome. The hard part was done. Now it was time to continue on and to finish what she started.

Empty Well

She sat in front of me, restless and fidgeting, her short fingers lightly tapping against her patent leather clutch. The pearly white bag glistened dully under the dim red bar lights, flashing rhythmically to her nervous beat. White with a pinkish hue, the bag caught my attention as it flickered the muted reflection of the lights above.

The bag reminded me of my mother and her closet of things. As a child I played in there for hours in the cool darkness of her linens and shoes, trying on and manufacturing a fashion line for the wildly imaginative. She had a purse a lot like this one, the pearl colored leather gleamed softly with the long golden chain, dulled by time and wear.

A clasp at the top of the bag worked against me as a child with my tiny hands and smaller fingers. It never opened on the first try. With my tongue sticking out and my effort written across my forehead, I struggled against it to expose the soft pink silk lining. The struggle was always worth it in the end as the clasp clicked open and creaked at the small, delicate gold hinges in the corners of its mouth. I stored my trinkets and treasured there, deeply nestled in the belly of the purse that jingled delightfully against my knee.

The cushion beneath her rustled as she shifted in her seat and I shook myself out of my memories. My five year old face faded and before me she sat, anxious and waiting. I apologized for my distraction and flicked my gaze over her full face, flushed and bubbly.

This was our first meeting in years. I didn’t know what to expect. Time had crawled between us and the gap that began our last year of high school was now a cavernous well of unspoken thoughts and painfully memories. She was the first to make contact and I reluctantly reciprocated. My heart had moved on, our friendship only a faded headstone in a graveyard of memories.

Her brown eyes danced wildly, taking in the wood covered walls around us and occasionally swinging back my way, scanning my face for my reactions. Seeing if I really cared or if I was just there to please her intense need for closure.

The beer in my hand began to sweat onto the perfectly square cut cardboard coaster beneath it. A ring of rumpled colors and images was rising beneath the glass, an angry mark of a damaged good. I shifted the beer in my hand, tipping it slightly to swill the foam around the edge.

I swallowed, my tongue unable to move and make words. The shirt at the small of my back clung to the vinyl booth, sticking and shifting against my skin. Tight and unforgiving, my jeans hugged against my thighs and allowed me only small movements against the uncomfortable silence stretching between us.

If the situation wasn’t already unbearable, my clothing was making it more so. The tight waistband of my jeans cut into my stomach and it felt as if every inch of my clothing was lined with burs.

My breathing felt restricted and my skin crawled against the tension between us. Under me the vinyl squeaked with each shift and the table felt sticky beneath my clammy hands.

Yet I sat there, coolly and calmly across from my childhood friend, this stranger before me. My eyes drifted slowly, looking over the face I felt I should know. The dimples resting deeply in her smile. Those thin lips that stretched in a large mischievous grin when she plotted to embarrass me.

Her hair rested in bouncy chestnut waves around her full face, the curls reminding me of the time spent in her room, door closed, MTV blaring. Cable TV was banned from my house so the flickering images of bands and singers, cords wrapped around their feet, their tight jeans and heavy black boots shrouding their taut bodies, entranced me. I stared at them covertly, trying to seem unaffected by the gyrations of the performers and the odd visuals used to portray the songs I sang along with in my car after 7th period.

Instead I acted as though it wasn’t on, just background noise like it was to her. Sneaking peeks at the TV from the corner of my eye, I sat there quietly as she rolled her hair up into hot rollers for the perfect waves. She tamed her hair into submission with her fingertip melting velvet rollers, perfectly round and blistering. They were purple and made in different sizes which she strategically used around her head, smaller ones up top and larger barrels underneath.

Between the music videos playing in the background and her systematic preparations, I was enthralled into silence. I watched her wrist flick and fingers flutter as she quickly rolled up her shiny locks of hair to be pinned carefully in a crown of velvety cylinders around her head. Then, while she waited, she artfully curled the loose strands hanging limply onto her forehead and brushed make-up over her freckled skin, moving at speeds that felt foreign to me.

I drifted back to the bar and the lights, the scent of grease and salt wafting from the kitchen and sticking to the rough walls. The air felt grimy and the conversations around us floated by casually, reminding me that we used to do the same. A long time ago.

I looked down at my beer and lifted my hand to sip, feeling the dead weight of tension hanging around my wrist. Then she coughed, clearing her throat and looked up to speak.

“So,” she began. “How’s your little boy? I bet he’s not so little anymore.”

I smiled. Any mention of my son was a soft spot for me. I loved him fiercely and felt a sense of pride with him that I’d never encountered ever in my life. He was my reason for being.

“He’s good,” I responded, chuckling lightly. “Yeah, he’s really not a baby anymore. Growing so fast, I can hardly keep up with him.”

Her face lit up having hit a on a topic that made neither of us cringe. I smiled into my drink, sipping the cooling wheat colored brew. She shifted her hand bag off to the side and took a delicate sip of water through a long red straw.

Her nerves showed and made me more uncomfortable. It all felt forced and too polite. I waited for it to get real, for her purpose to show. She swallowed her water and looked up, her hands landing delicately on the table.

She waited.

I shuffled my feet under the table, slightly tapping the metal leg beside me with my shoe. It jolted me and I realized it was my turn to speak. All forms of social engagements seemed to be foreign to both of us and the conversation moved on like traffic on a hot, smoggy day through the downtown of a busy metropolis. Stop and go for miles is tedious on the muscles and I felt the strain in my shoulders as I gripped tightly to my glass, trying to steer this conversation away from the elephant sitting in lane three.

“How’s your family?” I asked, looking up to find her fidgeting with her sweater sleeves. Her nervous habit of drawing down her sleeves into her fists to absorb any dampness seemed to still be in effect. Good, I thought. I’m not the only one with sweaty palms.

“Good,” she answered a little too abruptly. Noticing her strict tone hang between us, she settled back into her chair, eyes on the table. “My grandpa’s health is starting to fail but the rest of the family is doing well. I have a few more nephews. Life is good.”

A gleam sprinted across her eyes as she spoke, happiness suited her well. But, the years of questioning her sobriety and whether or not certain people were still in her life, affecting her judgement and choices, made me skeptical. The gleam could be happiness but also the side effect of something else.

I sighed deeply, nodding in acknowledgement of her words. Her family was good, that’s great. But what about her? Was she alright? I took another swig at my drink, the bitter aftertaste stinging the back of my throat at the now warm beer made it’s way into my system.

I wanted to know, and didn’t at the same time. I wanted peace in knowing she was alive and I received that confirmation when her voice echoed through my phone the other day, calling to see if we could meet up, years after our last contact ended so abruptly. The drugs had been too much. And my life as a single mother could only take so much drama and abuse. The nights I waited to get a call back, to hear her voice confirm that she was breathing, unharmed and out of trouble.

“And…” I started, gazing at the knot of wood to the left of my drink. “How are you?” Looking up I found her stare hitting me hard in the face. Those deep brown eyes searching me for the right answer.

It was then I knew nothing had changed. What was left of my heart shattered as I watch her painted smile light up, charged from an unknown source inside. My mind grasped and fought with the idea that nothing had changed. That everything in my friend’s life had stayed the same.

That she was still broken. And that I couldn’t save her.

“Oh, I’m great!” She responded, sitting forward in her seat as proof that her words were true. “Yeah, things are good. I’ve got my own place and I’m working in the school district, you know, as a resource specialist. I’m still doing a little respite care work here and there but mostly my days are filled with paperwork and kids and helping them. It’s awesome, I really love it…”

Her voice trailed off as my mind slipped away. I listened halfheartedly as she went on about school and work and life and friends. Her trip to the Grand Canyon and the great first date she had the other night. Everything rolled off her tongue so smoothly, so seamlessly. Almost without real care. The tears began to gather at the back of my eyes and I blinked to keep them hidden.

“…I’ve been going to church too. Found a great congregation near me. You’d like it. They have a whole youth band play very rock based hymns on Saturday night. Nothing like rocking out to the Lord!”

At this last comment, I almost spit out my last sip of my now room temperature beer. After twelve years of the Catholic faith being pressed against us in school during the week and at mass on the weekends, we had both walked away from the church years ago. Partly in protest but mostly out of duty to ourselves. It was a faith we never felt apart of, no matter how much time we had spent praying on our knees. In hearing her pronounce that she had returned to not only a church but in such feverish interest, I was speechless.

It was the last thing I had expected.

I leaned forward on my elbow, wiping away the drop or two of spilled beer from my glass and looked at her, this time not flinching but really seeing her.

There, in her eyes, I saw the gleam wane. A slight shift and her pain suddenly reflected back. I started to recognize the gaping well of her irises staring back at me, dead and empty. The hidden resource in her system to mask her true feelings peeked out at me from behind her mascaraed eye lashes. She was using again and hiding behind it. She was also hiding in her faith, hoping with desperation that this last ledge was strong enough to hold her up, to keep her from falling.

Leaning back, the vinyl crushed beneath my heavy soul and squeaked loudly. She continued to smile, her mask slightly tipping. She was gone from me, again. And bringing her back was beyond my abilities.

Throughout the night I responded appropriately, nodding at the serious comments and laughing when she made a joke. I watched her hands flutter and expressively tell her tales, all signs to me that she was warming up, losing her inhibitions and gaining confidence in our friendship again. But I couldn’t find in me the ability to give this hurtful friendship another chance.

I left the bar that night, heavy and silent. She spent the rest of the visit chatting about God and music and her future plans, all with a noose tied loosing around her words, waiting.

And I chose not to be there when she fell.