May 1984

Oh. There is something I forgot to say about me; fluff is not my forte, so enjoy the pain!

***

When she hears the distant knock on the door, she doesn’t even consider getting up to answer as an option. She lifts the crumpled sheets over her head and cocoons herself deep underneath the warm and soft shelter of the duvet. The voices from the TV seep in, low and muffled, announcing that the Red Sox traded pitcher Dennis Eckersley to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. Everything else oozes away unheeded. She’s faraway, lost, floating in a space where she knows her heart keeps aching but the haze slightly alleviates it. She tries to remember while forcing herself to forget at once. She can’t define with certainty in which moment everything stopped making sense, she just knows it did. Ever since she got that call from Scott’s sister – and her once best friend – Karen, her whole existence became a surreal pursuit; of truth, of peace of mind, of forgiveness, of anchorage. Of herself. Until eventually she yielded to the reality that none of those was within reach. She got glimpses of truth in the anesthetized words of Michael – her last connection with him, – a hint of anchorage in Jennifer’s hug, their common friend. But as for anything else, all she can do is to build them herself and right now she’s too consumed and doesn’t have the strength for it.

She closes her eyes and hopes emptily that bright images will appear and fight off the painful ones. But it’s pointless, it’s not going to work and she knows it. Blurred memories of beaming smiles and candid sheets always end up taking on the same shade of carmine red. And the pills that are supposed to make her sleep and forget only sink her in a universe filled with nightmares; nightmares entangled so deeply, so vividly with the reality. They are the reality. It feels like living in the twilight zone, still hoping in spite of her grief that she’s going to wake up and realize it never really happened.

She tries to focus on his face. Maybe if she makes a real effort he will appear, out of nowhere. But the more she strives to visualize him the more his features fade out and bleach. She tries to put together the details, to fuse in the same image his eyes, the curve of his mouth, the once chiseled line of his jaw and curses herself for not doing it when she had the chance, for all she gets now are aggressive flashes of everything that went wrong. Only his voice is still alive, vivid and fresh in her mind, imprinted in a hurried, baffling voicemail for her to never forget.

In the stillness of her apathy, Scott’s voice is interrupted by a sudden shot that makes her start, her heart throbs piercingly in her head.

No.

It’s not a shot. It’s another knock. Firm. The knock of someone with apparently no intention to leave. She hesitates. She doesn’t want to deal with the outside world, not yet. Her glassy eyes open lazily to the sound of the intruder knocking a third time. She yields and like an automaton turns the TV off, leaves her quiet haven and heads to the front door, wrapping herself tightly in her sweater as a sting of cold makes her shiver.

But when she sees who’s standing on the threshold, she’s floored. For an imperceptible fraction of second her eyes leak something; surprise, empathy, a glimmer of lightness for a presence who used to be welcome and in this moment is the closest thing to familiar. Sort of.

She can’t remember the last time Karen has been there. Long ago, long enough to have completely lost memory of it. It was undoubtedly in another life. And the shadow of a smile that greets her is nowhere close to those they once used to share. It’s filled with her same kind of pain, yet Karen is evidently doing a much better job at keeping it all inside. She always did after all.

Nina doesn’t say anything, she honestly wouldn’t know what to say and right now she’s too numb to conceive anything. So she just stands aside to let her in and closes the door back behind them.

Judging by Karen’s pitiful look, Nina must be a mess. The frayed oversize sweater doesn’t hide the lost weight and the absence of make-up on her eyes unveils every single tear she tried not to cry. She is a mess and it’s pointless to try and hide it to someone like her, someone she’s sure that, despite everything, won’t criticize her or condemn her misery.

“Hey,” Karen says, very simply. And there’s an unvoiced I’m sorry in her tone and in her bitten upper lip that Nina has no idea how to handle, except for returning the same apologies.

Ever since it happened, she’s been getting apologetic looks, words of concern – sincere or false, that’s another story – and more set phrases than she can take. Most of the times, she brushes everyone off, pretending she’s fine, because the thought of losing him is already insufferable enough without the thickness of words to make it more real. But some other times she stops and for a moment she’s tempted to ask them what exactly they are apologizing for. Too many reasons. What do they see? The friend? The lover? The exploiter? Do they apologize for her loss of someone who was more important than she’s ever admitted? Or for some sense of guilt? For screwing up everything? All she knows is that their fake expressions of sorrow won’t bring him back and certainly won’t ease her pain. If anything, they deepen it.

She can count on a few fingertips the people who really mean it and this realization makes her feel even more lost and alone. But if there is one thing she knows is that Karen is one of those few. Still, she has no idea what she’s doing here. Aside from a few words exchanged on the phone the day Scott died and at his funeral, they haven’t had any real conversation in ages. She stares at her old friend, silent, confused by the reason behind her unexpected and unannounced visit.

“Hey,” she snaps herself out of her thoughts and finally answers, not adding much to the conversation but she’s not being very talkative lately. There’s always that excruciating combination of pain, anger, shock and emptiness that can’t be expressed with speech. Or with anything else. Crushed by her struggle to keep all those feelings at bay, she has no energy left for words.

And for a moment, neither of them says anything. They just stare at each other, maybe weighing the impact of the abrupt absence in their lives.

There’s not much to weigh though, Nina considers. Her agony is written all over every cell of her body.

“I… I had to go through some of his personal stuff,” Karen starts and her voice reveals an uncommon hesitancy.

She’s very careful not to mention his name and it strikes Nina how most of those close to him seem to avoid mentioning his name. There’s some underlying comfort in this disjuncture. She has a hard time saying his name aloud, too and whenever someone mentions his name she instinctively turns her head to the speaker, eyes down to defend her feelings. She’s doing it again now, but this time her gaze falls on something in Karen’s hand instead of some cold floor marble. It’s an envelope, a bubble wrap one and whatever the content is, that’s likely the reason why Karen is here now.

When she looks up, Karen’s eyes are lingering on the same piece of golden paper, confirming her suspicions.

“There was… this,” Karen says, as she stretches her arm to hand her the envelope. ” I thought you should have it.”

It takes a moment for Nina to pull together enough courage to meet her halfway. For an infinite moment she just stares at the envelope, unable – or more afraid – to check its contents. When she finally makes up her mind, her hand can feel something solid and thick through the bubbles. A book? That’s her first guess. But upon opening its end, she realizes she was wrong.

It’s definitely not a book. It’s a tape. She looks up at Karen, confused, bewildered, searching in the woman’s eyes some answer to a question she’s not sure she wants to ask. But the white label catches her attention before she can actually voice anything.

May 1984.

Blood runs cold in her veins as the year kicks in. 1984. May 1984. This date is familiar in a devastating way. She remembers, and she remembers something she’s not sure she wants to remember in a moment when she’s already fending off floods of regrets. She watches her own hand tremble as it takes the tape completely out of the envelope and it takes her a good amount of self-control to not let it fall to the floor. Its contact burns on her skin like the memories of that day, like the uncountable amount of red wine that had come along with that dinner.

Scott. One of their long weekends. And a very memorable one.

She remembers the dinner at her place, she remembers his offer to cook and how she was surprised about it because she didn’t even know he cooked in the first place. And in fact it turned out he didn’t. Everything was either half-baked or overdone, either insipid or so spiced that a whole bottle of red was gone with the first course, though she couldn’t deny some sick pleasure in watching him tangle with the pasty mushroom risotto.

She remembers laughter that still reaches her like a distant echo, because the thought counted more than the catastrophic result.

She remembers her unselfish, unconditioned thanks for his failed gesture. Then she remembers the morning after.

May 1984.

The label plays a painful reminder. It still burns, three years later, and now more than ever it pierces her heart mercilessly.

She looks up at the woman who used to be – and that maybe, after all, in some ways still is – her friend. “Thanks,” she whispers with a broken voice.

Then a doubt assails her. How does Karen know… At the only thought she might have watched it, Nina diverts her gaze down, unable to stand her inquisitive look any longer. God only knows what she might think of her after this.

“I… I didn’t,” Karen answers her unexpressed fears. “I stopped it after the first seconds.”

Only when she exhales her relief she realizes she was holding her breath. She takes in Karen’s words with a faint nod and watches her as she turns on her heels, starts to leave, then stops on the doorstep for a weak, sorrow-charged smile that Nina returns. “How are you holding up?” she ventures to ask though, knowing Karen, she probably won’t get any open answer.

Karen stares at her, then shrugs. “Like everyone else.”

Like everyone else.

But in this moment Nina doesn’t feel like everyone else. Everyone else seems to react, to pull themselves together and keep on with their lives. Why can’t she? She should be fighting. She should be reacting. What’s different for her? What’s drawing her down? In her heart, she has all the answers already but it’s easier to believe she doesn’t than to face the reality that there are a million things she never told him and she’ll never have the chance to tell him, that she devoted the last months of her life to ruining their relationship and yet she still had some confidence – or vain hope – it could be rebuilt.

Everyone else doesn’t have to deal with such weighty baggage.

Like everyone else, she repeats to herself and nods in acknowledgement to Karen, who turns to leave. And this time she doesn’t stop her.

When the door shuts between them, she finds herself staring blankly for a moment at the white wood; seconds or minutes? She can’t say, time seems to be running in slow motion lately. Eventually, she drags herself back into the living room and looks around. Standing in the middle, she feels the hard plastic of the tape oddly heavy in her hand and she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do with it.

With Karen gone, the apartment has sunk back into an unsettling silence animated only by her loud thoughts. She gazes down at the tape again. It won’t stop burning. She rushes to the bedroom, hides it on the bottom of a drawer, then holes up again in the only place where she’s allowed to unloose the physical pain of her loss.

Quick flashes of that weekend keep hammering in her mind. Their cheerful voices and the clear laughter haunt her beneath her refuge. It all seems so real at the point that she just gives up, tosses the sheets and listens to the silence around her. Her gaze falls on the drawer. She heaves a resigned sigh, sits up and reaches out for the knob. And with no further thinking she takes the tape from where she hid it only minutes ago.

Her index finger runs down the felt tipped words on the label, tracing their curves and lines. Scott’s handwriting. May 1984. Her mind can’t seem to move past that date and the aftertaste of happiness it brings along. How did they end up doing this? It’s something she can’t remember. Was it the result of alcohol releasing their most hidden desires? The side effect of the romantic dinner? Or just a moment of frenzy? She tries to remember but that memory is for some reason missing. She frowns, saddened by the idea of losing memory of him with the passing of time. She doesn’t want to forget him. She doesn’t want to forget what it felt like to be with him, but at the same time she knows that it’s the inevitability of life. One day she’ll look back and maybe he will be a name from her past, some faded, lifeless memory. What is, in the end, the year they shared over the course of a whole life? Not enough to leave an everlasting mark, but still enough to shatter her. She wants to remember the good because those are the memories that fade away more easily. It’s always the bad ones that remain and she built so many of those to last for a lifetime.

She caves in to the need to see him and with trepidation she inserts the tape in the video recorder and presses play, already knowing she’s going to regret it.

A lump shapes up in her throat as the familiar setting appears on the TV screen. It’s the same surrounding that’s hiding her now, yet it feels completely different.

The camera panning slightly over her, she was sitting on the bed, red nightgown, silk legs outstretched above the sheets and a smile that belonged to someone she ceased to be long ago.

She can feel every nerve of her body beg for mercy and mentally yells at herself to stop it while she still has the chance. But she doesn’t and she scolds herself for not being strong enough to do something so simple like pressing a stupid button.

– Are we really doing this, aren’t we? –

Her body shudders and tingles.

That voice. His voice.

In spite of the gentleness of the tone, it cuts her like a sharp blade from side to side. When was the last time he talked to her with a tone that wasn’t meant to hurt her? When was the last time he talked to her with the tenderness that made her feel so special? She thinks, fumbles with the memories, searches desperately for that single moment but falls through. It’s just one of the many memories that is already lost.

– Already having second thoughts? –

A raised brow, her legs crossed with studied slowness for any second thought to get dissipated in his head. And it sure worked.

– Are you? –

– Do I look like I am? –

Teasing.

Lighthearted and amused. Spontaneous and easygoing. It had always been like that between them. And surprisingly to her, longtime gone memories of their early Yale days resurface from some closet where they had been hiding for a couple of decades. Yes, it had always been like that. Maybe memories don’t evaporate after all, and the thought brings an invisible smile on her face, a smile that fades out as quickly as it appeared as soon as her image on the screen disappears, covered by someone else’s.

She clouds, flinches, chokes back a tear. It’s senses-shattering.

This is how he looked.

Her eyes run up and down his face, marking every line, capturing every shadow, storing every imperfection of his features because she wants to remember him exactly as he was. That was Scott. And that’s what she wants to hang onto, not some distorted, reworked projection of her mind. Her gaze roams frantically, striving to save as much as possible because she already knows she’ll never watch this again.

She remembers. Every single detail. Every word that was spoken. Every kiss that was shared still strikes her with its intensity.

White shirt, hands firmly on the sides of the camera to adjust it one last time, his laughing eyes focused straight on it as he cleared his throat and it feels like he’s about to talk to her but he’s not.

– I would like to put on record that I have absolutely no involvement or responsibility in the events that led to that woman’s decision. –

His lawyer-ish attitude made her giggle in disbelief and burst into a hearty laughter. It did back then and still does now as she realizes she’s laughing for the first time in days and it’s not from the effects of being drunk.

– Are you putting all the blame on me? –

Her arms flung open in pretended shock and he didn’t miss the opportunity to slide in and lay his head down tenderly on her chest.

She still can feel her heart beat fast under the union of their warm skins and his body rise and sink steadily with every breath she took.

– Absolutely yes. –

The shameless admittance. The quickly stolen kiss. And his eyes, wandering with failed discretion over every curve of her body. She always loved the way his eyes worshipped her. They never stopped doing it, even when it was over. And maybe that’s one of the many reasons why it was never over for real, why she never succeeded in letting go of what they had. Even when mad, even when at odds, even when he hated her – and she knows he did – his eyes never ceased to love her. Maybe they still do, but the thought that she’ll never see them again, that she’ll never feel them again, is soul-consuming.

– That’s so lame. –

It was so lame and still he managed to wheedle one more kiss out of her. His hand played with her arm, tickling it with delicate caresses.

Her hand moves to rest delicately on her left arm in an unwitting gesture as if she could meet his halfway, when she perfectly knows it’s not going to happen. Nevertheless, her skin is electric. She would give everything for the chance to feel his soft touch again.

– That’s instinct of self-preservation. One day you’ll regret it and pick on me for it. I’m leaving evidence of my innocence. –

One day you’ll regret it.

She still doesn’t. There are a lot of things she regrets but that’s definitely not one of them. It’s evidence indeed, but of the fact that the happiness of those moments is not a figment of her imagination. It was genuine and concrete like only a few other things in her life are.

There are a lot of other things she regrets. Both leaving him and being with him are causing her an unbearable suffering. If they never had a chance in the first place maybe she wouldn’t be aching so much. She would have lost a friend, still painful but in a different way. She regrets giving up that bliss. For what in the end?

– You’re so prude. –

– Excuse me, I’m what? –

And this time she was the one to lean forward to kiss him, to shut any needless words.

Her finger presses pause on an image she hopes never to forget.

Smiles between kisses. Hands entwined in the hair. Eyes which didn’t need words. Everything that came afterwards doesn’t need a visual reminder.

She never told him what he really meant to her. She remembers telling him she was happy and hopes he left knowing that it was much more than just that. She hopes he was good at reading her eyes like she had always been at reading his.

Her fingers brush her lips. She can taste that kiss and all those which followed.

Do you really think that your life would have been better, had you made a different choice?

Words she asked herself so many times and now bite her back. Would her life have been better? Would have she been happier? She never thought it. She can’t know it, she never will. All she has is the awareness that at some point she was happy, at some point she felt alive. She has learned better than to think happiness lasts forever.

She hits stop, takes the tape off and hides it on the safer bottom of a box in her wardrobe where it’ll remain forever, reading the date on the label for one last time. May 1984. It’s her only tie to a life she wants to remember, when things still made sense. She puts the box back in its place right in time before the front door opens to the lively voices of her husband and Maggie, their two-year-old daughter.

 

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