In Happier Times | Flash Fiction

“Is this it, then?”

He knows from the way she is standing by the door, clutching that big brown paper shopping bag. She is there but not really there. Waiting with the posture of someone at a bus stop. Normally she would come straight in, bursting with conversation while idly straightening pictures, stacking coasters and sifting his mail and generally straightening his already clean, well-ordered apartment. It was her way. It was what she did, and he had loved her for it. But today there is no putting things to rights.

He watches her shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, clutching that brown paper bag. She often brought him things, small thoughtful gifts like teeshirts from bands he liked or drawing pencils she had found on sale. Small, thoughtful gifts from a bottomless bag of affection.

Today she holds the bag close and closed tight.

“I brought you some things.” She does not look at him when she says it. Looking everywhere else around the small room, taking everything in with small, furtive glances. Last looks.

“Are you breaking up with me?”

She holds the bag out to him, still closed in her tight grip. He reaches for it and for a long moment they held it together between them.

“Your picture’s crooked,” she mutters, letting go of the bag to go across the room to adjust the photo frame on the bookshelf. It is a picture of them together, in happier times, not so long ago. There are few pictures in his apartment. All of them are of the two of them in happier times.

He opens the bag. There are no gifts. The bag is full of his things – drawings he had done at her apartment, a few of his favorite books that had made their way onto her shelves, a spatula, a toothbrush, flannel pants and a few favorite tee shirts. All neatly folded. All accounted. By his quick calculation, this seems to him most of the personal things he had ever left at her place all gathered thorough and neat, which were two of her many qualities he found most endearing.

“I kept the Zeppelin shirt.” She is looking out the window. “I can give it back if you want.” It was her favorite shirt, the one he had been wearing the night they met. She slept in it most nights he slept over, which made it his favorite shirt as well.

“Keep it. Keep all this stuff. You don’t have to do this.”

A siren outside the window catches her attention. The window is closed. She moves to see if she can find it, but all she can see is her own reflection in the dark pane.

“I know. But I do.”

“Maybe some time,” he says. “Maybe you just need some time. You could keep this stuff for a week. Or a month. See how you feel.”

He holds the bag out to her. She does not reach for it.

She looks up at him, and seems surprised a bit to find him there. This time when she looks at him, she does not look away.

“I already know how I feel.”

“Yeah, but feelings change.”

She nods. “That’s the problem.”

The siren is closer now. She glances through the window at the busy world five stories below, the night street full of business, hidden parties and secret emergencies.

“I should go,” she says. It takes the life out of him.

He sets the bag down. “Do you want your things?”

“I don’t have anything here.” And he realizes now that she was right. She had been slowly moving her things out for weeks. She had left before she was gone.

He reaches out for the picture of them, the picture she had just straightened. She moves closer to him. After years of hand holding, the kisses and caresses, they hug awkwardly.

“Take this, then,” he says, offering the picture of happier times.

She is slow to take it.

“I should go.”

And now she is not someone at a bus stop. She is someone actually on a bus traveling at high speed.

“I still love you,” he tells her. “I want you to know.”

“I know.”

And then it is just the work of crossing the small room, the last quick looks.

He opens the door and holds it for her, hopeful that something might change. She steps through.

He watches as she makes her way down the first flight of steps. Listens as she reaches the next. He waits until he can no longer hear her and then she becomes the story he tells himself for the rest of his life.

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