Lucy is pulling on her leash, snarling and growling at the snow. She gets antsy this time of year - the beginning of spring when geese and birds begin to return from their winter vacation, when squirrels dance across streets merrily, barely avoiding the Minivans that rule this block. I pull harder back and remind myself that this walk is burning off the late morning calories of a frozen waffle. Damian always reminded me that I needed to lose a few more pounds, to just go for a run for once.
“Carry! Didn’t see you there. Going for an easy stroll now, are we?” My neighbor, Amanda, crows as she passes us, trotting behind her Dachshund with a tight lipped smile. I beam back at her, though the gesture is anything but sincere. There is always a hidden jab behind every one of Amanda’s comments. I wave her and her immaculate trench coat off, sinking my clogs into a puddle of slush when Lucy gives another lerch.
“Lucy!” I call in vain. It’s too late, Lucy has wiggled out of her collar. She darts across the snow like a squirrel and pauses on the ditch, sniffing the snow cautiously. Suddenly, the snow beneath her collapses, and she sinks two feet into the snow!
“I'm coming!” I leap into the snow after her, pulling her shivering form out of the snow. I glance around worriedly, but Amanda has turned around the block, and for most of the families living here, the day started hours ago. “You scared the shit out of me, stupid cat.”
I brush the snow off of Lucy’s orange fur, and she glares angrily at me, yellow eyes narrowed into slits. I slip the collar around her throat, careful not to tighten it too much. Damian always said I was too easy on Lucy, treating her like a pampered dog. I can see why he would say that.
I stumble out of the snow, tugging Lucy after me. Unlike me, though, she has her eye on something other than the sidewalk. In the clumsy imprints we left in the snow, there is a corner of a worn book peeking out of the snow. I freeze.
Lucy lunges after the book, sinking her teeth into the cover corner to drag it out of the snow. She pads over to me with it in her mouth and drops it in front of me like a dead bird carcass. I take off my mittens, crouching down gently to pick it up.
“Geez,” I breathe, flipping through the wrinkled and water-logged pages. Despite remaining in the snow for most of the winter, the book has been preserved by the ice and almost all of the words are legible. “You don’t say…” I brush the remaining sludge and snow off of the book and tuck it under my arm. For all of the trouble she has just caused me (and will cause me), Lucy looks proud. She doesn’t cause a single other issue for the remaining trek back to our house.
“I’ll get you some food, you silly cat,” I call after Lucy as she saunters into the one-bedroom house - making a beeline for the kitchen. I peel the can top off of her “Meaty Bits: Chicken and Gravy” cat food and plop it into the bowl. She glares at me.
“What?” I try innocently. After a pause, I add, “Don’t expect the filet mignon!” Lucy must realize that it is a lost fight, and she turns her attention to the bowl.
I pick up the book, paper towels stuffed between every few pages in a desperate attempt to dry it. It brings back old memories. Hell, it was only last week that I worked up the courage to avoid going fifteen minutes out of the way for a different neighborhood to walk in to calm the dredges of my memories. It isn't so easy to forget. Damian would have laughed at my attempts.
Damian. I’d like to pretend he is old news, but it was only last autumn when I threw my books at him, one of them evidently buried in the snowstorm that swung through town that night.
If you knew me, you knew it would have taken a lot for me to throw my worn and dog-eared books at a man who didn’t deserve a word of my collection. If you knew me, you would know that a day hasn't passed since October 17 that I don’t hate myself for loving him. And hating him. And wishing that he made different choices or that I didn't choose to walk that night.
I met Damian at a pottery class that my sister convinced me to take. A little something after my 9-5. That was the third “something” on her list, right behind a hot guy and a land swimming class that she told me “changed her life”, neither of which she could convince me to try. The pottery class went every Tuesday from 6 to 7:30, and I didn’t know a single goddamn person, but the free juice boxes were neat, and I had nothing better to do. Fine, maybe I am not giving Damian enough credit. He was cute, an upgrade from the lethargic seniors I called my colleagues
“Hey, bonita,” Damian used to whisper, bumping his elbow against mine as he trimmed clay off of a particularly lumpy pot. He wasn’t Spanish or Mexican, and I doubt he knew another word, but I appreciated the gesture. He won me over with subtle elbow bumps, with Spanish words spoken through American lips, with promises of red wine and roses and more.
We were an on-again-off-again couple - something I promised myself I would never become. It wasn't because of me though. Or maybe it was.
You see, every few weeks, Damian would get bored of the sex, my cooking, my cat, the same blue comforter and fluorescent light bulbs. I never worried about his return. Like a lost puppy, he’d run back, usually after getting a bite of the Hooters waitress he’d eyed before or after promising another girl what he couldn’t offer them.
I always knew when to expect his departure. He’d start skipping our date nights, stop eating my dinners, would say just the right things to make me lose a few pounds, turn a little grayer at the corners. At his best, at the end of those few weeks, he was distant. At his worst, he was nasty, almost violent. Pushing me around a little too much or throwing a picture frame here or there.
I could convince myself that it was a sign of his love, that he just wanted to show how much I meant to him. I could convince myself that I really did need to lose a few more pounds, that Lucy really was just a scrawny cat, that I needed to take a cooking class and buy new blankets and wallpaper and things to make him feel more at home. I could convince myself that I was happy.
So, why am I standing here with a worn The Great Gatsby in my hands, dripping water onto the rug? I shouldn’t be here. I should be at home, with Damian or my sister, watching a Hallmark movie or reading under a blanket. Instead, October 17 happened.
It was a really cold autumn night, three days after Damian left me (for the seventh time). I was on a walk, by myself. I was walking to my sister’s house from the bungalow Damian and I shared. She knew about Damian. She loved Damian, and part of me craved that. You didn’t find many people that liked my boyfriend.
I was walking to her house, holding a pile of books. We would read, me and her. She would flip through my books, insistent on finding a typo or mistake that she loved pointing out to me. She always loved seeing me squirm. I always loved just being in her company. It made me feel like less of the weirder sister she reminded me I was.
I didn’t know if she would be at home though. She told me she was in Jamaica or in another sunny spot with white-sand beaches and land swimming classes. She would stay in those paradise resorts until her wallet wore thin or she got sick of the sickly sweet cocktails, returning to find a hint of normalcy before leaving again.
I knew where she hid the key, so when I arrived, I unlocked the door. The lights were off, but I figured I would come inside anyways. Sometimes, it was better to be alone there than home. Damian might bring his plaything to our bungalow in a drunken state, and I didn’t have the energy for another fight.
I flipped on the light carelessly, and Damian and my sister froze on the couch. My sister was half naked, wearing leopard panties and an orange bra and looked to be halfway to devouring Damian's ear. There was a bottle of whiskey overturned on the floor next to them, and the brown liquid leaked in between the floorboards. Damian, for all of his promises and proud comments, looked like he wanted to drip between the floorboards. My sister, less so.
“What are you doing here?”
I chased them out with my books, hurtling words and exclamation points and italicized declarations of hatred at them until they disappeared into the shadows, leaving me to pick up the characters and symbols I had lost, leaving me to scrounge for a promise that Damian had broken again and again. Even the books couldn’t fix that "something" that was so broken.
It’s The Great Gatsby, and it’s worn and cold to my fingertips. It feels anything but great, but I open it anyways and begin to read.
In my younger and more vulnerable years…