Claire’s piercing voice rang out through the cluttered apartment. She stood in the kitchen, her slender frame dwarfed by the mountains of junk piled across every available surface. The sink was filled with pots and pans without a cupboard to call home, and the countertops seemed to bend beneath the weight of unopened letters and overdue bills. Even the dishwasher was filled with an assortment of kitchen wares and unopened boxes, the door barely able to snap shut against the load.
“What now, babe?” Owen called as he reluctantly put the television on mute and got up from the tattered couch. A dusting of crumbs tumbled onto the floor as he stood, mingling with the layer of dirt in the worn carpet. He picked his way into the kitchen, side-stepping around towers of cardboard boxes stacked clear up to the ceiling. An icy silence greeted him in the kitchen. He leaned against the doorframe, plastering on a goofy grin. “Now don’t tell me you called me in here for nothing.”
“Nothing? Just look at this place!” Claire swung her arm about the room in disgust, knocking over a potted plant perched on the edge of the countertop. The tiny pot smashed against the linoleum, sending clay shards and soil across the room.
“Oh, now look what you’ve gone and done now!” Owen said with a bit of a giggle. “I never thought you were so clumsy!”
“Look what I’ve done?!” Claire’s voice rose into a shout as she stepped through the remains of the potted plant and gave Owen a shove through the doorway. He stood up straight, looking down into Claire’s fiery eyes from his nearly six-foot height. She pushed him again, rising onto her tip-toes to bring her face closer to his as she yelled. “Look what you’ve done! Or more like what you haven’t done!”
“What I haven’t done? You can’t be angry with me for not doing something! If I don’t do it, then I can’t do it wrong!”
“Oh, you think you’re being funny, don’t you?”
“Well of course; it’s what I do best!” Owen leaned against a nearby stack of boxes, giving another goofy grin.
“Don’t give me that stupid smile of yours, always flaunting about how happy and carefree you are while everyone else in your life handles the adult work! We moved in together three weeks ago, and you’ve done nothing to help clean up! What else could you possible have to do every day?! I’m the one with a job since you got laid off! I support the both of us while you do what? Watch TV all day? You’ve got no right to be so happy with yourself! Feel a little bit of shame, at the very least!”
Owen’s grin fell flat as the mood in the room darkened. He took a step forward, reaching out a hand to brush Claire’s hair out of her eyes. She recoiled, stepping back and folding her arms across her chest.
“Claire, listen. I know I haven’t been doing everything I should be lately. I’ve just got a lot going on, and-” She cut him off, throwing up her hands in frustration.
“Oh, you give me this line all the time! ‘I’ve got a lot going on right now!’ All you do is sit on that couch in a pile of filth! This apartment is an absolute wreck because you can’t be bothered to help!”
Owen struggled to maintain his generally calm demeanor as he met Claire’s gaze. He clenched a fist at his side, though he knew he would never hit her. She was the one thing that made his life worth living. Her eyes began to fill with tears as she lowered her head.
“Maybe this was a mistake,” she whispered.
“What?” Owen gasped as his heart skipped a beat. An overwhelming sense of dread took hold of him, crushing him beneath the weight of her words.
“I said maybe this was a mistake!” Tears streamed down Claire’s face as she raised her eyes once more, stepping forward and forcing Owen against the wall. “Maybe this was all a mistake! We shouldn’t have moved in together, we shouldn’t be together, and we never should have met!”
She turned away from Owen, racing down the short hallway into the bedroom that they shared. Owen followed close behind, placing his foot in the doorway to stop her from locking him out. She gave up on slamming the door and sat on the edge of the bed, sobbing into her hands.
“Claire, you can’t mean that!”
“What’s it matter to you if I mean it or not? All you care about is yourself! So long as you can freeload off of everyone else’s efforts, your life is just perfect!”
Claire’s words struck like bullets in Owen’s heart, sending an unbearable pain through his chest. He stumbled over to the bed, kneeling on the floor in front of Claire and pulling her hands from her face. She stood up, forcing Owen onto the floor as she walked across the room to his dressing table. With a single sweep, she ran her hand along its surface, knocking piles of clothes and junk onto the floor. Owen leaned against the bedframe, completely at a loss for words.
“Is this what you want?!” she shouted. “Because that’s all you do! All you do is trash this place and expect me to clean up after you!” She began opening the drawers, emptying their contents onto the floor. She picked up a small envelope from the mess, her name written across the front in marking pen. “What’s this, one of your little love poems? Don’t think you can make up for all your freeloading with some scribbled nonsense!”
“Hey, put that down!” Owen shouted, leaping up from his place on the floor. He snatched the paper from her hand, crumpling it into his fist. “That’s private…” His voice trailed off as a lump began to form in his throat. His eyes began to sting with the tears he was forcing back.
“Owen?” Claire took a step forward, hesitantly reaching out her hand. In the three years they’d been together, she had never once seen Owen cry.
He sat down on the bed, clutching the envelope tightly as he rested his head against his hands. Claire sat down beside him, placing a hand against his back as shallow and shuddering breaths shook his body and betrayed his weeping.
“It’s not a poem,” he said barely loud enough for her to hear. “It’s my suicide note.”
“Owen, don’t make jokes like that, it’s not funn-”
“I’m not joking. Here. You can read it if you want to.” Keeping his head down, he unclenched his fist and passed the wrinkled envelope to Claire. He sat in silence as she read his final goodbye, her hands shaking violently by the time she reached the last line.
“Owen, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I yelled at you, and that I said your life was perfect, and that I-”
“Hey, stop.” He turned to face her, cupping her chin in his hands. “It’s not your fault.”
Dropping the note to the floor, she raised her hands to cover his, bringing them down over her heart and holding them tight. She looked into his eyes, unable to speak.
“I was going to get rid of the note, you know.”
“My life isn’t perfect. Maybe I’m not always so happy as everyone thinks, and maybe I feel like a failure sometimes. But the last thing I ever want is for you to get hurt. I love you more than anything, and I know that you love me back, even when you’re angry with me. You’re the reason I get out of bed in the morning, even if I do nothing else that day. You’re what makes me want to stay.”
“Owen, I don’t know what to say…”
“You don’t have to say anything. Here, come with me.”
He picked up the note from the floor and stood up, extending a hand down to Claire. They walked together into the kitchen, where Owen pulled a pack of matches from beneath a pile of unread magazines. Holding the note up above the kitchen sink, he lit a match and touched it to the corner of the page, letting the ashes fall into the running water. He turned to Claire, a goofy smile on his face once again.
“Now, how about I give that potted plant a proper burial?”