Content warning: Swearing, mentions of death
The worst part of the divorce a year ago wasn't losing half my stuff. Back then, I could only watch as Linda descended upon our possessions like royalty, simply pointed to the couch and the blender and my favorite bottle of shampoo, and the lawyer made it so. If we had a baby, I'm sure she would've King Solomoned that too. And I was fine with it, had come to expect that much. It was a small price to pay for my peace of mind.
The worst part—what I hadn't expected—was that she would move into the house next door.
When the doorbell rings, I'm on the couch, in the process of rolling another blunt. I ignore it, but then it chimes in rapid-fire bursts. So fast that the dongs don't get a chance to breathe before the next ding interrupts.
In general, as a matter of principle, I don't open my door to strangers. Why bother when it's always the same thing? No, I don't need my lawn mowed. No, I don't want to buy a box of Thin Mints. No, I don't have a moment to talk about your lord and savior—no, not tomorrow, either.
And if I weren't mildly high, I probably wouldn't have got up and opened the door just now.
Outside, the wind rages, gnarling tree branches and scattering rain in every direction. My hardwood floor falls victim to more than a few stray droplets. Thunder booms in the distance, like an uncle who's had too much to drink. Goosebumps pimple my arms. Storm of the decade, the weatherwoman declared this morning, though it'd been sunny then and she'd been wearing a dress that left little to the imagination.
I'm about to give the offender a piece of my mind before I realize who it is on the other side of the door.
Linda stands shivering on my soggy welcome mat. She's holding four plastic grocery bags, two in each hand, overflowing with food: apples and ground beef and vanilla ice cream. Rain soaks her sweater and clings to her blonde bob. We stand there staring at each other, deadlocked in a game of chicken, waiting for the other person to speak first after a year of silence and avoidance. Minutes pass.
Linda caves first.
"May I come in, Chad?" she says in an unrecognizable tone of voice. I'm not even sure what you'd call it—demure or modest maybe, words that would sooner apply to a Mack Truck than my ex-wife.
"Excuse me?" I say, grazing the doorknob with my left hand. It would be so easy to treat her like a Girl Scout and slam the door in her face.
She repeats herself, so I ask what's wrong with her house.
She turns away for the first time, fixes her gaze on the dark storm clouds on the horizon. The plastic bags crinkle and hiss when she rubs her nose and sniffles. "I locked my keys in the car," she confesses, and I look across the way at the candy-apple Miata in her driveway.
"Okay," I reply. "And your car keys are where?"
A raindrop rolls down her cheek like a tear. "In the car," she says curtly.
"And your phone?" I ask, though I can hazard a guess.
"In the fucking car." The demureness in her voice, much like the dodo bird, is extinct. "I was in a rush, okay?"
"Why don't you ask the Murphys?" I say, indicating the blue stucco house across the street, but of course I know the answer already. We both do. The divorce wasn't pretty. The cul-de-sac was divided on the issue. Neighbors were split, lines were drawn. I'm pretty sure Melissa Murphy is still giving Alvin the silent treatment for taking my side.
Linda sighs. "Forget it," she says through chattering teeth. "Forget I asked."
Maybe it's just because of the first blunt, but seeing her like that, shivering and shaking, reminds me of a Dachshund I used to have as a child. Meatball was his name. Skinniest dog you ever saw. He used to curl up next to me under the covers and shake all through the night. No matter what I did, how close I held him to my chest, he was always cold.
That's what I'm thinking about when I hear myself say, "All right, you can come in."
Linda, already halfway off the porch, whirls around. Her sapphire eyes narrow, the look of distrust, but then she's inside before I can rescind the offer.
There is no grand appraisal. No look around at the barren walls, no commentary on the new loveseat where the couch used to be or the stench of weed in the air. Nothing like that.
No, she makes an immediate beeline for the kitchen, drenching the floor. She shoves her perishable foods in my refrigerator, keeps the rest in their plastic prisons. There's more than enough space for her things in the fridge—these days the majority of my meals live in the freezer, or else on food delivery apps.
She's slotting a jug of milk when she says, "Hey, maybe we can jimmy the window. The sooner we can get those keys, the sooner I'll be out of your hair."
I'm not sure how much I like the word "we."
"Where do you keep your coat hangers?" With each word she gets quieter, and by the end of the question she must recall that she took those in the divorce too. All my clothes are bunched together in a cheap dresser drawer like babies in a nursery, wrinkly and innocuous.
"Don't have any," I say with a smile, just to rub it in.
She purses her lips, grunts, returns to shelving some boxed wine.
"You took them all," I add. "Remember?"
"Mhm, I remember," she says in a flat voice.
When she's finished unloading her groceries, she points to the landline mounted to the wall. "May I?"
"Knock yourself out," I say, and retreat to the living room.
It's a sobering feeling, having an ex-wife in your home. My high is slipping away. The Tom Cruise movie playing on the TV isn't doing anything to help, so I stand and part the curtains and stare, not for the first time, at Linda's house.
When we were still married, the house belonged to Mrs. Lovejoy, an ancient woman with poor eyesight and more felines than family members. According to the police, one day while baking, Mrs. Lovejoy, in her old age, mistook a packet of rat poison for chocolate chips. You can imagine what that does to the property value of a place. No one wants to live in a home where a woman and her twenty-two cats were found face-down on the kitchen floor. Almost no one.
Linda is shouting now, venom-laced words directed at whoever's on the other side of the phone. She rattles off the address to this house, then quickly corrects herself. She isn't gentle when she connects the phone to the cradle, which is my cue to return to the loveseat.
"Great," she says, entering the room. She's holding two red Solo cups that reek of boxed wine, a peace offering. "Just lovely. They said they'll get roadside assistance over here when they can. They can't guarantee a time or anything because of this stupid storm. Fucking Allstate."
She passes me a cup and flops down onto the far end of the loveseat, a few feet away. Holding out her free hand, she says, "Look, can we just act like adults for one day and try to be civil? Or at least until I'm gone? Truce?"
Rain pounds the window, rolls down the pane in thin streaks. In the distance, the clouds show no sign of letting up. I know it's gonna be a long night, and yet I still shake Linda's hand. "Truce," I say.
For the next hour we watch Tom Cruise soar through the air in a carrier fighter, flipping and wheeling the plane through enemy fire. The wine tastes terrible, too sour and too sweet. We drink it anyway.
"I heard the sequel is supposed to be pretty good," I remark after the planes have barrel rolled into the sunset and the movie's been replaced by Alien. What else do you say in this kind of situation? I take another swig of wine.
Linda sips too. Her eyelids droop. When she speaks, her voice is soft, distant, as though we're worlds apart and not five feet from one another. "Thanks for doing this, Chad."
"Hey, don't thank me. Thank Meatball."
Her brows furrow. "Who?"
Only then does it occur to me that I've never mentioned my childhood dog to her. It makes me think that maybe the four years we were together could've been used more effectively.
My cup is empty when I go to take another drink. "Refill," I tell her, making my way to the kitchen. Linda follows me, standing in the doorway.
"No, come on. I'm curious," she says. "Who is Meatball? A college friend? A magic 8 ball?"
The sound of wine hitting the bottom of my cup fills the silence. "My dog," I say. "Meatball was my dog."
She's quiet, like she's trying to figure out how she can bring herself to thank an animal she never knew existed until now. She replenishes her own drink. "I didn't know. I had no idea. You never told me."
"Would it have changed anything?" I ask, and make my way back to the living room. This time Linda doesn't follow me.
Word to the wise: Weed and wine don't mix. I'm not sure how long I've been asleep, splayed across the loveseat with my shirt riding up my belly, but it's long enough for the smell in the house to change. The scent of apples permeates the air. A gentle heat surges through the house.
"Linda?" I call out.
In the kitchen I find her sitting at the table, one hand wrapped around her cup of wine. Beside her the oven light is still on, and atop the stove rests an apple pie. She's staring out the window at the dark April night. The shadowed outline of her car is still visible through the blanket of rain.
"They still haven't come yet, huh?" I say.
Linda shakes her head, says nothing. She raises her cup to drink, puts it back down before she does. The timer on the microwave counts down another minute. Warmth engulfs the kitchen. We listen to the raindrops smack the window.
"What's the occasion?" I say, gesturing to the pie. And I'm surprised by how those three words out, more hopeful than I'd intended.
Linda used to make pies all the time—cherry, blackberry. But apple was always her best. It's how we met, when I stopped by her restaurant one night and had her pie. I asked to speak to the person who made it, told the waitress I would stay until closing if I had to. A few minutes later Linda stepped forward, smelling of grease and cinnamon. I remember thinking, as she came home with me that night, that those smells would be the backdrop of our lives.
"What's the occasion? I ask again, trying to temper my voice.
For a split second she narrows her eyes. She speaks slowly, deliberately, as if trying to convince the both of us that she isn't drunk. "Why does there need to be an occasion? I was just in the mood to bake something today, and your oven works a lot better than mine. And besides, I always worry using that thing. No telling what else Mrs. Lovejoy cooked in there."
But it's her voice that does it, the way she's talking. You don't spend that long with someone and not pick up on when they're lying to you.
"Linda," I say.
She doesn't look at me, so I say her name again. She blinks and says, "I made it for Jared, okay? Is that what you wanted to hear?"
She says the name in the same way I said Meatball—like it's supposed to mean something. And maybe it does, but not to me.
Before I can ask who, she turns to me and says, "I'm engaged, Chad."
Then comes the sound of laughter. A loud, deep, ugly belly laugh. It takes me a moment to realize it's coming from me. But I can't stop myself.
Flashing yellow lights piece the darkness outside the window, painting the night in muted color. A truck, much too big for a simple car door lockout, pulls up on the sidewalk beside Linda's house. The dim bar of light reveals a set of blue hands embossed on the side of the vehicle—the Allstate logo. The silhouette of a person in the driver's seat is accentuated by the glow of a cell phone.
"That's them," Linda whispers. She gathers her grocery bags, racing to clear her stuff from the fridge and meet the driver. She keeps the half-empty box of wine in the fridge, tells me it's the least she can do to repay my kindness. Then she's headed for the front door.
Rain slips through the entrance, wetting her shoes and the floor. A harsh wind sprays my face with a few droplets. We stand there staring at each other, deadlocked in a game of goodbye, waiting for the other to capitulate.
I cave first.
"See you later?" And it isn't until the words come out like that, as a question rather than a statement, that I realize I might want them to be true.
Linda's eyes soften. I wonder what it is she's seeing—the me in front of her now, or some other past incarnation. Someone she thought she'd spend the rest of her life with. Someone she used to love.
"Yeah," she says as the rain pelts the house, the roof and windows and our clothes. "Yeah, I'll see you later." She retreats, speedwalking to her car, where the roadside assistance driver is already waiting. They shake hands. The man aims his flashlight at Linda's car like an accusation.
I watch them from the door until my stomach rumbles and my fingers numb, until I can't take it anymore, then head to the kitchen. The aroma of apples fills the air. The residual heat from the oven warms my skin. My mouth waters. The pie is still on the stove; in Linda's haste, she forgot to retrieve it. I tell myself that she made it for me, that Jared, whoever he is, doesn't deserve something this good, this sweet.
When I take a bite, it's just what I expect, just what I tasted the night Linda and I met—apples and cinnamon and love. It isn't until I'm halfway done with the pie that I think I taste something else.