I worry about the man who I live with.
We have a close, if distant relationship. A quiet routine. Every morning we share breakfast, always the same, cheerios with milk. Every night, a microwave-dinner. Sometimes he watches television. He flips from channel to channel. News. Sometimes a sit-com. He never laughs, though.
He is still young. He has started graying early, but it barely touches his temples. He still has over half of his life ahead of him. But as he sags against the couch, holding a pillow to his chest while gazing absently ahead, the remaining years seem like more of a curse than a blessing.
One day I am in the hallway of our apartment complex when I see that there is a new neighbor.
She is carrying a huge cardboard box, bent backwards from the weight. All I can see of her is from the tip of her nose and up.
As she reaches for the handle of her apartment, she teeters from the weight suddenly. I am afraid she is about fall, box and all, when my friend comes from behind me. He quickly puts one hand under the box, alleviating the weight, while gently pulling her back into balance.
“Hey there… sorry… would you like some help?” he says, he stays frozen in position, face just barely reddening.
“Oh my god, thank you” she breathes, passing the boxes weight to him completely. He gamely holds the box for her, as she opens the door to her apartment. “If… you could just pass it to me now?” She asks as she enters the doorway. I am able to see her fully now- her dark brown bangs are nearly over her eyes, the rest of her long hair is twisted up and held in a clip.
My friend passes the box to her, and stands hesitantly when she disappears into her apartment. He starts to turn away, and begins to head back to our apartment when the woman’s voice chases after, “Hey, thanks again for helping me out. Do you live close by?”
“Yes. Yes. I should have introduced myself. I am Ben, I live right across from you”. He reaches out to shake her hand.
Ben. Ben. I had not heard him say his own name, introduce himself to anyone in what seemed like forever. It almost feels like I had forgotten his name.
“I’m Louise”. Louise reaches out and squeezes his hand. She smiles, brushes the bangs away from her face.
They stand there, holding each others hands for a moment. I see Ben’s mouth quirk into a smile, before he quickly drops her hand. “Ah, Louise...it is nice to meet you...that box was HEAVY. I don’t think I could have gotten up the stairs myself. I am impressed.”
“Yeah.” Said Louise with a laugh. “That is my VHS collection”.
“Yep’. Louise grinned. “I am a humanities professor at the local community college. There are a lot of old movies that are only available in video cassette. I have a few others that are personal guilty pleasures. Night Rider. The original Stars Wars Trilogy.”
“Seriously? I watched the originals as a kid”.
“ You know, I would be happy to loan them to you sometime if you would like.”
“Oh, I don’t have a VHS player."
“Well,” said Louise “Maybe sometime we can watch together”.
Ben stammers a thanks. He then asks Louise if she has anything else he could help with. I drift away, back to our apartment as Louise accepts his offer.
I sit on the couch, contemplating this. Ben has been so clearly unhappy and alone for a long time. He is a considerate, reliable person. There is no reason that he should have any difficulty being in a relationship. Is it by choice? Does he prefer to be alone, or is he too shy to pursue a relationship?
It is some hours later that Ben comes home. I hear Louise’s lilting laugh as they part, and as he closes the door there is a full smile on his face. Then, as he turns towards the open room, his smile fades. He comes and sits next to me on the couch. He doesn’t speak, but places his head in his hands, bent forward. I say nothing.
A few days later, Ben brings in a small gift bag from his door. He places it on the counter, and pulls out a box of microwave popcorn. He pulls off a note taped to the front. As he reads, Ben smiles. But as he puts down the note, his brows crease, and he then shifts from foot to foot. He shakes his head, and to my shock takes the note and and heads to the trash can. He hesitates, and then drops the note. When he leaves, I go to the wastebasket, and pick up the note.
“Thanks for helping me move! Let me know when you want to come over and share my VCR.”
There is a little smiley face drawn on the note, followed by a phone number.
Why had Ben thrown this away? He seemed happy after being with her, and she was attractive, and clearly interested in him.
I place the note back on the counter, pointedly in Ben’s view.
Early the next morning, during Ben’s regular routine of preparing himself a lunch to take to work, I see him freeze once he spots the note on the counter. With a frown, he picks it up and looks at it. After a pause, he tosses it again in the trash. He leaves for work, forgetting his lunch on the counter.
When returns at noon, the note is once again waiting for him on the counter, right next to his lunch. He swears, not a usual habit of his. He throws the note in the trash, and then removes the trashbag from wastebasket, and ties it up. He sets it next to the door, and then grabs his lunch- muttering about running late.
Am I pushing him too far? I do not think so. I had seen him pause at Louise’s door just the other day. He had started to turn towards it, as if about to knock, before backing away and coming back into our apartment.
I struggle to untie the bag. The note is near the top. It is now extremely wrinkled, and the ink seems faded. But the message and phone number are still legible. I place the note back on the counter. I re-tie the trashbag, and leave it where it was.
Ben comes home, tosses his lunch kit on the counter, and takes the trash to the dumpster. He then comes to the kitchen counter, and starts to remove dishes from his lunch kit. It is then that he sees the note on the counter. His face pales. He picks up the note, an incredulous look on his face. He staggers to the couch and sits down, looking down at the note. I see his face crumble, and as he wipes at his face I can see tears escaping from his eyes.
I sit next to him, distressed by how upset he is.
“Oh, Jennifer,” He says a muffled voice. “What would you say about me now?”
Jennifer Jennifer. When he says my name, I feel myself pull together in an instant. A million memories, thoughts and emotions, rush in.
Ben and me, as high school sweethearts, dancing at the prom. Ben and me staying up late into the night, whispering to eachother on the phone. Ben and me, fighting, screaming in each other’s faces. Us then later making up, snuggling on the couch. Later, in college, sneaking into eachother’s dorm rooms at our religious school. Moving from place to place after graduation, each trying to find decent jobs.
We finally ended up here, in this apartment. Ben found a job as an accountant at a bank. I bounced from job to job until I started working at the bakery. On our rare nights together, when our schedules matched, we would cook together in the kitchen. I remember snuggling next to him in this very room, after one of our at-home dates.
I also remember myself, separate from my relationship with Ben. Lying in the grass as a child, looking up at the stars. Giggling with my best friend during a sleepover. Learning how much I loved to cook as an adult, creating intricate confections. The delight in realizing that I could still discover new things that I loved, and that I could excel at. I remember the joy of taking walks alone, and feeling the sun warm my skin.
I remember driving my car one night, and seeing a truck coming at me from my peripheral. It had struck me as I was trying to merge into traffic. And, after I had passed, I remember some remaining part of me looking down and seeing Ben crying over my body as he identified me. His racking sobs. We had been everything to each other for the past eighteen years. Through all of the changes in our lives, we had been together.
It is with a sweet relief that I remember all of these parts of myself, even my death. I had not wanted to leave him alone. But when I stayed, only a part of me had stayed. A small presence, pulled to Ben by my concern. The rest of me had slipped away, leaving me as broken apart as Ben.
Ben is now wiping his eyes. I want to place my arms around him, to give him some words of comfort. But of course, I can not. He looks at the paper again. The note is an invitation to rejoin the world, to begin to move on.
I slip away from him. I know I can not let my spirit break apart again. I can not see the future, but in my mind’s eye I see him picking up the phone. I see him calling Louise and accepting her invitation. I see him living his life, learning to love and to be in the world again. Learning to grow, to laugh, and to spend more days in the sun.
I too, wish for the sun. After so many driftless days in the dark, I feel light pour into every part of me. My whole soul together, I move on.