by Austin Shippey
Two potted palm trees lived quietly in his therapist’s office. His therapist. It seemed funny to call her that because he hadn’t seen her in at least two years, but the potted palm trees were just as he remembered, if only a little browner. He noticed this as he walked into the dimly lit room in the old office building on Market Street.
“It’s good to see you again, Dan. I didn’t think you’d ever come back. How have you been?”
“It’s good to see you too, Claire.” They sat on the orangey brown couch and chair perpendicular to each other. “I’ve been good.”
Claire cleared her throat with a small, sharp sound. “Do you have anything specific you’d like to talk about?”
“Uh, no, not really,” Dan said, playing with his small black cufflink.
“Still having those…gas problems?” she asked, with a smirk he could hear on her words.
He knew she was trying to lighten the mood, so he chuckled politely.
“No,” he said. “None of those.”
Claire looked at him, possibly hoping for a moment of eye contact and a friendly smile, but Dan instead slowly directed his attention to the potted palm trees and looked at the dust that had settled on the leaves.
“So what made you decide to come back? After all this time?”
“Oh,” he said looking at her for a second, but she missed his eyes. “It’s just– it’s just my neighbor.”
“Is this neighbor…a woman?” she asked lightly.
“No, er, I mean yes, yes. But she’s just my neighbor. She keeps telling me that I should set aside some time for some visits. You know, for the kids’ sake.”
Claire creaked forward in her old leather chair, looking at Dan deeply. He was looking past his shoes, and the old tile floor, past the ground. He gave her a quick, unenthusiastic smile.
“Why do you think she thinks that?” Claire asked.
“I don’t know,” Dan said awkwardly. “I guess she just thinks I’m depressed.”
For a brief moment the hum of the white noise maker in the hallway dominated the room’s atmosphere.
“Are you depressed?” she asked. These words were produced as gently as they were produced harshly. They caressed his arm, leaning gently in, and at the same time they stabbed his throat, as only words spoken by an experienced therapist could do.
Therapists are good at pointing out the things in our lives, which we tend to spend our days and weeks ignoring. When the words come out, we have to face them… in those small, quiet brown offices with those green/brown potted plants.
Dan exhaled quietly and scratched an imaginary itch behind his ear. As Claire nonchalantly scribbled something onto her notepad, Dan remembered something he saw on TV about plants, about how they can be aware of human emotions in their surroundings. He wondered if these dusty brown plants grew restless sitting in this small office on this cracked tile floor. He wondered if they felt as suffocated as he did.
“Dan,” Claire continued in a matter-of-fact manner, “you know that I care about you. More than just as a counselor. As a friend. You know that don’t you? I know these things are hard, but it’s been three years since your wife died.”
“Claire, I know. I know.”
“It isn’t healthy to keep living in the past and holding on to all this resentment. You have to focus on the now. Find ways to make yourself happy…and…find a nice girl to date. You don’t have to marry her. Just get out more and have some fun. And…wash your face, Dan… skin is one of the first things people notice about a person.”
“Thanks,” Dan said sarcastically.
“I’m serious. You have to take care of yourself. You know, I’m worried about you, you know…turning to… other things, I mean, the skin around your nose and mouth is.…”
“No, Claire, no. I’m not doing anything like that. I’m not huffing chemicals. Okay? That’s ridiculous.” He remembered a specific Judge accusing him of the same thing a few months ago in a courtroom that was just as suffocating as this.
“I just,” she proceeded cautiously, “don’t want things to get worse for you before they have a chance to get better.”
“Okay, Claire, I know this. I know all of this. I’ve heard it all before. The “Stay strong, Dan.” and “Take as long as you need, Dan.” and “Get out more, Dan.” and “Eat three square meals a day, Dan.” and “Get 8 hours of sleep a night, Dan.” I’ve heard this all before. I’m trying!”
“Then why,” here comes that gentle harshness again, “are you still like this?”
“I,” Dan said angrily then drifted back down again, “I don’t know.”
“I know you think,” he continued tiredly, “that I’m sick and that I’m not doing well, but you have to understand that it’s all me. I have to work through my own problems. I am getting better,” he said persuasively, yet he was devoid of any skill of a convincing salesman, “I really am. You’re helping me.”
“I hope so,” she said, “I really do.” A small plastic timer on her desk beeped quietly. “It looks like that’s all of our time.” She stood up, and he followed. “It was really nice to see you again.”
“It was nice to see you too,” he replied. She halfheartedly went to give him a hug, and he did too, but each stuttered in their movements, and they decided mutually on a polite handshake.
“See you next Friday,” Claire smiled.
“Yeah, see you then.”
Dan threw his car keys onto the kitchen counter and sunk into his dusty couch that still had dog hair on it (even though no dog lived in the house for over a year). He scratched the redness covering his upper lip, carefully and slowly with the backs of his fingernails, and turned on the TV.
A couple minutes, or maybe a couple hours later, there was a tiny knock on the front door. Dan cracked his neck stiffly as he walked over to answer it.
A cheerful, “Hi,” as he opened it, and a pink smile. Mel was younger than Dan, and neater, and she wore a light yellow dress and her hair in curls.
“Hi, Mel, how’s it goin’?”
Neither said anything for a second.
“I’m– I’m not the best chef, as you know, but, uh, I made this for you!”
He noticed the glass dish she held in her hands.
“It’s macaroni. Homemade.”
“Thanks,” Dan said, with a smile about half as authentic as hers. He brought the pan past the threshold of the doorframe and into the dimly lit house, the TV chattering in the background.
She stood at the door awkwardly.
“Is, uh, there anything else I can do for you?” He said.
“Oh,” she said, visibly disheartened, “no I guess not.”
“Okay. See you later. Goodnight.” He smiled the same smile as before and shut the door in her face.
“Goodnight,” she called quietly at the closed door. The burnt out light bulb on the wall seemed to suck brightness from the surrounding area.
“What is wrong with him?” she asked herself quietly, feeling her eyes begin to water, “ I guess I should just leave him alone.”
She stepped halfway off his porch. “No,” she said confidently, “I’m tired of this.”
Knock! Knock! Knock!
“Dan.” She said loudly. “Dan!”
He opened the door.
“What is your problem?” she said, feeling her face get slightly red, and then calming her voice.
“For the past five months that I’ve lived next to you I’ve been nothing but nice to you. I bring you food, I helped you clean your house when you were (she held up her fingers) this close to getting your kids taken away, and all you’ve been to me is cold and inconsiderate.”
“Mel,” he sighed tiredly, “it doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s my problem.”
“A simple ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ isn’t going to send you sliding further down your downward spiral of agoraphobia.”
It just might, he thought tensely.
“It isn’t any of your business!”
“I can’t believe you… It isn’t any of my business? I’m trying to help you!”
The tight bolts of his headache tightened a little more, grinding together in his temples and forehead. “No one can help me. Do you get that? Do you understand? No one can help me!”
He slammed the door.
“Ughhh!” and she walked quickly back to her house.
Dan put his face in his hands, exhaled deeply, and walked over to his couch. He remembered the macaroni in his hands and went to the kitchen. He rinsed off a fork from the sink and dug in. He left the rest on his counter, and walked down to hall to his bedroom.
She walked gently, as if the white flowers and long grass were the only things supporting her weight. She wore his favorite sundress, but it was slightly different than the blue checkered pattern he remembered, instead it was decorated with blue hydrangeas all around.
The wind didn’t blow through her hair, her hair blew through the wind, and the flowers moved aside to make way for her as she sat down in the grass. A large white tablecloth sprawled across the top of the hilltop and the wind made it ripple like water underneath her, and Dan caught the corner to keep it from blowing away. He put the picnic basket there in place of his hand then slipped off his brown leather shoes and placed them onto the other corner to keep it firmly in place on the ground.
He sat down crisscross applesauce and kissed her, long and hard.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, looking out over a countryside that existed in harmonious patches of faded lavender, rippling chartreuse, and gold flecked sepia. She looked at the earth like it was hers, or maybe like she was its… but Dan didn’t look at the countryside for long. He looked back at her and how her eyelashes flickered with light from the sun as she blinked.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
She looked away from the countryside and back to him and his clear, smooth, young skin. She smiled and then looked down at her hands in her lap with shyness. Dan reached forward, and he touched her fingers, and ran his pointer finger gently over the smooth line of silver that encircled her ring finger.
“Dan,” she said quietly.
He looked up at her and smiled. She didn’t smile back, but she met his eyes.
“Dan can I tell you something?”
He looked at her, wanting for this perfect moment to last just a minute longer, but felt the inevitable ephemerality of dreams creeping in, and she leaned closer.
“Yeah,” he said, feeling it slip away, and only wanting for it to last just a little longer, “tell me anything… just know that… I’d give anything to have it all back… I just want it back.”
The dream began to darken and grow fuzzy. His sensations, one by one and all at once he felt come back. Reality crept in. But before his eyes fluttered open, he heard the echo of his perfect wife say one last thing.
“I want it back.”
His open window.
Motionless silence, except for tired crickets outside.
The scent of dust in the air.
He sat up, letting his back gently crack and pop as he stretched. Then he wiped his tears from his eyes. He looked around in the darkness trying to force the tears away, but they kept coming. They kept coming like so many nights before.
A breeze fluttered through the window and he imagined her auburn hair rippling through it, and remembered how he felt on the day. The day, that is, that she first told him she was pregnant with their son. Their first child. Their first baby.
He thought of those cool bed sheets on that hot night. The breeze blowing effortlessly through the open window, and both of them were half asleep, and the tired crickets played their rhythmic song just for them, and he felt the smooth skin of her belly, and thought, That’s a baby in there, that’s my baby.
He moved closer to her and he pulled her soft hair away from her neck so that her smooth nape was showing in the dim light, and he kissed the back of her neck, and he kissed it again, and he kissed it again.
And then he said, “I love you so much, sweetie, I love you so much.”
And he wiped some more tears, which were flowing very freely now, and he crawled off his bed onto the carpeted floor, and reached under the bed and pulled out a scrapbook and set it to his side. He pulled out a shoebox that rattled gently, and set it aside. He pulled out a plastic storage box and set it aside. Then he pulled out the box he was looking for. A round peach colored hatbox with a white ribbon tied loosely around it.
His sleeve was very wet, but he wiped some more of his tears, if only to keep their saltiness from stinging the irritation around his mouth and nose. He lifted the thin cardboard lid off the antique box.
He pulled out a piece of tissue paper slowly, unable to keep himself from gently sobbing. He pulled out two more, and wiped some moisture from his mouth. He quickly pulled out three more pieces and set them on the ground in the accumulated pile, and wiped his cheek and mouth. He looked into the box, unable to see anything very well from the wetness in his eyes, and then pulled out the object that punctuated the air with the smell of, no, as much as he wanted it to be, not his wife’s perfume but of industrial embalming chemicals, and dry, preserved flesh.
He curled up on his bed and pulled the covers up to hide the dark brown at the base of her neck. He pulled the hair away from his wife’s neck, exposing the skin of her rough, dry nape, and he pressed his sore, stinging lips against its chemical-laden surface, and kissed it, long and hard.
“I miss you, sweetie. I miss you so much.”
Austin Shippey attends Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. He is currently working on completing his first book, and in the meantime writes many short stories as a form of procrastination. He submits poetry, short stories, and plays to many local competitions, and he hopes to continue writing as long as the ideas come.