Hefting a heavy box in her arms, Kate shuffled a little to her right. The storage room at the back of the LitLiber was a mess. Organization had gotten away from the staff…sundry merchandise lay scattered around the cramped space, without thought to order or convenience. Kate had volunteered to stay late to help put the room to rights—a little extra time and effort today would save in the long run, when employees no longer had to hunt and gather for needed items.
Out of her peripheral vision, Kate saw the door to the room crack open, but she didn’t bother turning to see who’d walked it. The box was heavy.
“Kate? What are you still doing here?” Jake asked, coming up to relieve her of the bulky item. “Your shift ended half an hour ago,” he informed her disapprovingly.
Wiping the sleeve of her shirt against her sweating brow, Kate felt her heartbeat pick up a notch or two. Jake was frowning. That wasn’t a good sign. “I know,” Kate argued, “but I-I offered to keep on a little later, to help put this place to rights.”
Jake’s frown deepened.
“Jackie mentioned it needed to be done,” Kate rushed to say. Jackie was one of the floor supervisors. When Kate had overheard this, she’d jumped at the chance…. “And well, it does need a little housekeeping,” she defended, gesturing toward the chaos around her.
Jake sighed. “Kate, if this is about Janessa—” another sigh, “you don’t have to do this. You don’t, you don’t owe me anything.”
Kate swallowed hard. She wanted to deny his claim, but Jake was right. Kate was trying to make amends; she’d blown it with the PR stunt and then this thing with Janessa…. She wanted to win back Jake’s approval, his trust. She desperately wanted to prove her worth as an employee again. She and Jake hardly ever talked anymore. (Ironically, Janessa’s sticky fingers had been the first time in a long while that she and he had discussed anything even remotely personal, it had been the first time in a long time they’d laughed so freely together, teased one another, enjoyed each other’s company.) She missed that. She missed their old, easy camaraderie and she was determined to get it back.
Pushing a smile on her face, Kate waved away Jake’s concern. “Thank you for saying that. But, honestly, my intentions weren’t altogether altruistic.” She was pleased with how natural the lie sounded. “There’s a writing class being held here tonight—of course you knew that,” Kate faltered at Jake’s dry expression. “And, anyway, I’m planning to attend, but it doesn’t start for another hour; I figured I might as well be useful while I wait.”
“If you’re sure,” Jake said, but he still didn’t sound convinced.
“I’m sure,” Kate said, shooting him a breezy smile before turning away, reaching for another package….
At five minutes to the hour, Kate left the storage room. The floors were cleared of cardboard debris, the shelving units were stocked, labeled, and neatly arranged: alphabetized according to category, retail product sat on the left, dry goods on the right, and here and there, other miscellany, all clearly marked and smartly stacked. Wiping her hands together, Kate recognized the effort as a job well done.
Hurrying, following behind a group of women, Kate went from there to the makeshift classroom, located on the far side of LitLiber, where Jackson would be conducting his next writing seminar.
Grabbing a seat, Kate pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. She hadn’t told Penny she was coming tonight. She hadn’t wanted to give the psychic any more encouragement regarding her feelings for Jackson than she already possessed. Truth be told, Kate still wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about the hot English teacher. She just knew she wanted to see him again, that she’d been looking forward to tonight. For now, that was enough.
Fifteen minutes later, Kate decided it had been a mistake, coming here alone. She found herself odd man out, especially after Jackson announced the week’s focus (and accompanying particulars): The memoir.
“This is one of my favorite genres of writing,” he’d said in introduction. “It’s intimate, intrinsic…this kind of writing doesn’t just demand good storytelling; it demands the truth, an exposé within a specific focus and theme of a very personal nature. Not to be confused with an autobiography, the memoir is one story from within the writer’s life—not the whole story. To achieve this, the writer must analyze themselves, find out who they are, how they got there…What is the meaning? From where did it come about? Memoirs can be sad, they can be whistle-blowers, they can be inspiring, despairing…but they should always be purposeful. This is creative nonfiction folks.”
If that wasn’t scary enough, unveiling your secrets to a room full of strangers….
“What do you want your audience to know about you, right now, today, this very moment?”
Kate gulped, but nothing compared to the terror which sparked with Jackson’s next words:
“Memoirs are baring, they leave the writer vulnerable, stripped before their readers. It’s not enough to simply write out a piece of your history…you must also be willing to share that history with others. To fully understand this process, I want everyone to pair up in groups of two for this assignment. Pick someone else from this class; they will be your chosen audience, and you theirs. Because, you’re not just going to write a memoir, you’re going to share it—with them. Read and be read.
Kate felt her throat tighten. What?
“All right, take the next minute to find your partner,” Jackson announced.
Heart beating loudly, Kate watched as the room broke open in noise, women laughing, confident as they quickly teamed-up, the choices obvious; friends leaning, conspiratorially close to one another, hands reaching out, tapping shoulders expectantly…the gestures expressing intent, sealing alliances. And then there was Kate, quiet in the corner, left all alone. She didn’t know a single other person in the room. Dammit, she should have told Penny she was coming.
Her head ducked low, Kate tried to tell herself it was no big deal. So she didn’t have a partner? She’d just skip out on this exercise, that’s all. So what? It was in the midst of this self pep-talk that she became aware of a looming shadow, bent and hovering against her downcast face. Looking up, Kate was surprised to see it was none other than Jackson, squatting down beside her chair, his brown eyes steadily on her.
“Hi Kate,” he said softly, not to be overheard. “I just did a headcount and I realized that there’s an odd number in our classroom today.”
“Oh,” Kate murmured for lack of anything else to say.
“To even it out, keep everyone in groups no larger than two, I’m also going to participate in this assignment,” Jackson continued conversationally. “And I just figured, if you didn’t have one yet, I’d see you’d like to partner up with me?”
Despite her deep embarrassment at being friendless, Kate was grateful for Jackson’s discretion, his quiet handling of the situation. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.”
Jackson smiled. “Great. We’ll talk later.”
With that he walked back up to the front of the class: “All right,” he said, the sound of his voice immediately shushing the women around him, “does everyone have a partner?”
The class nodded their heads in collective consent, Kate included.
“Great. Now that you know who your intended audience is, take the opportunity to really consider, what is it you want to share with them—specifically with them. What memories or recollections— what in your past that has defined you today—do you want them to know? What story from your life will resonate, impact, what story will stay with them? You’re writing not only for yourself, but for them as well…”
Jackson’s voice droned on a few minutes longer but soon enough, he was wrapping up, glancing at the clock to inform everyone they still had the room for another half an hour: “Please, use the time to start writing,” he prompted invitingly, the words officially marking the end of his lecture.
Pulling her notebook closer, Kate needed no further encouragement. She wasn’t entirely sure how to begin her story, or really what story it was that she wanted to tell. Looking up at Jackson she wondered…what did she want him to know about her? Unbidden, Penny’s words from a week ago nagged at the thought: is she afraid of giving up her power to Jackson, as she’d done with every other person in her life?
Grabbing for her pen, unsure exactly where she was going with this, Kate hunched forward, placing ink to paper:
I always wanted to play basketball. It always looked like great fun. Besides, I think I would have been good at the sport: I’m tall, extremely competitive, in possession of adequate hand-eye coordination. And I’ve always craved being a part of something bigger than just myself. But I never got the chance. Growing up, my mother wouldn’t allow for it.
Basketball was a masculine sport, she said. It was grotesque to see a woman growling as she dribbled down the court, her face blushed with sweat, her body blocking, pushing, and shoving roughly passed and against other players…. Girl’s who played basketball were merely women who wished that they were men, who acted unbecoming their gender.
Basketball, my mother firmly informed me, was out. Instead, she decided I would play tennis. It was feminine, graceful (hell, the girls still work skirts or dresses to differentiate themselves from the stronger sex). I never thought to disagree with her….
Something was wrong with Maggie. Penny, sitting quietly in the dim lighting of her shop, felt her brow furrow with the thought. Staring down at the Tarot cards laying face up on the table before her, the psychic couldn’t help but worry.
Picking up her phone, Penny impatiently hit redial but, after five rings, all she heard was the automated recording of Maggie’s answering machine kicking in…
“Maggie, its Penny…where are you?” she asked into the voicemail. It was the third message she’d left in the last hour. It wasn’t like Maggie not to answer the phone, especially not when it was Penny calling. “Please, call me as soon as you get this,” Penny pleaded before hanging up. Rubbing her fingers against throbbing temples, she couldn’t ignore the feeling of doom settling across her person.
If Kate had told Penny about the writing class that night, the psychic wouldn’t have found herself in this pickle She would have left the store early, blissfully unaware of anything amiss—she would have safely gone on pretending to loathe her sister. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, Penny had lingered over her closing duties, paying bills and organizing her filing system. It was as she’d been on the point of finally leaving, half an hour later than usual, that she’d heard two ladies talking outside the florist shop, talking about the revered pastor…and the things they’d been saying, the gossip they’d exchanged:
“…drunk, almost passed out.”
“I heard that they had to forcibly cut her off…”
The story they’d been telling, well, it had seemed incredible, unbelievable and yet… Penny hadn’t wanted to admit it, she hadn’t wanted to own it, but a shadow of concern had developed at the words she’d overheard. Retreating back into her shop, she’d pulled out her trusty pack of cards.
She’d done a reading on her sister; she didn’t normally do them without the express permission of the intended client, but after what she’d gleaned listening to those nosey-parkers, she’d felt compelled to break that rule.
Now, staring down at the results of this ministration, Penny knew she’d been correct. The message wasn’t promising:
The Tower Card: a card of struggle, shock, and conflict. This card is frequently attributed to a source of severe fear, pain, and/or escapism.
The Judgment Card: a card of confrontation; a time of movement or inaction, this card represents issues left unresolved, sins and debts which effect emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
The Justice Card: a card of limbo. Inner balance is off-kilter. This card calls for a reinstitution of alignment—too much excess or too little scarcity carry unknown, unwanted consequences.
Penny frowned. Something was wrong with Maggie. With a weary sigh, she reached for her cell phone one more time….
By the end of the class period, Kate had almost finished her memoir. She hadn’t known where it came from, but it was like the moment she started writing she just couldn’t stop. She was two double-sided pages in by the time Jackson announced the end of the class session, adding to this send-off, his hope to see everyone in two weeks time, for the next class.
Flexing her shoulders, Kate put the pen down. Two pages all about her childhood wish to play basketball. Of course, it wasn’t really about basketball at all, rather learning to take back control of her life. With a smile, Kate stood up. She may be a late bloomer on the study of independence, but she was learning. Calida McDonald, Phil…no one would scare her into quiet submission. She needed Jackson to know that. She needed him to understand her fears….
Waiting until most of the others had shuffled out of the room, Kate approached Jackson. “When would you like to swap papers?” she asked.
“Well, seeing how much you already have t here, we should probably do it soon, before I’m reading a full length manuscript,” he said, looking down at the sheets of paper in clutched in her left hand.
Kate blushed. “Oh—I can shorten it down. In the editing process…”
“Kate, I was teasing!” Jackson clarified quickly, putting her at ease. “Write as much as you need. It’s very therapeutic, isn’t it?” he asked, leading her out the door and into the main floor of the LitLiber.
Kate nodded. “Yeah, I had no idea.”
“Use it to your advantage,” Jackson encouraged her. “Take as much time as you need…”
Two days later, walking out the front doors of Whestleigh High School, Kate forced herself to relax. She and Jackson had agreed to exchange their papers that afternoon; thankfully a short day at college, Kate had barely been able to contain her restlessness until then, having driven straight there from Cordwyn after her final class of the day. She’d stayed up well into the night on the previous evening working on the piece, and by morning, four pages of fully edited work had stared back at her. With the pride of accomplishment came an equally exhilarating anticipation: what would Jackson think of it? If writing it had been cathartic, his feedback would be the reward.
Gaining her car, Kate exhaled sharply. It was done now, no going back. Jackson had her memoir. She had his. Smiling giddily, Kate couldn’t wait to read. The appeal of Jackson’s memoir—the personal entrance into a private life, the risk of exposure…it consumed her attention. She wanted to know more about this man, she found herself almost desperately anxious to know more. It wasn’t quite noon when Kate pulled up outside her house. Sparing only the length of time necessary to let Danger out to go potty, she’d no sooner shut the door behind them then she found herself stretched out across her living room recliner, Jackson’s essay clasped between her hands, greedy eyes already taking in the first lines…
November 23rd, 1997:
The day I met Emily. I was fifteen years old. She’d just transferred to Whestleigh High School. Born and raised in Washington, Connecticut’s uptight, strict culture came as something of a shock to the laid-back, casual teenager, but I digress….
The bell for fourth period had just rung. Gaining the hallway I saw her: standing lost, alone, looking for the girl’s locker room, shorts and a tank-top clutched nervously to her chest. She looked so beautiful, her long hair flowing gently down her face, large green eyes beseeching my help. She was as skinny as a pole but still, there was something so feminine about her, something so right…
December 10th, 1997:
She said yes! I asked Emily to Snow Ball and she said yes!
December 19th, 1997:
Emily looked flawless at that dance, her porcelain skin offset by the deep turquoise of her formal gown. Her hair was piled in a complicated knot atop her head. I was almost afraid to touch her when we met out on the dance floor… I was no great dancer, but Emily, she moved like a fairy and, best of all, she didn’t laugh when I tripped, accidently stubbing her toe. She just swayed gently in my arms, looking up at me as though I held the moon. It’s was an intoxicating feeling.
January 16th, 1998:
The date I officially asked Emily to be my girlfriend. I’ll never forget her response: “It’s about time,” she’d laughed. “I’d despaired of you ever asking!”
No one was quite like Emily. I knew it even then: I was in love.
September 24th, 1998:
Emily and I had a plan. Next year, when we graduated, we were getting out of town. We’d each applied to Ruettier College.
March 10th, 1999:
Emily didn’t get into Ruettier. She tried to put on a brave face, told me that it didn’t matter, that it was just one college of out hundreds. She told me I should still go, that I shouldn’t feel guilty because I got in. She held me hand between both of hers and told me that I should go…but I knew I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t leave Emily behind. I loved her too much. There were hundreds of colleges, but only one Emily.
June 8th, 2000:
Graduation day; Emily and I decided to take the next year off from school, travel the country. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled. Hers’ offered to help fund the trip. 365 days alone with my best girl. Could life get any better?
August 21st, 2000:
Emily and I had sex last night. It was late in the evening when she’d reached over, touching my cheek, to whisper the words I’d been waiting years to hear: ‘Jackson, I’m ready.’
Afterward, I heard her crying from within the bathroom. I thought maybe I’d accidentally hurt her (I knew it could be painful for girls) but she told me that wasn’t why—that she’d cried because it was so special, because she loved me so much. It had been my first time too, so I hadn’t known what to expect but those words…nuzzling her neck, I made a solemn vow to myself. Emily would be my first and my last; forever.
July 25th, 2005:
On July 25th, 2005, at approximately 3:00 p.m. (with reception to follow) I married my best friend.
My hands shook when I lifted her veil, they trembled when I slipped the ring on her finger…they quivered as I held her close, leading her through our first dance as husband and wife. I didn’t think I’d ever stop shaking. She was too precious, I was so lucky… I married my best friend that day and all I kept thinking was how I couldn’t wait to begin the rest of my life with her. All I kept thinking was, I’d never be the same again…
December 20th, 2005:
I received my bachelor’s in secondary education. Emily surprised me with a trip out to the sea in celebration of this achievement. Two days and three nights of lovemaking; and that’s what it was with Emily. Thrilling, exciting, but always love.
April 17th, 2006:
Emily brought up the discussion of kids. I’d always dreamt of having a big family.
October 30th, 2006:
After months and months of trying, and failing to conceive….
The doctor’s voice was low but gentle: Emily couldn’t have children. Holding her in my arms, running my hands soothingly up and down her back, I heard the sobs break forth from her mouth. I was devastated but…
We have each other, I reminded her. That was enough, more than enough. If we had each other we had everything.
I meant it. Emily was more important than a house full of kids. Family wouldn’t be family without her.
November 30th, 2008:
I was at work when I got the call. I didn’t recognize the number…. It was the police. There had been an accident—a car accident. The other driver had died immediately upon impact; Emily was being rushed to the hospital…
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I just kept hearing this cold disembodied voice telling me: Sir, I’m sorry to inform you that your wife was involved in motor vehicle accident this morning…”
No! No, no, no, no, no. I had just seen her, only hours before, laughing at me across the breakfast nook; she’d been teasing me about my tie, said it was too stuffy for a man in his mid-twenties. She was taking me shopping that weekend….
No. no, no, no, no, no. It couldn’t be real. It didn’t feel real. It felt like a mistake. She was safe. She had to be safe. She was too young. I was too young. I needed her—I needed her to be home when I walked through the front door, smiling in greeting, asking me about my day. That was my life. This phone call, it wasn’t, it couldn’t be true.
February 19th, 2009:
At twenty-seven years old, I lost my wife. Emily Jean Fischer died at 12:08 in the morning, on February 19th, 2009, suffering from unresolved internal bleeding. She’d never once woken up in the months she’d been in the hospital, she’d never even left MICU. She’d never once felt my hand squeezing hers, heard my voice pleading with her to keep fighting, telling her how much I loved her. She never once knew…she might as well have been alone.
February 21st, 2009:
I buried my wife that day. Saying it: it’s such a cold, hard statement; but then, I feel cold and hard inside. Empty. Bereft. The only woman I ever loved, the one woman I was meant to love, is dead. Dead. A cold, hard word.
January 25th, 2015:
These memories, these are all I have left of my wife, a mental movie reel to remember her by. Every morning, every night, I replay these moments and for a second, I’m alive again, for a minute I am back there, with her. A broken man, stuck on repeat. On good days, I think how lucky I was to have her those thirteen years. On bad days, I grieve all over again, knowing I’ll spend the rest of my time on this Earth without her—I’ll spend the majority of my life without her.
For a long time, I thought my experience with that kind of love was over, buried six feet underground, laid to rest beside my beloved ghost. To this day, she’s still the only woman I’ve ever dated, the only woman I’ve ever kissed. For a long time, that was enough. How could I possibly find that in someone else again? How could I put myself through that again? But just lately…I’m a man at war with himself.
I want to exist again, really exist, and not just in snapshots of the past. Only, I’m scared to let Emily go, to shed myself of the final vestiges I still possess. Sometimes I think it was a curse, just how much I loved her. I’m not sure I could live through that again, but neither can I deny a sliver of want, an involuntary pull toward something more—more than just cold memoirs. I made a promise to myself: Emily would be my first and my last. A fractured word, I find myself slipping, fighting, alternating, at once scared and confused…
A broken man, stuck in limbo; a man at war with himself.
Reading this, Kate cried.