This story was written as a submission for Fortitude Press’ second anthology, On Second Thought. The book was never published.
The words glared up at Andrea as she sighed in frustration. Now what? she demanded. It’s been a fun three years but it’s over?
Ripping the sheet from the pad, Andrea wadded it up, tossing it to the floor to join its brethren. Half a dozen white balls decorated the hard wood floor, looking like dead fish in a sea of oak.
She pushed away from her desk and stood, stretching. Massaging her scalp, she held back an impulse to pull her hair out at the roots. Another sigh and she grabbed her cigarettes, heading for the door.
Andrea settled onto the porch swing and lit one, inhaling the smoke deeply. It was a picture perfect autumn day. Trees were just turning color, a riot of orange and brown and yellow; there was a hint of coming chill in the air but still warm for this time of year; across the street, a handful of kids played tag, their laughter mingling with the sounds of barking dogs and a distant lawnmower.
Mind spinning, Andrea heard and saw none of it.
She’d never been in this position before, of being the heavy calling for an end to a relationship. Hell, I’ve never been in a ‘relationship!’ Who am I kidding? Her mind cast about, worrying bits and pieces of memory to the fore.
Dating Toni had always been fun. Dark humor belied a sunny appearance and Andrea found herself falling in no time. After six months they’d realized they’d been seeing each other exclusively. Sharing a house and their lives seemed the natural thing.
Andrea smiled, a wistful, bittersweet curl on her lips. I wish we could just go back to then.
Those first weeks were magnificent. Waking in the morning with Toni’s arms wrapped tightly around her; not needing to shorten their time together for a lonely apartment; arriving home after a rough day to a loving massage. She returned joy, as well, listening patiently to Toni’s political ravings; easing tight shoulders with oils and concentrated focus; making love to her through the long nights.
As time went on, Andrea became aware that Toni’s dark humor was only the tip of a much greater, much grimmer iceberg. Days would pass with Toni becoming waspish and irritable despite Andrea’s every attempt to cheer her. Having never lived with anyone but her parents, Andrea was unsure of her boundaries. Media showed either the happily ever after syndrome or the super dysfunctional dramas. Surely the latter couldn’t be real so Andrea continued working on Toni’s moods, her anxiety growing as those moods became darker and longer.
Andrea crushed her cigarette out in the butt can, immediately lighting another. She stared, unseeing, at the light traffic passing by.
Months passed, the good times dwindling beneath the weight of a depression that was slowly smothering them. Andrea stopped interfering when Toni raised a hand to slap her. They’d both been so shocked that Andrea could only stare as Toni flushed in shame and fled the room. That had been Andrea’s first of many nights on the couch.
The bitch of it was that Andrea still loved her.
Even with Toni’s moodiness, Andrea’s heart would stutter when her lover entered the room. It still ached when Toni smiled seductively. When she was away for any length of time, Andrea’s thoughts were always on her partner. So tell me again why I’m doing this?
The distinct tone of her best friend’s voice whispered in Andrea’s ear and she replayed their last phone call.
“You don’t deserve to be sucked down with her.”
“I’m not being ‘sucked down,’ Terri. I just…She’s hurting enough already. I don’t want to make things worse for her.”
“In the meantime, making things worse for yourself is acceptable?”
“No.” Silence. “I can reach her! I just need a little more time.”
Distant sigh. “You’ve been saying that for the better part of a year, Andy. From what I’ve heard, she’s not getting any better and neither are you.”
“I know, I know.”
“Come to my place for a couple of days. I’ve got the spare bedroom. Take a little time for yourself. Nothing permanent – just to give you some space.” Pause. “You need to get away for a bit.”
That had been three weeks ago and here she sat on Terri’s front porch, smoking her third cigarette, agonizing over the situation. Terri had done as promised, giving Andrea the guest room and allowing her space to think. No pressure, no demands for a decision, no unsolicited advice.
Despite her initial misgivings, Andrea had to admit that it had been a wise choice. She missed Toni horribly but the time away had given Andrea the distance she needed to think. Questions she’d never allow herself to ponder began to filter through her thoughts. – Where she wanted her life to go, whether or not it was heading in that direction, what options she had for the future.
Was Toni a part of that future?
The amazing thing was how a bright potential could become so clouded in just a few years. When Andrea had begun this odyssey, her hopes and dreams were clear. Many a night was spent with her lover in deep discussion about traveling, owning a house together, perhaps having children. Day to day existence, however, sapped the life out of those dreams. These weeks away had given Andrea the opportunity to remember, to mourn what their life had become.
Now the daily worry was whether Toni was up or down. Many an idyllic evening had been cut short due to a misspoken word, a facial expression that was interpreted poorly. Andrea’s every waking thought was to carefully choreograph her day, to keep Toni happy.
She had to face that it was a losing battle.
Andrea put out her cigarette with a sigh. She made her way back into the house, kicking through the discarded papers on the floor and sitting at the desk. Staring at the blank paper, she worried her lower lip.
The decision to write a letter was hers. After a year or two of watching her every word and action, walking on eggshells to keep from upsetting Toni’s applecart, Andrea couldn’t bare to witness the upheaval her choice would cause. Her absence was already an issue, Toni calling at least twice a day, every day, to beg her to come home. Andrea had stopped accepting the calls, leaving Terri to fend Toni off. Regardless, her lover continued to call daily, though they hadn’t spoken in a week.
It wasn’t simply that facing Toni would be complicated in the extreme. Andrea was wise enough to realize that she was terrified – not so much of what Toni would do to her, but what her lover would do to herself. The obsessive behavior already displayed was akin to stalking, the depression a deep cesspool Toni had difficulty climbing from. Andrea’s fear was that Toni would decide to end things in a more permanent fashion.
Tears came to Andrea’s eyes as she stared at the blank piece of paper. She felt as if she was shuffling along a precipice, deep chasms on either side of her and no end in sight. If she left Toni, the potential for her lover to commit suicide in her depression was palpable. If she stayed, it was very probable that it would happen to one of them anyway.
Terri’s voice echoed back to her. “You don’t deserve this.”
“Neither does Toni,” she whispered.
Resolutely, Andrea picked up the pen.