Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Juniper's (Part 3)

Fifteen minutes later I’m sitting in Sam’s living room. This unit is located two floors beneath his old unit, but it’s laid out the same. Wide, open, studio floor plan with a half-wall delineating the space between the living room and bedroom, then a small two-seater breakfast bar separating the kitchen from everything else. The living room has these beautiful French doors that lead out to a narrow balcony that overlooks Midtown. I wonder how much use that balcony gets these days.

It’s amazing how much this condo is exactly the same as the old one: same generic artwork hanging over the couch; same bar cart, mostly filled with expensive amber-colored liquors, sitting beside the TV; same heavy, espresso colored furniture. 

But some things have changed. His PC is gone, which, in my opinion, is an improvement. It was a giant set up with three monitors and a computer tower that lit up. I didn’t understand the allure or reason for a custom-built computer then and I still don’t, but for some reason, its absence hits me hard. 

Looking around, I realize other things are missing. His bike. His vintage Leica. The saltwater aquarium. Instead of the familiar quintessential hints of Sam, now the vibe is more like that of a very nice hospital room. In the corner of the living room, there’s a hoist with a sling attached. The half-wall between the bedroom and the living area doesn’t hide much, and I can see a machine with a screen and lots of plastic hoses -- a ventilator, maybe? -- sitting next to what looks like a hospital bed. 

This condo is now a study in contrast. Not unlike Sam himself. Simultaneously the same, yet also changed. 

Sam sits across from me, his wheelchair looming large in the small space. I wonder why he didn’t move somewhere with more space. He got hired as an accountant at a Big Four firm right out of college; he could probably afford it. But, like so many times before now, I don’t ask the question that’s really on my mind.

Instead, I comment about that stupid computer. “I see you parted ways with Deep Thought.”

He rolls his eyes. Despite inviting me here, his demeanor is guarded. He leans forward slightly and takes a sip from the ventilator before speaking. “It was getting too old to run most games.”  

“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. “So, Juniper’s --” 

With a little click and an electric whirl, Sam cuts me off by moving his wheelchair closer, and the small gap between us suddenly closes. The toes of his shoes barely brush against my calves. He gives me a hard look.

I draw away from the contact, shifting sideways on the couch. “This feels awkward.” 

“It damn well should,” there’s no trace of warmth in his voice, “I needed you, Lucy.” 

“I know,” I whisper. 

Sam moves his wheelchair closer again, and this time I can’t escape. I’m trapped on the couch between the bar cart and the half-wall of his bedroom. He’s literally backed me into the corner of his living room. 

“I’m sorry, Sam.” I sigh heavily and look at him. He’s thinner and different. He looks deeply tired and his body sags a bit in the wheelchair. But he’s also still very handsome. I wonder if he would be insulted or flattered if I blurted that out right now. Without a doubt, he would growl at me for trying to change the subject, for continuing to run away from everything. 

So I don’t say that and Sam doesn’t chastise me. We sit in silence for a moment. 

“It’s easier to be the bearer of bad news than the receiver.” Even as I’m saying the words, I know they’re a miserable attempt at an explanation.

Sam snorts. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” 

“Let me finish,” I say, feeling unjustifiably angry and defensive. “I didn’t know what to say, Sam. I still don’t. I know that’s shitty, but it’s the truth.” 

He doesn’t say anything, so I go on, knowing that if I stop, I might never start again. 

“I kept trying to come up with the right words, but I couldn’t. And then suddenly all this time had passed, so then, on top of not knowing what to say, I felt self-conscious about having not said whatever the hell I was supposed to say in the first place. It was like this massive cycle of indecision and guilt and it depressed me and paralyzed me and --” 

“Fucking hell, Lucy.” Sam cuts me off for the second time since I arrived. He moves his hand from the joystick and shakily starts to raise it to his face. He makes it about halfway before it drops to his lap with a thud. “That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard.” 

I don’t know what the point of that gesture was. The effort leaves him breathing heavily, and he takes a couple of breaths from the ventilator. 

It only takes me a second longer to realize what the point was. When I do, I don’t know whether to smile at the realization, or frown because he can no longer do it. It’s a gesture he’s done a thousand times, and if I look at him, I can perfectly picture it: hand to the bridge of his nose, thumb and forefinger pinching it, eyes squeezed closed, head shaking slightly in disbelief or amusement. The Lucy Look, our friends used to call it. It was usually accompanied by a smile, too. 

Right now there is no smile. 

He lifts his hand back to the joystick, backs the wheelchair up, then pivots away from me. He’s facing the French doors -- and the charred remains of Juniper’s. For someone not able to move most of his body anymore, his actions are extraordinarily loud. 

“There were words, you know. There were very specific words you could have said to make all of this better.” 

His own words sound thick, a little choked. I look at him in alarm and he scowls at my concern. That look keeps me from saying anything else. 

Eventually, Sam makes a weird noise. It’s almost like he’s trying to clear his throat, but the sound is weak, like it comes from the top of his throat instead of his chest, and clearly ineffective. Before I can dare to ask if he’s okay, he starts to speak. 

“I choked on a piece of food last year, and it turned into pneumonia. It’s probably the reason I have to use this stupid thing,” he nods at the ventilator and then takes a sip. “I thought I was going to die at one point. Everyone showed up at the hospital, all weepy and shit. Amy was the goddamn worst.” He rolls his eyes. “Do you know what I remember from that whole thing?” 

A million different emotions flood me because this is the first time I’m hearing about this particular incident. I shake my head. 

“Other than Amy’s wailing, not much, actually. The whole thing was a painful blur.” He angles his wheelchair slightly towards me and his expression is unreadable. He sucks on the ventilator mouthpiece. “I don’t want her crying to be the last thing I hear.” 

Tears spring to my eyes and I dig my nails into my leg, trying to momentarily trade one kind of pain for another. 

Sam tips his head back and turns his gaze towards the ceiling. “I meant it. What I said that night.” 

I know instinctively that he’s talking about that night three years ago. The Last Night. 

“That’s why it hurt so much when you didn’t say anything for so long.” 

I don’t trust myself to speak, but I try. “That’s exactly why I couldn’t --” 

“I loved you.” Sam cuts me off. He looks at me and there is such deep-seated pain in his green eyes. “And for some inexplicable reason, I still do.”  

I’m still digging my nails into my leg, but it isn’t enough to quell three years of pent-up emotions anymore. Despite my best efforts, the dam breaks, and I’m ugly crying in Sam’s condo.

***

“I hate crying,” I say, wiping snot from my nose on the back of my sleeve some time later. We’re sitting on the balcony. Turns out the small balcony does still get a fair amount of use. There’s just enough room for his massive wheelchair and a single Adirondack chair. 

The discovery of the beat-up old Adirondack out here on the balcony filled me with delight. “You really think I would get rid of it after that night?” He had told me with a rakish smile when I asked about its presence as I sat down in it. The answer made me laugh -- genuinely laugh -- like I hadn’t in a long time. 

With some effort, Sam lifts his arm and extends it towards me. I take his limp hand in mine, trying not to focus on how weak, how small, how different it feels in my hand than it used to. Instead, I focus on how surprising, how unexpected, how utterly amazing it is that we’re here like this at all. 

We’ve got a perfect view of the smoldering building that used to be our favorite bar in Atlanta. All of the activity is starting to die down. The crowds have dissipated and the fire engines are gone. The perimeter of the property is wrapped in caution tape. It’s hard to believe that Juniper’s is gone. Harder still to process the many feelings I have about that fact. Because, I know that if it hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. 

I look over at Sam and finally say the words that I’ve felt so long. “And I love you too.” 

Sometimes new beginnings truly are born out of endings and ashes.

 

13 comments:

  1. I'm so sad it's over!!! Fantastic story.

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  2. Great short story - hope to see more from you soon.

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  3. This story was beautifully written--it prods at something tender and painful but still ends up with a candle of hope flickering at the end. Thank you for your gift to us!

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    1. Thank you, anniemouse, for your comment. I'm happy that you found the candle of hope flickering at the end! That makes me happy. :)

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  4. Just quite touching and just want more. I love your writing. Thank you for this 💗

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  5. A great short story, thank you for writing and sharing!

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  6. Oh my god, EJ!
    There's a piece of popular wisdom here and I'll try to share it: the story of a woman who wanted more frosting in her favorite cupcake—she complained so much about it that the Baker decided to give her the MOST frosting ever. And she took one bite, and felt like "yes, this is truly what I wanted", but by the second bite she couldn't keep going; it was too sweet. She found out that the Baker had been right all along; by giving her what she thought she wanted, she was missing what she truly needed.
    That's all to say you were right, and this story being short was the right call.
    You said before this story probably wasn't too devy, but oh wow, it really is *really* devy! Not only the physical stuff, but the mental too. All of the subtext and the things unsaid, I love it all so much. This feels like an interlude between Sam and Lucy's story, and what a sweet one it was! You've given us enough that I can see what came before and what's yet to come, and it's perfect. You're the baker!! Hahaha

    I hope we get to read more of your stories, however long or short they are!

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    1. Catarina, oh my goodness, this is the nicest compliment I've ever received about a story! Thank you so much. It means so much to me! I appreciate that you appreciate the length and timing of the story (within the characters lives), and I'm glad you still found it devy. :)

      I love that adage! I only hope I can be the baker in other areas of my life, too! lol.

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  7. Catarina, oh my goodness, this is the nicest compliment I've ever received about a story! Thank you so much. It means so much to me! I appreciate that you appreciate the length and timing of the story (within the characters lives), and I'm glad you still found it devy. :)

    I love that adage! I only hope I can be the baker in other areas of my life, too! lol.

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