Photo Credit: Peter Szto, PhD
Leaving is the companion piece to another piece of short fiction I have been working on called Absence. These pieces offer parallel perspectives on the unraveling of the same relationship. These are a little longer than my writing sometimes is but I hope that you will stick with them. These characters have been running around in my head together for some time and different parts of their story keep emerging in my writing.
This story includes a recommended soundtrack at the bottom of this page
She walked slowly through the house, room by room, saying her good byes. Each room held its own memories. This was the guest room that she and Jake cleared out when she first moved in so she could have her own space to work, to write, to play. They had painted it a beautiful but impractical shade of purple just because it made her happy. She had written hundreds of poems, letters, essays, short bits of fiction and songs in this room with its sloping eaves, windows overlooking the quiet London street and flowered throw rug that they had found in a second hand shop. This room of her own had been always been a treasured gift. Full of unpacked boxes when she had arrived, it had never belonged to anyone but her.
The room was a little drafty—something about England always felt a little drafty to her—and she had kept a big, heavy, oversized cardigan over the back of her desk chair and a pair of fuzzy bear slippers under the desk. Her guitars had never stayed in tune in here but the acoustics were okay. She had always liked the mental picture of herself working in this room in her yoga pants, Mount Holyoke sweatshirt, oversized cardigan, her glasses perched on the top of her head while she wrote, and a large cup of coffee at her side. She would drink tea to be polite when they visited Jake’s family or friends but she still craved the caffeinated thrill of her morning joe. She had imagined herself as J.K. Rowling or even a modern day Jane Austen when she wrote at this desk.
She looked in his music room next from the distance of the doorway. This was his space. She was always welcome—as long as she was quiet– and often curled up in the armchair in the corner to listen to him work. She had spent many content hours in this room being awed by his talent, fascinated with his creative process, sometimes multitasking on her iPad or reading a book while he worked.
There had never been traces of her in here. His guitars sat on stands in a neat row, there was shelving for his many awards and gifts from fans. He didn’t like to clutter the public spaces of the house with these items; he felt that it was ostentatious to put a Grammy or Brit Award in a room where they entertained. He had written a few songs about their relationship in here. She often thought about how thrilling this would have been to her sixteen year old self, to inspire a boy or a girl to write about her, to write about them. At nearly 30, what she loved about these songs was their intimacy and she had been surprisingly ambivalent about him recording them and making them public. Two of them still got a lot of airplay. At first, she had felt warm and like she was carrying a treasured secret when she would suddenly hear one come on while she was in the grocery store or in a taxi but now, like so many other things, they just made her sad.
She went next to the tiny bathroom they had shared. Brits did not share American’s love of big, luxurious bathrooms. How many times had they tried to squeeze into this room at the same time? She often thought it was a good thing that they were both so low-maintenance. They were the only couple she knew in the industry who could shower, change and be out the door in less than 30 minutes, 45 if she needed to shave her legs. When they were late to events it was not because she was slow putting make-up on or doing her hair—it was because one of them was working on a song or a piece of writing and just hated to leave it mid-sentence. Or it was because the sight of the other, half dressed across the bedroom had been a little too tempting, a little too distracting, to pass up. She had helped him re-button his shirt many times between slow, lingering kisses after having removed him from the same said shirt not long before when they should have been getting ready to go out.
She took her time saying goodbye to their bedroom. She opened and closed each drawer, carefully checked every corner of the closet, of the nightstand, to make sure that she hadn’t left some piece of herself, some article of clothing, some piece of her heart behind. Somehow forgetting one of her sweatshirts, forgetting a sneaker, would have felt like admitting how hard it felt to leave, like she couldn’t quite gather all the pieces of herself up, put them back together.
It needed to be a clean, surgical removal. Leaving something could possibly tether her to this place, to this man that she loved fiercely but couldn’t stay with. She could not emotionally afford to have him come back to find her curled into a tight ball on their bedroom floor, unable any longer to hold the grief and the hurt that clawed at her heart, at her gut at bay. He was not her Jake anymore and this was no longer her safe haven, the sanctuary they had created together away from all the crazy, all the fakeness, out there. It had been a long time since they had laid on this bed together, emotionally and physically naked, facing each other, his astonishing blue eyes gazing into hers, hearts open, telling their truths, trusting the other to always be there, to always be loving, to always have the other’s back.
This leaving was not what she wanted. But to watch him drink himself into oblivion, to have to face his infidelity that felt like one more knife wound-the final one perhaps-before she finally bled out on the floor was too much. She always stayed too long when relationships began to fall apart, she knew this about herself. She held on to hope too long, she never wanted to be the bad guy. She always too empathetic, too able to see both sides of the situation. And she hated to acknowledge when a battle was lost. But this battle was lost. He had done nothing but push her away the last few months. He could not have made it any clearer that he didn’t want her, he didn’t want the hand she had steadfastly kept trying to extend to him. He had embraced every demon he had ever had, let his fear, his anxiety, his need for escape nearly obliterate everything they had ever had together. She couldn’t save him. She couldn’t save their relationship while he was drinking and using. All she could do was try to save herself.
Before she walked out the door she found herself running her hand along his clothes, hanging neatly on the left side of the closet. She had already stashed the tee shirt and plaid flannel button down he had been wearing right before he left for last leg of his tour in her suitcase. She knew that these mementos were ridiculous but she could not make herself walk out their front door without something that she could hold to her face late at night that reminded her of him, smelled like him, smelled like home. She would have taken his spare shampoo and deodorant if she could have easily gotten them through airport security. Tears stung her eyes as headed to the stairwell.
The downstairs was a little easier. She said her goodbyes to the kitchen, the dining room and living room that they only used when they were entertaining. The family room was hard. They were both homebodies at heart, particularly after being away for extended periods of time and they had spent many, many hours curled up in here together binge watching TV series and movies, reading quietly side by side, not infrequently making love under her mother’s quilt, to hell with the upholstery. Jake liked to lie on the couch with his head in her lap. She found his unruly ginger hair irresistible and would always run her fingers through it, massaging his scalp until he purred like Graham, who would always manage to find space to curl up in behind Jake’s knees, or would lay precariously balanced on Jake’s side. It was a long-standing joke that it was really Graham, not Jake’s exes, not his fans, who was the real competition for Jake’s affection. Graham had taken a long, long time to warm up to her. He graciously accepted her physical affection now but for a long time his look suggested that she was an unwanted interloper in his life with Jake. She had made sure that he had plenty of water and food to tide him over until Jake’s return. She scratched him one more time behind his ears.
James was waiting patiently for her in the dining room, working on his tablet. She had felt terribly involving Jake’s brother in her departure, but he had been the first one to call and check on her after Marcy’s text had gone out who she could actually bear to talk to. He had offered unsolicited to help her in any way she needed. He had been as concerned about Jake’s drinking as she was, but had let her know early on that he understood that she could not save Jake if he didn’t want saving. She was concerned that Jake’s parents would not be nearly as understanding, but they had not been living with the day-to-day reality of their lives. James saw them more frequently, had watched the changed dynamic thoughtfully.
Unbeknownst to her, he had even met Jake a couple of times to try to find out what was running through his brother’s head, to warn him of everything he stood to lose if he kept down this path. But Jake could be stubborn, could be defensive and did not welcome any brotherly advice or implied criticism of his choices. There had been a long history of Jake feeling judged by James and it was still a sore spot between them.
James had helped her with the packing, helped her carefully label boxes for shipping back to the States in care of her friends Toni and Ivan. He even posted them for her. She hadn’t figured out her living situation in the States yet but they had offered to take her in temporarily without question when she called and told them that she was unexpectedly leaving England. Toni resisted asking questions, resisted saying “I told you so,” although Rae assumed that eventually both would come. She knew she was wearing her sadness like second skin and that Toni would pick up on it immediately.
With James silently watching, she held her favorite framed picture of she and Jake together for a long moment, lost in thought. She had given it to him as a gift their first Christmas, right after she had left her job as a therapist to be with him, to pursue her music and writing with his encouragement, and couldn’t afford to spend more on a present. Part of her wanted to stow it in her bag, but it had been a gift and she couldn’t take it back. For all she knew it meant nothing to him anymore. Maybe he would throw it in the trash or hurl it into a wall in a drunken rage until it littered glass all over the floor. It was no longer her concern.
She placed it carefully back on the mantle. She removed the goodbye note she had agonized over for at least an hour from her carry-on and placed it in front of the picture. Finally, she took off her engagement ring. This she looked at for a long moment as well, remembering the day he had gotten down on his knee in New Zealand and presented her with it. She, they, had been happy. The press had commented snarkily on the modest size of the diamond, insinuating that Jake was cheap but she had loved it. It was his great grandmother’s diamond and he had it reset in a clean, modern setting that he knew she would love. She always had told herself that she wasn’t a woman who needed or wanted an engagement ring but his heartfelt proposal, this entrusting of her with this piece of his family’s history, had really touched her. It had mattered far more to her than she could have imagined it would. She placed it carefully on top of the envelope, reluctant, suddenly heartbroken in a way she hadn’t allowed herself to feel about leaving until this moment.
James didn’t say a word about her tears, just offered his arms for a hug, which she gratefully accepted. She cried for quite a while on his shoulder before getting herself together and indicating that she was as ready as she was ever going to be to leave. They gathered up her bags and her guitars and headed out. She locked the door and handed James her house keys to return to Jake. Jake had presented them her first night visiting him in London, telling her to hold on to them and to consider staying. She stopped at the end of the sidewalk for a final long look at the house and turned around to stow her remaining things in James’ car and start to the drive to Heathrow.