You and Chester and Me

by Ian Miley

The black, velvety night seems to taunt me from the half-open window of our one-bedroom apartment. I don’t remember what time you said you would be back; it’s not important now. The exposed incandescent bulb protruding from the middle of the ceiling casts a raw, yellow light on your desk, littered with half-finished drawings and broken sticks of charcoal. Until your brother called me this morning, no one ever warned me outright about you, but it was always in the eyes, now clear to me those threatening glances of disapproval weren’t shining of malice but of concern.

I told myself I was smarter than them, I was a better judge of character, the darkness in your sunken eyes and blank expressions was superficial. Hiding behind was a multitude of sparks; wonder and honesty and optimism that you needed someone, you needed me, to let out.

When I think about the first couple months, the way your voice would return us to strangers each time you would pick up the phone. How it grew on me, that unfamiliar tone and proper cadence you reserved only for me. That glorious afternoon I called and your voice had changed. “Hi.” Took me a few seconds to recover from the shock of the new greeting. “Meet me at your park?” I asked you, the dreary half-block of unkempt grass and worn out oaks you told me was your favorite park in the world. You, sitting under one of those dry, rotting oak trees, clutching a notebook to your chest with both arms and staring at a woman loudly struggling with the parking meter at the corner of the block. I let Chester off his leash and your face lit up as he took towards you with his wet dog-kisses. I’ve never seen you take to any person as quickly as you did to my old yellow lab. I hadn’t seen him take to a person the way he did to you either, not in a long time at least. Probably not since I sold my parents’ house and stole from him the suburban life of his first 8 years. Chester doesn’t like the city as much as I wish he did, you could say the same thing about me.

I sat down next to you and you still clutched your notebook, waiting for me to speak. I didn’t. Neither of us said much at all that day when I first flipped through your sketches and watercolors. You closely watched my face in nervous scrutiny, looking for any hint of contempt or disinterest in my brow. I loved you more than I loved your drawings, but I loved that sketchbook because it was you.

This morning, when I rushed to silence the phone before it broke your sleep, that moment, seven months removed but still fresh and beautiful, disappeared into oblivion. Your brother told me about the things that had made you so afraid, that kept you from sleeping in the dark, what you did when I wouldn’t see you for days at a time. I wanted to tell you I didn’t care, that I would always see you the same as I did that sunny afternoon with your drawings. I couldn’t. I doubt it would have made a difference if I could have. I don’t resent him for telling me, about the manslaughter charges and the self-harm and the psych wards. I suppose he felt it was time to pass the burden to someone else. He didn’t understand you weren’t ready for me to know, that you would never be ready for me to know. Chester and I and our apartment and your new sketches composed a life that could never know that past. The refuge of the present never held more hope and promise than the moment you walked out of our bedroom this morning. Before you saw the phone in my hand and the look on my face which I stifled into a deadpan the moment I caught your eye.

I did my best to act normal as I saw our intimacy disappear from your eyes, and the long-forgotten unfamiliarity and reservation returned to your voice as I cooked us breakfast. I knew you understood. I mourned for the closeness which I thought we would have to rediscover. What I didn’t see is how deep it cut, the realization that the nightmare you locked away in your mind had somehow found its way back into the present. You suddenly noticed the stagnancy of the air in our sunlit kitchen, the bitter and familiar stench of self-loathing even I was able to detect through the space and secrets that now held us apart. You sat helplessly as that past slowly soaked into the walls, into our sheets, into my face. You violently looked away as I hesitantly asked you about your plans for the weekend.

What can I do?

I can only guess how you justify taking Chester with you. I suppose someone else would consider you taking my dog from me an act of selfishness. I think you must see it as a necessity, as an act of protection of that old dog and of the fragments of the life in which you briefly felt comfortable, and justified secondarily as an act of retribution against me. Regardless of my intentions or role, I broke the seal on the airtight life you had been building since you first showed me your artwork.

I misunderstood the scale of what you felt this morning. I knew Chester managed to remain oblivious and immune to the flood of secrets and emotions which finally broke through the levee you’d constructed so carefully. I knew you had to spend some time alone with him, to reclaim your refuge and straighten your head. I thought you would come back. I thought you would come back. Come back.

Ian Miley has biked around the moon.

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