How People Leave

This story was first published in Vestal Review, Cream of the Flash, Issue 21, 2005.
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My first love left through a hole in the wall I hadn’t the found the time to patch up. It was so small I didn’t think she could fit through. My pinky finger barely fit inside. So I put it on my list of things to do: 1. Buy spackle. 2. Fix hole in wall. 3. Shoelaces. But she found it before I could repair the damage and somehow shimmied through. She did leave a note: ‘Sorry. Love, Jen.’ I could just make out the blue lines and curves of cursive through the yellow paper. It was a list drawn out in her loopy, lazy handwriting: 1. Make hole in the wall. 2. Pack. 3. Write good-bye note. I stuffed it into the crumbling gap and filled the rest with spackle so she couldn’t get back in.

It started long before that — the leaving. When I was six, my father disappeared up the chimney like Santa, or that’s what my mother told us as she chain-smoked and cried her way through Christmas. When we insisted through hot, loud tears that he couldn’t have, she pointed to the charred remains of the tree and presents. “Why do you think we all got coal for Christmas? Huh?” Her nose was running and there were dark smudges under her eyes. The room smelled like soot and pine needles and I wondered how he could have fit into that tiny rectangle of dark that seemed to go up and up into nothing.

My mother followed just behind him, collapsing farther and farther into herself, until there was nothing left to see but a hairline aura of shimmering shadow, a warped silhouette that followed me all the way. Through high school and college she maintained a safe distance, orbiting just out of reach. Too far for warm touches, too faint for reassuring smiles or even the lilting frown of disapproval. She had burned away all her brightness, reduced to a cold, dead core. There was only that heavy hole left in the skin of the world that pulls at me still.

The cats left soon after, but they were already halfway gone. Three black cats. They slipped into the dark, blurring at the edges until they were only smudges in the sad oil of night.

When you left, I wasn’t expecting it. There were no discontented hisses or mutterings, no long silences or crying fights. I looked up at you one day, standing by the sink, a soap-covered coffee mug in one hand as you stared out the window into the backyard with that beautiful faraway smile. The sunlight fell on you, golden watery bright and you stretched long and constant to follow it back.

When I leave, I will do it all at once. I will take everything with me, including the past, so no one ever has to worry or wonder.

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