BY LARISSA BENFEY
Larissa Benfey is an English Major. Copyright rests with the author.
THE SOUND of distant, mechanical beeping slowly penetrated through my thoughts. At least once every couple of seconds, almost in rhythm.
Beep. Beep, beep… Beep.
I glanced up briefly. There were six customers ahead of me in line but the cash register was only 10 feet away. Why did the scanner sound so much farther? The lady at the register was older – maybe 60. She had whitish grey hair which was pulled up into a bun, but strands were falling into her face as she ran a customer’s order through. I glanced down at her delicate left hand. Her fourth finger was adorned with two silver rings, one of which had three small diamonds sparkling under the fluorescent lighting. I glanced down at my own hand.
Nothing. Not even an indent. No evidence that I had ever been so lucky.
The beeping, already distant, started slipping even farther away. The soft underlying murmur of chatter disappeared too. All I could see was his face.
He was smiling at me; his soft blue eyes pierced through my veil. I had always hidden behind a veil before I met him. A veil made of elusiveness and false bravado but he’d torn it down. It took him years, but he’d never given up. Now the only veil that kept him from seeing the deepest parts of my soul was made of silk and accompanied by a white dress. He smiled at me and I smiled back – so eager for the ceremony to end so our life together could start.
Beep. Beep, beep… Beep.
His face slowly faded – my surroundings returned, still hazy as if I was dreaming. Maybe it was just the fluorescents.
My eyes dropped to the cart I was pushing. His favourite cereal, green grapes, two percent milk – how had it gotten into my cart? Had I put it there? My gaze drifted to the exit sign above the door still 20 feet away from me.
Five. There were now only five customers keeping me from the relief of being alone. Two weeks ago I thought I’d never be alone again – never wanted to be alone again. How did so much change so quickly?
Today would have been the day we returned. Together, hand in hand, we would have walked out of the airport and taken a taxi to our new apartment. He would have tipped the cabbie a few extra dollars and told him to have a great day. He’d have turned back to me and winked. “I know I will,” he would have said. I would have smiled, ignoring the blood rushing to my cheeks.
My throat stung as I tried to swallow the pain; my eyes suddenly moist.
God, am I crying in public? I thought as I remembered where I was. Don’t tear up, don’t tear up, don’t tear up!
My heart eased ever so slightly when I noticed a customer pick up her plastic bags, thank the cashier and head on her way.
Four to go.
I could make it through four more customers. I’d make it all the way back across the street and into the dismal safety of my apartment…
If only I could convince myself as well as I’d convinced everyone else.
“I’ll be fine,” I had told my mother, father, sister, brothers, “I don’t mind living alone.” His mother and father had believed me. Even my friends.
I didn’t believe my lies, but I could never accept the truth. I wanted to think I’d see him again. That he was only going away for a little while – he’d come home soon.
A sudden electrical shock ran through my body – its origin was my shoulder blade. My surroundings came into stark focus and my heart stopped beating from the overstimulation. Once it restarted, I glanced behind me to see what had caused the sensation, eager – though deep down I knew it was impossible – to see his face smiling on me once more.
My heart sank, smile faded, when I stared at the stranger who had tapped my shoulder. Green eyes, not nearly as magnificent as the blue pair I’d anticipated, were staring back at me, careful yet suddenly curious.
“Sorry,” he said with a crooked grin, “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He looked only a few years older than me, mid-20s, but something about him seemed playful, almost childish. I cleared my throat.
“You didn’t.” I hadn’t meant to speak brusquely. Still, my tone made his grin shrink. He hesitated but regained his confidence after only a moment.
“You dropped this.” His hand was suddenly only inches away from mine; I could almost feel its proximity without needing to look, but I glanced down to see my cell phone in his grasp.
“Oh!” I said, raising my gaze back to his eyes. They couldn’t see through my veil.
He smiled again. I glanced back down at my phone, still in his open palm. I didn’t want to risk the pain of physical contact again. I was afraid of the surge of energy I’d experienced once already.
He laughed softly. “I don’t bite,” he reassured me.
“It’s not that,” I started, managing to stare as far up as his mouth, but no more. He smiled and took my wrist gently with his free hand. Just as I’d feared, it sent another surge of energy all the way up my arm. I tried to ignore it. He turned my palm towards the ceiling and placed my phone on top, curling my fingers around it before releasing me.
“I’m surprised the fall didn’t break it,” he said. His green eyes seemed to dance every time he smiled.
I scoffed, managing to glance up again, if only for a moment. “It’s made it through a lot more than that.”
“Really?” He grinned. “I guess that makes it a lot stronger than it looks.”
My lips curled upwards but couldn’t become a smile. I almost wanted to apologize, wanted to explain. I didn’t use to be like this, I’d say. It’s just –
“What’s your name?” He asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Short for Margaret?” He cocked his head as his eyes danced again.
I glanced down at my feet, my cheeks growing hot. The last time I’d heard that name I had been standing between a priest and a room full of witnesses while he stood smiling by my side.
“Yeah, but I like Maggie.”
“Me too,” he said softly. I raised my gaze to his again but this time it was his eyes that were looking down at my feet.
“Next!” I jumped at the sound of the cashier’s voice; it seemed much closer than before. I turned to see only two people ahead of me in line. My eyes threatened to water with relief. I was almost free.
“I’m Josh, by the way,” he said, offering his hand. I shook it with less hesitation. The electric shock was becoming easier to handle.
“Nice to meet you Josh.”
Beep. Beep, beep… Beep.
I grinned but didn’t know what else to say. I felt as if I hadn’t had a real conversation in decades. How did they work again? I used to be able to speak freely with him. There were never any awkward silences. Now it was as if my entire life was one awkward silence.
“Come here often?” His voice pulled me out of my thoughts once more. His brow was furrowed, he seemed… apprehensive.
“I guess I will be now.”
He smirked, though his cheeks rouged for a few seconds.
“I mean, I just moved into an apartment in the building across the street. So this place is easy to get to,” I explained quickly.
“No way! I live in the building across the street! What floor are you on?”
I felt my chest constrict again but swallowed hard and tried to hide the fluttering butterflies with a smile.
“Fourth floor.” I almost winced, as if it was the words that hurt me and not the memories behind them.
His face suddenly went sombre, his eyes stopped dancing.
I clenched my jaw tight and creased my forehead. My throat and eyes stung but I managed to hold back the tears that were fighting to escape. I couldn’t speak for fear that my voice would give me away so I simply nodded, looking down at my feet yet again.
His hand gently touched mine for only a moment but it felt as if he’d stabbed me – just like the hugs at the funeral, the handshakes filled with good intentions after the burial, all the well-wishes that had pierced daggers through my heart – I jerked away, dying for the numbness to return.
“Derek was a friend of my roommate,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
I took a deep breath in through my nose and slowly let it out in the form of a sigh.
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I’ll be fine.” I still couldn’t rip my gaze away from my shoes and decided to turn back around completely. I needed to leave. I needed to be alone.
My relief went all the way down to my toes as I looked up to see that I was the customer the cashier was referring to. I piled my things onto the small conveyer belt and wrenched my wallet from my purse.
Was the cashier moving slower on purpose? I could’ve sworn everyone else went through faster.
“Would you like a bag with that?” She asked as her diamond-crested finger glittered with each swipe of an item over the scanner. I cleared my throat. Twice.
“Yes please,” I said, my tone thankfully giving away nothing.
I shoved everything in the thin plastic bag and walked as fast as I could towards the exit sign. I passed through the automatic doors but I wasn’t home free yet. Just across the street, up the elevator and then I wouldn’t need to step outside of my apartment for another week. I wouldn’t have to pretend to be fine; I wouldn’t have to drain all my energy to fight back tears…
“Hey! Wait up!”
I choked on an impulse to sob. I had only made it halfway across the parking lot.
“Please just go away. I’m fine,” I said, turning back to face him, though my feet kept walking me towards my building.
“I wish I could believe you.”
My feet slowed.
“Well, why don’t you?”
“Because I’ve been there. And it’s not fine – it’s hell.”
I stopped. He quickly caught up with me, standing only inches away from me now.
“What do you mean you’ve been there?” My throat stung and I could feel my eyes watering but I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it anymore.
“Last year…” he started, his eyes guarded. “Last year my girlfriend got into a car accident. And I told everyone I was fine, that I just needed to be alone. But that’s the last thing I needed. I needed to talk about her, I needed to remember her with people, remember how she made me feel…”
I could feel the tears as they silently rolled down my cheeks; I tasted the familiar saltiness as they made their way past my mouth.
“Nobody wants to hear how Derek made me feel,” I choked out, turning away from him, wishing I was alone. He caught my elbow and turned me back gently.
“I want to hear.”
I shook my head and focused on his feet. He was wearing sandals and for the first time I noticed something written in ink along the inside of his foot: AMIE.
“Listen, if you don’t want to talk about it with me, that’s fine. But people need to hear it just as much as you need to talk about it. Trust me.”
My face was burning, throat stinging, eyes watering – I pulled myself out of Josh’s grip and ran to the edge of the parking lot. I tried to see through blurry vision whether the street was clear; when there were no blobs in sight I bolted across the road, dashed through the lobby and finally made it into the elevator. Once I was on my floor I stumbled towards my apartment, fumbling for my keys all the way up to the door.
The moment I was inside I dropped my bags, leaned against the door and broke down. I slowly sank down to the floor when I couldn’t hold myself up any longer but continued sobbing for what felt like hours.
I hated how vulnerable I had been; I hated that a stranger had been able to see through my charade and, more than anything, I hated that no matter how much pain this was causing me, it felt so much better than the numbness I had grown accustomed to. My heart felt as though it would be heaved from my chest at any moment. I wanted to break things, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs… But I knew none of those things would help – not really.
When I was too exhausted to continue crying, I fell asleep on my carpet, still leaning against the door. I woke up a few hours later and went into the washroom to wash up almost absentmindedly. I could feel the numbness returning.
This isn’t what he would have wanted, a voice suddenly told me within my mind. Maggie, he’d want your life to continue even after his didn’t.
As if someone else was leading my steps, my feet suddenly started walking towards my front door. They took me down to the lobby and my voice asked the concierge where I could find Josh’s apartment.
“408,” he responded. My apartment was 410 – right next to his. Had he really been so close all this time?
My feet took me back up to my floor but I stopped short of my door. Instead I found myself staring at the numbers 408 and before I could realize what I was doing and stop it from happening, my hand was reaching up and knocking.
It only took a few seconds for the door to open, not enough time for me to run away – not that my feet would have let me. His green, curious, concerned eyes were staring into mine and a wave of serenity washed through me. I took a deep breath and managed a faint smile.
“Derek made me feel special.”