By Jean Copeland
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. The first line of Olivia’s favorite poem by Sylvia Plath drifts into her head as she staggers down the black hall, waiting for the little peach pill to work its magic. The apartment is a stranger to her now, even the cat skulks about the rooms as if something is wrong. She feels her way along the cold wall back to the doorway of their bedroom. Flipping on and off light switches from bedroom to bathroom and back required more energy than she can spare. She crawls into bed. It’s barren and unfamiliar, but if she closes her eyes, she can smell Carly lying there, fading traces of Cool Water and musky hair remaining on her pillowcase. Olivia knew she should’ve changed the sheets before collapsing into them around one a.m.
The sheets are still warm from the friction generated by several hours of restless sleep. Even her dreams won’t grant her a reprieve. In dreams, Carly is still holding her, laughing with her, making love to her with the same zeal she did when their relationship was fresh and infallible.
She drives her head deeper into the cradle of her pillow. The pill dissolving in her stomach is certainly taking its time flowing into her veins. Its promise is the only thing holding her together. Nine years ago, Carly promised she would be hers forever. At the time she wasn’t aware forever had a shelf life. But now she is. From now on, the word forever will have an asterisk attached to it with the disclaimer: forever is eternity or until something better comes along.
Olivia had seen Carly at the dance club several Saturdays in a row, eyeing her each week from a distance as she sipped her beer. But with her plain features and shapeless, willowy figure, she hadn’t the moxie to talk to strangers in bars, especially someone like Carly. As she stifled a yawn, the husky voice crept up behind her.
“Are you with her?” Carly asked, her eyelids lowered, her breath sweet and sour from a Sea Breeze.
Olivia spun around brightly. “Her?” she asked, pointing to Janice. “No, she’s just a friend.”
“Then dance with me.” Carly held out a long arm jutting from a sleeveless shirt that revealed muscular shoulders, shiny with body lotion. She batted long lashes and waited as though the word no wasn’t an option.
Olivia took her hand and followed, mesmerized by Carly’s defiant swagger.
“I wanted to ask you to dance all night,” Olivia said as they worked up a sweat on the crowded dance floor. “I just didn’t have the nerve.”
Carly flashed a wicked smile. “That’s okay. I’ve been told I have enough nerve for two.”
Olivia glanced away, the intensity in Carly’s eyes unnerving her.
“Dancing is a clever excuse to touch a perfect stranger you’re attracted to, don’t you think?” Carly added.
Olivia laughed. She knew Carly wanted to touch her in other ways. She could feel it in the way Carly’s hands trembled as they caressed her arms.
“The bar’s closing soon,” Carly said. “I’m not ready to say good-night.”
“Then you should’ve asked me to dance sooner,” Olivia replied, surprising herself and Carly.
“Ooh, maybe I’m not the only one with nerve.”
Olivia giggled. “I don’t know where that came from. Probably all the dollar Buds.”
They blended, swaying in sexy syncopation until the end of Cher’s “Believe,” the last song of the evening. Carly’s blue eyes popped in the twinkling house lights.
They ended up back at Olivia’s apartment, having sex into the wee hours, the kind of sex you have when you aren’t worried what your partner will think of you. Carly’s voice was soft but her actions strong and commanding as she guided Olivia onto her sofa. Olivia had never had a one-night stand and never aspired to, but with Carly, she couldn’t say no. As Carly’s lips journeyed from Olivia’s earlobes, over her neck, across her collarbone, all the way down to the last stop at the station, for a moment, Olivia lost herself along with the anxiety that had always seemed to dog her.
As she lay spent, tangled in bed sheets, Olivia grew anxious about Carly’s good-bye. She knew this night would be a mistake before the first article of clothing dropped to the floor, but she wanted to believe she could suspend her emotions just once for a night of uncomplicated fun.
To Olivia’s surprise, Carly had stayed the night, snuggling up close until morning when Olivia brought her buttermilk pancakes, sausages and coffee in bed. She had assumed Carly was just going through the motions, but when Carly asked for her phone number and said she would call, she actually did.
Every time Olivia wakes from a fitful dream, she loses her all over again. When Carly drove away this morning with all the clothing, toiletries and cooking utensils she could cram into her SUV, Olivia prayed she would drip into the pool of rainwater in the parking lot still rippling from Carly’s tires. Then she, too, could have evaporated in the heat of the afternoon sun.
The digital clock blips to three thirty-two as the popcorn ceiling hangs lower, and the walls move in closer. Her breathing is shallow, her chest barely rising with each breath. She tries to inhale deeply—smell the roses, blow out the candles—Carly once told her, but an evening-long panic attack still constricts her torso. Nothing seems powerful enough to dull the ache, to stop the bleeding from the knife sticking in her heart. Or is it in her back?
Maybe things will be different when dawn finally arrives, if she can survive until then. The first item on the agenda will be to change the bedding, the second, to forget the future she had taken for granted. That future is gone now, leaving behind a fractured present counted off by a sluggish red glow on her nightstand. Who will she be tomorrow? When had she lost her identity to Carly? Did she ever have one on her own? They were young when they met, and it seemed their personalities had developed as one, yet somehow Carly managed the separation without so much as a wince.
The intermittent kicking on and off of the air conditioner is the only sound. Closed windows seal her off from the world. But why should she open them? Barking dogs and the recycle truck won’t halt her rapid descent. The peach pill is supposed to do that, for four to six hours anyway. And then what? Life is persistent. It will demand she face it again. If one pill is supposed to soften the pain and anxiety, won’t a dozen extinguish it altogether?
She flings the covers off and ambles out of bed, tracing the cold wall again with a jittery hand, her toes catching the divots in the carpet made by Carly’s missing furniture.
She opens the medicine cabinet and jiggles the full orange bottle with perverse satisfaction—the refill came just in time.
“This place is awesome,” Carly beamed. She dropped the moving box and grabbed Olivia around her waist.
Olivia kissed her tenderly. “Hard to believe this all started with a one-night stand—and a drunken one at that.”
“Hey, I may have been drunk, but I remember every amazing detail. Come on, let’s christen the place.”
Olivia draped a handful of clothes on hangers over the dining room chair, and they indulged in a leisurely break on the sofa, their naked backsides scratched by tweed upholstery as they explored each other’s bodies with lips, fingertips and nails.
“I love you so much,” Olivia said, dotting Carly’s chest with kisses.
Carly threw her arms around her and squeezed the breath out of her. “I love you more.”
“Are you happy we’re moving in together?”
“I’ve waited all year for this. It’s gonna be great. Come on. Let’s have a drink to celebrate.” Carly jumped off her.
Olivia sat up and pulled her t-shirt on. “A drink? It’s eleven thirty in the morning.”
Carly shot her a defiant smirk. “It’s a special occasion, babe. Don’t be such a worry-wart.”
Olivia frowned. “That’s not funny.”
“What?” Carly said innocently has she poured Malibu and orange juice into mismatched glasses.
“When you call me worry-wart or nervous Nelly. You know I have anxiety issues and take medication for it.”
“I just think you focus on it too much. Here, have a few sips of this and you’ll feel nice and relaxed.” Carly handed Olivia a glass.
“So I shouldn’t think about my anxiety just like you don’t think about your drinking?” Olivia said quietly.
Carly glared at her. “I don’t drink too much, Liv. You just like to control everything. I hope this isn’t how it’s going to be now that we’re living together.”
After hardly sipping her drink, Olivia put her glass down on the coffee table. She shook her head with a smile and snuggled up against Carly.
“Our own place, babe,” Carly said. “We’re gonna be so happy here.”
Olivia clutches the pill bottle and shakes the memory of the day they moved in from her head. As she pads into the kitchen to pour a large glass of Merlot, the telephone rings. It’s her, she thinks, lunging at the wall phone. She’s changed her mind. One night away and she realizes she can’t live without me.
“Is Ted there?” a gravelly voice asks.
Her stomach plunges. “No, there’s no Ted here,” she snaps.
“Who’s this?” the voice asks.
“Esther fucking Greenwood, and you’re interrupting my meltdown.”
She hates answering the phone in the middle of the night. It was Carly’s job since the phone was on her nightstand.
“Who was that?” Olivia slurred one autumn night, groggy with sleep.
“Wrong number,” Carly replied, climbing out of bed.
“Where are you going?”
“To the bathroom. Go back to sleep.”
By the third wrong number two months later, Olivia didn’t go back to sleep. She crept down the hall and crouched near the kitchen straining to hear Carly’s voice whispering into her cell phone.
“Cara, you have to stop calling here in the middle of the night… I know, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now.”
The right now shot a chill through Olivia’s body. She shuffled back to the bedroom and dove into the rumpled bedding. Suddenly, every “I have to work late” Carly said became suspect, the waning enthusiasm and decrease in their love-making more apparent. Her heart raced, pounding into her throat. The toilet flushed and she forced her eyes closed.
Carly descended into bed gingerly, turning on her side and facing the wall.
“When will you be able to do something about it?” Olivia heard her voice ask in the dark.
Carly sighed deeply. “What are you talking about?”
“I heard you talking.”
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop, Olivia. Then you wouldn’t misinterpret things so terribly.”
“What am I misinterpreting about a phone call at two in the morning from a woman you’ve told me is a wrong number?”
“Turn on the light, please,” she said.
“No, I want to hear your words. You know what your expressions do to me.”
“I’m Cara’s sponsor. She’s having a rough time and needs to talk to someone.”
“Then why didn’t you talk to her instead of rushing her off the phone? Is that what a sponsor’s supposed to do when someone calls from a ledge?”
“You don’t understand the nature of the program.”
“I know. You remind me all the time.”
Carly’s tone turned indignant. “Look, staying straight twenty-four/seven can be a nightmare for an addict. I’ve told you that before. Don’t you listen?”
Carly never threw the shame and guilt cards around haphazardly. She was keenly aware of their power and knew exactly when to play them for maximum effect.
Despite Carly’s powerful defense, Olivia followed her gut. “It’s just weird that the only time she calls is in the middle of the night. And you never even told me about her.”
“First of all, it’s called Alcoholics Anonymous for a reason. People in recovery have a right to their privacy.” Her tone grew more condescending. “Secondly, when do you think an addict is most vulnerable? When they’re alone and that usually happens in the middle of the night.”
Olivia folded her arms tightly across her chest, enveloped in shame. She hated when Carly made her feel jealous and insecure. Carly’s reasoning made perfect sense. Then why had she still felt unsettled? “Do you want to call her back? I don’t mind.”
“No,” Carly said coldly. “I got her to walk away from the bottle. I’ll call her tomorrow morning.”
It took Carly another two months of stone-walling, but she eventually got up the backbone to inform Olivia that she was leaving.
“It’s Cara, isn’t it? I’ll bet she’s not even an alcoholic.”
“I told you, it’s not anyone. I’m just not happy anymore and I need to move on.”
“Maybe you just need a little space.” Olivia smiled brightly, hoping the glare would blind Carly to her desperation. “Why don’t you take some time on your own and see if it helps.”
“That’s not fair to you. It’ll be easier if we just make a clean break.”
Olivia knew Carly was lying about Cara and could no longer contain her resentment. “Clean?” she spat. “There’s nothing clean about you leaving me after nine years. You’re leaving a mess, Carly, you’re leaving me a filthy mess, and I hate you for it.”
Carly’s eyes were hard as glass, not even the flicker of a tear to mourn their good years.
“How could you be so cold?”
“I don’t feel good about this, Liv, but should I stay where I’m not happy? Do you still want me even though I don’t want you the same way anymore?”
Yes, Olivia wanted to scream, but by some grace, the word wouldn’t pass her lips. She watched as Carly gathered, in what seemed like slow motion, her car keys, weathered day planner and hooded jacket, stealing herself away from Olivia one mundane item at a time.
“I’ll be back Saturday morning to get my things,” she said.
Olivia tried to swallow the thick emotion clogging her throat. “Where are you going to stay?” she asked as if she still had the right to know.
“With Sandy from work.”
“Carly, please don’t go. We can try harder,” Olivia begged through her sobs.
“I’m sorry, Olivia,” she said with a look of pity that made Olivia want to vomit. “I’m not in love with you anymore.” Carly motioned to give her a hug, but Olivia ran into the bathroom.
She guzzles half a glass of wine, still clutching the pills in her other hand. “Motherfucker,” she shrieks, a blood-curdling blast that launches Leroy, the cat, from his crouched position on the coffee table. His back legs send Olivia’s poetry notebook skidding into the large ceramic raven she bought on their visit to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, toppling the bird to the floor with a crash. She doesn’t flinch, the harsh sound filling her with pleasure.
She refills her wine glass and twists off the top of her medication. Wait a minute, she can’t do this yet. She can’t leave the broken raven all over the floor. Leroy might cut his paws.
She grabs the glass and the topless bottle and takes them with her into the living room, placing them on the coffee table. She sits on the cold wood floor in the glow from the street light and begins picking up each jagged piece, dropping them on the table one by one.
Her whisper-like sobs slowly grow into guttural wailing she hopes won’t stir the neighbors. Leroy creeps back into the living room. As he rubs himself across her back, she gently shoos him away. “Go away, Lee. You’re going to get cut.”
She examines a large chunk of ceramic and runs a sharp edge down her forearm, pressing harder as she goes until she feels the sting of it digging into her skin. No, too painful.
After dumping all the shards into the garbage, she lets out a deep yawn, her puffy eyelids growing heavier as her sob hiccups dissipate.
She carries the wine and pills back into the kitchen, yawning again. “Tomorrow’s another day,” she says, capping the medication and pouring the wine down the drain.
She dumps herself on the sofa and pulls up a frilly blanket.
The morning sun glimmers in through her living room window, rousing her from sleep as she lay on the sofa tangled in the blanket. Her first conscious thought is beach day, until the reality that Carly is gone crushes her back into blackness.
After a half hour of lying in a catatonic state absorbing the shock, she manages to make herself a cup of Chamomile tea. She tilts the mug toward her lips and arches an eyebrow at the thought of making it through her first night alone. One down, ten thousand to go.
She recalls the last nine years and wonders how many more are ahead of her, forty, fifty? Not if every night’s like last night. When Sylvia Plath’s husband walked out on her, she put her head in an oven. Last night I almost ate a bottle of pills, she thinks. Nine years believing in someone that never existed. As Olivia’s eyes sting with fresh tears, the last line of Plath’s poem floats into her mind. I think I made you up inside my head.
Copyright Copeland 2012