We were unemployed and without a place to go, but we got up in the morning and pressed things under the iron anyhow. Our parents turned us out of their houses, telling us to Go get some fresh air!, then locked the doors they refused to give us keys to. We piled up in the streets like garbage, a dozen of us on every block, sitting open-legged on the curb in department-store suits. There was me, Mike, Paul, and all the rest of the guys we’d grown up with. We were a decade and a half past high school graduation, loaded down and barely breathing under stubble and spare tires and thick letters from Sallie Mae, but there we all were, out at the bus stop again.
The girls were there, too, sitting on porches nearby. We’d known them half a lifetime ago, from chemistry class and the back seats of cars, and we’d left them in a balloon-filled gym, after swaying to the last slow song, our fingertips pressed against their hips like hands on a crystal ball. They’d leaned in and promised things, whatever came to mind. Back then they were always willing to give too much. But then they left town and found that there were men better than us—men with first names that were actually last names—and now they wore cardigans that they buttoned up the front, and hung matching purses from the hooks of their elbows, thighs pressed together by pencil skirts. We kept a two-driveway distance, like we had back in middle school. From the center of all of this, our parents backed their Priuses down their driveways, heading to work, each waving a hand out the window, and you would have thought it was a Wall Street parade.
Once the last car turned the corner, I settled onto the curb, my legs stretched well into the driving lane, ripped open a Nutri-Grain bar, and watched Mike across the street, doing standing push-ups against the garage door in his only suit. The time to ourselves had done weird things to all of us. Mike stayed up late, watching the Tony Garza weight-loss shake commercials, and had ended up stealing his mom’s credit card to pay for the program, but he’d already lost about five pounds, and he kept saying that, in thirty pounds, the ends would justify the means. Positivity seemed to be a by-product of the workouts, along with the lactic acid that forced him to stand up and kick his legs behind him, then hoist them to his chest like a high-diver, and all he had to say now were good things rooted in nothing. You get back what you put out there, he kept saying. It’s basic physics. I didn’t consider myself a negative person, but he sounded like a fucking fortune cookie. And anyway, I’d taken physics with him in high school, and he’d failed.
Jonathan was there too. He’d been a stock trader but came sloughing back like the rest of us. We blamed him for almost everything, so maybe he was the saddest of us all, rejected by the rejected. He spent a night every week over at the senior center, counseling people on what had become of their 401(k)s and, Jesus, did that piss us off, because it felt like restitution, the sort of bullshit that would let you sleep at night. Whenever Jonathan boarded the bus first, Mike followed behind, pretending to kick the backs of Jonathan’s knees for my amusement.
We rode out to the mall most days, where we roamed in packs, handing out our business cards at the Tradehome and checking back in at the electronics store. No openings. Don’t call us; we’ll call you. From the railing of the second level, we would watch the mattress store carefully. No one was buying queens or kings. Our parents had long given up the performance of sleeping in the same room, citing the annoyance of breathing machines or insomnia, having grown affectionately tired of one another long ago. They were funneling their money into twins now. They brought cash to the mattress store in bank envelopes and begged for a pillow-top that they could sink into, that would ease their tired bones. Heading toward seventy and still working—can you believe it? They walked out with two beds, one for each, and the price came to fifty percent more than a queen would have. It was a gold mine, mattresses. Mattresses, wheelchairs, and bathtubs that you walked into, shut the door and then filled up. For the last month, there’d been a NOW HIRING sign inside the mattress store window, and we watched as every last one of the group walked in and handed Jake his résumé, printed on the linen paper we’d pooled our money for. When the time for callbacks came, we wished one another luck and patted each other’s backs, ignoring the desperate urge to stab them instead, because it was possible, we found, to wish the best for each other and also the worst. Back when we’d left town, we’d left Jake behind, and for a while, he had come up on weekends and slept on our futons in regular rotation, and gotten sick in our bathrooms, and borrowed our student IDs to fill a tray in the dining hall, and now he was stacking the reports, the progress-to-date of our carefully cultivated lives, there on his desk, and sifting through them on lunch break. This is how we came to understand, at only thirty-five, how someone who set out to be an engineer or an astronaut could eventually and unintentionally find themselves grateful to be selling life insurance.
When we felt low, we hung around the food court and watched out of our peripheral vision while the desperate ones approached the Maui Wowi, shamefully, and left with a slack sheet of paper, and then we felt better that it hadn’t come to that, so we hit up the pretzel stand’s free-sample boy to celebrate our good fortune.
But the satisfaction was short-lived. Because when we got home at the end of the day, we found that we were exactly who we’d been at the beginning. So we resolved to do better the next day, the bedtime prayer of the unemployed. We kept showing up, like we’d been taught to by tough-love wrestling coaches and idealistic English teachers. We showed up at job fairs held inside old school buildings. At the community college, where we took classes for certifications they’d only just made up. And when we’d put the hours in—when we’d waited in line and shook hands and passed out all of the résumés we’d printed off—when we’d done our due diligence— we reconvened at a local bar—the local bar—for the warmth, mostly, and the free peanuts, and the jukebox that played without quarters, and we spent all the spare cash pulled from the pockets of our dads’ work clothes on keno, and when we won keno, we spent the payout on pints. By the time the weather broke, a handful of us had been sent to rehab, humming tracks from The Essential Bob Marley on loop, only stopping long enough to let the delirium tremens zip through our bodies like lightning. And the awful part is that the rest of us were a little jealous. To be broken and get to say so seemed like a luxury.
Mike, Paul, and I considered ourselves different from the rest of the Class of ’99, and on our better days, we didn’t follow the others to the mall. Instead we pursued things we’d cared about when we’d had the luxury of caring. Paul spent the winter writing a novel. Don’t get me wrong—it was absolute shit—but there it was, 272 whole pages of something tangible, real enough that his parents let him stay there in the house when they left for the day, where he could watch us from behind the sheers in his second-story bedroom, as we milled around in the street like business-casual zombies. Mike was volunteer coaching a group of middle school kids over at the Y on Tuesday nights. That, and the workout thing. The two of them liked to lecture me: Jesus, man, you gotta do something or you’ll fucking rot. For a while now Mike had been at my basement window at ten every night, crouched down so all I could see was his fist banging and then right up the legs of his goddamn gym shorts, and we went jogging, he and Paul and I, through the town where we’d grown up, but everything seemed small and fake now—like one of those old-timey recreated villages where retired women put on bonnets and pretended to churn butter. The five-mile mark was just before the elementary school, and when we hit it, we fell into the empty practice field, then dragged ourselves to the top of the eagle’s nest while we caught our breath, and then Mike would tell us how much it meant to him, the three of us all being back together.
Sometimes we’d bullshit for a while, talk about football or make fun of one another. For a long time now, I’d been the only one with a girlfriend, so they’d talk about Christine, her ass and whatnot, and try and make me mad, but after a while, they even lost their enthusiasm for that. Maybe it didn’t bother me because I knew how Christine felt about them—she called them middle-aged frat boys. I couldn’t figure out how I was any better, but I kept my mouth shut, afraid of bringing it to her attention.
Mike had never dated anyone worth remembering, on account of him being a dick a lot of the time, but Paul had had a girl he loved, from college, a girl he’d meant to marry. But she’d left him for an older guy with a job, and now she lived in a gated community, and every Christmas she sent Paul a picture postcard of her and her stepfamily, kids nearly as old as she was, all wearing the same sweaters. So I let them have a few lewd words about Christine’s ass. Sometimes I even started it, if the mood was sad and everyone was too quiet. It was a nice ass, anyway. Even if Christine wasn’t the kind of girl who wanted her ass talked about, unless you’d gone on forever about her heart and her head first. After just a few months of this, we had strong legs and silent mouths, and we laid back on the grass around the jungle gym, until we couldn’t see our breath in the air anymore.
When we got home from running was when I started working, till three or four in the morning. I’d ordered a roll of tracing paper, and now I was drawing it out, my and Christine’s house. There was a glass-top coffee table in the basement, and I put a camping lantern beneath it and laid the plans out on top, a book on either side as weights, so that it was as good as a drafting table, with our life lit up from below. Three bedrooms, two full baths. An in-wall fireplace that marked off the living room from the kitchen.
Out past the mall was a subdivision where they’d been building houses when people still had the money to buy them. She loved those houses—the wide-open rooms and everything inside white—and once in a while, after my parents were in bed, we’d put their Cadillac in neutral and push it down the driveway, then take it out to the subdivision, just for a late-night drive. The houses were spaced perfectly apart, as far as I could tell, but there was one lot that was dark, looking like the black hole of a missing tooth in a row of perfect two-stories. I told her I’d bought it already, the lot. I happened to know that they weren’t building on it because it was meant to be a road out to an expansion of the subdivision, but I told her it was ours, bought and paid for with my graduation money, and it bought me the time I needed so that she was still there in my bed, her back so smooth and pale in the streetlight coming through the basement window. And she was still in my car, singing to the radio when it was something from the nineties, and sometimes even laughing at my jokes if they were really funny. She was still in all the places I needed her to be, so my life still felt like my own. I worked like that until I heard Christine sliding open the basement window, saw the dirt-caked bottoms of her boots pushing through, and then I lifted the books on either side, let the paper roll in on itself, and hid it inside my sock drawer.
Christine had managed to get a job over at the cemetery, off the books; the groundskeeper was too old, too feeble, to dig the holes himself, but he was afraid of anyone finding out, of losing the job when he was just fine doing everything else—zigzagging between the headstones on the riding mower, shining the spotlight to scare off the Class of ’98, who met up at the man-made lake in the east corner after midnight and threw back a six-pack apiece while they floated on inner tubes, heads back and eyes to the empty sky. So Christine dug the holes at night. The grounds had been one of the spots where the Civilian Conservation Corp had planted a fuckload of trees during the Depression, and every time I came out there, I imagined those boys, their pockets full of seeds that they threw left to right, distracted, while they walked from the top of the country to the bottom. Now, families came from all over the state to bury people there.
Some days something had reminded her of Us, and those nights she would loop her arms around my neck soon as her boots hit the floor and bury her face in my chest. One time a funeral party had forgotten a box of leftover streusel coffee cake in the cemetery office, and the taste reminded her of the senior class trip we’d taken to Frankenmuth, the little German village up I-75, and that night I laid on my back in our bed and she laid on my chest, and we fell asleep like that. But other nights it wasn’t like that. And some nights she didn’t come over at all, and it was good and awful.
Like the last few days. Twenty years ago I’d asked her out for pizza, and now she called it our anniversary, and every year at this time, for the last five years or so, instead of celebrating, she just got mad that we hadn’t gotten married and disappeared for a while.
This morning when the bus came, I watched from the curb—a whole different perspective. Watched Mike look back and register me there, the bus already pulling away, and he shoved himself into a slip of seats, sideways, and pulled on the window until the top slid down a little, but then the child safety latch stopped it. I waved, and Mike yelled, mouth pressed inside the inch of open screen like a drowning man gasping for air, “I’ll call you later!” From the very back of the bus, Jonathan stared out the window, alone, and when he slipped by me, he raised a hand, palm flat, and I raised mine back. When the bus turned its bow toward the mall, I pulled my backpack from my mother’s potted magnolia. The house plans were rolled up and stuffed in the spot where a water bottle was supposed to be. I took off my suit jacket and put it inside the backpack, then started to hoof it out of the neighborhood, along the M-15, and into the downtown.
The downtown looked abandoned—the streets and park empty, the stoplights clicking through their rounds for no one—but the parking structures all had their LOT FULL signs out, because inside the buildings, packed into the offices, our parents worked on. They arrived every morning, ready to trade in another day. Their bodies were giving out quickly now, having been pushed beyond what should have been expected—lunches at the buffet, spells at the Bingo hall—but it was the age of PC anyhow, the age of accessibility, so their buildings had all long been fitted with ramps, and they rolled up and down them, a whole new race of ancient wheeled people. Geriatricus Whellicus. Each held their job in their right hand, running a thumb over it like a rabbit’s foot, convinced that everything would eventually right itself if they just kept showing up. More likely to kill them off were their own children, their children’s friends. For a while there, you’d turn on the nightly news, and all Tom Brokaw wanted to talk about was another working senior citizen getting plucked off by a desperate thirty-something as he left work. The attacks were fruitless, though. Our parents kept on, more afraid of entropy, empty-handedness, than death. Our parents said we should have thought through it all a bit more before jumping head-first into a major, but who could have predicted an entire generation that just kept working? That there wouldn’t be time and space to stretch out and make our mistakes and become art majors or philosophy grad students, or pretend that it really does take all kinds, which is what my grandmother said whenever she found out that someone was gay or divorced.
At the corner of Kalamazoo and Main, I stopped in front of the fountain, loosened my tie and sucked in my breath, tipped my head back to get more, and when I opened my eyes like that, I saw Mr. McCauly, Mike’s dad, through the glass of his second-story office in the AT&T building. Mike and I had been in that office a million times. On his desk were a dozen silver balls hung from strings. We sat there in his office, waiting for him to get off work and drive us home, as one end swung out and back and then the other side did the same, while in the middle nothing moved. Mr. McCauley was now staring out over the empty city. When I entered his field of vision, I saw the recognition cross over his face, and then he raised his hand and I raised my hand too. It was the most intimate exchange we’d had in years, so much so that, at the same time I turned to leave, I saw him back away from the window to where all I could see in the glass was the reflection of buildings.
In our homes, we tried to start tiny revolutions. Mom, I would say, it’s time to throw in the towel. Her social security had been waiting on her for five years, and I tried to explain to her that she was the one paying into it. Financially, it didn’t make sense. But our parents held on, fearfully. They calculated how many more years until they regained what they had lost in the Wall Street Fuck-Up of 2008, and then they worked past that, just a little extra. They had the mentality of gambling addicts now: just once more. There were second mortgages on beach houses, leases on convertibles, and they had still never seen the mountains in Switzerland, the ones with the train tracks that go right through, and goddamnit were they scared. We wanted to respect their experience—their right to work, and to leave at their own pace—but we were bottlenecked, backlogged, and inside we were all screaming GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN WAY! But we couldn’t convince them it was safe to let go any more than we could convince our grandparents, who had lived ten times as many years out of the Depression as they had lived in it, but still folded their used tin foil into squares and patted them into kitchen drawers.
At night, our parents came home to empty dinner tables, us on the couch. We had managed to climb back into the windows, or found the spare key in the fake rock beneath the lilac bush, but we weren’t dinner-makers. We were advertising men. And teachers without classes, and lawyers without cases, and no one had taught us to make dinners. And so they walked in the door and sighed, You are more than thirty years old. Do I really still have to do EVERYTHING around here? And they did. From the couch we yelled, Anybody quit today? Anybody die?
The old folks’ home, empty for years, but still somehow smelling of piss, had been converted into a kind of dorm for those who couldn’t stay with their parents anymore, and they made the place run pretty well, everyone chipping in to mow lawns and make food and keep the power turned on, like the co-ops you heard about back in the sixties, and they even had their own little bus that they took out to the mall. What people said a lot was Thank God people aren’t having kids like they used to. Can you imagine kids running around this place? Clusterfuck. Luckily everyone was on birth control, because who could afford a kid? And it wasn’t like people were much in the mood for sex, anyhow. When we saw them in town every once in a while—toddlers, or babies strapped to the fronts of women, legs dangling at angles that made their mothers look like comic-book spider villains—we all turned our heads to follow them, before we got ahold of our manners.
I kept running, out of the downtown and into the country, until I hit the Last Chance Party Store, where I pulled a Dr. Pepper from the cooler and felt around for the change in the pocket of my pants. I felt it there, the smooth circle of the ring, and the dimes were just small enough to fit through it, so I pushed them through, again and again, with one hand.
TJ was at the register, like he had been since we were eighteen, except when he was down at the county for drunk driving or petty larceny, or away for that pipe bomb that had nearly blown our algebra teacher’s face clean off.
He scanned the barcode and said, “So, congratulations then, eh?”
The town was a fishbowl, and he and Jake both shot pool down at Madden’s together, so maybe I wasn’t surprised, but I was pissed.
“Yeah,” I told him.
“You’re gonna sell some motherfucking mattresses then.”
“Yeah,” I told him.
“Then what?” he said.
I told him I was going to build her a house. Christine.
“What about after that?” he said. And it pissed me off.
“Jesus motherfucking Christ, TJ,” I said, “I didn’t exactly write a script.”
For someone who had worked at his parents’ convenience store for almost twenty years, he had a lot to say about the future.
I threw the change at him and walked outside, and as I was going he said, “Good luck,” but he said it with a laugh, and when I got outside I chugged the Dr. Pepper, eyes closed. It was just before eight a.m., and the sun was finally getting high and hot enough that the shadows started to melt and leak, and I wanted to stop and remember it for a minute, for later. For a day when someone asked me about it. There wasn’t much to see, though. A road cratered with potholes, an empty barn waiting for permission to collapse. The man who owned the strawberry farm across the road had died last year, but everything was tied up in probate court, and the fields had gone fallow. A half mile down the road, past the Last Chance Party Store, someone had opened another party store. In high school, when I thought I’d be getting out of here for good, everything had seemed beautiful—the dilapidation—so I tried to see it again like that, like possibility instead of ruin. From afar, instead of from within.
The ring had been my grandmother’s, and last night—after I’d gotten the news, wiped my face, and pulled myself together—I took it out of where I’d hidden it, in the inside pocket of my interview suit, and I slipped it onto my pinkie finger and ran my thumb over it until I fell asleep on the futon.
I hopped the barbed-wire half-fence across from the store, and when I came up to the top of the hill, I could already see her there, through the trees.
You couldn’t fit the backhoe in the cemetery without knocking over all the gravestones around it, so Christine dug the graves by hand. When she finished, she covered them with a tarp. In the morning the grieving families marched themselves through the rows of trees single-file. People saw Christine working, but no one asked questions, as long as she wasn’t appearing on any official documents, and people started calling her the Ghost of Potter’s Field as a joke, but it wasn’t funny at all.
I found her shoulder-deep in a hole meant for Eric Stroh, who we’d all voted Most Likely to Succeed. He’d been hired as a teacher for a full year, while the same math teacher we’d had in high school was having every major bone hub replaced with a titanium stand-in. When the year ended, after Eric had had the taste of what it might have been like—to have a career, to build something—it was too much to go back to the mall. Mostly we were burying our own—depression, drugs, the scarred tissue of livers filling chest cavities like slowly inflating balloons. The overtime was great for Christine. Good enough that one weekend we had driven over to Saugatuck and rented a hotel for two nights, and made love in a bed that was actually a bed, with a sham and everything, and four pillows instead of just the two that we were used to, and we squeezed them sort of desperately between our arms while we slept. And we were happy, for a second. When we checked out and pointed the car for home, Christine played our favorite Van Morrison CD. But when it ran out, neither of us made the move to replace it, and the closer we got to town, the quieter the car got, and by the time we pulled into the parking lot of Trinity Lutheran for lunch, I looped a tie around my neck like a noose, and Christine sprayed something cheap on the skin between her dress and her stomach, and we headed inside with nothing to say to one another. Christine let me know what was going on each week, in terms of the dead, and I planned my meals accordingly. We usually picked up Mike and Paul, and we were the traveling caravan of condolences, feeding off the dead. We spooned a whole variety of mayonnaise salads into our mouths, and nodded our heads at whoever was talking, and signed our names to cards with watercolor flowers, and then we went home.
“Great corners,” I told her. Perfect corners were pointless, but she took pride in it. I dropped my backpack at the edge of the hole and knelt down, eye-level with the back of her head, so she could kiss me easily, if the whim hit her, and I ran my fingertips along the corner nearest to me.
With her back to me, she lifted a shovel of dirt and threw it over her shoulder, right at me, and it went down my shirt, clung to the sweat around my collar. She was an interior design major, and so what she did, in terms of practicing her craft, was walk around the cemetery at the end of her shift, rearranging the cloth banners and pulling out the rainbow pinwheels, the shot glasses, the stuffed animals. Any sort of flag with a holiday theme—gone. She threw them into the bottoms of the holes, then covered them with dirt. This isn’t a fucking carnival, she said. Eric was Jewish, and had to be buried within twenty-four hours, so she’d probably worked through the night, and you could tell she was dead tired.
I knew better, but even so, I climbed down in there in my suit pants and put my arms around her from behind, all the way around, and held tight, so she couldn’t smack me with the shovel, but she was strong enough that we fell backwards, and there we were, side by side, in Eric Stroh’s grave. The whole of everyone we’d ever known who’d arrived at the end—parents, friends, teachers—lay around us. Tight-lipped and stoic, and the tops of the trees swayed back and forth above, slow enough to lull you to sleep.
We lay there for a minute, stunned and taken in by the sort of quiet we’d largely forgotten, and finally Christine sighed.
“Well,” she said. “This doesn’t seem so bad.”
What she’d been saying lately, about the marriage thing, was that living with her parents was starting to get the best of her, and she was threatening to move into the co-op. Baby, I would whisper to her, Billy Mays slap-chopping the hell out of something in the background. But no one would approve me for a loan, or even rent us out an apartment without solid employment, so that’s all I said, just Baby.
She hadn’t been like this when we met. Dissatisfied. Bitter. When I told people that, She hasn’t always been like this, I felt like I was apologizing for a grandma with dementia, an uncle with a divorce-induced drinking problem, but it was true. It was true of all of us, to some degree, but it had warped everything about Christine. The rest of us had been lazy, barely sliding into a state school on the merit of an ACT score, or transferring after an initial come-to-Jesus year at a community college. But Christine had been valedictorian. At graduation, she’d used a Nelson Mandela quote: Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We’d all thrown our hats when she finished, and then left town for good, and now we were back, but we didn’t even have the conviction of youth behind us, and none of us were playing small— we just were. I felt the weight of her disappointment, right on top of me, like the first shovel of dirt, and tried to balance it against the weight of the ring in my pocket. I knew she was disappointed in me, my stagnation, even though she was hardly doing better. Maybe I was disappointed in her too.
Well-meaning people were always reminding us that there were some out there with real problems—dead parents, addictions, homelessness—as if problems were measured on a pair of scales, and the more misfortune stacked on others, the higher we’d rise. But part of me wanted those other problems, just for a little while, because at least then I’d have earned the right to own them, to feel and be devastated by them, without the fucking pressure of keeping my chin up.
When I didn’t answer, Christine’s voice deflated and she grabbed for my hand. “Sorry,” she whispered. She was always doing that—telling you how she felt then feeling bad about it.
Before she’d disappeared for a few days, when we were lying there naked after sex, she’d sometimes start crying, and I probably don’t need to tell you what that feels like. We were on my futon—the same one we’d had sex on in college, she reminded me—through the late shows and into the infomercials.
What’s wrong? I asked. It’s just—, she would say. That she thought she’d be fucking on an actual bed by this point in her life. It wasn’t a lot to ask, I had to admit.
One day on the way to the beach a few years ago (?), we’d run out of gas off the M-43. Five a.m. and we put it in neutral, got out of the car. It was the best-case scenario of a shitty situation, because there was a gas station at the bottom of a hill. We pushed it for a hundred feet, me shirtless and barefoot and Christine in a bikini and flip-flops, and when we got to the edge, we jumped in. I held it steady, in our lane, and Christine laughed in the passenger’s seat. The other side was a hill too, so it gained some momentum, and when I saw we were going up the other side, I screamed. I imagined us flying over the top of that hill, airborne, like any action movie we’d ever seen. Christine was calm, though, and we slowed before we got to the top, and I felt the backwards motion of the car being sucked back down the hill. Something powered by gravity can’t ever return to the same height it started at, she said. It’s called drag. It was another hour and a half before the pumps would open, so we made love there, in the back seat, windows open, and I thought of it fondly all the time, and when did she become a girl who had to fuck on a bed?
So I said that: “When did you become a girl who wants to fuck on a bed?”
“Grow up,” she said.
I didn’t feel like it, though. From everything I’d seen, it seemed awful. I imagined her in ten years, angry because we only ever fucked on our bed anymore, and then us as our parents, not even sleeping in the same bed anymore, much less fucking on it.
It wasn’t her fault. We were all that way. Looking for a safe landing place for the blame.
She climbed out of the hole and stood there on the edge, looking down at me.
What I was thinking about was that around eight the night before, Jake had called, and when I accepted the job and hung up, I cried, not out of happiness but because of the tone of his voice, how you could tell that he thought he was making my fucking day—my life—and it was a kind of power, and I had gone to school for communications and had never given a shit about mattresses, had never liked selling a goddamned thing. But then I thought, Keep moving forward, and about how sometimes on our nighttime runs, around the third mile, I wanted to start walking but I never did, because everyone else was running and it was a good kind of pressure, and I was happy for it at the end, at mile five, when I finally stopped and collapsed and felt great and thought that maybe it hadn’t been that bad.
To our left, a parade of orange-flagged cars was turning off of Potter Road and working their way toward us, but there were only two roads north and south—at the ends of the property—and so they had to weave east and west, back and forth, to get to where they were going, and the closer they got, the more nervous Christine got, because we were occupying their grave.
I got up on one knee.
“Christine,” I said.
And she said, “Get the fuck out of the hole. Goddamnit, I am going to get fired.”
I tried again. It was the most important moment, and she was fucking it up.
“Christ,” she said. “Either get out or lie down and close your eyes.” The shovel was in her hand.
The ring was on my pinky by then, and I stood up and pulled it off, asked her to hold it while I lifted myself out of the hole.
Her eyes got big and she laughed, but I wasn’t smiling anymore. So she grabbed my hands and squeezed them nervously and asked, “Where do you want to be in five years?”
It was a game that we used to play all the time, first in high school, and then in college, and it had oriented us. But back then the fun had been that you could say anything and no one could argue with you, because who knew, right? Except that now no one was going to backpack through Europe. At this point, if we ever got to see Europe, it would be through the window of a bus, on a trip funded by social security.
But I didn’t need a real answer, because Christine and I had a stock answer, an answer we’d both always said, and it was Anywhere, as long as you’re there, and it was cheesy as hell, but it soothed us, like counting steps or reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Christine was waiting for me to say it, to put us both back at zero, at the beginning, but instead I said, “I think I’d like to go to California.” I wasn’t even sure it was true. In fact, I knew it wasn’t true—I’d never so much as thought about visiting California. But, holy shit, it felt good to say it.
And now that I was thinking about it, there had to be something to it, didn’t there? An entire state, shaken like a snow globe on a regular basis, people standing in doorways holding their coffee mugs while bridges collapsed around them, but still living on. Choosing it.
She said, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
In twenty years it might be the biggest regret of my entire life, but just then, I wanted to feel it, the burn of our ending. Like the pleasant exhaustion after being out in the sun too long.
The processional was one lane away, and heads under pillbox hats were watching us through windows. She would still be miserable, we all would, but I wouldn’t be the one making her that way. She would have to choose something else—her weight, her job, her eternally employed parents. We wouldn’t see each other for months at a time, but then we would run into each other—in the bar and town—and rail about it—all of it—and bond over it, and we would make love on a couch that wasn’t ours, in a way that made us feel just a little seedy but also alive, and we would become something totally different. Somehow it would be better.
I leaned over and tried to hug her, like an asshole, but she pushed me, hard, on both shoulders, and told me to get the fuck out of her graveyard. But I’d known her forever, and even through the anger I could tell that part of her was excited. She seemed like that girl again. The thing was, we were both so goddamned sick of waiting to be noticed—to be chosen. I turned around and fucking ran—just ran—through the trees and toward the empty field beside the graveyard, the place we called overflow parking, that would be dug up and filled bit by bit over the next days, months, years.
She started yelling my name when I got to the tree line, and I turned around to see her like I’d seen her a million times before: hip cocked to the side, hands out to the sides, palms up. It was a look that said, Be reasonable. It was a look that said, What are you going to do then?
I ran back the way I’d come, feeling full of something, and when I turned onto my street, there they all were—Paul and Mike, and even Jonathan, just standing on my front lawn. Their ties were undone now, and the crinkled ends were sitting on either shoulder like the angel and devil. When I got closer, I could tell that Mike had been crying, was still crying. I pictured them there that morning, lined up along the rail, stunned and silent, the NOW HIRING sign gone from the store window, something else that had come and gone and left them behind.
I opened my mouth to tell Mike I wasn’t going to take it after all, but then he landed the first fist, right below the bottom rib, so hard that my body collapsed around his hand like pizza dough. I was on my knees in the front yard, hunched over, someone yelling Fucking traitor! in my ear, the words hot and wet against my neck, and I could feel pain—really fucking feel it, so acutely that I would swear to you I could actually see it as it moved from rib to back, then fast-tracked it down my spine and out to my arms and legs. My whole body was pulsing. Mike came up from behind and put both arms around me and clasped them in the front so I couldn’t move my own, and I braced myself for the throw, the crack of my head against the stone walkway, but instead he just held me there, tried to catch the angry sobs as they shot out of his lungs, and squeezed harder and harder until both of our arms turned white. The whole time, even though it hurt like hell, all I could think about was how much I was gonna miss those goddamn runs, the three of us at the top of the eagle’s nest, gasping for breath, for more.
Laura Winther Galaviz holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Grist. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and teaches English at Western Michigan University.