from an old velvet chair
from an old velvet chair
a story by ben treasure
Sometimes the hardest part is keeping my foot on the gas pedal. Once or twice a week I make this commute, forty-three and two tenths miles north to another dead-end job that I’ll end up quitting, though it’s honestly just to tide me over. I usually feel sick by the time I hit the freeway, as if my heart is telling my body that we’re getting closer, her and I, if only for a moment.
It’s been an interesting road since Ellie and I became Ellie, and I. I’ve seen her once since then, though it was only from a distance. She looked happy, talking on her phone as she left the Italian market where we used to shop on Thursdays.
She was walking to her car, her little black Volvo. We used to take that car to the lake shore at night, watching the snow blow over the road as I held her in my arms. Even her countenance that day seemed not to have changed in the slightest, her head drawn downward as she made her way out the door. Each step she took was so calculated, but genuine. This was a contradiction she was so very good at. As her foot hit the last step on the landing she whisked her head back, glancing off into the distance at what I’m sure was nothing in particular. She had a way of making the most casual movements inescapable.
About 15 minutes into my drive is when I pass her exit. I usually try to distract myself enough to miss the sign giving me the one-mile warning, but this never seems to work. Ellie lives in a development of town-homes within earshot of the freeway, just east of the new exit. If I honked my horn on a quiet night she’d probably hear it. Sometimes I actually do.
Our last day together unfolded like a beautiful one-act. We were at an upscale mall downtown, not far from the market where I saw her last. She wore the green stocking hat that I bought for her birthday, along with a long black coat and her tall brown boots. She looked like I always dreamt she would.
We walked through the mall without saying a word. It was when I noticed tears that I started counseling her once more, feeding the usual encouragement and now tired praise. There was so much tension between us that even the doorman noticed, taking careful note to curb his customary welcome. While my words were repetitive, they came from deep within and held their meaning. But on that day, her tears didn’t stop, and I put all of my banter on hold long enough to order steamed lattés from a café in the mall. In the faux alleyway around the corner sat a lone table for two, my chair facing an ivy-covered wall that bisected the back of the adjacent building. Even our surroundings seemed set for a stage.
We sat down across from each other, her hands in mine. And through carefully timed sips she poured out her soul for the last time. I nearly wept as she repeated the words I’d heard so many times yet couldn’t seem grasp.
I love you, Jack. I love you so much.
I love you too, I said. I felt every part of it.
As the moments passed I clung to those words, somehow knowing I’d never hear them again. Close to an hour later as the drama subsided and our conversation calmed, we left that alleyway never to see it again. And as we walked out those double doors and past the kind doorman and into the cold once more, I knew the curtains had finally drawn. It felt like every step I took wasn’t even my own, but just part of the forced march back to the familiarity of loneliness.
A few short miles down the road, things deteriorated and the tears flowed once more. It was the longest drive of my life, and I tried to savor every minute of it. When I was a kid I used to watch these old war films, and I’d feel my heart break at that predictable moment when the boys would leave their lovers and go off to battle. I could just place my eyes in theirs as they stood on the decks of those big gray ships, looking down at love for the last time as foghorns blew and the harbor shrank into the distance. I felt their pain that day in the car, for the snow blew no more and the old seats of our theater began to empty. When she got out of the car she was nearly in hysterics. It was still so scripted and surreal. I swear I even smelled the red velvet of those old wooden chairs.
After dropping her off, I drove the rest of the way home, full of self-loathing and lover’s remorse. Looking for someone to blame is the easiest way to cope, and I blamed her and all she was. I hated her indecision and what it had done to me. I hated it all. The next morning, she picked me up to finalize a fate I already knew. I walked out my door and down the stairs, past my back stoop where I’d spent so many nights. Through her tears, she seemed content to lay my heart to rest right there, idling and parked on the street behind my apartment. Before she said a word, I insisted that we drive a few blocks.
I need this spot for me, I told her. I need it to be free from all this.
She started driving, squeezing my hand in hers. I wondered if she could see through the tears enough to keep the car on the road.
It’s hard because I know what I have to do, she said.
I put my hand on my forehead, letting her drive two blocks further before telling her to turn and park. There was no sense in painting the entire town, every street and corner, with this memory that was about to brand me forever. The street where we stopped was one I knew I’d never frequent. It was in an odd part of town, full of post-war apartments that kept mostly poor, religious folk. I was dressed for the gym, which took my guard down. I got ready that morning like I was getting ready for a fight, for in some ways I was. She stopped and the car in park, her tears running down the shaft of the emergency break. And with that it began to unravel, this time never to be repaired. I told her she was the one I used to draw. I told her about my childhood and everything that ever haunted me. I demanded answers. I fought the tears at first but soon let them flow. And when I made it home, I cried aloud.
When tragedy strikes, it’s funny what you’ll remember. And while many details of that day have escaped me, there are some I’ll never forget. In those first hours after I left her, as I lay crying in my bed, it was her hands I remembered most. I remembered how they looked covered in tears, both hers and mine. I remembered the soft rise between her thumb and forefinger that would show itself when her hand would lay flat over mine. And her right hand had these tiny little scars, the remnants of some domestic mishap that I’ve since forgotten. It was those scars I just couldn’t bear to lose.
That was three and one half months ago. We corresponded for a while through emails, though the tone was always so awkwardly restrained that they offered not solace and answers, but only more questions and pain.
For the first few weeks, I looked far and wide for supporting voices. I wanted to hear people tell me that it would be okay, that she’d come back to me, that they knew her too well for any of this to be permanent. I wanted to hear it all, and on many days I did. Yet I sank deeper inside of an already cavernous hole within myself. My friends told me what I wanted to hear, for they had no other choice. But through all this enabling, I knew she’d never come.
Ellie and I broke for a number of reasons. There were the beliefs, and also the timing and looming circumstance. And then there was someone else. And while it hurts a great deal, I don’t envy him. No, I don’t envy him at all.
Through periods of fatalism and apathy, I stopped trying to change anyone’s mind on anything. I had put my life and all that I valued on the line during those few months with Ellie. I was hoping, really, that my words would convince her to help herself by loving me. Sure, she loved me. But she loved other things, and soon my plan failed, for belief will always trump rationale. As we sat in the café on that cold day in January, I made my last attempt at changing a mind. I’ve since found that beliefs are irrelevant, for everyone has them.
When you lose someone you love, a funny thing happens. As time passes we all learn to cope, putting space between whomever we lost and ourselves. Piece by piece, the distractions fall into place in the form of new thoughts and memories, each one doing their part to cover up what’s lost. And for me it has been no different. Over time, the elements of my miserable state seemed to find their way out of obscurity, each to be addressed and dealt with as I learned to move on. Things changed and life became more comfortable. The new memories have even started to cover up the old.
I imagine it is in this view, in this optimistic light, that Ellie will paint my picture for the rest of her days. She’ll see the man who picked up the pieces, the man who found another meaning. But through all the progress, what she may not see is the man who can’t bring himself to go back to that lake, who still scans the highway for every black Volvo. Or the man whose heart skips three beats and then stops at any woman in a green stocking cap, even when he's half a world away.
The other day I stood in line at the bank, waiting to make a deposit. Work is going well, and I no longer commute past the exit I’ll never take. As I looked over the crowd that day I caught the attention of a little Hispanic girl, of maybe three or four. She cast me a shy stare and a coy little grin as she grabbed at her mother’s skirt, hiding timidly behind it. I smiled and waved slightly with my hand at my side, casting a narrow squint in her direction. She warmed immediately and advanced my way, holding two lollipops in her right hand. From the look of the wrappers, it was obvious that they’d come from the large bowl sitting in front of the station of teller number two. Her mother had probably offered them as a bribe, hoping for cooperation as she finished her business.
As the girl made her way closer, she held a bright and honest smile from ear to ear, showing all six of her very young and still growing teeth. She reached me quickly and tugged at my pant leg with one hand while holding the other outstretched, gripping one of the suckers and offering it my way. Her smile never stopped as she waited for me to accept the gift. I never thought I could be flattered so much by a child, but the rush I felt took me by surprise. I smiled softly.
Thank you, I said.
The little girl relaxed her tiptoed stance briefly, standing kink-necked and smiling. After a brief moment, no doubt seeing through my embarrassment, she took a few careful steps backward. She stood for a second, still smiling through her kind, honest brown eyes, and then dashed off to the safety of her mother’s dress.
She did what she wanted to do, that little girl. And without shame or remorse, she left the comfort of hiding for something she wanted. She made an offering to a stranger.