“You look like death.”
“Oh, go away.”
He sat down at the kitchen table. (Well, actually, the only table we’ve got.) “Have you been writing?”
“No. Why should I?”
He shrugged, then, but I could tell that he wanted to answer the question. But it would only make her angrier.
“Have you got food for me?”
She growled, but I knew she couldn’t resist anything he asked for, and she went to the cabinet and put a plate of food in front of him. She’d saved it. She’d even put it in the cabinet over the stove so it would stay warm.
He had spent too long not caring enough about her for him to change his mind. But she let him. She always let him change his mind.
“I went to town today, and I sat on a park bench and just watched the people passing. Maybe for an hour or two.”
She pretended she didn’t care, but I knew she was thinking. She was trying to think of something to say. Something smart enough for him. She was smarter than he was, but she hadn’t realized it yet, maybe she never would.
“The blue looks good on you.”
“Just, shut up,” she said. She left the room out the back door.
He peered up at me while he finished the dinner she’d put before him. I sat on the stairs, peering through the railing bars. “Is she always like that?” he asked.
“Only when you’re around.” I wasn’t sure why he hadn’t left yet. I wasn’t sure why he still came by to see her, when everyone knew he didn’t love her. Everyone knew.
“Well . . . you understand, don’t you?” he asked me.
“I understand that if you don’t eat that whole plate of food she’ll be angry at me,” I said.
He looked back down at the food and began eating again. “She’s my best friend.”
That made me angry. Angrier than I’d been in a long time, and I stood up on the stairs and said, “And what good has that ever done her?” I marched back up them, wishing the food was hot enough to burn him, but I knew it wasn’t.
It was a week before he came back. She was in a better mood this time, and when he came in the kitchen through the side door she smiled, like she was willing to hear everything he had to say. Maybe she wasn’t tired like every other day. I knew she loved him. I knew that she wasn’t sure why, or even what type of love it was. I just sat by the fire. She never kept anything a secret from me anymore.
“You look nice today.”
“Don’t start that,” she said softly.
“Why don’t you appreciate the nice things I say?”
“I’d rather you were honest.”
He sighed and sat down. She put food down in front of him and I looked back. He was looking up at her. He shoved the food away, “What I want to know is why the hell you feed me when I’ve got more money than you’ve ever had. Eat it yourself!”
She turned back and looked at the food. She picked up the plate and dumped the food in the trash, then threw the plate in the sink. I’d have eaten that food, if she’d have let me. But I knew she was trying to make a point. I looked at him, and wondered if she’d made it. “You said yourself, didn’t you? It’s what I’m meant to do.”
He shook his head, “I never meant it like that.”
“You never mean anything!” she yelled. “You never mean anything until three years later when it’s convenient to mean it!”
He deserved that. I turned toward the fire again.
He stood up and before he left the room he said, “I wish you would start writing again.”
I wondered why he cared. He knew it made her happy to write, but since when did he care that she was happy? He’d never cared before.
He came back the next day, but she wasn’t around. I told him she’d gone to town. He left a bar of chocolate on the kitchen table. He told me I could eat some of it as long as I saved half for her. But I didn’t want anything from him.
I sat on the roof and watched them sitting in the grass below. She was dressed in her Sunday best and she looked pretty. He’d never seen her in her Sunday clothes, and so he didn’t really know until this morning how pretty she could look. I think it took him by surprise. I hadn’t been paying attention, but then he said something that caught my attention—something with the word ‘love’ in it. Anyway, her response was, “Nothing ever happens that way.”
“Why couldn’t it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not a story. No one ever gets what they want unless they’re willing to step on other people to get it. I won’t step on anyone.” I knew that was true. She’d die before she hurt someone. And he came around, hurting people all the time. I didn’t understand how my sister could be friends with someone like him. I suppose people make the oddest friendships, all out of necessity, or . . . well, I could tell why she loved him. She loved everyone, and she never gave in. But why did he still come around for her? Probably using her, like he used everyone. I really hated him, but if I said anything to her she’d probably smack me—well, she’d give me a mean look, anyway.
“All I ever want to do is talk to you.”
“I wish you would stop coming around.”
“Why can’t you—” he was frustrated. Good. He always got interesting when he was frustrated. “I don’t love you like I loved her. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I don’t want to hear anything.”
“Then tell me what you want so I can give it to you and we can get on with things.”
“I don’t know what I want. That’s just the truth. I want you to stop treating me like you don’t know what to do with me.”
“I don’t know what to do with you.”
“Just leave me. You’ll do it eventually. I know you’ll leave eventually, so just get it over with.”
“Why would I?” He shook his head, “Why would I leave?”
“Stop being stupid. You just love that I sit here and wait for you to come by, even if it’s just so I can throw a plate of food in front of you. I’m tired of waiting!” She stood up and walked inside, then slammed the door behind her.
That night I did the unthinkable. I asked her why she loved him. She didn’t contest it, instead she said, “Because sometimes I feel like God gave him to me for a reason.” And she continued drying the dishes with a dishtowel.
“Did you really need him?” I asked her.
She nodded and set a dry plate down, “There was a time when he helped me get through everything. And then . . . I just held on too long, I held on too hard. And now, I can’t let him go.”
“Because you think—”
“Yes, because I think—what if the reason isn’t over yet? Obviously I don’t need him anymore, but what if he needs me? What if I’m supposed to do something to repay him for what he did all those years ago?”
“You think God wants you to be unhappy?”
“What does it have to do with God?” she snapped, and she threw the dishtowel down and turned away from me.
“You’re the one who said—”
“Stop it!” she yelled. “Just . . . I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I could get out of here. But why am I kidding myself? Even if I got out, no one would love me.”
“Everyone loves you.”
“No,” she said, like it was fact. And she went up the stairs.
He came around the next morning, almost like I knew he would. He rinsed the dishes that still had water spots on them and re-dried them and put them away. I was surprised he knew where they went. He said things to me, but I wasn’t listening. He was just rambling about something or other. I knew she listened when he did that, she always paid too much attention to everything he said, well I wasn’t going to give him the same satisfaction. I wished he knew he meant nothing to me. But then he asked me a question and I looked up. He asked me again, but still I was not listening. At some point I realized it would always be like this. He wouldn’t give up. He’d never given up before, why would he now? He finished drying the dishes, apparently past the fact that I’d never answered his question. He sat down next to me and noticed the chocolate on the table that he’d left a week before. He picked it up and snapped it in two. Then he offered me a small piece and I took it.
“Why don’t you let her be?” I asked him.
He looked at me and shrugged, “She would be lonely.”
“She’s got me,” I said.
“Sometimes she needs someone else.”
“What makes you think so?” I asked.
He shrugged, “I just know.”
“Did you ever love her?”
“I do love her.”
“No you don’t.”
“It’s just different,” he said.
“There’s no such thing,” I answered and he offered me another piece of chocolate.
“She’s the only person I’ve never lied to.”
“Great,” I answered.
“She’s the only person I still enjoy looking at, even after all these years.”
I shook my head, “You’re stupid. You just make her sad.”
“But I make her happy too,” he smiled. “Just—watch a little more often, and you’ll see. I make her happy, too.”
So I did. I resorted myself to watching a little more carefully. The next time he came, they went out to the grass and they talked for hours. She laughed more than I’d ever seen her laugh, and then I realized, that the only time they ever fought was when they were in that kitchen, and the only conversations I ever heard were of them in the kitchen.
So I went out to the grass where he’d started a fire so she would stay warm—he always made sure she was warm enough—and I sat down with them. Neither of them paid me any attention.
“Do you think it matters?” he asked.
“It matters,” she answered. “Everything matters.”
“Not everything,” he said.
She shrugged, smiling, “Yes, everything.”
“Sometimes I’m afraid my mother will walk into my room and find everything,” he said.
She smiled, “She should. Maybe if she did, you’d be a different person.”
He laughed, “Only for you.”
She shrugged. “Don’t you think everything matters in its own way?”
“Some people just get in the way.”
“People—they’re the ones who matter the most,” she said.
He shook his head, “No—they matter the least. You let them change you. You shouldn’t do that.”
It surprised me he said that, because he changed her the most.
“If it makes you better,” she said.
“You’re too good, that’s all,” he said.
“Remember how it used to be?” he asked softly.
She nodded, “Every time we talk you ask me if I remember. I remember, I always remember. I remember everything.”
I knew that was true. She remembered everything. That was why he still came around; that was why she still let him, because she remembered everything, just like she said.
They were quiet for hours, and I didn’t say anything either. She was happy, just like he said.
When he was about to leave she hugged him and she told him she loved him. He told her he loved her too, and I believed him. I’d never believed him before.
She was whistling something while she ironed my Sunday skirt and he walked in. He stood in the doorway for a while and watched her and she looked up. He smiled and she smiled back. She told him there was food in the cupboard, and he went for it. He handed her some before he took it himself.
“You got my letter?” he asked.
“I’m happy for you,” she said.
He nodded, “I’ll be back in a month.”
She shrugged, “I’ll miss you. I always miss you.”
He nodded, “I miss you too.”
She smiled and then he came over for a hug from her, and he left. I watched her iron the rest of our Sunday clothes before she put the iron away and sat down to write.
She didn’t talk of him while he was away, but I knew she thought about him a lot. I asked her, “Was there a time when you never told him to leave?”
She smiled and nodded, “There was a time when I was terrified that if I told him to leave, he would.”
“And the first time you told him? Did you mean it?”
She shrugged, “I meant it. But I hoped he would stay.”
“He makes me happy. He keeps me tied down.”
“He makes you sad,” I said.
She nodded, “Yes, he does that too.”
A month passed, and the first day he was back she expected him to come around, but he didn’t. He never came and I could tell it tore at her inside. She made me go to town for some ink and paper and she spent all night writing. She spent the next week writing, and still he never came around. I hated him, although he was right. He was right not to have come.
Finally, two months after the day he saw her last, he knocked on the door. He walked in, but only I was in the kitchen. He moved toward the kitchen table and looked at the papers spread across it. He put his hand on top of the papers and rifled through a couple.
“Don’t touch that!” she said, appearing out of nowhere, and she pushed him away playfully.
He smiled, “I’m glad you’re writing again.”
She nodded, “Thank you for the letters you sent.”
I looked up. Letters? I hadn’t seen any letters at all.
He nodded. “Any food?” he asked.
She shook her head, “No.”
He looked unhappy for a moment, and then he sat down next to me by the fire and said nothing. But he was smiling, and it occurred to me that maybe she did still need him—for something.