Headers in part one.

Breathing (Part Three)

*

"I'm sorry," Donna says over the phone.

C.J. holds the mouthpiece away for a second to take a breath. The room smells like her mother's lavender perfume. "Me too."

"I've been talking to my mom every couple of days lately." Donna's voice is scratchy, and she sniffles after every third or fourth sentence. "I can't conceive of what I'd do. I mean, I can't."

"I know." C.J. crosses her ankles, tapping them against the base of her parents' bed. She imagines herself getting staggering drunk, worse than she ever has, or driving a few towns over and lying to a doctor for pills. It might even help, for a while. She changes the subject. "How are you?"

"Um. I'm fine, I think." Her voice shrinks. "I can't believe I'm actually doing this."

C.J. realizes she doesn't know what Donna's best friend's apartment looks like; she can't visualize the scene at all. But she knows Donna's face hasn't changed much over the years. Everything must still be written on it, the same lines of hope, doubt, determination.

"I still love him," Donna says.

"I know."

"I do," Donna continues, as if C.J. had questioned it. "I've been in love with him since I was twenty-six years old. And it's always been so much work."

Once, C.J. walked behind Toby into a crowded room, where Josh shook her hand and said, "What can you do for me?" She blinked and he flashed his charming smile. He didn't trust her yet, she knows now; he made her work. He made her prove herself in combat with the press, in strategy meetings, in midnight bull sessions on long bus rides. She loves Josh, of course, but she can't imagine loving Josh the other way.

"It's not that I want to walk away," Donna is saying. "But it's been, it's been uphill, always. And the top of the hill doesn't get any closer, you know? And I just get older."

"You're so young," C.J. scolds. She frowns at the sound of her voice, but it's true. Donna's not forty yet. Her hair is still blonde, though shorter now, and strands of it are probably coiled around her fingers as she speaks.

"It's like working for him on the worst days. Maybe that's the problem. Underneath everything, he still thinks he's the boss."

C.J. believes her. She suspects, though, that the real problem isn't Josh thinking he's the boss. It's that Donna thinks the same thing. "Maybe you'll work it out," she says soothingly.

"And maybe not."

"And maybe not, and you'll be okay either way. Eventually."

"I looked it up. Two-thirds of marriages end in divorce."

"It can't be that many."

"Sixty-one percent." Donna sighs. "Maybe the system just doesn't suit anybody. Maybe more people should be like you and Toby."

"Well. We're not like anything. We just keep waking up in the morning."

"You've been living with him for like five years," Donna points out gently. C.J. has to count backwards to realize it's been that long. She has to count backwards to remember that it hasn't been always. "So, you know, something's working, right?"

Toby wanders through the doorway, then. He stops and stands just inside, shifting his weight and looking at her with his head down. C.J. strokes the dark green fabric of her parents' comforter. "Right," she says weakly. "I should go."

"Oh. Wow, yes, it's late." Donna attempts to sound stable. "I've just been talking about myself all night. You should have told me to shut up."

"No, no. It's fine. I'll call soon."

They say goodbye. C.J. presses the button on the cordless and looks at Toby. He pulls off his tie and speaks without preamble, as if they're in the middle of a conversation. "We were in Paris. Working."

She spends a few seconds parsing this. "When your mother died."

"The drug manufacturers thing. AIDS in South Africa."

"You got lost buying condoms." She stifles a giggle. "On some side-street. In the rain."

"LibertÚ," he pronounces carefully, sitting down beside her. "EgalitÚ.
FraternitÚ."

"And we went to N˘tre Dame. And we prayed." C.J. draws her knees up to her chest. "She's depressed."

"Our Lady of Paris?"

"Donna."

"I'd expect she is." He bites his lip slightly. "I have plane tickets for Friday. But I can change them to Saturday."

C.J. stares at her mother's night-stand. An old-fashioned brass alarm clock counts the minutes under the lamp that turns on and off at a touch. There are photographs; she tries not to see them. "We have to do the personal effects."

"Or Sunday. If it's easier."

She turns her head and the afterimage of the lamplight burns blue on her retinas. Everything blurs. "I don't know."

"You don't know if Saturday or Sunday--"

C.J. rests her cheek on the tops of her knees. "I don't know, Toby."

He twists his hands together. "Okay."

"There's a lot to do." She lets her vision stay unfocused so she can't read his expression. "I have to maybe stay here for a while. I can't just leave it. And I don't know how long."

"I said okay." Toby runs a fingertip along the soft skin behind the jut of her anklebone. "I'm not asking."

"You should be."

He is quiet for a while. His fingers graze over her Achilles tendon, and then he holds her ankle, not clutching, just encircling. "What do you want?" he asks at last.

She wants to wake up. She wants to fight with him, to call him cold, to throw a tantrum. She wants to have sex with him, so badly that she's sure she's visibly quivering. She surprises herself with another truth. "I want to be alone."

Immediately he stops touching her. He doesn't talk, and then when he does his voice is low and terribly calm. "I can change the tickets to tomorrow."

"Who's feeding the cat?"

"The green house."

"Jamie. That's good." C.J. pinches her eyes shut, sudden pressure in her temples. "My parents didn't really keep a pet. There was, for a while, almost a dog."

He doesn't ask, and she doesn't explain. He doesn't state that a dog either is or isn't there, that almost doesn't count or even exist. He doesn't state that there are some things without ambiguities and grays. "The house is in your name."

She fights the impulse to wince. "I'll be an absentee landlord," she says. She lies back on the bed, unbuttons her blouse and stares at the ceiling and the back of Toby's neck. Sleep takes her by surprise like a lioness pouncing on its prey, going for the jugular.

She wakes up in the exact same position, arms folded across her bare stomach. Toby is beside her, facing the wall. It must be like sleeping next to a coat-rack for him, she thinks with sympathy. He wakes up seconds later. Blinking away the night, he looks at her like he used to study a sentence that wasn't formed properly, like the wrong words are overwhelming the right ones. And C.J. does not apologize.

That day, they stand in the terminal under brilliant fluorescent light, which makes C.J.'s head pound. She wishes she could smoke while they wait for his flight to be called. More than once, she catches herself chewing her fingernails.

"It's just that there's a hell of a lot we have to go through," she says lamely, clasping her hands in front of her. "It's best that I'm here. While we're clearing it all up."

His eyes drill through her. She wonders how much he's discussed with her brothers, and guesses it's enough that he knows they would let her go. "The house is in your name," he reminds her evenly.

She stares down at the fake marble design of the floor, the reflected lights. "Technically, the house here is mine, too," she says to his shoes.

In another moment, he walks away.

*

There's no estate. They weren't rich people, and though they never touched the house, their other assets were depleted by medical bills and by simply living for so many years. Left behind are fading papers and photographs, forgotten furniture, tired clothing and ugly knickknacks. All this detritus, with no value but the sentimental, is an inheritance.

It's not that hard, C.J. tells herself, not worse than packing up to move away from Los Angeles, or back to Los Angeles, or away again. It's not that hard, except she hated packing then. Somehow it manages to suck up all her energy and time. She spends hours one morning sitting on the attic stairs, reading postcards she sent home during college, her handwriting scurrying over the white surface.

Another day, she declares war on one of the closets. She gets as far as the shoes, before a pair of orthopedic beige flats reminds her of playing dress-up as a child. C.J. leans against the closet door and remembers tottering around in sparkly heels the color of white wine, her mother laughing as she wobbled and collapsed. "One day," Mia said, "you'll be a big girl and you can wear whatever shoes you want." She'd taken the promise to heart, even when her height made heels unnecessary, made them a joke. When she looks up again, it's dark outside. The shoes, she recalls, weren't the color of wine after all. They were the color of bone.

Time passes this way, when she's not watching it, when she's dusting the mantel or vacuuming the hall. C.J. begins to notice that dawn comes earlier. By six in the morning there's enough light to read by, to decipher the print on medical records, on old letters and newspaper clippings. In the afternoons she sorts and folds clothes for the Salvation Army, or writes thank-you letters to the people who have sent flowers and sympathy cards. She doesn't read the notes, only checks the addresses on the envelopes and reels off her replies. The flowers dry and droop and wilt on the dining room table. Time passes this way, and even the simplest things take longer than they should.

She sleeps at strange hours, watches late-night television restlessly. Three weeks after Mia's funeral, it's warm enough to eat outside. Tom goes to McDonald's for chicken sandwiches and fries, and they eat with their sister-in-law, the greasy food spread out on the patio table. "Too much mayo," Paula says, licking her lips. "They always do that."

"I could've asked them to hold it," Tom says.

"Nah, you'd've been in the line forever." Paula sits back in her plastic chair and looks up at the pale blue sky. "Nice out here."

Tom nods and glances at C.J. "Your food okay? No severed body parts?"

She furrows her brow at him and sets the half-eaten sandwich down on its wrapper. "Yum," she says, and dabs her lips with a paper napkin. "So how are the girls?"

Paula purses her lips. "They seem to be holding up. You know, they're young, they're resilient. Ashlee doesn't talk about it much. And you know, usually you can't get her to shut up."

"Are you worried?" C.J. asks.

"I don't know. A little, maybe, but I figure it's normal. Your parents were really good to them after Aaron--" Paula stops and sips her Coke. "They were really good to all of us."

"We're a cheerful bunch," Tom says, munching on a handful of fries.

"Yeah." C.J. rubs her fingers together idly, fitting them between her knuckles. "Let's have a song. Let's have a rousing chorus, of, I don't know, 'Volare'."

He hums a few bars obligingly. "Are you going to eat that or do I have to force-feed you?"

She picks up a French fry. "I'll eat it if one of you talks about something cheerful."

They are all speechless for a few seconds. "Two priests and a rabbi," Paula says finally, with a grim chuckle.

C.J.'s face crumples in frustration. "I hate this. I hate when I don't know what to say."

"I hate people who think they know what to say," Tom says. "At the service, I wanted to hit Aunt Celeste." He bangs the flat of his hand twice on the table, as if he's keeping back a fist.

Paula leans forward, elbows on the table. "Why?"

"She gave me that patronizing head tilt." Tom demonstrates. "She kept saying, 'It's a tragedy.' She kept saying, 'The real tragedy is that they went so close.'"

"Well, isn't it?" C.J. says.

For a split second, Tom and Paula exchange a look. It's not intentional, C.J. is sure; their eyes just shift toward each other. She thinks of every funeral she's attended, and feels like a child.

"They were married for almost sixty years. It's better." Paula's voice wavers slightly. "I mean, not for us, but that they didn't have to wait for each other. That they weren't apart for long."

C.J. looks at the trees that border the small yard. There are no leaves yet, but a faint ruddy haze around the tips of the branches hints at where they will be. No one has paid much attention to the grass, but there is less straw color and more green than she has seen since the last snow. She drops her gaze down to the yellow wrappers and red globs of ketchup and the white gloss of the tabletop.

"I'm too old to eat this stuff," she says, and pushes her food away.

*

The next day, she goes through the refrigerator to get rid of the neglected vegetables, turning black and slimy and smelly as they spoil. She pulls them out gingerly, tosses them into the trash, and sprays some Lysol to clear the air. She's washing her hands under the kitchen faucet when the phone rings.

"Hey," Sam greets her brightly. "I'm glad you're there."

C.J. hops up enough to sit on the counter. "Hey."

"I should've called sooner," he tells her. "I meant to, but Josh wouldn't give me your number."

Her mouth is dry. She swallows and grasps the counter's edge, dangling her legs in front of the cabinet below her. "He might be a little mad at me."

"He's not taking this well," Sam says, concerned. "In fairness, I doubt there's a better way to take it. It's all kind of come down on him fast, hasn't it?"

"I guess." She knocks her ankles together. "On the other hand, it's been
creeping up on Donna for a long time."

"They shouldn't have gotten married."

"Easy for us to say."

"Yes, I guess it is." He turns away audibly from the phone, his voice muffled until he comes back bright. "Guess who's awake?"

She grimaces at the empty room, the untouched stove and the dust motes flitting through the air. "Sam--"

"Say hi," he twinkles. "Say hi to the baby girl!"

"Sam," C.J. pleads. "She's only five months old--"

"Six," he interrupts cheerfully.

"Six months, then. Can they even hear when they're that small?"

"Of course they can," he says indignantly. "Here. Say hello, so she'll know your voice."

"Come on!"

She hears the receiver being shuffled, being held into a crib, a fearsome object to indistinct, fuzzy infant eyes. "Say hi," he commands in the background.

"Hi," she says wearily. There is, of course, no response.

"Josie says hi," Sam tells her, getting back on the phone. "Aww," he murmurs. "She's all full and sleepy. I might have to go if she spits up."

"I think I might be the one spitting up." She reclines against the window. "Seriously, could you be a bit more precious?"

"I know," he says sheepishly. "I can't help it. Honestly. I think I lost
my mind when she was born and I haven't gotten it back yet."

"There are those of us who would doubt--" she teases.

"Yeah, yeah." Sam laughs. "I know. I hear myself and I know, but the thing is, you're not a parent."

She lets her hands fall into her lap, the phone pinned between her ear and her shoulder. "Yeah."

"It does something to you. Having a child, it's--" He searches for the right thing to stay. "It's like daylight. It hits you and it illuminates everything. It becomes the thing that you see the rest of the world by. But I know I'm annoying about it. I'm sorry, I haven't even asked how you are yet."

C.J. makes a conscious effort to keep her speech serene. "I'm doing all right."

"All right?" he repeats suspiciously.

"As all right as can be expected," she assures him.

"C.J." He laughs again, not unkindly. "You have never been good at outright lies."

"Go hug your kid," she says, silently adding: And your wife.

"I will. I hope, I hope we see you soon." Sam hangs up. C.J. runs her hands over her face and exhales slowly, controlling the rise and fall of her chest. She feels the rays of the sinking sun on the back of her neck, can see them streaking past her to touch the table, the dripping tap, the motionless ceiling fan and the clock. As the light dims, she eases herself down off the countertop and goes into the living room to sleep in the recliner.

Morning comes like a train down a dark tunnel. C.J. opens her eyes to it, sometime after sunrise, curled stiffly in the chair like the closed bud of a leaf. She stretches painfully and shuts off the chipper sight of the morning news as she passes the TV set. She pads down the hall, the wooden floor cool on the soles of her feet.

In the kitchen, she empties yesterday's coffee into a white mug, decorated with blue doves and tiny red flowers. She heats it for a few seconds in the microwave and then drinks it to the dregs in one long gulp. Then she abandons it on the table. Her hands shake as she takes the pack of cigarettes up from the hutch; she nearly fumbles the lighter.

Two cigarettes in the bathroom, ashes scattered into the sink. C.J. stabs the second butt out next to the first one, hard against the metal of the drain. She fans the last of the smoke away and faces herself in the small mirror. Quickly, she pulls off her black tank top and unfastens her slightly ratty jeans. She kicks them away; the rest of her garments follow quickly and she stands naked in the early morning window light. She takes a step back so that she can see as much of herself as possible in the mirror, she stares, resolute and dispassionate and accusing, into the slate of her own eyes.

She looks like hell.

Her skin is dull, blotchy, loose as paper wrapped around brittle twigs for bone. There are more lines around her mouth and eyes than she has ever noticed before, and the gray roots are growing out in her hair. Her collarbone and ribs are unattractively prominent. Her legs are still shapely, but stubbled; her muscle tone is terrible. She looks scrawny and used and worn. She looks old. C.J. inhales, and her nose is filled with the stench of tobacco, mixed with her sweat and her sour breath. It isn't pleasant. It isn't how she wants to be. She stands in the bathroom with no one but her reflection and is exhausted. And her reserves are exhausted, and she no longer wants to be alone. C.J. turns on the tap and washes the ashes away.

The shower she takes is long and slow and scalding. Afterwards, she packs her bags as fast as she can, all her belongings in a jumble, and the things she forgets are not worth worrying about. The rental car place overcharges; the airline gouges her, even on the cheaper tickets to Baltimore. She's going to be broke, and it's difficult to care.

"Say goodbye for me," she tells Tom, and paces toward the gate. She adds, "Take care." He's confused, she can tell, but he grins widely and waves goodbye until she's around the corner and out of side.

On the plane, C.J. eats the meal they serve, and though it's tasteless, she's starving, voracious, steals pretzels from the fat guy sleeping in the next seat. During the approach to land, she digs through her purse in search of her cell phone, hoping the battery isn't dead. It occurs to her then that her cigarettes are still lying on the bathroom counter, forgotten there with two damp towels. The plane dips; the pressure changes, hurting her head. C.J. smiles to herself. It doesn't matter.

*

Josh comes to get her, his Mercedes gleaming in the bold sunlight. C.J. laughs as he pulls up in the arrivals lane and gets out to throw her suitcase in the trunk. "What?" he says, instead of hello.

"You and your phallic symbol," she says, slapping the roof of the car.

"You know, you can walk back to Washington." He climbs into the driver's seat.

C.J. slides into the other side and buckles her seat-belt. She runs her fingers over the buttery leather upholstery. "Nice, though."

"Well, enjoy it until my assets are seized," Josh says, maneuvering them away
from the airport.

"She's not after your money," C.J. begins.

Josh cuts her off. "So, is everything all right at home?"

"Here is home," she says emphatically, easing the seat back to accommodate her height. "But, you know, things are getting sorted and organized, and we'll just hire an agent to get rid of the house. John's back at work. Tom's going back to work. I'm going back to work." She chuckles mildly. "If they'll still have me."

"You can always come help me make Larry DePeter into the next Miss America," Josh offers.

"Well, he won't take the swimsuit competition."

He wrinkles his nose. "That hurts me, C.J. It hurts me a lot."

"You'll find your guy, Josh," C.J. tells him.

"Yeah." He lowers the sun visor and looks into the rear-view mirror as they merge onto the highway. "So, have you been talking to her?"

"Josh--"

"I don't want her number," he says. "And I'm, you know, I've been a total ass. I just want to know if she's doing okay."

C.J. wraps her arms around herself. "She's getting there. It's really rough on both of you, I know. I haven't been the best friend."

"Me neither." He takes his right hand off the wheel and drapes it around the back of her seat. "Pretty bizarre life we're living."

"I miss my mom," she says. "And my dad."

"Yeah. So." Josh rotates his head to relax his neck. "Home?"

"Mm." She looks at the horizon turning orange as sunset draws nearer. "Not quite. Can we stop at a drugstore first?"

"Yes, Miss Daisy," Josh says, and his eyes are almost as bright as she's ever
seen them, almost as warm as she wants them to be.

*

Her keys jangle nervously in the front door, but when she walks inside, C.J. knows she was right. Here is home. Tension ebbs from her spine, weight rises from her shoulders. Her cat leaps down the stairs to meet her, attacking her ankles and purring like thunder, with an exuberance she hasn't demonstrated since she was a kitten, a decade ago.

"Hey, Circe." C.J. lifts the delighted creature into her arms, and walks into
every room like she's exploring her house for the first time. The kitchen is spotless, the living room only mildly cluttered by newsmagazines and books open to the spine, though the scent of cigars lingers around them. She climbs the stairs, glad to see the lilac wallpaper she's never liked and never bothered to replace.

Her bedroom door is ajar and her cobalt-colored comforter is rumpled. She peeks into Toby's bedroom; the desk is a messy, disordered hub of activity, but the rest of the room is neat. C.J. nods to herself, understanding, though she hasn't decided yet if she's pleased. She goes back downstairs, sets the cat down and takes her hair dye out of the plastic bag from the pharmacy.

She's roses and honey when she comes out of the bathroom, clean and swathed in her oversized peach terrycloth robe. She makes tea and rummages in the fridge, happy to find plenty of sandwich ingredients. It's hard to choose, so she makes two, turkey and roast beef, and eats them in the living room, nestled on the sofa. Toby finds her there when he comes in.

He's been drinking, she suspects, but his eyes flash at her, alert and appraising. She waits for what he'll say. When he speaks, his voice sounds fairly sober. "Baltimore again?" he asks.

"Yeah." She opens her eyes wide over her teacup. "Saved my fifteen bucks so I can buy that new V.C. Andrews novel I've been waiting for."

"V.C. Andrews must be about a hundred and forty years old," he says, frowning
intently.

"It's a brand name." She sets her cup down on the coffee table. "I should've let you take me home, Toby."

"You do what you have to do." He edges closer. "You're too thin."

"I know," C.J. says contritely. "I've been a mess. I'm still a mess. I'm
going to try and catch up." She thinks of the McDonald's' food and her stomach turns. "Although I may become a vegetarian."

His frown deepens. "Yogurt and soy aren't food."

"Neither are bourbon and cigars," she retorts. "You've been sleeping in my bed."

Toby puts his chin down and shuffles his feet. Something inside her thaws, something that she hadn't realized was frozen. "Your cat wouldn't let me alone. I had no alternatives. And I swear to God if you make one Papa Bear joke, I will--"

She's much too old to throw herself across the room and into his arms. So that's not what she does; it must be much more stately and sedate. And she bruises easily, so the marks she finds later prove nothing.

In her bed this night he is hungry, demanding, fierce, and she meets him at every turn. If there are tears, they are stroked into her skin, or vanish under his tongue. It's been too long and they're much too old, and it's over too quickly. But C.J. smiles in the dark as he leaves to get her some water. There's plenty of time.

She dreams a true dream of Paris, walking down a narrow street with him on their twenty-minute lunch hour. His mother is dying and her brother is newly gone. The woman she was then can't comprehend why Toby won't go home, why he wants to put so much distance between himself and home. The woman she is now understands perfectly, and remembers it when she wakes up.

It's still the middle of the night. She's lying the wrong way across the bed, the pillows knocked to the floor in a heap with their clothing. Her back is parallel to the headboard, and Toby's head rests on her bare stomach. C.J. nudges his head with the palm of one hand. "Wake up."

"I'm awake," he says, unexpectedly.

She raises herself on one elbow and looks at him skeptically in the moonlight. "Enjoying yourself?"

"I'm enjoying something," he admits. He is quiet for a while, and then his voice is tinged with surprise and sadness. "I'm angry at you."

She is startled, but mostly because she didn't see it sooner. "I guess I can understand that."

"I'm angry at you," he says again.

"I know. I should've let you take me home."

"I don't care where the hell you were." He sits up, figuring it out. "Except, yeah. But you do what you have to do. But you shouldn't--don't stop talking to me. And don't tell me lies."

"I did lie," she says, dropping back onto the mattress. "Some."

"I know that." He fingers the edge of the sheet. "You're a lousy liar."

"So I've been told."

"I'm genuinely pissed off here, C.J.," he says, amazed.

She bites her lip, looking at the familiar pallor of the ceiling. "Okay."

"I might actually need time. To get past this. I may need to leave a little."

He isn't touching her, so he can't feel the way she locks up, rigid and airless, calculates. A month, maybe more, maybe six weeks. Two months. Six months. A year. She makes up her mind that she could handle a year. "How long?" she asks casually.

Toby cranes his head and his serious gaze slides toward her face. "I don't know. Maybe a week."

She breathes again and, as the oxygen rushes into her, knows it's exactly as much as she can handle. She laughs hard and helplessly. Even in the dark, she can make out Toby's scowl.

"It's not funny," he says.

"No," she says, getting herself under control. "That was rueful laughter."

He puts a hand to the back of his head. "I mean it. I think it's necessary."

"Okay," she says, trying to sound grave and giggling again. "I'm sorry."

"Stop it." There is real exasperation and frustration and annoyance on his face, unmistakable, but there are other things too. There is a glint of absolute light. "I reserve the right to call," he says abruptly. "During the week, if I want to."

Easier to do this now, she thinks. It's easier than ever to lie near him and sense his readiness to walk away. Easier to hear the things he chooses not to say, the specificity of his words and the precision of his pauses. Easier to let go. Easier to lose him, because she has a better definition of loss, and because she puts her hand out across the bed and his is already there, waiting.

"You should go pack," she says.

"It's the middle of the night," he says, not moving.

"I know." C.J. turns ninety degrees on the bed so she is beside him, and smoothes the blue quilt over her skin with her right hand. Her left hand stays in Toby's right. Though he does not look at her or speak to her, though he acts as if she isn't there, his fingers stay between hers. She shuts her eyes and counts her breaths, and listens to his, and slips back into sleep the second time.

*

The End. Thanks for reading. Feedback is an absolute light.

--luna
http://www.sparkgirls.com

 

 

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