The table rocked when you pressed against it. The chair swayed a bit, too. You weren’t sure if it was the floor, the foundation, the furniture. You were beginning to feel used to the unsteady.
Then Lexi came down the stairs and told you that Griffin had started chewing nicotine gum simply to cross-pollinate her addictions. She told you this neutrally, admitted it might be working on her. She moved her hair away from her face like she was lifting and spreading a curtain.
“Ah, you should get rid of him. He is a snaggletoothed stranger at best,” you thought you replied.
But your mind had not been fully brought back from the table and you had actually just shouted “Ridiculous!” long after she sauntered back up the stairs.
You had been letting the friendship drift for a while anyway. You had been somewhat piratical with her life stories at a few parties and felt guilty about it. You felt you had to make up for your suburban history; it seemed like more of a papery past.
And really, what is there to talk about at those parties you go to? You’re not sure why you still get invited. Things just fall out of your mouth and when you listen to others, all you can think about is whether you are clenching your mouth together so uneasily that it’s hard for the other person to look at you.
Plus, at those gatherings you had to introduce yourself to people you already knew and figure out how much is appropriate to reveal that you already knew. A dizzying game.
What you needed was honesty but a controlled kind of honesty, you told yourself. But you only seemed to find the extremes.
You got up from the rocky table and found that your mother had called. Sometimes, when your mother beckoned you back home, you would run into someone at the grocery store with a child’s face somewhere inside an adult face and you would try to remember.
High school was so far away now that you couldn’t tell apart the married names from the maiden names of people whose Lite Brites and action figures will forever be floating around in the back of your head. And those who from the wretched convention of divorce flitted back and forth between the maiden and the not, you long ago committed to calling them by their first names. That is, if they ever appeared from out of their societal crevices. They would push out babies to perpetuate the code and then they would complain about how the new code was just like them.
You put your phone away, knowing you would call your mother back later. You worried about being late to work. You were late to work.
You thought about your stringent boss. An opportunity squelched. Something rushed through the veins in your arms, in a line down to your wrists. You thought the time you arrived at work was one of those things, like graduating from high school. If you succeed in pulling it off, you are a responsible member of society. But if you fail, then you are muttered about, put into a category. There is nothing in between.
How can there be nothing in between?
You managed to step out of the house and saw a few neighbors on their porches and in their yards, which made you remember that other people live so close to you, doing the same things that you do.
Then you were explaining a project to a coworker at the office, gradually panicking, your brain piloting the words coming out of your mouth. You found yourself saying the word “wistfully” to sound casual and smart amid the panic, a word you had read and then heard someone say all in the same day. You were saying it simply from exposure. Words tend to pop up serially like that and your brain follows through with it, communicating lazily. Always shortcuts and short circuits with that brain of yours. A brain so unmotivated that it remembers commercial jingles rather than branches of government. No wonder you were panicking.
You must have appeased the person because you heard her admitting, “Yeah, I mean, I was expecting to have my own agency at this point. Ah, well.”
“Big things always come along more slowly than you want them to,” you coached, though you did not know exactly who you were coaching. Those big things seem so important and yet the mundane, smaller things always take over, so that you feel as if you are constantly recovering from the mundane. How do people even take care of themselves?
The shifty table was waiting for you expectantly when you returned home.
Lexi opened the door languidly, glancing at her sandaled feet rather than at you. She was moving out, she explained, rather, moving in with Griffin.
Now that it was happening it seemed so clear that it was always going to happen. Why didn’t you anticipate this?
You stammered out a faint goodbye, tried to remember people mowing their lawns and watching their televisions a few feet away. You tried to remember this wasn’t a boyfriend breaking up with you, just a roommate moving.
Lexi’s items lingered for a few weeks, then dissipated. Piece by piece, you found things to replace the empty. You collected furniture, curated bits of life to hang on the wall. You built yourself an environment so desirable so that you would stay there, never want to be anywhere else. To be a proper recluse. But as things gathered and started to look almost beautiful, you just felt compelled to show someone.
Claire Hopple’s fiction is published or forthcoming in Bluestem, Timber Journal, Quarter After Eight, Noctua Review, Limestone Journal and others. She lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. More at clairehopple.com.