Preemption

short story (1985 wc) | setting: modern realist |  form: relationship/psychological fiction

Preemption

I
Talk About The Weather

“Was she okay?”

Nami sat across from her brother in the nook, taking up a position that had framed their relationship for two decades. Their feet could reach the floor now, of course, but she was still on the right, with the window over her shoulder. Olly was on the left with his back to the clutter of the kitchen.

He picked at the grain of the table, scratching out a scheme for explaining. “When she first found out he died, she just fell apart. I thought for sure when she actually saw Grappa in the coffin, she’d—”

“Grappa?”

“That’s what they call them. Gramma and Grappa.” He shrugged. “Anyway, she didn’t cry at all. She quivered a little. No tears, though.”

“You know how I am,” Nami swatted an imaginary nuisance from the air over her coffee. “That stuff doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Yeah,” he said. When their mom had died, Nami was barely eleven but Olly had noticed she only cried when their aunts were crying and, he suspected, primarily so they could make themselves feel better by comforting her.

“And you’re no different,” Nami cocked an eyebrow as she took a sip of coffee. “Dad’s cool genes. Tonie might not have wanted to break down in front of you because of that. She was trying to ‘weather’ it.”

She had invoked The Word, the trigger from their Most Uncomfortable Conversation Ever. The word he had repeatedly told her made him cringe.

Nami had said people felt free to hurt him because he gave the impression of being able to “weather” anything. She had meant it to apply to both of them, but Olly had taken it personally.

“In fact,” she had gone on, lost in cool analysis and ignoring the wince he felt in his face, “if we didn’t come off as so imperturbable, the very inspiration to hurt us might never occur to people. The whim would be so disagreeable they’d push it out of their mind and forget it ever happened.”

He could still remember Nami’s thoughtful pause, his body burning as he considered that his suffering might somehow be encouraged by his only defense against it.

“Those sorts of whims probably occur all the time, in every relationship,” she had concluded, “and they get nixed before they even get remembered. But, when they think you’re strong, they simply move from inspiration to justification.”

II
The Romance of Inversion

“That’s a good sign, though, that Tonie was trying to adjust to me?” It sounded more like an introduction than a question, so Nami simply leaned back, coffee held in both hands.

“I’m thinking of getting serious,” he said. “There was a moment when her Gramma leaned over and touched his cheek. It was the way you might touch someone’s cheek before the first kiss.”

“You mean the gentleness?”

“Yeah, that. But also the…” he scratched beside his eyebrow, “the magic. Or whatever it is. That spark thing.”

Nami grinned.  “I think the term you’re looking for is romance.”

“I guess so.”  He thoughtfully tugged on the edge of his eyebrow the way he might have stroked a goatee, had he ever grown one. “Anyway, seeing her look at him like that, I realized that the full romance of a relationship isn’t at the beginning, like some Romeo and Juliet moment.  It can only be known at the end.”

“Olly, the moment in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ really was at—”

“Yeah, it was at the end, I guess.” He frowned. “But, you know what I mean. What do they call it in the movies?”

“The meet-cute.”

“Yeah. I don’t think that’s how it is. I think you have to make it. Build it from scratch.”

“You mean just pick someone?”

“No, no,” he scratched the back of his head as if to coax the idea out of hiding. “There has to be something to work with. Compatibility, a moment. Maybe there was a heart-busting kiss on the first date, but that exact same kiss becomes meaningless if the path to the final moment gets interrupted by … I don’t know.”

“Giving up after an argument?” she offered. They had both done that often enough.

“Something. I guess, what I’m saying is: you can’t wait around for some love-ever-after epiphany.”

“Even though this insight of yours was itself an epiphany…”

A valid, but minor, point. He ignored it. “When the meet-cute turns into something not-so-cute, people just start looking for an excuse, an argument, a disagreement over some stupid pet peeve. Anything, just to break up. And move on.”

“To graze onward to the illusory greener grass, you’re saying.” She gave a little sideways nod, smiled, and lifted her mug as a toast. “Like a sheep in the herd of Freedom.”

“You have to work to make your own grass green.”  He reconsidered it, found it weird but acceptable. “You have to identify the raw stuff of a lifelong thing, and then work at it.”

Nami finished off her coffee. “You’re going to ask Antonia to marry you, aren’t you?”

III
Pulling the Envelope

When Oliván stepped through the front door, Tonie was sitting upright on the sofa like she had been holding that position for hours, watching the news with a green envelope on her lap.

“Hey, love!” Olly dumped his keys into the doorside dish atop hers. “How you doing?”

“I’m okay.” She shrugged and glanced at him, turned back to the television. “Talked to Gramma and Dad for a while. How’s Nami?”

“Same as ever.” He sat down in his place beside her. “We were talking about the usual philosophical stuff. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about your Gramma and Grappa and how great they were together. Not at all like my grandparents. I really admire them.”

“Thank you,” she turned and smiled, seemed to assess him for a moment. “They had something rare and wonderful.”

“And they were together for so long.” He realized there was no adequate introduction, so he just fell into it. “Anyway, I was talking with Nami about how you can’t wait your whole life for fate to just fall into your lap.”

She leaned back a little. “Yeah?”

“A good thing doesn’t just come along. You have to look into the future to see what can be made from what you have.” He squinted and chewed the inside of his cheek as if the right words had lodged there during the conversation in the nook. “I guess what I’m saying is… Why not you?

Tonie sighed. “Oh Olly, that’s,” she frowned on one side, “very romantic.”

“No, no. I don’t mean why couldn’t someone like you be my true love. I mean … aren’t we worth investing in?”

“You’re saying we’re good enough.” Stress substituted for the typical finger-quotes, her hands being wrapped tightly around the envelope.

“No, Tonie. I’m saying we’re great. We’re better than we think we are, because people are geared to focus on the end product.”

Instinctively, he recognized that this was too academic — too Nami-and-Oliván — for Tonie, so he shifted: “We see a couple like your Gramma and Grappa and we think it was awesome like that from Day One. But, they were already older than we are now when we were born.  They already worked through the early stuff.”

She was sitting upright again. Olly looked around the room, spotted the doorside dish she had fired in pottery class.

“What I’m trying to say is that you gotta judge a relationship as raw material, not the finished art.” He waggled two fingers toward the dish where their keys were intertangled, and followed her eyes until he could see she understood. “It’s not like you just buy true love. You find good clay, and you work it, you shape it, you decorate it, you fire it. Maybe you plant flowers in it.”

He nodded backward toward the patio, where a dozen or so of Tonie’s creations were nurturing hydrangea and hibiscus.

She lowered lids at him. “Are you trying to manipulate me?”

“No,” he said. “I’m trying to communicate.”

“Well,” she looked at her knees, then back to the television. “It’s been a hard week, Olly. Just say what you’re trying to say.”

“I love you, Tonie, and I want to be there for you to, to help you do all the things you’ve always wanted to do in life and haven’t done.”

She slumped into the sofa, a great tension cut from her body at once, and Olly could feel a rush of relief in his blood. Sweet, sweet chemicals of relaxation. Tonie turned to him with a soft look and said, “That would be so nice, Olly. Can we talk about this later, though?”

“Sure baby,” he kissed her cheek. “So, what’s the envelope?”

“It’s a card for Dad.”

IV
On The Lamb

Nami had been her usual meticulous self, guiding him to the proper balance of value and simplicity, directing him how to set up the moment, how to present it, what to say and how he should look as he said it.

A single stone, but large. Don’t rush it, but don’t set it up so elaborately that the surprise is blown. Keep your language formal, with no contractions and no slang, but don’t wax absurdly poetic. Most importantly, look her in the eye to seal the emotional moment. He checked the list as he stepped through the door.

The dish was empty.

“Tonie?”

Through the kitchen door, the dining area was empty.  No table, no chairs.

“Tonie?!”

The patio, empty. No flowers, no pots. Olly ran to the bedroom. The closet doors were open and the bar was bare except for his five daily work shirts. The bed was stripped of sheets and pillow cases. A lilac Post-it was stuck to the computer screen.

Four words: “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Olly squeezed the small box in his jacket pocket, took a deep breath, and walked slowly and deliberately to the kitchen. As he stepped from carpet to tiles, he noticed the cabinet doors open and the dishes gone.

He pulled the box from his pocket, flipped open the lid with his thumb, pinched the stone like a blood-sucking tick, stomped the pedal of the garbage can, and flung the ring into the snarl of dried orange peels, paper towels, and plastic wrappers.

There was a clatter from the can as the ring and Olly settled toward the bottom of the world.

He pressed his fists against his forehead, resisting the urge to punch himself.  Breath was drying his tongue, leaving it hard and hot in his mouth like a lump of sand. The pain in his knees sharply insisted on his attention, and he noticed the open box lying on its side next to the refrigerator, the receipt still cupping it gently.

Olly set one foot, then the other, on the floor and lifted himself to standing. Stepping on the pedal, he leaned into the garbage can and began flinging the larger lumps of garbage to the floor where the dining table had once been.

There was the green envelope, the “card for Dad” unopened and stuffed under a microwave lasagna tray. He held it in both hands, staring at it, breathing on it, for a full ten-count. Then he tore it open. And read.

It was a letter, to him. It was more than four words. It was formal, with no contractions and no slang. He read.

She flattered him. He was strong, he would survive and move on. She didn’t say “weather,” but she meant it. He read.

Then, he stopped. Not because Tonie had stopped writing, but because she had reached her core argument, the essence of her justification.

“Grappa’s death reminded me of all the things that I have always wanted to do in my life and have not yet done.”

4 comments

  1. I like your story, however I really suck in the romance department and think this chick was a cowardly wanker for leaving like that. Relationships aren’t always happy love bubbles. Sometimes they are about loyalty and integrity and forming a bond not unlike a strong pertnership, and that’s all I’ll say about this since I’m only 25% guru and all.

  2. I loved this. Don’t know how I missed it.

    ““What I’m trying to say is that you gotta judge a relationship as raw material, not the finished art.”

    Perfect.

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