“I thought we had a deal,” Ruth muttered, stirring the lentils on the stovetop so that they wouldn’t burn and coat the bottom of her good pot. “I stop wearing plaid. You never come back.”
She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead, but not before another bead fell into the pot. Ruth imagined her unwanted guest eating that specific spoonful, pursing his lips because the bite was a little too salty. It would serve him right, showing up here unannounced, she thought coldly.
“You’re not staying tonight,” Ruth decided. “This isn’t your dinner. Not anymore. You left.”
Ruth stopped stirring and waited for a response. All was silent until the air conditioner groaned to life.
Ruth tossed her auburn hair over her right shoulder and stole a glance into the cramped dining room. An aquamarine place setting for one greeted her, along with her Persian cat, Persimmon, who lay sprawled on her back a little too close to the cutlery. The cat was purring up a storm.
Traitor, Ruth thought and then she sighed. You always did like him more than me.
In her core, Ruth understood why. Martin was perfect – well, at least perfect for her. He was warm without being suffocating, stylish without being an asshole, and funny without being offensive. Ruth missed the scratch of his beard on her cheek and midnight walks by the lake. She missed the way Martin would wake her up on Sunday mornings by playing horror movie soundtracks at full volume. Halloween had been the last one. And then everything had gone terribly wrong.
Ruth pulled the lentils off the stove, sprinkled them with garlic powder, and placed a lid on the pot to keep the contents warm. She took some strawberries out of the refrigerator and washed them in the sink, secretly hoping Martin would nuzzle up behind her – for old time’s sake. He didn’t.
“I don’t even know why you’re here,” Ruth said, slicing the tops off the strawberries. “It’s not like I’ve been thinking of you.” I’m a liar. “You’re completely unwelcome here.” Yep, definitely a liar. “I wouldn’t take you back if…if…” You’re an imposter, Ruth. He knows exactly how you feel about him.
Persimmon mewled and Ruth closed her eyes, imagining Martin rubbing the cat’s belly. He’d always been so sweet to Persimmon. But he was terrible to you, Ruth – at least at the end, she thought and her resolve returned.
Ruth put down her knife, marched into the living room, and took the picture of her and Martin off the side table. It was a picture she’d been trying to convince herself to get rid of the past six weeks, but she didn’t have the heart to. It was a picture of her and Martin at a rock concert, their arms sloppily around each other, their eyes just a little blurry from gin and tonics. Ruth wore a blue and black plaid skirt and Martin wore a Hello Kitty tank top, because Ruth had dared him to. They were sweaty and unkempt and perfectly happy.
Ruth opened the door to her backyard and threw the picture as hard as she could. It cart-wheeled haphazardly and then lay to rest in a patch of soggy grass. Ruth immediately felt sick to her stomach, but instead of indulging the feeling, she slammed the door.
She returned to the kitchen, scooped a large portion of lentils onto a red plate, grabbed a few strawberries, and wiped errant tears from her cheeks. Ruth took a deep breath and entered the dining room.
Persimmon’s ears perked up and she turned to look at Ruth, who took a step toward the table and then froze, a rock in her stomach now that Martin was near. Ruth knew that he’d always have a hold on her, but she couldn’t keep letting him in. She instantly knew what she needed to do.
Ruth placed the plate of food and then the heels of her hands on the tabletop. She closed her eyes and felt moisture pool up behind her eyelids.
“Martin, you need to leave once and for all,” Ruth whispered to the patch of heavy air next to her. “You already left once. You can’t keep coming back. My heart isn’t built to love you like this.”
She paused and took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” she continued. “I’m not really mad at you. I miss you. But I’d rather have the memories than this…in between kind of thing. I can feel you here and it makes me…angry.”
The confession hurt almost as much as losing Martin to the brain aneurysm.
“So, I need to be alone. From now on. Just me and Persimmon and these lentils.”
Ruth barely got the words out, but she knew he’d heard her.
Ruth sighed and sat down slowly. The air next to her had lost some of its weight. It seemed lighter somehow, like it was adrift, beginning to dissipate. Ruth wondered momentarily if she’d done the right thing.
The flame of the peach candle in the center of the table flickered suddenly and then quietly extinguished, the way Martin had in his hospital bed six weeks earlier.
Relief blanketed Ruth like a cloud and then guilt made her throat go dry and then…she wasn’t sure what she was feeling. She knew she’d cry for days, ugly tears that would shake her core and make her miss Martin more than ever. But when the floods subsided, she’d be able to start rehabilitating. She’d learn how to wake up to silence on Sundays and how to cook dinner for one.
“Thank you,” Ruth whispered into the smoke, knowing that she was finally alone.
Photo licensing – -=Bruce Berrien=-