Yet another fiction story for my undergrad, Symbols for $400 is about a couple trying to repair, or at least overlook, what is too broken to fix. This is not about love, but about realizing when it is time to walk away. Enjoy.
Symbols for $400
I’m on the couch with a Ben and Jerry’s. Chocolate. Simplicity appeals to me more now than it used to. I’m scrunched up in the corner, taking up no more than one cushion just in case John wants to sit down. The TV is off and I’m watching my boyfriend of two years as he makes something in our kitchen. His back is toward me as he turns on the sink and I can see his muscles beneath his green t-shirt. His black hair is cut shorter than I like, but maybe that is intentional.
I let a spoonful of ice cream melt in my mouth as I wonder whether he will ever forgive me.
He’s still here, isn’t he?
I want to ask what is on his mind but I can’t. I no longer have the right. Instead, I gaze into the empty ice cream carton in disgust and tuck my feet a little closer.
“The garbage needs to go out.”
I immediately jump up and say, “I got it.”
He cringes like he has every time I offer to do anything since that night two months ago when I told him about my brief affair with Robert, his co-worker and, until then, friend.
I back up and say, “If you want,” just like I’ve been saying for the past two months.
He nods and clears his throat before saying, “Wear some shoes. There’s shattered glass in the parking lot.”
I brighten. At least he still cares about my feet.
When I get back, John is lying on the couch, head propped on one end, feet shooting off the other.
For a minute I stand in the entryway, not sure where to go. Should I sit against the couch, head lolling on his stomach like I used to? My fear that he will push me away wins over so I just rummage around in the kitchen trying to look like I have something to do. He probably knows I don’t, but still he doesn’t move. I wonder if that’s his way of inviting me over or of keeping me away?
“Jeopardy’s on tonight,” he says without looking at me.
“Are we watching it?”
Stupid question. Of course we will. We always do, even after the mistake.
I nod and tap my fingernails on the counter for a minute. I notice a hole in his right sock.
“You need new socks.”
He glances down and says, “Oh. Yeah.”
It’s gross, this polite, empty conversation. The passivity of it all. I almost wish he had broken up with me when I told him so we could at least have had some closure. All I can see when I look into our future now is black space. I used to see white dresses with long trains, pudgy new faces that looked like John, that little yellow house on the corner. Maybe a minivan. John always disagreed about the minivan. He said I wasn’t the ‘soccer mom’ type. He wanted a truck.
I twirled my fork in the pasta, noticing they forgot to add extra marinara like I asked. But now was not the time to flag down a waiter. In fact, I had to question why I chose to do this here. Why not in private where John could yell all he wanted?
Because I don’t want him to yell, I thought. I want his words to remain true. The words he spoke on our first anniversary. That he would love me no matter what…
“I’ll love you no matter what. I’ll love you even if you can’t cook to save your life. I’ll love you even if you can’t back up without running into someone’s mailbox. I’ll love you even if you lose this. But I hope you don’t. I really hope you don’t.”
He opened a bright blue jewelry box and latched the most beautiful silver necklace around my neck. It reminded me of moonlight, and the little diamond pendent sparkled in the dusky light.
He laughed and kissed me and I felt grounded even though I was flying, flying.
“Answer me!” the shout was whispered; he didn’t want to draw attention. But I noticed the family at the next table look.
“It was an accident.” Meek. I could puke.
“You having sex with my friend was an accident?” he asked, stressing the words ‘sex’ and ‘accident’ as if I didn’t understand.
I stared at my pasta, shame hammering my head down.
“You two were such good friends and he was over all the time and sometimes he would stop by to see you and you weren’t there.”
“So you fuck him for his trouble?”
I hated the way his voice sounded. So sharp and cold.
“It didn’t happen that way,” I insisted.
My food looked unappetizing, mushed up tomato and limp pasta.
“We talked. You were gone a lot. He was…I don’t know. Warm,” I said desperate for him to understand something not even I did.
“You-I-We,” he struggled.
After a deep breath he began again. “I was gone because I’m working on the promotion. For us. For a house just like you want.”
He didn’t say, ‘for our marriage’ which I knew he must have been thinking. We wouldn’t buy a house otherwise. But he had not proposed to me so I felt it was inappropriate to point that out. Not to mention the current subject matter. Instead, I put down my fork and said, “I know,” even though I didn’t feel like I knew anything at that moment.
“I don’t…” John said, bringing a hand to his head.
“There’s no excuse. I called it off. I’m sorry. I’m the worst thing you can think of but I want to make it up to you. You’re the one I love, not Robert. Never Robert.”
“Robert,” John said through his teeth with a look that reminded me of the night before, when he realized our milk was sour.
I am brought back to the present by the sound of tires crunching down that glass in the parking lot below us. I wonder if we should call the landlord and let him know it’s there. Instead, I go to the back bedroom of our little apartment and start making the bed.
The quilt is white with pink roses embroidered across the middle. The bed frame is white with frilly flowers etched into the headboard. It’s from my childhood because we can’t afford a fancy bed set yet. Even with John’s impressive resume, it’s hard to find a stable job. But like I always tell him, we only graduated a year ago. We have time.
John walks in the door holding his shirt away from his body bringing my attention to a large splotch on his front. “I need to change. Spilled,” he says, unnecessarily.
“Oh. Yeah,” I say, setting a pillow up against the headboard and leaving the room.
Jeopardy is uneventful. I curl up on one cushion and John starts out in the middle and even goes to rest a hand on my foot but he ends up on the other side of the couch by the end of the show. My foot feels neglected.
He gets most of the smart answers right as always. I get only a couple that, in the real world, probably wouldn’t mean anything.
“Ends with the same two vowels for $800 please!”
Why did they always have to shout?
Trebek straightens his glasses and grins. “Multiple straight lines extending from the center of a circle to the circumference.”
“Radii,” John mumbles right before Alison, the contestant answers, “Radii!”
The next question is from the literature column.
“1937,” says Trebek dramatically. “Ferris…Bilbo’s…day off.”
“The Hobbit,” I say.
“The Hobbit!” Alison gets it right again.
I toss a smile at John but he’s already paying attention to the next question.
“Born in 1818, he inherited the idea of class struggle from utopian Socialism & the theories of Henri de St. Simon.”
I roll my eyes at the ridiculous French accent the host uses.
John squints in concentration. “Oh man. Wasn’t that Engels? Or Marx. It was probably Marx.”
After the show, we go get ready for bed and I make sure I am on my side of the mattress, arms tucked underneath my one flat pillow by the time John pulls back the covers.
I can’t sleep and, a half hour later, I carefully turn so that I am facing my boyfriend’s back. I feel like I’m sinking over here on this old mattress and it looks like John is too. The space in the middle looks springy and comfortable. When John shifts, I turn from the mountain between us and settle back in this hole of a bed. I dream about ridges and valleys.
The next day at work, my friend Lisa asks me, “So how is everything at home?”
Lisa is my mom’s age. She has that soft look of a woman who was beautiful once but is slowly being erased into the elder years. She caught me crying in the bathroom the morning after I told John about my infidelity and I ended up telling her everything.
I told her about how John worked such late hours and how he never had time to talk to me anymore. He just ate the dinner I made him and fell into bed. I told her how lonely my nights were and how, after the third time Robert showed up and John wasn’t home, I let him come inside, desperate for some company.
I didn’t mean to let him kiss me. And I certainly didn’t mean to let him unbutton my blouse in the sitting room. He wasn’t supposed to lower me to the couch, tenderly, like I was special. I never wanted to look into his blue eyes and feel his heat in places only John should be.
I told her how Robert came back every day for a week and how, each time, I told him I couldn’t do this but wouldn’t let him leave either.
Finally, I told her how I told him it was really over. And how he left, quietly, understanding what I said was true.
Since then, she’s been asking about it every time our shifts overlap.
I shrug and finish unpacking the box of organic lettuce. “It’s okay, I guess. We watched Jeopardy last night.”
“Well that’s good, isn’t it?”
“That never changed. So it’s hard to tell.”
“Do you still sleep together?”
“I meant that literally. Like sleeping. In the same bed.”
“Yes, we still sleep in the same bed,” I say but my mind is filled by steep hills and fatal drops.
“If he wasn’t trying, he would sleep on the couch.”
“I should be the one to sleep on the couch. It’s all my fault.”
“You have to stop thinking that way.”
“Lisa. I cheated on him. I screwed up.”
“Honey, if you let that take over, nothing is ever gonna get fixed. Now get those up on the shelves. Store opens in a few minutes and we’re supposed to be having a sale today.”
I roll a cart over to the refrigerated organic section and stack the lettuce neatly over the sign that reads ‘2 for 1, today only!’
Lisa doesn’t get it, I think. She doesn’t understand I can’t just go back to normal. If I act like I did before…well it just wouldn’t be right. I try to imagine his reaction if I threw my arms around him tonight…
My elbow knocks against something and I hear a loud crash. I look down and see a bottle of iced tea shattered in the aisle. “Damn!”
“What was that?” someone yells from across the store. “June, if that was you again I’m firing you! I was just about to unlock the doors!”
Great. The manager.
“No, sorry Ted, it was me,” I call out weakly. “I’ll clean it up real quick.”
But before I can do anything, Lisa is there with a mop and broom and sweeps it up. Before going to the back room, she gives me a wink and says, “I’m not a mother of four boys for nothing.”
I’m there until closing and notice that June isn’t in the back room or restocking. “Hey, Lisa? Have you seen June?”
“I fired her.”
I turn around to see Ted entering the room.
“She was my ride,” I say blankly.
“I caught her smoking back here again. I warned her.”
I clock out before heading out for the night, phone in hand.
When John pulls up, I slide into the passenger seat and say, “Thanks. My ride was fired today.”
“Don’t worry about it. How was your day?” he asks.
“Fine. Same old same old. You?”
“I sent in a couple new applications and told Joe about it. Maybe he’ll get scared and give me a pay raise. Or a promotion.”
That night I put on my lace nightgown and tuck the quilt around my legs, waiting for John. When he sees I’m still awake, he does a double take but then climbs into bed and turns his lamp off.
I clear my throat. Here goes nothing, I think as I put a hand on his shoulder.
“What is it?” he asks.
I scoot closer and sigh when I feel the warmth of his body.
He slowly turns to face me.
We try. But eventually John pulls back and slips the strap back over my shoulder, shaking his head. “I’m sorry,” he says before giving me his back and punching his pillow.
I retreat to my side and follow the warmth as tears trickle down.
I’m looking up, shielding my eyes from the brightness that pours over the edge of the cliff.
My voice echoes back to me.
“John? Are you there?”
I realize I’m crying and I start to pound on the rock with my fists. “John!”
“Sshh,” I hear.
I stop pounding and look around. There’s no one there but the light over the cliff starts to dim and the rock sways in my vision.
I open my eyes and realize I’ve been dreaming. My face is wet and something is covering my arm.
It is darker here than in the dream and, when I turn, I can barely make out John’s form beside me, his hand resting on my skin.
He moves closer, hushing me first with his fingers, then with his mouth. His kiss is light and he quickly moves down to my shoulder. For a moment I am completely still. I can hardly believe this is happening and wonder if this is all part of that awful dream. When he slides his hand down to my hip, I decide it’s not.
My arms come up to wrap around his neck and I press my fingertips into the muscles of his back as he pulls at my underwear.
It doesn’t take long before we are totally naked. My nightgown is tangled up by my armpit and I can feel his boxers at my feet. I think his foot is tangled up in them still but it doesn’t matter because I can feel every inch of him.
His eyes are closed and I let him bury his face in my neck, soaking my skin in hot breath as he moves inside of me.
His panting becomes quicker and he squeezes my shoulders.
“John, I’m so sorry,” I gasp.
His hand comes up over my mouth just as he reaches climax.
Afterward, his sweaty body slips away from me and I am left alone on the mountain.
I am eating another carton of Ben and Jerry’s when John gets home from work the next day. He comes to sit next to me on the couch and asks me how my ice cream is. I tell him fine. He tells me about his day. I acknowledge in all the right places, afraid to elaborate on anything.
I was still asleep when he left for work this morning. When I woke, I found the blankets wrapped tightly around me, pulled up to my chin. My nightgown was draped over the end of the bed.
He asks me if I want to go on a walk.
“What?” I ask, sure I’ve heard wrong.
This can’t be good, can it?
“Isn’t it cold?”
I glance out the window over his shoulder.
“It’ll be dark soon,” I say.
I notice that he is actually looking into my eyes and I recognize that little black speck on the iris of his right eye. I had almost forgotten about that.
“Okay,” I say. “Just let me grab shoes.”
My slippers are waiting for me by the door, but they’re the kind with a thicker sole, so I figure they’ll do. I doubt the walk will be long anyway.
I lock the door behind me and follow John down the steps. He has a light jacket from Kohl’s that his sister bought him last Christmas. His hands are in his pockets. I blow on mine to keep them warm. We skirt the glass in the parking lot and I make some comment about the landlord’s neglect.
It’s too dark to take the trail that runs beside the building, so we opt for the sidewalk that runs from our place down to the main square where we go for groceries or hardware supplies.
“What did Joe say today? About your promotion?”
“Oh. Well how was the rest of the day?”
“Good. Met the new guy. Seems nice.”
The new guy. To replace Robert. This, of course, was my fault too. Robert had found it impossible to work with his friend after what we did.
“I saw you cleaned the kitchen today.”
I nod. “Yeah, I did. It was dirty.”
Stupid. Why else would you clean it?
We walk in silence and listen as the leaves crunch and dissolve under our feet. My slippers are coming off so I jam my feet in until my toes are crushed. Icy air nips at my skin and I cross my arms a little tighter.
“Are you cold?” John asks.
“Freezing. Aren’t you?”
I was hoping he would wrap an arm around me or at least take my hand, but he just says, “Let’s turn around,” and gestures back the way we came.
The slight incline speeds up my heart and warms me a little, but the air rips icy talons down my throat with each breath.
Finally we are back at our building and, just as I am racing toward the stairs to get back inside, John stops. I join him in the parking lot and notice that he is staring intently at the glass shards. I look too and am reminded of moonlight.
We stand staring at it for a long time.
“No one’s gonna clean it up you know,” John finally says.
“We could,” I whisper. The night seems to demand silence.
John lifts his arm up and runs his hand over his head, down to his chin and back up. Once, twice, three times.
“Listen, I’m going to stay at a friend’s place tonight.”
I step on a shard of glass and drag it across the pavement with my slipper. I don’t care that it might poke a hole. The scraping sound is comforting somehow, in all this silence.
“I’ll come by tomorrow to get my stuff.”
I nod, knowing that I realized two months ago that this is where it would end. The ridges were too high, the valleys too deep.
John comes to stand before me and places his hands on my arms in that curved place between shoulder and bicep. He stands a respectful distance away but I still get that dizzying effect I always got right before he kissed me. Before everything.
Now all he does is look in my eyes for a moment before stepping back and taking his car keys out of his Levis.
He walks away and I see little fragments of him leaving in the glass scattered on the ground.
I go upstairs and walk into our empty apartment. The TV is on and I realize I forgot to turn it off before we left.
It looks like Jeopardy just came back from commercial. It’s an old one.
I sit on the couch and wrap myself in a blanket wondering if the outside chill can be chased from my bones.
A heavyset man with glasses chooses, “Symbols for $400!”
A beep sounds. “Yes, Andrew?”
“What is the Greek alphabet?”
“I’m sorry that is incorrect.”
The heavyset man clicks his buzzer and answers, “What is 800!”
“No, that is also incorrect.”
John and I took a Greek history class our final quarter of college. We were both short one Humanities requirement so we chose the only class that sounded remotely interesting.
“End,” I whisper to the empty room.
Trebek straightens his glasses. “I’m sorry. The correct answer was the end.”