by Beth Konkoski
“Table for two,” the phrase had not stopped echoing in Sarah’s head since she had read it on the receipt while cleaning off the counter and drinking her morning coffee. It had been in a pile with other papers and the change Kyle had taken out of his pocket in a hurry to get to the airport. It was a rush like every morning in their weekday lives, frantic and hands thrown in the air, misplaced, out of place, never ready when the clock said it was time to go. He had kissed her only an hour ago with the garment bag draped across his shoulder and his computer case on wheels between them. Lips just brushed, no arms or body pressed together, perfunctory at best, reluctant now in her mind as she looked again at the receipt.
On Saturday he had called the evening a work dinner, networking, old friends he hadn’t seen in several years from the project he had worked on. Names rattled off: Kim, Anthony, Andrew, Natalie.
“Is it a couple thing?” she had asked, knowing she hadn’t showered after the gym and was planning to sink into the couch with a glass of wine and several episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Had he seemed worried then, looking too quickly to convince her? Nothing had made her think so.
“No, just the group. Some of them don’t even have a half, you know? Social bullshitting. A few hours.” And he had gone up to take his own shower, then played a quick round of Battleship with Franny who couldn’t get enough of the game since Christmas and left, in jeans, a striped shirt and his casual blue blazer. She hadn’t started pacing the floor until midnight. Dinner in D.C. should take at most three hours, plus thirty minutes in and out. He had left at 6:40; she was sure of this because she always paid attention to such things, had been paying attention most of her life to the departures of her loved ones. It wasn’t her fault, the therapist assured her, and mostly, Kyle was kind about it.
She shared the event that had spawned her lifetime of concern on their sixth date, two after they slept together. It was a measure of trust for her in those days, the most important sort of trust, to let someone know how her mother had died. It shocked people at first, getting hit by a tire that flew off a car at the Onondaga Speedway, freak accident, bad luck. But the most shocking of all was the coma she lived in for fourteen years. Sarah was five when it happened, could still remember the halter top her mother was wearing—blue denim with sequins that flashed in the sun when she opened the front door, swinging her purse over her shoulder and looking back to blow Sarah a kiss. Her father was only a step behind, and he had patted his wife on the butt, right in front of Sarah, as he left. She could hear her mother’s giggle, the very last sound she would ever hear her make on her own. The next time Sarah saw her, she was lying in a hospital bed with tubes and wires connected, all of her beautiful blonde hair gone. Her scalp was red and rough, scraped to bleeding. From the eyes up, she looked like a skinned knee in need of a bandage.
All of this she had told Kyle while he ran his fingers gently up and down her spine, working the story from her with the magic of his touch. She took it as a sign that she could get through the entire experience without crying for the first time. And once they were married, he made a point to call her before he left work, would not stay out of touch for long periods of time, reached out the minute his plane was on the ground when he flew because he knew how she watched the news for Special Reports and checked Yahoo every few minutes because a plane crash would be listed there almost instantly. Part of her believed she would know when the worst happened, when what she always expected to happen, someone in her family being ripped from her, became a reality. It would happen when she wasn’t thinking about it, when she let down her guard. And so, she thought about it always. Ran the list of those she loved through her mind each night in a litany of prayer and she paced, checked windows, the TV, the computer and moved around trying to focus on other things, while some section of her brain carried on with its worrying.
Nut brown Ale
Sam Adams Seasonal
Sam Adams Seasonal
Three beers and two glasses of wine, plus nachos—an evening of hours measured out by drinks, clear as could be on the receipt. And up near the date and the server’s name, Kate, it said “party of 2.” When she first found it and began reading, putting a story together, it had felt like some strange mistake. The date wrong in her mind maybe? He had traveled to Chicago the week before, no doubt had dinner out. But February 17 had been Saturday night, two days ago. And standing in front of the calendar she kept hung on hooks in the coat closet because she could never remember to put things in her Google calendar on her phone, her knees went weak. In a hot rush that should have been impossible, her bowels released, and she had to run for the bathroom.
This was not the sort of disaster her mind prepared for, but she spun its many implications around as she drove Franny to school and then moved herself between the dry cleaners, grocery store, gym and Jiffy Lube for the oil change she had been putting off. The receipt rode along in the pocket of her jeans, and she stared at it while she waited in line and glanced between it and the television on the wall in the waiting area that smelled like grease and hand cleaner. Each time she read it, the same bottomless feeling washed over her, and her knees would go soft at the center. By lunchtime she could picture herself leaving Kyle, packing Franny and some clothes into the van, and heading for her sister’s where she could stay until she was ready to move forward. Franny could join another gymnastics studio; Kyle would figure out what to do with their house. She dismantled her life as a foregone conclusion, with a clean and efficient mind. And then she cried and put it all back together for the benefit of Franny, for the utter impossibility of such a failure in her life.
Back at home, with two hours until it was time to go after Franny, the pacing started. She would have to confront him, and it would have to be once he arrived in Denver. His flight, scheduled to arrive by two p.m. east coast time, had almost stayed off her mind, angry and betrayed as she was. “Just landed,” said the text at 2:17. He might not answer if she called, and she stood in the middle of the family room, the TV on mute and her breath a desperate flailing animal in a cage, as she tried to decide what to do. He won every fight they ever had. And she had complained to her sister about that once.
“You fight too fair,” Carrie had said. “You always have.”
“Careful. You never let yourself get really angry, say something horrid.”
“And you do?” But even as she asked she could remember bathroom arguments where Carrie would storm in and throw open the shower curtain, proclaim her right to the bathroom immediately, and turn the water to cold, screaming insults and stating the obvious reasons it was her time to be in there alone.
“I don’t want to say anything I need to take back. You know? What if I yell something and storm off like you do, then the person gets in a car accident or gets hit by a bus?” And Carrie had laughed, called her crazy, “waiting for the other shoe always.” Over the years it was how her family had addressed Sarah’s worrying. It was also why Kyle won every fight they ever had. It never felt worth really trying to win, plus she was afraid she might just snap and shout things that would tumble their lives to pieces like Jenga blocks on the kitchen table. He might leave, as he had threatened to do on a few occasions when she had tried to point out his lack of effort around the house or the fact that he never put his dishes in the dishwasher.
It would begin OK, a request she made for him to start the laundry while she was gone or maybe Kyle asking what was wrong after she sighed in the kitchen. But the escalation happened in a flash: all the work he did to keep their lives going, the hours he spent on the highway each week, the exhaustion he felt, and she would find herself pleading with him to forget she had brought it up. It was important to end such discussions by reuniting, approaching him for a hug or reassurance that they were OK, but sometimes he would storm away from her, not let her touch him. A few weeks before she had followed him out to the garage in January cold as he jumped in his car and backed out of the driveway. Surrounded by shovels and empty flower pots, she yelled for him to stop, talk to her, sort it out, but the back tires threw some slush in the air, and he was gone. For the first few minutes she was angry, then immediately worried. Would he come back? Where would he go? What if something happened? She sent a text, “what’s happening?” Then called and got voice mail. The sound of her need embarrassed her, the depth of her begging. Franny came in wanting a snack while she pleaded into the answering machine.
“What’s wrong?” Franny said. Running her fingers through her daughter’s hair, Sarah forced herself to take a breath, to feel the solid nine-year old body leaning into her.
Now she stood with the phone in her hand, staring at his text, desperate to know what had happened, even as another part of her mind turned away and begged her to leave it alone. But she couldn’t pretend it was nothing, wouldn’t be that blind or fooled. The night he had stormed away he had also come home after two, and she had forced herself to stay in bed, to lie still as he changed his clothes and took a pillow with him to the couch. She could put a string of these nights together if she let herself think back. Instead she began a text.
“Troubled by a receipt I found on the counter.” She pushed send, before she thought too much about it.
“Last Saturday, your group thing for work.”
“Party of 2 at Wild Steer Brewery.”
“What makes you say 2?”
“The receipt says it. 3 beers, two glasses of wine, nachos and a party of 2.”
“Not really your description of the night.”
“I don’t remember what I said.”
“Work thing, lots of people, you named them. Said you’d only be a few hours.”
The tightness in her chest was there as it always was, but she could peck out these answers without getting confused, or crying, without watching him throw his hands around or raise his voice. She could get to what she really meant to say.
“What’s your point?”
“What you told me and what you did don’t match.”
“According to the receipt? That’s your evidence?”
“Are you saying the receipt is wrong? The server didn’t record all the people there? Missed some people?”
Ten minutes later he had still not responded. Shaking and near tears, she carried the phone upstairs and made herself stow it between the mattress and box spring. She put the leash on the dog and walked around the neighborhood until it was time to get Franny. The phone stayed hidden through the rest of the afternoon because she stopped herself three times at the bottom of the stairs, each time forcing herself to take deep breaths and think about why she needed to stay away. It was an addict’s conversation, a desperate stand-off with her obsession.
He called the home phone while she stared at a salad and Franny ate through her macaroni and cheese, barely chewing between stories of the baby ducks they were incubating and the kick ball game she had been included in because she could catch the ball better than her friend Ashley.
“Daddy wants you,” Franny said. She held the phone out to Sarah after telling Kyle the kickball story.
“Checking in. Sounds like a busy day for the girl.” Sarah could not believe how normal he sounded, how could he not have images in his mind of court, boxed items, fights over who got the patio furniture? It had been so inevitable to her all afternoon, and now he sounded like Kyle, her husband, a normal night with him away on business. She couldn’t make sense of it, wanted to let things slide into normalcy, but wasn’t quite able to put away the list of drinks she had read.
“I have to go. Franny has a lot of math.”
“It can’t wait a minute? Why the rush?” He paused and she let the silence sit. “What’s going on?”
She hesitated just a moment, wanted to pull back and make everything smooth, like the comforter on their bed each day, straight and neat, the pillows fluffed, a promise they would return there at the end of the day. The finished bed was a moment of prayer for her each time she made it.
“I can’t talk to you right now.”
“What does that mean?” She could hear the shift away from friendly chatter; a picture of him moving into a boxing stance came to mind, his fists settling in front of his face at the black belt tournament where she had cheered for him several years ago.
“I have to go.” She pushed the end button and then stared at the instrument in her hand, the connection she had just broken. The regret settled in immediately, and she ran for the bathroom, the phone clattering onto the table.
He didn’t call for the next two days. She held the phone in hand, almost calling every few minutes, then hours, as she grew accustomed to the silence.
Six months after the accident, the doctors took her mother off life support. She breathed on her own. For fourteen years she ate through a feeding tube, never moving or opening her eyes. There was no brain activity the medical people all agreed, so Sarah, her father and sister made a trip to the hospital each Sunday afternoon to sit with her in the room of measured exhales, tucked-in sheets and the smell of rubbing alcohol. It seemed to Sarah that a nurse was swabbing one part or another of her mother with a cotton ball every few minutes on those afternoons. As the years passed, friends and family members pointed out that it was time to move on, to let her go, but Sarah anchored herself in those gatherings, the hospital pudding she ate when she was small with its dollop of whipped cream or the hours she spent reading her English papers into the room with the rhythm of monitors in the background. Every few months, Sarah and Carrie changed the pictures that hung on a cork board above their mother’s bed. They grew up on that board, shifting from sandcastles and sitting on Santa’s lap to Proms and packing for college. Carrie began to skip some Sundays because she was with a boyfriend and then away at school, and once Sarah got her license, sometimes her father would send her alone.
On the day after Kyle was due back in town, Franny had a gymnastics meet in Philadelphia with team warm up scheduled for seven a.m. on Saturday morning. Early in the season Sarah had booked a hotel room for Friday, not knowing Kyle would be traveling and scheduled to fly in.
“Franny and I are leaving right after school for the meet. We’ll be back Saturday afternoon.” She hit send after reading it over three times, wondering how he might respond, where he would be when he read it. She had composed texts to him four times in the days of their silence, but only sent this one. He had not called at all. In their twelve years of marriage they had never gone this long without speaking. And Kyle had never missed one of Franny’s meets. They had agreed before he left that she would cancel the hotel and they’d leave by three a.m., drive up 95 together while Franny slept in the back.
If he didn’t answer, she was wondering who she might get in touch with to be sure he was ok. Did she know the hotel he was staying at? Flight numbers, airlines, always, but why didn’t she ask about the hotel? The possibilities she had never worried about chased around in her thoughts like wild dogs. But something in her also felt resolve; she would not make this ok as she normally did, no matter what came next.
When she picked Franny up on Friday afternoon the car was already packed. She had snacks and several DVDs ready as they set off on the highway.
“We aren’t even going home first?”
“We’ll get a jump on traffic.”
“What about Daddy? Is he meeting us there?”
“Not this time, honey, just the girls. It’ll be fun.” She could taste the lie in her mouth, like dry crackers, a voice she didn’t believe, and suspected Franny would doubt as well.
“Can we still eat Italian with the other girls after the meet?”
They were near the exit for the airport now; Kyle’s flight, if it landed on time, would settle onto the tarmac in about five hours. By then she would be in a hotel room outside Philly, probably braiding Franny’s hair or maybe finishing a glass of wine at the bar with the other gymnastics moms while the girls watched Disney channel in one of the rooms. Nothing was set up to be different, except Kyle would not be there.
Her father had remarried less than a month after the funeral, a woman he had begun dating the summer before Sarah went to college. Carrie was happy for him, went to visit and brought her kids. They had all gone on a trip to Disneyworld when Sarah’s nephews were five and seven. Sarah and her family had been invited, her father offering to pay, to let them do some of the family things they had never done.
“He missed the chance for those trips,” Carrie said. “We all missed them. Can’t you let it go? He wasn’t cheating on her. You can’t cheat on a vegetable.” They were sitting at Carrie’s kitchen table, the kids outside in the backyard in their bathing suits, screaming as they slid the length of the Slip ‘N Slide. Sarah sat near a window and held her breath each time Franny took off running. The water spray caught sunlight and sparkled as her daughter’s body sped the length of yellow plastic and she squealed. Hitting the grass, she continued to slide a few feet and then jumped up to go again.
Sarah didn’t answer. After watching Franny land in the soaked grass two more times, she wrapped her in a towel and took her home. It wasn’t that she was angry with her father or sister. She knew they were reasonable, supported by everyone that those years had not been well spent, that they should have taken the final steps long before they did. Sarah’s sophomore year in college, Carrie newly married and pregnant, they sat her down after the Christmas presents were opened and the house was sleepy with cooking smells, to tell her the decision had been made to remove the feeding tube. Dorian, her father’s “friend,” was in the kitchen, as she had been since Sarah arrived, possessive and directing everyone as she pulled quiche and apple pie from the oven, leaned in to kiss her father when he walked by on his way to the dining room. “Be nice,” Carrie scolded each time they caught each other’s gaze. It was funny to Sarah that they all called her the meek one, the frightened one, yet somehow, she was the one who made them all nervous.
“I want you to accept this,” her father said, not meeting her eyes, but holding her hand between his as he spoke.
“Not near Christmas,” she said in a panic. “I can’t mix this with Christmas from now on.” So they agreed to wait until she came home for spring break. While her friends made road trips to the beach for wet t-shirt contests and dollar Coronas, Sarah sat beside her mother on the hospital bed each day. Tilted toward upright, their bodies stretched and equal in length, Sarah watched the familiar body shut down. The nurses brought her a lunch tray just before noon, setting it down on the table that wheeled across the bed. It had been years since she had eaten pudding. She spent hours finishing three American novels for her seminar on Modernism and holding her mother’s cold hand as the March winds blew against the window and brief moments of snow ricocheted past the glass.
As Sarah settled into the rhythm of traffic on 95 and they left Baltimore’s skyline in the rearview mirror, she recalled the line of her mother’s beating heart going flat. There was nothing else to the end, just an electronic sound shifting from a rhythm to a steady empty alarm. She had kissed her mother’s cheek before her own tears started, climbing off the bed as the nurses arrived to take over the room.
“I’m hungry,” Franny said from the backseat.
“Ok. There’s a rest stop not too far ahead.”
“Is there pizza?’
“I think so.”
“Can I get it or do I have to get a burger in the line Daddy likes?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Those places where we go and there are different choices, but Daddy only likes to wait in one line so we can get back in the car?”
“Any line you want,” Sarah promised as she pulled off the highway. “And we’ll eat inside.” As she locked the car and took hold of Franny’s hand, she looked at her watch. Somewhere overhead Kyle was on a plane; he had been in the air for hours now, and she had not been worried about the flight. The lights of cars pulling in and out of the parking lot made her think of all the destinations linked to this highway and all the highways around the country, throughout the world. She could return to this car and drive anywhere she wanted to go. Such a thought had never occurred to her before. For now, she would sit with Franny at their own table for two and eat, eventually rejoining the stream of cars journeying together through the dark.
Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in such journals such as Mid-American Review, Story, and The Potomac Review. Her second chapbook of poetry, Water Shedding, was published by Finishing Line Press in the spring of 2019.