“We should still be friends.” Sharon waited by the window with her arms crossed. Outside there was a lineup on the street for the next show at the Orange Peel. She studied them with a frown. Her bag was packed by the door, next to Eric’s shoes. She was ready to go whenever her ride showed up on the street below their room.
Eric lounged on the bed on one elbow, slouched and half dressed with his cellphone in one hand. One pillow was on the floor. “Absolutely, I’d like that. We should stay in touch.”
“There’s a long line across the street. They’re all dressed in black. I wonder who’s playing tonight.”
Tapping his phone, Eric replied “Paisley Pumpkins. Never heard of them. Want to go?”
“I don’t believe you. You’re making that up.” Sharon stared stonily at the scene, avoiding his eyes, which were glued to his phone anyway.
“Which part am I making up? The silly band name?”
It was mid-afternoon outside in the hot summer sun. Sharon thought she should turn the AC up to icy. “Oh, look, there’s a flying dragon that just landed on the sidewalk in front of the building. Come see it. It’s big.”
“That must be who’s playing across the street. Go down and get its autograph before it gets away.”
“No, really, it’s starting to eat people. Come and take a picture of it. You’ll be the first to post it. It’ll go viral, I’m sure.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re making that up.”
It was this hotel room and a concert across the street that brought Sharon to Asheville the first time. She had just finished college in Oregon. She loved old buildings and antique furniture. Old artwork and fabrics reminded her of growing up with her grandmother, when her parents and paternal grandparents shared a house on the west side of Knoxville. She was attracted to the east coast more than the west coast. Maybe it was the weather and how it affected people. Maybe it was the feeling of history in the way lives here were lived, and loved, and left. Maybe it was something deeper.
Sharon dropped her arms and turned halfway toward him. “So, we should still be friends. I’m sorry we argue.”
Eric looked up at her profile with the bright day behind her. “We don’t argue, we talk things out. We’re good at that.” He lowered the phone slightly, then brought it back up. The screen flickered light onto his face from under his chin.
She looked out the window at the line of people across the street. Eric was scrolling his cellphone with his thumb like her brother Keith used to do. She learned to leave Keith alone in those times because that’s what he did when he was in a bad mood and wanted to be alone. He withdrew, and it was hard to bring him back without a lot of grief. Eric was still scrolling, sitting up, adjusting the pillow behind him. His toes pulled up whenever he shifted his weight. She didn’t know what to say that could soften the mood. Eric didn’t either, apparently.
“I’m sorry,” she tried, lamely. She hoped he would look up, but he didn’t. “I’d feel better about this if we agreed on it.” She held the curtain aside with the back of her hand. The street scene reminded her of their early days when they traveled to concerts together and didn’t have big responsibilities like school and work tearing them apart.
Eric continued tapping on his phone. “Yeah,” he allowed. He seemed like he wanted to say more but couldn’t, wrapped in unspoken regrets.
“I’m just afraid,” she said. “We’ll be different people in a year. I don’t know who you’ll be, and I don’t know who I’ll be. When I come back, though, we’ll see.”
Eric put the phone down on the bed and just looked at her with his blue eyes and dark uncombed hair. Sharon read the anger in his lowered brow. They were in Asheville again because he had a job interview at the hospital. His prospects were good; he would hear back in a few days. Sharon had a sister living in Madison County. Eric had agreed to meet with her sister’s husband, a counselor, to see if they could patch up their differences before she left. It had gone poorly. Eric was blaming and uncooperative most of the session.
Sharon was flying out the next day anyway. She was headed to Europe on a scholarship that would explore much older cultures, ones that survived and endured with art and music through wars and unimaginable calamities. She anticipated the food and the smells, knowing the reality would surprise her when she got there. Her dreams were like candy she could unwrap, and taste, and look forward to, and reward herself with. “Oh, yeah, here’s the ring back.” She slid the ring off her finger and tossed it on the bed, then turned back to the window.
“No, you keep it. Don’t be so dramatic. We’ve had a lot of good times. I don’t want it.”
She felt her resentment coming up in a red wave. She gestured with her arm toward the ring. “You want to argue about the ring too? You think it might be awkward for me, maybe? Of course I remember the good times. And I remember the great arguments we had. Really stupid arguments. Why do you always turn everything into a fight?”
“You do too.” She turned back to the window again.
“I’ll always love you.” Eric waved his arm at her in resignation. “Go ahead and leave. I want you to be happy. Whatever that means. Go and have a joyous life. You deserve better than me.” He turned the phone over face down on the bed.
“Yes, that’s good. Thank you. That’s smart. You make me feel like a child, you’re so smart. You’ll do fine. I’m not worried about you. You’re indestructible. You’ll find somebody who can meet you on the battleground and challenge you everyday. You’ll argue everyday about everything. Jobs, kids, money, politics, religion. You’ll work it all out. You’ll be happy.”
“I’m not worried about you either. You’ll do fine yourself.” Her silhouette was backlit by the window. She was dressed in simple traveling clothes, gray skirt and white top, with a black sweater for the airplane. “You’ll find a handsome guy over there who speaks seven languages. I always cringe when I see guys admiring you. I’m afraid some dude in a big hat will sweep you up on his white horse and ride off into the distance.”
She turned and looked him in the eyes. “Is that why you push me away?”
“Yes, you do. And you’re perfectly imperfect. You’re the package that’s wrapped so tight I can’t get a fingernail under the edge to open it. You’re so good I don’t have anything to complain about.”
“It’s you, pushing me away.” Eric fidgeted with his phone, spinning it on the bed with two fingers.
“I don’t, no.”
“You don’t have to go.”
“Yes, I do. I have to get away and get my head straight about our relationship. I think you do too. My heart hurts from the way we argue.”
“Why? You think I’m untroubled by this, by you leaving?”
“You don’t even see what you’re doing, do you. You’re doing it again now. I’m talking about what is important to me, and you take it like I’m attacking you.”
“I…, aren’t you?”
Sharon had her own ideas and dreams. So did Eric. The relationship wasn’t working, and he was coming second to the passion for her studies, what she needed for a career. Oh, but he made her laugh at times. She continued, “When you do that, I retreat into myself, saying it’ll be OK tomorrow. I’m talking about myself now. And sometimes it is OK, but I’ve lost something when that happens. I don’t know what it is or how to get it back. So, I want to be alone for a while and find out what’s going on in my own world. I don’t want to live on the terms we’re having right now. It’s not good enough for me.”
“If you want to stay, then you should stay. We can work it out.”
“No, we can’t. That’s what I’m saying. If I say something that triggers a grudge, you’ll blame me. I’m tired of cringing. I’ve got grudges myself, and that’s one of them. I go around like everybody else, with struggles, all day. Then I get home, and I need to be loved and comforted so I can relax a little. What do I get but more struggles, worrying and crying about why you’re angry.”
“I’m not angry.”
“Oh, sure. You go out with your buddies over a beer and talk about your troubles. It’s always the women to blame. I can smell it on you when you come back late. I’d love to be the fly on the wall there and listen. I can just picture it: you and your buddies talk about your own faults and shortcomings instead of everyone else’s. The way you anguish about how to be better men. Sure. I can see that happening.”
“Who’s blaming who now? Now you’re saying I’m a jerk. What do you want me to do? Hide under the bed?”
“You wouldn’t do that, would you? You get aggressive and I withdraw. Should I rethink that strategy? I have conditions. It’ll get better or it won’t. If it gets better I’ll come back. If it doesn’t then I won’t be around. Think about it, ‘cause I’ll be thinking about it. My ride will be here any minute. It’s been great. Take care of yourself. I wish you the best. That part’s easy. I’ll think about you. I hope everything goes great.”
“Still friends.” Eric picked up his phone again and poked it.
Sharon’s phone buzzed, and she glanced at it in her left hand. “My ride will be here in 5 minutes.” She looked out the window again, holding aside the curtain again with the two fingers of her other hand. The sky was darkening. The people standing in line across the street were clearly not prepared for rain. There was a faint boom of thunder in the distance.
Eric’s eyebrows were raised and scrunched together, focused and distressed. He kept stabbing at his phone, scrolling, not even paying attention to what went by. “It’s not just words. I do love you.”
She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, feeling words coming from somewhere deep, somewhere understanding. She paused considering how to say it, how to respond. “Yeah, I do too, but here’s the thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about us, watching us, trying to figure out the dynamics between us. I love you when I’m in a good mood. I don’t love you when I’m in a bad mood. When I’m in a bad mood, I need you to cheer me up, so I can be in a better mood. You don’t always do that.”
Eric looked up.
“I know that sounds self-centered. But I think you are the same way. Maybe everyone is that way but is afraid to say it. When you’re in a bad mood, I do everything I can to help you get into a better mood. When you’re in a good mood and you say you love me, I believe it because I can feel it. When you’re in a bad mood and you say you love me, it feels more like you’re manipulating me, making me give myself to you.”
Eric’s eyes widened and focused on her.
“I need to think about things. I need to sort out how and when I want to be in this relationship. It’s not perfect and never will be, I see that. But it could be more perfect than it is now.”
He stroked his unruly hair from his forehead back and said, “I meant it. I love you.”
“You see, I don’t feel it. Part of me is elated at the freedom of leaving. That part wants to be generous and sort out some way to interpret what you say in a happy, hopeful way. Yes, you love me, and I love you, in a global sense, because we’ve had some lovely times together. But another part of me is in a bad mood because this moment is awkward and difficult. That part wants to fix the pain, but it hurts too badly. So, I want to storm out and slam the door in your face. You can throw a pillow at the door.”
He looked at her and the accumulated tension between them released. Bob Dylan was playing on his phone with the sound off and the words scrolling across the bottom, ‘It doesn’t matter anymore’. Eric said, “You’ve got a lot to think about”.
Her phone buzzed again. “So do you. My ride is here. I’ll send you a postcard.”
The door whispered shut with a click. Eric looked at the pillow on the floor and blew out a deep sigh.