An excerpt from a book that I may never actually finish. Something is better than nothing, right?
As is (hopefully) evident from my ramblings here every week or so, I love to write. I’ve loved to write since I was pretty young, and I remember starting my first book (an historical fiction novel modeled after Lois Lowry’s “Number The Stars”) in the 7th grade (all I remember about it now is that the title ended with a preposition…guess mom and dad didn’t have to worry about me pulling a literary Doogie Howser at age 12). Since then, I’ve kind of veered away from writing an entire book, in favor of sitting down to write shorter, less plot-focused pieces. I have to imagine that has something to do with the fact that my legal career didn’t allow for much free time during which I could polish an entire novel, but it’s also because I truly enjoy, if not prefer, a more concise style of story-telling or point-making when it comes to my own content.
For me, finding an artful, unique or funky way to talk about something I’ve noticed or gone through is a welcome challenge – like a puzzle, and I truly enjoy putting it together. Whether that be comparing forgiveness to science or anxiety to mountain climbing, I love finding a way to present a rather straightforward topic in some novel or (admittedly) weird manner. That being said, I still sit down every now and then and write something that belongs in the bigger book that I may never actually finish writing. I have several chapters of what I imagine would wind up being a few different books saved in various (heavily password-protected) folders on my computer, and every now and then, I open them up and tinker with them and try to string them together to make something (remotely) resembling an actual novel.
Earlier this week, while chatting with one of my new friends who’d read my latest blog post, we got to talking about my last relationship. My friend was asking me about The Pilot and our break-up, and a few minutes after we started the conversation, I found myself talking about a very cold night in Philadelphia from way back in January of 2016. That night was the fourth-largest/heaviest/most destructive blizzard in Philadelphia’s history, and I found myself quite literally walking right through it, sometime around midnight, after my then-boyfriend kicked me out of his house following a disagreement we’d had. It’s the incident to which I most often refer when people ask me about why The Pilot and I didn’t work out. I imagine that’s because it’s gotta be the biggest red flag in the history of red flags (like, seriously, someone get Guinness on the line, we’ve got a record-breaking situation over here) when your boyfriend kicks you out of his house during one of the worst storms to ever hit the Northeast Corridor. There’s also probably some subliminal symbolism at play…cold, bleak and dark tend to be metaphors for “bad,” and certainly do not a healthy relationship make, so when I find myself explaining my time with The Pilot to a friend or, let’s be honest, when I look back and think “WHAT THE HELL” and try to explain it to myself, it’s usually that night that comes to my mind.
After having that conversation with my friend this past week, I came home to my flat in Edinburgh, walked right over to my computer and plugged in the password to a folder that contains several chapters of a book that I started writing in November of last year. The following is a ‘finished’ (if not imperfectly polished) chapter (meant to be the first chapter in a memoir-style book that, as of yet, has no title) that recounts the events of that night, which is still a bizarre, almost twilighty time that I think about every now and again when I reminisce about how far I’ve come from a relationship that’s provided the foundation for a lot of the pieces I’ve published on KRG about my current path and how much my life has changed over the last year or so.
I’m sharing it here because…because, well, why the hell not? I may never actually get around to finishing any of the books I’ve started, and I firmly believe that a lot of the catharsis involved in creating something comes down to sharing it with other people, whether they be friends, family or perfect strangers. My plan is to share a chapter every few weeks, as part of a series (which will get a clever name sometime soon), and I hope that you all enjoy reading something from me that’s a bit different than what I’ve published on KRG so far…
(Winter | 2016)
“I’m going to sleep.” He turned away from me and headed up the staircase from his living room to the second floor. Our argument was apparently over. We’d finished dinner about thirty minutes earlier; our meal of dover sole and zucchini slices half-finished on our plates. We’d started talking about his upcoming deployment to Qatar, and the conversation, as it usually did, quickly headed south.
“I’m not looking forward to leaving,” he’d whined, as he pushed his plate away and picked up his glass of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. We’d been discussing some eleventh-hour checklist items he needed to get ahead of before he left in March. “You waffle about whether you’re excited about this deployment or dreading it more than anyone I’ve ever known!” I responded. “You’re such a Brett Favre!” I chided.
“I mean, it’s the fucking desert for seventy-five days,” he complained. “It’s gonna be fucking great for my career – a combat deployment flying missions all over the Middle East – but there’s nothing else to do in Doha and I’ll only know one or two other pilots that are deploying at the same time. Plus, it’s gonna be hot as fuck.” He picked up his fork and looked down at his dish. He stared at the remnants of the meal he’d prepared. He hadn’t made enough food for two, but neither of us had finished our plates. He put his fork back down and looked up slowly; our eyes met for an instant before each of us looked away. We both knew an argument was coming if we weren’t careful. The topic of his deployment almost never ended well as a talking point between us. I took a deep breath. The room was just beginning to smell like stale fish.
“Well…” I struggled to come up with a positive spin, the effort of supporting his decision to volunteer for combat deployment becoming increasingly exhausting as his complaints multiplied. “Like you said, it’s great for your hours and Pilot-In-Command time, and you’ll be flying so much you’ll probably just wanna sleep on your down time, so maybe it’s not that big of a deal that Doha doesn’t have much to do.” I exhaled, and reached for my drink. I swirled the base of my wine glass between my pointer and middle fingers, watching the red liquid tumble around the glass. I raised it to my nose and sniffed deeply, taking in the fruity, slightly peppery notes of the blend, and took a long, gentle drink. I put my glass back down on the dining room table that he and I built together not three months earlier, and looked up at him. The Pilot was staring at me, his wine glass refilled, the bottle between us now empty. He seemed annoyed, distant, slightly drunk. “Nothing new there,” I thought to myself, and finished my glass of red while he sat there, expressionless.
. . .
His silence annoyed me. I’d been breaking my back for months to encourage him, to put a positive spin on this goddamn deployment that he volunteered for. “Tough fucking luck if it’s going to be hot,” I thought to myself, and I felt a familiar anger rise in my chest. I’d reserved airing these grievances for venting sessions with my girlfriends for the last few months, but the way he just sat there after I once again tried to encourage and support him when all I really wanted to do was scream at him for not once acknowledging that this would be difficult for people other than him infuriated me. How could he be so selfish? “Maybe you shouldn’t have volunteered for a deployment to the desert if you thought you’d hate it so much,” I continued, the stillness between us bothering me, the Pinot lubricating my tongue, both figuratively and literally, making it difficult for me to hold back. I regretted the statement almost instantly as The Pilot’s entire demeanor shifted from slightly annoyed with my now-familiar and thinly veiled attempts at finding a silver lining for his impending deployment, to full-out anger. He inhaled sharply.
“Seriously?” (A rhetorical question, I assumed, and didn’t volunteer an answer). He continued, “You don’t get it, Katie. You just don’t get it. You’re not in the military. I didn’t volunteer for this, I have to do this. I have to deploy.” He was livid, I could tell, but he sat almost completely still against the back of his industrial style metal and wood chair, a cheaper Target brand alternative to the outrageously priced Restoration Hardware chairs we’d both agreed would go perfect with the dark stain we’d chosen for the wood of the oversized dining room table.
The lawyer inside of me couldn’t help but challenge what he’d said, even though I knew it would risk ruining our night. “I didn’t know you had to deploy. I’m sorry, I clearly misunderstood.” I lied. “You told me that you’d volunteered for the deployment when your squadron leader sent around that email asking if anyone was interested in going to Doha in the Spring. I wasn’t aware that you, specifically, were required to go. My mistake.” I sat back, satisfied but shaking slightly, as I always do when I’m anxious. The Pilot didn’t scare me, but his cold, clinical manner made me uneasy. I waited for his response for what seemed like an eternity. When it came, it was surprisingly impractical, almost poetic.
“I have a duty as a pilot in the Air Force to deploy and fight for my country. I swore an oath before Congress swearing to defend the United States. I guess maybe that means nothing to you.” Now it was his turn to sit back, satisfied with his mini-soliloquy about duty and oaths. Honestly, it’s the type of argument I usually favor – esoteric, abstract, almost lyrical – and totally devoid of an actual response to a direct question. I recognized the strategy immediately, and forced myself to give a measured response.
“I understand that you swore your oath and that you have a duty as an Air Force Pilot,” I conceded. “My point was that you keep talking about this particular deployment as one that you are absolutely required to complete. At the end of the day, as I understand it, your contract as a reservist with the military doesn’t obligate you to volunteer for every deployment your squadron commander brings to your attention. So, when all you’ve done since you signed up to go is endlessly complain about how much it’s going to suck, I can’t help but point out that you didn’t have to do this. You vol-un-teered.” I drug out the last word so that every syllable was emphasized. I wanted him to hear me, to understand that I wasn’t shitting all over his deployment, I was proud of him, and of course I understood that part of his job was doing these sorts of things, but I’d been showering him with praise and offering support about this two-and-a-half month trip to the desert – which he’d signed up for without even consulting me – for months, and my hands were sore from stroking his ego. I wasn’t telling him I didn’t want him to go; we’d passed that point months earlier, but if he was going to go, then he needed to stop complaining about each and every insignificant aspect of the deployment (he wasn’t getting one of the nice bunks…there was no fresh, organic produce…the gym was always crowded…the mosquitoes next to the pool area were really, really bad). As far as I was concerned, he’d made his bed.
I continued, “I want to support you going on this deployment, and I’m trying my best to get over the fact that you didn’t even talk to me before you signed up for it or otherwise even so much as consider how your being gone for seventy-five days might impact our relationship or plans, but you don’t make it easy to support a decision that I’m not happy with in the first place when all you do is talk about how crappy Doha is going to be. Do you want me to agree with you?” I was losing my cool. “Do you want me to sit here and commiserate with you about how fucking terrible this deployment is going to be for YOU?!” I was almost yelling now. “What about how this is going to be for me?” I searched his eyes, his body language for any indication that my question struck a chord with him. If he was concerned about how his absence was going to affect me or our relationship, he didn’t let on.
“I have to wait here for seventy-five freaking days while you fly combat missions in the Middle East!” I felt hot tears well up in my eyes. I willed them to go away, but my anger, and fear betrayed me and they started to fall down my face. “How do you think that makes me feel?” “I’ve supported your decision day in and day out, and waited for you to acknowledge that you’re not the only person impacted by your unilateral choice to leave the country for almost three months, but you haven’t. How do you think I feel knowing that you’re dreading leaving because you won’t know anyone? Because it’s going to be hot? How about you’re dreading leaving because of what it might do to us?” I smeared my tears against my cheeks with the back of my sweater and wiped at my nose. My wine glass was empty, The Pilot had finished the last of the bottle without offering me another glass. My food was cold. My phone was in my jacket pocket, draped over the arm of the brown leather couch behind me. There was nothing to look at or mindlessly touch while I waited for the tears to stop flowing, so I sat there and stared at The Pilot while he drank the last of the wine.
We sat at the table, him seated along one long side, me at the head, the only sounds in the room those of my sniffling and his wine glass as it touched the pine boards of the table in between swigs. After a few long moments, he freed his hand from his wine glass and picked his phone up from the table where it had been laying face-down next to his plate. He looked at the screen, dismissed a few notifications, leaned back slightly and placed it in his front jeans pocket. He still hadn’t looked at me. Everything he did, every move he made, seemed so clinical, so callous…designed to remind me that I was insignificant, unimportant. He pushed his chair back and stood up as I stayed seated, watching him move. He headed for the stairs and, with a quick glance back in my direction, said, “I’m going to sleep.”
I stood up, fresh tears welling in my eyes, and shouted towards him, “that’s it?!” “That’s how you’re ending this discussion?” He paused on the third or fourth stair, his phone in his hand now, alight with new notifications (who was he talking to right now?), and without so much as turning around to face me, he said, “I think you should leave.”
I sat back down in my chair for a moment…frustrated, sad, pissed. His walking out was such an unfair way to end the discussion. “Coward,” I muttered to myself, and my resolve to stay downstairs, to not follow him and force him to talk to me like I normally would, increased. I stayed seated, and a shiver worked its way down from my shoulders. The room was cold and clearly there would be no after dinner coffee tonight. Without thinking, I reached for my empty wine glass. I grabbed it by the stem and began tilting it to the left and to the right, mindlessly, watching the sediment roll around the bottom of the glass. The smell of dead fish was stronger now, I bet The Pilot left the roasting pan on the counter after he made dinner. His problem, I thought, and I fought the urge to walk into the kitchen and soak the pan in soap and water. I hadn’t stopped crying, though I wasn’t as hysterical as I’d been before. I blinked hard, shedding the last of the hot tears from my eyes, wiping them away with the back of my hand. When my vision refocused, my eyes found my empty glass once again, and it occurred to me that the stain left behind by the wine I’d been drinking looked a hell of a lot like dried blood.
. . .
The Pilot had done this before; walked out on me or told me to leave in the middle of an argument. It wasn’t unfamiliar territory, but usually I could get him to turn around, come back downstairs and sit down and at least pretend to listen while I tried to explain to him my point of view. This time, something was different. I knew I had to leave, I actually wanted to leave, which was certainly not something I was used to. My whole life I was the girl who had to be heard, which probably had something to do with everyone I’ve ever known telling me I should be a lawyer when I got older. The fact that I wanted to get out of his house and get away from him unsettled me, especially because we were closing in on a two-and-a-half-month separation in no less than six weeks. I quickly pushed my chair back from the table and stood up.
I walked away from the dining room area toward the couch. I sat down on the not-yet broken-in leather and listened to The Pilot’s footsteps two stories above me. I heard the distinct creak of his box spring as he crawled into bed and I knew that he wasn’t coming back down to get me, not that I’d expected him to. I took my phone out of my jacket and checked the weather: twenty degrees and snowing. “Fucking great,” I thought. “Just have to get kicked out of my boyfriend’s house in the middle of the goddamn snowpocalypse.” I swiped right on my screen to a folder I’d labeled “Transportation” and opened my Uber app. I plugged in my location and destination. I was at the Pilot’s house in Fishtown, a distinctively hipster neighborhood on the Northeast side of the city that wan’t quite finished gentrifying. My house was in Rittenhouse Square, one of the nicer neighborhoods in Center City Philadelphia, about 3 miles away. According to Uber, there were no drivers anywhere near me; not shocking given the weather and the fact that it was almost midnight on a week day. Uber offered to alert me if a driver became available in the next thirty minutes, but I declined and shut down the app. No drivers would be coming out at this time of night in a storm. They were all cozied up in their houses, warm, watching TV or sleeping, not scrambling to figure out how they’d get home after their boyfriend kicked them out of his house in the middle of the night during a snowstorm for voicing their opinion.
. . .
SEPTA, the area’s public transit system, was shut down for the night, and the entrance to the only subway line near the Pilot’s place in Fishtown, at Girard and Front streets, was one I wouldn’t use as a single female late at night anyhow. I would have to hail a cab. I could try to call one for door-to-door service, but The Pilot’s house was on a street that had proved countless times to be unfindable for modern GPS systems (whenever we called a cab we had to build in a ten minute buffer so that when they inevitably got lost or missed the turn on to his street we could still make our reservations on time), and I knew it would be both faster and easier, albeit far less safe, to just walk to the corner of Frankford and Girard, about a half a mile away, and take my chances trying to hail a taxi.
I stood up and put on my heavy green Barbour brand jacket (from which I’d stupidly detached the hood months earlier when I got it, before winter really hit the city), checked to make sure I had my phone and keys, and walked out the door, locking it behind me. I turned right and headed for the intersection where I thought I’d have the best chance of finding a cab. It was cold and snowing, and my favorite pair of flats were not holding up well against the weather. My toes were slowly going numb. I cursed myself for not having worn my Wellies when I left my place hours earlier but, then again, I hadn’t envisioned myself trudging through the streets of Fishtown at midnight when I’d planned my evening.
Ten minutes later, I was standing at the Northeast corner of Frankford and Girard, blowing into my gloveless hands to keep them warm while I waited for any sign of a cab. A few homeless guys walked past me while I waited on the corner which, normally, might have unnerved me, but they were just as cold as I was, and the only thing on their minds – and mine – was finding a place to get warm and dry.
After what seemed like an eternity, I saw headlights and the tell-tale roof tent that adorned the hood of the cab heading Westbound on Girard, coming right toward me. I stuck my hand in the air, praying the driver was on duty and available. He was, and he pulled over. I opened the door with almost frozen fingers and sat down, thankful for the heat inside the car, even if it did amplify the ridiculously pungent, musky scent of the cab’s air freshener. I gave the driver my address through chattering teeth and we made our way slowly through the empty, snow-covered streets of the city toward my block. On another night, I might have thought the weather-blanketed city was pretty, inviting, even. Tonight, however, the snowscape just felt cold and bitter.
When we arrived at the 1700 block of Rodman Street, I swiped my debit card, left the driver a generous tip and got out of the cab, careful to avoid the huge melted puddle of snow collecting in a pothole next to the curb. I walked the fifty or so yards to my house, unlocked the door and stepped into the warmth inside. My breakfast dishes were still in the sink, and I’d accidentally left a light on in the living room upstairs; I could see a faint glow illuminating the stairwell in the far-right corner of the room. I took off my sodden jacket and hung it on the front door knob, above the welcome mat, so that it wouldn’t drip all over my new hardwood floors. I took off my soaking wet shoes and laid them near a heating vent on the floor to dry overnight. The dishes could wait until morning.
Before I went upstairs to climb into bed, I reached into the pocket of my hanging jacket and took out my phone. A notification banner splayed across the screen letting me know that The Pilot, in a very out of character move, had texted me sometime after I left his house and before I got home. I guess we were both acting a bit out of character that night; we were rapidly approaching our breaking points when it came to handling his impending deployment. My stomach sank and I swiped right on the notification with a half-frozen finger. His text thread appeared on my screen.
The message was short. He’d said, “I love you, Katie.”
I stood at my kitchen island soaking wet, staring at the phone. My hair fell around my shoulders in virtual icicles, my jeans soaked through and clinging uncomfortably around my knees. My lips were beginning to chap from the wet and wind, and my eyes stung from the cold. I was hungry and my post-argument trek through the storm from Fishtown to Center City had pushed my bed time back by over an hour and a half. I had to be at work in less than 7 hours to accompany another attorney to New Jersey for a meeting with one of our biggest litigation clients. I’d planned on reviewing my notes at The Pilot’s house after dinner. Instead, I’d spent the better part of my evening slowly thawing in the back of a cab. I’d have to get up even earlier the next morning to catch up on the case and prepare for the meeting.
“Asshole.” I murmured to the screen. I deleted the text, turned off the kitchen light, and went upstairs to bed.