Saturday, January 21, 2012

Short Story: The Staircase

This particular story was inspired by Kit's Writing Life post on taking the stairs, which you can read here.

Thanks, Kit!


I come in through the back door, like I always do— I never got around to fixing the stick in the front door— and I hang up the key to the ornate silver lock on the nail your father banged into the wall when he and your mother moved out.

"Hello." I say to your picture on the wall, smiling at your smile, looking away when I meet your eyes because it's too painful to remember right now.

I go about my usual routine when I come home from work… pouring myself a drink and then pouring you one, just so I don't feel so lonely. We chink glasses together, though you don't say anything, and I drain my glass and then yours, because you'll never touch a glass again.

I watch the news, flicking the channels because I'm bored, letting the drinks seep in and give me a hazy sense of well-being that I know will disappear the second I start climbing the stairs.

I brush my teeth in the downstairs bathroom like I have since that, because our two sinks in our bathroom have even more memories than the staircase does.

I linger around downstairs, arranging things in an attempt to stall going upstairs, but then the clock chimes twelve and I know tomorrow will be worse if I don't go to bed now.

I think about getting some sheets out of the closet and sleeping on the sofa, but your eyes are everywhere, and the sofa has memories too, and that portrait of you that your kid sister drew and sent to me last week is there, telling me I'm being stupid.

I resign myself to sleeping in the bedroom, even though it's so lonely without you there I can't fall asleep until two unless I take a sleeping pill. It's too late to take a sleeping pill now, though— I have the early shift in the morning.

The staircase looms over me. The door to our bedroom is on the right as one reaches the top of the landing. I take a deep breath, preparing myself.

Climbing the staircase has gotten harder nowadays. Maybe it's the pain in my knees, or maybe it's all the memories we've infused into them, but climbing the staircase each night gets harder every day.

You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you though… you're so practical that way.

The first step always hits me like the first time I saw you across the room. Your eyes crinkled when you saw me staring at you, and your hand raised its drink. I'd never been so infatuated, but I didn't stop to think about the consequences, and in what seemed like years I finally managed to introduce myself. You grinned and stuck out your hand and said, without any sort of artfulness, "Pleased to meet you."

That's the first step. Sometimes it's the easiest, because I can remember you at the beginning, when we had no idea what was coming afterward… but sometimes it's the hardest, because if it weren't for me, you'd still be crinkling your eyes at people across the room.

I shudder today— today the first step will be the hardest— and I move up to the second. The second was our first date. We kissed on this step on our fifth date… the one when your parents were still peeking out the living room to make sure we didn't do anything stupid. The one where your kid sister was looking down from the balcony to see when you'd come up and talk to her. Your kid sister… I can't even talk to her nowadays when I think of this second step.

But I linger… because your lips were always so soft and your breath was always so sweet, and I want to have it near me along with the teasing words you always used to tell me when I said your family was making me nervous.

At the third step things are getting easier. The next few are always easier… these are the good times, the times when we used to laugh and things were such a whirl of happiness I couldn't stop myself from grinning. Not even at work, when my boss was being what you used to call an asshole, without even considering what an asshole I was to the guy in return. You never seemed to notice the bad things about me, though. I always found that sort of strange…

Never mind. The third step is hard too. The third step is our first argument— the first real, drawn-out one. I can't even remember what it was about, except that I wouldn't talk to you for a week afterward… and then you showed up at the door with flowers.

I can't even remember that, to be honest. I can't remember anything but the tulips. I do remember telling you I'd always liked tulips, but I didn't think you'd recall it. It was in a passing conversation, not even an important one, and we were probably dead tired after exams.

You always studied so hard… I never did. You seemed to want to make something of yourself, but I'd always just wanted to be spoiled.

You spoiled me. I remember all the ways you used to spoil me. The fourth step always makes me smile and cry a bit— you used to bring me little trinkets you'd found, or little things you'd made with your hands… I still have them. I have them up everywhere. After… after that, I took them all out of the boxes and the drawers and off the shelves, and I have them all on a shrine.

You'd laugh if you could see it, but it's there. I'll never forget you with that shrine.

Sometimes I'm afraid I will… it's when things get too hard to bear and I get cowardly.

And then I can't remember that little scar you have just above your temple— I scratched you once and I've never been able to forget it… you laughed when it happened, but then the blood came pouring.

I'd forgotten how much blood there can be from a head wound. And then you laughed when I tried to wash it off, and you laughed— you always used to laugh so much… but I can't… don't want to remember these things. I miss you too much and nothing's coming out the way it should any more. Everything reminds me of you, dammit. Everything. Even my breakfast cereal. Even that breakfast cereal you always told me wasn't healthy enough. You were always so conscientious… you always worried about my health…

My family's had a history of early death due to— but enough about death. Suddenly I hate this fourth step. What business does it have reminding me of you? Sometimes, when I get to the fifth step, I want to forget. I want to forget everything that you ever were or ever represented, or all the reasons I loved you. The fifth step is when we had our second real argument… it's when you finally stopped shouting and broke down and told me we were getting married.

I couldn't believe you when you said that— I'd been rushing up these steps, and then you stopped me and said, "Come back down. We're getting married. Today. Now. I can't keep waiting for you."

I thought you were crazy and I told you so, but then I sat down on this fifth step, looking down at you, hating you for making me feel as if you meant it.

"I mean it." You said, your eyes smiling and crinkling the way they did when we met… and it hit me just as hard as the first time.

On the sixth step, after we got married and your parents had moved out— they'd always wanted to move out… this damn house probably held just as many memories for them as it does for me now, on the sixth step you kept saying you loved me, and all I could think of was taking your clothes off.

I wish I could hear your voice now… saying those words again. I miss you so much. I miss hearing your laugh at lunch— you always came home for lunch…

And I miss you when you cry at sentimental bits in movies— even more when you try to pass it off as dust in your eye because you think crying's babyish. You always did think that. Sometimes I watch your favorite movies just to torture myself.

The seventh step is the little things. Your toothbrush next to mine, the hairs in the shower and on the sink. The smell of your deodorant.

That stupid way you had of saying hello when you came from work…

The way you slung your clothes off when you were tired, leaving them haphazardly on the floor. For me to clean up. Sometimes I hated cleaning up after you.

Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever feel the way you made me feel.

The eighth step is the last easy step. After this… everything falls apart. I try and stand here as long as possible… partially to give my knees a rest, partially to stave off the loneliness that comes with the ninth step. The ninth step is the most painful after the twelfth. The ninth step always makes me shudder and hate everything that's ever happened to us.

But I'm still on the eighth step, and I can't fix anything about what's coming afterward.

Sometimes I want to turn around and go right back down the stairs. I sometimes have… sometimes when I don't have the courage to keep going… but there's pictures of you everywhere downstairs, laughing, taunting eyes that make me keep taking steps, even when all I want to do… all I ever wanted to do, is be near you. 

The eighth step is the bliss when you found out we were pregnant. You couldn't do anything but rush around and tell everyone you knew— "We're pregnant," you'd said, beaming, your arm around me. You always wanted to touch some part of me, especially when you were emotional. 

The baby was supposed to come in May. We spent so much time at the baby stores… you used to pick out everything that you thought the baby would like— yellow, because we wanted to be surprised… you used to laugh at my choices for carriers… always thought they were so pointless. You wanted to hold our baby all the time, you said, and you laughed when I said your arms would get tired.

You made plans, you stopped me from making too many.

It's a happy pain, this remembering, but my heart isn't as good as it used to be— it can't take this as much as it could— and I step up one more step.

We lost the baby in November. I'm not sure who was more heartbroken, you or I, when the doctor came in and shook his head. Your hand was clutching mine, or maybe my hand was clutching yours, and we couldn't believe it, even when the doctor explained that falling down these stairs— damn these stairs!

We didn't use stairs without holding tight to each other for months afterward.

We couldn't, not after the baby. We put away all the clothes we'd bought for our little one at about the same time we stopped clutching hands when we climbed the stairs.

"If we ever try again," you said fiercely, "the new baby won't have this baby's clothes. These are this baby's."

I felt the same way, so I didn't say anything.

The tenth step got easier, and things went along admirably. We went back to work— started saving up for more vacation time for the next baby.

On the eleventh step it was our fifth anniversary. I loved seeing your face light up in the morning. You looked so happy, so sleepy, and I couldn't stop myself from kissing you good morning longer than I usually did.

"Hello." You said, your eyes crinkling.

Sometimes I wish I'd never met you when I get to this eleventh step. If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't be climbing this staircase. My heart wouldn't be pounding like this, and my throat wouldn't feel so raw.

Sometimes I think I should sell the house, but you made me promise in the hospital — I hate that word now — that I wouldn't. And I haven't broken a promise I've made to you yet.

I'm still keeping my marriage vows after— but I don't want to think about that before I have to.

I ascend to the twelfth step.

The grief is still just as bad as it was when we went over the embankment. I was driving. I should have been looking where we were going, but I wasn't— we were both just as devastated as we'd been on the ninth step, and you weren't looking at me very much. Tears were blurring my eyes, but you were in a worse state than I was, and you couldn't drive.

We should have stayed in the parking lot of that damned hospital, but we couldn't stand the place.

We were driving home, and I looked over at you, and all of a sudden the car lurched.

And then I was awake in the ambulance and they were telling me I had to talk to you… and that's when you made me promise I wouldn't give up, and that I'd not sell the house…

 I remember telling you not to talk, trying to make you be quiet with a kiss, but you wouldn't stop talking, wouldn't stop telling me that you loved me, and my brain couldn't comprehend anything at that moment except that your head was bleeding more than it had when I scratched it.

"PROMISE ME," you said in an awful whisper, "that you won't… give up."

I promised. What was there to give up on?

Now I know.

Your hand went limp in mine, and for a second I couldn't understand it.

And then I did and all this grief came crashing down on me.

I was numb.

Then, when I wasn't numb any longer, when I realized I had to go back to work and pretend as if nothing had happened… but it had happened.

And everyone knew it. Everyone was looking at me with these… pitying stares.

I took a leave of absence and I almost gave up.

Your eyes… I covered them all up. The entire house was black. The only color was in the yellow liquid I poured into my glass every night. Sometimes even the liquid was black.

Sometimes I realized that something wasn't right… that this reeked of 'giving up,' but I couldn't make myself stop.

Numbness was better. Numbness was ten times better than that soul-ache.

You would have laughed, maybe, to hear me say 'soul-ache,' and thinking of that made me remember my promise.

I got back to life. I don't know how I did it, except I had this damn determination to do it so I wouldn't break my promise.

I'm on the thirteenth step now… have been since I realized you wanted me to go on without you.

Without you… they're the loneliest words I've ever heard. I turn around to look back at the stairs. At the bottom your portrait is there, only you're smiling at me as if you know I understand now.

I don't want to understand. Going on without you… I want to be with you, even if it's in oblivion. In numbness I can do that, but I sense sometimes that you'd be disappointed if you knew I was numbing the pain.

But then, you never quite understood soul-ache. You always smiled when you heard about it. You never had it. Your parents are alive… your mother has your eyes when she smiles. I don't see your parents any more, by the way. 

Sometimes I wonder what you'd have done if you'd been in my place and I'd been in yours.

Your eyes tell me the answer. You would have let yourself slip down the stairs. I'd have hated you for it. You wouldn't have cared.

I look down at the stairs for a moment, contemplating jumping over the balustrade. My knees aren't good enough to jump, but maybe I can crash down on the carpet underneath.

Then I remember you hated getting that carpet dirty, and I realize I don't have the courage.

It's a dilemma. I don't have the courage to go on living without you… but I don't have the courage to die to be with you.

Maybe some day I'll get out of this limbo… be able to stop contemplating falling down over that balustrade every time I reach the thirteenth step. Every time I reach the landing.

Maybe some day I won't feel so empty.

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