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There's Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You

by Adrienne Clarke

 

       She would tell him tonight. Eden had made the resolution many times, but today, watching the leaves fall from the maple tree outside her window, droplets of red, green and orange-gold, she was finally ready. Struck by the tree’s nearly skeletal branches, she felt as though she were watching the once proud carriage of a beloved older woman grow increasingly frail and brittle. Why the metaphor came to her as female rather than male, she couldn’t say, except perhaps that women seemed more vulnerable to the ravages of time. Or maybe she was only thinking of herself. Lately, she felt as though she were fashioned of blown glass instead of flesh and bone. A careless word, or a half-remembered insult, years old, caused fault lines in the base of her spine that she feared would some day crack open and cripple her.

 

       Eden rose from her window seat and wandered aimlessly around the kitchen, her new kitchen, the one she and Aiden had saved and planned for. Twelve months ago, she’d cut a picture out of Veranda magazine, a shimmering vision of white marble and granite, and showed it to Aiden. They’d both adored the clean lines of the painted wood cabinets, and the oversized island, where Eden imagined she and Aiden whipping up the Thai food they both enjoyed so much.

 

       “Marble countertops don’t come cheap,” Aiden said, studying the picture more closely.

       “I don’t want any diamond sunbursts or marble halls,” she told him, quoting from Anne of Green Gables, a childhood favourite. “I just want you.”

       Aiden smiled, took one of her hands and pressed it against his cheek. “I will build this kitchen for us. It will be beautiful, elegant and perfect, just like you.”

 

       Eden picked up her coffee mug and put it down again untouched. Twelve months ago, she had stood in this same spot and talked to Aiden about kohler faucets and back splash tiles. In that moment, everything had been right with her world. Not perfect, but right. Although looking back it did seem perfect. The petty grievances, dissatisfactions and anxieties she must have felt, were impossible to recall. Divided between before and after, her life before now seemed a thing apart; a distant shore she could still see but never reach. She would give up years of her life to go back to that moment of light filled kitchen daydreams and the promise of what lay ahead. Daydreams were lost to her now. Even on a good day she couldn’t summon their hazy outline. “What will I do now?” she said out loud. The kitchen, dazzling in its pristine whiteness, gave no answer.

 

       Alone in an empty house, no chore or task demanding her attention, the decision to take the day off work suddenly seemed a mistake. The hours she managed to keep busy, to stay present, were her best times. Hectic activity chased away the dark thoughts that kept her awake almost every night. Increasingly, she felt a kind of panic when the sky began to bruise and fade. The feeling of endlessness as she watched the clock tick slowly, inexorably through the hours. At first, she managed to hide her insomnia from Aiden, but months of sleepless nights had taken their toll on her appearance. Her expensive concealer could no longer hide the circles under her eyes. More worrying, was her inability to focus on the smallest task. Her once lauded work as a graphic designer, now seemed impossibly sloppy and uninspired.

 

       Sometimes, she would cry and Aiden would hold her, his roughened builder’s hands gently stroking her hair. “You need to see a doctor, Eden. Find out what’s wrong so we can fix this. Once you get some help we can get back to normal.” But Eden didn’t need to see a doctor because she knew what was wrong and no doctor could fix it. And no matter how much she longed for it, prayed for it even to a god she barely knew, nothing would ever go back to normal.

 

       Early in their relationship, she and Aiden had fallen into a kind of easy domesticity.  “You’re going to be bored out of your mind,” her city-loving friend, Dana, had told her when Eden announced her decision to move into Aiden’s house in the country. “You’ll be back in three months.” But Eden wasn’t bored. She loved Aiden’s house-in-progress and his dreams of home renovation became hers.  Soon, they had a plan for every room. The kitchen was just the beginning. A builder in the deepest core of his being, Aiden loved finding damaged or abandoned pieces of furniture, and creating a stunning work of art. Their house, filled with other people’s ruins, now resembled something out of Architectural Digest. Aiden’s optimism, his ability to see beauty in what other people dismissed as ugly or unfashionable, was one of the things she loved most about him. And yet she feared it too. Feared the day when Aiden would look upon something so twisted and broken that even his sensitive, careful gaze couldn’t see the goodness within. She would have to watch him turn away in disgust. The limits of his vision would finally be revealed.

 

       Determined to escape her dark thoughts, Eden started to make lunch, but her hands shook so much she had to put down the knife she used to chop vegetables. Instead, she took out a jar of peanut butter from the cupboard and spread it thickly on two pieces of bread. She ate quickly, standing in front of the sink so the crumbs wouldn’t fall on the floor, but the last bite of peanut butter caught in her throat and she vomited it all up again.

 

       In the bathroom mirror she saw a faint sheen of sweat glistening on her forehead. Her eyes, startlingly dark in her pale face, gave her a strange, hunted look. I can’t go on like this, I can’t. Even if she wanted to Eden didn’t think she could make it through another night. That’s why you’re going to tell him. No more waiting, no more excuses. She was going to tell Aiden the truth about her sleepless nights and odd behaviour. She’d taken the day off to organize her thoughts – to mentally prepare - plan what words she would use. She’d even practiced different tones of voice. She wanted to sound calm, rational, not like the voice screaming inside her head. Not like someone who was on the edge of coming apart.

 

       The promise to tell him had been made and broken dozens of times in the weeks that followed that night. The night that had ruined her life. How melodramatic that sounded!  The kind of words you heard in movie trailers or read on the back of a paperback novel. Could a life really be ruined in one night? But Eden knew it took even less than that. Seventeen minutes and twenty-seven seconds had changed everything. Seventeen minutes and twenty-seven seconds was enough time for all the leaves to fall from the tree and to transform a starry sky into full dark.

 

       ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,’ she began, before quickly revising the words in her head. She made it sound like she was about to tell him there was water in the basement or that she’d lost the earrings he’d given her for Christmas or run into an old friend at Starbucks. It was such a ludicrous way to begin she wondered how she could ever have thought of it. But no matter how many times she revised that opening sentence she couldn’t make it right. None of the endless variety of words she strung together could begin to answer Aiden’s inevitable first question: Why didn’t you tell me? Why? Why? Why?

 

       Eden took a strangled breath and squeezed her eyes shut. No answer satisfied. Because she thought if she didn’t tell anyone she could make it go way. If she kept her secret it would be like it never happened. She could delete those seventeen minutes and twenty-seven seconds from her life as though they had never existed. What was a few minutes compared to an entire life? She could adjust the picture, change the focus, edit out the part she didn’t want to remember. Revise! Revise! Revise! Until she was herself again. Until she was free. Sometimes, she managed to turn down the glaring brightness of the images in her head. For hours, maybe even an entire day, she could dull the colors, soften the edges so they took on a dream-like quality. But then she would see something on TV, hear a strange noise, or read something online, and the memories would come back in a sickening rush of cinematic sound and intensity. Waves of nausea brought her to her knees. The only thing she understood about what happened that night was there was no escape from it.

 

       The evening began in such an unremarkable way. She even recalled feeling a little bored and out of sorts. Aiden’s sister just had a baby and she felt regretful that she hadn’t gone with him to the hospital to greet the new arrival. But Dana had been so insistent that she come to her housewarming party, berating Eden for abandoning her friends for ‘married life.’

She made small talk with a few of Dana’s co-workers from the bank, and then she was holding a glass of wine she hadn’t asked for and talking to Alex, one of Dana’s former boyfriends. A man Dana was determined to stay friends with because he was ‘just too charming and funny to let go of entirely.’ He said something that made Eden laugh but not too much. Later, she was in the bathroom adjusting her skirt when the door opened. She looked up, startled but not frightened, to see Alex’s face in the glass.

 

        “I’m all done,” she said, reaching for her purse. It happened so quickly that afterwards it seemed impossible that it had happened at all. Alex bore down on her, pushing her up against the sink, and yanking up the skirt she’d just pulled down. And then a hand on her mouth, the skin smelling like chips and salsa. The sudden explosion of heat and pain inside of her. Inside of her.  Worst of all was the look in his eyes: distant, cold, emotionless. She hated him for this more than anything else. The knowledge that those seventeen minutes and twenty-seven seconds would never imprint themselves on him the way they did on her. And then he was gone. She pulled down her skirt a second time, opened the bathroom door with hands that seemed to belong to someone else, and left Dana’s apartment without speaking to anyone. The doorman said goodnight to her and she said “bye, thank you.” Later, the exchange would shock her. Five minutes after she’d been raped by her oldest friend’s ex boyfriend, who Dana called funny and charming, Eden said thank you to the doorman. Charming and funny, funny and charming. ‘Bye. Thank you!’ The words reverberated strangely in her head. Sometimes she said them out loud when she was alone, slowly and methodically, as if they were the key to some secret code that once cracked would explain everything.

She hadn’t spoken to Dana since that night. Dana called repeatedly, first about her rude departure and later about Eden’s inexplicable silence. Maybe it was unfair, cruel even, but Eden knew she would never speak to Dana again. She couldn’t destroy the memory of what happened with Alex in the bathroom, but she could destroy everything associated with him. She had to. Whenever she thought of Dana, she had the irrepressible thought that if Dana said his name Eden would kill herself.

 

       What frightened her almost as much as remembering that night was not remembering. When she couldn’t find a missing detail, like putting on her coat, she played out an interrogation scene inside her head. Most often, the investigator’s voice was a shade of her own, only sharper and more critical. Worse were the times she heard Aiden’s voice questioning her, his tone slightly mocking in a way it never was in real life. “Did you put on your coat before you left the apartment, Ms. Regan?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

“Ms. Regan, surely you put on your coat? It was -20 outside. You don’t expect us to believe that you went outside in freezing temperatures in a skimpy party dress?”

“I had my coat on.”

“Thank you, Ms. Reagan. Now we’re getting somewhere. Did you speak to anyone before you left the party?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“The problem, Ms. Reagan, is that I have a statement right here that says you spoke to the doorman in the lobby of your friend’s apartment. In fact, Mr. Manon says you were quite friendly. You even told him to have a good night. Rather odd behaviour, isn’t it? To wish someone a ‘good night’ after you’d been viciously raped?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You don’t seem to know much, do you, Ms. Reagan?”

 

       Eden looked at the clock. 4:15. Aiden would be home in two hours. She looked at the empty note pad in front of her. The pen lying in wait on the table seemed to glint malevolently. She began to write, slowly at first, and then in a kind of frenzied rush. Afterwards, she read the first sentence out loud, the sound of the words making her eyes prick with shame. ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.’

       Eden curled up on the sofa and summoned the familiar pattern of Aiden’s first moments after coming through the door. ‘Hello darlin!’ his voice would boom. ‘Did you miss me? Come and greet me with kisses if you missed me!’  Their corny private joke, witnessed once by Dana who rolled her eyes, made Eden feel safe. She loved Aiden. Loved their life together, or at least the life they used to have. But would happen next? After he came through the door and they were alone together? That’s where Eden’s vision failed her. ‘How was your day?’ he would ask her, and she would answer. She would say…? She would ask him to sit down. She would take his hand. No, she didn’t want to be touching him when she told him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she would say, ‘sorry I didn’t’…. Why should she begin with an apology? She hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t her fault. She did nothing wrong, except go to a party. Oh God, why had she gone to that party? If only she’d stayed home! ‘Aiden, listen, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you….’

 

       It didn’t take her long to pack her things. She didn’t own a lot of clothes or jewelry. What she had most of were art books. Her university texts and the ones she bought for work or just for inspiration. She could ask Aiden to send them later. No matter how badly she treated him, he wasn’t the sort of man who would withhold anything in an act of petty revenge. Some men were good, some men wanted to know what you wanted, what you didn’t want. They helped you up instead of holding you down. But not all men, not all.

 

       Finally, Eden gathered her toiletries from the bathroom. So many tubes and jars a life needed, even a simple one. She removed her items one at a time, occasionally stopping to open bottles of Aiden’s shampoo, aftershave, and even his foot medicine. She wanted to record Aiden’s details: the way his hair looked in the morning; the smell of his skin; the color of his bathrobe and store them away so she could recall them later.  After she finished, she almost changed her mind. What was she doing? Leaving this house? This man? The life she’d worked so hard to make? For a moment, she wavered, caught between fear of leaving and fear of staying. And then she saw Aiden’s latest project sitting on the floor in front of the closet. It was a piece of an old headboard he’d found at a garage sale. “Look at the detail on that carving!” Aiden had told her when she teased him about bringing home more junk.

 

“It’s damaged,” she said, pointing to a large flaw in the wood.

“It’s still good,” he assured her. “The imperfection in the grain is what’s going to give the finished piece its own unique beauty. All wood has some sort of flaw – that’s why I love working with it.” He grinned. “It needs me to smooth away the bad parts.”

Eden wished she could see that piece of wood with Aiden’s eyes, but she couldn’t. All she saw was the imperfection. Ugly, scarred – not fit to be seen, or held, or cherished – by anyone.

 

       A strange numbness took hold of her when she slid behind the wheel of her car. She reminded herself for the hundredth time that she didn’t have to do this.  If she hurried, she could carry her bags back inside and put them away before Aiden got home. He need never read the words: There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Recalling the note she’d finally written made her cringe. Her cowardice forced her fall back on every cliché that came to mind. She told him their relationship was too much too soon. She needed to regain her independence, and the biggest lie of all.  I’m not ready to commit to a life with you. And yet, all the lies she wrote came so much easier than the truth. The truth she held so tightly against her chest she could feel it burning into her skin like a branding iron.

 

       She didn’t allow herself to think of him until she turned onto the highway, driving to, she didn’t know where. She imagined him coming through the door, his eyes alight with the anticipation that had yet to dim in the almost three years they’d been together. He would shout out his greeting and this time there would be no reply. What would he do next? Hang his coat on the hook? Call her name? And when she failed to answer a second time? His handsome features would transform from mild puzzlement to confusion. At first, he would assume she’d gone out. Maybe to the store to pick up something for dinner, or to the gas station, or some other inconsequential errand she’d failed to mention. He wouldn’t be worried, not at first. That would come after he saw her note. Then his furrowed brow would morph into a deep gash of anxiety. They didn’t write each other notes. They sent each other corny, mushy texts: ‘love U high as the sky, deep as the ocean.’ Words they would never show to anyone else. Anxiety would give way to anger when he read the words There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. He would never know the words in that letter were meant to cover up the one thing she could never bring herself to say out loud.

She held him in her mind a little longer, not ready to let him go. She saw his face so clearly: the curve of his cheekbone; the shadow of stubble on his chin; his full lips that had begun to chap in the cold weather. The lip balm she’d bought him was still in her purse and she felt a rush of sadness that she hadn’t left it for him. He never remembered to buy it for himself.

What was he doing now? Blindsided by the turn of events that would have seemed impossible an hour before, he would sit down, too stunned to move. He would hate her for a little while, maybe a long while, but eventually that would pass and he would remember her the way she wanted him to. And when she thought of him, she would remember the way he looked at her. His eyes full of love and respect and admiration. The memory would remain pure and true, untainted by everything that had come afterwards.

 

       Her grip on the steering wheel slackened and she yanked her shoulders back. In a few hours, Aiden and his house would be far away. She pulled down the sun visor and caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror, a stranger’s face, the eyes bewildered and afraid. The secret behind them dimming he

r view of the road ahead.

 

***

A past winner of the Alice Munro short fiction contest, my work has appeared in several publications including, The Storyteller, New Plains Review, Silly Tree Anthologies, and in the e-zines The Devilfish Review, Rose Red Review and 87 Bedford. An excerpt from my YA Novel Losing Adam (unpublished) won first place in the Young Adult category of the 2015 Seven Hills Literary Review contest.

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