Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: BRAND (01/12/17)
TITLE: Not With Him
By Jan Ackerson
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You were still there, of course, content to putter in the basement and to read the newspaper in your easy chair. You’ve always been a contented sort of guy—whether we were dealing with diapers or detentions, clarinets or curfews. The stuff of life touches you, but it doesn’t change you—you change it. If it’s bad, you make it better. If it’s good, you make it glow.
But that sort of resilience isn’t in me. Looking for something new to define me, I became a serial hobbyist. I tried crochet—but quickly abandoned it when my first granny square turned out to have five sides. Gardening reawakened my childhood fear of worms; the first one that appeared under my little trowel sent me shuddering into the house. Thinking I should look for things that we could do together, I tried to cultivate interest in things that interest you. Perhaps I could watch television with you, I thought, but honestly—how many times can those truckers drive that same ice road, or those fishermen catch another load of crabs?
So I started to leave, in sections.
My mind wandered off, first. Those minor faults of yours that I previously considered charming and rustic became minor irritants. The way you mispronounce sherbet. Your total inability to fold the bathroom towels so that they fit correctly in the linen closet. Eating steak well done, and putting ketchup on it. These peccadillos left me cold and crotchety. Sometimes I even made faces behind your back.
Then my heart followed. When you took my hand, I pulled it away too soon. I discouraged conversation, replying to you in monosyllables or inserting convenient earbuds. You went to bed early; I stayed up late and fell asleep on the couch, often staying there until morning.
And finally, I just flew away. Drawn to a pair of snapping brown eyes, a broad shoulder, a good-humored, intelligent face, I walked away from you toward this laughing stranger. He was at a town council meeting—I had gone there as an exercise in civic activism, intending to speak out in favor of a proposed millage increase for the schools. You stayed home, not feeling any particular civic duty, and this man’s voice set up a vibration at the back of my skull that shook out every word I’d intended to say. He spoke out against the millage, and after the meeting, I found myself drinking with him, listening to his words, hearing nothing. Trembling.
I stayed out all night—but not with him, not with him. It was close, though. He wanted to—so did I—but there was a literal burning somewhere inside my chest when I got up to leave with him. I took a deep breath to ease the searing heat and asked him to wait for a few minutes. After a while, he sighed and called a taxi for me. I took it the opposite direction from where I’d seen him go, and spent a sleepless night at a cheap hotel.
Now here I am, confessing to you. You take my hand in both of yours and touch my wedding band. You tell me you forgive me—not only for my absence of the body last night (and truth be told, for months) but also for the gradual leave-taking of my soul.
But how can you take me back? I ask. I am wholly unworthy of your love.
You put my hand to your chest and ask if I can feel your heart. I can, and you tell me that if I could see your heart, I would see that my name is branded there. If I hadn’t come back, you would have come to find me. You belong to me.
I take your hand and press it to my breast. I realize now what was burning there, back in the bar when I almost went with him. It was the searing of a branding iron, red hot with the letters of your name—and my love, I belong to you, too.
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