He broke things off when his ex moved in. It wasn’t that his feelings for me had change, that the potential for an “us” in the near future had been lost. He didn’t love her; he hated her in fact. I never knew her name. He always called her Bitch. That stupid Bitch. But he had his son to think about, and it didn’t matter my feelings or his, I couldn’t be around to confuse the boy, to make him question why Daddy was kissing on this strange woman and not on Mommy like he used to.
His phone call sounded urgent, as if he’d just witnessed something horrific. The news from my TV blared in my free ear coverage of a mass shooting at Zales two weeks before Valentine’s Day—the busiest engagement season of the year. Three people dead, and I wondered if he had been there.
My belt didn’t fit. My jeans pulled tightly around my waist, the top button imprinting a perfectly round circle just below my belly button. Without hesitation, I grabbed my keys, forgot the two months of high grocery bills, the diets of buttery popcorn and flat Sprite, the sleepless nights watching reruns of melodramatic reality shows with hip hop soundtracks on VH1 while constantly checking my phone for a text that never came even though he promised we would still be friends.
There was a smell outside of his apartment, as if a decomposing carcass abandoned by hunters was lying nearby. The complex was on the edge of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, where the ghosts of slain Civil War commanders roamed the wooded trails with joggers in the misty hours before sun rise. The tops of trees hung over the roofs of the buildings under the weight of leaves sprouting months too soon due to the unseasonably warm weather. Gusts of wind tugged at branches, stretching them further across the sky, darkening the night.
Before her, he never heard my knocks. He didn’t consider me a guest and expected me to walk on in, but he rarely remembered to leave the door unlocked. For ten minutes, I’d stand outside shaking my legs to keep my feet from falling asleep, smile nervously and apologize to neighbors who snatched open their doors to curse the source of the ruthless banging so late on a week night. I would call, knowing that he wouldn’t answer because his ringer was set to silent. Just when I would turn to leave, I’d hear the scrape of metal as the deadbolt was pulled back, the click as the unhooked locks settled, the knob turned, and the door opened. He never greeted me, only cracked the door open, allowing me passage, and returned to his bedroom, the only room furnished, apologizing with his back still turned while I removed my shoes, “Sorry, sweetheart, I thought it was open.”
The wind sucked in my cheeks, dragged them toward the threshold when he yank the door back after only my second knock. I tripped trying to regain my balance and fell forward into his arms. He might have said something, but I couldn’t hear him for the smell, much stronger now that I was inside. It made me dizzy, and I coughed, as if chocking on solid particulates of odor in the air.
“Are you ok, sweetheart?” He patted my back, pulled me upright, helped me step out of my shoes.
The room was quiet, not even the echoes of an unattended to TV bounced off the walls. “Are you here alone?” I asked.
He hesitated to answer, as if contemplating if a presence still lingered. His voice strained as he started then stopped, and finally, he said, “Yea. Just me.”