Our street, Milwaukee Avenue, a place of happy couples. Everyone here is with someone else. Young men wearing bright colorful beanies laugh while strolling with pretty long-haired girls with perfect smiles and brand new Uggs. I love this weather. Light jacket weather. Hugged up on each other weather. Vaporous breath in the morning weather. When the cool wind blows, the Big Leaf Maples planted along the street tremble and shed scarlet and gold leaves. There’s a crisp chill in the air; it nips but doesn’t bite. In and out, people come and go from new, hip, garishly painted establishments. I’m at Jay’s. I love the weathered wood and brick walled interior and the iron canopy that hangs over the outside court, where I’m sitting. The smell of fried food, alcohol, and cooked vegetables floats in the air.
Where is Sheila?
“Excuse me, sir, are you ready to order?” asks a pretty server.
“In a few.”
“No problem,” she says and walks away. I want to ask her out, then reconsider. I’m taller than she is; I wouldn’t want to intimidate her. I try to be considerate of others’ feelings.
Sellwood-Moreland has a nice urban flavor that Sheila likes, but it’s still suburban enough for families. Sheila says it’s the best neighborhood in Portland, maybe even in Oregon.
Sheila should be around here, somewhere.
After a few hours, I give up. She’s not coming. I’ll try again tomorrow. I take out my wallet, the one Sheila bought me for my twenty-fourth birthday. I leave a ten-dollar bill on the table for the few drinks I had. I stand.
I close my eyes, breathe, and open them. I turn.
There she is, holding a take-out bag. She has on black leggings, white sneakers, and her favorite Oregon State sweatshirt. She doesn’t wear a lot of make-up on; she doesn’t need it. Sheila has a sharp effortless geometrical beauty, like an ice sickle, or a shard of glass.
“Hey, Sheila; good to see you.” I cringe at the weakness in my voice.
Her eyes dart around. Is she searching for someone else? I know what’s in the bag: fried pickles, her favorite. It’s why she comes here.
“Why are you here?” asks Sheila.
How to begin? I should just go for it. “I want to talk.”
She’s defensive. Not what I wanted. I remove my glasses and wipe them on my shirt. “I guess, I want to know why?”
“Are you stalking me?” she asks, eyes narrowed.
“For God’s sake. No, I’m only here for clarity and some closure.”
Her anger cools a bit, but keen suspicion still slices across her brown eyes. The wind blows a strand of her long black hair into her face. I restrain myself from brushing it away. She says, “Sorry, it’s been one of those days.”
“I understand.” I point at the bag. “Fried pickles?” I ask.
“My favs,” she says and raises the bag, smiling. She gives it a little shake.
It’s a large plastic bag, so she has more than one order. She has food for someone else, most likely Greg. Now I’m angry. There’s a red swelling inside my chest. It sparks, then rises, piling up like the leaves on the sidewalk. The breeze stills, and the world seems paralyzed. Her shoulders slump, and the movement is magnified by the surrounding stillness. “Keith? Why are you here?”
It’s a while before I speak. “I suppose I don’t understand what happened.”
“What’s there to understand?”
“Three years and you’re gone like that.” I snap my fingers.
“I’m not really comfortable discussing this with you,” she gestures around us at the people dining in the court, “here.”
I stare at her. She knows me. I’ll cause a scene, but I don’t want that now. Already, a few people have looked our way and whispered. I gesture for her to take a seat. She sighs and sits.
“So, what happened? That’s all I want to know,” I ask.
“I fell out of love with you. It happens, people grow apart,” she replies, her tone flat and dead yet still piercing.
“Why? We always had so much fun. We totally got each other. We have the same friends, and we have so much in common. What changed?”
She’s quiet. Time passes. “Do you remember when Sam died?” she asks.
“How can I forget? I cried for like an hour.”
“Six hours,” she says.
“No, not that long.”
“Trust me, it was six hours. You were inconsolable. I loved that cat too, but you cried for six hours straight.”
She shakes her head, heaves a long sigh and speaks in a dismal and slow voice. “Don’t make me say it. It’s embarrassing for both of us.”
“Say it,” I demand.
She watches me, remembering, assessing, and dissecting. “I’m sorry, but that display, it changed the way I look at you.”
“Why? Because it showed I have feelings? That I care for more in this world than only myself. My sensitivity is one of the reasons you fell in love with me.”
“It was, but six hours over a dead cat. Keith, it was a bit much.”
“I see you have two orders. Is one of those for Greg?” I say, wanting to end the subject of the dead cat.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yeah.”
“Greg’s a Neanderthal. The kind of guy you hate. He works on cars, drinks beer, and watches football.”
“He’s a good man,” she says. “He works. Do you have a job yet?”
Her eyes roll. “That’s what I thought.”
“When you gave your speech at that women’s rights conference last year, you said women don’t need men. They can be strong on their own.”
Her eyes stab into me, cutting. “I don’t need a man. I want a man. There’s a big difference.”
“You broke up with me for crying. Shallow much?”
“Crying wasn’t all of it,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Remember when that guy felt me up at the concert?”
“What did you do?”
“I got security.” Where is she going with this?
“You didn’t do anything,” she says sharply, accusation and hurt thick in her voice. “You saw him touch me then ran off and left me to confront him alone.”
“You need a man to fight your battles for you now? You always said you were more than capable of taking care of yourself.”
“He was six and a half feet tall and looked like a professional linebacker.”
“That’s why I went and got security.”
“Oh my God, you just don’t get it. That’s why I left, because you don’t get it.”
“You’re right? I don’t get how those few things end a relationship.”
“It wasn’t only those things. You refused to cut the grass at our house, and grass cutting was part of our lease. The grass grew to knee length. Our neighbors called the city.”
“You know how I feel about the harm we’re doing to this planet. The only way to cut grass that tall is with a gas mower, and I only had an electric plugin. I wasn’t gonna increase my carbon footprint because of our stupid neighbors.”
“I had to cut it, and I had to buy the new mower because you didn’t have a job.”
“I know, you folded. And don’t go throwing it in my face that I don’t have a job. You know I’m working on my dissertation.”
“Is it done yet?”
“I’m still doing research.”
Her eyes eviscerate me.
“What?” I ask.
“When we went out, either we split all our meals, or I paid. You never treated me, not once.”
“You’re an independent woman. You never needed me to feed you.”
“What about the time we got a flat on the highway? You sat in the car while I changed the tire. It was raining.”
“I’ve never changed a tire before. I told you not to cancel the AAA.”
“Keith, please leave me alone. I’m happy now.”
“It’s none of your concern.”
“You’re such a hypocrite. You, with all your feminism and women’s empowerment talk.”
“And you’re a child who needs to grow up. I told you before I don’t need a man I want one. I don’t need a guy to take me out or pay for things. It’s just nice when it happens. I didn’t need you to change the tire or cut the grass. I did it all myself, and that is power. But a real man would’ve at least helped. You never even offered. Then our cat dies, and you fall apart. My parents were visiting. I hadn’t seen them in months, and they couldn’t come by because you were too upset. I’m sorry, but not only do I think you’re the wrong man for me.” She leans in, fixes those razor eyes upon me. “I don’t think you’re a man at all.”
She stands, walks away, leaves me among a sea of whispering couples. It may have been rash coming here. She’s upset now. Guess I’ll just ask that cute server out after all.
Michael Pasley grew up in New Albany, Indiana, and briefly attended Indiana University in Bloomington. When he was young, his grandmother read poetry to him written by all the greats. Michael grew up listening to the words of Yates and Shakespeare and at the age of eleven began to write his own poems and short stories. He now lives in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he spends most of his time hiking and working on his fantasy novel that he hopes to someday publish.