The center’s walls read like a church basement’s. Every time he walked its halls, he was brought back to stacking plastic chairs and sweeping up coffeecake crumbs while he waited for his parents to finishing mingling in the stale perfume of belief.
There is power in you, beyond you. When surrendering is the surest sign of strength. Once you give yourself up, you get yourself.
He wondered if the person who created those colorful posters believed in what they wrote, if this is what it took to feel.
The only time he ever felt anything in that basement was with Gabby Swanson. After making eyes at each other for much of a weekend retreat, he and Gabby were able to stow away in a supply closet while the retreat leaders overcooked vats of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Gabby let him put his hand under her shirt as they awkwardly stood together, not kissing. He explored the way her bra dug into her ribcage before she helped him unclasp it, her skin a kind of miracle. Later, when he bragged about it to the other boys, they didn’t believe him, so he told them to ask her herself. He didn’t think they actually would. He had never meant to make Gabby cry.
The rooms at the center were also adorned with fake ferns and pastel curtains and a sterile verisimilitude of hope. He repeated to himself what his colleague had reassured, that in the end it would be worth it. He quelled thoughts of figures and numbers, had stopped opening up the statements and bills that only depressed him more.
A few years back, he had run into Gabby at work conference. He couldn’t tell if she recognized him. He wanted to apologize, to tell her that he was just a kid, that boys will be boys, knowing that never amounted too much at all. When he reintroduced himself, she relented to drinks, then more drinks, and they talked about the usual stuff: marriage, kids, the awful nostalgia of being thirteen. When he finally apologized, she put her hand on his thigh, and thanked him, telling him there was no need to say sorry.
She was lying on her bed. He couldn’t tell if she was sleeping. He wanted her to move, the way she used to, all those years ago, with the gaiety and sprite that had made him love her. This was a different kind of love, he kept telling himself, a noble love, the kind still hidden under the surface. She had been there for months. They said it took time. And belief. He believed they were running out of time
It was in the offhand way one makes small talk in the awkwardness of heavy breathing and regret that Gabby told him she had only gone into the closet with him as a dare. She and her girlfriends had made a sort of a game out of it, had a whole ranking system and everything, a way to make the retreat bearable. She forced a laugh, commented again how middle school was the worst. He tried to laugh as well but couldn’t. Instead, he jumped on her, again and again, for the rest of weekend, as if trying to right so many wrongs.
In her room, he put the real flowers he had brought next to some of the artificial ones by the window. He sat down on her bed, her head next to his lap. He stroked hair that felt like straw. He ran his fingers over her forehead, which was cold despite the way it glistened in the harsh glare of the lights. He brought his fingertips to his lips, tasted the salt as if to remind him that she was still there, when in so many ways he knew she wasn’t.
As he sat next to her, he closed his eyes and pushed aside the memories of the pallid glow on her face and the feverish scrolling, of the photos of Gabby and her husband on the screen, of his wife’s furrowed brow and the terror that had seized him from within while he pretended to sleep. Months later, when the drain clogged for the third time in a week and he pulled out more clumps of her hair, he knew something had to be done.
An orderly came walked in and opened the curtains. She asked if they need anything. Before he could answer, his wife did, which surprised them both. Coffee, she said, looking at him, just coffee. The orderly seemed like she wanted to say more but just nodded and tucked a cross necklace back under her uniform. When she left, his wife closed her eyes again. He reached out to her as they waited. She didn’t pull it away like usual, so he let it roam to her shoulders, then her neck, massaging each bony vertebra, before moving to her ribs, feeling for skin digging into her bra, for a kind of miracle itself.