Back Again, Back For Good

Contest Host: Toasted Cheese

Contest Title: A Midsummer Tale

Theme: Returning home or getting away from home, the setting of the story much show the transition from locations.

Placement: None

Back Again, Back for Good

            The sun doesn’t dare peak into the kitchen. This would make the morning better. Tension as bitter and resentful as theirs could taint the world outside, and judging by the current forecast – Eleanor is certain that it already has; “Are you ready to go to Grandma’s lake house?” Chewing her pancake can be likened to eating glass at this point. You are just nervous, Eleanor assures herself shakily. Every time she speaks she must choose her words carefully. It will still be several weeks before the kids will be sat down for a serious conversation. Eleanor knows that she has no intention to talking to her kids immediately and should not be anxious at this moment.

Elijah, her eldest son, is sitting across the table with his black hoodie covering his entire face. It literally and figuratively feels as though a villain is seated at the dining room table. The real villain, their father, is absent so apparently the next of kin must take his place.

Absolutely not, he complains. Of course he complains. He is seventeen years old and this is his last High School Summer. His girlfriend is having a party tonight but he can’t be there and who knows what could happen while I am away, mom? Tons of things will happen, she has to remind him, and sometimes people just have to roll with the punches. Another handcrafted allusion to things he will be faced with soon that are far more difficult to deal with than another girlfriend being checked off the list. He disagrees by dropping his syrupy fork directly onto the table, defying her in the only way he can while he enjoys his favorite breakfast. Eleanor made it intentionally. Maybe if he likes his food enough he won’t be as whiny for the ride to her mother’s lake house.

“What about you, Emilia? You have anything you’re excited to do?” For a brief moment it seems as if the sun will burst through the crisp gray shutter blinds. Much like the kids, the sun has no desire to make an effort to care today. Eleanor hates this aspect of living in the city. It’s not even a “big” city; it is just a big city for Indiana. Nonetheless, being in a city environment for twenty years certainly has been quite enough for one lifetime. Refocusing on the shutters, she begs the sun to change its mind. During her pleas she finds that her mind slips and she accidentally reminisces on the argument she and her husband, Evan, had over the damned blinds. For days during the renovations they were head-to-head on the matter.

Of course, the real argument wasn’t about the blinds but what they represented; what they were preparing the ‘happily’ married couple for in the coming months. Forcefully she stands up from her chair and takes only her dishes to the sink, leaving the unfinished food in place, and tosses it against the metal. Evan can deal with it later if he remembers to even come back.

As it turns out Emilia has been answering the question for several minutes with enthusiasm. She is fourteen and significantly more interested in spending the summer doing something interesting. This year was a whirlwind of new experiences that left her feeling invigorated. There was a time when Elijah was the same way but those years passed, that phase of his life was done. Now he just broods. In fact, he is brooding now, which causes Eleanor glower back at him to stop. She hopes to be as enthusiastic as her daughter in a couple of months when she’s forced to start over with scraps.

“I think the most important thing that I want to happen this summer is my first kiss. I have it all planned, you know? I want to have my first kiss with the hottest boy on the lake at a bonfire that you told me not to go to because there will be way too many older boys. That’s my plan!” Elijah gets to the punch first; stating that mom sucks the fun from everything, don’t get your hopes up kid. He looks like his dad, he sounds like his dad, and he acts just like his dad. Sometimes it frustrates her, sometimes it is adorable, but today it’s just annoying in a way that she doesn’t want to have to tolerate.

Such is the role of a mom, though, and she is aware that she cannot dwell on it. “Get your bags into the car. Keys are on the cabinets by the door. I’ll be out in a minute with the cooler.” Her hands plant upon her hips and her eyes follow the kids as they go outside. When did Emilia finish her pancakes? Did Elijah really take the actual plate of bacon with him to the car? She wiggles her lips in false optimism. Today must be a good day.

Elijah opts to sit in the backseat with his feet propped on the center console. Emilia is behind the driver’s seat with her head leaning dreamily against the window. For a moment Eleanor sees an exact replica of herself, a hopeful blonde teenager with high hopes for what summer will bring and all of the possibilities that exist. When she gets outside and sits in the car she realizes just how bright the sun is in spite of the fact it can barely been seen through the buildings. Temporary jealousy for those in better locations that get to enjoy sunshine and breakfast washes in and out. Eleanor could have used the brightness and converted it to confidence five minutes ago!

Both girls are chattering about rolling the windows down if it remains nice outside. Emilia in particular wants to practice her ‘hair in the wind’ expression. There won’t be an opportunity to do this, though, because Elijah reminds everyone that it will start raining shortly and will continue to do so for the remainder of their trip; “We are driving right into that shit.”

“Watch your mouth, Elijah Daniel!” Eleanor’s brown eyes bore into her son’s matching pair. He has been testing the limits with his swearing and this summer is sure to be decorated with situations similar to this almost every day. The puff of air from her sigh fogs up the window for a few seconds as she winds down from her son’s outburst.

Almost as if on cue, only about ten minutes into the trip sprinkles of rain decorate their silver crossover. Emilia whispers about romantic rainy nights, listing some of the best movie kisses that happen in the rain. Even Eleanor doesn’t want to listen to the charade so she encourages her daughter to think of more authentic activities such as biking the trails, swimming races across the lake, and fishing contests. Emilia mentions the Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks display. Eleanor supports her daughter’s interest until she goes on again about meeting the perfect summer boyfriend.

Listening to her daughter is grating beyond the fact that she hates hearing her unrealistic expectations. It also reminds her that at some point she really will have to tell the kids they are going to live here permanently. The whole point of renovating, Eleanor had found, was tot add value to the house for resale. Instead of falling down a deep, dark mental hole she must replace those thoughts with positivity. All she comes up with is that the chances are Emilia won’t be as dreamy when she’s told this is their permanent residence; provided Evan and Eleanor don’t magically repair their marriage. Such a thing seems unlikely since he’s been sneaking his belongings off to a condo somewhere nearer to his job for several weeks.

“How about some radio?” Regardless of her personal thoughts, she tries to avoid frowning while she speaks. Her grim tone betrays her, coordinating with the weather outside again. She snarls unintentionally but it seems to send a warning to Elijah not to cross her. The rain shifts from drizzle to downpour, and the waterfall created by nature turns into some sort of mosh pit of terrible weather phenomenon. There’s a brief period of time about an hour into the traverse that she pulls alongside the road for the safety of everyone in the vehicle. Not seeing the road is quite the hazard, after all.

Elijah fancies himself hungry still, and starts making a turkey sandwich with way too much cheese and even more mayo. Before he gets anything on her seats Eleanor yanks napkins from the glove box, throwing them into his lap just as a globby mess falls out of his mouth. A toothy grin decorated with partially chewed food follows. His gratitude is expressed with slurred words that might be ‘thanks mom,’ but she cannot be certain. Her focus actually shifts while he is talking to the crack of blue lighting in the sky instead.

Things don’t slow down very quickly so her daughter ties a knot with her hair, talking about how she makes the best sandwiches ‘on the east coast.’ Immediately after she starts using her theater voice to describe this perfect lunch entrée. Secretly Eleanor disagrees with her the entire time because the most important ingredient to sandwich making is the part when someone else makes it. Someday she will realize this, perhaps one day when she is taking care of someone else. It wasn’t until Eleanor moved in with Evan and the relationship became serious that she really started to appreciate food prepared by someone else.

Dear goodness, she doesn’t want to think of her daughter in a serious relationship yet. Thankfully – though other parents may not feel the same way – Elijah has secured himself a reputation that prevents such a thing from ever happening for a good many years. Emilia, though? Finding love and romance is all she talks about and that scares Eleanor as a mother. For now those are problems for another day, hopefully another decade entirely.

Twenty minutes seem to fly by just as quickly as the whipping winds outside. However, there does come a time that Eleanor decides she can drive again. By then everyone has eaten at least two sandwiches and a snack bag of potato chips. Even though she feels comfortable driving again she wants to minimize the distractions. Hands begin pulling her hair into a tight ponytail on the back of her head, hoping that maybe Emilia won’t say she is a ‘copycat’ since the style is different. Just a few days ago they both wore a red shirt to the store and she was sore about it the entire time, mom, you matched me on purpose!

The drive itself was slated to take just over three hours; and as the second hour floats by it proves to be a slosh of muddy roads and cracks of thunder louder than the radio. Even Emilia feels the dampness of the bad day laying its tendrils in her conscience. The three of them wear expressions of malice for the weather, for the unexpected summer trip, and for all of the unspoken things that linger just beyond their grasp. Kind of like proper sunshine…

The cities that blend together grow darker with the weather. Part of it is simply because of the black skies, and the blotted sun. Some of it has to do with the fact that they are driving by run down cities that are losing their population to bigger and better equivalents. Eleanor can relate to those changes on a personal level. It isn’t until she hits the first stretch of road without a single building in sight for miles that she relaxes enough to temporarily forget her personal issues.

Emilia has fallen asleep and is drooling all over her shoulder. Her phone is opened to one of the social media websites that she uses all the time, but it would be a stab in the dark to guess which one specifically it is at her angle. Eleanor urges for Elijah to take the phone and close the app. He is all too happy to help, but not before he takes a “selfie” with his sleeping sister and shares it with her friends. Truth be told, she could probably stop him. Emilia won’t be happy when she wakes up and she’ll be mad at her mom for it. That’s fine, though, because everyone gets mad at mom for everything. Since it won’t matter whether or not she stops Elijah she simply doesn’t; the siblings can deal with those problems on their own. If they go prank war… She vows to video tape it this time so she can post it online for the rest of the family.

Passing through a couple of small towns perks everyone up a little bit along the way, mostly because they stop for candy bars and bathroom breaks. Some of the stress goes down the drain, literally. It is a relief to get back in the car with everyone in a better mood. The last twenty-five minutes of the drive should fly by as easily as the raindrops.

An inner lull leaves Eleanor smirking half-heartedly. There is a sort of silence in her mind and in her heart. She swears that the weather is linked with her telepathically. As soon as she calms the the rain slows in perfect sync. Unfortunately, the scenery foreshadows the constant veil around her thoughts. The sky is currently a light smoky gray, as if a small child drew a picture of a cloudy day and wished for it to be real. An unknown tugging in her chest leaves her bothered.

Several minutes tick by before a text message buzzes her phone in the passenger seat. Unsafe as it is, she sneaks a peak at the screen. Thanks for cleaning off the table; she can practically feel the breath of his sarcasm on the back of her neck. An echoed voice in her head reminds when he first used that tone with her. Again, she reels about the damn blinds and notes that she sees the same color in the clouds. These moments right now are precisely the reason why she and Evan are getting divorced. Stupid fights should not infect every facet of one’s life. She nervously flips the phone so she won’t see any further messages from her husband.

Eleanor finally reaches the edge of the right city and turns onto the right road, the path taking her to the last place she can go without seeing anger in everything seems to be a fairytale. For a second she wonders how she evolved from moderately disinterested to full blown fury during the drive, but then she remembers that real life isn’t just one note of emotions. Wrinkles melt from her forehead and allow her to just admire her surroundings. There’s wet grass and enormous pine trees.

“Are we there yet?” Elijah gurgles through the last mouthful of bacon he’s been stashing underneath his seat. Part of her wants to think he’s food hoarding because it would make more sense. Children as old as him typically can see a marriage fall apart and food hoarding is sometimes a sign of depression. Elijah, though, could just be doing it so that he can get on everyone’s nerves. It would be easier to address if he were doing it for a reason other than to be annoying to everyone around him. Elijah does accomplish that but she hopes that it isn’t his primary reason for making his meals mobile.

The infamous question plagues her mind because, yes, they are almost there. Part of her wants to answer his question. This is the bigger part of her, too. The other part of her that exists wants to lie and keep driving. Eleanor would go so far away from everything that reminds her of her husband; so far that she forgets whom she is and what is happening to her. The moment of weakness lapses, as it always does, because she is mom and she must be there for her kids.

After a few songs run their course on the radio, Elijah repeats the question during the commercial with an emptier mouth. He also dresses his tone with a fresh layer of irritation. She knows she has to answer him, and so she does with a tone easily flatter than the bumpy country roads. They are only five more minutes away, at best, which does excite both kids. They each murmur about television and cell phone reception, better than last time, I hope. Technology is just as addictive as anything else children can get their hands on and she hopes that this summer gives them a new perspective. Eleanor wants the same for herself, too.

Clouds seem to be parting over the lake, which is promising. Her body works on autopilot when she arrives. The car jerks and shakes as she pulls beneath the carport attached to the northeast side of the house. The view of the lake is unsurprisingly motivational because the water twinkles glamorously in the sporadic sunlight. It is more sunlight than she’s seen all day so immediately she’s jealous of – that’s right – water.

The way the house, the lake, the trees are all so natural and comfortable just down the hill from her; Eleanor can only describe being there as slipping back into her own skin. This is where she grew up, after all, and somewhere in her past she left it behind for something else. No, she thinks, for someone else. There is no ‘feeling’ to identify when she closes her eyes because this life is ingrained. Falling back into the old lifestyle will require no command from within because it will emerge plainly.

“I forgot how big the house is…” Her son isn’t even looking at the house. When he should be admiring the two-story home build halfway into the hill his eyes are instead glued to his phone. On the screen is a ridiculous picture of his girlfriend frowning. In reverse of her brother, Emilia is taking pictures of herself next to anything, ready to send them off to the world without any hesitation. Half shouted thoughts from the two become background noise with all of the tweeting birds and bustling squirrels. Eleanor notices all of the dead leaves that haven’t been tended to by anyone for several months and how they are so fragile that they crinkle in the wind.

She encourages the children to go inside and make sure all of the utilities have been turned on, that the appliances are working. It is simple enough that neither of them can mess it up, not even with one hand stuck to their phones. As for Eleanor, she stays behind and leans against the car.

Right before her eyes gusts of air cause the low hanging branches of nearby maples, oaks, and willows to shiver. Ripples from the water bring life to the dull shores decorated by browned seaweed and driftwood. Even though the landscaping seems untamed, the lack of management is quite charming. Eleanor can whip it all together with the help of her kids. Especially now that the skies are clear and the sun finally makes a full appearance. It dismisses the clouds with a vibrant confidence, just the kind she needed to start this summer right.

Eleanor can do this. She can do anything.

“Welcome home,” a familiar voice sounds off somewhere down the hill. Emerging from a neighboring house is an old friend of her father’s, a man who bunked with him during their service in the army. Though nobody has been told why Eleanor and the kids have come for a lengthy visit, they all must have an idea, don’t they? It has to be obvious that they’re really just staying; moving back into the long emptied house.

“Glad to be back.” Her smile for the first time in so many months is genuine. It has all just been too long. Energy courses through Eleanor as ideas for landscaping fill the empty spaces in her mind hurriedly. Welcome home, indeed.


Life Goes On – With or Without You

Opportunities such as this do not come often, especially not for me. I have been climbing the ladder within the English department since I was in my last year of my Master’s degree. I was a part-time personal assistant to the English Department Head. Then I became a part-time professors’ aide. Then I was offered a position to fill in for a professor that took FMLA time, and consequently that professor had to retire. As quickly as I rose, it was still a battle. Convincing my highers-up that I was capable of this job was far from easy. Eventually everyone reached a consensus – the students were receiving a quality education and there was little reason to change that fact.

Now, three years later I am being offered a promotion for English Department Head. Having made quite the impression on Mrs. Mason as her assistant, she has convinced the university board that I would be perfect for the position. I was copied and printed the internal e-mail earlier this afternoon. My favorite part is where she says: Professor Teagan is as passionate, driven, and analytical as you could ever dream.

Beyond work, I have been struggling to please my husband’s desires for children. It has never been that I don’t want children, because I do, but we have found that due to the shape of my uterus that it is nearly impossible to conceive children. In vitro fertilization has been recommended but every time I try to budget for the treatment, well, something comes up.

First it was Deacon’s obnoxious cousin getting thrown in jail. He wanted the bail money from their grandparents. Deacon was not about to let that happen and when they got into an argument about it over the phone, he offered to pay it himself since his cousin was being such a jerk about it. I was against it but before that he allowed me to pay for my sister’s emergency room visit when she broke her ankle landscaping. I was in no place to complain. As the result, things have become extremely tense.

But this pay raise will fix everything.

Sure we will have to wait at least six more months before we could consider the in vitro procedure but it is progress. It is exactly the change that we need!

Walking through the front door is a step closer to victory. Carrying my briefcase to the kitchen table while I exude confidence with the clunk of my low heels on the redwood floors. I can hear pans clamoring around in the kitchen as well as my husband talking lowly. Since it is late evening I assume that it is his mother.

“I can’t talk right now. She’s going to be home any minute now.”

Well… that’s not how he normally talks to his mother…

…Perhaps he’s trying to surprise me with something?

“She’s already home!” I announce pleasantly, a singsong voice replacing my usually professional and bland tone. My students describe me as posh, proper, or pristine with a splash of exuberance, energy, and enthusiasm. My love for alliteration is somewhat sickening but I think secretly all English professors have a slight obsession with it as a literary tool. Refocusing, I slide out of my blazer as my husband rushes off of his cell phone. Deacon shoves it deep into his pocket with an awkward expression that I hope to remedy; “I hope you’re ready for some big news!”

Deacon does not seem as excited as he should be, considering that I’m grinning from ear-to-ear. Refusing to feel defeated by his worn expression I simply usher him back to the dining room to sit him down. Quickly reminding him about some of our financial decisions in the past, I am hoping that I’ve opened the conversation successfully for maximum joy.

At the end of everything, while I am pulling out the e-mail, I catch sight of Deacon rubbing his palms on the side of his shirt. Having been together for thirteen years I know that this can only mean one thing. He has a secret. It is not a good secret either. My mind races as I drop the case top down with a clang. By the time I make it into a chair as well, it seems as though Deacon has found his voice.

Although, when he speaks I’m not sure that I want to hear him now; “I have been seeing someone else and she’s pregnant.”

I have been seeing someone else; this is enough to deflate any pair of lungs, or shrivel any heart. Still, even further than that, he says more; and she’s pregnant. It scrambles my brain. It closes my mouth. It rips at my stomach.

If I had to choose one word to describe how I feel right now I would choose ‘emaciated.’ Maybe it should be ‘surprised’ but in a way… how could I be? Some people are completely shocked when they learn of cheating partners and unfaithful spouses. Somehow I cannot shake the possibility that many of them claim surprise because knows a word for expectantly horrified. I remember once when I was in college I was told to avoid watching a viral video circulating online. It was supposedly gruesome, something about Pain Olympics. Needless to say, I watched it. I expected the worst but I was still horrified.

That is how I feel after the punctures of his words collapse my lungs. It discomforts me that I can help a young woman overcome her breakup but I cannot even save my own marriage. There will, of course, be no saving it at this point, either. If he had simply had an affair I may have been able to overcome the suffering of that reality. A pregnant mistress is a completely different adventure altogether.

“If it even matters… I got a promotion and it comes with tenure.” At this point I’ve decided to refuse crying in front of him. Knowing how he has hurt me is no longer a privilege that he is extended. My love for him is no less but my respect is absent. Hearing him admit that he’s been seeing someone, and having sex with her regularly enough to ensure her pregnancy is with him… Beyond that, how many women know that they are pregnant immediately? My brain immediately starts reeling on how this must have been something that’s happened several times over at least three to six weeks. Maybe I will have the courage to ask him more about it when we have dinner tomorrow, but right now I want to lie down and cry.

Half way up the stairs I decide to call my aide and instruct her to cover my first class the following morning. Amaya, whom is a bright young woman, doesn’t ask me any questions when I speak to her. Hopefully she detects the pain in my voice and knows that it is essential to me on a personal level. Once I am in the bedroom I lock the door and throw myself in the decorative pillows, still clad in suit and pantyhose, and I just sob.

Snot goes everywhere. Tears are so prevalent that I literally smell salt. My thoughts range from angry replies to his choices that I can enact in the morning to which attorney would be best for ensuring this divorce is quick and easy. At times my sadness lifts momentarily enough for me to start listing problems that we are bound to face, such as whom keeps the house and how to handle split financial investments. When I panic, when I am devastated, or when I fail, I just start listing. The classic “Taylor’s To Tackle” lists, as my parents call them. Honestly, I even name my syllabi “Professor Taylor Teagan’s to Tackle Itinerary.” It is one of the things my students like most on their first day. They know in the sea of serious lectures I am still playful.

Thinking about this gives me enough strength to start throwing messy pillows and sheets off of the bed. Ready to just pretend the entire day has not happened, I get onto my feet and unlock the door. Easily I slip out of my work clothes and crawl into bed in my boring nude bra and panties.

Boring. I’m boring and I can’t breed.

I would prefer to cry some more but instead I feel my body commanding me to sleep.

Today my face hurts. My arms hurt. My gut hurts. As an English professor I should be able to think of more descriptive ways to explain how awful the pain is but repetition has it’s place in literature too. Instead of concocting twelve different words synonymous with ‘hurt’ I prefer repeating that I ‘hurt’ because everyone knows what that word means. Nobody has to try to understand how terrible the pain is because if I keep saying it then it keeps hurting. Eventually an outside party will develop empathy. Everyone needs a little bit of empathy in his or her life.

Moving past personal suffering I manage to get downstairs and make breakfast. Deacon is waiting for me there in the same spot he sat last night when he shattered everything I thought was mine. His clothes are different so I know he’s come into the bedroom and changed in the night, but his eyes are still just as nervous as they were yesterday. Deacon does not know what to expect from me because I never addressed what he shared last night.

Even now as I push the second serving of the scrambled eggs, sausage, and bagels to him – nothing pushes past my teeth. My desire to speak is nonexistent and thankfully today my body agrees with my wishes. Without so much as a clue as to how to approach me, I find that Deacon chooses to not try. Lackluster communication is clearly the weakness in our marriage. More likely than not it is also the fault line that separated us enough that an affair became an acceptable option.

I always tell my students that failure is hard for good professors because if the student doesn’t excel then the teaching was not successful. It takes two in order to succeed in all types of relationships, from personal to professional, and a failing student is a failing teacher. Although I have this on my mind – the urge to ask Deacon what it is that I’ve done wrong takes more effort than getting out of bed, or what going to work will require. Thankfully, I manage. Finishing breakfast in silence I calmly take my empty dishes to the sink.

Deacon doesn’t follow me, but he shouts at me asking if I am still going to work. Wit doesn’t escape me, and neither does bitterness in his moment. Once I reach the front door I swipe my purse and an informal jacket from the coat hanger; “I will not allow your infidelity to taint anything else in my life. Of course I’m going to work today!” Presumably he has taken the day off to tend to these personal matters, to determine how we are going to proceed. Unfortunately, in his selfish mindset he has already made those choices. The only matters remaining are the consequences. Deep inside of me I am just hoping that when I get home that he’s packed his bags and most prized possessions and left.

Upon arrival to my office I find that my aide is sitting in the lobby with Thalia. Having found out about my husband’s poor choices nearly forced out the memory of our conversation over dinner. Yesterday she was inexplicably tired. I am willing to assume that I look much as she did then now, in my plain black suit and darkened eyes.

Thalia is much improved now, though. Today her hair is twisted into an odd sort of braid and she wears a beautiful spring dress. It is cerulean and reminds me a tiny bit of a Disney princess. As soon as she sees me walk through the door she jumps onto her feet and asks if she may hug me in appreciation for my wisdom.

I figure what the hell because, damn it, I need a hug.

“Thank you so much, Professor Teagan. I needed to hear everything you said last night. I am so much more confident today because of you. Just thank you so much!” Happiness is a filter. It allows the individual to perceive everything with positivity. Of all the ways that someone can view the world, optimistically is without question the best option. It offers prime enjoyment in life. Thalia has found the bliss of experiencing the world once again in a positive fashion. Before long she is scampering away with my praise once more for her academic dedication. Amaya softly reminds me that I deserve everything I have worked for, including the love of my students. I am glad when she allows me to go into my office without another word.

Truthfully, I do not need to be reassured any further. When trying to be successful I never once stood down and waited for things to be handed to me. Set backs were never end-all-be-all events. No, I had to work hard every day to be offered this position as a Department Head. Regardless of any emergency with which I am face I am going to keep working – making an impact on everyone and everything around me. There may be nothing left in me to offer Deacon but I have plenty to give this university.

This job is my true love and I feel good about it.