BREAKING UP: a short story
While the holidays are happy for most, they can also bring a load of dispair into people's lives. This short story is adapted from my first novel, A Brief Affair. Any thoughts, whether they be brickbats or bouquets, will be appreicated.
by Bill Fullerton
Weak light from a leaden sky revealed a scattering of forlorn leaves clinging to the dark, wet limbs of trees bordering the deserted playground and half-empty parking lot. Cold, misty rain and swirling winds hastened the inevitable outcome of this doomed struggle.
A typical winter day in New York, thought Gwen Kaplan, as she took in the scene from inside her snug bedroom. To her, it seemed beautiful. The nasty weather had provided a great excuse to spend the entire day inside, loafing, snacking, and reading.
Her family used the holidays to make extensive, and exhausting, visits with relatives on both sides of her large, extended, family. Throw in a few special functions such as a bar mitzvah or wedding, and it could mean a very active, if exclusive, social calendar.
And for the last four years, there’d been Johnny. She touched her engagement ring and thought about the man she planned to marry. Somehow, he’d managed to get off work almost every day during her break. That meant they’d been together most afternoons and, on those rare occasions when she wasn't at some family function, also in the evenings.
To her relief, as New Year approached, the family’s social life slowed. Those relatives not exhausted were either visiting out-of-town relatives or on vacation. Even Johnny wasn’t around. His mother had dragooned him into taking her to a family gathering in Boston. With her own mother and sister out checking on the after Christmas/Hanukah sales and her father at work, Gwen now savored the rare luxury of having the entire apartment to herself.
She lay propped up in bed with the hardback copy of Love Story Mark Cahill gave her at their strained parting. That tense scene had convinced her to stop thinking about the big, flirtatious southerner and concentrate all her attention on Johnny. After all, he was her fiancé, the man she had always wanted to marry, wasn’t he?
Alone for the first time since coming home from school meant she didn't have to get dressed up or put on makeup or answer the phone. But it just kept ringing. At first she tried to ignore the shrill sound but gave up. Irritation at the persistent noise and curiosity about the callers identity compelled her to answer.
It was Mandy Finkelstein. Shy, slim, quietly pretty Mandy had been her best friend since they sat together in second grade at PS 75. Mandy's soft voice seemed even quieter and more hesitant than usual. "Uh, Gwen. I was wondering if could come over? There's, well, there's something I really need to tell you."
Gwen did not want company. But Mandy was her best friend. And judging from the quiver in her voice, she had a problem. With no hesitation, Gwen said she'd love company. After hanging up, she consoled herself over the loss of today’s solitude with the thought that at least she didn’t have to get dressed and put on makeup.
When Mandy arrived, Gwen took her wet raincoat and hung it in the bathroom to dry. They hugged and retreated down the hall to the sanctuary of Gwen's room. Although they had the apartment to themselves, that’s where they’d always felt comfortable and safe.
The shy Mandy seemed reluctant to bring up whatever bothered her. Gwen sat beside her friend on the unmade bed and patiently endured a few minutes of idle small talk. From years of experience, she knew that sooner or later, Mandy would get to the subject. And judging by Mandy’s body language, it would be sooner, not later.
Gwen had a hunch all this would have something to do with Arnie Greenblatz, Mandy's big, wisecracking boyfriend. About twice a year Mandy and Arnie got into a big fight which sometimes took weeks to patch up.
Before Gwen could decide if it were time for another squabble, Mandy cleared her throat. "Gwen.” There was a moment of uncertainty, then Mandy took a deep breath and hurried on. "Oh, Gwen, it's Johnny, he's become a pusher."
With those few words, the pattern of Gwen's life, the long cherished, carefully thought out plans she had devised for her future, ceased to exist. For a long, painful moment, she just stared at Mandy, her mind unable, unwilling to accept what she’d heard, much less its implications.
Mandy began presenting her evidence. "According to Arnie, the word’s out in the neighborhood that Johnny is the person to contact for marijuana and maybe, he’s not sure, other stuff.”
She paused to sniffle, then continued. "I couldn't believe it, not at first. I thought Arnie was trying to pull one of his bad jokes. You know, get Johnny in trouble. But I mentioned it to Shirley and she said Arnie was right. So did some other people who know Johnny.
"That's all I know, except that I don't think he's got a real job." Tears began rolling down Mandy’s cheeks. "What I mean is, with my college practically around the block, sometimes I come home, you know, between classes. Well, it seems like every time I do, I see Johnny hanging around the candy store or pool hall."
There was a sick feeling in the pit of Gwen's stomach. She had no doubt that Arnie and Mandy and Shirley and all the others were right. For weeks she’d ignored the changes in Johnny. Now they all added up: the money and new clothes, always getting off work, his sudden burst of self-confidence, and the evasiveness about his job.
Johnny had become a pusher. She wondered how long he’d been spending money on her that came from dealing dope? Whatever the answer, there was no question about what she now had to do.
Like most people her age, Gwen had no moral objections to smoking grass. What she did object to was the felony conviction that still went with the simple possession of marijuana in New York. As she often reminded Johnny, such a conviction could bar her from ever becoming a registered nurse.
Drugs had always been a non-negotiable issue with Gwen. From the very beginning, she'd made it clear that if Johnny ever started doing dope, they were through. Over the years they’d attended a few parties where people were smoking pot. And while she never insisted on leaving, it always made her nervous.
The bottom line had been a simple one. She wanted to be a nurse, and wouldn’t let anything as trivial as smoking dope keep her from reaching that goal.
Unable to move, she sat in stunned silence, trying to compose her thoughts. She briefly thought about their past, and about what might have been their future. While they had never openly discussed the subject, both knew each had three conditions to meet if their relationship was to last. Her tasks were to provide Johnny with a steady supply of love, attention, and ego gratification. For the last couple of years, that had included sex. His part of the bargain had been to get and keep a steady job, massage her low self-esteem, and stay away from dope.
Well this crap isn't helping my self-esteem one damn bit, she thought in a sudden burst of bitter self-pity. And he sure as hell has broken the other two conditions.
Her anger quickly dissolved into anguish. As the scope of her loss began to register, she emitted a half sob, half moan. After all the years and all the time they had spent together, it was over—just like that. All those dreams and plans about marrying Johnny and moving into an apartment near her folks and working in a local hospital and raising a family, were over, forever.
This time there would be no breaking up to make up in a few weeks. She and Johnny were history. For four years she’d walked toward her future, secure in the knowledge that he would be by her side. Now they were standing on opposites ends of a burning bridge. From this moment on, she'd be walking alone into a future that had become both unknown and unpredictable.
Through her own tear-filled eyes, Gwen noticed Mandy was also crying. Somehow it made her feel better knowing her old friend was sharing her grief. "Mandy, you look about as bad as I feel. Thanks for telling me the truth and for crying with me.”
They clung to one another and cried, until Gwen reached toward her nightstand and grabbed a handful of tissues. "As soon as I can stop all this crying, I've got a phone call to make. You probably don't want to hear what I'm going to say. So if you don't mind, why don’t you go on out to the kitchen and fix us a couple of sodas? Watch TV or whatever. Once I'm through, I'll need your help figuring out how to endure the rest of this happy holiday season."
Mandy nodded her understanding and left the room. After drying her eyes, Gwen reached for her notebook with the Boston number where Johnny and his mother were visiting family. With a trembling finger, she dialed zero, and gave the long distance operator the number. A minute later, a familiar male voice came on the line. Struggling to overcome the tremor in her voice, Gwen began, "Johnny, this isn't easy for me to say, but...."
When it ended, she made her way to the living room. Mandy stood staring out the big window, waiting with two glasses of cola. Gwen went into the kitchen, reached under the sink and pulled out a half-empty bottle of blended whiskey. Without asking, she poured a generous shot into both glasses.
"Mandy, did you ever hear Frank Sinatra sing, “One For My Baby?”“ Not waiting for her friend to answer, she continued. "My father loves Sinatra and that's his favorite. I must have heard it a thousand times. But you know, today's the first time I've understood how crappy the guy in that song must feel. Of course, we're drinking my friend to the end of a very long, four-year, episode. Cheers."
Mandy sniffled again and sipped at her drink. Gwen took a big gulp, then choked and almost spilled it on the carpet. The two friends looked at one another, and began to giggle.
Their laughter soon reverted to tears as they grieved for the loss of love and innocence and dreams. When they cried themselves out, Gwen put away the bottle while Mandy poured their unfinished drinks down the kitchen sink and washed the glasses.
"Mandy, if you don't mind, I could use your help. I want to go ahead and take his stuff back today," said Gwen, avoiding saying the name, Johnny.
They found a cardboard box and filled it with photos, presents, and other mementos. Once finished, Gwen tugged off her engagement ring and laid it next to the ankle bracelet Johnny had given her. That done, she closed the box.
Years ago, Johnny's mother had given Gwen a key to their apartment. Whenever the DeAngelo’s were out of town, she would go feed the goldfish and water the plants. Now as she entered the small, familiar apartment, Gwen knew this would be the last time.
She paused, then handed the box to Mandy. "Would you mind taking this to his room? It’s the third door on the right down the hall. I don't think I could, you know, face going in there."
When Mandy returned, Gwen was feeding the fish. "See that big one there?" She pointed to a robust-looking specimen moving sedately near the top of the aquarium. "That's Buster. He's my favorite."
In silence they watched the feeding fish. When Gwen put their food away for the last time, she began to cry. "I'm going to miss Buster and all the other fish. And I'll miss Mrs. DeAngelo, too. She was always so sweet to me. But you know, after what her son did, I wonder if I’m going miss these fish, and going steady, more than I'll miss him."
After one long last look around, she followed Mandy outside, re-locked the apartment door, dropped the key into the DeAngelo's mailbox, and left the building. Neither spoke as they walked back toward Gwen's building. Their moods were mirrored by the gloomy afternoon skies.
At the entrance to Gwen’s apartment, Mandy said she had to get home. “I didn’t want you to have to walk all the way back by yourself. But my folks expect me to go with them to visit my grandfather.”
"I understand. Believe me, I understand," said Gwen, with a thin smile. "I must have visited every relative on both sides of my family at least twice over the last couple of weeks."
The two old friends hugged. "Mandy, thanks again for telling me the truth about, you know, everything. It hurt, but I needed to know. Most of all, thanks for being my friend."
Much to Gwen’s relief, she found the apartment empty. She'd have to face her family soon enough. Right now, she just wanted to hide and not talk to anyone, especially her mother.
Once inside her room, Gwen closed the door and walked across to her bed. Not bothering to turn on a light, she sat down and stared out the rain streaked casement window into the dreary, slate-gray, sky. She noticed the vacant spot on her left ring finger, fought back a sob, and struggled to sort out her emotions.
What now? What was Gwen Kaplan, student nurse, supposed to do now? She still wanted to be a nurse, but what about after graduation? For the last four years, she’d known all the answers. Now she knew nothing.
A wave of intense despair overwhelmed her. With a sob, she fell back on the bed. Tears once again filled her eyes. She rolled over, clutched at her pillow, and felt the tip of something poking her side. Buried among the disheveled sheets, she discovered the hardback book she had been reading when Mandy called.
"Love Story, boy is that ironic, or what?" She checked her initial impulse to toss the book aside and curl up under her blanket. Instead, she hesitated, then opened the book's front cover.
In the fading light from the rain streaked window, Gwen could just make out the inscription. "Dear Gwen, Because of you, my time in New York has been a Love-ly Story. Thanks for becoming a very important part of my life. With love, Mark."
For some time, she sat in the growing dark, contemplating what she'd just read. Then she reached out in the gloom, turned on her lamp and re-read the message. After reading it two more times, she closed the book and, with great care, set it on her nightstand.
She got out of bed, walked to the bathroom and washed her tear-streaked face. After getting a glass of water from the kitchen, she returned to her room, peeled off her damp clothes and tossed them in the general direction of an overflowing hamper. After slipping on new panties, she went to the closet, pulled out her battered suitcase, and rummaged around inside until she located a large, long-sleeve, shirt.
After a half-hearted try at shoving the suitcase back into the closet, she gave up and left most of it sticking out the door. With the heavy, starched shirt pressed firmly against her bare breasts, she walked back to her bed.
She struggled with the buttons, then forced her arms through the stiff sleeves. With that accomplished, she pulled the hard fabric up over her shoulders and redid the buttons.
What she saw in the long dressing mirror pleased her. The color worked well with her skin and eyes while the shirt's mid-thing length accented her legs.
She hadn’t worn the shirt before, not wanting to answer questions about its origin and worried the thick, starched fabric might chafe and scratch her skin. But the well-worn material seemed to mold itself to the contours of her body. It gave her an unexpected sense of security and belonging.
Her new nightshirt was a regulation, olive drab, military fatigue shirt with colorful patches on each shoulder. In front were two pockets with flaps secured by big, green buttons. Above one pocket was a strip of cloth with dark letters that read, US ARMY. Above the other pocket, another cloth strip bore a single word, CAHILL.
She picked up the book she’d been reading earlier that afternoon. It had been given to her by the same man who gave her the shirt she now wore, Mark Cahill.
He’d be back in two weeks. Until then, she had his book and his shirt. The book felt at home in her hands. The shirt seemed to belong on her body. Who knows, thought Gwen as she snuggled under her covers, maybe it does.