June 5, 2008
By Brett Chamberlin, Durham, NH

The walls of the room are a taupe color, which perhaps once matched someone’s meticulously selected furniture and ornaments. Now that the space is barren of furnishings except the mattress in the corner and the circular table in the center of the room, there is nothing for the walls to compliment or accent, making the area dull and sad. Small, darker rectangular patches survive in a few places around the room, ghosts of art or shelves which were once hung with care. Now the only interruption of the wall’s vertical desert landscape is a phone of yellowing plastic, its cord a knotted tangle. The cord is absurdly long, so that the loop at the bottom rests upon the floor, which is brown tile that curls conspicuously where it meets the wall.

A man sits at the edge of the table, hunched down so that his face is within inches of the textbook he is reading. He has dark hair which is slightly too long, but is still gelled into a business-like style. Strands of bangs are falling into his eyes. His hair is ruffled; pushed to the side by his comb in the morning, pulled down by gravity, and dragged back by his hand every few minutes. Though he is clean shaven, there are bags beneath his red eyes, making him look older than the mid-twenties that the rest of his countenance suggests. He wears a sleeveless white shirt, which is still tucked in to the front of his black slacks. Both articles are clean, but not crisp or bright; he has perhaps worn them one or two other times since washing them.

The table’s surface is completely hidden by a great many textbooks and binders.
Though a salt and pepper shaker appear to have been discarded under the table, an ashtray seems to have survived. It rests on top of a stack of four or five obtuse textbooks, which bear titles like “Law and Justice” and “The American Penal System of the Early 20th Century”. The man is no longer smoking (not for lack of desire but rather of cigarettes), but the plastic dish into which he has thrust the butts still exudes a deep stench of smoke. The only sound is a faint buzz, perhaps coming from a shoddy stereo or faulty electrical wiring.

The phone rings, and the man looks at it, obviously annoyed for having been interrupted during his studies. He leans back in his chair, coming dangerously close to tipping in his effort to reach the handset. He holds it up to his ear and queries, “Hello?”

A woman’s voice, shy and quiet, asks, “Hi, is this…yes, I know your voice. It’s still the same; still sad, like a cloud can’t rain.”

“Still a poet, are you?” replies the man, and his voice sounds dangerous and sharp.

“How have you been?”

“Fine without hearing from you.”

“I’m doing well, too.”

“I didn’t ask,” says the man flatly.

“I took note of that,” says the other voice, trying to match the man’s dispassion but falling short.

There is a short silence, until the man asks bitterly, “What is it that you wanted?”

There is another thick silence, until the woman says with deep sadness and regret, “Does it really have to be like this?”

“You broke my heart, don’t you get it?” The man replies immediately, as if releasing a dam. His voice is loud and fast, and the anger is now hidden by passion and woe. “I fenced off that void in my soul so I never have to look at it again, and I don’t need you jumping around in my head saying, ‘look, it’s still here! Feel it!’”

“I called to say I’m sorry,” the woman said halfheartedly.

“I wish that mattered anymore.”

“Apologies aren’t just for the victim, you know. I need this too; I need to know that I can live without all the hurt that I gave you echoing back and slapping me on the face when there’s a quiet moment and I start to think about the past.”

The man responded with a delicate wickedness, “I wake up as a solid wall because I know that the harder and stronger I am, the more hurt will echo back to hit you.”

The man could hear the woman’s breath leave her in a desperate rush, but she was able to choke, “I can’t live this.”

There was a shuddered gasp, then a click, and the man was left alone with the buzz once more.

It rained that night, and the man soaked indifferently as he sat on the front steps of his building and cried. The rain and tears washed over his tangled face, wrenched by the guilt of his earlier torturous words. He cried quietly and almost motionlessly, hanging forward over his knees like a dark cloud hanging low in the sky. He shed tears, draining his guilt and regret into the gutter and pleading with himself for forgiveness.

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