Before we were married, there was a time when I was having panic attacks and couldn’t get out of bed and he had to pick out my clothes. He said, We can’t do this much longer. Let’s just quit the fucking PhD. My therapist asked, What would you choose? The PhD or him? No question, I said. Him. I can’t lose him. But sometimes I did.
Of course, we lost the keys. The two fob auto-clicker thingamajigs that came with the Scion. He lost one, and I lost the other. Though really the one that I lost, our apartment seemed to swallow whole. I stopped home to grab something. Something upstairs. A book? A sweater? Ballet shoes? I set the key on the counter. And when I came back to run out the door, it had disappeared. Maybe the cat knocked it down the grate and into the furnace. I checked my pockets. The driveway. The nooks along the floor. I thought I’d find it when we packed the apartment to move away. We entered Maine fob-less. From then on, we just inserted a key in the door.
I went to that three-story antique shop in Ellsworth the other day with the man I’ve been dating almost a year. You know the shop, the one with all the panes of glass out front and something made of glass showing through in each pane. We were looking for a bench to go with the piano my office-neighbor gave me. We wandered to different ends of the store, and I found myself in a room with stacking coffee tables and hobnail lamps and Bakelite phones. A room like the one where we found the cowboy lamp for our cowboy poet friend and his baby. I’d been in that room with you in Ellsworth and Columbus and Cincinnati and Traverse City and Anchorage and Toledo and Maumee. I spotted a bench in the corner and sensed you there in the next room, looking through a rack of snap button shirts, and for a moment I almost called out your name.
These days, my life usually feels like my life. And I forget it is different than what it was for all those years. But in those seconds when I turn to find you and you are gone, something claws at my throat, and for a moment I panic because if you are not in the next room looking for a decades old shirt to robe your ribs to keep them in place around intestines and heart and lungs, then maybe the toy organ no longer buzzes and hums when you press its keys and maybe the books on the shelf have dissolved their own stories, too, and maybe all the keys to all the doors have disappeared down holes in the grate, knocked by the soft paw of a cat that will always wait in the window of a house that has mislaid its ghost.
Tessa Mellas received the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection Lungs Full of Noise. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches writing at the University of Maine at Machias, a college so far east it is the first in the nation each morning to see the sun. Figure skater, vermicomposter, vegan and tender of a fierce feline twosome, she relates to soil and snow.