CAMERON M. BURSON
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS
The door that separates them is not extraordinary. A few inches thick at most—dingy and unremarkable, a plastic Christmas wreath draped below the peephole—and yet Janet lingers in front of it, refusing to knock, refusing to acknowledge the wreath or the lure of its celebratory promise. Meanwhile, mounds of melted snow snake towards the nearest drain; somewhere a child laughs. Janet shivers and bangs on the door, suddenly desperate to get inside.
Inside, David jerks his fingers away from the dimpled surface of his jaundiced, cigarette smoke-stained walls, walls that are not yet cluttered by his Ansel Adams prints, which, he hopes, will lend an air of sophistication to the shabby, second-hand furniture he has yet to buy. “Door’s open!”
The door remains shut. Outside, Janet, fingers wound around the doorknob, hesitates. Several years from now, Janet will forget this—in her memory she strides in and David seems diminished, the ceiling of his apartment too tall, the walls too far apart. Several hours from now, David will pace in front of the door and wonder why he didn’t open it himself.
“Coming in?” David calls.
Janet slips quietly into the apartment, tugs at her gloves, anything to avoid eye contact, until David’s vivid blue button-up catches her eye. How can he look so comfortable in such a glaringly happy color, she wonders, as if their break-up were something to celebrate, as if the scattered remains of their relationship weren’t in the backseat of her car—a box full of clothes he’d left in her dryer, books he’d lent her, the bed sheets he’d bought after they’d defiled her own—a box she should have brought inside with her, but hadn’t? Janet takes a look around to distract herself, considers asking about the lack of furniture, but knows that David will get upset no matter how she phrases the question—her intent so mangled that they’d spend hours dissecting what it’d taken seconds to say.
David nods her towards the other room. Once there, Janet leans back against a wall and slides down until her head is practically between her knees, where it stays. David joins her.
“Thanks.” Janet whispers.
“For sitting there.”
David grunts. It irritates him to know that Janet still cares about where he sits. Her words—I don’t like it when you sit facing me, it always feels like you’re trying to attack me when we talk—come rushing back. Suddenly it’s as if every decision he’s made—getting his own place, taking his time when returning Janet’s calls over the last few days, the subsequent split he’d lobbied for from the safety of his cellphone—makes total sense.
“Any problems finding the place?” David asks.
The question, the tone, is sterile. Detached. Janet starts to cry, though quietly, her shoulders bobbing, while David debates whether he will put his bed against the wall they are sitting against, or the far one.
“That’s it, then.” Janet says finally, tilting her head back so the tears don’t fall as easily. She’s worried about her make-up smearing, worried that if anyone spots her before she has a chance to freshen up she’ll have to explain, to summarize what happened—the complexities of her relationship rendered flat and one-dimensional, a blurry snapshot devoid of context.
“I—” David begins.
“It doesn’t matter.” Janet glares at him. “You don’t care, I get it. You’ve been this way for weeks, ever since you met my parents.”
David fights the urge to defend himself, to explain. How could she know what it was like to talk to her father, a wealthy entrepreneur whose vocabulary included words David had never used, adjectives like “lake” house and “fine” wine, a man David felt compelled to impress with things he’d heard smarter people say? And then there was Janet’s mother, a woman so unlike her husband in temperament and pedigree that seeing them together sometimes reminded David of watching a father dote on his daughter. It had been she who, when David got Janet pregnant only two weeks into their budding relationship, called to say she was proud of David for sticking around—even though they both knew Janet didn’t plan to keep it. As if that were something to be proud of.
“I just don’t know why you couldn’t be more…” Janet trails off.
“More what? Like your father? Actually, I don’t, I don’t want to know.” David waves her comment away.
“David, we can’t break up.”
“David, look, you’re the only one who knows. The only one I can talk to about it…” Janet drifts off. What she can’t admit, even to herself, is that her greatest fear isn’t that she’ll have no one to talk to about the abortion; it’s that one day she may have to reveal what happened to someone else, that she may have to justify her choice to someone who wasn’t there, someone who won’t understand.
“You’re being ridiculous,” David says. “You can always talk to me about that stuff.”
That stuff. The thing. Anything to avoid thinking about that yawning iron gate, the smell of bleach and antiseptic stronger than any hospital—no different, really, than taking an alternate route on his way home from work every day to avoid the Pro-Life billboard that looms over the highway, convinced he’ll never be able to read the inspired words of some evangelist—I Could Smile Before I Was Born—without reflecting on the fleeting nature of smiles.
“But I don’t know that. This way, if we’re together, I can be sure.” Janet knows the price of this confession. Still, she doesn’t take it back. What she wants, more than anything, is for David to be someone else, someone she can depend on, someone who will love her unconditionally, the way she so infrequently loves herself.
“That’s not good enough,” David says.
Janet shimmies up the wall. “I’m getting out of this miserable shit hole.”
“So that’s it, then.”
David waits until the door slams shut to go to the window, his legs wobbly and half-asleep. Exhaust billows from the tailpipe of Janet’s car. Behind the glass, Janet sobs into the shirt he wore on their third date—the first night they slept together—the night Janet confessed she’d never slept with someone outside a relationship. David remembers how she slipped on her underwear during the ensuing silence, took hold of her jeans, the contours of her naked back lit up from the ambient light streaming in from her bedroom window, how he’d retrieved his shirt and offered it to her, saying, “Here. Put this on and come back to bed.” How she held her breath as she cuddled up beside him, her muscles tensed as if expecting a blow. How he’d clutched her a little tighter, confident in that moment that he would never, ever hurt her.
A few minutes later, Janet’s car is nowhere to be seen, but David continues staring out the window anyway. In the park across the street, two children are preparing to sled down a snow-covered slope. Bundled as they are, their heads covered in thick woolen caps, David can’t tell whether they are boys or girls or both—only that they seem happy despite the cold, despite the waning light, despite each other. He glances at his door. A few inches thick at most—just enough to separate him from them.
Cameron M. Burson is a born and raised gypsy, a former model and member of the military, and a graduate of the University of St. Louis-Missouri's MFA program. A frequent traveler, he currently resides in Kansas, where he plans to complete his teaching license.