The toy phone at the thrift store has a rotary dial. The metal handset cools my palm. “Hi Santa, I’ve been very good, yes. What do I want for Christmas?” I’m stuck, can’t think of anything. My husband watches, smiles, and waits. I set the receiver down in its cradle. “What a crank.” He laughs, points to a ceramic Santa with pink cheeks and painted eyelashes. “He’s a celebrity, after all. What’d you expect?” I replay that phone call as we flip through boxes of vinyl records and finger the costume jewelry, gaudy in the light. I hear the silence on the end of the line, roll that word, want, around in my mouth like a lozenge that never gets smaller. One I’ll eventually need to swallow or spit out. We drive home through the slush with two ceramic zebras in the backseat, salt and pepper shakers, and I think maybe want is as simple as seeing something shiny and small, unessential really, and taking that thing for yourself.
Hearts grow in darkness like carrots, pushing into the ground. These winter days hold few moments of brightness as the sun arcs behind the pine trees, flares, and falls early. We’re left with nights long and murky as childhood, as drowning. I walk the dog with a flashlight—ice on the road gleams under its cold white glow.
A foot of snow’s expected overnight, but for now the sky is still and dark. We’re standing in the kitchen with the lights off, both of us sad for the same reason. You want more, and I feel like we already have too much. You want the noise of the crowd—I crave the quiet of a cedar grove. When you say there are other versions of me in faraway cities I haven’t yet met, what I hear is who I am now isn’t enough for you. You want adventure, not the stillness I seek. You want anonymity and I long for family. We both want love, and for the anxious ache in our stomachs to go away. We take our sleeping pills and climb the stairs, touching in the way people do sometimes, before they say goodbye.
The rain freezes as it hits the windshield, wiper blades covered in ice. The defrost is on full blast and we both sweat, tug at our collars. It’s Christmas Eve and we head north. Horses and cows in the fields, snow up to their knees, a couple of cars in the ditch. I get us talking about our marriage, your preference for multiple partners. “This may sound stupid, but I thought it’d just be a phase. I thought you’d try it out for a while and choose me.” “I have,” you say, meaning we’re still together, “but I’m thinking more about compatibility. As in, are we compatible?” The fact that you have to ask this, say this out loud, tells me your answer. We pull into our hometown in silence, past the hardware store, the motel with the indoor pool, the gas station we stole beer from as teenagers. The roads are rutted and slick. Just a few more miles to go before we reach the house in the cedar grove with the German Shepherd out front, wood smoke, Christmas tree lit on the deck, cases of cold beer on the porch. Just a few more miles before we can escape this car, smile whether we feel like it or not, both of us with drinks in our hands as relatives wrap their arms around our shoulders, ask how we’ve been, and top off our glasses with sweet-smelling wine. Only a few miles until we can wipe the sweat from our foreheads, until we can breathe.
You tell me about another man who said I’m beautiful. Not just beautiful, but frighteningly so. The kind of beautiful that shouldn’t exist, one that sparks envy and anger, and I blush. I’m ashamed of how much I desire to be this, the most beautiful person someone has ever seen. “What did you tell him?” I ask. “I told him I couldn’t agree more.” you say.
You leave the empty whiskey bottle on the counter for weeks as proof you don’t need anything more than a few beers at bedtime. But I’ve seen the fifths stashed in the basement, your office, the trunk of your car. Just yesterday you stopped at the gas station and ran two purchases on the card—one for gas, another for booze. Listen, I want to say, I don’t believe in God either. So many ways to make the soul sing, and I can’t fall asleep without a pill. But honey, don’t you want to be awake when everything we have burns?
The angels are angry this morning. We forget to put our dirty cereal bowls in the dishwasher, read the news instead of poetry, choose silence over classical music or 2000s R&B as we brush our teeth, dress in black. But right before we leave the house, we kiss each other—my hands on either side of your face, your arms around my waist. The kiss lasts only a second or two, but it’s enough for the angels to forgive us as we drive off in different directions.
It’s as simple as washing your black turtleneck for a meeting with the finance board, as difficult as holding the handle of whiskey in Costco, considering its heft. Knowing you’ll go through it in a few days but understanding it will help you stop picturing your grandpa’s face, blind and cavernous, mauled by a .22 with his own hand. It’s me waving from the kitchen window as you back out of the driveway, knowing you’ll be happier where you’re going than here in this snow-laden house that’s quiet as the smoke rising from a neighbor’s chimney into the pale gold morning. Drive safe, I pray once you’ve turned the corner. Move cautiously through this world where nothing lasts.
Janelle Cordero is an interdisciplinary artist and educator living in Spokane, WA. Her writing has been published in dozens of literary journals, including Harpur Palate, Hobart and North Dakota Quarterly, while her paintings have been featured in venues throughout the Pacific Northwest. Janelle is the author of four books of poetry: Impossible Years (V.A. Press, 2022), Many Types of Wildflowers (V.A. Press, 2020), Woke to Birds (V.A. Press, 2019) and Two Cups of Tomatoes (P.W.P. Press, 2015). Stay connected with Janelle’s work at www.janellecordero.com and follow her on Instagram @janelle_v_cordero.
© Variant Literature Inc 2023