Relationship Saving Time

Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, November 9, 2009

2:10 AM, Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ralph had fallen asleep on his living room couch, some late night movie playing on the TV across from him, his right arm lying in a pile of popcorn from the bowl he’d knocked over when he passed out. In retrospect, he should have never put his feet up on the coffee table. At the end of a long, stressful day, nothing put him to sleep faster. The sound of a gentle rain falling on the fire escape outside his apartment window hadn’t made staying awake any easier.

“Buddy,” Ralph’s cat and only real friend, so Buddy would have him believe, was awake and playing with the pieces of popcorn that had rolled on to his cushion, batting them from one paw to another as if he was playing catch with himself.

Ralph hadn’t been sleeping well since Monica moved out. Well, to be honest, she’d never really moved in. In their relationship, which would have been a year old today, Monica was the one with the commitment issues, not even wanting to acknowledge they were a couple. “Couple of what?” she would say jokingly when anyone would ask. It was cute at first, but not lately, particularly since she started telling him she couldn’t see him anymore. He’d lost count of how many times she had broken up with him, only to fall back into his life the next time they ran into each other. It was a big city, but a small town when it came to personal relationships.

He was tired of it, and had told her so two weeks ago on the Saturday morning after the last Friday she’d spent the night. It was the perfect morning, fresh bagels still warm and honey walnut cream cheese he’d run out for while she was still asleep, until she broke up with him, and him with her, for the last time. It wasn’t like the other times which were hard, but still civil. This last time, there was no holding anything back. Things were said, hurtful things that wouldn’t be easily forgotten. Two weeks was the longest time they hadn’t talked or seen each other since the day they met.

“Rap, rap, rap.” It was the sound of the knocker on the metal face of his apartment door. “Ralph? Rap, rap, rap. Com’on Ralph. Get up. …Please. ..Rap, rap, rap. ..Com’on Ralph,” she pleaded, “I can hear the TV.”

“What?!” Ralph sat up, slapping his mouth with his left had to catch a drop of drool he thought he felt there, and then turning to look at the popcorn that was suck to the palm of his right hand. “What is it, Buddy?”

Sitting up as tall as he could, Buddy looked at Ralph and then at the front door.

“Rap, rap, rap. Please, Ralph. Open up.”

Getting up, Ralph used the few steps he took to imagine what would happen next, like the moment he had rehearsed for when they saw each other on the street or at a restaurant, but then said nothing when he opened the door to a rain-soaked Monica.

“Can I come in?” was what she asked, but Ralph just stood there.

“What do you want, Monica?” He was tired, and had no intention of being pleasant. “That’s my jacket. ..Thanks for bringing it back.”

“Ralph, I love you. Can I please come in?”

“Actually, no,” but she pushed her way past him anyway. Shivering slightly, she stood there, her arms folded, dripping on the small Oriental rug that covered his uneven hardwood floor.

Walking around her he picked up the remote from the coffee table and muted, but didn’t turn off the television…

“Hey, Buddy.” At least he seemed glad to see her.

…and then began shoveling the spilled popcorn back into the bowl, as good an excuse as any not to look at her. “You’re wet.”

“I couldn’t get a taxi.”

“I mean, you’re wet. Stay on the rug. ..And next time you want to talk, trying calling.”

“I did, but you haven’t been picking up.”

“And what does that tell you?”

“That your cell phone is broken?” She was trying, but he wasn’t buying it.

“Ralph, I love you. I know I said some things, but.. I’ve been.. I don’t know… Ralph, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

The final piece in the bowl, Ralph stood up and confronted her from across the room, nibbling on the pop corn to keep himself busy. “Monica,” he used call her “Honey,” “what are you doing here?”

“I want us back the way we were.”

“And where was that? In a perpetual state of being together when you felt like it. We’ve been through this. I was crazy about you, it just wasn’t the other way around – which his okay. It’s okay, Monica. What isn’t okay is this, the talking about it.”

At first, he thought it was just the rain on her face, but her breathing wasn’t right. It was the first time he’d seen her cry, fighting to hold it in.

“…You don’t want to get back together,” Ralph reminded her, “It’s not ‘us’ you miss. According to you, there isn’t any ‘us’ to miss. It’s you, it’s me, biding our time until something better turns up. …It’s oh-kay, Monica, I’m exhausted. I just don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Ralph,” she started to walk toward him, but he put his hand to hold her off. “Ralph, listen to me.” She looked pathetic standing there, but still beautiful even with her hair wet and no makeup. For the first time in their relationship, she was the one that was upset. It was a change, a reversal of fortunes that caught Ralph by surprise. This was more than he could have hoped for, but not at all what he wanted to see. And so he stood there, and became what Monica used to be.

“Stop. Just stop it. We’re done. Done. There’s no credibility here. Whatever you say, I’ve heard it before and I don’t believe it anymore.” Putting the popcorn down, he reached in his pocket for his cell phone. “I’ll call you a cab.”

“I don’t want a cab.”

“It’s still raining.”

“I don’t want to leave.”

“It’s not up to you.” It sounded more mean than he meant it. There was just too much pride to back down here, to even be nice, whatever he was feeling. So he called, and gave the dispatcher his address. “Yeah, she’ll meet you out front. ..Now.”

Wiping under her eyes, she turned toward the grandfather’s clock near the door. “I’ve always liked this,” she reached out to stroke the varnish. “Did your Great Great Grandfather really make it?”

“That’s what I’m told. He was some sort of ‘carny’ magician, pretty good according to my Grandmother who knew him when she was a kid.” Telling the story calmed him down, and her too. Buddy, who had heard it before, decided to nap, tired of turning his head from one of them to the other when they were talking.

“That’s the original finish. He was good with his hands and used to make his own gadgets and props for his shows. ..It was a gift for my Great Great Grandmother when they couldn’t afford to buy one, sort of a reward for putting up with his weirdness all those years.”

“Oh yeah,” Monica interrupted him, “so what do I get?” She smiled at him with just the corners of her mouth, hoping for any reaction she could leverage, but all she could feel was the moment slipping away.

He stood there, wondering how anyone’s eyes could be that blue, but determined not to respond. “I’ll walk you down.”

“If ever you wish for one more moment with the love of your life,” she remembered the inscription on the plaque beneath the face of the old clock, “…remember I will always love you.”

“Monica..”

“Don’t bother. I’ll walk myself out.” Looking at him, she realized he’d stayed half the room away the few minutes she’d been there. Looking for anything in his face, all she saw was resolve and knew there was no point in staying any longer. “Sorry I bothered you.” She turned, opened the door, but then paused and turned back, even though she had nothing to say.

“Forget about the jacket,” Ralph pretended that was why she had stopped. “It always looked better on you anyway. ..I’ll get another one.”

“Sure,” she answered as if the jacket was really what they were talking about, and let the door close quietly behind her.

Ralph stood there. She was gone, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the door. “You know, Buddy,” he asked, not carrying whether or not the fur ball was paying attention, “I’ve always wondered what people mean when they talk about feeling empty inside.” Buddy was awake, but barely, his head flat down on the cushion. “…Com’on. Time to hit the sack.”

Walking toward the kitchen to turn the lights out for the evening and pick up a bunch of grapes he would nibble until he dozed off, he stopped in front of his Great Great Grandfather’s clock. 2:28 AM. “Hey,” Ralph perked up, remembering what day it was. “We get an extra hour’s sleep tonight. How ‘bout that?”

He reached out to touch the inscription Monica had recited. “According to my Grandmother…” One of the things he liked about Buddy was the excuse his friend gave him to think out loud when they were alone together. “…my Great Great Grandfather told his wife that, when he died, she could turn the hands back, and he’d still be with her. …If only,” he reflected on what he had lost, on what his pride had cost him, “it were that easy.” He should have pulled her toward him, right there in the doorway, kissing her before she said anything – except for the “I love you” part, of course – push his soaked jacket off her shoulders onto the hallway floor, pressing her against the frame of the door…

Reaching up, he opened the glass in front of the face of the clock, and touched the big hand which usually moved so easily when he would adjust the time now and then, but wasn’t budging. Pushing harder, it still didn’t move. “What the…,” he said, dropping his shoulders. Determined, he reached up again, pushing so hard this time his forearm began to shake, and then, ever so slowly, the hand began to move.

“Wow.” Keeping up the pressure, he pushed it counter-clockwise. Buddy was the first to notice. Popping up in his corner on the couch, he lowered his head and looked around as the sound of vibrating plates and glasses came louder from the kitchen. Ralph was still oblivious to the rumbling, all his energies focused on moving the big hand of the clock. The harder he pushed, the greater the vibration. The bowl of popcorn shaking its way toward the edge of the coffee table. A book falling from the shelves between the windows, and the bat he kept in the corner falling hard, his softball rolling out of his glove across the floor.

“There,” he stopped and so did the shaking in his apartment a second or two later. Checking the time on his cell phone, and then the clock, it was 1:30.

Forty minutes later, Ralph was in his bed, in the sweat pants and t-shirt that were his version of pajamas. Buddy was on top of the blanket, on the side of bed where Ralph’s tossing wouldn’t bother him. Both were sound asleep, some Lifetime movie playing on the small flat screen on his dresser. In the living room, it was dark, the lights from the street flickering through the windows.

“Rap, rap, rap.” It was the sound of the knocker on the metal face of his apartment door. “Ralph? Rap, rap, rap. Com’on Ralph. Get up. …Please. ..Rap, rap, rap. ..Com’on Ralph,” she pleaded, “I can hear the TV.”

-wf

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