the one who led me home

a short story by Emily Banthin, 20

Maurice had left me a message not more than twenty-four hours earlier asking me to make the journey from my city apartment out to her suburban cape-style house so we could have the chance to discuss a few matters from earlier on.  Those were her exact words: “I thought we could discuss a few matters from earlier on.” In all the time I had known Maurice, about fifteen years now, I would not have chosen to describe her as cryptic.

What were “a few matters?” And what did she mean by “earlier on?”  Her voice on the machine took on a raspier quality than her usual deep, rather rumbling tone, like she had just smoked a package of cigarettes for the first time since college. We used to make an effort to keep in touch over the years, but after I met my husband and then had Martha, who had now reached the ripe old age of three and a half, it seemed easier to just make up some excuse about the battery in my phone or a scheduling conflict.  Aside from the very occasional phone call, I hadn’t taken the time to sit down and ask Maurice about her life since grad school, much less seen her in person. The lack of communication occasionally plagued me. Everytime I began to think, “Why should I feel bad, it’s not like she calls me?” images of Maurice sitting home alone without a family, possibly with a cat or two, tended to arise. I knew a holiday card with pictures of Martha in a Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer sweater was not a sufficient raft to carry a friendship, but what was I going to do, invite her over for dinner?  

Anyway, Maurice called right when I was in the middle of singing Martha a song from some kids show on PBS trying to get her to “pee-pee in the big girl potty.”  Paul and I both knew Martha would grow up to be a bit of an oddball, afterall we both were. Still are. Paul, who let his beard grow out until he could shave it into a goatee worked as a computer scientist.  You could sense the “geekiness” as he liked to say, just by glancing at him on a crowded city sidewalk. The shapley Harry Potter glasses were a dead giveaway. His goatee and full head of hair stuck out as the only orange in the midst of endless city skyscrapers and commuters wearing nothing but suits and jackets.  I on the other hand, owned an endless drawer full of turtleneck sweaters, lined the wall of our bedroom with pictures of foreign countries to which I planned on dragging Paul and Martha, and had so many books I took to storing them under our bed.

Martha reached out a clammy little hand in an attempt to grab the tip of my nose.  I took her baby hand in mine, leaning forward and holding it up to my face. I inhaled and felt myself melt a little bit in response to that sweet milky smell Martha still had.  I looked at my child, at her wisps of strawberry blonde hair and her beloved princess nightgown now wet from dangling into the toilet. I looked at my daughter and saw my once best friend.  The best friend who gave me a rose for my birthday when we were in the same kindergarten class and told the teacher I shouldn’t have to finish my homework because I was now six years old. Pretty classy for a five year old.  The best friend who held back my hair as I threw up all over the bushes of someone’s front yard at our first high school party. I wanted Martha to grow up as my friend as well as my daughter. I couldn’t ignore Maurice when I had Martha.

I decided to leave Martha with Paul for the day and deliberated calling back Maurice to tell her I was coming over in a few hours before I thought better of it.  I couldn’t bring myself to actually talk to Maurice when I still had the chance to stay at home. I had to make a clean break, get in my car, and drive to the train.  

When I pulled into the station the grey sky decided in that moment to open up.  Even with the umbrella I found in my glove compartment I was soaked through my raincoat in a matter of minutes.  I half ran, half stumbled to the ticket station on the side of the train tracks where an old man sat wrapped in a disposable rain poncho on top of a freezing metal bench.  I tried not to stare at the man as I somewhat frantically fed my credit card into the machine and selected the round trip ticket to Pelham, New York, just outside the city.  I caught a couple of sidelong glances as he rocked back and forth singing softly under his breath, his eyes closed. I used to pity people like that, shelter surfers I called them, surfing from one heated building to another and never getting more than three hours of sleep at a time.  Now though, I tended to mentally penalize myself when the sorrowful empathy set in. He didn’t even look unhappy, sitting there quietly entertaining himself.

My ticket popped out of the machine slot and I tucked it into my damp wallet.  I left the poncho man behind and stood underneath the portico attached to the train station’s information centre.  The rain reminded me of the trip Maurice and I taken to Washington D.C. during college. The week had been unseasonably cold for Spring and the rain seemed inescapable causing us to dart from building to building, art gallery to museum, just to find shelter.  Maurice, like Martha, had strawberry blonde hair that fell evenly around her shoulders despite the torrential downpours. At 5’9’’ she surpassed my height by nearly five inches and had legs that gave her an elegant giraffe quality, if that physical standard is even obtainable.  I have always been jealous not only of Maurice’s appearance but also her inherent charisma. She always managed to pull out a snappy response to someone’s argument and had the ability to end a fight in her favor whilst leaving her adversary both stunned and a little charmed. Despite the rain and despite my constant negativity about the weather and my frizzy hair sticking up in all directions, Maurice was determined to make the trip worthwhile for the both of us.  One night after the day’s failed attempts of shopping at an outdoor mall and visiting the city’s monuments by bus, we flagged down a cab and half an hour and fifteen dollars later we entered a small Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of the city. The red paint on the walls was chipped and the menus were covered with little profanity filled notes people had written about the restaurant staff. To top it all off, the food was even worse than the three man mariachi band playing softly in the corner.  By this point, however, our trip had turned into such a disaster that when I started to complain about my lukewarm margarita, Maurice’s tight expression unraveled as she broke out into a fit of laughter. She laughed so hard that she had to grip the side of the bar to prevent falling off her stool. Just when the outburst was just wrapping up, her elbow bumped into my drink dousing her blouse with alcohol and prompting a whole new bout of giggles.

After paying our check I braved a trip to the restaurant’s bathroom and told Maurice to flag us down a cab.  Emotionally I was spent and though my brain felt wired on caffeine and sugar, my eyelids drooped whenever I stared at something for more than a few seconds. When I emerged from the bathroom and stepped outside onto the deserted sidewalk, the smell of tobacco and cheap Mexican food lingering in the humidity, Maurice was gone.  I remember jogging around the back of the restaurant, past dumpsters and along tall fences looking for her. Eventually, my throat sore from shouting her name into the void that was night time in the city, I decided that six voicemails was enough and that I should just make my way back to the hotel. Like a drunken shelter surfer scoping out my next convenient store.  Looking back I probably should have stayed longer, looked for her more, maybe called someone to help me. The police even. But instead I got into a cab, practically fell asleep in the back seat, and pushed a wad of dollar bills into the driver’s hand as he started in on his third cigarette of the drive.

It had been around three hours since dinner so by the time I dragged myself out of the elevator and through the hallways of the hotel to my room, I almost wasn’t surprised when I opened the door to find Maurice lying in a ball on the floor.  Makeup smudged across her cheeks from crying. Her hair spread out around her on the carpet— kind of like a lion but less brave.

. . .

I stood there in the downpour waiting for the train and realized this memory was not so different from my other memories with Maurice after that night.  Sometimes her flaws were rich with life and humor, and I could get lost in the way she made me feel. I liked who I was when we were together and I liked other people more when they were with her.  Effortlessly she embodied an exaggerated version of what I wanted to become.

Eventually though, the smoke would fade and I would find her a few hours later.  I tried more than once to check in and ask her if I could help. Usually she responded with “Right now?  You really want to ask me about this right now?” That answer brought the conversation to a crashing halt and I never asked her why right now was such a bad time to bring the subject up.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much Maurice was still a part of me. Her face still floated around in my dreams, taking the place of a person who terrified and exhilarated me at the same time.  

I started back to my car, already mentally planning out what I would do that day instead of leaving the city to see a woman I barely seemed to know anymore, when I heard the shriek of the train as it slowed down and opened its doors to the people on the platform.  It opened up to all the homeless shelter surfers, mothers with three kids, college students, and all the people on route to their important jobs and lives far away from their homes in the city.

While I watched them rush to climb inside and find seats, my feet turned away from the parking lot and began carrying my soaking wet frame towards the shrinking clump of commuters.  I was no longer controlling my legs. My body walked me away from the lines of cars, back onto the platform in front of the steaming, gasping train. I thought of Maurice and how the prospect of travelling, even a day long excursion excited her.  I thought of Martha at home in her princess nightgown and everything I wanted her to become. I thought of them and then I thought of nothing, and then I stepped onto the train.


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