__ gone __

The yellow-green light of the last gasps of dusk turned every inch of the suburban trees into imitations of themselves. Danesh felt as if he were walking through a photo album rather than the woods behind his girlfriend’s apartment. In one hand he held a freshly opened can of tuna, and in the other he fiddled with a little electric fan that was supposed to attach to a novelty hat but instead was intermittently wafting the fishy smell away. Hopefully in the direction of Tom-Tom, wherever she may be hiding. In between longing looks at the achingly beautiful light that filtered through the canopy overhead, the still youngish man would make clicking sounds with his tongue. Together with the can and the fan, Danesh thought himself a sort of absurdist cyborg. The perfect cat-catcher. Animal magnetism and machinery working together.

Nelly hadn’t made it clear if she was distraught or relieved over Tom-Tom’s disappearance last week. The only comment she made to Danesh was “she’s gone again. I think this may be the last time.” Something missing in her voice, the absence of concern he guessed, set the hairs on his neck on end. She had been apathetic too often for his taste this Spring. First with the mishandling of some of her late husband’s estate by her accountant, then again with the minor fender-bender on a surprising Tuesday morning on the way out of the apartment complex. By St. Patrick’s Day she had grown eerily peaceful, ignoring the vomit that splattered on her patio from the grad students balcony on the top floor. The old Nelly would have pounded on their door with a mop and bucket in tow, demanding immediate reparations under the threat of even swifter vengeance. He had once seen her shout a grown man down until he fell back into a chair, holding her face inches from his as he gawked in stunned disbelief. The shaken idiot apologized for his lewd comment before exiting the pub. Now, the calm Nelly of late spring simply sprayed down her patio and asked Danesh to get her a fresh mop the next time he went shopping.

As such, Danesh could not rightfully claim that Nelly had asked him to find Tom-Tom. She hadn’t even hinted. Yet he felt compelled in a way that he had not experienced since he took up running the city marathon every Fall. That feeling helped him accept a challenge that became a solution for his grief and later a ritual testimony to his healing. Twenty-six miles a year that brought him farther away from his losses and closer to his...he wasn’t sure. But he felt closer every time he crossed the finish line, and that’s what he needed. In the too perfect light and the end of unusually temperate Texas spring day he craved another finish line.

And, by the love of all that is good, something to mask the smell of the tuna.

He was not a fish person.

Truthfully he was not a cat person either. Years ago, he and his fiance Liz had taken care of her brother’s labrador, Buick, for an entire year. The experience left no doubt in Danesh’s mind that he was most definitely a dog-person. His parents hadn’t allowed animals in the house growing up - they devalued the house his father said - so it had been cathartic to finally pet and play fetch and all the other dog-centric joys he had craved as a boy. After Liz’s brother Mark returned from his year abroad and taken Buick back, she and Danesh began planning for a replacement. Another lab, that was a certainty, and they would name the puppy LaSabre in honor of its predecessor. Even as they sat through endless tests, extended hospital stays, and one grim doctor’s bedside manner after another, Liz and Danesh would browse through websites and send emails to breeders. The handful of times he had visited her grave he had borrowed Buick from Mark so that the two of them, hunting dog and lost man, could sit and spend time with her as they had done when all three were happy.

Something about Tom-Tom, however, had been dog-like enough to earn Danesh’s affection. Nelly always treated the cat as something of a holdover. A relic of when Tyrell and she had been playing at parenthood to see if they would be any good at it. The lithe gray cat had seemed utterly comfortable with the benign neglect when Nelly was around, but the moment she disappeared into the bathroom Tom-Tom would fetch a toy and beg Danesh for a game. The same happened whenever he was tasked with caring for the cat while Nelly was away on business. It was a strange bit of theater - one mask on for Nelly, another for Danesh - no matter the occasion the cat’s true nature was never revealed. Except when it came to tuna. Tom-Tom was quite clear about her preferences there.

The light was fading and long shadows played through the woods, intermittently dispersed by headlights that pierced through the fence surrounding the apartment complex. Actually, Danesh realized, the sun had already fled and taken with it the lonesome beauty of the moment. A general wash of color from the city, and the crisp light of the flood lamps high above the parking spaces had fooled him into thinking he could finish before nightfall. Switching off the tiny fan, Danesh sighed deeply and turned back towards the gap in the fence that led from the woods to the apartment lot. Considering his luck someone would probably call the cops when they saw him squeeze through and proceed into Nelly’s apartment. Assuming the absolutely best scenario, he’d still  have to explain the fan and the tuna. Even if just to Nelly.

She never asked him for anything, she only ever made comments and waited. Or she’d ask him if he liked something. Or she’d mention that a friend of hers had enjoyed something. Or...hell, there were probably a few other methods he hadn’t picked up on yet, even after three years. But she never asked. Danesh knew it was a defense mechanism. Like his need to pay for everything they did together. Like how they both avoided any conflict between them. No one could leave you if you never gave them any reason to.

They had bonded over the feeling that Liz and Tyrell had left them and the immense guilt that feeling caused whenever they noticed it racing through their minds. Other members of the group session had their anger, their regrets. Danesh and Nelly had their unacceptable shame of abandonment. Shay, the group facilitator, never missed a chance to remind everyone that grief was a journey, usually a very long one, and that they would meet themselves many times as they traveled. The trick was to embrace that version of yourself and accept them no matter how terrible or hurtful they appeared. The seemingly too-young counselor would always make the same gesture when she pointed this out - a fierce grabbing and pulling of the imagined doppleganger that quickly softened into a loving and motherly embrace. Nelly joked at the bar afterwards that Shay looked like she was catching and fucking a ghost. Which wasn’t a joke that Danesh would have normally found funny, but there was something about the mock-ecstasy on her face that brought out his darker humors.

A few bar visits later they started sleeping together. And talking. Talking for hours and hours until the sun rose and they trudged off to work. Their phones were worn out from texting. Danesh had to recruit his baby cousin Santosh once he learned Nelly loved internet memes. Nelly was soon sending back the fire and heart emojis that could only be inspired by the most absurd gifs a thirty-year old could harvest from a teenager. After a few weeks he no longer required Santosh’s help, though he still got a little assistance in a pinch. Anything to make Nelly laugh. He loved the sound.

She loved his smile she said. That and his “tight little ass”. To be fair, even before he began training for the marathon he had been a habitual jogger. Calves and buns he had aplenty. Once the pair had admitted they were a couple, he playfully demanded leg massages any day he had gone for a run. It was the “my-boyfriend-has-a-hot-ass-tax”. To his wonderful surprise she had not only accepted she had practically thrown him into bed that night. If he was honest, that was another thing he loved about her. That they loved about each other, he guessed. Something about the loss they were both still processing, or maybe just the wisdom that nothing lasts...either way it made for a very passionate relationship.

Until this spring.

As he made his way into her apartment and locked the door behind him, he was careful to leave the tiny cat door unlatched. Maybe Tom-Tom would make her own entrance. Danesh put the tuna can in the fridge and began tidying up. Peaceful Springtime Nelly was a less passionate person and a messier one as well. In the last few weeks he had gotten into the habit of showing up to her place early and cleaning before she got home at nine. She had made vice president at the beginning of the year. Maybe this was just part of that. The longer hours, the apathy, the mess. She was tired, and who wouldn’t be, hmm? That seemed right even as Danesh admitted to himself that it was also wrong. He could feel that too. It was normal for her to be tired and less passionate. It was also not normal for the two of them. Maybe they had never really had normal.

After a quick pass to make the bed, put away the clothes strewn on the floor, and clean the dishes left from breakfast, Danesh opened the wine he had purchased on the way here. It was a red he loved that Nelly had introduced him to. He poured it into the decanter to allow it time to mellow before she arrived, the ‘legs’ slowly fading down the inside of the cut crystal. He let the woody smell fill his nostrils and wash away the remnants of the tuna that lingered deep in his sinuses.

Without realizing it, he had closed his eyes. As he opened them he caught a glimpse of a shadow through the sliding glass door to the patio. Danesh jumped up and ran to throw it open but paused as his fingers nearly brushed the handle. It was a bird. A big evening grackle claiming some unknown prize from the private strip of concrete before launching over the tall wooden slats of the patio and into the wider world. Tom-Tom would have never permitted such a trespass on her turf had she still been around. Staring into the rapidly deepening night, the patio faded from Danesh’s view as his eyes focused on the kitchen lamp reflected in the glass. Even that little bit of light blinded him from seeing into the dark.

Like a dart piercing his chest, Danesh felt his heart break. A truth rolled over him and sank into his stomach with a dreadful force. Slowly he sat down, face leaning into the glass door. Tom-Tom was gone and no heroic hunts in the waxing hours of the day would discover her destination. Even if they could, even if Nelly arrived that night to find Danesh with a glass of wine in one hand and a cat in the other, it would not change the truth. The two had grown apart. Passion burns out, and it takes effort and care and dedication to build a liveable, boring normalcy for two people to share. Liz and he had known that. Nelly and Tyrell had too, judging by the videos and letters Danesh and Nelly had shared with one another during their talks. But the new couple forged out of the remnants of the old ones had never taken the time to build that new normal. They were too scared. Or maybe they hadn’t wanted it.

The tile was cold under Danesh as he sat. He stared at the reflected lights from the kitchen, willing his eyes to ignore them and pierce into the darkness of the patio beyond.

A few light footsteps were followed by the jingle of keys and the sliding metal of the deadbolt of the front door beyond the kitchen. Danesh’s eyes flickered up to the floating image of Nelly’s face hanging on the glass in front of him. She grew inch by inch until she came to rest behind him and on his shoulder as she sat to his side. They poured their eyes into one another through their reflections. After a moment their eyes closed, her hand sought his, and she held on tightly. Their bodies leaned deeply into one another until they turned and settled into a surrendering and forgiving embrace.

“Wait here a bit.” Nelly first kicked off her flats in the suburbs of the shoe rack by the door before doubling back to a bookcase on the far side of the living room. A thin manila colored journal appeared in her hand as she turned and took the half dozen steps to where Danesh still rested beside the sliding glass door. He recognized the little book as the collection of thoughts and hopes she kept after Tyrell’s death. She had dubbed it her ‘release notes’. Her eyes met his ever so briefly as she sat cross-legged. “Do you mind if I read something I wrote a few months ago? It’s not really short.”

Ater a nod and a pause, Danesh leaned back onto his palms and listened.

February 2nd

Today is my 30th official day as a Vice President. (Actually VP of Global Software Strategy and Success, but who’s counting, huh?) This was going to be the day, T. I was going to walk into your studio, throw that big paycheck with that big monthly sales bonus and that big fat incentives package right on your keyboard and tell you to quit all your commissions. We would have all the money and benefits we’d ever need, and you could get back to illustrating what you wanted instead of what made us money. I was going to help you get your dream, baby. Just like you helped me get mine. Today was the day, T. I had been planning it for eight years.

But you had to go and fucking die when I wasn’t even halfway done.

It was a dumb dream of a dumb thirty year old kid who didn’t know how quickly things could change on her. How quickly she could make things change. We could have gotten you out of commission work way back in year two. You would have had twenty-seven months of living your dream. We could have easily kept our lifestyle and still got you into the work you wanted by the start of year three, but we wanted a big house with a big pool for me. So we waited. No pool and you’d have everything you wanted for twelve months or more. But no. We kept saving, and your brain kept rotting away in secret. And then you died.

You died because I wanted a pool. Do you know how selfish and controlling that makes you? Do you know how crazy that makes me because I believe that horseshit? I have to say nice things in the mirror every goddamn morning in order to not think that I killed you. That my desire for a nice life killed you.

I hate that you left. Especially today, T. I worked so hard. Even after you went away. I kept working so that maybe, just maybe I could help you live the life you wanted. I worked and I worked and I worked because deep down I thought that would make you forgive me. And you’d come back. I worked so hard and you never came back, T. You just stayed dead.

Shay said that I can’t live for other people, I have to live for myself. But what if living for others is what I want to do with my life? What happens if I want to live for everyone else and everyone else keeps leaving?

All I know is that I finished my plan, Tyrell. I have the job, the money, and my ovaries are still kicking ass. I got it all, baby. And you could have had it too. But you died.

You did not choose to die. You did not choose to die. You did not choose to die.

I keep reminding myself. I will believe it when I’m ready.

Until then, I wanted to tell you my new plan, T.

In eight more years I am going to still be a VP. Senior VP at most. I’m tired of climbing this corporate pyramid scheme. I’m not going to own a home, I’m going to travel instead. I can swim in the ocean.

In eight more years you will still be dead and I will still be alive, but I am going to be fine with that. I will believe, I will know, that you are fine with that too. That’s a long time to recovery, T, but we had something special, so that’s okay.

In the meantime I’m not keeping the apartment clean for you anymore. And I’m going to calm my shit down a few levels.

Most of all, I am going to appreciate the love I have here, alive, with me. Because that’s what it takes to build something that will last. That’s my new plan. It starts today.”

Nelly closed the journal and put it down hurriedly before catching herself and slowing down. Her dark eyes looked unabashedly into Danesh’s as she breathed slowly and patiently. She did not turn away as she waited.

Many moments later, his lips parting to speak, Danesh heard a tiny sound. The heavy plastic of the cat door slid open and shut. Four gray paws padded as quiet as a ghost across the kitchen floor, stopping at the couple’s resting place, demanding food and lodging for the night.

He rose to get the tuna from the fridge. A long night of conversation would have to wait a few moments more.