By Madison Garber
So you’ve finished another chapter. Sitting back in your ergonomic office chair, you admire the neat strings of words you’ve threaded through so carefully with sorrow. I can see your satisfaction in the slight tilt of your lips—you sadist. But I ask you, sincerely, did it have to play out like that? Would it be too much to ask for a successful date for once? If you ask me, conflict is overrated. My plot can go on happily without the embarrassing mishaps, the deal-breaking character flaws, the interspersed flashbacks that do nothing but dredge up the sweet, sweet pain of nostalgia. But conflict makes a book, doesn’t it? Maybe even the kind of book that wins awards, gives voice to your generation, makes that chain of cigarettes and bad relationships worth it. So go ahead, I’ll be your marionette if you think it will help you move out of the matchbox apartment you’ve been living in since you graduated from that artsy writing program. Before you do though, let me show you how it could have gone.
Admittedly, the restaurant you chose for this date was perfect. Open casement windows let in the early spring air, lighter without its usual humidity. The gold-tinged light of the Edison bulbs swaying overhead washed out some of the color I felt rising in my cheeks—you know, that blush you only seem to summon at times I’m trying hardest to appear confident. I was impressed with the place considering the last two guys you set me up with had taken me to a sports bar and an Olive Garden respectively.
But as soon as I sat down, I could tell you wanted to send me into a flashback. No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, my eyes were drawn down to the table where a sputtering tea candle became your trigger for the memory. You at least waited for me to have a sip of pinot before you let it descend, though I realized too late this was only so the wine could “sour in my mouth” when I saw him again. You dedicated a surprising amount of detail to the luster of his hair, pulled back from his sharp but handsome cheekbones in an elastic band, his blue eyes reflecting flame. It was the Valentine’s Day he almost set our apartment on fire when he knocked over a taper with the neck of his guitar during a cover of Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love”—a funny anecdote, thoughts of our later break-up aside. But did I really need to remember it then? The restaurant’s golden light could have filled me with conviction instead of the nerves you seem so determined to stir up—you ever think it might be you who’d be anxious in this scenario, and not me?
And why couldn’t Mike be Michael? More dignified and sexy, no? You dressed him in a crisp button down and khaki slacks, so he looked nice, but in a meet-your-parents way that made me want to scuff up his shoes or at least undo his top button. He pulled my chair out for me before we sat down, which would have been a nice touch except that it reminded me of the movies you’ve had me hate-watching (a little too frequently if you ask me) over the past six months. The gesture said southern gentleman, so I would have given him a bit of an accent. Not a Texas twang, but more of a muted Charleston drawl, all the vowels stretched long and soft.
The nervous tic you gave him was cute though—I’d keep that. Every time he’d tuck his curls behind his ears, I could have imagined him as a child, his mother trying to tame those same curls with Crew hair gel before Easter Sunday service. This, of course, instead of the memory you distracted me with as Michael spoke—the one where Alex traced music notes down my back, my naked spine his staff as he hummed his latest ballad. I wonder, by the way, what the moonlight pouring through his open window says about you, dear writer. Are you really a hopeless romantic after all? Is that longing I see between those moonbeams? Or is it just a writer’s thing to sculpt the magical from the mundane?
Beats me. I’m no author.
Anyway, you made Michael an accountant. Or maybe he was a tax advisor. Whichever it was, you were clearly going for something you thought I’d find boring. But I resent that. Maybe the character sketch you made for me ages ago isn’t as accurate as you’d like to think—rather, a little too much like you, who seems to confuse stand-up with safe (a little cliché, no?). I could have listened intently to what he had to say, maybe learned about audits or something instead of wondering whether Alex was any closer to signing a record deal without me.
After dinner, when Michael offered to drive us to my favorite park on the south side of town, I could see what you were trying to do. To take me back to the place where I had walked for hours with Alex around the lake, shivering against the January wind, fingers numb in our pockets because we were too shy to hold hands yet. But rather than feeling sick at the idea, I’d take a steadying breath and say yes. Because it was about time I reclaimed that place. Let me face those memories and then let go. No more wishes for the past. Just present tense, please.
We’d find our way to the amphitheater at the center of the park and, with his arm just close enough to mine that I’d faintly feel its heat, we’d stare at the map of Florida set into the sidewalk with county-shaped pavers. And instead of letting my eyes linger on Clay County like you wanted, I’d follow Michael south along the map—further south than I’d ever been. He’d joke about the snow birds and the humidity. I’d laugh and fluff my slowly-frizzing hair because even in north Florida we breathe water most of the year.
When I turned to look at Mike, I’d actually see him—his smile lopsided but sincere, his shirt now rumpled from the car ride over, coming untucked at the back. To be honest, I’d be okay without the accent; he sounded just fine without it, always the suggestion of a smile in his words.
We walked until the street lamps flicked on and the mosquitos forced us to retreat to the car. Mike drove me back to my apartment after that. And when he parked in front of the complex, I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, staring up at my darkened windows.
Here’s where you had me retreat upstairs into that crypt of stale memories. Where I’d be alone with my thoughts again, along with all the little relics he’d left behind which I’ve only partially boxed up and put out of sight. But what if I invited Mike up? What if we could snicker at the weird things Alex left behind, like the pair of elephant salt and pepper shakers he bought for me on a trip to London instead of the tea cup I’d said I wanted? Or the wine-colored fedora he’d bought for a gig which looked less like rock star headgear and more like Indiana Jones had wandered through a velvet factory. Smiling, I’d shake my head and make note to pack them up, maybe even toss them.
Mike and I would share the bottle of wine you’d intended to have me polish off alone. Laugh over my outie belly button and his terrier-shaped birthmark until we were lying sideways on my overused couch. Maybe he’d stay the night. Maybe not. But for once, you can save your commentary, your questions and doubts, your flair for drama, and let this one write itself.
A proud Floridian, Madison Garber is originally from Tallahassee, Florida, where she graduated with a BA in English at Florida State University. This spring, she will graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University, where she is the managing editor of Swamp Ape Review and a graduate teaching assistant for the Department of English. She also teaches prose and poetry as the 2018–2019 Artist in Residence at A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida.