This is a short story I wrote for both a writing contest and my creative writing class. Any feedback you could give me would be greatly appreciated, especially if it's before Friday (the deadline for the contest). I hope you enjoy it!
The Persistence of Memory
“Can you top me off here?” Leslie asked, waving her nearly empty glass haphazardly in the air. I obliged her by refilling it with a rich merlot. She took a sip and smacked her lips contentedly. I smiled slightly at this childish display of satisfaction, while Chris looked on in envy.
“Damn blood thinners,” he grumbled, running a hand through his thick brown hair. “I miss wine.”
“The water pitcher’s in the fridge,” I told him. With a dispirited sigh, he headed toward the house. “Get me a glass, too!” I called as he disappeared through the sliding glass door. He reappeared a moment later with two glasses of ice water and joined us at the wooden patio table. Alicia, a coworker whom he had just begun to see, was already seated on the bench across from Leslie and me, sipping from her own glass of wine. She’d been virtually silent all night, allowing Chris, Leslie and me to reminisce. I’m sure she was wondering why she’d agreed to come in the first place.
“God, all three of us together again!” Leslie remarked. She was prone to displays of sentimentality when she was tipsy. Alicia looked a little put out at not being included and drummed her fingers on the table, but said nothing. “Remember when Joyce used to be here with us? Remember, Ron?” she asked, leaning toward me. I mentally revised my previous observation: she was more than a bit tipsy. Leslie turned to Alicia and informed her, “Joyce was so much fun. I can’t believe she moved without telling any of us. Especially you, Ron! You were her boyfriend! You guys were living together!”
“Let’s be fair,” Chris interjected. “She did send out a Facebook message.” His lip twisted in a smirk that made it clear he was being sarcastic. I recalled the day I helped her make her Facebook. I picked the password for her – “gypsybiker,” the name of her favorite song. And her “About Me” section had read, “My fabulous boyfriend helped me out with this!”
“Wait, before or after she moved?” Alicia asked. “I mean, either way it’s incredibly disrespectful to you guys, but at least if she told you beforehand, you could have been, I don’t know, more prepared, I guess.”
“After,” Chris clarified, his hand snaking around her waist and resting on her hip.
“That was so weird,” Leslie said fervently. “She skips town and doesn’t tell any of her friends, or even her boyfriend, that she’s moving, except by sending out a Facebook message after she gets to her new town? She didn’t even give us an address, and she doesn’t keep up with any of us. She doesn’t even post new pictures! It’s like she dropped off the face of the planet!”
“Well, she clearly didn’t care about any of us enough to tell us that she was leaving. Why should she bother to keep up with our lives, or tell us about hers?” Chris asked scornfully, sipping his water. He had always been lukewarm about Joyce. He glanced at me and said, “You know, Leslie, maybe we should talk about something else.”
“I’m fine, Chris,” I said. I was a bit weary of everyone tiptoeing around the subject and pretending it had never happened. “You guys, it’s been two years. Yeah, I was upset at first, but I got over it. I’m even dating again.”
“I didn’t like her,” Chris said, unsurprisingly.
“You never like any of my girlfriends,” I pointed out. Alicia looked at Chris out of the corner of her eye and twisted four or five of her long, tiny braids around her finger. “You thought Joyce was too straitlaced, and you thought Eleanor was too demanding.”
“Joyce wouldn’t even wash dishes for fear of breaking a nail,” Chris said disdainfully. “It’s fine for a girl to be . . . well . . . girly, as long as she’s domestic as well. A girl who looks pretty and acts fussy is no good if she doesn’t cook and clean.” He realized too late who he was sitting next to and attempted to cover it up with a weak, “Haha, just kidding!” Naturally, Alicia firmly removed his hand from her hip and scooted a few inches away from him, a distinctly frosty glare on her face.
Leslie reached out and smacked Chris in the head. She hit her target, clearly not as drunk as I’d thought she was. “Shut up, asshole. God, you are such a chauvinist pig. He is such a chauvinist pig,” she repeated to Alicia. She tried to smack him again, but he saw it coming and ducked this time, so she settled for hitting his shoulder instead and sat back with a disgusted look on her face. Leslie took another gulp of wine. “Thank God Ron isn’t like you. Ron, you always treated Joyce so nice. God,” she said, shaking her head. Leslie’s old Sunday school teachers would have washed her mouth out with soap if they had ever encountered her while she was drunk. “God, I really thought you guys were gonna go all the way. I thought the two of you were going to last, you know? I remember the day we helped her move in here. Remember,” she said, starting to giggle, “how Chris almost dropped her goldfish?”
“Oh dear Lord, I thought she was going to have an aneurysm right there,” Chris moaned, passing a hand over his eyes. “The way she carried on about that thing, you’d think it was a prizewinning thoroughbred, not a creature with a lifespan shorter than the average high school romance.” Alicia couldn’t hide her smile at that, and slowly but noticeably moved closer to him.
“She got attached to things quickly,” I said, taking a sip of my own glass of water for the first time. “She was determined to make that goldfish live as long as possible.”
“Didn’t it die two weeks later?” Chris snorted.
“It was taken from us before its time,” I sighed, placing my hand on my heart in mock grief. I didn’t tell him that I’d flushed it – alive – down the toilet to get back at her for breaking my favorite Beatles LP. She had claimed it was an accident, but I was so angry about it at the time that I really didn’t care. After I had flushed the fish, I’d felt guilty and told her when she came home that it had died and I’d taken care of it for her. She cried into my shoulder while I rubbed her back, content in the knowledge that my revenge had had its intended effect and that I had gotten away with it to boot.
“What I remember best is that huge fight you two had,” Leslie said. I looked over at her and noticed that her glass had magically refilled itself. Chris and Alicia noticed as well.
“Les, maybe you should slow down a little bit with that stuff,” Chris cautioned. She waved an unconcerned hand at him as she took yet another mouthful, then went on as though she hadn’t been interrupted.
“Remember that fight? The one you had just before she moved?” Her eyes widened suddenly. “Hey . . . I never put it together before. Is that why she left? Was it that fight that broke you guys up?”
“It was a pretty big fight,” I agreed shortly. This part I didn’t like to talk about. I was lucky that Leslie was drunk, because she just sat there slurping her wine and didn’t immediately press for more details. During the pause, Chris glanced at me and then at Alicia.
“Hey, Les, let’s talk about something more pleasant. I’m sure Ron doesn’t want to rehash this whole thing.”
“Ron said he was fine with it. You’re over it, right, Ron? I mean, it’s ancient history by now.”
I knew that if I insisted on changing the subject, Leslie would get it into her head that I still wasn’t over Joyce, despite all evidence and my frequent assurances to the contrary. Far better to let her retell the story and then drop the whole thing, I figured. I didn’t really mind Alicia knowing what had happened, but I would have preferred not to be present during the narrative. I just didn’t like to be reminded of it.
“Go ahead, Les, it’s fine,” I muttered. She picked up right where she had left off.
“You remember this, right, Chris? God, I can remember it like it was yesterday. Every detail, right down to the color of the shirt she was wearing. It was a pink –”
“Blue,” Chris interrupted. “It was a blue tank top.”
“It was absolutely pink!” Leslie shrieked. Alicia winced a bit at the shrillness of Leslie’s voice. “I’m telling you, I remember it perfectly. It was that pink sweater she always wore, the one with the lace at the cuffs.”
“It was the blue tank top,” Chris insisted. “It was summer; why the hell would she be wearing a sweater?” The two of them turned to me to reinforce their memories.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure it was green,” I confessed. “I remember thinking that it brought out her eyes.”
The two of them scoffed at me. “That’s not even close,” Leslie said, as Chris said simultaneously, “Her eyes were blue, like her blue tank top.”
I held up a finger to indicate that they should wait a moment and went inside the house. My skin felt clammy from the air conditioning after I had been outside in the muggy summer evening for so long, and the absence of Leslie’s voice left my ears ringing. I located what I sought and returned after a few minutes to the patio, the glass door sliding shut behind me with a bang.
“Here,” I said, opening the photo album to a certain page. “These were all taken that day – see the date? That was two days before she moved, and it was the last day we were all together.”
“That was the year you put the garden around the tree, wasn’t it?” Leslie asked idly, gesturing to the lone tree in the backyard. A colorful, riotous garden extended six feet in all directions around its base. Since that summer, I had found that gardening kept my mind off the fact that Joyce was gone, although everyone assumed the garden had been her idea. Not wanting to share this personal piece of information with Leslie, I ignored her comment, pretending to be too intent on proving my point to hear her. I tapped my finger on a specific picture, a close-up of Joyce and me.
“See?” I said. “You were right that it was a tank top, Chris, but it was green – like her eyes.”
Chris leaned in for a closer look at the tanned, green-eyed beauty with artificially bleached hair and teeth in the photograph. “That’s odd. I was convinced they were blue.” Alicia looked askance at this evidence of inattention, but once again said nothing. She had been so silent all evening that I was continually on the verge of forgetting that she was there.
Leslie shrugged. “Ok, so I was wrong about the color of her shirt. I still remember what happened. Forget the minute details. Now, this was a huge fight,” she began, directing her commentary at Alicia. I rolled my eyes at Leslie’s melodrama. “I mean, probably the worst verbal fight I’ve ever seen. We were all out here, talking and whatever. Joyce started pouting because Ron made a joke about ‘forgetting’ to celebrate Valentine’s Day that year, and Ron got annoyed, so he left the table and went inside. Joyce got upset because Ron was upset and went inside to patch things up. The next thing we know, the two of you are screaming at each other,” she said to me, her already large brown eyes widening for emphasis. “Chris and I didn’t want to get involved, so we just left. I think we went to a movie; that’s the only part I’m fuzzy on,” she concluded, sitting back and sipping her wine. She was enunciating and lengthening her syllables more, and it would have been obvious now to even a casual observer that she was well and truly drunk.
Chris gaped at her. “I can’t believe how far off base you are!” he exclaimed. Agitated, he sat forward and began ticking items off on his fingers. “First of all, Joyce was the one who made that joke, and that was only because Ron was already moody about something and she was trying to lighten the mood. Secondly, Joyce was the one who got annoyed and left the table when Ron didn’t laugh at her joke. Not that I’m surprised; it was a pretty lame joke. Anyway, the third thing you got wrong was that Ron didn’t go inside to make up with her. He just rolled his eyes and ignored her, and only went inside five minutes later to refill his drink. That’s when they started screaming. And finally, the most important thing you’ve forgotten is that we didn’t leave! We went inside to make sure everything was ok, because we thought at first that the screaming was because someone got hurt.” Chris shook his head in disbelief at the four fingers he was holding up. “Jesus, Leslie, how could you get something so wrong?”
Leslie’s nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. “Don’t take that tone with me, Chris,” she warned. “You’re the one who’s got it wrong. I don’t remember any of the details of the fight, so how could I possibly have been in the room with them?”
“You were there,” Chris stated, leaning back and folding his arms defiantly across his chest. “We did leave together, but that was after we went inside to check on them. Joyce was crying and screaming something about Ron not caring enough about her to pay attention to her, and Ron was bellowing that she was self-centered and expected everyone to always drop what they were doing for her.”
“I never said that,” I broke in. Chris and Leslie turned to me with mild surprise on their faces. They seemed to have forgotten that I was there, as well as Alicia, who had been turning her head back and forth like she was watching a tennis match. “I didn’t say any of that. I told her that I was having a bad day and she shouldn’t expect me to be instantly happy just because she was sitting next to me.” I was starting to get fairly annoyed that they were dissecting such a personal moment in front of Alicia. I hadn’t minded at first, but I also hadn’t realized how in-depth they would go with this. Taking a few deep breaths to calm the anxiety that was starting to creep up on me, I refocused on the conversation.
“I’m pretty sure you used the term ‘self-centered,’” Chris said, frowning.
“No, you used to use that phrase when you talked about her,” I pointed out. “I never said that to her face. I agree that she could be self-centered occasionally, but it was never something we fought about – at least, not directly. I thought it plenty of times, but I never said it out loud. I mean, who isn’t self-absorbed sometimes?”
Leslie stuck her tongue out at Chris. It was probably the first time I’d ever seen a 27-year-old woman do that. The bizarre effect was heightened by the sprinkling of light brown freckles on Leslie’s nose and cheeks, which, she told us, had been the bane of her existence since fourth grade. “See, Chris? I’m not the only one who forgets things,” she slurred slightly.
“You’re drunk,” Chris said flatly. “You probably don’t even remember what time we got here.”
“Hers is closer to what actually happened,” I said before Leslie could toss off a retort. “She’s right that Joyce was the one who got upset first. I didn’t go inside to apologize, though; I went inside to get her to stop sulking and come have fun. She’s also right that she didn’t go in the house. You were the only one who came in.”
“I’m so confused,” Alicia moaned, putting her head in her hands. Then she looked up almost accusingly at Leslie. “You made it sound like this huge deal, but you didn’t even see it or know what it was about.”
“I heard it,” Leslie said testily. “They were screaming louder than I’ve ever heard anybody scream before. Chris is right; I really thought someone had gotten hurt. I didn’t go in, though; blood makes me squeamish.”
“Now you’re making me even more confused,” Alicia said, beginning to sound testy herself. “You said before that you didn’t go in because you didn’t want to get involved in the fight.”
“That was wrong,” Leslie admitted. “I forgot until Chris mentioned it that we thought someone was in pain. It was after Chris came out of the house and told me what was actually going on that I decided not to get involved. I remember now. Chris, you’re right, you did go in, but I didn’t.”
“I swear you were right there next to me,” he insisted, stabbing the table with his index finger to emphasize his words. “I turned to you and said something about how I’d never seen them like that before and never wanted to again.”
Leslie shook her head emphatically. “You said that to me in the car. I do remember you saying that, but it was after we left. It might even have been as we were walking into the movie theater.”
“We never went to see a movie that night. I was beginning to get a migraine, so I dropped you off at your house and went straight home,” Chris said. Alicia, poor thing, looked more and more confused as she tried to sort out the timing and occurrence of each of these events. I didn’t blame her; I was starting to get confused as well, and I had actually been there.
“What happened with the two of you after the fight?” Leslie asked, shifting gears. “She left town so soon after that, there couldn’t have been much time for you to talk. Was that the last time you saw each other?”
The knot in my stomach twisted. I had never shared this detail with anyone, and I wasn’t about to do it now. Even if Leslie wouldn’t remember this tomorrow, Chris and Alicia definitely would. I decided to rehash the entire story to give myself more time to think of a plausible ending.
“Look, here’s what I remember,” I said. “I was pretty quiet that night because I’d been passed over for a promotion at work. Joyce made a stupid joke about how she was going to accidentally-on-purpose forget to get me a birthday present – birthday, not Valentine’s Day – if I wasn’t going to cheer up. I didn’t say anything because, well, it was an idiotic joke, even for her.”
“She didn’t have the greatest sense of humor,” Leslie confided to Alicia. “I mean, she was a great girl, don’t get me wrong –” Chris snorted, and Leslie glared at him but said nothing. “Like I said, she was lots of fun, but I don’t think I ever heard her make a truly funny joke in all the time I knew her.”
“Anyway,” I said pointedly, waving my hands to indicate that I was continuing, “it was a dumb joke and she got upset that it hadn’t cheered me up. So she went inside and I got angry because she was making it all about herself. I went inside to tell her to stop being an idiot; I told her she should come back outside and just have fun with you two and leave me alone for the night. That’s when she lost it and started carrying on about how nothing she did was ever good enough for me and how I didn’t care that she was trying to make me feel better. At that point Chris came in, I think; I don’t know, I was a little focused on other things. He heard my response, although clearly put his own spin on it, and then I guess he left once he realized we were fighting. I don’t know when the two of you left the house, but after she stormed out and I went back outside to apologize to you, you were gone. Can’t say I blame you, really; the fight lasted a really long time. I estimated that it was about 45 minutes, but maybe that’s only what it felt like. It wasn’t a fun experience; no wonder she never talked to me again.”
Alicia’s eyebrows rose in shock. “Wow, I wouldn’t be able to handle that,” she said. I imagine she was torn between feeling sympathetic and being impressed at our dedication to finishing out the fight. “When my last boyfriend started yelling, I would just walk away. I can’t deal with confrontation.”
“I hate that,” Chris said shortly. “If I have a fight with someone and they just walk away, it drives me crazy. It makes me feel like they don’t care at all about what I have to say.”
Alicia looked at him out of the corner of her eye and her mouth tightened. I was starting to get the feeling that their relationship wasn’t going to be a smooth one. I was tempted to let the tension escalate and obliterate the conversation about my own fight, but before I could make that decision, Leslie interrupted yet again.
“Chris, are you positive we didn’t see a movie that night?” she asked. I was quickly becoming exasperated by the length of this conversation, which I had assumed would be over quickly. Combined with that exasperation was irritation with Leslie’s incessant babbling and the anxiety that was not only persisting, but growing by the minute. I had to leave the table or I would explode, so I stood up and went into the kitchen, slamming the door behind me with a little more force than necessary. I stood at the sink and refilled my glass of water, watching Chris and Leslie make hand gestures and silently move their mouths, noting that Leslie was now so drunk that she was having trouble pointing directly at Chris. I cursed when I recalled that she had driven here and decided that I would guilt Chris into driving her home, because she sure as hell wasn’t staying in my spare room. It was clear nothing was going to happen between him and Alicia tonight – possibly never – and I was getting mighty sick of Leslie and her constantly running mouth. My fingers flexed as if they were itching to wrap themselves around her pretty white neck. A bit alarmed at the direction my thoughts were heading in, I leaned back against the refrigerator and took several deep breaths. My hands and my stomach, which I hadn’t even realized I’d been clenching, relaxed. I took a few more breaths for good measure, grabbed my glass of water, and returned to the patio. They were still talking about that one fucking night.
“Adam & Steve,” Chris was saying. “That was the one we saw that summer, but it wasn’t that night.”
“I’ve never even heard of that movie, let alone seen it,” Leslie declared loudly. Chris sighed, clearly as annoyed with her as I had become, but controlling it much better.
“Remember,” he said, with only a hint of impatience in his voice, “we couldn’t find a parking space, so we had to park at the McDonalds across the street and walk? And the heel of your shoe broke when we were halfway across the road, so I had to carry you because there was all that glass in the street?”
“Oh yeah!” Leslie exclaimed. “I can’t believe I forgot that! That was pretty scary, with the cars coming at us. We really saw Adam & Steve that night? I swear I’ve never heard of it before. What’s it about?”
“That was us,” Alicia cut in. Her tone was very cold. Chris and Leslie looked at her uncomprehendingly. “That was us,” she repeated, louder and more angrily. “We went to see a movie together and my heel broke in the middle of the street and you carried me across. That was last week, for God’s sake! Don’t you pay attention to anything? Is your memory really so selective that you can remember a fight your friends had two years ago, but you can’t remember what we did together last week?”
Chris opened his mouth and then shut it again, searching for a sentence that would rescue the situation. He repeated this action a couple more times before figuring out what he wanted to say. “Alicia, honey, I’m sorry. All this reconstruction we’ve done tonight has me completely confused. It wouldn’t happen any other night.” He reached for her hand, but she pulled away, looking far from happy.
Leslie looked bewildered. “Wait, so that wasn’t me? How come I remember it, then? It seemed really clear.”
I shrugged. “That happens sometimes. If someone describes something well enough, you can picture it sharply enough that it seems like you’re remembering it. Plus, you’re drunk, so you’re more open to suggestion.”
“That’s true,” Leslie said amiably. I was surprised; she usually fiercely denied being either drunk or wrong. We sat there in welcome silence for a few moments. I began to relax now that the discussion was finally over.
“Spiderman 3!” Chris and Leslie blurted out at the same time. They grinned across the table at each other.
“It was Spiderman 3 we saw together,” Chris clarified.
“Oh, I’m so glad we got that figured out,” Leslie giggled, resting her arms on the table and her head on top of her arms. I discreetly moved the bottle of wine out of her reach when she wasn’t looking. “That was going to bother me all night. I knew I never saw Adam & Steve!”
“You and I saw Atonement,” Chris said to Alicia. “See? I remember.”
I nearly choked on my drink. Chris must really be desperate to get laid. Atonement was the kind of movie he would have literally thrown out the window if anyone had been foolish enough to offer the DVD to him. Fortunately, neither of them heard me. Alicia didn’t soften under Chris’s attention; she still looked royally pissed off. I gave her credit - Chris would have to work harder to win his night of fun with her than he had with the last girl he’d dated.
“So what did we decide happened with the fight?” Leslie mumbled. “I can’t remember.”
“You’re not going to remember any of this tomorrow anyway, but I’ll repeat it just for the record,” Chris said. “Short version: Ron was moody, Joyce got upset that her joke fell flat, Ron tried to get her to be a normal human being, she flipped out and they had a fight, I saw part of it but you stayed out here, and then we went home and did not go to a movie. Satisfied?”
“Never mind, I’m sleepy.” Leslie closed her eyes and sighed, her head still pillowed on her arms. “Goodnight.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” I said. “Chris, will you take her home, please?” He shot me a look that plainly told me he was not happy about this request. “I just need to be alone tonight,” I said, trying to look appropriately melancholy. “All this talk about that night just stirred up some painful feelings, you know?”
His look turned slightly sympathetic. “Yeah, I remember that was pretty hard on you. I didn’t realize how upset you were at the time until I came over and you were burning that box of stuff she left behind.”
“Let’s not talk about that,” I said, rearranging my face into a pained expression. Looking chagrined, Chris turned to the task of getting Leslie up and moving, while Alicia gathered their things. As the three of them bustled around, getting ready to leave, I stared out at the backyard, my eyes resting on the tree under which Joyce was buried.