She begins on the bench outside the courthouse. Every time there is a thick packet in her lap. It is unclear where the packet comes from, as she is always alone.
Sometimes they are divorce papers. (He has left her.)
Sometimes it is a plea deal. (She has killed him.)
Sometimes it is raining.
Early on she would pore through the pages, but these moments would stretch longer, slower, like threads of cheap bubble gum pulled loose and limp. Perhaps she is not meant to know the details of her own origin story.
In every case, one thing is true: it is impossible to live forward.
* * *
First steps when she goes back: throw out the calendars, disable the date displays. She finds there are other ways to mark time. Over and over she cuts her hair, chooses a new color to help her remember. In this way she begins to build a rainbow of memory. Bottle dyes from the convenience store, the sharp sting of bleach in her bathroom. She is careful to set a timer. The moments that could end badly tend to go by faster than the others.
He’s always there when she goes back, though he’s never in the same place. Near the school, skirting downtown, a few times in the suburbs. There’s always the moment she asks for his address. It spins out, extends on, each blink an eternity—always the starkest confusion on his face, like he’s never seen her before.
Sometimes they live together, but he is never home.
He always prefers her hair in the warmer tones: red and carrot orange and strawberry blonde. She feels least like herself in these shades, but in most cases, she wants to make him happy. She’s found things go best when she selects the deep burgundy, a color that could fill a wineglass. He says it brings out the red in her lips, usually before he kisses her. But then there are the times she wakes up in the night, fails to recognize the fiery tendrils spooling out across her pillow in the darkness.
She comes to find that the beginnings are better—people smile at her more. He’s not yet grown tired of her jokes. And sometimes, in the mirror, her eyes even seem a bit brighter.
The light is never quite the same.
* * *
Every time there are certain inevitabilities. The party is one of them. The realization he comes to at the party is another. Not so much what he realizes, as this remains in constant flux. (She is a drunk, for example, or he never had the chance to be with other women, which is true, or once even that he has come to despise the life he has built for himself and would be much happier if he sold all of his belongings, quit his job, and backpacked across New Zealand.)
Typically this moment is a sign of the end. So she hovers on the outskirts of the room, holding water or wine, and waits for it.
Most times, they fight. In front of other guests, in front of strangers, with lots of yelling. She mixes things up when she’s angry, lashes out at him for a moment that belongs somewhere else, with the inky black hair or the sunflower gold. Sometimes she spills her drink.
This time, a New Year’s party. The fireworks just now cresting overhead, thunder and lightning created by those who play at controlling the weather. Fresh snow gilds the balcony railing. She writes her name in the white with her finger, obliterates the cold letters with the palm of her hand. The cheers can be heard from inside, collective voices slowing to drawl as the moment begins to lag. She isn’t sure what year they’re celebrating.
He smiles up at the sky, eyes glowing different colors in the synthetic light. She only looks at him, her own eyes too wide. Waiting. The seconds thread by at an agonizing pace.
They’re just lighting up the sky with chemicals, he says. That’s all it is, you know. We probably see hundreds of these in our lifetime. And yet they still make people happy.
Confused, she searches his face for an anger that isn’t there, an absent disappointment. The moment skips like a record, jumps ahead through his next sentence. She pretends to hear what he’s said. Two rapid red bursts above them, like a pair of heartbeats. Then a third, sun-shaped, golden beams streaking out endlessly from a sparkling blood-red center. So bright that, briefly, she could swear the sun’s coming out at midnight.
I wish this could last forever, he’s saying. This moment.
No, she says, you don’t mean that. Her stomach churns. She begins to count.
He pushes back from the railing, opens his mouth to speak, but his smile plasters and freezes. In the light of the motionless firework overhead she can count every one of his teeth, imbue his expression with the sentiment of her choosing. The last thing he said starts to mean less and less as the seconds pass. If she threw her drink at him now, it wouldn’t matter.
She’s disappointed that it’s ending like this. But it’s always ending.
Abigail Oswald holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and currently resides in Connecticut. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fugue, Gone Lawn, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip, Sundog, and elsewhere. You can find her online at abigailwashere.com.