While unpacking old notebooks, I stumbled upon the original ending of this story. Much more verbose and not quite as clever, that ending was the first piece of this story written. It made me think of transformations where two things are key: putting in the effort and letting things organically grow. A story won’t sit down and write itself, but once you are behind that keyboard it is important to see where the story will take you.
This story, in particular, has been a long favorite of mine. I tried to embrace the “iceberg” of creative writing but still struggle with what isn’t on the page. There is much left unsaid in this story but every time I sit down to edit some more clue or hint of it in I realize that maybe that is the point. There is always something left unsaid with any kind of goodbye.
I thought in the spirit of old notebooks and throw-back that I would share some of my doodles from the notebook containing the original ending to this story. The stickers are from the used books I bought for class. They feel somewhat in-line with the themes of this story.
By Kylie Louise McCormick
John stood at the counter, surrounded by cardboard boxes, fixing two cups of coffee. One he left black in a blue chipped mug Cynthia had stolen from her college cafeteria. The other he dressed with sugar and cream, making the dark coffee into a light brown swirling in the white, larger mug. John paused a minute longer after he finished sweetening the coffee and stared at the white mug. He was thinking about its lifemate, the other white mug that had come in the two piece set he had gotten Cynthia for Christmas. He thought about its rough ceramic edges broken in a pile on the floor with just Cynthia and him standing over them hugging and crying.
Moving carefully through the boxes, John carried the two cups of coffee into the living room to find Cynthia in the same place he had found her in hours ago. She was sprawled out on the couch, her red hair tied in a knot as she flipped a pen against a yellow legal pad of paper. John stood apprehensive at the threshold of the cozy living room, “What are you working on?” The words came as soon as he had caught his breath.
“Nothing,” Cynthia let the legal pad fall face down on her chest as she turned around, her eyes telling him secrets her mouth wouldn’t.
“I made coffee…” John took a step into the room avoiding her eyes and handing her the larger white mug.
“Thanks,” she said as she took a sip, wrinkled her nose at the sweet taste and handed it back up to him. John smiled, looking down at her and handing the blue mug with the black coffee into her now open and waiting hand. It reminded him of their first date together. They had gone to a coffee shop in the middle of the day and in the middle of a filler and boring conversation, she reached across the table, grabbed his coffee and took a sip, making that same face he now loved with the crinkled nose and pursed lips. She then pushed the drink back to him and explained, “Every so often I like to remind myself why I like something the way I like it.” It was a simple statement but it was also something John had never forgotten. John shifted his weight a little from foot to foot, growing anxious until Cynthia caved. “I’m not working on anything important. I was just taking a break by trying to list all fifty states from memory.” Cynthia sighed and didn’t move the legal pad, but John moved into the room anyways.
“How many do you have?” He watched her carefully as she picked the list back up and glanced over it.
“Fucking 47.” She looked back at him as if that ended it, letting the pad fall back against her chest. John shifted his weight under her stare knowing what it meant, but not wanting to let that be it.
“Are you stuck?” It was an escape, an excuse to keep going. John moved across the room to the recliner facing the couch.
“A little.” John could see Cynthia start to relax, her muscle memory taking over into the comfort of the situation.
“Well, maybe I can help,” John said hopeful, while he leaned on his knees and rested the white coffee mug in both of his hands, rolling it slightly.
Cynthia glanced over the list, “maybe.” Her voice was full of doubt and it struck John as the same tone she had used with him when he asked her out the first time.
John leaned back and began thinking over the states in his head, “Did you remember Wisconsin?”
“How could I forget Wisconsin?” Her voice held a slight whimper like that of a dog who was being scolded for something. Cynthia glanced over her shoulder at him, setting her coffee down on the floor beside her, “it’s number 3.”
“That was the third state you thought of?” John chuckled and shook his head.
“Of course, I loved Wisconsin, remember?” Cynthia turned back to the notepad her voice growing quiet; John remembered.
He had wanted to surprise Cynthia with something special for their first anniversary, they had been dating for an entire year, the longest relationship John had ever found himself in; he had been saving for months. However, when he found himself at the jewelry store all he could think about was the time when Cynthia had bought a pound of cheese and proceeded to eat it in a period of a week or so. Cynthia loved cheese, she ate cheesy fries, plain cheese, cheese on her salads, cheese with her pretzels—her philosophy was that everything was better with cheese. Every time John looked at the diamond necklaces in the case all he could see was a string of nacho cheese sliding down Cynthia’s chin while she laughed, her nose scrunching up and her green eyes squinting. It was the face of disproval she would make with the coffee and things she didn’t like, only it was infused with much more joy and a wider, smiling mouth. John was sure there was a link between this disproval and joy but he had never found it. He left the jewelry store and on the drive home called a travel agent to arrange a week vacation in Wisconsin, cheese capital of the United States, complete with factory tours. When he gave her the tickets, she nervously played with her hands and looked at the floor while she asked if they were moving too fast to take a trip together, he just shook his head and said she could go alone, but he wanted her to go no matter what. They went together.
“Yeah, I remember Wisconsin.” John moved the memory to the back of his mind staring at his coffee while he took another sip, “What about Delaware?”
“Check, number 38.” She scanned her list and checked it off.
“Huh, I always thought Delaware was one of the more forgettable states.”
“Me too, I think that is why I remember it.” Cynthia began tapping the notepad with her pen, while John stared at her. She had fire red hair she had never cared much for, at the moment situated into a messy bun on top of her head. John was easily mesmerized by the tangles on her head; they reminded him of ivies painted red like an exotic and rare plant modern scientists would puzzle over for decades. John was sure her hair grew untapped miracles. He continued to trace her hair before falling to the line of her neck. He wished he could touch every spot his eyes fell upon. It struck him how fluid her body was. He was reminded of pouring a cold glass of milk, each curve was so soft yet full and each part of her poured into the next. Even in her comfy pants and exercise tee, she was glowing.
“Uh…” John tried to fill the silence while he refocused his thoughts on states, “New Hampshire?”
“Shit!” Cynthia sat up and started to write it down.
John started laughing. “I can’t believe you remembered Wisconsin over New Hampshire.”
She pointed the pen at him playfully and plopped back on the couch this time facing him. “Maybe I like cheese better than your great aunt Fauna,” Cynthia stuck out her tongue playfully.
“I thought you liked Fauna.” John laughed remembering the trip that came just two months after the trip to Wisconsin. New Hampshire was the one state in the Union Cynthia had said she had never wanted to visit. When John questioned her, she brushed off the issue simply saying that the license plates put her off, “Live Free or Die? I think it’s bullshit.”
Still, she went with John to visit the aunt and on the third and last night as they lay in bed Cynthia moved closer to him, putting her cold toes on John’s legs and told him a story about her first real boyfriend. His name was Dean and he combed his hair like he was Elvis. Cynthia did not go light on any of the details as she explained that Dean was the first man she had ever trusted and loved. Then just as Cynthia and Dean began talking marriage in the story, Cynthia rolled over in bed and pulled away from John, finishing quickly with the fact that Dean had been cheating on her for months with some whore from New Hampshire. John lay there quietly taking the story in; it was the first time Cynthia had ever spoken about one of her exes. It was the first time Cynthia had ever seemed vulnerable. John rolled over and spooned her, wrapping himself around her curved body. He could feel her body shake with tears, and he knew that he would have to make it up to her. A few weeks after they got back home to North Carolina Cynthia moved in, on John’s insistence.
“Yeah, Fauna was great.” Cynthia smiled slightly, John could see the bags under her eyes when she half smiled and it made him want to hold her while she slept, like that night in New Hampshire.
“So! 48 down, only two to go?” John took a sip of his coffee, tasting the sweet mixture of the sugar and cream on his tongue. Cynthia nodded. “How about… Nevada?”
“Everyone knows Nevada.” She picked her mug off the floor and leaned back into the sofa taking a drink.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Las Vegas and all.” John paused looking down at his feet and feeling like an idiot. Deciding to make the most of his current disposition he joked “I’d say Georgia but I know your favorite fruit is the peach.”
Cynthia laughed, “Number 7, I don’t forget any of my fellow Southern states.” John loved the fact that Cynthia was a southerner, something he was not. He came from Seattle, Washington, but still blushed when Cynthia called him a Yankee, shaking his head and explaining that he was from the west.
John set the coffee down on a set of boxes next to the recliner and rubbed his hands together as he closed his eyes trying to only concentrate on states, “Missouri?”
“Number 26.” Cynthia moved to take the mug off the box and set it on the floor.
“18.” Cynthia sat back down, lazily drinking her coffee.
“South Dakota?” John stood, picking up his coffee with him. He began to pace around the room trying to force his eyes away from all of the boxes.
“23.” Cynthia’s tone drained.
“How about Puerto Rico?” He stopped pacing.
“Oh, are we counting territories now?” Cynthia raised her eyebrows and laughed, “Let’s not forget Guam.”
“I know!” John clapped his hands together, “Tennessee.”
“Mother-fucker” John smiled; he loved her dirty mouth, though he had never spoken a profane word since high school. Profanities slipped out like air from her lips. They felt as natural as breathing and from her, they didn’t seem offensive or rude, but genuine. As if the words were invented solely for her to express herself. John loved the idea of Cynthia having her own special language.
“So much for remembering the south,” John laughed as Cynthia mocked him, moving her head from side to side, “One left?” he was still standing smiling at her. She looked so comfortable, her coffee in her left hand while she scribbled down Tennessee with her right. Cynthia looked up and met his gaze, and suddenly her body tensed as if she had just remembered something she shouldn’t have ever forgotten, her eyes began telling secrets again until she looked to the floor.
“Yeah, I guess so.” She started mumbling, and John knew this was bad. Cynthia always mumbled when she was avoiding something. “Maybe later though, I think I’m done for now.” Cynthia stood up and laid the notepad on the arm of the sofa getting ready to leave, maybe start packing again.
“No, wait. Let’s finish this, we only have one left.” John gently moved to her, placing his hands on her shoulders, knowing he wasn’t talking about states anymore. Her body grew rigid under the weight of his hands
“I don’t think this is a good idea, John.” Cynthia brushed past him picking up his cup of coffee with hers and moving back to the kitchen through the maze of boxes, “I don’t want to lead you on anymore. You want more from this then I do.”
John followed her getting frustrated. “Then don’t lead me on. Tell me why you are leaving.”
Cynthia stood at the sink washing the mugs, “I told you before John. I need time on my own. We’ve been together for 4 years now and I’m ready for something new. I love you,” Cynthia turned to face him, her eyes brimming with tears, “you know I do. But I don’t think we are right for each other.”
John flashed through the four years in his head, remembering the cheese, the trips, the confessions, the sex, the fights, and the broken coffee mug. “What about that night?” John pointed down to the spot where they had held each other over the ceramic shards, “You said we were a pair but you were broken. I promised I would keep you together, you promised never to break again. You can’t break that promise.”
“I threw a mug at your fucking head, John; you honestly can’t be pointing to that as one of our finer moments.” Cynthia’s mouth gaped and John stood looking at her with tears in his eyes. “You know what, John,” Cynthia threw the matching mug down in between them, its handle breaking off and the rest chipping the tiled floor, “You are just as broken as I was that night. You’re suffocating.” Cynthia pushed past him. “I can’t do this anymore.”
He closed his eyes and thought of the last few months. The changes were subtle at first; she stopped holding his hand in the movie theaters, she started sleeping on the couch some nights, complaining about her back. Then he noticed the phone calls late at night, always in their blue colored bathroom. Whispered promises of “don’t worry, I will be there soon.” And after a while, “I love you, too.” He had found out where “there” was, but he couldn’t figure out who was on the other line, his mind raced and he suspected Dean.
He opened his eyes and followed her back into the living room. She was standing with her back to the kitchen and one hand on her forehead. John knew she had posed herself like this, knowing that he would follow her. Cynthia always wanted a scene; she always wanted to hash it out even if her actions and words said otherwise. John smiled and leaned over to the arm of the couch picking up the pad of paper. He glanced over it and shook his head, moving closer to her, he outstretched his arm and wrapped it in front of her pulling her close and leaning his nose into her hair that smelled like dryer sheets, he whispered, “That’s funny; looks like you’ve forgotten Iowa.” John felt her body slacken and he knew that he was right.
“John, you don’t understand.” Cynthia turned around.
“Yeah, you’re right Cynthia, I don’t.” Cynthia opened her mouth but John shook his head, “Why the hell are you moving to Iowa?” Again Cynthia moved to answer but John put his hand up, “I’ve heard you talking on the phone late at night—I know there is someone else.”
As if the accusation slapped her, Cynthia stepped back and breathlessly responded: “Excuse me?”
John’s voice got softer, “Cynthia, do you really think what you want is out there if you couldn’t even remember the state off the top of your head?”
Her face grew red to match her hair and she erupted, “You think there is someone else? Honestly, after everything I’ve been through and everything I told you, you think I would cheat?”
“I don’t know anymore.” John stepped toward her, his voice soft, “I feel like I don’t know who you are anymore.”
“Yeah, well maybe you never fucking did.” She threw her arms out, “You just don’t get it, John. You don’t understand that sometimes it’s more than what you say and do.” Cynthia was yelling now, “What if it is more than you, why can’t it be about the way I feel and what I need right now? Why can’t what I’ve been telling you be the truth?”
John’s face grew to match hers and he finally lost his temper, his voice matching the instability of his emotions, “It’s always been about you! And I don’t even know who you are because you never show me who you are! How do I know you aren’t moving to Iowa for this other guy? I’ve heard you talking on the phone. Who the hell is it, Cynthia? Dean? Is it Dean?” His finger was pointing in her face.
“Fuck you, John.” The words flew like spit from her mouth and she brushed past him, this time preparing to leave for good. John watched her as she stormed down the hall to grab her coat and keys. “You know what, I’m leaving now.” Cynthia began looking for her shoes. “I can’t deal with you right now.” John bent down and picked up her right shoe that she had lazily kicked off from the couch. She ripped it from his hands. “I’ll come by tomorrow to get the boxes while you’re at work.” Cynthia moved quickly to the door and opened it turning around to give John one last blow, “Have a nice life, asshole.”
“Yeah, well fuck Iowa.” There were 49 other, better things he could have said in that moment, but none would have made her turn around and come back.