Winning Text: Short Story (2010): Second Prize
Birds That Streak the Sky by Corinne Stikeman
At first there was just me. I ate cereal, drank apple juice and went to school and learned long division and had sick days and snow days and summer vacation by the lake. Then I got older and learned bad words and how to skip class and cough things under my breath and make my friends laugh. Then came sleeping in and reading and learning to like tomatoes and cucumbers and coffee and then there was university and new sidewalks and the squeak of my sneakers on the linoleum floors of packed lecture halls. There was drinking in dive bars and laughing at movies and learning what really makes a person happy. Then came long hours of looking for my keys, waiting in line, dropping my groceries and finding new nooks to store myself and the things I bought and wondering if everything has its place. Then I met you.
For you, first came books and suitcases and drinking beer through straws. You loved fresh snow and evergreens and shoes without laces and had wicker garbage bins and environmentally friendly light bulbs. We had conversations about your mother and your father who died and that summer you spent in Winnipeg and I began to move my memories around to make sure there would be space for your stories in my head. Then there was that night after dinner by your bike outside my house when you missed my cheek and kissed my neck and I knew things would never be the same again.
We started tiptoeing upstairs and unbuttoning each other's shirts. I started calling you before I went to bed and you said I was your first thought in the morning and then your cologne rubbed off on my coat and scarf and I slept beside those things when you were gone. I saw my friends less and you more and there was smiling and sex and stillness and comfort in picking sides of the bed and wondering what you would have done without me there. Then there was that night you made sangria and I drank too much red wine and I said I loved you in the hallway beside your mother's grandfather clock and it was the first time for me and you said it was the same for you.
Then I bought lamps and you bought more books and together we bought a big red couch that we never really used. We bought a terrier and I named her Olive and even though you never walked her she liked you more than me. Olive licked your hands and chewed your ties and slept on your side of the mattress when you went away and then she died when her kidneys stopped working and her stomach filled up with water like a balloon. It was morning in early spring and I was so sad and you said these things happen and soon we were able to move on.
We had holidays and birthdays and summer vacations by the lake. I met your mother and we stayed over in the house you grew up in and she said she liked me but I knew she thought I talked too much and I thought she did too. We slept in your old twin bed and watched your student films and you showed me where you had your first cigarette. Then your mom sold the house and we helped her move things in boxes and rented trucks while she picked lint off your shirt and told you to cut your hair and then one night I hid in the bathroom listening to you fight in the kitchen over money and time and the reason you were never there. You said she made you angry and I said not to worry and we tried having sex on the couch in the basement beside boxes of pictures and a treadmill you said had never been used but the couch was too small so we gave up and sat outside on the porch smoking cigarettes until morning.
Then I felt sad and you were angry. You started smoking every day and I quit my job and I started reading my high school textbooks after you fell asleep and wondered where I had gone wrong. You stayed out late some nights and I would wait for you by the front window tapping my fingernails against the glass wondering if there was something about you I would never know. Then I'd fall asleep on the couch and in the morning I'd find you in the kitchen folding butter into toast as though nothing had happened at all.
Then I said maybe we should have a baby and you said you weren't ready and then you were ready but that's when we found out we were too late. It was Thanksgiving when we had that conversation in the backyard under the yellow fall leaves and we decided we would be okay just us two. Then one day I went to the mall and looked at stores and thought about what I did and did not need and you found me there hours later drinking a soda by the fountain in tears. You said it was time to go home and took my hand and all of a sudden it felt like things were better. You started coming home earlier and laughed at my jokes and found your way to my side of the bed. I started volunteering and visiting museums and redecorating our basement and bathroom and kitchen and thought maybe everything was working out as it should.
But I still got sad and you started to get restless and then there was that time by the dripping kitchen faucet when I slapped you and you slapped me back and I spent the night crying with my cheek pressed against the tiles of the kitchen floor. I tried putting my things in suitcases and dividing our books and thought about starting over and new beginnings and what really happens when people aren't happy anymore. Then I thought about Olive and our couch and the friends I never spoke to and all of the things I didn't know how to do and I felt empty and I went upstairs and found you in the guest room playing solitaire on the floor. I said I'm sorry and you said you still make me happy and we sat there playing poker until the sun went down.
But then there was silence and tension and getting frustrated at how you parked the car and pulled at your earlobes and said nothing when I knew there was something you wanted to say. Then one day when you were opening the mail you said it was time for a change and we decided to go on vacation and tried drinking rum out of coconuts and parasailing and staying out until three in the morning under palm trees. Then we came home and tried tiramisu and brandy alexanders while watching late-night television and started thinking about smaller houses and bigger cities. Then you said I was still pretty and we tried having sex on the new carpet in our living room with your mother's photo turned toward the wall.
Then your mother died and I felt bad and you felt guilty and started smoking a pack a day. You stopped shaving and started going to church and you said you never could say how you felt about anything. Then one night you disappeared but left behind your spare toothbrush and a pair of socks and an old can of deodorant that I never could bring myself to throw away. I called every person I knew and visited the restaurants where we used to go but I knew I would never find you. I got nervous and felt sad and drank two glasses of wine a day. I stopped volunteering and left dishes in the sink and let the grass grow wild and wondered what would have happened had you only kissed my cheek that night all those years ago.
One day I bought a goldfish and named her Emma and we started waiting every night by the front window for you to come back. It was fall and soon it was winter and then one night you did come back and we saw you walk up the driveway and dig for your key and kick the snow off your boots when you came through the door. You were changed and unshaven and you smelt like sex but I didn't care because I was so lonely and I said you're still lovely and we fell asleep on the couch fully clothed like we were teenagers.
Then Emma died and we sold our house and bought a cottage up north and went ice-skating and ice fishing and started eating at restaurants that used to be old farmhouses. We watched elk and loons and the lake bringing in the tide, then snowdrifts rise and fall and you said you'd never been happier in your whole life. I stopped dyeing my hair and your palms started to look like worn-out leather gloves. I did crossword puzzles and made manhattans and you drew maps and studied the stars and rubbed my hands when they were cold. You wore pants that went past your belly button and I wore sweaters that went down to my knees. I said you should cut your ear hairs, then I cut them for you over the kitchen sink while you looked at the ceiling and asked how long it had been since we'd washed our clothes.
Then you started to forget things. First small things like where Greenland was and where we kept the placemats, then big things like how we met and what street we lived on and which path we took to reach the lake. Then there was that time in July when I found you at the end of our driveway with a snow shovel and I knew the worst was about to come. You held my face like a photo album and said you'd never forget, but you did forget and soon could only remember the smell of my lavender-violet soap and the way I curled my hair in the morning. It was summer when you died sleeping in your chair that faced the lake. And then without warning it was just me again.
Now I sleep in your sweaters and on your side of the bed as though such small things could bring you back. I'm trying to learn how to cook and tap dance and make new friends and I spend long hours looking for my keys, waiting in line, dropping my groceries and finding new nooks to store myself and the things I buy and wonder if everything really does have a place. I drive on empty roads with my high beams on and look at the piles of snow that line the way and only sometimes can I enjoy the silence. I cut out pictures of Paris and South America and Tokyo and post them to our fridge with magnets shaped like bears and loons and moose and think about whether there can ever be such a thing as starting over.
And then I wake up before the sun and sit on the porch in your parka and smoke your cigarettes and listen for movement in the trees and think about how you would have liked to sit here with nothing to say and what really happened that time you went away. And then I feel sick but it gets bright and sometimes it's sunny. I don't think about life after death or whether or not you're still here. I see the birds streak the sky and a loon dive into the lake and in that moment I think that I know what is good and what is beautiful and what is true. And I feel safe until that moment's spent. And then it's morning and the birds are gone.