I am giving you everything you ever gave me back to you. I wish there was more. Enjoy it, it’s all you have left because I am gone forever and am never, ever, ever coming back. I wish there was more.
Love always Denise
you stupid fucker
“XOXOXOXOXO” means “hugs & kisses” and I still don’t know what “Love always Denise” means. Was she trying to tell me that, despite the anger and the bitterness that prompted her to leave my books, her jewelry, and (presumably) her shit in such a sodden arrangement, she would still love me in absentia? Or, was I being instructed to continue (or, perhaps, to really start) to “love always Denise” (Love Denise Always)? And did “stupid fucker” mean that she didn’t like me or that I had sex like an idiot? Boy, that girl sure could be confusing. I had already started to look for her to ask for a clarification, an explanation, of those confusing portions of her note before I remembered that it all meant that she wasn’t around to answer my questions anymore.
When I heard the back door open and then close, I remembered, guiltily, that I had forgotten about Ariel, Denise’s 11-year-old daughter. I was then surprised that A) Denise had not taken Ariel with her when she left and B) that since Denise had not taken Ariel, that she had not somehow arranged for her daughter to be in the bathroom, if not actually in the toilet, with the rest of her message.
“Hello?” I heard Ariel’s thin, 11-year-old voice from the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open and the corresponding rattle, of the jars of condiments stored in the racks. “Hel-lo-oh?”
“I’m in the bathroom,” I called back to her.
Several hours later, Ariel and I sat side by side on a couch in the living room (there were three, three couches; one living room) looking together at the place where a television had once been. Three couches, one living room, and zero televisions seemed somewhat imbalanced to me but we usually sat thusly on more normal evenings watching a television that was no longer there and I did not wish to upset Ariel any more than I thought she should be normally.
“We’ll have to go shopping,” Ariel said eventually.
‘Good,’ I thought.
“And get some new stuff,” she continued.
‘Excellent,’ I continued thinking. ‘She’s adjusting.’
“Like a TV,” Ariel attempted.
“We’ll see,” I replied, not wanting to step too far out of my normal character, not wanting to upset her anymore than I thought she should be.
“She does this all the time,” Ariel said.
“Who?” I answered. “Does what? When?"
I returned to the house with plastic grocery bags full of things that I had been certain Ariel would love. Though I knew that food could never replace her mother, I felt that the child should somehow be comforted, should know that someone cared enough for her to bring her delicious snacks.
As I began to unload boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinners, Cherry Cokes, Count Chocula breakfast cereal, Hostess Sno-Balls, beef jerky, Butterfinger candy bars, and Strawberry Quik, Ariel came into the kitchen.
“What is all this?” she asked me.
“It’s all for you!” I crowed. “It’s all your favorite things!”
She looked at me for a moment before she again spoke.
“How long have you known me?”
I did a quick count in my head. “Almost eleven months.”
“Have you ever seen any of this kind of stuff in this house before?”
“No, sweetie. That’s why I got it for you.”
She looked at me for a moment before she left the kitchen.
I was positive that it was not possible to return groceries for a refund and I didn’t want to try to explain how these had been accidental purchases anyway. I set the brightly colored boxes and packages in a long row outside the house along the edge of the sidewalk. By morning, every single item was gone.
On the way home from work that next evening, I realized that I was cashless and, quite rightly, assumed that Denise had taken the checkbook and its corresponding money when she left. I pulled into a convenience store, removed the water pistol from the glove box where I kept it, and went inside. I walked to the register and pointed the pistol at the clerk. Without a word, she opened her drawer and handed me 63 dollars. I refused the change she offered and she returned it to the drawer. She smiled as I left through the door marked with feet and inches. The water pistol is made of lime green plastic and has the words BIG SQUIRT embossed in gold along the barrel. I have “robbed” stores like this many times and have never had any trouble, have never seen these “robberies” mentioned in any newspaper, have never seen my description or height in feet and inches on the television show “Crimestoppers,” have never been approached by any member of any law enforcement agency, and stopped feeling regretful over 10 months ago.
When I arrived home, Ariel was sitting on the porch reading an old textbook. I had no idea what textbook it was and did not remember keeping any textbooks but there she was reading one. I gave her twenty dollars.
“Oh. Great,” she said. “Now my friends will love me.”
“What?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I told her on my way into the house.
I dialed a number I got from the business personals section of the classified ads of the newspaper in our town.
“Deja vu hotline,” a voice said but, before I could begin talking, it also said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve had this conversation before.”
Ariel came in the door with a new hairstyle.
“Isn’t that a new hairstyle?” I asked her.
She looked at me a moment before she answered.
“What is that supposed to mean?” she said and she looked at me for a moment before she left me sitting on the couch. I could hear her pick up the telephone in the other room and dial a number. It seemed like something like this had happened before. At least once before. Before.
Something had hit me and I had tried to become conscious but it was difficult because I had been asleep. It was Ariel hitting me and saying, “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”
When I was awake enough, I said, “What is it, honey?”
“Earthquakes,” she said. “There’s earthquakes on the TV. You come and watch them.”
“Honey,” I told her, “we don’t have a TV anymore. Remember?”
“Oh,” she said and let me go back to sleep. Again.
The next time I remember I was asleep and Ariel woke me up was when I was sleeping on one of the couches in the living room and she slammed the door walking in. I woke up and she threw my BIG SQUIRT water pistol into my lap.
“Here,” she said, holding a twenty dollar bill at me. “Now your friends will love you.”
“Thank you, honey,” I told her when I took it.
She just looked at me for a moment before she went back outside.
“You’re welcome,” I called after her.
When I answered the ringing telephone I discovered it was Denise calling us. After I said “hello” I listened to her voice for what seemed like the longest time.
“Yeah, yeah,” I was finally able to say. “I’m sure we’ve had this conversation before.” And hung up.
“Who was that on the phone?” Ariel asked from the other room.
“When?” I answered.
I began to disobey traffic laws. At first, I would merely slow down at the stop signs, look both ways, and proceed. I began to do the same at stoplights. I began not to yield, began not to look both ways. Soon, I drove without obeying a single symbolic directive, as if I was the only driver on the roads, as if the rules did not apply to me, as if all the obvious signs weren’t there at all.
Not one single bad thing happened.
I began to wonder why Ariel was apparently not going to school and approached her about it.
“Why are you apparently not going to school?” I asked her.
“I go to school,” she answered. “I go to school every single day. Except Saturday and Sunday. I go to Horace Mann Elementary School and am in Mrs. Whalen’s sixth grade class. I bring home notebooks and textbooks and can often be found at the kitchen table doing homework in the early evenings. Jeez.”
“And why, then,” I asked her, “have I not noticed this?”
“Because,” she answered, “you leave before I do in the morning and return after I am already home.”
I had to admire her because it was really that simple and easy to understand the way she explained it.
One night I was awakened by someone hitting me and it was Ariel. Again.
“Wake up,” she said. “Wake up. Wake up.”
“Haven’t we had this conversation before?” I asked her.
“There’s mudslides and tornadoes on TV,” she said. “Get up and watch them with me.”
“Honey,” I tried to tell her again, “we don’t have a TV anymore.”
“We do now,” she answered. “Get up.”
I was glad to hear we had a TV and, after I watched it, glad she’d gotten me awake. Those were some good disasters we watched that night.
One day, I approached Ariel with the intent to confront her.
“Okay,” I said. “If you go to school, what did you learn today?”
She just looked at me for a moment over the top of what I had only at that instant recognized as a textbook.
“In school. Today,” she answered. “We learned how telephones work.”
I was in the bedroom listening to the call-in program on the clock radio. It was 3:47 pm. The call-in program was coming from a (clock) radio station that played tapes that had been made in Los Angeles, California. They said it was a beautiful day “in the city” and that the topic was “protectionism.” All in all, I found that great. I heard the front door open and, a second later, I heard the front door close.
“How was school? Today,” I called out. “What did you learn? Today.”
“What?” I heard Denise, not my little Ariel, reply.
“Jeez,” I answered. “Where did you come from?”
(Originally published in Triage, Boulder, Colorado, 1990)