homecoming

By Caro Claire Burke

Featured Image: Shadows II by Sam Warren

It had been the loneliest summer of my life, which is maybe why I was so looking forward to seeing Beth.

I’d been living in the city for about four months by then. I still wasn’t quite used to the foul-smelling puddles, the fire escapes that blotted out the sky, the way the subway would be whispering along then suddenly scream to a stop, forever lurching me into the lap of some nameless and scowling person. And Beth was nice, I remembered: she’d been the type of girl in college who was always the first to laugh, the first to dance; the type of girl who never complained when we ran out of cold beer and had to switch to room temperature. She was a good sport, I remember a buddy saying once, and I’d agreed.

It was a clear Friday afternoon. I was headed to my mother’s house for the weekend, and the idea of leaving the city for a full two days had left me feeling light. I decided to throw my weekend bag over my shoulder and walk the fifteen blocks to the coffee shop Beth had suggested.

I got there twenty minutes early. I was relieved to find the place was nearly empty. The summer had been one of stale interviews that led nowhere, of hot coffee going cold over tepid conversation, and I’d learned that there was no hell quite like making small talk with someone in a crowded and cramped coffee shop while you both craned your necks around, looking for a table to slip into. I chose a table in the middle of the shop, then changed my mind and moved to one in the corner by a sunny window, closer to an air vent. I was sweating from the walk. The heat in this city was relentless.

I was halfway through my latte when Beth arrived, looking lovely and pink-cheeked and a little bit breathless. “Oh, shit,” she said as she sat, “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”

She looked exactly as she had in college. The same dark hair, the same wide eyes. That same freckle on the bow of her lip; that same way she had of bringing a finger to touch the freckle while she spoke, as if she herself often forgot it wasn’t a smudge of chocolate or jam, but a permanent part of her. I even recognized the sweater she was wearing: a ratty old thing, black and soft and oversized, falling practically to her knees. I couldn’t believe she still had it, never mind that it still held its shape. But the jeans were new, the heeled leather boots were new. The set of her face —relaxed, soft brown eyes utterly still— was new.

“Beth,” I said, “you look —”

“Everyone calls me Elizabeth now.”

“Right,” I said.

“And you?” she said. “Are you still just Dan?”

“Still just Dan,” I said. “Five years later, and I’m still just Dan, unfortunately.”

She laughed, and I shrugged. There was silence, then. Where to begin?

“You look,” she finally said, then paused, smiled: “healthy.”

I faltered. I’d gained weight after college, I knew, especially in my face and neck. Was that what she meant? But she only continued to look at me in a pleasant, almost blank kind of way. “No more club lacrosse,” I offered, and she laughed.

“That wasn’t what I meant, you dick.”

A relief, the insult; a reminder that we had a history. She’d had a stutter in college, but there was no sign of it now. She spoke clearly, softly.

“So,” I said.

“So,” Elizabeth agreed, and we both smiled.

We moved through small talk, awkward at first and then quickly smoother, and it wasn’t long before we were kicking our feet away from the present and treading backwards through the years, recalling long-forgotten memories to one another, each of us waiting for the other’s memory to kick in, each of us sitting back and smiling whenever it finally did.

An hour passed. At one point the conversation stilled, noise rising around us to fill the silence. The shop was filled with people, I realized, the meals around us becoming more elaborate, muffins replaced with salads and wide bowls of soup. Waiters were walking around now.

Elizabeth blinked at me, waiting. I glanced down at my latte, the foam now dry and caramelized at the lip of the mug. I deliberated for a split second — should I wait for her to decide? — then raised a hand for a waiter.

“Yeah,” I said as he approached, “Hi. Do you have bottles of wine?”

We talked about nothing, about the shitty apartments we were both living in, about the friends we still spoke to and the ones we’d lost touch with. She wasn’t talking to anyone anymore, she told me. It had been necessary to let go.

“I was stuck back there for a very long time, you know? I needed to meet people who didn’t know anything about me.”

I’d spent the summer missing the people who knew me, who could place me in a memory and tell me who I was, what I meant. I nodded anyways, as if I agreed. I engaged. I laughed when it seemed appropriate. I cursed myself for not telling her to call me Daniel. I ordered a second bottle of wine.

“It’s always strange, don’t you think? Running into old friends?”

“Were we ever friends?”

“I thought so,” I said, laughing a bit. She shrugged and raised her eyebrows, making me laugh again. “Tough customer,” I said, and she replied, quite seriously, “What do you remember about me from college?”

“Ah,” I said, sitting back. “What do you mean?”

“College,” she said, “Me, all of it. Do you ever think about it?”

“Of course,” I said, on instinct, though I had no idea if she was speaking generally or about something specific. Best to hedge it, I thought, and added, “From time to time. You know how that stuff goes.”

She made a slight humming sound, then reached for her water glass. “Well, I’m glad you reached out.”

I frowned. “But you texted me.”

The statement came out far more adolescently than I intended. But she only blinked coolly back at me and said, “I meant on Instagram. The DM you sent last week.”

“Right,” I said, “of course,” nodding and cursing myself. For I immediately trusted she was telling the truth, but the full truth was that I DMed everyone now. Any given night that I drank, I’d wake up the next morning to a hangover radiating through my skull and an inbox of twenty messages that I’d sent, seemingly at random, to girls I used to know. An embarrassing habit, obviously, sometimes more so than usual. As she looked calmly across the table at me, I wondered what I had sent her, and whether it had been innocuous or viciously sexual.

“Look,” I said, searching for a diplomatic way to apologize for a statement I didn’t remember, but she raised her hand and leaned forward, silencing me.

“I’m really glad you reached out,” she said. “I’m really, really glad. It got me thinking about everything, about those days, and really: we have so much to talk about.”

“Right,” I breathed, equal parts confused and aroused.

She sat back then, the energy between us stretching and then snapping as two plates were dropped onto our table. The one in front of me looked like a stew of some sort, it was a Moroccan red color and it was steaming, and the one closest to her was a pasta dish.

I looked up at the waiter, who was turning to leave. “Excuse me,” I said, touching his arm. “There must be a mistake. We didn’t order these.”

He exchanged a look with her. “No mistake.” He was European, maybe. “No mistake,” he said again, a bit more emphatically, pointing at my dish, where a small film had already formed over the surface. “You order the duck.”

“I’ve never ordered duck in my life,” I said, laughing a bit and looking to her. I thought we’d ordered a charcuterie board, something quick and light. But Beth only frowned at me and said, “If you want, I’ll trade you. I like everything on this menu.”

She tilted her plate to show me her dish, some type of gnocchi swimming in cream. A single potato lump rolled out of the bowl and across the table towards me, cream dribbling out. She’d ordered for us, I remembered now; she’d told me she would grab the waiter and put in the order on her way to the bathroom.

“No worries,” I said. I thought briefly of my checking account and felt an itch of panic. How much did duck cost? I would put it on my credit card, just to be safe.

“No mistake,” the waiter said again.

“I really don’t mind switching,” Beth said. “I love duck.”

“I’m just not that hungry,” I said, before realizing I was actually starving.

The duck was gummy, almost nauseatingly flavorful, oil slick across the back of my teeth as I chewed for minutes at a time. I ate anyways, spooning the stew quickly into my mouth. And she, in turn, picked at her gnocchi, moving it around every bit as much as she ate it, occasionally making a benign comment but more often falling back into a silence that made me feel as if we were married. I mulled the thought over as I chewed, decided I liked it. This was what I was missing, after all: the quiet comfort of being with someone who knew me, really knew me. The summer had been peppered with stabs at new friendships and new relationships, shouting into ears at bars, explaining pieces of myself that I didn’t quite like to explain. And here I was, having dinner with this girl as if we’d both known we would always end up right here, in this little shivering corner of the universe, sharing a meal together. Surely, she felt it too.

“How’s work?” I said after my bowl was near empty. I wiped my mouth with a napkin, then said, “Did you already tell me what you do? Am I being an asshole?”

“I’m a fact checker,” Elizabeth said, picking at something between her teeth. “For a magazine downtown. And no, I didn’t tell you.”

“Impressive,” I said, uneasily. I prayed she wouldn’t ask me the same question, that I wouldn’t have to find a sophisticated way to explain that I was currently unemployed, that I’d tried the tech world and it hadn’t worked out, that I’d moved back east with my tail between my legs, that my parents’ only form of communication with one another was through a shared commitment to paying my rent.

She shrugged. She seemed restless. “I was so ambitious in college. I got perfect grades, which sounds annoying but is just, like, a fact. I would’ve been much farther along in my career by now, if not for all that time in Vermont.”

“Vermont?” I said. I vaguely remembered her bringing it up when she’d first got here. A friend of a friend, something like that. A vacation home?

“I spent the last year in Burlington. My parents’ friends rent out their house. I spent the time going to therapy and babysitting and wearing secondhand flannel shirts at open mic nights. It was très chic, as I’m sure you can imagine, I think I ate a wheel of cheese a week…”

I reached for my wine glass and took a sip, nodding as she talked. The duck was making my stomach turn now, but the coat of oil in my mouth had worked the wine into something impossibly soft, almost velvet. I took another sip and moved my tongue around my mouth as she spoke, reminding myself to concentrate. I could take her home tonight, I realized. I could change the plans with my mother – something about an Amtrak twice delayed then cancelled, perhaps; a rebooked trip for the early morning – and take Beth back to my place. That might be nice.

“—read more in that one year that I did in my entire life up until that point.”

“That sounds really relaxing,” I said softly, smiling at her in a way that conveyed, I hoped, my interest in a specific direction of the evening.

She gave me a strange look. “It wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.”

“Ah,” I said, then sat back. Maybe I wouldn’t take her home. Maybe I didn’t care at all.

Something in her face had changed. She appeared almost resolute now, where moments before she had seemed far away, lost in some memory. She leaned forward abruptly as I took a long pull of wine. “The truth,” she said, “is I haven’t been the same since that night.”

The smell of the oily, fatty stew was still thick around me. The dishes needed to be taken away. The waiter was across the room. “Is that so?” I said vaguely, raising my hand to flag him down. Had we talked about this night already? I couldn’t remember.

“Which is why it felt like such perfect timing for you to reach out to me.”

“I’m glad to see you, too.”

The waiter was navigating his way through a line of tables now, twisting his hips this way and then that way. He looked my way, locked eyes with me, and then kept walking to the kitchen. I dropped my hand, exasperated, and turned back around to face her.

“When you DMed me,” she was saying now, “I knew it was finally the right time for us to talk about what happened.”

I frowned, laughed. “Did I help you bury a body and forget about it?”

But she didn’t laugh. She stared at me thoughtfully, a hand playing absently with one of her hoop earrings. “You could say that,” she said after a moment, then dropped her hand. “You could say that you did.”

There was a long pause then, in which we looked at each other, me smiling in a funny way and her staring back, serious as a heart attack. The coffee shop was packed, the tables full. The frenetic murmur of conversation and silverware scraping unsettled me. Maybe she only wanted to be friends, I thought, and felt a pang of vague disappointment. Still: worth it to give one more try towards steering the evening towards the romantic end I wanted. I widened my smile, baring my teeth at her, and said, “Are we ready for—”

“I need you to say it out loud.”

Her tone was sharp, almost angled, but her face was still so composed, so still that I couldn’t quite process any of it fast enough, could only shake my head again, and say, “Say what out loud?”

“Admit it. Admit what you did.”

Only then did I realize what was about to happen. All of the news programs, the cycle of fallen titans; hadn’t I said, jokingly, to a friend only a few weeks ago that it would inevitably happen to us?

In the moment before she said it, I had an infinite moment to recognize how filled the restaurant was now, how many people were within earshot of us, how my elbows were resting mere inches away from the elbows of an older man sitting at the table next to me.

“Admit you raped me,” she said, and the room erupted. A single moment — forks screeching across plates, voices rising and rising to the crescendo, a deathly chorus shrill in my ears — and then it was quiet again, the conversations around us a pulsing murmur.

I stared at her, tongue heavy in my mouth. How did all of those articles tell you to behave, in these moments? Listen, the articles had said. Listen, and learn, and get the fuck out of this coffee shop as soon as you can.

She was staring at me now, cheeks red, mouth a thin line. “Listen,” I finally said, then shook my head, cursed myself, that wasn’t right, try again: “Look: why don’t I pay the check and we go for a walk somewhere?”

“It’s pouring.”

“What? No, it’s—”

I glanced to the window, was shocked to see it had gone blurry. Rain pounded the glass. I gaped at the shadows of umbrellas hurrying past, the buildings reduced to dark shapes silhouetted by charcoal sky. I turned back to her. I harkened the worst memory I could of her in college: I’d passed by her one evening, lying on the floor of the fraternity kitchen, knocked out cold. Her face, her legs, her arms covered with permanent marker, skin marred by cartoon penises and scribbled jokes. I’d stepped over her body on my way to the living room.

What has two thumbs and can’t handle her liquor?

“I’m sorry,” I said abruptly. “For any pain I’ve caused you. If you’re saying that I contributed to, to your…your stay in Vermont—”

“Are you sorry for what you did? Or for the fact that I was in pain?” She spoke so smoothly I could barely hear her above the din around me. “Because those are two very different things, I’d say.” Her frown deepened as she said, slightly shaking her head as she spoke, “Why did you reach out to me, if not to talk about this? Did you think I’d want to just…just catch up with you?”

I thought, if you say you’re sorry, you’ll be done. You’ll be able to walk right out this door and never talk to this woman again. I rolled the apology around in my mouth, tried to force the words out. I couldn’t.

“Look,” I said, detesting how frantic my voice sounded, “I can’t apologize for something I don’t remember happening.”

“You don’t remember raping me?”

The word cut through the noise. The tables on either side of us were occupied by couples, and they kept eating, but of course, I thought, they must be listening. I resisted the urge to glance in either direction. I leaned forward and said quietly, “If you could just lower —”

“You can’t be serious, you can’t possibly be—”

“— only saying that we can talk about this like adults, like —”

“Are you embarrassed by the fact that you raped me?”

Will you just lower your fucking voice?

The rage came animally, without thought. I processed it at the same time she did, fear coiling in my stomach as I blinked, shook my head, leaned forward to apologize but before I could get the words out, she turned and laid a hand on the shoulder of the elderly woman sitting next to her at the table on my right. The woman turned to us, and I watched in horror as she said to the couple, “Do either of you mind if we have a conversation about how he raped me in college?”

“Oh, I — not at all,” the woman said, fingers fluttering by the neckline of her blouse.

“This is insane,” I said, and the three of them stared back at me. “This is officially batshit,” I said, then turned to Elizabeth and pointed a finger at her. “You are fucking batshit.”

Elizabeth said quietly, “I can’t believe I’m here.”

The woman placed a hand on her shoulder.

“What do you want from me?” I said to Elizabeth. “Why are we here?”

The husband set his knife down and said to me in a disgusted voice, “Don’t you think you’re being a bit hysterical?”

“You’re the one who brought us here,” Elizabeth said to me, “You contacted me first,” and again, the animal in me came out before I could stop it: I stood up in a single swift movement, leaning over the table, and said, “I never raped you. Do you hear me?”

From behind me, I thought I could hear the older woman’s voice, a wavering question: “Can you prove that, dear?”

“I’m leaving,” I said suddenly, looking around wildly. “I’m leaving, and you can… you can Venmo me for dinner if you want.”

I swooped down to pick my coat up off the floor. Elizabeth didn’t tell me to stay, only watched me silently, nodding when the older woman leaned towards her and muttered something into her ear.

I knocked over my chair as I left. Each table I passed seemed to freeze, forks midair, conversation stilled, before returning to life in my wake. It was still pouring outside, a flash of lightning illuminating the now empty street through the windows, and I reached the door and pulled it open.

The humidity of the storm hit me at once, solid as a wall. The rain drowned out the conversations behind me. I stood in the open doorway, inexplicably out of breath, summoning the courage to step out into the storm, to relent to the inevitability of getting soaked.

The waiter appeared beside me. He spoke over the downpour. “If you leave, you might as well say aloud that you’re guilty.”

I turned to him. His accent was gone. “What the fuck is happening here?” I said, and he shrugged.

“If you’re telling the truth, then what are you afraid of?”

I shut myself in the bathroom, locking the door even though it was a multi-stall. I splashed water on my face again and again, hands shaking. I soaked a paper towel and held it to the back of my neck, breathing deeply, counting with each inhale, each exhale. I opened my phone, only to find a litany of texts and missed calls from my mother.

Hi honey just wondering if you think you’ll be home in time for dinner or if I should —

I clicked it off and put it back in the pocket of my jeans.

“You’re fine,” I said aloud to the reflection. I felt like an idiot, but it had a calming effect on me, as if there was someone here who was able to guide me, to save me.

I said it again. “You’re fine. She just wants you to listen to her. She just wants you to apologize.” I breathed in through my nostrils, out through my mouth. I stared at my face until I didn’t recognize myself anymore, until finally my heartbeat felt controlled.

As I left the bathroom, I averted my eyes to the line of men that had accumulated outside.

Rapist,” one of them hissed as I passed, I swore he did. But by the time I turned around his back was to me, the door closing behind him.

Our plates had finally been cleared when I returned to the table. Elizabeth was staring out at me, hands in her lap, tracking my movements as I made my way to her, pulled the chair out, sat down. I had prepared a speech in my mind for the couple next to us, something about giving us the time and space we needed to sort things out, but they were gone, a waiter wiping down the table where they’d been moments before.

She sat across from me, silent. While I was gone, she’d pulled her hair back into a low ponytail. I thought back on what I’d come up with in the bathroom, reminded myself to look contrite.

“Look, I’m sorry for freaking out,” I said. “I’m just — as you can tell, this has caught me a little off guard.”

She didn’t say anything, only cocked her head in the dim lighting.

She’d been on the floor of the kitchen for hours that night, head lolling to one side, cheek pressed against the scummy tiled floor. One of the sisters had kicked at her boot for a while, finally rolling her eyes before leaving with the others in the early morning. Why hadn’t they taken her home with them?

What has three holes and can’t take a joke?

I went on, “I had no idea you were going to say something like that, and I can’t —” I paused here, struggling and failing to find the exact wording I’d come up with in the bathroom, the wording that removed blame from the conversation entirely, but the inspiration was gone. I finally said, “I just wonder if it’s possible that you have me mixed up with someone else.”

“Mixed you up,” she repeated, and I nodded, leaning forward. I felt the rare and distinct sensation of living within a metaphor. Threading a needle; a single chance to do it right.

“We were all so drunk in college,” I said, “so drunk all of the time,” but my tone came out too forceful, I fucked it up, and so I punctuated it with a self-deprecating laugh. Before she could speak I went on, unable to stop myself, “We all just got so fucked up all the time. So I wouldn’t be mad or surprised at all, if you—I don’t know, if you maybe confused me with—”

“I barely drank in college. I haven’t had a sip of alcohol in four years.”

Her arms were folded now, her face shadowy. She seemed farther away from me now. Had she pushed her chair back? Why did the table feel larger? I looked at her and tried to understand what she meant, and when I did, when I swallowed and tasted the metallic tang in my mouth, when I registered the half-empty second bottle sitting between us, I could only shake my head, mouth opening and closing as I searched blurrily around in the dark of my mind for a rebuttal.

“That’s not true,” I finally said. “I remember, you drank with us in college.”

“I didn’t, actually. In fact,” she said, “in fact, I stopped drinking for good the day after I woke up in that disgusting house.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier if you didn’t want wine?”

“You never asked.”

I leaned forward—to touch her? To take those words out from her mouth?—and knocked over the wine bottle. It rolled off the table and landed on the floor with a crack.

The waiter was on his knees before I could locate the bottle, and I sat back upright as Elizabeth said, “I left my drink on the counter for five minutes. I’ve thought about that more than anything. Was it coordinated? Did you all just do it to every single half-drank cup you could find, or was it just for me?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The kitchen had been so dark and everyone had gone to bed.

I’d thought, she’s so fucked up.

I’d thought, she won’t even notice.

What has five limbs and doesn’t regret a thing?

She sat back and smiled.

“I had to take medication that keeps you from getting AIDS,” she said.

I closed my eyes, opened them, dizzy.

She went on, “For six months. I could barely get out of bed, it made me so sick.”

The rain was pounding so hard. The waiter had disappeared beneath the table. I raised a hand, maybe to get her to stop talking, but she spoke to my palm, voice electric with her own current: “I remember every second. Every single second. I still have panic attacks. I still wake up and think I’m on that floor.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

My phone began to buzz in my pocket. It was my mother, it had to be her, wondering where I was, desperate to know if I was still planning on coming home and if I wanted her to heat up some—

“I’d hoped you would have become a decent human being by now,” she was saying, “I thought, when you reached out…everyone told me it was a dumb idea, and I just thought—I don’t know what I thought. But you. You still think it doesn’t matter.”

Something was happening to her face, I realized with horror: a deep, inky bruise was pooling and growing around her left eye socket, red marks rising on her neck.

My hand on her neck, for balance.

My hand on her face, when I lost that balance and keened forward.

The people around us were screaming now, screaming and laughing. The room shook with the sound, a crack of thunder making the chairs rattle, and after it was over I’d gone up to my room and rummaged around for a sweater I wouldn’t miss, I’d found a ratty old black thing and brought it to her downstairs and woken her up, woken her up I’d thought, and said, “You should probably go home. Do you want to borrow my sweatshirt?”

“I’m going to tell you what my father told me,” Beth said to me now, “Okay? I’ll tell you the advice he gave me when I told him I couldn’t breathe at night.”

You’re right, I wanted to yell, it all mattered so little. That night didn’t cross my mind once. I haven’t thought of you once. But the noise never left my throat.

“I’m fine now. I’m going to be fine. But you, on the other hand—”

My mouth was open, I was shouting and gasping but the sound didn’t come out, the breath didn’t come out—

“I’m going to tell you what my father said, and maybe it will help you more than it helped me.”

I watched a spiderweb crack ran down the window behind her, making little splintering noises as it spread to all four corners. Behind me, a woman began to scream.

“Darling,” she said, voice cutting through the roar of panic that rolled through the room, as the windows shattered one by one, “This is all in your head.”


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