Who He Was Now

Friday, May 5th, 2017

I saw him get out of his car, hair shorter than Id ever seen it and taller than Id imagined, and I wondered who he was now. They headed up the sidewalk, and I realized that I needed to stop peering through the window and get the door. The doorbell peeled three quick tones, a sound that I hated, but couldnt bring myself to do anything about. I inhaled deeply before yanking the door open, it always stuck when it got cold outside.

Hi! I said, a bright smile plastered on my face.

Ella, hi! he replied. He turned to the taller than average woman with him. This is my wife, Maggie.

Oh, its so nice to meet you, Maggie said, extending her manicured hand.

Of course, you too, I said. Come in, theres no need to stand in the cold.

I led the way into my small living room, taking the pie that Maggie had brought and putting it in the kitchen. I could hear Daniel and Maggie talking to each other quietly in the next room. My anxiety had dissipated when I opened the door, but it was building again as I stood here away from them. I smoothed my skirt down and walked back in.

Do you guys want anything? I asked. I have water, wine, tea. I was trying to be a good host. It wasnt something I was accustomed to.

I think were fine for now, Daniel said. He had taken my favorite spot on the couch, where the back cushion sagged from my regular presence, so I sat in the uncomfortable armchair that Id bought only because the room had felt empty and it was cheap.

Silence fell, and I racked my brain trying to think of a way to break it. Fortunately, Daniel did it for me. So thanks for letting us stay here, Ella.

Oh, its no problem, I said. Daniel and Maggie were passing through town on their way to New York for their first anniversary, and knowing that I lived en route, Daniel had reached out and asked if they could stay with me for a night. I had been surprised to hear from him, I hadnt spoken to him since we were next-door neighbors when he was twelve and I was thirteen. Our families had stayed tenuously in touch. Christmas cards, birth and graduation announcements. I was his friend on Facebook, which is how hed contacted me. Other than those things, though, I hadnt had any contact with his family since theyd moved to Colorado sixteen years ago. I had left our hometown when I was 25, and my then 48-year-old mother, who had recently been remarried to a 32 year-old-man, decided to have more children in the form of IVF-induced triplets. Deciding that I didnt want to get roped into that mess, I had picked a spot on the map and moved.

How have you been? I asked. It was hard for me to force small talk, I was unsure of the protocol.

Good! he said, his cheeriness clearly exacerbated by the subtle awkwardness of the situation. Good, Ive been good . . ..

Maggie picked up where her husband had trailed off. So, Ella, what do you do? The conversation continued like that, talking about everyones schools and careers and families. I heard about how Daniel and Maggie met and how excited she was to finally meet a member of the famous Wofford family.

Maggie had brought dessert, but I hadnt made anything for dinner. I hadnt known if they would have eaten already, and I wasnt much of a cook anyway. Apparently, though, no one had eaten, and we ended up having to go out. We went to Olive Garden, which was apparently Maggies all-time favorite restaurant. Daniel accidentally told the host that he had a party of two before remembering that I was there and quickly correcting himself. I smiled and pretended that I didnt care that a guest in my home had forgotten that I was at dinner with him.

Dinner took forever. Inexplicably, as the restaurant was near empty. It also seemed that Maggie had run out of things to ask me, which led the conversation to collapse into Daniel and Maggie telling me about their lives and laughing at jokes I didnt understand. I kept nodding, eyes glazed over, so mindlessly that I wasnt sure that I would be able to stop doing it even if I tried.

As they laughed together and talked at me, all I could think of was the way I had known Daniel, and the way I had imagined he would be as an adult. He was a tense child, though he was still fun to play with. He was always worried about his mother. He and his siblings had always been expected to do a lot around the house, even as small children. Something that felt like a burden to me when I was younger because he would regularly be called back next-door hours too early so he could do chores. Looking at him now, I could see the traces of that old tension. He was laughing, but his eyes seemed distracted. He seemed to check the clock way more often than was necessary, especially since we couldnt go anywhere without paying, and we had no plans for the rest of the evening.

It was ten oclock by the time we got back to the house. Ella, Maggie said, is it alright if I go ahead and go to bed? It struck me as weird that she was asking my permission.

Yeah, of course, I said, Ill show you to the guest room. Maggie picked up her bigger-than-overnight-sized bag and followed me through the narrow hallway to where the one actual bedroom in the house was. My room was a converted attic space that I had chosen because I disliked sleeping on the first floor.

The bathrooms behind the door to the left, I said after swinging open the guest room door.

Maggie nodded and smiled, thank you. Have a good night! I nodded and smiled back before walking down the hall to the living room, boards creaking under my feet.

You were always such a heavy walker, Daniel announced as I rounded the corner back into the living room.

What?

You walk very heavily, he said. You were terrible at hide and seek.

No, I wasnt, I replied. And youre in my spot. It had felt rude to demand my spot on the couch in front of Maggie, but when it was just the two of us, it felt like we couldve been three years old again, fighting over dry cereal and whose turn it was.

He squinted at me a little, like he couldnt see me in the dim light of the room, but remained wordless. After a few seconds of me looking impatiently at him and him squinting back at me, he slid over a few feet on the couch.

Thank you, I said, sitting down.

Sorry if you feel like Maggie and I are intruding, Daniel said, staring at the black TV screen in front of him.

No, dont worry abou—”

I mean I know its obnoxious. We havent even spoken in, what, fifteen years? And then I message you on Facebook, of all things, and ask to stay with you. Its obnoxious, Im sorry.

Its really okay, I said.

Its just that this is an expensive trip, and were really trying to save money wherever we can, and . . ..

I get it, I said, and really, its fine. I dont mind having guests. It gets lonely here. And its nice to see you. You know, catch up.

Yeah, he said, bobbing his head slowly up and down, not looking at anything in particular.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, not looking at each other. My mind felt dead. I couldnt think of a single thing to say, and I wasnt really thinking about anything at all.

Remember that time we found the dead possum in the yard? Daniel said.

That was awful, I replied. We didnt know if it was dead or just playing dead until we came back hours later and it hadnt moved and flies had started buzzing around it.

He laughed. Yeah, that was gross. Thank God you didnt let me touch it.

I forgot that you had wanted to touch it. Why did you want to touch a dead possum?

I was a nine year old boy, he said, cutting his eyes over to look at me finally. Of course I wanted to touch it.

There was an odd quality to our reminiscing. I had hardly thought about Daniel for so long, and now waves of little memories were coming back to me. The time wed both gotten poison ivy all over our entire bodies trying to make clothes out of foliage. The time wed tried to make candy, only managing to burn sugary water. Daniels mother didnt want to be wasteful, so shed told us that we had to eat the result. We threw it out in the bushes instead.

The summers felt so long back then. Days and weeks and months of barefooted backyard football and monkey bars. My dad had put hinges on one of the slats of the fence that connected our yards so that we could travel back and forth more easily. In the fall we played in the leaves. When it snowed, we would sled down my sloping front yard. In the winter before the snow fell and after it melted, it was harder to find things to do. The metal of the playground was cold and the wind made our noses red and runny. We played inside instead, teaching ourselves card games and building forts.

Remember the blanket forts we used to build? I asked after a few minutes of quiet.

Of course I do, he said. Those forts were the things of legend.

I laughed a little. They werent that good.

It sure felt like they were, he said. Theyd probably be better now.

Well I would hope so, I said, were adults now. With lots of fort-building experience under our belts.

He turned to me, eyebrows raised. You wanna? he asked.

Do I wanna what?

Build a fort, he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

A fort? Ill say it again: were adults now, I said.

Theres no rulebook that says adults cant build forts. He always was a persuasive person, able to make me feel like my logic was totally off-base, no matter what we were talking about.

I thought about it for a beat. Fine, I said, lets build a fort.

He jumped off the couch in excitement. Awesome. He looked around, swiveling his head wildly, and realizing that he knew where nothing was in this house.

Ill get blankets, I said, you start clearing off the furniture.

And pillows! he whisper-yelled after me as I headed for the linen closet.

In a matter of a few minutes, I had gathered every pillow and blanket that I had in my house, other than the ones in the guest room. There were sheets stacked on the coffee table, blankets on the uncomfortable armchair, and pillows littered on the floor. I had a handful of hair ties and scarves ready to be used for tethering purposes.

Ready? Daniel asked.

Ready, I nodded.

We slid a floor lamp to the center of the room to make a high point for the fort. Sheets got utilized as ceiling panels, they were lighter so they were easier to hold up. We used books and candles and anything else we could find to weigh down the ends that sat on the back of the couch, the fireplace mantel, and the window sills. There was something about the work that was soothing and methodical. This blanket makes this wall, put the pillow over there for the door. As children, we had always imagined our forts impenetrable. Places where we could share our secrets so no one on the other side of the pink fleece wall would ever know. This was obviously a misguided conception, but at the time our secrets were harmless anyway, so it made no difference.

Our fort now had taken shape. It wasnt as intricate as those of our youth. There werent separate rooms for each of us, we hadnt draped a blanket over the TV set, the better to watch movies without leaving the forts confines. It was just one big space, the lamp that held up the center the only light on in the house, bathing the fort in a soft glow. We had laid pillows and the heavier blankets down on the floor for warmth and comfort. This fort wasnt full of stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, and contraband snacks, but it felt just as cozy as the ones that had.

Daniel had to duck his head inside, I was no longer the taller one. I sat on top of one blanket and under another, my back against the couch. Daniel sat across from me, closer to the center where he could sit up straighter.

Maggies nice, I said.

Yeah, shes pretty cool, he replied. But that story she told you about how we met was a complete lie.

It was?

It very much so was. Come on, did you really think we met under a J.C. Penneys overhang waiting for the rain to stop? he asked incredulously.

It did seem a little convenient, I said. How did you actually meet?

Oh, I would get in so much trouble if I told you, he said. I was about to protest. He couldnt bring something up that I didnt ask about and then not actually tell me. Wait, he said, reading the look on my face. I was about to say that Ill tell you anyway. Its not like youre going to go telling all of Maggies friends back home.

True, I said. So tell me.

I met Maggie at my cousins wedding. Or rather, outside of the wedding where she was throwing up in the grass. I wont tell you that I held her hair, I didnt. There was already puke in it, so there was no point. But I got her a water and talked to her until her friend came to pick her up. She thinks that storys embarrassing, so she made up a new one for us to tell.

Thats not so bad, I said.

No, its not so bad, but she doesnt like it and shes my wife. So I roll with it, he replied.

It felt like we talked for hours that night. He asked me about boyfriends, of which there had been few. I asked him about his plans, of which there were many. We talked about all of the stupid things we did together as kids and all of the stupid things we did without each other as adults. We sat in that fort until our phones died and the neighbors dog stopped barking, and then we sat for a couple more hours. Eventually, I fell asleep laying on the floor of my living room.

When I woke up, the lamp was off, but there was a soft gray light filtering through the white sheet above my head. I sat up, disoriented, pulling down the sheet and a stack of books on accident. I stood, one side of the fort now in ruins around me. The clock on the microwave said that it was 6:38. Daniel must have gone to bed after I fell asleep.

I set about cleaning up the fort. Something that had made so much sense and felt so safe last night now felt out of place and, quite frankly, lame in the soft daylight. I returned the books to their shelves and put the hair ties on my wrist. I folded up the blankets and put them back in the linen closet. I trudged the sheets from my bed and the pillows back upstairs, dropping them in a heap in the center of my mattress.

As I walked back into the living room, I saw Maggie standing there in middle of the room, looking at all the misplaced furniture around her.

She turned around when she heard me enter. Hi, Ella, she said brightly but quietly. Her eyes scanned the room quickly and then they scanned over me, taking in the tangled, greasy hair and the outfit from yesterday. What exactly, um, happened? she asked. Her voice was polite and cheery, but it didnt seem sincere.

Oh, I said, we built a fort last night. Saying the words out loud felt absurd. She didnt look like she believed me. I dont know why she would, it was a ridiculous statement and I had already cleaned up most of the evidence. It was Daniels idea, I said. Its something we used to do a lot as kids, so.

She smiled and nodded. Yes, hes told me that he used to do that. Well, Daniels just packing his bag and then were going to go ahead and take off, weve still got a lot of driving left to do.

Right, of course, I said. Do you want anything to eat? Coffee?

No, I think well be fine, she said. She walked back out of the room, shoes clacking softly on the floor. I sighed and started to move the furniture back to where it all belonged.

After a few minutes, Daniel was ready to go. He was disappointed that I had taken down the fort. Apparently he had wanted to take a picture. I got a couple of hugs and a lot of so nice to see yous and then they loaded up their car. I finished pushing all the furniture back, but I couldnt get the lamp back to exactly where it should have been, so I left it sitting a few inches off. Eventually, I returned to my spot on the couch, trying to ignore the misplaced lamp.