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Contest Winner: The Work | C. Low

This is the winning selection from the 2024 Spring Fiction & Nonfiction Contest. For more information about our upcoming contests, please see the Submissions page.


Before my ex was my ex, we two sat in silence at our kitchen table in Papakōlea, the varnish oranged by a blazing, stubborn sun as it inched its way down a bruised blue sky. Through the cross-hatched window, the frail leaves of the avocado tree next door attempted to shield us, but their measly, brown edges were crisp from summer scorch, and the tree had suddenly gone barren; the fruit disappeared earlier that month. The branches reminded me of frail wings, and I wondered if it was dying.

 

I sat across the table with my hands folded neat as feathers, keeping my composure though I could hear my heart breaking as I said the words I’d tried so hard to avoid, “I want a divorce.”

 

The green of my ex’s right iris was side-lit by sunshine, and a yellow glint flashed before he looked at me with knotted brows, “But the therapist said women only go to therapy if they want to work it out?”

 

That eighty-year old quack with her argyle pashmina and musty cloth-covered couch betrayed me, I thought, squinting, my anger quick and darting. I had made it clear from the beginning that I was hiring her to help him understand what and why, wanting to soften the blow, to be kind about the fact that I could no longer stay married. What’s more, she’d given him hope—such cruelty. Disappointment infused my bloodstream. I began to cry.

 

“She was wrong,” I said, my voice cracking. “I’m sorry.”

 

His searching refocused from me to his own hands, clasped tight on the table, the grip turning the bases of his fingers white. I tried to meet his eyes, to hold him with compassion knowing how much he depended on me, but he would not look up again.

 

We sat in silence a long time, sweat dripping down my back and pooling behind my knees, heat rising off me as if I were afire inside. I ran my fingers at my nape and found the huge zit that had been there for days now, felt the dull ache I’d endured for too long. I took it between my thumb and pointer then squeezed hard until it crunched—hard puss coming first, a soft ooze, then hot blood. Smooshing the stuff between my fingertips, I wiped it on my thigh, glimpsed a tinge of red beneath my nails before re-folding my hands in front of me.

 

“What if we put the baby thing back on the table?” he asked in a weak voice, pleading.

 

And I stared at the tree in silence, again hearing his words every time I’d asked before: “In a couple of years,” for the last six we’d been married, and “Don’t you like traveling whenever you want, being unburdened, untethered?”

 

Now it was an impossibility—the talcum smell, toothless grin, and shining eyes of someone of me returning my gaze. Pregnancies, I knew, were not for failing marriages but thriving ones with solid foundations, for couples who could work together and spare extra love for small beings.

 

“It’s too late for that,” I said, staring at the tree, waiting again.

 

He swallowed hard and clenched his jaw, the skin at his temple tightening as a bead of sweat glistened, frozen there. He was willing himself not to cry in front of me, saving his sorrow for later when I would not bear witness.

 

And I remembered before we’d begun dating ten years prior, how I’d come back from my maiden voyage to Europe and we’d sat on the patio behind the Hard Rock Cafe eating our shift meal together in the mild afternoon before work: mine, grilled chicken breast with broccoli, his: pot roast. We agreed that the Tuscan summer sunset burned the sky blue, and he promised to host me in his native home in Liege, show me the Roman ruins in the Belgian countryside. He kept his promise, and we’d ventured together to Waremme for his father’s funeral. Surrounded by thick walls of a stone church, he’d refused to genuflect.

 

 “I’ll never kneel for any man,” he explained, though he cried like a small boy, inconsolable and shivering in the spring air at the graveyard. We’d been friends then—acquaintances, really—and he became the first man I’d ever pursued. But there had been no real passion between us, and I’d wanted to break up with him many times before we married. “No one will ever love you the way he does,” our coworker told me, feeding my fear it was true. He was safe, reliable, someone I could trust, but there was a part of me that understood when he’d refused to go through the ritual at the church for his father whom he loved that he would not fight for me, would not debase himself to that sort of vulnerability.

 

After a long while I asked too soon, “So what do you want?” I meant the furniture, the panini press, the bedding and steak knives.

 

“I want my wife back,” he shot, glancing up at me, wincing.

 

“I can’t give you that.” I wanted to take his hand in mine, to comfort him while wishing it weren’t so.

 

My mother’s advice echoed in my mind from a few days prior and the memory of sitting in her living flashed before me: I, at sea atop her white carpet, my legs sprawled out: one beneath the coffee table, the other ending with my flat foot anchored against Mom’s armchair.

 

“I thought I wanted to be the bread-winner, to be the man, but I’m so tired of having a wife instead of a husband,” I’d complained to her. “I feel like I’m carrying him in a backpack and every time I ask him about work, he says he can’t—that the pilot thing will pan out, as long as I keep paying the five or seven thousand dollars every month for his training, ‘It’ll be just a few more months,’ he’s said for too many years now. ‘Just work at Macdonalds,’ I’ve said, ‘anything is better than nothing,’ but I go to work and he’s in his pajamas and I come home and he’s in his pajamas drinking an aperitif while he gets ready to make a dinner he still needs to shop for which we won’t eat until eight or ten at night. And the worst part? It’s like we’re roommates: brother and sister living together instead of lovers.”

 

Mom touched my shin with her big toe, and I realized I was lost in the abyss of her foam white carpet, un-shed tears blurring my vision as I looked into a future filled with more of the same unkept promises. I let my head fall to the seat cushion behind me and stared at the ceiling, the ache of the zit becoming a conscious thing. How many more ‘in a couple years’ could I afford? I was thirty-five and would already be considered a high-risk geriatric mother if I got pregnant now.

 

“Plus, I thought I didn’t want kids, but my biological clock started and I smell babies before I see them, feel an ache deep inside when I hear them cry, yearn for their squishy skin, chubby bellies, fat cheeks, and a set of eyes mesmerized, staring into mine. But we said we wouldn’t have kids, so I’m going back on my word. ‘I’m the same man you married,’ he said to me, and I realized he was right. He hasn’t changed, has no intention of ever changing, whereas I’ve changed so much. I’m like a completely different person.”

 

When I finally looked up, Mom’s blue-green eyes, those I’d known all my life, that had held my gaze for hours when I was an infant, that loved me, met mine.

 

She took a deep breath. “Rip off the bandage,” she said. “Don’t tear at each other the way your father and I have done. Make a clean break, be compassionate, be kind.”

 

Those words became my mantra now and I sat up straighter, noticed my hands were clammy. I put my palm to the wood then swiped an arc watching the swath of smeared sweat evaporate instantly in the scorching sunlight. “I can’t give you that,” I said again, though the ten percent inside me that wasn’t sure tugged at my insides.

 

He stood, laced his motorcycle boots and bounded down the front wooden steps and past the avocado tree, his steps shaking our tiny house on Auwaiolimu. I heard his Triumph roar to life then sputter down the road and into the distance while I stayed at the table for a long time weeping and weeping and weeping. I wept for days, then weeks, the searing pain of breaking my own heart afire inside me like a phoenix, the destruction of my marriage: a necessary act of self preservation.

 

Some months later, my cell phone rang. I was sitting at my desk, wondering again when he’d leave our home so I could start life without him. “Hey,” I said, reading the caller i.d.

 

“I’ve been in an accident, went over the handlebars on H3 and crashed the Triumph.”

 

“Are you bleeding? Hurt?”

 

“No, but my helmet is demolished.”

 

“Have you called an ambulance?”

 

“No.”

 

“Am I the first call you made?” though I sort-of knew the answer, glimpsing this ploy to get me to come running, an attempt to test the bounds of my resolve.

 

“Yes. Are you going to be there for me?” He pressed, asking multiple times until I answered.

 

“Of course,” I lied. I hung up and promptly packed a bag—understanding for the first time that if I stayed, he would never leave. I flew from my house and landed on my mom’s doorstep. A coward, I did not leave a note.

 

I kept paying the mortgage, but lived in my mother’s guest room where a louvered door let in diffused green light from an elephant tree as I began to feel all the feelings I’d kept away from myself so many years to keep my vow intact. I’m happy enough and No one will ever love me as much were the thoughts I’d used to down my knowing—I was settling but shouldn’t dare want for more when what we had was sure, in hand.

 

I began a practice of letting my tears fall into my palms where small pools would form, the grief and shame that came in waves holding me down, suffocating me as I heaved out fathoms-deep pain.

 

Once we’d separated, those episodes lasted so long I worried I’d lose myself, unmoored from all sensibility and composure, at sea with all I’d denied—my emotions and desires I’d sunk so far down inside they now came back raging: a tsunami of self reclaiming its natural shores.

 

Eventually the waters subsided and peaceful calm took over, a sense of deep knowing, confidence, and lightness. Those moments began growing as the storms shortened, so I knew I was doing something right—the tears that gathered in my open palms, finally soaking into my skin like a healing salve. I’d turn my hands up and down and see no trace of my sadness, no evidence of my failure—only a clean slate, perfect and whole.

 

Some months later we met on those same wooden stairs in front of our home. My ex was coming, I was going, and he stood a step below me and looked up; the avocado tree stood behind him dotted with new leaves like small reddish flames. He showed me the strawberry from his crash and I saw that the place the road had marked him had started to skim over with a purple scab. I felt the urge to reach out and hold onto him, to verify with my body that his body was intact, but I resisted.

 

“I’m not your person anymore,” I tried to convey the compassion I felt for the us that was while feeling like a complete asshole. “You should go back to Belgium, where your people are. They love you.”

 

Weeks later, he was gone along with the panini press, some knives, the Triumph, too. I moved back and slept in our bed without his body next to mine, his hand on my hip, his breath on my nape. I rose and made my own coffee, did my own laundry, figured out dinner for one, realizing that even without his voice in my ear, there were still things that frustrated and angered me about myself.

 

And yet, that time without him was the most alive I have ever been, looking myself in the mirror each morning—really looking—and seeing the truth in my own eyes: that I’d been brave enough to let us go because I believed I deserved better, even though I had no idea what that meant. My life with him was like the deep grooves of a vinyl record. I had to etch new grooves inside me to play a different song, one I choose each day with my future self in mind, a song that is still forming.


 

C. Low is an Oahu-born, Kaneohe-raised author who graduated from the University of Hawai’i English Department with her MA in 2010. She won the Best New Author Award for Bamboo Ridge’s centennial issue, and “The Work” is an excerpt from her in-progress memoir, “The Heart Bone.” C. Low is a second generation immigrant whose Chinese father was born and raised in Fiji and whose Haole mother was born and raised in New Zealand, so (right or wrong) she considers herself a Pacific Islander. Find more from her at www.clowwrites.com or check her out on insta at clowwrites.

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