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Remain | Rachel Johanna Darroch (Fall 2023 Prose Contest Winner)

The coffee was bitter.

 

Reeve did not know why she kept getting stuck on this fact. The aftertaste was acrid, like swallowing old pennies. She hoped no one bled in her cup. She was in a café and everyone was wearing masks and gloves, so it was unlikely. But the coffee kind of tasted like blood and no matter how many packets of sugar she put (she was on her fifth) she could not get that taste out of her mouth.

 

“Bring it back.” Brian was always giving her helpful suggestions like this one, always full of such easy solutions.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“Suit yourself.”

 

They descended into silence after this, sitting together at a table that was safely distanced six feet away from the others. She did not like taking off her mask, not even to sip her might-be-contaminated-with-blood coffee. It gave her a hinky feeling every time, like the germs were crawling all around her face, just outside her mask, waiting for the moment when she lifted it off so they could sneak inside, like nestling little ground moles.

 

Sometimes, if she thought too hard about this mental image, a muffled sort of white noise would fill her ears like a whole hive of bees decided to take root there, and then the sounds of the world would be washed away as she considered the possibilities of getting sick, of not being able to breathe, and gee, she really couldn’t catch her breath right now could she, maybe she ought to get tested again, just to be safe, and would the person behind her please stop coughing, she could see them lowering their mask down to their chin while they talked to the cashier, and just how effective was a mask anyway if it wasn’t covering the nose because that was where the germs were just waiting to get into, that was their final destination, their burrowing-hole, and -

 

“I think I might get the promotion.”

 

“What?”

 

Brian stared at her for a moment, blinking slowly like a perturbed cat. Reeve was halfway through sipping on her coffee before she lowered it undrunk and stared back at him.

 

There was some kind of social cue here that she seemed to be missing. He did not look annoyed - she was well too familiar with the way his green eyes would crinkle at the corners whenever he gave her the same look her sister often gave her. The look that said, fuck Reeve, could you dig yourself out of your mind for a goddamned minute and remember the rest of us out here?

 

This look was different.

 

Brian never really got angry with her. She could not remember a single time during their five months of dating that he yelled at her. They never argued, not even over what restaurant to pick for dinner, so she was not sure what this look meant. He was like a still lake on an overcast day, glassy and vague.

 

“Do you want to leave?” He sounded cautious, she thought. Stilted with an emotion she could not place.

 

Reeve inclined her head, her gaze flitting down to her lap. “No.”

 

“You keep looking at that man over there.”

 

“What man?”

 

“Reeve…”

 

“You said you got the promotion?”

 

“That I might get it.”

 

“Right. That’s great, Brian.”

 

“Is it?”

 

“What?”

 

“Is it great?”

 

“Is what great?”

 

Brian looked away from her then and that was the moment she knew they were going to break up. It was not that she was great at reading body language because she wasn’t. It was not in the subtle shifting away of his body from hers or the cold space left in between. He just had that look she had come to know. Defeat. Embattled eyes lilted downwards, with those dulled brown crescents beneath and a mouth that would not smile anymore. Not at her.

 

She was relieved.

 

Reeve lifted her coffee, sipped from it and winced. If she had not paid ten dollars, she wouldn’t drink it at all. But here she was, her mask hanging from one ear and her shoulders tightening when a new person came through the café doors.

 

“Are you still hungry?” Brian did not sound the same anymore, either. His voice was withered, like the flowers she once tried to grow in a small box outside her bedroom window.

 

“I think I’ll walk home,” she told him, avoiding the question entirely. “It’s warm out today.”

 

He nodded then and though they stayed until they finished their coffees, she left their date on a handshake rather than a kiss.

 

She was always shit at goodbyes.

 

***

 

Her apartment was cluttered with color.

 

The couch was bright orange and worn, a second-hand find at the neighborhood flea-market. Brian had helped her bring the couch upstairs and he had helped her pick out her coffee table and mix-matched chairs too. Her kitchen table was aluminum, the top a shocking shade of lime green vinyl. Her walls were plastered with cheap art prints she found at the home décor store down the block, abstract pieces in varying shades of blue, purple and yellow.

 

Brian was surprised the first time she brought him up to her apartment. She wondered if she seemed the type to prefer palatial décor; if he thought her place might look like her dentist’s office, all creams and faded beige with little succulents dotting her shelves.

 

Reeve liked color. She liked the chaos of it because every other part of her life was so regimented she sometimes thought she would lose her mind. Brian did not like it. She did not realize this at first and it was not until she saw the telltale crinkle in his eyes every time he walked into her apartment that he didn’t like it. That look meant displeasure and she catalogued it the way she catalogued her DVD collection of 90s sitcoms, neatly filing the expression away for future reference should it occur on his face again like the tightening of screws.

 

Back from her abysmal date, Reeve leaned against her front door, still in her coat and boots. Her mask was clutched in her fist, her eyes closed as she took a deep breath of the apartment’s stuffy air. She ought to open some windows. She ought to eat something because she didn’t very often and it was starting to show. Instead, she took this moment to gather herself.

 

She was not sad about Brian.

 

He was kind. He was gentle. Their sex was pleasant, if vanilla. Plain, like the eggshell walls of his bachelor apartment. He did not like to make eye contact during it and she could never decide if she was relieved by this, or unnerved by his forced avoidance.

 

Brian liked predictability. If the movie started at nine, he wanted to be there thirty minutes early so they did not miss the previews. If they were supposed to go to a social gathering, though she only went to two in all their time together, they had to arrive just on time, not a minute later. He liked order. Schedules and timetables. He liked for her to listen to his work stories, but this was not always easy for her. She had a hard time sitting still. She had a hard time keeping an ear out for the mundane and ordinary because she was always so busy looking at everyone and everything else. Searching for triggers.

 

Brian could see this. He could no doubt feel it in the careful spaces she kept between them. And then, like the others, he grew tired of her strangeness and left. This only meant that she did not have to explain her strangeness and for that she was relieved.

 

Maybe it was time to stop pretending. Not everyone was meant to be with someone.

 

Perhaps, she was only trying out of spite, though in spite of her own mind or the downcast judgment of society, she was not entirely sure. All she knew was that it might be time to forget about dating. Dates always made her anxious and she had enough of that to go around already.

 

Later on, after she peeled herself away from her door and settled into her afternoon routine, Reeve sipped on her tea, strongly brewed. It washed away the bitter coffee from earlier, that coppery taste fading faster than any lingering regret she had over Brian. She sat in the windowsill of her apartment, staring down at the grey and dreary world, while all around her, her mismatched furniture screamed with a vibrancy as foreign to her way of thinking as the trifles of romance. This was where she was meant to be, safe and tucked away. Down the hall, she could hear her neighbor coughing. She thought about picking up some more tests from the grocery store and decided against it.

 

Best to stay inside.


 

Rachel Johanna Darroch is an emerging Canadian author from Kitchener, Ontario. She is the author of several published short stories and flash fictions pieces, including At the End of Indigo, The Paradox, Light Years, Minor Key, and The Advent.

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