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Red Sneakers

by Nev Ocean 6 months ago in Love
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The breaking had happened gradually over the years until the bond between them was stretched too thin; and with a sudden, violent jerk, it snapped apart.

Red Sneakers
Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

It was a bittersweet, melancholy note, the distance that had grown between them, stretching echo-soft into some unknown void until the masked loneliness could no longer be denied. Amber’s heart ached at the pull. She had to turn away. To look at him now was a blade sliding into an already gaping wound.

The first promise of snow danced with the air and whipped the multi-hued leaves into intricate pirouettes at her feet. This time of year, Brooklyn was beautiful with its rows of Brownstone homes and tree-lined streets. The Victorian lamp posts flickering to life as dusk settled always reminded her of Christmas postcards. In this gentrified neighborhood of babies, dogs, and middle-class workaholics, there had been hope that perhaps what her neighbors had would be contagious and she would somehow awake one day as complete as they seemed to be. The rich scent of dampened earth glided past like the sound of children's laughter, vibrant and sweet. It was all the things promised that could not be delivered as she stood on the darkening sidewalk.

She would be forty-three this year. Time that had once crawled towards adulthood now seemed to speed by without a second thought for her. The hope for children would be put to rest soon and her new home would be empty. Their friends would have to choose and the holidays would be awkward. But if she were honest with herself, they were always more his friends than hers. She'd let go of all of her friends in trade for time with him. Keeping up with him, keeping him happy had been all-consuming.

How terrible to start over now, she thought, when it felt as though her whole world had emptied itself into cardboard boxes.

Sometimes, she felt as though she were sitting in an audience for a sitcom, watching memories play like scenes. It was her surrounded by familiar strangers even though she stood outside of it all, as though seeing someone else portray her life. She could hear the cued-up laughter and mandatory applause for every awkward, uncomfortable moment. The recurring characters played their roles to their cues – the mother, with her fragile eyes and trembling lips, always on the verge of incapability and self-doubt, lecturing Amber on not being too headstrong less no man ever find her loveable; the perfect younger sister, who had found the perfect man, married him at the perfect age of twenty-five, and now lived Upstate with their two perfectly mannered kids; the father, who futility had swallowed whole after years of attempting to please an unpleased wife and had finally decided that the staunching humidity of Florida was a better deal than the cold front that came with living in New York.

She'd been sixteen, trying to hold on to the feel of her father's hand against her cheek as he'd looked into her eyes and said, "I'm sorry, I just can't be unhappy anymore. I love you girls and I'm still your dad, but I just can't anymore. Some day, you'll understand."

He'd patted his daughters on the head, picked up the last of his suitcases and walked to his car. The engine was already running.

"Love is shallow, Amber, but heartbreak is deep. Careful you don't drown," her mother had bitterly spat at her as her father drove away that dusty summer evening, his red taillights disappearing down the manicured lane.

From then on, Amber had been the broken one and her sister, the perfect one.

And then, there came Jeff.

The breaking had happened gradually over the years until the bond between them was stretched too thin; and with a sudden, violent jerk, it snapped apart. The recoiling length had stung and brought tears to her eyes. She was now left with her half, useless and limp. Even in the aftermath, the welt felt as though it had a heartbeat of its own, pulsing an angry, dulling, residual ache inside her chest.

Loving him had been gradual and soft. It had been a fog that rolled in over the expansive sea to cover every part of her, holding her in its opaque blur until all she could see and feel was him. She had thought she was happy, but outside, the world had continued on and it seemed so had he. He had been able to see beyond her. The glistening green grass of others had beckoned him and he had ventured forth to lay amongst their velds of promise. When the fog dissipated, the light had been harsh and brutal on her blurry eyes. She'd been so acclimated to the cold and dampness that the shining rainbow of colors and the sting of the sun’s rays had knocked her to her knees and curled her body to shield her pale face from its unrelenting brightness. She'd been held immobile, left to dry there on the shores of their relationship.

"Amber," she heard him call. Her feet were already on the last step of the stoop, the box in her arms growing heavier with every delayed moment.

“Amber,” he called again, “I’m sorry.”

She thought she could hear heartbreak in his voice, perhaps a tremor of vulnerability, but she couldn't allow herself to sink into his pain. Hers was so much greater. For once in her life, she chastised herself, she had to not care.

She bit her trembling lips and hoisted the box in her slipping hands more securely. She would have to swallow down the sorrow, find it within herself to not turn around, run into his arms, and beg him for words that would breathe life back into the dead.

She was wise enough to know that no matter the reasonings he gave, it would not satisfy the cravings of her heart. He would not be coming back; there was someone else. Even if he did return, the rift had already been torn and it was something that neither had the knowledge nor the skill to repair.

“Amber, please don’t leave this way,” he choked out. She could hear the tears cracking his voice, the same sorrow she felt at the destruction of fifteen years. Fifteen years, she thought bitterly. Where had the time gone? Why hadn’t she noticed?

“How else did you imagine this, Jeff?” she said over her shoulder. She refused to turn, refused to allow him to see her crumbling. Her red hair felt hot and heavy underneath her woolen hat and her body felt overheated in its thin jacket.

“Don’t be like this. Be angry. Yell at me. Tell me you hate me. Anything.” He was close now. He had come down the stoop and she could feel the energy radiating from him, his gravity pulling at her to lean back into that hateful, familiar warmth.

She swallowed down her spiteful tears and licked her dry lips. She didn’t know how long she could withhold the shudder that threatened to weaken her spine and have her crumbling to the ground.

“Just let me leave, okay?” She hated that her voice sounded pleading, that beneath her hard-fought calm, the tidal waves were crashing at the gate.

He touched her then, just a hand on her sleeve. Even through the layers of jacket and sweater, she could feel that sweet, familiar tingle. She wanted to lean into it, allow herself to slide back into the shelter of him and wrap herself in the earthy, summery scent of his body. Instead, a paralysis began from where his fingers wrapped around her arm, curling through her bloodstream into her fingers, her chest, all the way to her toes. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. He was so close and his scent played around her like a home-calling.

The hate, the anger, and the terror would come soon, she knew. For now, the child-like sorrow was too strong. It wanted and it needed. It reached for him. Her crumbling heart whimpered, but she had to restrain it, push it deep down into the darkened bowels of bitter resentment and keep it there until it was safe to let it loose in the lonely darkness of her new apartment.

“Please, Amber,” he cried as he pulled her stiff body into his embrace. “Please, I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.” He buried his face into the side of her neck, breathing her deeply into himself.

She could feel the crack start, piece by piece, as though his arms were crushing the dam. One tear, then another slipped down her cheeks as she was engulfed by the headiness of him. She desperately wanted to drop the box and wrap her own arms around him too. Like in the beginning, she thought, when the world was only them. He sobbed into her hair, and she could hear his mirroring heartbreak in each wracking shudder.

He doesn’t have a right to feel heartbreak, the bitterness whispered to her. He did this. He has no right to sorrow.

Stiffening her shoulders, she shrugged him away and quickly wiped the errant tears from her face. She would not break, not now.

Beneath it all, the biting disappointment was also at herself. In parts, she was also to blame. If she had been honest, she would have seen that the house she was building with him had no foundation. She had been building walls, doors, windows; she had placed around her home shutters and blinds to keep out damaging light and threatening darkness; but without a foundation, eventually the weather became strong enough that it blew everything away. She had plastered together a future and a home with a man that had wanted neither with her and that was a harsh and cruel reality to choke down.

“Stop,” she mumbled and heaved a gulping breath; and then in a stronger tone, “Just stop.”

She could not look at him. Shouldering past, she placed the last box filled with the remainder of their life together onto the hood of her car. With a quick squeeze on her key fob, the trunk to her little Corolla flipped open; and she placed the box amongst the others that had all been crammed into the tight compartment space. The sooner she could leave, the better her chances that she would not embarrass herself by throwing herself into his arms. Part of her wanted nothing more than to find that safe harbor again, to be weak and sag against his strength, and have him take her back home, admit that it was all a mistake and they could return everything back to the way it was. It was pathetic, but perhaps part of her was also pathetic.

“I’ll call you,” he said. “Make sure you’re okay.”

Why care now? She wanted to scream but kept silent instead as she got into the driver’s side and revved the engine to life.

He bent over and peered at her through the passenger window, his hot breath creating a misty shield on the glass between them. He said her name one more time but before she could lose her nerve, she put pressure on the gas pedal and moved her car out of the parking spot and far away from him.

* * * *

Amber kept her eyes closed as the alarm on the bedside table shrilled angrily. She wondered how long it would be before the alarm would give up and quiet on its own. The mattress beneath her was new and unfamiliar to the curves and grooves of her body. She twitched uncomfortably and was tempted to toss into another position; however that would require too much effort for her exhausted limbs.

The morning light was still only pink streaks across the horizon, curving its long fingers in between buildings and tree tops to filter into her bedroom window and over the piled moving boxes that still remained unpacked. She had left the shades open last night and allowed the window to stay cracked open. Beneath the piles of blankets, the warmth felt suffocating, but the air was chill and frosty all throughout the room. As the alarm continued to blare, the warmth began to fade away and the piercing cold of the morning blew in to nip at her exposed flesh.

It was day fourteen. Odd that she would count the days, as though there would be a magical number to reach and she would wake up with less heartache, less tear-swollen eyes. She wondered how long she could just stay this way, freezing and unmoving between her quickly cooling sheets. Sleeping alone for the first time in years had been an odd adjustment. There was no longer the dip and pull of another person on the other side of the bed. There was no longer the tangling of limbs or the pleasant accidental brushing of back to torso or the comfort of a warm arm across her abdomen to pull her heat in closer to his.

As she shifted, the lush, damp tingling in her core brought to surface that there was also no more grasping, hurried caresses and fevered moans; no more whispers and leisure exploration of rounded curves, hard planes, and sweet, sensual valleys. She felt the bitterness pinch at her, reminding her that towards the end, there had been little of that anyway. Jeff had made it a point to come to bed very late or leave very early before she awoke. He had taken to sleeping with his back towards her and planting himself squarely in the center of his side of the bed, so as not to be close enough to be obligated to hold her, but not too far so that he might inadvertently give himself away.

Honesty could be hard but there was no one around worth lying to.

Tenderness had left them a long time ago. It was only in the dead of night, when he dreamt of someone else that she would awaken to him kissing her softly, hands and arms sweetly caressing, his eyes still closed, his memory locked in someone else’s embrace. Greedily, she would soak these moments up, foolishly stealing some other woman’s moment from her own lover. That was the most heartbreaking of all. Although he lay in their bed with her, his body and mind and affections were spirited away to a place she could not follow.

In the last two weeks, he had called her only once and had gingerly asked how she was. She had let the call go to voicemail. Talking to him, all the while knowing that when he hung up he would be going back to her whoever she may be, was too much to take. Amber didn’t want his kindness or his thoughtfulness, not in the aftermath of the hurricane he’d tossed them through. What she did want was for him to distance himself from her, for him to be cold, ruthless, and cruel. She could fight against him then, reason why she hated him, but to hear the pity in his voice would be her undoing.

After several more minutes of lying there, listening to the wailing alarm, she threw one leg over the side of the bed, then the other and pulled herself up. She silenced the alarm and stood for a moment reviewing herself in the mirror across from the bed.

Through her sleep crusted eyes, she looked at the woman she was now, a woman she barely recognized. Curly, red hair tangled about her slumped shoulders in a fiery cloud of frizzed, sleep-rumpled strands. Purple bags sagged under her dulled brown eyes with their haunted blood-shot rims. Her body, which at one time had been svelte in youth, was now soft and weak.

She hadn’t stepped on a scale in years, but she was fairly sure that around her middle was at least thirty agonizing pounds. The fat miserably clung to her neck and chin, her arms and thighs, jiggling and waving at her like a white flag of surrender. Her breasts, when she had been a nubile young woman, had been her proudest assets. Neither too large nor too small, they sat symmetrically and pertly on her chest, and on warm summer days, she had been one of the lucky few who could go without the confinements of a bra. Looking at them now, unsupported beneath her rumpled t-shirt, they sloped dejectedly towards the ground, as though her life had also weighed them down. Everything about her, she thought, said defeated, washed-up, worthy of being left behind.

Why had she not seen this sooner? Had she gone blind over the years? It seemed that while she had inhabited the island of “Jeff and Amber,” she had not only been blinded to the truth of her relationship, but also the truth of her own well-being.

With a hitched breath, she sat back down on her bed. In a moment, she would have to find false courage, get dressed, paint on her “I’m okay” face, and head off to work. No one saw these defeated moments; the last shred of her dignity and pride could not allow it. Pulling off her pajama pants, she hurled it across the room towards the hamper where it landed instead on a box labeled “College/Track.” Stupid pants, she fumed. Even it refused to cooperate.

Angrily, she marched over and yanked at the offending pants. She needed someone, something to take her rage. The box, which was only held together with aging tape, spilled to the floor. Diplomas, trophies, old papers and dissertations clattered around her.

And among them, an old pair of Adidas sneakers.

It took her a blinking moment to recognize them, her brow furrowing as the long-lost memories floated back. Red sneakers with two white leather stripes down the sides. She had gone on to win just about every track meet that season, she remembered. She had been in her best form, her legs long and lithe, her arms toned and powerful, and the cool wind would rush into her lungs and whisper into her ears, “You’re alive, you’re alive!” At one point, running had been the answer to everything. It resolved all her problems, made her head clear and reminded her that there was fresh air to breathe and new miles to travel.

Slowly, carefully, Amber picked up the crusty sneakers. The laces were tanned and broken at the ends, and the stripes were frayed, but nothing had looked better to her in more years than she could remember. She hugged them to her chest, and a maddening giggle – half joy, half despair – gurgled up her chest and past her sealed lips. Tears came now, though she wasn’t sure from where. What she was sure of was that these sneakers – these forgotten sneakers that smelled of moth balls and dust and old leather – made her heart change rhythm, interrupting the funeral march it had been playing for the last half decade of her life. She would grasp it and she would learn this new beat and she would take what she could.

Bending, she slipped on one shoe, and then the other, pulling the laces into neat double knots. They still fit, wrapping themselves around her feet as though they were a superhero’s secret uniform. She bounced herself in them, just to test them out, and obediently, the shoes arched and curved. They weren’t an answer to her life but they were a place to start.

She would find herself again and it would start here with a walk in her old shoes.


About the author

Nev Ocean

Fantasy, romance, fiction author.

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