“Deliberate Act”

It was just easier to stay still on that bench, briefcase at my feet, than to make my way home. The snow had been coming down all day, tiny flakes, but dense and heavy.  By then it was late, dark sky but white all around. And the temperature was just right for packing.  Minutes before, I was forming snowball after snowball, shooting them at the dock and out into the water. They’d lift toward the moon then disappear.

An hour earlier I left work, took the elevator down twenty floors, passed all my usual doors and windows. The old man at the deli was closing up early and waved a bag of something at me as I passed. I watched car after car pull away into the white of streetlights and snow. They had no faces, the people who passed me. Their heads were hooded, bundled, and tucked into their scarves. The sidewalks were slick, so we shuffled our way through.

On my way to the train, I stopped for a minute to watch a man try to rollerblade down the middle of the street. There were six inches on the ground by then. The man struggled, one skate then the other, yanking his feet up and out of the heavy snow only to stomp back down into another drift. It was stupid, but it must have seemed like such a good idea to him, such a perfect way to slide from place to place. It wasn’t. But he didn’t stop or take off the skates. He kept struggling, holding on to parked cars, lifting one leg then the other, until finally fumbling between two parked cars and into an alley.

Choosing to quit was not easy at first. When I quit my first job at The Steak Shop, I didn’t have the nerve to tell my supervisor. I asked Jen, my co-worker/girlfriend of two weeks, to hand back my uniform and pick up my last check. I hated the job, the supervisor, the stench of meat and grease in my hair two days after my last shift, but I hated awkward conversation more. I hated not knowing whether my supervisor Carmen would be loud and angry or unconcerned and flippant.  It was just much easier to put the words and awkwardness in someone else’s mouth, so I asked Jen to take care of it.

But I matured. And quitting the next job, next girlfriend, next habit, became easier and easier. I started embracing it. Here is my letter of resignation, I would say, handing a crisp page of type to the manager, secretary, supervisor. I quit dozens of jobs in a professional manner. My resume was so long that I had to eventually lie and pretend I had odd blocks of unemployment. It was only after I discovered the relative comfort of mid-level management that I settled in and stayed put.

I quit people, too. I quit friends for inane conversations. I once quit my cousin for a string of chain emails. And when my first wife brought home a rotisserie chicken one Wednesday evening and started cutting celery for chicken salad wraps, I slid the knife handle from her hand, moved her to the table where I could sit across from her, my hands on her knees, looked her in the eyes and told her I was sleeping with Renee, that I had no intention of maintaining a relationship with Renee but had no intention of maintaining my marriage either. I was honest. And that felt good.

Being honest with the newspaper carrier about my online reading habits was cleansing. I don’t need to buy the paper, so I will stop buying the paper. And there were others. Here is my dog. I was wrong to have adopted him. He was not a good match for my lifestyle. I disliked exercise, so I quit paying the gym membership. I felt fine, so I told my doctor I’d probably keep my eating habits as is. These kinds of truths can seem small and cold, but layered one upon another they feel like strength.

The Tuesday before the storm, I spent an evening making love to a woman I’d met at an overnight business consult. The clasp of her necklace broke during her presentation, sending the heavy silver jewelry sliding into her cleavage and out the bottom of her skirt. She simply continued explaining the logistics of a network transition, casually bent over to scoop up the necklace, and then held it loosely in her fist while she moved on to the next slide.  At dinner she laughed deeply when I told her the story about riding a donkey up the side of a mountain in Greece. She shook and buried her head in her arms at the image of a large awkward man, feet dragging as his donkey strained to negotiate the steep incline. That ass!, she cracked and smacked the table when I told her how the man we paid had paired me with the smallest donkey while my much smaller friends were given big broad animals. We talked and drank, and when I walked her back to her room, she slid her hand into my pocket and grabbed my thigh.  On the hotel shuttle to the airport in the morning, we exchanged cards. I gave her a kiss on the cheek.

The awareness comes slow for some. It isn’t a sharp turn or a fall. It’s looking down the street and noticing that the businesses have all closed up shop. You arrive at it weeks after the signs are in the window, and even then begin to mull over the how and why. Later you consider your own responsibility in all of this. What bakeries did you fail to frequent? Why did you throw out those shoes instead of replacing the soles? And then, later still, you begin to realize that you have also been going out of business. And who’s to blame for that?

That night I walked down to the pier instead of the station and started throwing snowballs at the ocean. It started that way. An action. A deliberate act. I made snowball after snowball and sunk them high into the sky. But my arm got tired, so I sat on a snow-covered bench. My intentions were not clear. I just knew my arm was tired. The cold blew up the pant legs of my trousers and down the open collar of my crisp shirt.  My shoes were soaked through. Before I knew it, I took off the overcoat and put it next to me on the bench. I could feel the snow wet under me. And then I simply didn’t move.

In snowstorms, there’s an absence of voices. Nobody talks. There’s the movement of people and machines, but no chatter. People don’t stroll along with their friends filling them in on the events of the day. Children don’t skip along asking for suckers. Most are focused on one objective: We will get to where we are going. We will make it home. I sat on that bench while a city moved behind me, slipping and falling, scraping and shoveling, but always moving toward a hot dinner and warm bed. There was so much happening behind me, but in front of me was only the water and snow.

As I sat on the bench, the light from passing cars and street lamps turned the squall into a tunnel of snow. I’d seen the same tunnel before. When I was in college I delivered pizzas. One January I was caught in a whiteout on a long dark stretch of road. I remember steering the car into the tunnel of snow that formed as I barreled down the road. It wasn’t a tunnel, of course. Just headlights cutting through thick snow. But I drove into it blind. At first it was terrifying. And then, as I allowed myself to look deeper into the distance and the silence, it felt safe, actually. Like the car was on tracks, a kiddie ride at a fair. Eventually the snow tapered, and I was still on the road. I delivered the pizza and drove back the other way, knowing that the tunnel, the snow, and the road would all be there on my way home.

But on the snow-covered bench, I was still. It was the snow moving, blowing straight past me and out into the black. My hands were numb. My nose hairs were ice. My breath was a cool white cloud. I sat very still. When I squinted, I was a space traveler flying at warp speed, the stars shrieking past in silence. The snow on my eyelashes lit up like the filaments of a bulb.

When I was a teenager, I ran every afternoon. I was as fit as I would ever be. I would run every back road in my town. Once in a while, I’d pick a car to race. Sometimes I’d win. They’d pull up to a stop sign or a light and I’d speed past them. I remember the way my heart would pound in my chest. My lungs were wide and full. I had calves of stone. I’d run home after five or ten or fifteen miles and my mother would stop me on my way to the shower and ask me how far I got. She kept track of my miles like a young mother marking the growth of her toddler in the doorframe. I’m proud of you, she’d say. You’ll be a runner some day.

There was no one thing or two or one hundred. I can’t tell you exactly when. I remember my wife, when we were newly married.  We were talking in bed, and she said she felt old. I told her she was still very young and put my hand on her stomach as I read the paper. She rolled to her side and told me I misunderstood. I don’t think I look old. I just feel tired, she said. She couldn’t imagine how she could manage another fifty years or more of early mornings and long days of work. Even planning for fifty years of holidays and parties and cab rides to the movies… It all seems exhausting. I remember putting the paper down and looking at her face. She laughed when I told her I loved her and slipped my hand into her underwear. There were so few times I remember looking in her eyes when we had sex, but that was one of them.

The night of the storm, I left a pile of work on my desk. There were notes on the pages, people to call back. I had two hundred dollars in my wallet. I was planning to buy a new pair of boots the next day. I had put it off way too long. My METRO pass was half full, and I just renewed my museum membership. Across town, box after box of cereal and pasta sat in my dark pantry. The furnace was set at a comfortable 73 degrees.


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About Karin Wraley Barbee

A native of Ohio, and graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, Karin Wraley Barbee currently teaches composition and creative writing at Siena Heights University in Adrian, MI. She lives with her husband and two children in Tecumseh, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Natural Bridge, Swerve, Fjords Review, The Diagram, Whiskey Island, Found Poetry Review, and Sugar House Review.