Literary Orphans

The Question by Abigail Sheaffer

portrait_of_sarah_by_marta-bevacqua“Would you consider yourself a Jeff D. Sheldrake or a C.C. Baxter?” the question came to him via text. Ana, who’d been distraught since Saturday night, was keeping him at arm’s length and analyzing him again. Tim picked up his iPhone, staring at the highlighted floral green text, and chewed on the flesh of his lower lip.

Since the concert, she’d been anxious, and Tim realized he was working on borrowed time. How long he had, he did not know, but he kept hoping Ana had enough faith in him to wait just a little while longer.

He wanted to respond, “C.C. Baxter,” but he hesitated, and shuffling his feet, he got up from his desk and walked to the refrigerator to grab a bottle of water. Outside his cracked window, city traffic roared and the strong scent of charbroiled hamburger meat mingled heavily in the air. Tim licked his lips and started typing.

“Can we turn this question into What hero do you most closely resemble from a Saul Bellow novel?” But he did not send the text. Instead, he stuffed his phone in the back pocket of his shorts (next to his wallet), unhinged the latch of his apartment, and walked outside.

Chicago in the summer smells of equal parts delicious grilled meats, scorched diesel oil and garbage. This odor stung Tim’s nostrils as he made his way south from Rogers Park. Tim walked with a particular gait, his weight inclining more to his right heel than his left. Everyone always said he walked, “like a rowboat,” and, hating his own name (also the name of one of Ana’s exes) he began to refer to himself as, “Rowboat”.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he walked towards Eli’s apartment. Eli, who had just moved to a new apartment with his girlfriend Sylvia (an artist), seemingly had everything that Tim did not possess. Unlike Tim, Eli had been free and available when the right woman had entered his life, unlike Tim who found himself fraught for years in an unhappy relationship.

He rang the buzzer of their apartment. Sylvia (her palms caked with charcoal and Gesso) answered.

“Hey Sylvie,” Tim said, “Is Eli around?”

“Sure,” she said, holding the door open with her body, “he’s in the back.”

 

Eli and Tim had been roommates in college. Five years ago, they had both applied for jobs together at the local co-op grocery store. Prior to landing his job at the co-op, it had been a solid year since he’d last seen Ana. It was on an unlikely day in November 2010 when he saw her again. She came into the co-op subsequently after that (when she still lived in the city) and did so for the remaining three years before she transplanted herself back into the suburbs. Never once did she visit his register at the co-op, and Tim’s unhappiness at her decision not to egregiously revealed itself. It was only a matter of time before Eli asked why he always reacted how he did when the short brunette passed him over, and it was then when Eli indulged him in he and Ana’s history.

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Ana and Tim’s history was long and winding, if not frayed with complication. Ana, in short, was “The One That Got Away”. Presently, she lived in the northwest suburbs with her parents, and Tim was floundering in the city. Ana, Tim revealed, had always shown trepidation regarding him, mainly due to his relationship (which Tim was miserable in). Tim likened their relationship to that of Johnny Cash and June Carter, and the similarities were not missed on Eli. For years after that, Eli was Tim’s shoulder to cry on or drinking buddy when he missed Ana. When they were roommates, Tim would blubber drunkenly or in his sleep about her, crushed aluminum cans of PBR and Hamm’s littering his bedroom, sometimes vomit clinging to his soiled bed sheets.

“Eli!” Sylvia cried out, dabbing her canvas with a torn up cotton shirt, “Tim’s here!” Eli exited from his bedroom, guitar in tow.

“Just the man I wanted to see!” Tim said, clapping his hand into Eli’s. Eli grinned and pushed his glasses up the bumped bridge of his nose.

“Hey man,” Eli said. Tim’s smile betrayed his inner unease. “What’s the matter, dude?” Eli added.

“Ana left again,” Tim murmured. Sylvia looked over her shoulder at Eli.

Oddly, Ana and Sylvia knew each other before Tim and Eli had ever crossed paths. In college, Ana had shared a dorm room with Sylvia’s friend from high school, and a handful of times the women had met, though never fully meshed. Though cordial, they never forged a friendship. Upon hearing Ana’s name, Sylvia smudged and shaded the cheek on the portrait she was working on. What little she knew of Ana and Tim’s history she’d learned from Rachel after Tim and Ana were forced to break it off in the winter of 2009.

Rachel relayed stories to Sylvia that Ana woke her up at night due to her excessive crying, or else got drunk out of her mind or high as kite. That Tim and Ana hadn’t gotten over each other gave Sylvia pause, but she did not wish to involve herself in their complicated history.

The other side of the coin was knowing Ashley. Ashley, Tim’s girlfriend, was daft and excessively trusting. She very rarely questioned things and lacked self-awareness, taking whatever Tim told her at face value. Whereas Ana possessed a quick wit and a sarcastic biting tongue (more on level with Tim’s barbs) and Ashley couldn’t grasp sarcasm, made Sylvia understand why Tim had been unhappy in the first place. Ashley was ill-suited for Tim, yet grasped onto him despite all of Tim’s efforts to eschew her.

Sylvia watched as both men went into Eli’s room, and what glimpse she caught of Tim was a man distraught and deeply sullen.

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“What brought it on this time?” Eli asked, setting his guitar on his bed.

“What else, dude? She could smell that Ashley had come over.” Tim said while sauntering listlessly through out Eli and Sylvia’s room.

“Did you sleep with Ashley?” Eli asked. Tim shook his head.

“She wanted to give me a blowjob but I didn’t want it.” Tim stared out the window at the community garden that grew wildly outside Sylvia and Eli’s apartment. He watched as an abuelita plucked a tomato from the vine, her grandson in tow.

“Well…” Eli said, “she’ll come back dude, she always comes back… you said that yourself,” and he picked up his guitar again, plucking it absently. Tim’s depression had gotten worse.

Until last year, Ana and Ashley had never crossed paths, that was until the night of Tim’s show at the Double Door. Ana, looking to surprise him, showed up at his concert. At the time, Tim was the drummer in the raucous, angry metal band Printmaker. Ana showed up at the venue with two of her friends, in a cruel twist of fate, ended up standing behind Ashley and her friend Rosie. As Tim exited the stage that night, his gaze was matched on Ana’s, however he stopped just short of her and went to Ashley. The night slowly devolved in a nightmare of epic proportions. Ana sipped bourbon and walked over to him, slapping him in anger and hurt, and a clueless and trusting Ashley watched as Tim lied, savagely saying he’d, “never met her in (his) life”. Ana had stormed out after that, and Tim was sure he’d lost her forever.

The winter had been especially harsh and Tim spent everyday without contact from her, drinking. They had had their fights before, but this one was particularly devastating. Tim wondered what he could do to get Ana back, but stopped short of doing it all, out of deference to Ashley.

Somehow, in some strange turn of events, Ana had decided to come back to him in the hope that if she offered her presence he might, in time, break up with Ashley and return to her. She also pressed him to not hide in the shadows and form his own band. Tim, in turn, forged the band Betty Robinson with Eli and began churning out songs about their tempestuous and passionate relationship. One song in particular, “The Thunder Room” was based off an essay Ana had written about their favorite TV show created by the auteur Henry Spencer and closely reflected the night of their first kiss.

Tim leaned against the windowpane, his forehead pressing against the glass.

“I didn’t do enough,” he said, his heart frying in his chest. “I was too afraid.”

Eli hung his head over the belly of his guitar.

“You know what she asked me today?” Tim said listlessly.

“What did she ask you?” Eli replied.

“She texted me around noon and asked me, Do you consider yourself a Jeff D. Sheldrake or a C.C. Baxter?

“From The Apartment, right?” Eli queried. Tim turned to face him, nodding.

“What did you say?”

“I didn’t respond,” Tim said and tapped his knuckles against the window.

Eli thought about the analogy and wanted to reply, “Well, you’re a C.C. Baxter, of course!” but he hesitated. He hesitated because in the five years that Eli had known Tim, Tim was constantly promising he was going to return to Ana, but never once did, and he wondered for a moment, how and why it was Ana had chosen to remain with him.

Ever since her suicide attempt in the summer of 2009, Ana had become increasingly reclusive, yet she had somehow managed to produce a start-up company that saw her in an elite executive circle in Chicago despite her working from home in the suburbs. That Ana had remained with Tim through all these years was a miracle to Eli, and he wondered how their tenuous thread of faith benefitted them. Perhaps, as he shared with Sylvia a strong and unspoken connection, Tim shared the exact same connection with Ana.

As if reading his thoughts, Tim looked over at Eli and said:

“I don’t know why she’s remained with me either, but I sure as hell don’t want to lose her.” Eli looked down at the scuffed wooden floorboards and sighed.

“She has her limits,” Eli said, plucking a soft tune on his guitar before adding, “She’s been more than understanding with you all these years.”

“I know, I know she has!” Tim barked abruptly. “Jesus, do you think I don’t know that? I’m a fucking Jeff Sheldrake,” he said, his gaze traveling out beyond the gardens.

“Or,” Eli said (not wanting his friend to be upset).

“Or?” Tim harshly retorted. Eli smarted under his friend’s tone.

“Or, this is like Seize the Day and you’re fucking Tommy Wilhelm.”

“Oh, that’s awesome, so then I can fucking cry in a church as I watch my life burn and fall apart?”

“Dude, don’t be like that.”

“No, no, fucking… I get it, Eli. Listen, just because your life is fucking perfect as hell doesn’t mean…”

“You asked for fucking advice, dude,” Eli said, wanting to keep the peace. But Tim, angry and upset, started for the door.

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Later that night, while Tim sat at the bar on 50th and Western sipping a beer, he saw Eli again.

“You can’t react like that, man.” Eli said, sitting next to him at a neighboring barstool.

“I haven’t been sleeping,” Tim responded, taking another sip of beer.

“You’re really freaked out this time, aren’t you?” Eli asked. Tim didn’t respond, instead he stared at his beer bottle.

“Why don’t you just tell Ashley?” Eli said, and watched as while Tim drained the beer into his mouth.

Summer in Chicago was in full swing. There was an odd auspicious feeling to the air, and Tim fooled himself into thinking that things could change. Later that night, as he stumbled back to his apartment drunk, he thought about Eli’s suggestion. So simple, and yet, for years Tim had felt impossible. He felt guilty that he didn’t love Ashley, guilty about the promise he had made to her, guilty that the promise he’d built their relationship off of had turned into his prison.

He had fallen in love with Ana so easily, he was mesmerized by her. She was at once sexy and innocent, complex but not high maintenance—a lucky mystery. He didn’t know how Ana had made her way to him, but in all their years and in all their fights and all their time together, she was more real to him than Ashley. That Ana was hard to win over and did not trust easily, only seemed to add to her appeal. Whereas Ashley was oblivious and trusting, Ana was emotionally rich and trusted few. Tim unlatched the key to his apartment and swiftly fell onto his bed.

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It was the first time all summer she’d pulled the blinds up. The moon hung heavy and silver in the obsidian sky, and Ana blinked back tears. She wondered why she was waiting on him. Her heart wanted to entertain a fantasy, but her head (pragmatic and demanding) pried her away from doing so. In turn, Ana spent her days avoiding herself, burying her mind in heavy and complicated projects and teaching herself to build a dense wall around her heart where no one could enter.

She turned to stare at her lavender walls, some moonlight had spilled over the wall where—until yesterday—Tim’s picture had hung. The tack marks, like bullet holes, revealed the fraying paint. The picture that had hung there, Tim had taken for her while he was on tour with Printmaker. He had found a sign in Austin, Texas that said, I Wish You Were Here, and upon seeing it, seized a stranger from the street and asked to have a picture under it, for Ana. Grinning through the glare of his glasses as he faced the sun, he stood proudly, his slight paunch bursting from his coral tropical shirt, his shoulders strong and sharp.

He had sent her the picture over RadioDaze, an online music site where they crossed paths. Out of deference to Ashley, he did not friend Ana, but instead would spend hours gazing longingly at her picture while they played songs for each other. It was one of the few vestiges he had of her, and though the communication was abstract, he was happy whenever he saw her web page, her dark liquid eyes staring back at him. He wanted her to swallow him whole.

Tonight, Ana thought of deleting the page, but felt a turn in her heart—not a pain, but as if some phantom force were forcing her not to do it—and through the hiss of cicadas that sang outside her window, she decided to wait, if just a moment longer.

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They had started their emotional affair again that snowy day in November. Ana remembered that day precisely. How the sky was a shade of dusty pink while heavy snow dusted the bridge on Canal Street in the South Loop—it had been like a fairy tale. Odd as it was, while she crossed the bridge, she saw Tim’s face so clearly in her mind, and they both nodded at each other. A few moments later, as she entered the heated co-op (her hands and cheeks flushed with warmth) the saw each other, and that was that.

It had been a long time since Ana had felt that feeling, that feeling that anything could happen. Too often she had eschewed feeling anything at all, numbing herself through a strategic combination of ambitious work schedules, excessive reading, and a potent drink at the end of the night. And sometimes, if she was lucky, this strategy worked, and she was able to ignore herself, though other times she had not been so lucky.

That the fight had happened with Tim so recently, that her paranoia had once again bubbled to the surface, made Ana uneasy. She was attempting to render herself into an ice queen, a hardened businesswoman. She wished not to feel or share herself with anyone, and yet, Tim had tripped the lock, rendering her walls moot, and somehow—despite her complex emotional history—he had stubbornly stayed put.

Their affair had roots, deeply entwined and deeply complicated roots. They had both attempted to end it, but it never really took, and if they were both honest with themselves—they did not want it to take. And so she compromised and he compromised, and they both compromised themselves against Ashley (unhappily). For years it had been this way, and for years Ana’s paranoia and jealousy bubbled up, but the tide had begun to change, and autumn was on its way.

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Tim tossed and turned in his bed. He had always hated Fred MacMurray. What had been that show in the fifties he was in? Tim groaned and lifted himself up from his mattress to grab his half-drunk water bottle. It was almost the end of summer, and the moonlight sizzled and cooled, as though the harvest hands of autumn were grasping its sides. He stared down at his phone, at Ana’s message:

Would you consider yourself a Jeff D. Sheldrake or a C.C. Baxter? 

Tim gulped his water. He did not want to perpetuate this. He knew he’d hurt Ana enough, but he was afraid about Ashley. Ashley: wholesome, trusting Ashley. Ashley whom had clung onto him in high school and hadn’t left since. He was with her out of her loyalty, but he often chafed under it. She had a wide, orthodontically perfect grin and dull brown eyes and dishwasher blonde hair. She was unremarkable in everyway—a high school girlfriend direct from central casting. For years she had made him feel guilty for being who he was, yet he owed her. For what exactly, he did not know. Familiarity breeds contempt. Abruptly and violently, thoughts of Ana thundered through him, cutting through the darkness at breakneck speed, he felt his heart clench. She hadn’t texted him since that Apartment themed message yesterday. Eli had told him, forthright:

“You know what you want, you know who you want, why is this hard for you?”

Tim swished the water around in his mouth and stared up at the moon.

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She had decided not to go to the lake house that year, much to her family’s chagrin.

“I have to do the quarterly,” she said absently, not adding that she felt a strong urge to remain here, to wait. Perhaps she just wanted time to herself to lick the wounds from breaking it off with Tim. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

She hadn’t texted him since that night, and ended up watching The Apartment, feeling all too much like Fran sans a Baxter. She had been attempting to date around, but felt wholly insecure about the whole convoluted process. After a failed and uncomfortable date at a taco restaurant, she had put the kibosh in it all together.

Her mother and father would be away for two weeks, and though she grimaced at the idea of missing the lake house, two weeks to herself sounded like heaven.

In the air, buzzing about like a fly, was a bizarre anticipation. Wary to not hurt herself, she attempted not to think of that day in November, fearful she would set herself up for nothing due to the fatal delusion of nostalgia. She wandered about the empty house, her bare feet kissing the smooth wooden floor panels.

“Who knew hell had blue skies,” she remarked to nobody while a large rabbit consumed tomatoes in her father’s garden. Three o’clock was such an odd time. It was as if, after all the chaos of the morning, there was nothing left to do, and she felt guilty about turning on the TV or reading, despite the absence of her mother’s watchful presence.

She had ordered some moccasins online, and so, with what little she had to look forward to, was anxious about their arrival. They would be a nice pair of shoes to wear around the house in the fall, that was why she bought them. She checked her email, seeing how far along the package was and felt subtle joy when it said, “out for delivery”. The doorbell rang, pulsing through out the entire house, and so she ran down the stairs and towards the porch.

Without looking outside the door, she swung it open on its hinges. Tim stood on the other side. Her heart quickened.

“C.C. Baxter,” he said, shaking.

“What?” she asked, blinking.

“C.C. Baxter. You asked me if I consider myself a Jeff D. Sheldrake or a C.C. Baxter. C.C. Baxter,” he said again.

Ana slowly brought her hands to his chest, out of disbelief to who was before her.

“I broke up with her,” he said. Ana was wary. Seeing her trepidation, he continued, “I wasted too much time, I need you. I love you. I don’t expect you to let me in again, not after all the time that’s passed and how I failed to show up in the past, but please just let me show you…” he said.

In all their time together, they had toed the line, their affair had always been emotional, never physical, Tim didn’t want to drag Ana through the mud. He didn’t want to mistreat her. When he came home, he wanted it to be for real. Ana searched his face for validation that he understood what she was unable to say out loud.

“Jeff Sheldrake does this in the movie too, you know…” she murmured, it came out through her ears and sounded disembodied, as if spoken by a demon. She watched as Tim’s face fell. He grabbed his iPhone, went to his Facebook app, pulled up his personal information.

“Relationship status, single.” He said out loud (still visibly hurt). She turned away from him, but he clutched her elbow.

“Ana,” he began, “you knew when I’d do this, when I’d show up at your doorstep like this, that it would be done for real between Ashley and I… you knew that.” He pleaded with her, his eyes bloodshot. He had shook when she answered the door, nervous and afraid.

“Give me a week,” he added. Ana scoffed. He lived in the city, what business did he have to drive out here everyday for a week to show up at her door?

“Fine,” she guffawed, cynically.

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Later that night, he sent her a friend request on Facebook, on MusicDaze and on Twitter—all things he would not do if Ashley was present. In return, Ana masochistically scoured his page for any vestiges of her, but found none. When she searched her name, she was directed to a profile teeming with angry Taylor Swift lyrics directed towards Tim and, “The Other Woman”. Ana laughed.

True to his word, he showed up early the next day and begged to take her out for coffee. Ana, curious at his intentions, allowed herself to be persuaded by him. As the week went on, she grew more comfortable in his presence. He gave her a burned copy of his demos, and found their relationship mirrored through his heartbreaking lyrics. She began to consider him.

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She told him that following his abrupt departure after the winter they fell in love, that rather than live in a crippling depression, she began to cast him as a callous, heartless man. She told him that she supposed she was one of hundred. She told him this while he stayed over for a drink one night on her porch. She watched as he began to plead his case, and he doubled over and started for the door, his face drained of color. He turned and looked at her, his eyes searing into her.

“It was only ever you, it was always you,” he said, before getting into his car and driving into the city.

The next day she received a text from an unknown number.

Ana? It read, It’s Eli. Can I call you?

Tim had told Ana at length about Eli, and when she used to see them together at the co-op, she knew he knew about their relationship. Quickly, Ana replied.

Yes.

In a few moments, her phone rang. Ana was preparing for the worst.

“Is he for real?” she asked Eli.

“Ana, I have watched him tear himself apart every damn day and night of his life since you two broke it up,” he said.

“And?” she asked, biting her lip.

“Did you hear the demos?” he asked.

“I did, but…”

“I know about you guys. And I know you’re worried he’s fucking with you, but I swear to god…” Eli said, his voice waning away into a frustrated silence. He began again.

“I know you don’t trust easily, Ana,” he said.

“I don’t,” she responded defensively.

“But trust him,” he said, and hung up.

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The next day, as promised, Tim showed up at her door. He looked haggard, as though he hadn’t slept. Ana let him in the house. The windows breathed in the humid air and swept through her mother’s gauzy organza blinds.

“I’m going to stick around,” he said, his voice hoarse. He looked at her in his way, determined and passionate. He stood close to her, she considered him.

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Abigail Sheaffer is the founder and editor-in-chief of Chicago Literati. She is a 2012 graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing program. Her fiction has appeared in Bird’s Thumb quarterly and Bluestockings Magazine. She lives in St. Charles with her English Bulldog, Winnie.

abigail-s

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–Foreground Art by Marta Bevacqua

–Baclground Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden