Peter and Helen Eichler lived in a quaint, slightly deteriorating 1950’s apartment complex five minutes from downtown. They’d been married a little under a year and had a cat named, Tomás. More and more often, Peter found himself sitting in an off-white plastic chair on their cramped fifth-story balcony, staring at the city and pondering all the changes their building had seen. Helen often faulted Peter for living too much in the past; she would much rather take advantage of each new day with a fresh, positive perspective. They were very much different people, held together by infatuation.
“Don’t forget we’re going to my parent’s place tomorrow.”
The “whoosh” of the sliding glass door startled him; he was smoking a cigarette and didn’t hear what Helen said. She was wearing a blue night-gown and had her long, blonde hair pulled up — ready for bed.
“I have my bags packed already, you can load up the car tomorrow and pick me up right from work, so we can miss traffic, ok?” her voice grew louder as she spoke to him.
“Wait, what?” he was confused at the tone in her voice.
She glared hard at him, “Friday. Tomorrow night. My parent’s party. Me and you. You forgot. Right?”
He had completely forgotten.
“Of course not,” he stalled and tried to flash a smile at her, “I, I was just caught up in the moment and words weren’t catching. The plan sounds perfect, I’m really looking forward to it.”
She seemed satisfied with his explanation and went back inside, presumably to bed. Peter wasn’t looking forward to seeing her parents again. He was sure they didn’t like him much. They lived a couple hours down the highway, near the coast. It was summer now and he reminded himself how much he hated driving in traffic, especially towards the beach on a Friday afternoon. Peter remained on the balcony for another twenty minutes, took one last look at the skyline, and went inside. He poured a glass of water and laid on the futon to watch sports. Right before he drifted off to sleep he remembered he needed to pick up some more smokes.
Helen was slightly afraid of heights and since there was only room for one chair, she hardly ever joined him out there. It wasn’t the nicest place she had ever lived, but Helen usually enjoyed their beat up apartment. She wasn’t as fond of it as Peter, of course, but it had a homey feel that made her feel comfortable. It had been a long day at the store; all she wanted was to rest her eyes. She went into their bedroom to lie down and immediately started worrying about things. She worried about little things: the traffic tomorrow afternoon, what to wear at her parents’ party, if her new haircut looked good, but eventually she started worrying their future.
Her mind drifted back to that cold, damp doctor’s office, where they were informed that Peter was in fact, sterile. She tried not to think about it too often but inside, she knew that’s when things had started to change. Her dreams of children and an easy marriage had been shattered with the results of the tests. Peter had become a distant soul, not the man she once had fallen in love with. They hadn’t been intimate since that day at the doctor’s; she understood why at first, but things never changed. Helen was tired of pretending things were all right and when she tried to bring it up to him, she could never find the words. She turned over on her side, closed her eyes and reminded herself to ask for her mother’s advice tomorrow.
Peter sat in the car, outside of the large department store where Helen worked trying not to think about the details of the weekend. He was early to pick her up, he had never liked to be late for anything and left the house with plenty of time to spare. The window was cracked and his habit of smoking brought comfort to his mind. He was wearing his grey suit with a white button-down shirt and a rose-colored tie. He knew Helen would be pleased with his attire; she loved to see him dressed up. As much as he’d rather stay home this weekend, he figured the party and the trip could be good for Helen and him both. It had been a long time since they had done anything social together. His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Helen walking towards the car, she looked a little flustered and disheveled, yet still beautiful. She was always sweating the small stuff, trying to be perfect at every little thing. He loved and admired that about her. Even though he didn’t fully understand it, her energy and optimism is what initially drew him close.
“I spent forty-eight minutes today trying to help my manager find her car keys, a customer threw up in the dressing room and to top it all off, I forgot the necklace I wanted to wear tonight at home,” said Helen as she threw her purse into the front seat and followed after it.
She paused long enough to look over at Peter and let a half-smile form across her face, “But you, you are right on time.”
“Of course, and guess what? I saw the necklace on the night-stand this morning and put it in my jacket pocket. Now buckle-up,” he told her, “Let’s beat the traffic.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and immediately felt better. There was something about the calmness in his voice that could make her stop for a moment and feel at peace. She relished in the comfort and decided to make an effort to be more relaxed. Helen was looking forward to the drive and hoped he would open up to her.
Peter wasn’t fond of long car rides so he drove 80 the entire way. They listened to oldies and talked about the weather, her parents’ party and if Peter left enough food for Tomás. Most of the time Peter just half-listened to what Helen was saying, but towards the end of her story about a toddler getting lost in the store and the mother running around frantically trying to find him, he heard her voice crack.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her.
She kept her face turned away from him and stared out the window, saying nothing. Peter knew exactly what was wrong but didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“Helen, you can’t act like this when we’re about to go see your parents and all their filthy-rich friends,” said Peter, “Don’t take your anger out on me.”
“Well it is your fault,” Helen mumbled quietly.
Peter kept driving in silence, tightened his grip on the steering wheel and said nothing. Hearing those words was like taking a punch to the gut. He tried not to show his pain and lit another cigarette. Nothing was said until they pulled up to her parents’ driveway.
“Well, ready?” he asked.
Helen spent most of the car ride wishing she hadn’t of said that to Peter and an apology was the first thing that came out when he questioned her.
“Oh, Peter, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault at all. I shouldn’t have said that to you, I just got caught up in the moment and it came out. I’m just a little stressed and you have been so distant with me, please forgive me,” Helen said.
They spent the next few moments staring at each other and Peter finally said, “Of course I forgive you, let’s have a good time at the party and we can clear everything up tomorrow morning.”
Helen smiled, wiped her eyes with her finger, pushed open the car door and took a deep breath of the salty air. Peter brought her bag from the trunk and they walked to the front door of her parents’ home, where she spent her childhood. She had to remind him not to smoke around her parents, they weren’t fans.
Before Helen even had a chance to knock on the door, it swung open and they were greeted by Gale and Frank, Helen’s parents. Gale was wearing a bright-orange summer dress and pulled Helen in for a big hug. Her father, Frank, was wearing a Mexican guayabera shirt and gave Peter a firm handshake while waiting to embrace his daughter. Everyone made their way inside the house and the women went upstairs to finish getting ready. The party wasn’t for another hour, so Peter and Frank were left in the living room standing in an awkward silence.
“How bout’ a drink?” Frank asked.
Peter said he’d love one and Frank disappeared into the kitchen. Peter walked around the living room observing the paintings and pictures on the walls. This wasn’t the first time he had been in their home; he was just always amazed at how the past seems to be everywhere inside of old houses. Frank reappeared with two short glasses.
“Hope you like Rum and Coke,” he said as he handed Peter the glass, “How’s the job-hunt coming along?”
Peter immediately wished he were back home, sitting, smoking on the balcony; he hated talking about the future.
“Ah, well it’s going along just right. A few bites here and there but I’ve yet to catch the big one,” Peter said chuckling at his own pun.
Frank grunted something and made his way to the couch, flipped on ESPN and became entranced in the screen. Peter took a seat and took a sip of his drink. He hated how awkward this all felt. He reached his hand deep in his jacket pocket and felt something unusual. He had completely forgotten to give Helen her necklace.
“What exactly are they doing up there?” Peter asked Frank.
“Beats me, probably just doing each other’s hair and talking, you know how women are. Why? Do you need something?” Frank said.
“Well I have Helen’s necklace, she wanted to wear it tonight. I think I’ll go give it to her,” said Peter.
He made his way up the white-carpet stairs and down the hall to the master bedroom’s door which was cracked open. As he neared closer to the door he could smell the aroma of perfume drifting away from it. He was about to knock when he heard something familiar, the sound of Helen sobbing. He froze and stood there listening.
“I just want children so badly Mother and he can’t give me that anymore. I love him to death but my heart needs more. What do I do, what do I do?” Helen managed to choke out over the tears.
“You need to be patient and open with him,” Gale said, “He’s working through it in different ways. You two have been talking about this right? You can’t keep it in.”
All of the emotions and feelings Helen had been forced to put in the back of her mind were suddenly pouring out in waves. She felt nauseated. She didn’t want to tell her mother everything but knew she needed to.
“We hardly talk anymore; he’s a zombie during the day and sleeps out on the couch at night. I can’t bring this subject up to him because he gets hyper-sensitive. We haven’t had sex in three months and I’m starting to forget why we’re even together. Sometimes I feel like there’s something wrong with us. What if we’re both crazy, Mom?” Helen said.
Gale said nothing, stood up and took her daughter into her arms. The lump in her throat was too large to speak over and the pain in her daughter’s voice cut straight to her heart.
“Please don’t say anything to Dad, it’s so embarrassing,” Helen said still crying.
Peter felt dizzy and nearly fell forward into the door, making a scratching noise with the necklace against the wall. He knew they heard him in the hallway so he quickly made his way back down the stairs, skipping every other step, finished his drink, placed the empty glass on the piano seat near the front door, dropped the silver necklace into it and walked calmly to the car. He unlocked the door, slid into the driver’s seat, lit a Marlboro Red 100 and started the engine. For a second he pictured himself staying, acting cordial during the party, meeting his in-law’s friends and then going back to feeling like shit, but he quickly threw those images out of his head. He knew Helen was standing in the front lawn screaming his name but refused to let himself hear her. He put the car into drive and went along into the setting sun. He didn’t know where he was going, hopefully somewhere with a view.