DAY TWENTY-TWO

The room was dark, the only light coming from that sliver in the corner of the window that Jake had become so accustomed to over the last month in this borrowed house in Portland. His entire body ached, simultaneously jolting him from sleep and causing him to wish that he’d never have to leave this bed again. Had there been a touch more light, Jake’s squinted sight might have found the reflection of the sun, ever so slightly radiating off the mostly empty bottle on the nightstand.

Almost dreamily, his bare feet stealthily escaped the shelter of the sheets and found the wood floor, the rotating fan shooting cold air on his naked legs as it slowly scoured the room. Jake shifted his weight slowly, not wanting to make any sudden moves. She hated it when he woke her. Creeping toward the bathroom… silently opening, and then closing the door behind him, flipping the switch on the wall, and then scrunching his eyes as if to minimize the light he’d let in.

Peering into the mirror, he didn’t even notice how his face had weathered. The beard definitely wasn’t helping anything. When clean-shaven, Jake would get carded at rated-R movies. But the few inches of hair on his chin had added a good decade to his 32-year-old face. The lines on his brow told a story… a story that he wasn’t reading this morning.

He groaned as he reached into the shower and turned on the faucet, the awkward angle causing the muscles in his tattooed arm to stretch beyond their capacity. Still attempting to keep quiet, he sleepily sat on the closed lid of the cold toilet, waiting until the room had filled with steam to place himself under the scalding water.

The pressure and the heat relaxed his aching head, slowly bringing him from his daze. What would the day hold? Even in this half-sleep, the lack of anxiety told him that today was free of responsibility. Maybe they could grab coffee downtown and then head over to the Bishop Arts District to check out a new spot. The possibilities flooded Jake’s mind until he’d turned off the water, dried, and then snuck downstairs, wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist.

Breakfast in bed… she loved that.

Jake retrieved the last few eggs from the refrigerator and cracked them into a skillet. The aroma that lifted off the stovetop was accompanied by so many memories, but Jake was busying himself with his search for a makeshift tray to carry the food, the fork, and the little bit of orange juice that was left from his last grocery run.

Jake glanced at the clock on the stove. They had slept past noon again.

He wasn’t sure why, but he could sense that today was going to be a good day, and also wasn’t sure why that felt so odd. He had it all planned out. Breakfast, then coffee, then a day of exploring the city that they both had grown to love. He stared into the skillet, watching the eggs as the yolk hardened.

“As over hard as you can get ‘em,” he remembered her saying to a waiter at the neighborhood diner. “Like, fry them, and then keep ‘em cooking for a few more minutes.”

With the baking sheet that doubled as a serving tray in hand, Jake made his way through the Ikea showroom of a living room and upstairs toward the bedroom. The towel that was wrapped around his body matched the white walls that were void of pictures or the personal touch of a “home.” He passed the unused spare bedroom and the office, as well as the bathroom that he’d never even stepped in. By all accounts, this house was sterile, lifeless outside of the man that was now darkening the door of the room he’d slept in these past weeks.  

Holding the tray with both hands, Jake angled his elbow to flip the switch at the entrance of the still dark room. He focused on the orange juice that was ever so slightly spilling over the edge of the glass on the tray. He walked toward the bed, attempting to keep the remaining juice from splashing out. His eyes made their way from the baking sheet to the brown stain of the wood floor, from the floor to the white comforter that was in a pile at the foot of the bed, from the comforter to the matching white bed sheets, and from the sheets up to the three gray pillows that were stacked in the spot where Jake had laid his head not even an hour before.

Jake Whitley stared at the empty bed, still holding the breakfast he’d made for the girl who was over 2,000 miles away… the girl he hadn’t seen in more than six weeks… the girl that he’d promised his forever.

This was the longest that Jake had gone without speaking to Kira since they first met in that photo line in London, and he longed to hear her voice. In fact, before buying the last minute flight to Portland, Jake and Kira Whitley hadn’t gone more than 24 hours without at least a text.

Under other circumstances, she’d likely find it funny that he’d hushed through his morning routine and cooked breakfast for a person that wasn’t there. He could still hear her laugh.

Jake set the baking sheet on the nightstand, next to the empty bottle of bourbon, and plopped down on the bed. He let his body fall, his back bouncing on the mattress before resting atop the bed sheets, while his bare feet stayed, planted on the floor.

Oh, how he longed to see her. It may seem odd, but in that moment, Jake wished to find himself in the delusion of the last half hour. Falsely thinking that she was there was better than desperately feeling the lack of her.

If he closed his eyes tight enough, he could picture her, lying in this exact position, on the bed that they’d shared all those years. What was she doing now, at this moment? Was she lying lazily in bed, pining for him as he was for her? Unlikely. Not only was it well into the afternoon two time zones ahead in Dallas, but Jake had no reason to think that there was any part of Kira Whitley that longed for him.

Kira Whitley.

The thought of her first name attached to his last took him back: July 4th. Seven years ago. If Jake closed his eyes and sat still, he could almost feel the excitement that had permeated his entire being that night. People began arriving just as the sun was falling behind the skyscrapers, the Edison bulbs they’d hung the day before joining the surrounding city in providing the perfect amount of light for the photographer that they’d flown in from Nashville. Jake watched as the guests began arriving, cousins from Houston, aunts and uncles from his youth, friends from college.

“You ready to do this?” Alex put his hand on his best friend’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure if it was the nerves or the suit or the Texas heat, but sweat was making its way down Jake’s clean-shaven face.

“I can’t wait to see her.”

That entire day, Jake had been cursing tradition. Why in the world couldn’t he see his bride before walking down the aisle?

“But the wedding isn’t until 8pm,” he’d argued, knowing she wouldn’t budge. So here he was, eyes glued to the spot where she’d arrive, on the arm of her father, white dress and all. 

“You nervous about the song?” Alex’s concern for Jake was almost as out of character as was his suit.

“What?” Jake replied, not taking his eyes off the back of the venue.

The night before, after the rehearsal and dinner and festivities with the wedding party, Jake had locked himself in his room, leaving Alex and the other friends that had migrated to his apartment to fend for themselves. He’d wanted to write the perfect song to sing at their wedding, and there he was, less than 24 hours from saying, “I do,” still scribbling on the journal in front of him, trying to find the words that fit the occasion.

All of the planning, the worry, the sending of invitations all over the country and the frustration of not seeing her all day, the writing of vows and a song, all of it evaporated the moment that he saw her at the other end of the aisle.

Her blonde hair was pulled up, accentuating the beauty of her bare shoulders that sat perfectly above the dress that she was made to wear. As she walked toward him, the music playing behind them, he simultaneously wanted her to speed up and slow down. He couldn’t wait until her father would say his only line of the night, “her mother and I do,” and then place her hand in Jake’s. But he also wanted this feeling to last forever, the sight of his bride walking toward him.

“I, Jake, take you, Kira, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

The date, the time, and the location were no accident. “I’ve always dreamed of getting married on a rooftop,” she’d told him on their third date. “A white dress and string lights, on top of the world. I want to dance the night away while fireworks ignite the sky behind us.”

She’d said “us,” on their third date, but Jake didn’t mind.

So there they were, on top of the world, or at least a 32-story building, their friends and family witnessing their promise of forever.

“It is with great pleasure,” Jake’s pastor said, “that I introduce for the very first time, Mr. and Mrs. Jake and Kira Whitley.”

Now, sitting naked on the bed in Portland, Jake could still hear that voice. “Mr. and Mrs. Jake and Kira Whitley.” The name ran through Jake’s mind, and a shot of fear flooded him. Had she changed her name? He’d been well acquainted with some awful words these past few months, divorce being the worst of them. There was no denying that their marriage had ended. Jake knew that. But the thought she’d become Kira Coleman again had never crossed his mind.

He had to get out of this house.

The same white t-shirt… the same blue jeans… the same ear buds attached to iPhone… the same brown Moleskin journal… the one that ended he and Ella’s… well, whatever it was that he and Ella had.

Through the IKEA showroom and out the front door, Jake zipped up the hoodie that he hadn’t needed these last couple weeks. The sunshine and perfection of Portland in June had decided to go into hiding, temporarily reminding the city of the months between October and April. He pulled the hood over his messy hair, hit “play” on the iPhone, and made his way down the steps and toward the sidewalk.

As Jake passed the house next door, the sound of Noah Gundersen could be heard coming from the record player on the front porch. He didn’t look. He hadn’t spoken to Ella since the night that he found the journal in her room. Their relationship, if you could call it that, had ended as quickly as it began.

Had it really been twelve days since he’d been immersed in her journal, trying to deny the feelings that were growing with the turn of every page? He replayed the scene in his head… sitting on her bed, reading the beautiful, unfiltered thoughts that were etched onto each page. He could still feel the texture of the books on the shelf, running his fingers from left to right across the almost lined up spines. And he could still feel the jolt of shock that pulsed through his system when his fingers found that Moleskin, tucked neatly between two Flannery O’Connor novels.

Now, almost two weeks later, the anger had dulled to almost non-existence… Almost. He wasn’t being dramatic… he kept telling himself that. He had made an attempt to work things out with her. A few days after racing from the attic and out of the house and past her parents, Jake had gone over to the Copeland house to make amends.

“Hey Jake.” It was Caroline who opened the door.

“Hi, Mrs. Copeland.” Jake, embarrassed about how he’d left this porch last, couldn’t meet her eyes.

“It’s Caroline, remember?”

“Oh, right. Um,” he stumbled over his words. “Is Ella here?”

“She’s not,” Caroline’s words were steady and unemotional.

“Oh.” Jake didn’t have a framework for this answer. Each time he’d knocked on this door, she’d been on the other side of it. “When she gets back, could you let her know I stopped by?”

“Sure, Jake.” Again, her words were measured and calm, but something in her tone caused Jake to wonder if Ella was coming back at all.

Now, walking from Ladd toward Elliott, Jake wondered why he never got Ella’s phone number. It seemed ridiculous that at the end of one of their many nights together, he never put her number in his phone. But everything just happened so naturally with Ella. There was never a plan, never anything official between the two of them. It was almost as if they just met up and followed their feet around the city.

But today, it was just his feet that he followed from Elliott to SE 20th to Burnside. For Jake, this had been the single source of stability these last few weeks. There was simply something therapeutic about the rhythm of this trek toward the little shop on Burnside. Same walk… Same song coming through the white earbuds… Same drink… Same table… Same pen and paper…  

In fact, everything was so “the same” that when he walked in one day last week and the entire shop had been rearranged, he almost turned around and walked out. The roaster was gone, as was the half-circle table that had surrounded it, the only remnant was the sign hanging from the ceiling.

PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB THE ROASTER OPERATOR

The space had been optimized for more seating, and Jake hated it. On that day, he’d stared at the blank page in front of him until his white mug was empty, and then he called it a day. Now, almost a week later, he’d chosen a new spot, and was back into his routine.

He ordered his single-origin Americano and sat down, that brown Moleskin sitting in front of the table that had become his new normal. He stared at the notebook’s cover, reminded again of the feeling of its spine on Ella’s shelf.

That night, in his frustration, Jake had thrown the notebook on the ground in Ella’s room. And in his haste, had stormed out of the attic without the item that had caused his anger.

He’d been sitting in the living room, the next day, playing nothing in particular on his Martin auditorium, when he heard that dense knock on the front door. He stopped playing and froze, as if any movement might alert the person outside to his presence.

The knock came again… and again.

“Jake,” it was Ella who was shouting through the closed door. “Jake, it’s me.”

There was a good twenty-second pause before she spoke again. Still, Jake didn’t move.

“Jake, come on.” Her tone was more apologetic than it was demanding. “Please open the door.”

Was Jake sitting there in silence because he was still too angry to speak with her? Or was it embarrassment that kept him from standing and opening the door? 

“Jake.” She paused again, as if really expecting him to answer this time. “Jake, I’m so sorry.”

He could hear her feet shifting on the old wood of the porch.

“You left without your notebook last night.” Another pause, still trying to convince him to open the door. “I’m gonna leave it here. Jake, I…” He waited for her to continue, but the next sound he heard was the creak of the boards of the stairs, her footsteps walking past her chiseled name in the porch.

In his anger, Jake hadn’t even realized that he had left at her house the very thing he’d been upset that she had in her possession.

Even though Ella was gone, Jake waited… and waited. For what seemed like an eternity, he remained frozen, the guitar still sitting silently on his lap. He wanted so badly to grab the Moleskin… the idea of it out of his sight for another second almost too much to bear. But he also didn’t want to face the girl who had spent the past three minutes knocking and repeating his name.

Certain that he’d waited long enough, Jake sprung from his chair, opened the front door, bent down, and retrieved the notebook. He’d turned to step back inside, but before he’d finished his turn, she caught his eye, standing just outside the front door of her own house. Their eyes met, just for a moment, and he watched as she waved from across the porch, her face showing both her regret, and the pain of his rejection. In that moment, Jake took a deep breath, looked down at the ground, and walked back into his house.

Now, sitting at the recently remodeled Heart Coffee shop, he questioned why he hadn’t attempted to contact her these last many days. He closed his eyes, trying to remember the look on her face from across the porch that day. Had she come over to tell him that she’d be leaving? Had their unfortunate exchange caused her to skip town? Was it even remotely related?

Sitting back and taking a sip of the still-steaming Americano, Jake suddenly felt ridiculous for this level of scrutiny. While this girl had consumed most of his days and nights these past few weeks, it had been just that… weeks… a week and a half of dinners and fires in the backyard, followed by another week and a half without contact. They weren’t a couple. They had no romantic relationship. Outside of his longings and imagination, they were just two neighbors who happened to be sitting on a porch at the same time late one night… who happened to be running away from problems on the other side of the country.

He watched the heat rise from the white mug that sat on the brown table in front of him, wondering what his life had become. So much had changed since he bought that ticket and boarded that plane at DFW. A year ago, he’d never have given this much thought and attention to a relationship that… well… wasn’t.

For the second time in the same day, Jake had to get his mind off of what had taken it captive. He rubbed his eyes, took another sip of his coffee, and opened the Moleskin.

His fingers found the lignin and chemicals and pulp and fell open to a page that was already full. The earmarked page… These past ten days, he’d done his best to forget this sheet, the scribbles and scratch that he’d been mortified of Ella reading. He flipped back, each page another reminder of the wreckage he’d left halfway across the country.

These pages had seen so little light since joining Jake on the trek from Dallas to Portland. Maybe it was the morning’s delusion, or the morning’s memory of his wedding, but for whatever reason, Jake was either confident enough or oblivious enough to open these old wounds.

He passed sheet after sheet of thought and lyric and memory, until he found the page that his fingers had been searching for. Jake Whitley hadn’t intentionally thought about what he was now looking at since he’d written it more than a year ago, yet it had consumed every moment of every day since it went down. It was like a dull background noise in Jake’s life, making sour the sound of each day’s song.

As he focused on it now, the memory was more than simply a recounting of events. Sitting at his new spot in Heart Coffee on Burnside, it was as if Jake’s fingers could feel the cheap vinyl of the waiting room chairs… his eyes could see the 2am night moving on outside the window, the entirety of downtown Dallas unaware of what was going on inside… his ears could hear the machines and alerts coming from down the hall… his tongue could taste the dryness of the hours without food… his nose was taking in that signature smell that moves through the halls of every hospital.

Jake was alone in the waiting room, his hands running along the base of his chair, trying to convince himself that this wasn’t just a horrible dream. He stood, pacing back and forth, eyes still fixed on the lights of the city outside. His world was frozen inside these walls, and the idea that there was an entire world on the other side of this glass, a world that was going about its business as if nothing had happened, didn’t help the surreal reality of the past 72 hours.

Every beep that came from the east wing brought with it another ounce of anxiety. Was that awful alarm coming from her room?

Take a deep breath, Jake…

Every inhale fell all the way into his empty stomach, and each exhale made its way through the chapped, parched mouth of the man who had insisted, despite the urging of the nurse: “I’m not eating until she does.”

In the moment, Jake was far too occupied and exhausted to notice the scent that was making its way through his piriform cortex, traveling to the amygdala, through the thalamus, storing itself there in the form of a memory that had haunted him almost daily since.  

Still pacing, Jake looked for something to take his mind from the face of his sedated love that was lying in that bed just two closed doors away. He studied the logos of every snack and drink that sat behind the glass of the vending machines that hummed inconspicuously in the corner of the room.

Creased issues of magazines were stacked on the Formica table, next to a dust-covered floral arrangement that looked more plastic than plant. He tried to focus on the magazines, old issues of Time, Better Housekeeping, In Stereo, but each one’s stories were at least six months old.

Still alone in the large waiting room, Jake stood and examined the brochures and pamphlets that were sitting silently in their case next to the bulletin board on the wall. Ronald McDonald houses and cancer relief hotlines… religious propaganda and the empty promises of support groups.  

Jake’s fingers found the third slot from the left, a tri-folded pamphlet with the hospital’s logo and eight simple words on its cover. He pulled it from its holder and sighed. His eyes read the words over and over, cocking his head slowly from side to side, examining each inch of the front of the paper in his trembling hand.

After who knows how long, Jake gulped and clasped his eyes shut, causing the emotion of the day to make an appearance. The single tear grew and grew at the corner of his eye, until it succumbed to its own weight and pressure, sliding down his cheek before silently falling onto the sheet in his hand.

He thought of their wedding night, dancing under the stars while the city lit the night sky with a celebration of freedom. He thought of the look in her eyes that night. He shuddered thinking about what her eyes looked like now. He remembered the words he’d said during the ceremony, the words he’d meant with all his might, the words that were now going to be put to the test.

“I, Jake, take you, Kira, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

Jake opened his eyes and looked again at the brochure in his hand. The words on the page still sat, the water from his eyes soaking into the paper. Again he read the question that had originally caught his attention.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Jake had no answer to the question on the sheet, and that was terrifying. After all that happened, all that was happening, all that would happen… he couldn’t even bare to think about it.

He walked back across the room, let his body fall into his vinyl-covered seat, and began rummaging through the backpack he’d grabbed on his way out the door.

“Please be in here,” he muttered as he looked past the laptop, the iPad, the little white ear buds, and the other junk that had accumulated over the past few months.

“Ah.” Relieved, he retrieved the brown-covered Moleskin notebook from his bag, along with a pen.

As was his custom, he didn’t think. He just wrote. Often, his words would come out a jumbled mess, taking hours of reworking and rewriting before it could be considered anything more than a random man’s rambling. But on this night, above the alarms and alerts coming from the hospital, he could hear the song before it came from his pen.

Another night in the waiting room
You’re 50 feet from me, but I still miss you

The page was full less than five minutes after the pen found the first line. Jake reread his words, feeling the full weight of what was happening. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t slept in two days… maybe it was seeing his situation in writing in front of him… or maybe it was the delirium of a man who was beginning to feel claustrophobic in this ICU waiting room, but Jake had to get out of this hospital.

Without telling anyone, he walked down the hall, out the automatic glass doors, and into the parking garage. He found his car, turned the ignition, and began driving south.

Later, he’d admit that he hadn’t remembered leaving… hadn’t remembered making the decision to leave… hadn’t remembered the drive home.

Yet he found himself in the driveway of their little house, knowing no one was inside, but still terrified to walk through the front door. The ignition was off, the engine had cooled, yet still he sat, keys in hand, staring at the front door.

“Damn it.” Jake slammed his closed fist into the steering wheel with a force that shook the entire dash. “Why?” The first time, the one word question came out as a scream, but the second and third, it’s volume and intensity decreased with each repetition. “Why? Why?”

He kept repeating it, “Why?” and while his voice decreased to a whisper, the sobs increased to full volume. Jake wasn’t sure who he was questioning. Regardless of the subject of this interrogation, he sat, waiting for an answer that he knew wasn’t coming.

Frustrated and needing a change of scenery, Jake slammed the car door behind him and followed his legs toward the small house that he, Kira, and London shared. He opened the front door soft and slow, a dark contrast to the way he’d closed the car door. The space was messy. He walked past the toys and the blankets and the laundry, and he walked down the hallway.

He knew that until he faced it, the sight of her unused side of the bed would haunt him, at least as long as he was in this house. And so he walked right into the bedroom, past the evidence of the real life that was lived here, and forced his eyes to stare at her pillow, still fluffed and cold on both sides.

Take another deep breath, Jake.

In that moment of courage and insecurity, Jake found himself wondering when her body would fill this bed again. The doctors said it could be weeks… months… years of this.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Up until this point, Jake had lived a rather care free life, most of Jake’s toughest moments had involved high school heartbreaks and low balances in his college checking account. He had no framework for this.

Still he did what he’d done every other time life had not gone his way… he sang about it. Leaving the messy floor of the bedroom behind him, Jake walked into the next room, grabbed his Martin auditorium, and made his way into the living room. He’d done this so many times: moved the yet to be folded laundry from his spot on the sofa, fell onto the cushion, and began to strum.

Almost laying down on the flimsy old couch, Jake stared at the ceiling as the chords rang from the guitar. He didn’t need his Moleskin to sing this song. The feelings and the words that accompanied them were still so raw. So he just lay there, staring at the ceiling, singing the words that he’d penned less than an hour before in that waiting room.

INSERT SONG HERE

 Now, at Heart on Burnside, simply staring at these words brought it all back… the melody, the dryness in his mouth, the fear of staring at her empty bed, the smell of the hospital.

Jake took his pen and found the page’s single unmarked line, between the last line of the pre-chorus and the first line of the chorus. Alongside the faded words he’d penned all that time ago, today’s writing stood out on the page.

So What Will Your Marriage Look Like Now?

Jake sipped his Americano and contemplated the ways that his former life had faded, just in step with the words in his Moleskin.

“Hey.”

Jake’s train of thought was interrupted by the voice he’d last heard from the other side of his dense front door.

“Can I sit?”