Shouldn’t Have

Shouldn’t Have

by Samantha Kolesnik

Aunt Marty’s new apartment is smaller than the one she had up in the city, the one that gathered dust and spiders in all the unused places. My aunt perches on her cheap wicker couch and surveys the small space.

“It’s manageable,” she croaks. Dry coughs bookend her raspy voice.

I bring her a cup of coffee and she just stares at it, feels it in her hands. “My mother used to like coffee,” she says, and she stares out the window, which overlooks the roof of a new strip mall.

“Business park, they call it. Doesn’t look like a park to me,” she says, referring to the view. She coughs again and the coffee sloshes onto her hands. I go to clean it up and she waves me off with long, slender fingers.

As she dabs at the spill, I watch her light blue veins labor beneath see-through skin. Our eyes meet and a sadness crosses the air, for she can see in my gaze how old she’s become.

“Are you seeing anyone?” I ask. I regret it as soon as the words leave my mouth. Her sweater, the way the buttons close to the top of her neck. Her hair, and its straggly strands of tangle. I’m a fool to ask.

“No, I blew that chance,” she wheezes.

I already know the story.

She tells me again about how he took her to dinner, how afterwards, he invited her to his apartment.

“I shouldn’t have gone. Why didn’t my mom tell me I shouldn’t have?” she says.

She tells me how he went to the bathroom, and how when he came back, she’d already taken off her blouse. “No one told me I shouldn’t have,” she says.

I can see her sitting on his bed. I can picture the contours of her breasts, and the fair hue of her stomach, then young and flat. I can feel the escalating pulse in her wrist and neck, as she waits for him to see her.

Over the years, I’d seen my Aunt Marty topless countless times, changing out of funeral clothes, or wedding clothes, or out-to-dinner clothes. We’d always shared a room during family gatherings until I’d gotten married one year and ruined all that. My nuptials had been like a curse for Aunt Marty. It wasn’t long after, that she started noticing the lines around her eyes and had started asking oblique questions about how dating sites work, and if she should cut her hair short because wasn’t the long hair making her look a little… old?

Now Aunt Marty sips her coffee and hisses, “They never told me you were supposed to wait.”

I ask her, “Did you enjoy it, at least?”

She just stares as if she can’t imagine what there would be to enjoy.

After a moment, it hits her.

“Oh. That? No. Not really,” she says. She wipes away something from her eyes. They’re tears; she’s wiping them fast, clearing them out as soon as they form. “I really liked his hugs, though. They felt like home.”

I tell her how there’s someone out there who’s perfect for her. I tell her there’s still time, and that she can still fall in love. I tell her all of the things I think I am supposed to. Most of all, I tell her other men’s hugs can feel like ‘home’.

She laughs at my words; she doesn’t believe me.

I think about my Aunt Marty’s story. My imagination gets murky once he comes out of the bathroom and sees her sitting there, her top off, her face flushed. Does he like her? I know he doesn’t love her, but does he even like her? I wonder if it was awkward for him, too. He probably doesn’t even remember my aunt’s name, I decide.

“You’re so lucky,” she says. Her eyes accuse me of the crime of marriage. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to get to raise a family with someone. To get to wake up to someone every morning. To grow old with someone,” she continues. She sounds especially feeble when she says that last part—“to grow old with someone.”

I pretend I need to go and I’m fairly certain she knows it’s pretend. As I tell her I love her, she looks at me with fear in her eyes.

“You’ll visit again, won’t you? I have an air mattress,” she says.

I tell her yes, but I’m not so sure.

“Maybe we can go to that club on Market, huh?” she says, coughing into her hands. “Girls night out?” I look at her discount cardigan, and her trembling hands. I tell her sure, that we can have a night out.

I can still hear her coughing as I leave the apartment.

Back in my car, I reach under the seat and pull out the half-pack of cigarettes I keep for emergencies. I light one up and look at my phone where I see six messages waiting.

My husband wants me to pick up onions, the first one reads. The second one explains he’s cooking, even though he’s worked all day. And the third warns me that I shouldn’t get the yellow ones like I always get — that I should get the red ones. Please buy the red ones this time, he writes. The fifth message asks when I’m coming home, and reminds me that he’s very tired.

The last message—the sixth message—isn’t from my husband.

It’s from a man who, years from now, won’t recall my name. I won’t grow old with him. Yet even as I idle in my car, the thought of him quickens the pulse in my wrist.

As I pull out of the parking lot, I think of Aunt Marty, alone on her wicker couch, and I think we’re more alike than she knows.

The difference is, I won’t be able to say, “Nobody told me I shouldn’t have.”

“Got the Blues” by Armen Alex