I wake up and know something is different, but can’t place what exactly. I slowly open my eyes, adjusting to the brightness of the room. I turn my head toward the window and try to guess what time it is based on the sun’s position. I turn my head the other direction to look at my alarm clock to see if I’m right, but my boyfriend’s head is in the way. I lift my head off the pillow to glance around him, and that’s when it hits me like a heavy punch to the chest.
I don’t have a boyfriend. I mean, I did, and the man sleeping next to me is him, but we haven’t been together in nearly three years. I sit up quickly. He groans in his sleep and rolls on his side. I stare at him in disbelief and reach a shaky hand toward him to touch his shoulder to see if he’s real. I can feel the heat of his skin under my fingers and he flinches, then brings the comforter up toward his head.
“Your hands are cold,” he mutters, his voice thick with sleep.
My heart pounds furiously in my chest and I can feel my skin crawl with goosebumps.
“Sorry,” I whisper and take my hand off him.
I have to get out of bed and away from him before I start screaming. I stand up and look around the room. This isn’t my bedroom. I mean, it was, but I haven’t slept here for almost 13 years. I’m in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. Not only shouldn’t I be here, but neither should the house. It was torn down five years ago after it sat vacant for five years before that. My parents divorced shortly after I moved out and the house became a party spot for local teenagers who destroyed the insides of it and smashed windows in a fit of teen rebellion. With no protection from Nebraskan winter snows or summer thunderstorms, the interior deteriorated quickly and the house was condemned and plowed to the ground.
I look around in awe. Everything is like I had it, right down to the poster of my favorite band at the time, Nine Inch Nails, adorning the back of the door to the tassel from my high school graduation cap dangling from the lamp on my desk. A knock on the door takes me out of my stupor. I freeze, afraid to move so whoever knocked doesn’t hear me.
“Erin? You awake?” comes the voice from the hallway. My mother’s voice.
I try to remain silent and not answer, but despite my effort to keep quiet, I call out to her, “yes, I am.”
“I made breakfast if you and Jason are interested. It’s in the oven,” she says.
Breakfast? I shouldn’t be here to eat breakfast, but I answer her a quick “Thanks.”
I have no control over my voice. It’s like my present day self is locked inside my body from over a decade before. She controls everything, and I’m an unwilling passenger. She walks to the closet and finds our slippers and puts them on, and then opens the door and walks down the hallway to the dining room where Mom is sitting at the table, eating.
“Good morning, sunshine,” she asks, through a mouthful of wheat toast. “Sleep well? Is Jason still sleeping?”
“Yes and yes and good morning. Thanks for breakfast,” she says.
I move along with her as she makes herself a plate of French toast and sausage. We eat in silence for a few minutes until Jason shuffles into the room. He stops near her and plants a kiss on top of her head.
“Morning, ladies,” he says. “Smells good in here, Robin.”
“Help yourself, J. You know where everything is,” Mom replies.
Jason sits down and he puts a hand on my—her—knee and winks. She smiles at him and reaches under the table to rest her hand on top of his. On the inside, I’m overcome with sadness. We ended up marrying and were together for almost eight years before the marriage ended. Seeing him again like this is overwhelming.
“What are your plans for the day, kids?” Mom asks.
“Well, I have to work at 2:00, and Jason works later, so…”
“Okay. Just be sure to lock up the house before you both leave. I have a doctor’s appointment, so I won’t be here when you both go. Drive safe back home, Jason. It was good seeing you again,” Mom says.
“Same here, Robin. Thanks for your hospitality as always,” Jason scoops the last bit of breakfast into his mouth. Syrup lands on his beard and glistens like an amber jewel. She reaches up and wipes it away for him.
After everyone is done eating, she starts getting ready for work. I follow her along in a long-forgotten routine. I used to work at a convenience store in the kitchen making pizza and I find myself oddly excited to return. It wasn’t much or paid well, but I enjoyed the work at the time. Plus, her customers would compliment her pizza-making skills and some would even call to ask if she was working because they liked her pies the best.
She dons the required khaki pants, red polo shirt, and black visor, and fashions her hair into a long braid. She kisses her boyfriend goodbye and I try to escape her body at that moment, but it is useless. I feel her lips against his and the shiver of excitement that runs down her body as it presses close to his. This is torture to me; cruel and unusual punishment to have to suffer through being in this situation again.
She slides into my old car and turns on the radio to a station that is long gone. Loud rock music fills the car and I have to laugh in spite of myself. This music is far different to what I listen to now, but she likes it and thumps her hand against the steering wheel as we drive down the dusty gravel road from the house down to the highway. I traveled these roads a million times and I find some comfort in driving by familiar landscapes and houses.
She pulls into the parking lot, enters the building and is greeted by a coworker who I forgot about; a middle aged woman with short salt-and-pepper hair.
“Welcome to Casey’s!” she says automatically and then realizes it’s us and she chuckles. “Sorry, force of habit. Hi, Erin. Ready for another exciting day?”
“You know it! Let’s do this!” she replies with fake enthusiasm. She enters the kitchen and prepares for her shift, turning on the massive ovens, fryers, and heated food display cases. The routine is odd, but strangely comforting. I had liked this job and find myself enjoying getting our hands heavy with bits of pizza dough, the front of our apron dirty with flour and pizza sauce, and chopping vegetables.
The night passes quickly and I’m sad it’s over. She drives home, the same song from nine hours before playing again. She arrives to a darkened house, and she kicks off her shoes, undresses, and crawls into bed and she pulls the pillow Jason slept on close to her body and hugs it, breathing in his scent. We let a tear escape down our cheek and fall asleep thinking of him.
The sun on my face wakes me up in the morning and I’m afraid to open my eyes, thinking I’ll be stuck in my thirteen years ago self again. I open my right eye first, then the left, and feel a wave of relief. I scan the room and everything is as it should be. No poster on the door, no graduation tassel hanging from the lamp, no boyfriend next to me.
I get out of bed and walk down the hallway to my kitchen. I open the fridge and take out the box of leftover pizza, grabbing a piece. I bite into the cold slice.
I’m back where I belong.
published 22 March 2014