February 2, 2020

“The Blonde on Willow Ave” by Cory Essey

That coffee pot sent me over the edge. It was an obnoxiously large, impossible machine that apparently required a degree in higher education to operate.

“Can it just fucking make coffee?”

My voice was at the shrillest pitch it could reach, but my coffee-pot rage cast me indifferent.

“It’s espresso.”

Espresso. Who the fuck drinks espresso everyday with their own espresso machine? Are we in Italy? Are we assholes?

“Of course it is. Coffee is just for the common folk, I guess.” I rolled my eyes and grabbed my keys, intent on getting a normal coffee on my way to work.

“I think it’s over, Remy.”

My mind still on the spaceship coffee, sorry, espresso machine, I had no idea what he meant.

“Us,” he said simply when I didn’t respond. “I can’t do this anymore.”

***

Our apartment on Willow Ave was beautiful. It was a simple studio and I had moved in after we had been together for about eight months. The apartment itself was nothing impressive. I imagined if I went inside there now the beauty of it would probably be gone. The magic was us, not the walls or floor – even if there was some gorgeous exposed brick that I adored.

The apartment did have one floor-to-ceiling window that held a beautiful view of Willow Ave below. We used to sit on the ledge of that window and imagine where all the people hurrying down the street below us were going. We were separate from them, happy in our own tiny place, our own nook in the world. We were in an easy bubble that floated above the mess.

Until we weren’t.

Until we fought over coffee pots and where to eat, or where to put a small table that I found at a thrift store. Everything became hard, and it broke us. I felt sick when he ended it. I wanted to scream and throw things, but I was stunned into a tight silence. I didn’t want him to see me cry, but I failed in that attempt too. He had had enough, and a part of me understood. The fighting was exhausting, but losing him was worse.

I moved out a year and a half after I lugged my boxes up the two flights of steps thinking that I was here for good. I was happy, smug about the relationship that James and I had. We loved each other, and that made it easy. We joked and laughed; we enjoyed each other’s company. Why did our other friends act like it was so difficult to be in relationships? I smiled to myself, thinking we had figured it out. We kissed in the kitchen in our bare feet while we waited for the toast. His hand always found my knee, my hand, my back. In a group of people, or alone on the couch, he always found a small way to touch me. I remember thinking he wanted to keep us linked, to hold us together. I can’t remember exactly when that touch stopped.

I avoided our street since the last time I saw him on it. He had walked me down the steps and I handed him my key. I didn’t want to look at him. I hated him. I hated that we couldn’t hold on. I couldn’t stand that I had played a part in destroying everything, but mostly I hated him for being the one who finally said it out loud. I pressed the key into his hand and felt him rest his palm on my shoulder.

“Don’t touch me,” I said without looking up at him. I felt the weight immediately leave my shoulder. “You did this. You ended us. You don’t get to touch me.”

“Remy, please,” he stepped closer, “I don’t want to say goodbye to you like this.”

“Well, you don’t get to make all the decisions, do you?”

I didn’t glance back at him as I got into the cab that was crammed full of my things. I didn’t look to see if he watched me go. He could still be standing there for all I know.

I didn’t need Willow Ave and I certainly didn’t need James and his giant window. I didn’t need his patient smiles that looked condescending at the end. I didn’t need the gentle kisses he pressed on my lips every night before he fell asleep, no matter how ugly the fight had been before that. I didn’t need his stupid espresso or his fucking mismatched socks on the floor. He could take his socks and throw them right out his window because I would never be on the street below to see them.

It didn’t matter that our street was a straight shot to my work every day – I had told myself I wanted to get more exercise anyway. The longer walk was gorgeous in the warmer months, and no, I didn’t sweat too much on the way. I carried a spare shirt around with me anyway. The walks in the winter were refreshing and snow only soaked the bottom of my pants, so fuck you, James.

It had been a year since I started avoiding Willow and James successfully, and if you asked me about it I would tell you it was easy. I would probably smile too, and you would believe me because I can be a pretty good liar when I want to be.

I definitely wouldn’t tell you about a couple of nights when too much whiskey had been drunk in my tiny new apartment with its regular-sized windows mocking me, and sloppy tears were cried over James and his New Blonde, who my coworker told me now lived in the Willow place. I also wouldn’t tell you about the many subsequent dates I went on after New Blonde came into the picture, or how almost all of them were outstandingly boring at best, and the rest were plain awful. If we had time, I might get into the one that I actually had to leave via a side door and a strategically placed valet worker, but that’s for another day. Anything was better than lonely apartment-crying, so I kept going. I even went out with a guy twice who I am certain smoked weed in the bathroom between appetizers and the main course.

What I absolutely wouldn’t tell you, or anyone else, was that I had come dangerously close to Willow about a week ago and everything changed because of it. That street had my number, it seemed, and it wouldn’t give up until it had taken everything from me.

I was looking at my phone while I was walking, replying to an email that should have been answered the night before. I was halfway down the block before I looked up and realized where I was. I could see the building from where I stood. Our building. Always ours.

And then I saw her.

So much blonde. Glistening in the sun. She ran her hand through all that blonde, and I stood there with a disgusting tightness in my chest because I knew with absolute certainty that it was her. The New Blonde. Every nerve in my body screamed it, some sixth sense tingled through my fingers. It’s her, it’s her, it’s her. I also knew because I had relentlessly stalked her social media almost the instant I learned her name. And here she was in the flesh, coming closer to me as I held my phone pointlessly at my side and gaped at her like an open-mouthed idiot.

She was beautiful, but not distractedly so. It was an easy, natural beauty that made me want to punch her and also ask her what moisturizer she used. She turned and laughed at something someone said as she walked past them, as though strangers on the street were just friends surrounding her. A woman like her was probably always surrounded by fucking friends.

She was next to me now. I could have reached out and touched that shiny blonde hair. My stupor snapped and I panicked. I tried to move, resulting in my smacking right into her. Our height difference made it so I face-planted right into her chest, which I pretended wasn’t perfectly perky.

“Oh my god! I’m so sorry, honey.”

Of course she called other women ‘honey’ unironically. I should have figured that from the pictures of her in giant, floppy hats at the beach. I mumbled an incoherent reply and put my head down, trying to push past her. My embarrassment was tripling with each passing second.

“Honey, wait! Your phone!”

I turned around to see her holding it up, beckoning me with a concerned look that seemed sincere.

“Fuck me,” I muttered and turned around to retrieve it.

“Can’t forget this,” she said cheerfully, handing it back. “Where would we all be without them, right?”

“Right,” I said, trying to return her smile and reminding myself she hadn’t actually wronged me, as much as it felt that way. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, honey,” she smiled again as I turned to walk away and escape this very personal and specific form of hell, when I felt her gently close a hand around my wrist.

“Oh my god,” she repeated. She stepped closer to me on a crowded sidewalk and spoke quietly, almost a whisper. “You’re Remy.”

“Yeah,” I said tentatively, my heart hammering, as if my name was a sin in which I had been caught. “Do I know you?” Had she somehow seen my careful, anonymous Instagram snooping?

“No, honey, you don’t. But I know you,” she said kindly. She took my hand tightly in hers and covered it with her other one. They were warm. I looked down at our linked hands and up into her open, pretty face. Her eyes were a striking shade of blue, and once I met them I found myself unable to look away. “I’m Isabelle. I’m…I’m with James.” She smiled at me yet again, but this time it was an apology.

“Oh,” was all that I could manage through the lump in my throat.

“We live here now.” She motioned with her head toward the place I used to call home.

“Oh,” I said again, stupidly, “that’s nice.”

She took a step closer to me and held onto my hand a little tighter. What had James told blonde Isabelle? Did he say I had an incurable disease of some kind? A debilitating learning disability? What could cause this woman I didn’t know to look at me with such kind eyes?

“He has a picture of you in the apartment,” she said simply, as if this wasn’t a shocking bit of information. She said it with no malice, just a statement of fact. The grass is green, clouds are white, and James still keeps a photo of me on display. “ It’s in a frame on the table next to the window.”

The thrift store table. I could see it now, with the slender vase I had filled with daisies. Why had we fought about that table? I couldn’t remember. I hated myself for not remembering. I looked up at her, my stomach uncomfortably tight. I really hoped I didn’t throw up on her pretty shoes.

“That picture has always been there. I wondered who you were every time I saw it, it really is a lovely photo of you, but I didn’t ask until James and I had been dating for a few months. He told me you were his ex, and of course I thought that couldn’t be a good sign if he still had a framed photo of you. I asked if you two were friends and he said ‘no, not really. But Remy taught me a lot.’”

“He did?” My eyes were burning. I couldn’t imagine James saying that, nonetheless actually feeling it. We had fought so much, I had said so many awful things. I never said goodbye, not even a wave. Nothing. Who does that? There was so much to regret, and in that moment, holding blonde Isabelle’s hand, did I realize just how many of those regrets were my fault.

Isabelle nodded. “He said you reminded him to not give a damn what other people thought, that all that mattered were the people who loved you. You made him stronger, he said. You taught him that real relationships take work, but if they meant enough, that was okay. That the work should feel good because you needed each other. You were in it together. I never asked him exactly what that meant, because it seemed private, but I know you were were very special to him.” She squeezed my hand again, and I blinked quickly, my mouth suddenly dry. “I still look at your picture almost everyday. I always feel like I’m checking in with a friend. I told myself if I ever met you, I would say thank you. I don’t think James would be the person I love as much as I do if it weren’t for you.”

Her bright eyes were filled, and I realized my cheeks were wet, too. I had an almost out of body experience, watching the two of us from afar. Two women who had never met, crying on the street linked by our hands and a man we had both loved.

“Well, fuck, Isabelle,” I said, wiping my face with the back of my hand, but not letting go of hers, “that’s not what I was expecting to hear.” She threw back her head and laughed. A deep, throaty sound that I hadn’t been expecting. She looked at me carefully again, her face serious but still kind. She paused a moment before she spoke again.

“I can’t believe I got to meet you today.”

She pulled me carefully into a hug. My arms stayed limp at my sides for a moment before I wrapped them around her. Her hair was across my face and it smelled like lavender.

“Thank you, Remy,” she said quietly in my ear and held me tighter, “thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Isabelle.” I hesitated, unsure if I should say anything else. She was a stranger, after all. She probably knew exactly how to work that espresso machine. God, this fucking street. “Take care of him, please.” I felt her nod and press a hand on the back of my head. I closed my eyes.

We broke apart and she squeezed my upper arms and left me with one more dazzling smile, her blonde hair disheveled from being tangled in mine. She didn’t fix it before I watched her disappear down the sidewalk and away from me.

I stood there on the busy sidewalk a moment longer, my legs feeling heavy, but the knot in my stomach looser. I wiped my cheeks and shook my head, tucking my hair behind my ears. A deep breath brought me back to my senses, and I continued down Willow, except this time on purpose. This way was faster, anyway.

###

About the Author: Cory Essey lives in Pittsburgh, PA and reads and writes in the spare quiet moments between taking care of two children. She majored in Communication and Rhetoric with a minor in English Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. “The Blonde on Willow Ave.” is her first published work and she hopes for continued success in her lifelong love of writing.

Cory Essey Author Photo

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