Stephen

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July 17, 2018 by The Citron Review

 by Katherine Hubbard

The last time I saw him, it was 1989. We sat in a café on Ninth Avenue and 32nd
street and talked about books, movies, Liza Minelli, everything but the fact that he
was dying. He’s missed a lot: 9/11, Facebook, iPhones. My wedding. The birth of
my daughter. Even so, I find think about him, a lot. It’s like he’s attached to a
piece of my unconscious.

Recently, I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. I’ve got to do the
chemo again, the radiation. Management is the goal, not a cure. I’ve told a few
people, and they say to me what they said the last time: you’re so brave. The
first time around, I said I’m not brave, you do what you have to do. What’s
the fucking alternative? Facing the fucking alternative is what’s brave, people.
Stephen was brave.

Since the diagnosis, I’ve been having this dream:

I’m on a train. My baby sleeps swaddled in my arms. It’s night. The train runs on
an elevated track and below us are houses. Small fires burn in the alleyways
where a waltz of people come together, touch, disperse. I turn to point
them out to Stephen, but he’s not there.

A straightforward dream. Don’t need fortune-tellers or Freudians for that.

I go in for a pelvic ultra sound. The technician has long nails that clack against the
keys when she types. After the procedure, she leaves me alone to dress. There’s my name on the screen above the sweep of my uterus. The last time I’d had one of these I was pregnant, on the screen was a picture of my daughter curled like a sweet shrimp. This time, I see tiny blurry dots scattered around like a field of stars.

In my dream, the conductor is asking for tickets. Passengers hold out papers,
others shift against the seats to search pockets, a woman pulls the clasp
out of a child’s hair. The conductor wears a hat with a small visor. He makes me nervous; my heart beats fast, in tandem with the baby’s. Outside, the city has changed. We speed past apartments with open windows through which I can hear the sounds people make in their daily lives. A child hiccups, a mother sooths. A hand slaps, a child cries. The conductor moves down the aisle and. My baby stretches; I adjusted her swaddle; her head smells of apples.

That last day, in 1989, Stephen was late, which was weird because normally he
was so polite. It was too hot for May, and the skinny tree in front of me was covered withshriveled leaves. I grew annoyed while I waited, and was standing to go, when there he was, sun in his hair, crisp blue oxford cloth shirt, walking quickly toward me, waving, apologizing. We went to lunch, drank margaritas. He gave me a book, a specific book, about a cursed family that can’t die. Picking up the book was what made him late, he said, but before he could say more, I told a joke. I made a joke and I’m ashamed to say, just kept talking. When I think about Stephen, that’s one of the days I think about often.

When the conductor asks for my ticket in the dream, I remember Stephen has it
in his pocket. I don’t have it, I tell the man. He shines his flashlight in my face;
the light startles my daughter and she cries. She grabs at my shirt. I stand,
search  my purse, pull from it some coins and a small flower.

No, the man says, I’m afraid this isn’t it.

Here’s another day I regret: a friend called, told me Stephen had moved back to
his mother’s. She said – go see him, soon. But going seemed insurmountable. It
wasn’t the distance, the train went right there. I could walk to the Christopher Street entrance from my apartment. But I didn’t go. When I called, Stephen’s mother said he couldn’t come to the phone.

This morning, in the grocery store lot, woman I’ve known for years pulls up next
to me as I am starting to leave. Our girls are still friends; when they were kids, I fed her daughter grapes and chicken nuggets at my own kitchen table. But she didn’t look at me.News travels fast in this town. Seriously, in order to avoid me, she pretended she had to gather things from the back seat before getting out of the car. Her head remains down until I pull away. That’s how much she wants to avoid me. Well, I don’t need to tell you, we all avoid the dying. It’s instinct, fight or flight. Most people flee.

In my reoccurring dream, the conductor takes my daughter from me so I can look
through my pockets for tickets I don’t have. Except, without the baby, I find myself floating. It’s like she contains all the gravity – now that I’m not holding
her, there’s nothing to keep me on the train. My body rises toward the open window; I know I’m going out. I clutch the sill. The conductor does nothing; in his arms, my daughter stares at me. And this is where I wake up. Yeah, you don’t need an interpreter to figure this out.

My husband sleeps beside me, I hear him breathing. My daughter has moved to
Manhattan, she’s got a job and all this life before her. Stephen, you’ve been dead more years than I knew you, and yet, I’m still looking for you to come around the corner, jaunty in your blue button down, the sunshine in your hair.

The window by my bed is open and through it I can see the moon. I think about
what it must be like to actually fly, to see below me headlights and streetlamps and lights from people’s homes getting smaller and smaller. To see only a landscape of lights – small, white pinpricks, like stars but not stars.

 

Katherine Hubbard holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from New York University and is on faculty at Jefferson University in Philadelphia as a Writing Lecturer. Recently, one of her stories was awarded third place in the Glimmer Train Family Matters contest, and was published in the summer 2018 issue. Her stories and poems have appeared in Blackbird, Sanskrit Literary Arts Journal, Front Porch Journal, Storychord and other journals. 

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