Wake Up and Smell the Sunshine

By Katarina Svedberg

You are ready when the doorbell rings. The table is set and you’ve even lit a couple of candles. When you walk towards the front door of your apartment you focus on the silence. You listen, but all you hear is quiet. On the other side, outside of your world, he waits to be admitted. He’s asked permission to enter. You’ll allow it because it’s him. When you open the door he looks at you in that special way of his, green eyes peering out of that pale face with its orange halo of untamable hair. You know that he sees you, maybe for what you are but maybe not. Either way, his eyes are wide open.

“Can I come in?” Grant asks, and you smack your forehead and step out of the way. You tell him you got lost in your head for a moment. It’s not the first time and it most certainly is not the last, not even for tonight. He just smiles and leans in for a kiss. He then sniffs at the air and walks in.

“You’ve cooked already? I thought we were going to do that together?” The tone of his voice makes the you in your head want to hide in a corner. You’ve excluded him. Again. You apologize, something you feel like you’ve been doing a lot of lately, by the way, and tell him you had to do something. The casserole on the table looks like it has cooled considerably since you put it down. You sit without looking up and deflate. He must see this because he tells you he’s actually famished and that this worked out perfectly as he joins you by the table. During dinner, you have a conversation that goes something like this:

“So, did you get any writing done today?” he asks, already knowing the answer.

“After I deleted what I wrote yesterday, I wrote a few pages. I’ll probably delete them tomorrow.”

“Don’t say that. I’m sure they’re great. Maybe I could read them and I could tell you how great they are so you don’t have to doubt yourself.”

You wonder if he hears how stupid he sounds and feel pretty confident that he does.

“You know I don’t share until I’m finished. I have nothing to show you because I keep deleting everything. It’s not good enough. I’ve got nothing”

“How long did you spend by the computer? This looks and tastes like it took a long time to make.”

“It didn’t. I started cooking an hour and a half before you got here. Before that I sat staring at the wall for eight hours. The reason why I started cooking without you was that I got bored. And tired. I’m tired of being defeated by something that’s supposed to make me happy.”

“Why don’t you just stop if it makes you this miserable?”

“Because there’s nothing else I can do. I have no real-world skills and any employer would think I’m crazy and wouldn’t want to hire me.”

“You can type really fast. And you’re not crazy. Eccentric maybe, but not crazy.” He says this with a smirk and dancing eyebrows.

“This discussion is moot. There’s nothing else for me to do. The last story came to me. I just have to be patient and wait for the next one.”

“Hey, Carrie, if waiting is what you want to do, then wait you shall. I have faith. I’ll keep you company if you want me to.”

You’re halfway through your second glass of red wine by now and have rearranged the food on your plate a number of times without eating more than a quarter of it. You take a beat to look at him, this man whom you love more than you thought you would. This man whom you need more than you ever wanted to need anyone, other than the characters who have kept you company since you were a little girl. And you know he loves and needs you too, no matter how unlikely a concept this might seem. You just don’t want him to settle. As you drain your glass he looks at you and you can see worry on his face. He’s gnawing on his lower lip like mad, and like he thinks you won’t notice. You wonder if he hasn’t figured out that when he kisses you, you can always taste how nervous he is.

“Thanks” is all you manage to say.

“Where did you get this recipe? This is the best thing I’ve eaten in ages.” You smile at how well he knows you.

“I got it from Karen.”

“You went to your sister for advice about food? That seems like a desperate thing to do.”

“She just gave it to me and said that she liked it. Apparently it’s a hit with the kids.”

“It surprises me that someone like your sister, who can hardly have been serious more than five times in her entire life, can have such normal kids. It must be a miracle.”

“She may not always be the most level headed of people, but she has more heart than both our parents put together, and I think that counts for a lot.”

When you’re finished eating you clear the table together and he asks if he can do the dishes. You don’t see why he would want to, since you’ve got a fully functional dishwasher, and you tell him so, but he insists.

“I’ll wash, you dry,” he says. You wonder why he’s doing this but go to stand beside him at the counter, towel at the ready. Standing there next to him feels good, but you can’t put your finger on why that is. Later, you put on a movie and cuddle up next to him on the couch. But you’re not really watching. You are listening to his quiet breathing, hoping to hear it tell you a story. When he’s about to leave he asks you something about Saturday while you’re saying goodnight and you tell him yes, because this is most likely the answer he wants and always deserves, but you didn’t really hear the question.

 

All of that happened on Monday, and then the days pass. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Thanks to having the kind of profession you have, you have no concrete day-to-day obligations. You have no boss who tells you what to do. You listen for the voices that will make your publisher happy but hear only your own, and that one has nothing interesting to say. Grant’s repetitive motion of wash-rinse-repeat on Monday is replaced by stare-type-delete and fills the rest of the week. You leave the apartment only on Wednesday. You get some groceries and make a stop at the liquor store to buy a couple of bottles of wine. The guy at the register chats away when you’re paying for them, which always seems odd to you, and the situation becomes very awkward when you realize he addressed you by name. On the walk home there’s a bubble of unease in your chest that grows with every step you take. How did he know your name? Is he a stalker? Does he know where you live, too? You glance over your shoulder, and that’s when you remember the picture of you on the jacket of your novel. The bubble pops and you smile as you smack your forehead. It’s ridiculous how paranoid you get sometimes.

When you get back in from shopping you pour yourself a glass of red and sit down by the computer. The screen is empty. You let the lovely, acidic aroma of the wine fill your nostrils as you take a sip before putting the glass on the desk and leaning back in your chair. If the voices won’t speak, you’ll try a new approach. You close your eyes.

I spy with my inner eye a tree. And a cliff. It’s raining on someone. No, she’s being pelted by hailstones . . . She’s lying on the grass. She’s fallen down. A woman has fallen, some ten yards from a tree. She’s on the ground and it’s raining. Or is she crying? Why is she crying?

I spy with my inner eye a table. It’s in a room with pale blue wallpaper and the walls are covered with pictures of laughing people, and there’s a man. The man looks angry. No, he looks disappointed. He’s yelling, and a woman, the woman who was crying on the ground, is looking at him. She’s not crying now. Is this before or after she was crying?

This is what you see in your head, and it’s complete crap. It’s melodramatic garbage and in no way resembles what you wrote last time. You’re starting to feel like you’ll never write anything that’s even remotely as good. Nothing you come up with will be like the time you just had to listen to the voices who always knew just what to say and never struggled for the right way to say them.

Your eyes are open now, as you empty the glass.

 

When you wake up on Saturday, there are two texts on your phone. Grant wants to remind you of the dinner at his place this evening, which he’s disguised by saying he looks forward to cooking for you tonight. You’re not even bothered by this subtle lack of confidence in your abilities to keep a date -- you’re that glad to know what he asked that night. It’s been bugging you for days. Just as you open the text from your sister, she calls you.

“Hello.” You haven’t spoken with Karen in two months. You wonder what she wants.

“Good morning, Rosebud. How’re you doing?” She always manages to have a spring in her voice that you envy more than you care to admit.

“I’m well, thank you. How’s the family?”

“Oh, you don’t have to be so formal all the time! Henry and the kids are awesome, but I’m in a bit of a pickle. Mom’s got a bug up her butt about some boxes of yours that were still in their attic. I think they’re full of your old notebooks. She dumped them here yesterday, and now their taking up sorely needed space in the kids’ playroom.”

You haven’t talked to your parents since they slammed the door in your face after telling them of your decision to take a minimum wage job and write your book instead of going to college. This wasn’t acceptable to them. The daughter of two well-to-do and well-known academics should not spend her time on such a frivolous thing as fiction.

“If you don’t believe me, you can ask Kayla. I’m sure she’d be happy to tell you all about how her Barbie’s mansion no longer has a front lawn. She doesn’t like the new cardboard tower Nana left. If you don’t pick them up within a week, I’m not responsible for what happens.”

“Thanks,” you tell her, smiling in spite of what this turn of events implies about the break with your parents. “I can pick them up tomorrow, if that works for you.”

“It sure does. So, how are . . . things?”

“I haven’t gotten anywhere with this new book. It’s just not speaking to me.”

“I don’t give a damn about your book that’s not speaking to you. What’s going on with you and that boyfriend of yours? Has he popped the question yet?” You can feel your jaw go slack. What is she talking about?

“What are you talking about? We’re not getting married. We’ve only been together for a couple of years.”

“That would be four years, to the rest of us normal folk, Grant included. I swear to God, I don’t know how you writers keep time. But you better wake up and smell the sunshine, Sis. To me it seems like he’s as in love with you as you are with characters and plotlines, and I don’t think you’ll be able to find something to beat that. You know those books you read will never help you fix stuff when it falls apart around you.”

You’ve been pacing your bedroom the way you always do when you’re on the phone, stepping over the piles of dirty laundry and books that have accumulated on the floor, but now your knees go weak and you sit down, hard, on the edge of the bed.

“Can we just not talk about this anymore? Please.”

“Pretty please, with cherries on top?” You can hear her smirk through the phone. She really has no idea how hard this is for you to talk about.

“Yes.”

“Alright, I’ll let it go. Liam is yelling for Mommy anyway, so I have to go. See you tomorrow then?”

“Yes. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

The hours drag their feet, like reluctant children on their way to school. You try to clean the apartment, but you’re too distracted. Listening for the voices is impossible, because even though the room is quiet the cacophony in your head is deafening. They’d have to scream like their lives depended on it, which you guess they do, in a way. When you lock the door behind you some six hours later, your small apartment resembles a warzone. That’s the result of you trying to reorganize things when you should’ve known better.

As you walk the fifteen blocks to Grant’s place, the streets are full of people -- people having a good time loving life and each other, or at least that’s what it looks like to you. Like it’s somehow easy for them. You take great care to walk as close to the walls as possible without attracting attention, taking even greater care to avoid eye contact with anyone. You look at the sidewalk or you look at the trees, the oaks and the dogwoods. The leaves have just started to turn. You listen to them singing. When you reach your destination you feel calmer, but your muscles feel like you’ve been swimming upstream the entire way.

“Hello, darling.” He smiles and kisses you on the cheek when he opens the door for you. As you walk into his apartment you consider how different it is from yours. It all reflects him so much: the comfortable furniture, the potted plants, the pictures, the absence of books littering every surface available. Even the wallpaper somehow feels like Grant. It’s all clean and warm and solid. Compared to this, your place isn’t a home so much as a halfway house. You cringe inside, feeling inadequate. He walks behind you as you’re drifting through his living room. He takes your hand and whispers, “Come with me” in your ear as he passes you by. You follow him into the combined kitchen-dining room and you can feel in your entire body that something is going on. Something’s different. It hums in your veins on a frequency that’s almost making your flesh crawl. There’s nothing you hate more than not knowing what’s going on.

“Sit down.” He motions to the table that’s been set for the two of you. So far, so normal.

“I thought it was better to not even try to beat what you cooked earlier this week, so I ordered food from that Chinese place I know you love.”

Before you sit down you walk over to where he's standing by the kitchen counter and put your arms around him. He hugs you back, and you can feel how he relaxes a little. You shake your head against his chest.

“What’s with you tonight? You seem so wound up.” You release him and go to sit down.

“I’ve just missed you. I feel like we haven’t talked in a while,” he says as he puts the food on the table and sits down opposite you.

“I see. Well, the only news I have since the last time we spoke is that my parents hate me. But we already knew that.” You focus on the food so you don’t have to meet his gaze.

“Have you talked to them?”

“No. But Mom left the last of my things that were still in their attic at Karen’s yesterday. She’s finally done cleaning me out of her life now.”

“You know I hate your mom, right?” he says.

“Don’t we all?” you shoot back, and shove an entire dumpling into your mouth so that he knows you don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Leaving the subject of your parents behind, you ask about his week and he tells you all about it. You tune out for a bit, because you know very well what Grant does for a living and it’s a relatively repetitive job. You listen for the voices without expectations. You sense that they might have abandoned you for good, too.

“You haven’t heard a word I just said, have you?” He startles you a little, and when you look across the table his jaw is clenched tight. “Am I really that boring to you?”

You apologize for spacing out, adding that it has nothing to do with boredom while realizing that you’re actually a little scared.

“Sometimes I wonder if spending all that time alone in your apartment might not be scattering your marbles.” Looking at him, for a second, you’re as mute as a tree stump.

“I’m not crazy.” The words don’t come out at strongly as you intend, but they’re loud enough for Grant to hear them.

“There are no voices. You know that, don’t you? The thing you’re waiting for is never coming, because the voices aren’t real! They’re just your way of shutting everybody out, and if you refuse to admit that, then you really have a problem.” His eyes are hard as he’s staring at you -- staring you down so that when you’re on the floor he can crush you under his boot heel. For the entire duration of your relationship, Grant has never been mad at you.

“I’m sorry. I’ll do better, I promise. I won’t space out when we’re talking anymore.” You never expected the way his words have the power to crush your windpipe, making it hard for you to breathe.

“I just told you I’ve been looking for an apartment for us, so that we can move in together, and you couldn’t care less. You assume that your voices have more important things to tell you, because you just don’t care about anything else.” He speaks calmly now, slowly, putting emphasis on all the words that scare you. He’s not mad anymore. Now he seems sad instead, which turns out to be worse.

“You want us to move in together? What about your apartment? You love this apartment.”

“Yes, I do, but I want us to find a place that we both love and that actually has room for both of us. But I don’t see the point in that unless you let me in and start being honest with me. Admit the voices aren’t real.” Meeting his gaze is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

“They’re real to me.”

“Please. I’m begging you. Admit they aren’t real.”

“But I need them.” Your voice has started to shiver like a child left out in the cold. He just looks at you. “I need them. Writing is my life. It’s the only thing I know.” He rubs his hand across his face and wipes at his eyes.

“If you’re not going to make room for me in your life, I need you to leave.”

When someone tells you there’s something wrong with you, it throws you not for a loop so much as a rollercoaster. Sometimes the g-force it generates is so high you can’t even get to your feet. That’s especially true when it comes from someone you love. But you manage to rise from the table, slowly, looking down at Grant, blinking. He doesn’t move. When you start to turn he tells you to give him a call if you’re ever willing to admit it, but that he won’t be holding his breath.

When you’re down on the street you feel an evening chill that’s nipping at your heels. You should hurry home. You know that it’s later than you think, but you don’t care. Time seems to have slowed, and you’ve grown numb to the world around you. As you start walking the fifteen blocks back to your apartment, you don’t want to hear it. You couldn’t care less that someone is starting to whisper.