|Image by Lara604 via Wikimedia.org|
The knock on the door came four months after he left. Despite her better judgment, Leah opened the door to let Jillian in. The other woman stood there in the hallway for a moment, seemingly unsure whether to cross the threshold. Leah noted Jillian was dying her hair blue this week. She felt the half-hearted urge to say something bitchy about it, or the black heels with peek-a-boo toes that she must have thought added a casual sophistication to her jeans and T-shirt ensemble. But Leah was past bitchy. She turned around and walked to the kitchen, figuring that Jillian would either come in or leave. She heard the door close, and Jillian clack-clacked into the kitchen behind her.
“You want something to drink?” Leah asked.
“No thanks, Leah. I-” Jillian said.
“I'm making some chai. It's just as easy at this point to boil water for two as for one.” Leah turned her head over her shoulder just far enough to see Jillian out of the corner of her eye. The other woman had her hands in her jean pockets and shrugged.
“Yeah, okay,” she said.
Leah ran the tap cold and stuck the pot underneath the stream. They were both silent, the hollow patter of the water filling the kettle made the only sound. She sensed Jillian fidgeting and let her stew some more. It wasn't up to Leah to make the first move after all. She put the kettle on the stove.
“Look,” Jillian said, “I'm really sorry about what happened. I thought Justin was mad at just me, I didn't know.”
Leah folded her arms and stared at Jillian over her glasses. “I don't see how you would be expected to know. It's not your fault, right?” It was never Jillian's fault. Poor perfect Jillian.
“Did he say why?” Jillian said.
“He cleaned out his stuff the day he flew home, while I was at work. If he left a note, I didn't find it.”
“Oh, Leah.” Jillian took a step forward, and opened her arms. Leah held up a hand and took a step back.
“Stop it. You're the last person I want pity from.”
The pot ticked on the stove like a nagging mother.
“Justin's gone, and it has everything to do with you, Jillian. I don't know what you said to him, but it caused him to just drop everything and run.” Leah's voice caught at the end, and she swallowed back the tendrils of betrayal she thought she cried out weeks ago. She wasn't going to lose it in front of Jillian.
Jillian's hand covered her mouth. “Did you see the show?” she asked.
Did she really think she was interested in watching Jillian cat-fighting twenty other gold diggers for a chance to date a has-been rock star named Clive? "No."
“Leah, I didn't say anything to Justin other than 'Hello,' and 'It's great to see you.' The last time I saw him, he was heading out the door with Clive to go talk somewhere.”
“So you tell me what happened.” Leah said.
Jillian ran perfectly-polished fingernails through her hair and let out a deep breath. “Clive said some things to Justin about our friendship. Hurtful things.”
“That I strung him along, that he was a kind of backup boyfriend for me.”
“But he wasn't interested in you. He had a girlfriend – me.” It was a lie, but it had become a comfortable one for Leah.
“Justin said that to Clive. Then Clive said more or less that Justin was fooling himself.”
“Then what happened?'
Jillian's bit her lip, and shook her head. “Then he asked Justin whether he should keep me on the show or not and whether I'd run into his arms if I got kicked off. He asked Justin to make the choice.”
That some nobody on TV could ask him what she couldn't made Leah's chest ache. She crossed her arms hoping it wouldn't explode. Or was it implode? She couldn't decide.
“What'd Justin say?'
“He told Clive to make his own decision then ran off.” Jillian looked up to meet Leah's eyes. “He was hurting, Leah, as bad as I've ever see him. They showed him running away from the cameras across the parking lot.” Jillian shook her head. “He just ran and ran.”
“So why come over now?”
“I don't know. I thought he'd be here, or that you'd be able to talk to him for me.”
The kettle started howling. Leah turned and took it off the burner, using a scorched potholder with a smiling Tigger on it. Leah remembered it as a housewarming gift from Jillian. How had she missed it? Leah let the water gurgle into the mugs, watching each teabag near to bursting as the water poured over. So many tiny holes trapping the steam inside; how did the bag keep from bursting?
“Leah?” Jillian said. Leah snapped out of her focus and looked back.
“I don't know where Justin is,” Leah said, “but he left something for you.”
Leah strode past Jillian, who swayed back just in time to miss getting body-checked. Leah went to the far corner of the living room, past the futon she had to buy to replace the couch Justin took with him, the one they had bought together. She reached down and picked up a green box with white polka dots she had picked out at the scrapbooking store last week. She carried it carefully, making sure it was even and level.
She brought the box to Jillian and held it out to her. She didn't let go until she felt Jillian's grip take up the weight. “Be careful, don't make a mess on my floor.”
Jillian set the box on the floor and knelt beside it. She pulled the box top off, and immediately sneezed. Small black specks escaped into the air. Leah sighed; she had just cleaned the kitchen too. Jillian's hand pressed over her mouth as she examined the contents. She stayed in that pose for several moments, long enough for Leah to almost feel sorry for her. Then Jillian reached into the box and pulled out a charred photo from the ashes.
“He left this for me?” Jillian asked. There was a catch in her voice.
“It was the only thing left behind that was his," Leah said. "I know I was never in that picture,” she added.
“The pictures,” Jillian whispered, “the letters.” She scratched around with those perfectly-lacquered nails and dug out a blob of plastic. “Even Underdog.” She looked up at Leah with tears barely held back. “I gave this to him when we were still in high school. Just some dumb thing I won at the amusement park.” She rubbed her thumb at the soot covering a distorted letter 'U'. “He saved it all. I hadn't known.” She looked down at the remains and carefully placed the plastic lump back in its coffin.
Leah straightened. “Yeah, well, I would say I'm really sorry for you and your plastic dog, but I think that Justin treated me just a touch more shitty than you.”
Jillian looked up like she had been slapped. Moments later tears burst out. Leah rolled her eyes. “Just take your crap and leave okay? It's the last thing of his left in here and I want it out.” Jillian's mouth crumbled and she looked away, rubbing at her eyes with a wrist.
“But I liked you Leah.” Jillian said.
“The feeling wasn't mutual.” Leah pointed. “Go.”
Jillian gathered up the box and ran out of the kitchen. Leah could hear the sobs carry all the way down the hall. She made it out faster than I could have in those heels, Leah thought. She walked to the front door and closed it, throwing the deadbolt for good measure. She walked back into the kitchen and opened up a cupboard. She withdrew cigarettes and a slender silver lighter. Justin was one bad habit, she figured she'd replace him with another.
Jillian had left out the part in the TV show where Clive teased Justin about bothering to text his old girlfriend if he hooked up with Jillian. Perhaps she had meant to be kind, but then again, it could have been that Jillian couldn't bear a story not centered on herself, even for a second. It was always like that with Jillian. Justin had been gone for weeks, the TV show was off the air, and yet life was still all about Jillian.
Leah put the cigarette to her lips and raised the lighter. She flicked her thumb, but the flame refused to spark. She cursed and tried again. This time a steady blue tongue of flame emerged. Must be getting low on fuel, she thought. That damn plastic dog had taken forever to melt.