by Roxy Thomas
chai teaHe walked very slowly down the back alley delaying the journey home and the inevitable questions he could not answer. Paul never took this way, he always used the front street, and always in a hurry, never at such a leisurely pace. Maybe he would finally learn something about the neighborhood he had called home for so long but never got to enjoy, as he rushed madly from the downtown skyscraper, to the crowded bus, to the quick walk past all the manicured lawns to his brick bungalow, like all the other suburban bungalows. Now he finally had a chance to see the hidden lives of his neighbors, most he had never met, nor admittedly wanted to meet. He left the socializing to his wife Doreen, and she kept him updated on all the comings and goings, whether he cared or not.
He sighed as he passed the Smith’s garage and remembered the story Doreen had told him of the couple’s recent vacation to Bermuda. He noticed with interest the colorful beach towels hanging on their clothesline. It was odd to see blue and white nautical towels flapping against the red and yellow autumn leaves left on the tress and crunching beneath his feet as he trudged even slower. Doreen was always pleading with him to take time off for a vacation, but he always felt that the timing was never right. He repeatedly told her he was the only person at work with the full knowledge of the latest project and never felt comfortable being away for more than a few days at a time. How silly he was to have sacrificed so much and shown such loyalty, what did it get him in return, and how was he going to tell Doreen?
He cringed when he thought of the condescending way he had spoken to her when she asked him for the first time why he couldn’t get away for longer so they could spend a few extra days in the mountains, the only place they ever went. Her face had crumpled when he told her that she did not understand how business worked, and if he was ever going to get the sought-after promotion, they had to sacrifice for the sake of his career. Over time she stopped asking about taking more exotic vacations and hadn’t even complained when a strategy planning day forced him to cancel last year’s annual Thanksgiving trip to Jasper.
Paul walked passed the unpainted fence of the Henderson’s and slowed even more as he recalled what Doreen had told him about their situation when he had complained about the state of disrepair and how it was bringing down property values. She told him how Mr. Henderson had left his wife for another woman and how hard it was for Mrs. Henderson her to keep up the yard now that their kids had moved out. He remembered Doreen’s not so subtle comment about losing a man to a mistress evoked sympathy, but losing a man to a job did not. At the time he felt anger, but now he felt shame at not recognizing what she meant.
He stopped to switch his shoulder strap to the other side, as the heavy papers and books were cutting into his neck. Packing up one’s desk on short notice took less time than he thought and he had accumulated very few personal possessions to bring home. Most of the knowledge he was leaving was electronic and he was only bringing home a few files, some reference books and a honeymoon picture of Doreen and himself in front of Niagara Falls, their only real trip. Her colorful pink dress shone in the sun and was almost as bright as her eyes.
Paul walked past the immaculate backyard of the Van De Kamp’s, and noticed the assortment of bright patterned socks hanging on the clothes line, next to the colorful button down golf shirts, flapping in the still warm breeze. Somehow the cheerfulness of the socks darkened rather than brightened his mood and he was not sure why. But a memory of Doreen sobbing when she found the bright blue striped pair she bought him for his birthday in the donate bag twisted his insides. She had been so happy when he opened the package and excited for him to try them on, but he had only scoffed and said they were too flashy. She tried once more to get him to wear them one weekend when she finally convinced him to take her to a movie after their usual Saturday lunch at their favorite Chinese restaurant. He refused and told her his black socks were perfectly fine for work and for weekends and to quit wasting money. She was sulky as they ate their usual combination plate of rice, pineapple chicken balls and sweet and sour ribs, so predictable that the waiter just brought them the same order each time. He recalled her sadness was drowned out somehow by the cheerful yellow sweater she wore. Doreen used to pride herself on her bright wardrobe, almost as an antithesis to his corporate attire, but lately she too had taken to sensible grey sweaters.
His pace slowed even more as he drew close to their back gate, dreading having to tell her that all the years of sacrifice had not paid off, all the years of loyalty to the company had not been returned when he received his lay-off notice. He could not help but regret all those missed vacations. As their back yard came in to sight, Paul noticed the well painted fence and mowed lawn, but was struck by what was on their clothesline, dozens of back socks, button down white dress shirts, and grey trousers. What he would not give to see one of Doreen’s bright floral dresses flapping in the breeze.