Monday 1 July 2024

Lying There by Toni Juliette Leonetti, Black Orchid Martini

‘You have to let her go.’ My best friend of thirty years joined the traitors’ chorus.

            ‘Has she said that?’

            ‘No, but—’

            ‘Then stay out of it. Don’t tell me what to do as if—’

            ‘You know I’m right. She’d tell you herself except for—’ He cut himself off, beating me to the punch.

            I swung with it, anyway. ‘Except for what?’

            He looked at everything around us. At the photos of her on the walls, walls the jade of her eyes, at the rainforest of orchids she grew, withering under my care.

            He returned to my withering gaze. ‘How can you expect her to tell you? How many times have you said you couldn’t live without her?’

            More times than I could count. She and I argued over it. Not the counting. The extortion past counting. Promise you’ll outlive me, I’d say. I can’t, she answered. It’s unnatural. You can’t ask me that. Still, I did. Until she learned this was no verbal hug, not affectionate banter. Extortion, yes, and unnatural, but the bare truth. I couldn’t live without her. She came to know it. Her answer changed, became I can’t promise, but I’ll try. I can’t control life and death. But I’ll try. I wasn’t satisfied. Was I ever? You can promise, I insisted. If you ever feel like you’re fading, get a gun and shoot me first. The casual way I said it made her laugh. But only for a breath.

Then she saw I meant that, too. That really worried her. She couldn’t even say, I’ll try to that.

            ‘You have to think of her,’ my pal/traitor pushed.

            ‘She’s all I think of—’

            ‘In a different way. Less—selfishly. Think of her before yourself.’

            What a fool. There was no me before her. This was no romantic love, no Romeo and Juliet too young to guess that another love would follow, maybe, likely, one stronger, more worthy of poison and knife. Or maybe worthy enough to need neither. I’d already doubled Romeo’s years and knew no other love awaited, certainly never one to compare with this, my first and last. That certainty was poison and knife enough, twisting in me.

            He tried another twist. ‘She’s not happy this way. You must see that.’

            What poisoned most was what I didn’t see. She thanked me for the new, blooming cattleya I brought her, but didn’t stroke those velvet petals as she used to, didn’t lean forward to inhale their vanilla-ed honey. Wouldn’t sample the chocolate cake, her favourite, I baked for her.

How could I make it up to her—all the orchids I hadn’t brought in years, the cakes I didn’t bake—if she couldn’t enjoy them anymore? How could we ever write a new history, with fewer arguments from me and quicker I’m sorrys, if she’d turned impervious to both?

           For a tyrant who demanded she stay with me forever, how seldom I thanked her for every day she did.

            No future for us would also mean no time to set right the past. I had to have that time. Must wrest it from her.

            ‘She does love you,’ he offered. ‘If she didn’t—it’d be a lot easier for her to leave. You’re the only thing stopping her. She doesn’t want you to suffer—’


            ‘So she’s suffering, instead.’ A direct stab, plunging farther. Too far. He realised it when

he heard my gasp. ‘All right, not “instead.” With you. Is that better? You’re an anchor on her.’

            ‘You say that as if it’s a bad thing. She’s my anchor, too. We all need them, don’t we?’

            ‘That depends.’ His sigh shivered through the dying orchids. ‘On whether you’re trying to ride out a storm or outrun it. She needs to run. But you’ve got to cut loose.’

            I cut him loose.

            But I couldn’t cut loose from his words. They followed me in others’ voices, in a voice inside me urging me to test them, prove them wrong.

I’d always hated—since I was a child—that weakling echo, ‘If you love something, set it free.’ If you loved something, someone, you held it, her, tight. You never let go. But I began to hear the heartbeat clang in it, metal under that Muzak. Whoever came up with it wasn’t some openhanded hero. The opposite. Yes, he was selfish, opening his hand to grasp for more. Now I could relate to it. Because between those lines was the longing to see your love returned to you in equal measure. The need to risk backing off if only for a moment, before you could feel what you dreamed, that answering rush back into your arms. The throbbing uncertainty. That you could never know where a ship might sail—whether it chose to sail at all—until you weighed anchor.

The whole point of that drivel was where it led. ‘If it comes back to you, it’s yours.’

And that sour-grapes chaser: ‘If it doesn’t, it never was.’ Well. Was she yours, or wasn’t she?

            Finally, I dared tell her in the darkest hole of night. ‘I’ll be all right. You don’t have to worry about me. If you want to go. I won’t die. I’ll manage.’ The biggest lie ever told.

            Exhausted by it, by my life’s struggle against it, I fell asleep beside her. Beside, but not touching, like the still yearning cattleya. So deeply asleep, I didn’t feel her leaving.

            A hand on my arm jerked me awake. ‘She’s gone,’ the nurse said.

            She was gone. But there, too. The velvet sweet shape of her, at last untethered from oxygen and feeding tube, from the IV drip of Dilaudid blurring but never blunting the poison and knife of cancer—worse, so much worse, than Romeo and Juliet and I ever tasted—the anchors holding her in place. Until mine lifted.

I didn’t even keep watch long enough to see her go. To catch a few words—I’m never coming back, but I am yours—or to know if she at least looked back, just once.

            Why didn’t she get a gun while she could and use it on me? Why didn’t I?

            I stared at the nurse, then at her, shocked at the treachery of it. My treachery. I’d failed her again. That’s what flooded me, right after I thought of guns. A gun was too good for me. ‘No! How could it happen when I was asleep? How could I have let myself sleep then? Just be lying there when—’

            ‘That’s often how it is.’ The nurse’s arm came around me. ‘I’ve seen it so many times. They wait until their loved one’s resting. That’s when they know it’s all right to go.’

            ‘But it wasn’t! I lied when I told her that—’

            ‘You were a good daughter to her, honey.’ She put me in the past tense where I belonged. The unrightable past. ‘Your mama’s gone home now.’

            NO. I opened my mouth to scream, but didn’t. There was no one left to hear who mattered. Who knew the bare truth.

            She hadn’t gone home. She was Home. And took it with her.

About the author

 Toni Juliette Leonetti is a lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writings include short stories, poetry, plays, and a mystery novel. Her fiction has been published in Elegant Literature magazine. 'Lying There' is dedicated to her mother Della, orchid queen and eternal home. 
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

No comments:

Post a Comment