“Then, Finally, After”

The goal, someone told me, is to make each day different than the one before.

So I heeded the advice and added to my routine that summer half a joint every morning and about a hundred butterscotch candies. For maybe seven months my teeth stung when I ate anything, especially the round ice cubes I liked to chew from the large Cokes at the gas stations.

Why I was able to exist at all, to function in some kind of meaningful way then, finally, after my mother died, was because I was still delivering flowers, and the shop never saw me. All the bouquets would be on the counter in the stockroom, tagged and wrapped. My job was to put them in milk crates, stuff newspaper around them, load them into a pretty un-rusted greenish 1973 Ford Country Sedan, and come back to resupply later, when I was out. Each run, then, took about three hours.

It turns out there was more to my daily responsibilities, but name someone, really, who was going to tell me?

It was fun to spend the morning dealing with that half joint. Maybe fun isn’t the word. Closer to numbing, a kind of two-dimensional thing. The day would turn into only the double yellow and red or green stoplights and some small-town hills and smiling people on doorsteps, or nobody at all, just ring the bell, wait a minute or two and back to the car.

It was 1987, early August. Sometimes I’d smoke the whole thing and the dashboard clock would say 3:15 and I’d wonder if, really, I’d ever have a job like that.

My front passenger was a $65 thing of pink and yellow roses and baby’s breath and I think peonies, and keeping it steady on the floor mat between her legs was Sandersson, two years older, finished with her second year of teacher’s school, home for the summer listening to T. Rex, Aerosmith, learning calligraphy, the bass guitar, reading Kant too much.

It was raining a little. I listened to the tire spray when I wasn’t sure what to say next. I thought about my mother in those washy silences. She wasn’t dead, really, just gone; four states south, no phone number or address. So not dead, but I didn’t see a difference, then.

Sandersson’s younger brother Ryan grew what we smoked in his prep school dorm closet. We were fine all summer and I well into the fall.

How did his dorm attendant not know, or at least have some suspicions?

It doesn’t have to be something new each day, just something different than yesterday: a road you don’t usually drive, order something else for lunch, a slight change to take your mind off her and the new family I imagined she was cooking for at that moment, this moment, every and all moments.

Yeah, ok, I can do that, which meant the cup holder now held M&Ms everyday at 2:00 and my 711 Slushies came with rum and by October three joints might get me to 4:00.

Ten years later, Sandersson would grow up, take a series of principal positions, one even at the school her brother went to that summer. Vanderville? Landerman? Grandville? Something like that, regal enough, with two syllables.

She would also become a man, finally, after what involved an out-of-state hospital, consultations, injections, years of hesitation, waiting rooms, outpatient procedures, every type of therapy. Then, finally, after, she had a new first name, but the same severe jaw and brown eyes with dull gold flecks.

Way before, in college, did her dorm mother know, I wonder, or at least have some suspicions?

I think about those questions now, but at the time, that summer and fall, she was just Sandersson, two years older, and I pretty desperately wanted to sleep with her. But when? Where? We were 18, 20, and the seats were full of all these goddamn flowers.

After she went back to school the passenger was my brother, and we’d hum choruses and share those big bags of pretzel rods, and we’d talk about mom but just enough to make ourselves feel better.

Or he’d be nodding off, glassed over, drifting away from me, you, us, and whatever I’d say would be the exact wrong thing.

Once, driving too fast on snowy roads, I skidded into a snowbank, knocked the fender off and had to pay for it later out of pocket. He never offered to help, seemed unfazed by the incident. And the question I wrestled with, continue to, is: How did I not know, or at least have some suspicions?

There’s no real car accident in this story. Just a conversation. I don’t remember every sentence. We piece things together, we think about before, how we talked, what we wanted, the way we imagine our words probably sounded. But here’s the type of thing Sandersson was on that summer.

“Most things don’t matter unless we make them matter,” she said. “I mean, think about it, right?”

It was all this amateur philosophy then, but it really struck a nice full round kind of 12-string guitar chord when I was so stoned.

“Do these flowers matter?”

“The people who get them assign them meaning,” she said. “They’ve already swept a place clean in their houses, in their hearts, for them to matter.”

“Does this Ford matter?” A Doobie Brothers song started. I switched it off, like, Ok, let’s get some real quiet for a conversation this deep.

“Do you think?”

“I mean, it allows me to deliver these flowers, but that’s it.”

“There you go,” she said. I had no fucking idea what she meant, but remember, these old sedans had lifting armrests, and she was sitting so close her hair would drift in my face on left turns.

Later, after, she’d listen and offer the correct consolations, but then, before, she said, “If you choose to honor the dead, then you just have to commit to that desire, but that’s only if you want to.” She took a long pause, during which I turned the radio back on and right away we got Joe Walsh.

When he was still alive, Sandersson’s dad had “real problems” is how she framed it. He’d just died the previous winter fighting a fire in a textile warehouse the next state up.

She said, harshly, “The dead go away. They live, they die, that’s it.” In my memory, the way I decide now to see it, she’s crying, a perfect little crystalline drop down her sharp left cheek.

This song kept going, verse chorus verse bridge solo another verse.

“Don’t worry, it’s ok, relax,” I told her. “Take it easy. ”I still wanted to sleep with her but she could be so stubborn and unforgiving. And even if I was only two years younger and my mom wasn’t around, I held on to an idea that the world was soft, like a plush padded basket you could sit in and eventually it would fill up with exactly what you needed, if you just waited long enough, sitting.

Cold and persistent and always had to be right. Still though, she’d hook her arm in mine on the walk to the doorsteps, and it would make it so much harder to hold these huge flower arrangements steady, but I never said a thing.

After, almost a decade later, when I started working for Sandersson, she, now he, would listen to the new tragedy, understand, give me paid leave, organize it so different teachers brought over dishes in Tupperware with heating directions for two full weeks. She’d get the faculty to fill my desk with cards.

Each new day something different: unfiltered cigarettes, clove cigarettes, plastic-tipped cigars, driving barefoot, a blue nylon fake fur trapper hat, denim jacket, books on tape.

We never did do anything, Sandersson and I. We kissed I guess, that winter, for a minute against the washing machine at this girl’s party, but that went nowhere. It was the wrong time, the wrong room, the wrong party, the wrong season, dynamic, outfits, music, circumstances, people. She went back after the holiday break and I saw her the way you see people, occasionally.

Sandersson and my mother were both gone and I wanted them back. It was like young love, in a way. One sided. Total longing, unrequited. Or requited but just not in the same way. Or stuck in every gear at once, flying down the road, stoned, seeing everything so fucking clearly. Or bucking, coughing to slow at a yellow light, sputtering out in the suburbs, walking from the gas station with a red canister, chewing on ice cubes, smoking a cigarette like, Fine, let the ash travel into the can, let the whole thing go up.

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Matt Liebowitz earned degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and Skidmore College, and has studied with Steven Millhauser, Ha Jin, and Martha Cooley. He’s published stories in 236, Crack the Spine, Clare, and Fiction Southeast. Matt teaches middle school English in Encinitas, California.

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