The Break Up
by M. B. Levine
"I told you I didn't want to see you."
Mena answered the door in her bare feet and the cut-off denim shorts she had discovered a month back required squeezing into. They just covered the split of her full, thirty-five-year old behind, but she remedied that by topping them with her husband's moth-whole dotted gold and black Alpha pledge t-shirt. It was sacrilegious, but after ten years of marriage, Teddy had withdrawn from the fight Mena waged annually for the comfortable garment as summer in Georgia tightened in around them.
Standing in the open door of the two-bedroom apartment her graduate status at Emory University supplied, Mena dried her damp, brown hands on an orange dish towel and stared at her unwelcomed guest. It had taken three weeks for the distinctive smack to hit her front door. Mena had been expecting the visitor before her twelve-year-old, Nadia, left for her annual summer visit with her father in Alabama. Stubbornness was a trait Mena and Bobbie held in common. Mena knew, eventually, her opposition would cave. They were a grossly uneven match in the way of resolve.
Bobbie was already exasperated having to be the one to initiate contact. It was not enough that Mena had been increasingly difficult, but then came the demand that all contact be discontinued. Cut-off. Their relationship dismissed with the flutter of Mena's wavering emotions.
"I know what you said, but I thought you'd be over all that by now. Hasn't your cycle ended yet? If not, you're hemorrhaging and we need to get you down the road to the hospital." Bobbie avoided eye contact because Mena was an ace at throwing intimidating stares. Instead, Bobbie chuckled at the small joke meant to be an ice breaker or at least to extract slivers and looked past the stone faced woman into the apartment that did not appear to be as small as initially imagined.
Mena stood chin deep in her anger not understanding how a person with whom she had an extensive and intimate history could be so completely oblivious of her feelings. She was enraged from years of tangles with Bobbie. There were so many reasons to hate that she could not remember every event or emotional attack, but she felt them embedded in her groaning spirit. Bobbie wore the usual baggy navy pants, long sleeved shirt in white with gray horizontal strips. Silk, it looked like; the shirt and pants. Something that did not breathe. Mena felt the sweat trickle down the back of her leg and slide down the curve of her heel to the hard wood of the cool floor she stood on. With the heat pouring from her small kitchen where she had been miserably laboring over a home cooked meal and the still sticky after 6PM warmth coming in the door, Mena felt slammed from both sides. Yet, Bobbie looked fresh and comfortable. Impervious to the sweltering.
"That's crass." Mena screwed her nose up at Bobbie's coolness.
"Yes, I know that's what you think of me. You've said that and more." Bobbie's attention and internal disapproval returned to Mena. The over sized t-shirt stuck to Mena's body where the sweat oozed from her chest and underarms. There was a large wet spot that was not the result of body secretions in the middle of Mena's stomach where Bobbie imagined she had leaned against the sink nearly over flowing with soapy, warm dish water. Mena always did make a big mess to clean up a small one.
"That's true. I said that. So, why are you here? Did I not leave you with enough to chew on the last time? You've come back for a second helping? Maybe desert?"
Bobbie did not respond, but chewed instead on the bile building up on a quivering tongue. The bitter words Mena had launched during their last confrontation came back up like cud and Bobbie found some peace in sucking it down again. It was at least a connection, a joining point where Mena had meant it to be a division. Children played across the courtyard on the small playground with loud red swings and the customary cement gray slides. There was a hot breeze that drenched Mena with the humidity it held. She wiped the sweat from her curved face and neck with the sour dishtowel. The couple absorbed as much of the happiness flying from across the street as they could through the individual filters erected to protect one from the other. Bobbie had a habit of standing as still as a preying mantas when in Mena's presence as if movement would bend the force field of protection.
"So, he must be home. You haven't invited me in." Bobbie's eyes turned away from the children's play to find Mena's gaze secure and angry.
"I haven't invited you in because I don't want to see you. Thought we'd established that from the opening of the door." Mena was absently tugging the frayed edges of the towel from its body. Each rip mimicking her own pain.
"He must be home...of course my husband is home. This is his house. It's Sunday afternoon. Where else would he be? And why are you trying to make this his fault? The last time we talked you were doing that. Don't we have enough baggage of our own without heaving Teddy into this?'
Bobbie's right eye twitched. Mena knew it was either the result of the shrieking children and the traffic crossing in front of and behind the complex or her reference to the apartment as home. That had been another argument when Mena and Teddy sold the house they had lived in for seven years so they could comfortably live on one income while she worked on her Ph. D in Women's Studies. The eye--with lashes that extended an exceptional length then flipped harshly up--appeared to be tugging away from the pecan face it inhabited: a futile attempt at martyrdom.
"He does seem to be the issue. We've never had problems like this before. Not even when you were married to William. You two couldn't tolerate each other, but we were always ok. I never felt our relationship was threatened. But now all this attitude and, 'I don't want to see you'. You won't even take my calls at your job anymore."
Mena leaned back on the frame of the door. Repositioning her weight seemed to reduce some of the tension in her head. She had stopped mutilating the towel and stared at Bobbie while filling her lungs to the bottom, then emptying them nearly to the point of suffocation. Catching herself, Mena sucked on the humid air pressing down on her hot body and ran a damp hand over the itchy braids pulled back into a scalp peeling pony tail.
"I don't take your calls at work anymore because I haven't worked since I started school last fall. And I'm going to guess here, you're calling three and four times a day just about every day--'cause that's how often you call here--and you have been told every time that I am no longer employed with Atlanta Public Schools, correct? But you don't believe them. What you believe is that I, in my imminent evilness, have instructed everyone on the staff to lie to you each and every time you call. Yes?"
"No!" Bobbie slammed back more viscously than Mena expected. It was out of character. But Mena found herself tickled by the outburst and the accompanying scowl on her unwanted visitor's face. Bobbie's reactions were always calculated, melodrama rehearsed to the dejected stomping off.
Mena did not hide her glee. She smiled and waited. Inhaled the spicy bubbling of the ribs she had boiled, then generously seasoned and slathered in the heavy barbeque sauce her husband would suck from his fingers later, barely leaving skin. The green beans she had snapped were waiting to be stir fried to a crunchy, illuminated green. All the ingredients for the tossed salad were gathered around the splintery cutting board for their turn at the knife. Mena waited. Bobby descended.
"I've never called you evil." Pale palms rubbed in the moisture glazing like dew on trembling hands.
"You are difficult. You'd have to admit to that." Bobbie's brown, almond shaped eyes begged for common ground. There had to be a bridge. One had always swung on loose chains and brittle planks between them before. Always. The situation they stood in-- Bobbie's eye twitching, hands sweating, heart blaring pronounced beats while Mena barricaded the entrance to her "house" in her tattered attire, strings of dishtowel wormed around her feet--was how their relationship had played out for years. But there was always a meeting up point.
"I'll admit that we are difficult together. We don't work. And as I've said, we should stop trying."
"What do you mean, stop...We can't stop trying. That's not what happens. Look..." Bobbie moved a leather sandaled foot toward Mena who became erect and positioned her body in a warrior stance--arms akimbo, feet spread and planted.
"...let me in there, I'll talk to him. I promise I won't say too much, just enough so we'll be free to continue as we always have."
Mena extended her right arm its full length, pushed the palm into Bobbie's chest.
"You are unbelievable," she began, pushing Bobbie back the few steps gained in the charge for the door.
"You know whose fault this is. And it's not Teddy's. You did this. And it can't be undone by making someone else responsible." Her hand still on Bobbie's chest, Mena felt a fusion pulse threw her fingertips to the warm spot she touched: rage and guilt...love.
"My fault? How is it my fault? I don't want this, you want it." Bobbie moved with the last words to the top stair as if leaving, but running would trample the assortment of despair, confusion, and betrayal that had been inhaled as a collective and sucked down a tormented soul.
"Don't come back here again, Bobbie. I can't have you showing out in front of my neighbors every other day." It was an uncalled for remark, Mena knew, but she had wanted to place it between them just to see which way the anger would tilt.
"You're embarrassed?" Bobbie's sweaty hands went instinctively to the tight brown curls framing a blood drained face. Pulling, tugging at the anxiety nesting there.
"You won't talk to me and won't let me in your house--your apartment--dismissed me from your life, because I embarrass you?"
"No," Mena relaxed her stance, leaned again against the door frame, "because you ignite me. Being with you, around you, having you on my mind makes me vicious and loathsome. I don't like who I become in the presence of who you are."
"So, your being this way--mean and disrespectful--is my fault? Is that right? Is that what they're teaching you in that Ph. D program studying women? How to blame everyone else for your deficiencies?"
Bobbie's face grew red hot. Sandaled feet stamped back and forth across the short concrete cat walk that ran parallel to Mena's door. The young woman willed calm into her joints, steeled herself against the splintery wood, and resolved to ride out the storm.
"I am taking responsibility, that's why I've made this decision. We've never communicated, unless it involved me jumping at the exact height, time, and place deemed convenient for you. And that whole, 'I disrespect you' game you throw out there, but refuse to explain how...let me tell you something, no one's going to walk around guessing what your needs are. If you're not old enough by now to express them, you should get used to being unfulfilled."
"Unfulfilled?" Bobbie was still, but the rage spit like fire from a voice dark with contempt.
"So, here's the problem with you, Mena. You think you're so much better than everybody. Me especially. You can't take the time, so everyone is needy. When you were working, your job was more important, now you're in school, school is everything."
"And when I got married both times my husbands were more important; and when I had Nadia, she became the most important thing of all. That's what happens when you have a life, Bobbie."
"You think you're the only one with a life? I have a life, Mena, and I thought you wanted to be a part of it; otherwise, I wouldn't be wasting my time running after you."
Mena's smile was slight, but present in a way that slapped Bobbie's checks a deeper crimson.
"We both know what you want is for me to chase after you. Make sure all your needs are met and worry about the rest later." Mena threw a reprimanding hand up, palm stretched out wide in the direction of Bobbie's astonished face.
"Don't deny it's what you want. All those calls for me to go here and there with you, come by the house and help you with this thing and that thing; come show you how to use this new gadget or help you with that project. Drive the same twenty-five minutes to you that it takes you to get to me, every time. I-85 goes north and south. Imagine that."
"You're supposed to come to me." Bobbie was paralyzed by fury clawing up past lungs that could barely receive air nor relinquish the stale mix of gases collected at the bottom.
"Riggght...that's right." Mena buzzed with an indignation that hummed around the sides of her words. She was so enflamed the sweat sizzled on her skin, overcompensating in anticipation of the inevitable melt down.
"I'm supposed to come to you because I am the servant, the grunt you have allowed a small space in your so- severely- simple- it's- complicated life. You've done me a favor and I have been savagely ungrateful. That must suck for you. Yet you power on and continue the good fight. How do you do it?"
"I'm funny to you? A joke?"
"And I'm not human to you, just the monster that you blame for everything that is wrong or not convenient. It's all my fault, yet you continue to come for me. Seek me out to stomp on me because the need to see me in ruins overrides your repulsion."
"Stop it! Shut up! You shut up right now!" Bobbie screamed through clamped teeth, trembling arms, and shoulders tight as the wrought iron bordering the stairs, sheltering the four apartments on the second floor from the twenty feet of water soaked hanging air.
They were face to face, a few inches of air between them--inhaling each others waste, suffocating on the breaths caught in their respective chests.
"You are a liar." Bobbie hissed, blowing a dry heat into Mena's sticky, animated face.
"And you are so jealous of me you can't see straight."
Bobbie stepped back into the railing. Mena's entire body heaved under the weight of victory. She was full with it. Yet, as she stared at Bobbie--the railing holding up a body empty of words--Mena became aware of a small spot whose border her win could not cross.
The air within the space that separated them cooled and seemed to wring itself out. The dryness left Mena breathless. Bobbie, deflated.
"Alright." Finally, words returned and movement, though markedly decelerated.
"I'll do what you want."
Mena entered her apartment oblivious to the merciful change in climate. She had begun to shiver as she watched Bobbie's decent. It became more pronounced as she leaned over the rail to see the exit through to completion.
In the small apartment kitchen surrounded by the smells of her own cooking--smells so similar to the ones she grew up with--Mena's hands attended to the task of salad preparation. Teddy entered the kitchen without really seeing his wife. He stopped to kiss her still damp forehead, then moved on to retrieve the cold beer that had called him from his worn in spot on the couch in the den.
"Who were you talking to outside? Was it Rachel borrowing flour again or asking for more free baby-sitting?"
Mena's hands continued their work while her head re-enacted the conversation with Bobbie word for word to assure herself that it had in fact happened.
"No," she began, speaking softly to her hands and the piles of cut vegetables on the plate before her, "it was Bobbie."
"What?" Teddy pulled out a chair opposite his wife and sat, looking at her fully. Her face was dry, but he could see distress; tracks left by tears.
Mena stopped her hands, placed the knife on the table and locked her fingers together in front of her. "It wasn't Rachel. I was talking to my mother."
She looked up. Teddy could see clearly the pain, but wanted to pretend it away. He smoothed her cheek with the back of his hand.
"Did you two make up?" He asked, wanting not to acknowledge the answer in her eyes.
"No, actually, we broke up."