One Item Too Many by Sarah Johnson

One day at home, I discovered cash missing, sighed, and thought, “Well, now I have to end this.”

It was one more item than I could tolerate on the list of things you did to hurt me. A list that when tallied, added up to kicking you out of the apartment. Your emotional apologies couldn’t change this result. It was a conclusion reached by simple math. You committed one too many wrongs and so I was done trying to help you.

Now it was my turn to keep secrets from you. I formulated a plan to be carried out in two days. I would sneak home early, like you did all those months you pretended to go to work after you were fired. This time though, I would be waiting at home for you, not to ask how your day was and what you wanted to do for dinner, but to ban you from ever coming home again.

I called your mom and asked her to help me. She arranged for someone to cover her shift at the diner and met me at the apartment on Wednesday afternoon. She hugged me then held both my hands and pouted, expecting me to cry. My face didn’t change. I was performing an operation, going through the motions until the desired result was achieved.

We sat on the tall kitchen stools, our feet on the ground, ready to jump into action. The thud when you opened the deadbolt was as loud as a gunshot. My breath came in short gasps and I watched the door. You smiled but only with your mouth, your eyes darting around the room looking for trouble. You found your mom.

“Hi,” you said. “What are you doing here?”

She looked at me. I took a few shallow breaths and looked you in the eye.

“Kevin, it’s over. I need you to leave.” 

My face tensed, preparing to cry. 

You laughed. “What?”

“You heard what she said, Kev,” your mom said. “It’s time for you to leave. You can stay with me.”

That was why I called your mom. She always had a place for her boys to stay, no matter what they had done. She also had strict rules and zero tolerance for excuses. She had decades more practice than I did saying no to you and meaning it. She could stand up to your apology, accept it but not give in to your knee-jerk appeal for forgiveness.

But you didn’t know what to say. None of us did. We were all making it up as we went. We only knew this was what had to happen after years of relapses. 

A sob spluttered from between your lips. “Ok, ok.” You nodded a few times and put your hands on your hips in your thinking position. You searched the floor as if the script for the end of a relationship were written in its yellow wood grain. You realized the door was still open so you turned to shut it, leaned against it, and your shoulders shook.

“Ok, I’ll just get my things together.”

“I put your clothes in your duffel bag,” I said.

You spun around and your ice blue eyes found me, then the cracked red and black sports bag at my feet. Your shirts were folded and stacked in two piles. Your many pairs of blue jeans were tucked alongside the shirts. Socks and underwear filled the outer compartments. Your clothing was always folded and organized, the only part of your life that remained orderly.

“Wow, you’re really prepared,” you said, laughing again. 

I braced, holding the stool for support, waiting for you to curse, to hit the wall, to fight me on this final decision I made without you. But you had learned at an early age not to talk back to your mom.

“Mom, can you give us a minute?” 

She looked at me for permission. I nodded.

“I’ll be just outside the door,” she said.

She hopped off the stool and walked past you to the door. She put a hand on your shoulder as she passed.

You couldn’t stop looking at me but I couldn’t meet your eyes. They were always kind, always laughing, and I wanted to forget those parts of you now. I held on to the thief who stole cash from my wallet. I thought about all those nights I woke up without you after you had snuck out to get high. I glared at you and wondered how you could give up on yourself again and again when I had given you all the tools to recover.

You stepped towards me, your arms coming up for a hug, then paused. “Can I still hug you?”

I could only shake my head. “No,” I managed to say. “No I need you to just go. I’m so sorry.” Tears streamed in two lines down my face.

Tears fell down your face, too. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Me neither. I’m going to miss you. But I can’t do this anymore.”

“Yeah, I know,” you said.

“I really hope you can stop using one day,” I said. “But I can’t help you anymore.” 

“I understand,” you said. “Hey, thanks.” 

“What?” 

“No really, thanks. I know you tried. I’m just no good. You deserve better.” 

My face contorted and you stepped close, wrapping me in your strong arms. I sobbed against your shoulder, holding on to your back, my fingers finding the spot where they hook on to your shoulder blades. With my eyes closed, I could picture us getting eggplant parm sandwiches and watching a movie before going to bed. I saw us smiling and it felt like everything would be ok. I pictured the single twenty dollar bill that you left in my wallet. I pictured the crack pipe I found in your sneakers months ago. I opened my eyes and pushed you away.

“Ok, time to go,” I said. I stepped around you to open the door and bring your mom back in the room. “It’s time,” I said.

“Ok, Kev. Let’s go. Give her the keys.” 

You sniffed and wiped your face on your shirt sleeve. You took two keys off your key ring and put them on the desk. They were a smooth dull brass color, no longer shiny gold like when I gave them to you years ago. The two keys looked abandoned on the beige desk with a ring to link them together.

You looked around and grabbed the rest of your things⎯CDs, photo albums, a couple of souvenir pint glasses⎯and threw them in the duffel bag. In all these years, you only had enough belongings to fit in a duffel bag, as if you knew that one day you would have to leave me at a moment’s notice.

“I think that’s it. If you find anything else you can just toss it.” 

I nodded.

“Well… bye, I guess,” you said.

“Bye,” I said.

You walked out, not looking up. Your mom waited and hugged me. “You call me if you need anything, ok?” she said in my ear.

Anyone remotely connected to her family was part of it and she took care of family without questions. When your brother got violent with his girlfriend, she brought the kids to your mom’s house. When your cousin fought with his mom over her new boyfriend, he stayed there. She was a mother to anyone, even if that person was evicting her son.

I nodded in her embrace. “Thanks,” I said.

And you were gone. I sat on the stool, looking around the apartment in the mellow afternoon light. There were three rings of dust on the shelf where your Irish pint glasses stood for years. I thought I should get a rag to wipe away the dust but then the rings would vanish and I would forget what once belonged there.

I felt tears rising in my eyes so I looked at the clock above the bookshelf: 4:12. The whole process had taken 42 minutes. I did some more calculations. In five hours and eighteen minutes I would start getting ready for bed. In fourteen hours and eighteen minutes I would get up and one hour forty-five minutes later, go to work again. I didn’t know what you would be doing then. Maybe sitting at your mom’s yellow checked kitchen table with a mug of thick bitter coffee, slowly stirring in the powdered creamer and sugar.

I shook my head to rid it of any images of you. You weren’t a part of my life anymore so I shouldn’t think about you. I did what I always do when I need to stop worrying about where you are: I watched crime dramas.

It didn’t get dark until the fourth episode of CSI. When the opening credits rolled, I looked out the window and saw my reflection. My face flashed green from the television, like an alien watching me curled up and alone on the couch. I muted the TV and listened. A car’s tires whooshed by. A big dog barked twice. The couple across the way laughed. I could see them in their kitchen with the lights on and dinner dishes still on the table as they drank wine together. It had been months since I had a drink in solidarity for your supposed sobriety.

I looked at the empty half of the couch and, although you had left me there by myself many times before when you went out drinking alone, this time my solitude was permanent. I couldn’t wonder what time you would return because you wouldn’t. There was no hope but also no fear that you would walk through the door before I fell asleep. The house was now complete with just one person in it.

In bed, I lay on my side of the mattress and looked at the dent you wore in it. I was scared to close my eyes and wake up, either with or without you there next to me.

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