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salt lake city

a short story

They started coming after mother died. Little brown packages, tied with twine, filled with folded paper notes. I’m sorry, they said, in blotted black ink. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. There was no return address.

When I bought my first apartment and moved to the city, another appeared on my doorstep. It was filled with bright, vulgar confetti that spilled out of the sides like water when opened. Inside, a crisp, cream card, and a cactus plant, with tufts of needles along its grooves. I pricked my finger when I took it out and watched a speck of crimson spout from my skin. I put it next to my desk, near the window, to let it bathe in morning sunshine. It flowers one day a year, read the card. Its blooms are radiant as the moon.

After that, they came every week. Sometimes, they were neat, brown parcels with little trinkets: beautiful leather-bound notebooks, a fountain pen of lapis lazuli, fuzzy knit mittens in the dry city winter. Other times, they were letters, carefully handwritten, slanted words—the way they are in old, precious documents. Delicate f’s and g’s, i’s with diminutive dots.

Have you ever thought of becoming a singer? I imagine the sound of your voice: I wake to it each morning; I fall asleep to it each night. In my dreams, you are a Madonna of song. The words would stick to my brain like butter on a pan. I thought of the letters days after they arrived.

Sometimes, though it wasn’t often, they were packages like the first, filled with hundreds of folded notes, every one of them the same. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—

When I met Tristan from the next door over, he had just moved in. He had a sort of lost expression on his face that I felt sorry for, as though his life had raced ahead of him, and he had been left alone in its wake. He was having trouble finding the garbage disposal and was lugging around a trash bag that seemed too small for its contents. The head of a stuffed bear stuck out through the hole, the opening strangling its throat.

“Do you need some help?” He looked so pathetic.

“Um, would you happen to know where the, um, where to put our garbage?”

“I’ll take you there if you wait a sec, I’m gonna get my trash too.”

He watched me as I went to my room and crumpled the brown packaging and pieces of paper into a bag.

“You missed one.” He handed me a note I had dropped. I’m sorry.

“Thanks.”

We headed down to the dumpsters out back, pinching our noses to ward off the smell of decay. After that, we parted ways. Two weeks later, when we met again, tousled in the din and tumble of Miller’s, high on reckless youth, he took me home. When we woke, tangled together like twine, he kissed my forehead. I stared at him, and he blushed.

“Don’t look at me like that.” I didn’t say anything.

Your eyes are deep and blue as the winter sea. They watch me every night, before I close mine.

In the springtime, the flowers started coming. Tulips and lilies, daisies with sunshine in their petals. Folded paper notes to inform of their species: Pardalinum. Orithyia. Erigeron glaucus. Instructions on their care—Keep in direct sunlight. Water twice a day. Trim dead foliage in autumn. In two months, I had a garden of dead flowers.

Tristan told me about Tara, the girl he loved, who wore her hair in blue satin ribbons. She’d promised him a future, and fucked the butcher down 42nd street, who was twenty years her senior. I told him about my mother, who was sick, and broken at thirty-eight, and had given up before I’d become a woman.

“And your father?”

I’d never met him. He left my mother when I was born. She said he took a bottle of whisky and his old running shoes. She screamed until her voice was hoarse, but he didn’t look back.

“But he’s alive?”

“I guess.”

He took me into his arms then, and kissed me on the forehead. I flinched from his touch, nestling my head in my shoulders. We started sharing drinks, and beds. Then, we started sharing rent.

Summer came, and I was promoted. Long hours kept me away from home and away from Tristan. I could tell he was irritated, but I was tired. When the necklace came, wrapped in another neat brown box on the doorstep of our new place, he became angry.

“Who gave this to you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying, I swear. Please, Tristan, listen to me—”

“LIAR.”

“Tristan, listen—”

And then he hit me.

I gasped, and felt the sting start to spread. It diffused into my skin, until my blood coursed with hot rage. I stared at him, my hand to my cheek. He looked away.

Later that night, when he tried to touch me, I pushed him away. He drew me close, and whispered into my ear. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry…” I felt his tears on my neck.

They wove themselves into my hair, like ribbons.

“I know.”